Milan Terlunen responds to Carolyn Dever

Carolyn Dever brings out the ways that Auyoung delicately upends some of the long-standing tendencies within literature as a university discipline. By chance, I read Dever’s reflection just before reading the New Critic John Crowe Ransom’s 1937 article “Criticism, Inc.”, and found striking resonances between them.[1] Both make disciplinary interventions, and thus offer not only a snapshot of their present and but also a vision for the future. Moreover, the status quo Dever hopes to escape now is in large part Ransom’s earlier vision come to fruition.

The claim of “exceptionalism” Dever identifies is something Ransom was eager to establish. His intervention was to claim the activity of “criticism” – then still largely done by book reviewers – exclusively for the university. Despite mocking an old-school historicist who declared “we don’t allow criticism here, because that is something which anybody can do” (p. 592), Ransom goes on to declare: “It is not anybody who can do criticism” (p. 593). Exceptionalism was still the justification, just argued on new grounds.

Ransom presented “criticism” as (to use Dever’s phrase) more than the act of mere “appreciation,” defined as “understanding that is had intuitively, without benefit of instruction” (p. 594). “Appreciation” in this sense is exactly what Auyoung has demonstrated is worthy of scholarly research. Whereas Ransom felt it important to list “exclusions” from the discipline, including “personal registrations,” “high school classes” and “women’s clubs” (pp. 597-598), Dever rightly sees in Auyoung a profoundly inclusive attitude to readers beyond just academics.

[1] The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 13 No. 4.

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