Critical Condition

Keeping up with the culture is a full-time job. Scott McLemee talks with a professor who does it 24-7.

January 31, 2007

One of the sadder comic novels I’ve ever read (and the qualities of humor and melancholia do tend to go together) is Wilfrid Sheed’s Max Jamison, which appeared in Britain in 1970 as The Critic. The title character is a prominent cultural journalist, and sometime university lecturer, who is at the peak of his career -- meaning it’s all downhill from there. And he knows it. He’s becoming a parody of himself. In fact, the process is more or less complete. He imagines one of his old professors saying, “Jamison has this rigid quality, sometimes known as integrity, sometimes known simply as ‘this rigid quality.’ ”

The novel is set during the high tide of the 1960s counterculture. But Jamison is much too cerebral to go hippy, even for a little while. He’s read too much, seen too many plays, made too much a religion of the Higher Seriousness to tune in, turn on, or drop out.

“He was in love with the way his mind worked,” the narrator says, “and he was sick of the way his mind worked. The first thing that struck you about it, wasn’t it, was the blinding clarity, like a Spanish town at high noon. No shade anywhere. Yet not altogether lacking in subtlety. Very fine filigree work in the church. This was the mind they were asking him to blow.”

By the end of the novel, Jamison carves out a niche in academe and gets bogged down while writing a book called The Fallacy of the Post-Modern. (That would have been pretty avant garde in 1970, not like now.) I’m told that it was once common knowledge, in certain circles anyway, that the book is based on the career of Richard Gilman, a professor of drama at Yale who died last year.

If Sheed's novel holds up remarkably well after almost four decades, though, it's not for any roman àclef revelations about a specific person. Max Jamison is the intimate portrait of a mind at the end of its tether -- a mind not quite willing (or able) to cut that tether, and so condemned to circle around and around, at whatever limit it can reach, thereby digging itself into a rut. This is not an uncommon situation.

Rereading the novel this week, I winced at one line in particular about Jamison’s routine as a cultural journalist: “He doggedly went on reviewing, getting better, he thought, in a field where improvement is seldom noticed.”

Sheed himself has written eloquent and sharp-eyed commentary on books. His instinct as a satirist is not savage; he feels compassion, and even some indulgence for Jamison’s self-pity. But the man does know how to land a dart beneath the skin.

Well, perhaps criticism is “a field where improvement is seldom noticed” – but seldom doesn’t mean never.

Earlier this month, a party was held at a bookstore in downtown New York to announce the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards. The winners in each category will be honored when the final decisions are revealed at the awards ceremony on March 3. The event a couple of weeks ago was kind of a warm-up -- part press conference, part excuse for New York literary folk to drink and mingle.

The selection of finalists by the NBCC board -- narrowed down from a list of titles nominated by the organization’s 500 or so members -- sounds like a grueling process, so there was a lot of steam to blow off.

The evening was also the occasion for announcing this year’s winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, named after a longtime editor at The New York Times Book Review. I received the award a few years go (one of those rare moments when the tether seems to stretch a little bit). And so, for continuity’s sake, they asked if I would make the announcement. A few minutes before going to the microphone, I was handed a folded piece of paper that identified the winner as Steven G. Kellman. The name seemed vaguely familiar, but it took me a minute to place it.

“He’s in San Antonio?” I asked an NBCC board member. “A professor of literature?”

Yes, and yes. Small world! In the late 1980s, Kellman had been a contributor to a little magazine in Texas with which a mutual friend was involved. (I think I still owe them a manuscript.) Kellman has also co-edited Magill’s Literary Annual -- a useful work found in the reference section of any good university library. He recently published Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005), an acclaimed biography of the author of Call It Sleep, one of the classic American novels of immigrant life.

The full bibliography of Kellman’s work runs to appalling length. The list of his scholarly works alone would be impressive. Once you count his pieces for newspapers and magazines, the question of whether he can somehow write in his sleep does come up. As another Balakian winner who saw the list told me, “He’s reviewed more books than I’ve ever read.”

Since that announcement, I’ve spoken with Kellman by phone. We’ve also exchanged some e-mail. Perhaps I was expecting to interview the critic in Sheed’s novel -- someone glad to be honored, yet also a little tired of playing the game. But Kellman doesn’t sound that way. The man's energy level is alarming.

“Pauline Kael, who was honored by the NBCC with a lifetime achievement award," he said, "once said that she considered herself a writer whose subject happened to be movies.... What hooked me on bookery was the exhilaration of slinging words on the page and making them prance. The impulse is the same whether I am writing an academic monograph whose print run is in the low four figures or a guest column for Newsweek.”

He calls it “dispiriting" that "so many of those who profess literature, who have dedicated their lives to discovering and sharing the delicacies and intricacies of verbal art, display dull indifference to their own use of language.” The result, he says, is usually prose as succulent as a bowl of mashed turnips.

I asked him what models he followed in creating a style distinct from the monographic monotone.

One was Edmund Wilson, “the patron saint of public intellectuals, before that portentous term needed to be coined.” Others included Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, and George Orwell.

All of them being the usual suspects, of course. But one figure he mentioned as an inspiration did stand out: Leslie Fiedler, who was professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo when he died, four years ago this month. Fiedler won the lifetime achievement award of the National Book Critics Circle in 1998. (Again, small world.)

In his prime, Fiedler was an intellectual wild-man -- a critic who began writing about gay multicultural subtexts in classic American literature as early as 1948, when most of his readers thought he must be joking; who focused on the images and archetypes found in both serious literature and pop culture, as if both were necessary to understanding the human condition; and who started publishing work in the field known as disability studies before there was a field known as disability studies.

Kellman co-edited a festschrift called Leslie Fiedler and American Culture, published by the University of Delaware Press in 1999. As it happens, when that book appeared, I attempted to persuade the culture editor of an American magazine to let me review it. “Oh no,” she said, “we don’t want that. I mean, isn’t Leslie Fiedler crazy?”

Sure he was -- like a fox. Fiedler is one of those authors you can turn to for energy when your own is flagging. Kellman told me he was “inspired and humbled by the stunning example” of Fiedler’s criticism. He wrote “with zest, and not just about love and death in the American novel, as if that were not enough, but also about Dante, Shakespeare, science fiction, Siamese twins, and much else.” 

He also seems to have absorbed Fiedler’s willingness to address a large audience, whenever the chance presented itself. Aside from his literary journalism, Kellman has written a newspaper column (for which he received the H.L. Mencken Award in 1986) and reviewed more than a thousand films. I asked if such extracurricular efforts had caused him any trouble -- disapproving noises from colleagues, worries for the condition of his soul, etc.

“It doesn’t really come up,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as if each side doesn’t know about the other, since people in journalism don’t seem to pay attention to my academic work, either. I’d like to think that my journalism is made sharper and stronger by the discipline I come from. It seems to me like I benefit from being in both worlds. But they don’t really meet.”

Maybe that is for the best. It means nobody is asking him to make a choice between academe and the public sphere.

“I think living exclusively in either one,” he said, “would start to feel claustrophobic.”


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