Picador (a division of Macmillan, which in turn is a subsidiary of the Holtzbrinck Publishing mega-conglomerate) is bringing out a new edition of Jiminy Critic’s first collection of literary journalism, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Credulity. It’s got a new introduction by the author, a new cover design to bring it in line with the quaintly (and appropriately) old-fashioned look of How Fiction Works, and a new price: $17.00. For a trade paperback.
In honor of the event, I’ve taken the liberty of lifting this interesting reader’s review by Hershel Parker from the book’s Amazon.com page (it reviews the original edition, but it was posted only a year ago, in July 2009). Parker, if you don’t know, is the author of the definitive scholarly biography of Herman Melville (in 2 volumes), as well as co-editor of an edition of Melville’s complete works. His remarks on Wood generally and the Melville chapter of The Broken Estate in particular are valuable because they speak to the meme, repeated so many times that it has taken on a lifeness of its own, that Wood is a tremendously “erudite” and even “learned” individual (by which standard Malcolm Gladwell is a “man of science” and Thomas Friedman a “public intellectual”).
“The Redundant Smirking Mr. Wood”
by Hershel Parker
I've been working hard on Herman Melville and not paying attention to recent criticism, although I have been aware of James Wood when he popped up in one English or American paper or another taking pay for writing reviews on Melville which turned into bullying bloviations on theology. His information about Melville's life was sketchy, I knew, and I thought his notions of Calvinism vs. Unitarianism were shaky. Well, while I was dismissing Wood as a religious obsessive posing as a book reviewer everyone else was strewing palm branches along his way. Cynthia Ozick huffed at the idea that Wood was called "our best young literary critic." Untrue, cried she: "He is our best literary critic." Adam Begley in the Financial Times proclaimed Wood "the best literary critic of his generation." In Los Angeles Times Gideon Lewis-Kraus elaborated: "To call James Wood the finest literary critic writing in English today, as is commonplace, is to treat him like some sort of fancy terrier at Westminster. It both exaggerates and diminishes his importance. . . . It would be better to say simply that Wood is among the very few contemporary writers of great consequence. . . . He has earned a rare and awesome cultural authority." How wrong could I be?
Not very. Take the New Republic review of Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work which begins with some off-base theological bullying then frankly turns into an essay on Melville's language in Moby-Dick:
"Melville's words muster their associations, their deep histories, on every page. There are scores of allusions to the King James Bible. Adjectives and adverbs are placed in glorious, loaded convoy: 'The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbert, heaped up, flaked up, with rose water snow.' With a tiny smirk of irony, Melville saves the word 'redundant' for the last place in that gorgeous list: as if to say, 'I dare you to find any of these multiple adjectives . . . redundant!'"
Well, correct "sherbert" to "sherbet" and put a hyphen in "rose-water," to start with, assuming my online text is right. Then what?
The first thing you think of, if you know even a shallow history of Melville's words, is that he cannot be using "redundant" to mean "duplicative." He must be using it in a Latin sense, one easy enough to establish with a dictionary if you don't know Latin.
If you know Melville, whether or not you know Latin, you know that he takes many latinate words from John Milton. It takes only a moment on Google to locate a couple of likely analogues in Paradise Lost and in Samson Agonistes.
As it happens, the use of "redundant" in Paradise Lost is in a description of Satan as serpent which Melville was very familiar with: "his head / Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes; / With burnish'd neck of verdant gold, erect / Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass / Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape, /And lovely" . . . . Melville used the passage in The Confidence-Man, for example. Or look at this passage in Samson Agonistes where the fallen hero laments his condition: "to visitants a gaze, / Or pitied object, these redundant locks / Robustious to no purpose clust'/ring down, / Vain monument of strength" . . . . (lines 567-570).
When Melville's two-volume Milton first came into view in 1983 in the Phillips Gallery I got a glimpse of it, and when it came up for auction again at Sotheby's in 1989 I was equipped with a copy of the same set, onto which one cloudy Manhattan day I inscribed all Melville's marks and annotations I could see. Now I open my duplicate of Melville's Milton, marked as he marked his copy, and see that Melville did some underlining and marking of the page opposite "Floated redundant" and that in the Samson Agonistes he drew a line along all of 559-574, with another, shorter line along 567-569, three of the lines I just quoted, including "these redundant locks / Robustious."
It apparently did not occur to Wood that "redundant" did not mean something like "duplicative." If he had been sensitive to Melville's language enough to know the word had to be Miltonic (or most likely was Miltonic), he could have consulted Melville & Milton (2004), ed. Robin Grey, which reprints from Leviathan (March and October 2002) the transcription of Melville's marginalia in his Milton by Grey and Douglas Robillard, in consultation with me. But that would have meant being scholarly instead of a smirking, superior critic.
Nice people don't smirk. Dubya was a compulsive smirker, and look where he got the world. Wood may smirk, also compulsively, but he is wrong to bring Melville into his nasty little clique of smirkers. I could muster many other examples from Wood on Melville. He may be the greatest critic in the world, but he does not know anything worth knowing about Melville, and he certainly does not understand the nobility of Melville's literary ancestry and the towering grandeur of Melville's spirit.