(This essay was originally published in Open Letters Monthly.)
As I was working on a dissertation that was conspicuously about “postmodern” fiction, examined from a “poststructuralist” perspective, several of my readers expressed surprise at my extensive citation of Richard Poirier’s 1966 book, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. Although in my opinion this book is one of the most important academic studies of American literature, it had at that time become somewhat neglected even among “Americanist” scholars, but this was not the only reason readers found its prominence in my dissertation a little strange. What they really saw as unexpected was the extent to which supposedly postmodern and poststructuralist ideas about language and literary form could be discovered in Poirier’s book, written well before either of these terms were much in circulation and well before critical theory became the dominant approach to literary study. I now think that perhaps the main reason A World Elsewhere had fallen into some obscurity was precisely that it offered a radical analysis of American literature and literary history.
A World Elsewhere makes it clear that American literature has long been characterized by a preoccupation with the processes of representation and specifically with the limitations of language as a medium of representation, features generally associated with postmodernism and assumed to be a phenomenon of more recent literary history. Such a view of American literary history was implicitly unsettling to the prevailing approach to the study of American literature, which emphasized literature as a reflection of American history, often embodying “themes” said to be the obsessions of American writers in their encounter with history and culture. But Poirier in A World Elsewhere tells us that most of the canonical American writers distrust the very mechanisms available to poets and fiction writers that would render experience adequately and if anything they aspire to write in such a way that they manage to escape history. “The great works of American literature,” he writes, “are alive with the effort to stabilize certain feelings and attitudes that have, as it were, no place in the world, no place at all except where a writer’s style can give them one.” Thus these great works lead us not to the world of historical experience but to “a world elsewhere.”
Poirier’s insights arise mostly from an analysis of 19th century fiction (although Faulkner receives significant attention as well), but they are equally relevant to an understanding of the seemingly extravagant qualities of much unconventional post-World War II American fiction, or at least so I contended in my own study of metafiction (which was in its initial incarnation an American phenomenon). I took Poirier’s claims even a little farther, arguing that the self-reflexivity of metafiction, in directing the reader’s attention to the artifice of language, in effect makes style itself the “world elsewhere,” asking the reader not to regard language as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created “world” at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest, the irreducible substance of the reading experience. Along with the American writer’s propensity to favor “romance” over “novel” (a distinction made by Hawthorne), this emphasis on style (really an insistence that a work of fiction is finally a construction of words) helps to explain why American fiction has long seemed peculiarly “other” in comparison to British and European fiction—a difference that is often enough taken as a sign of inferiority but has actually made American fiction inherently “experimental” throughout its history.
Poirier’s reading of American fiction (and poetry as well) was directly inspired by his primary reading of Emerson, as illustrated especially in his 1987 book, The Renewal of Literature. In my opinion, Poirier is the indispensable commentator on Emerson—certainly few other critics are able to do equal justice to Emerson the philosopher and Emerson the writer as thoroughly as Poirier. He identifies Emerson, correctly in my view, as not just the source of “American” ideas and attitudes that are echoed in many other writers (whether they are always aware of it or not), but of the quintessentially American approach to style as well. For anyone who has found Emerson’s ideas interesting enough in the abstract but difficult to track as expressed through his aphoristic, circuitous prose style, Poirier’s account of Emerson the writer can be revelatory. Emerson feared above all “being caught or fixed in a meaning” or “state of conformity,” Poirier contends, and that fear is addressed first of all in Emerson’s own deployment of language. Thus Emerson’s prose is perhaps the supreme example of the centrality of “troping” in American literature, the “turning” of language in new or surprising ways that allow the writer (and the reader) to avoid being trapped in established usages and forms. In this way Emerson’s writing doesn’t so much “develop” through sequential discourse, which relies on already accepted patterns of thought, as it continually “transitions” from one formulation of language to another. “Emerson makes himself sometimes amazingly hard to read,” writes Poirier
hard to get close to, all the more because he finds it manifestly difficult to get close to himself, to read or understand himself. If you want to get to know him, you must stay as close as possible to the movements of his language, moment by moment, for at every moment there is movement with no place to rest; you must share, to a degree few other writers since Shakespeare have asked us to do, in his contentions with his own and therefore with our own meanings, as these pass into and then out of any particular verbal configuration.
Emerson’s essays do not present finished thoughts but illustrate a process of thinking. In purely literary terms, they are examples of writing that displays a “thoroughgoing inquisitiveness about its own verbal resources, let[ting] itself discover as much as can be known about the previous uses of its words.” For Poirier, a work of literature “can be of lasting interest only if it reveals” such inquisitiveness. This view of the “literary” also leads to Poirier’s conception of the role of criticism. Although he was not a New Critic, he explains the preponderance of close reading in The Renewal of Literature as the result of his belief that “criticism should engage itself not with rendered experience but the experience of rendering; it must go back to acts of rendition in language.” Almost all of Poirier’s criticism (of literature at least, since he also occasionally examined other forms, such as in his rather famous essay on The Beatles) is intensively focused on textual analysis, and few critics demonstrate the value of attending closely to the words of the text as does Poirier in his efforts to disclose those “verbal resources” the writer has engaged, as in this analysis of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:
. . .The sound of the opening line of the poem, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” creates a mystery, or what the poem itself calls a “gap.” This gap is not filled by summary bits of wisdom, like “good fences make good neighbors,” a line given, it should be remembered, to “an old-stone savage armed,” as if aphorisms are crude weaponry. No, good neighbors are made by phrases whose incompleteness is the very sign of neighborliness: “something there is.” Anyone can go along with that. The word “something” partakes mildly of the “mischief” attributed to the emergent energies of spring. when the frozen ground swell “makes gaps even two can pass abreast.” It is the sort of “mischief” which creates chances for companionability; this “something” doesn’t love walls; its love is given instead to the “gaps” in walls wherein people may join.
Poirier was concerned to read literary texts with such attentiveness because the writers he most admired were themselves so constantly attentive to the figurations of language. At the same time that Poirier’s readings help elucidate the tangible qualities of these works and thus enhance our own reading of them, his analyses also center on identifying the way in which such features arise from an orientation to language Poirier calls ”linguistic skepticism.” Poirier considers linguistic skepticism to be the literary expression of American pragmatism, an association he pursues most directly in the 1992 book, Poetry and Pragmatism. Much of this book is devoted to discussions of William James and, again, Emerson, although Poirier makes a convincing case that it is Emerson who is truly the inspiration for the philosophical orientation James will ultimately label “pragmatism.” Emerson’s emphases on action and individual agency, and his distrust of inherited systems are direct influences on both James and John Dewey, but it is in the manifestation of these beliefs in Emerson’s approach to language and in his habits of writing that Emerson initiates a “pragmatic tradition” in American literature, one that Poirier assigns figuratively to “poetry” but which includes both poets and novelists, as well as essayists such as Emerson and Thoreau.
Writers in this tradition are especially aware of the contingency of language, its unavoidable immersion in past practices and ultimately its insufficiency as a medium for establishing the final truth of things. They understand that, in Poirier’s words, the “proper activity” of all writers is “essentially a poetic one. It is to make sure that language is kept in a state of continuous troping, turning, transforming, transfiguring. . . .” The act of writing is thus alive with the attempt to “stabilize certain feelings and attitudes,” but the attempt itself provides the only stability, and it will of course be “turned” by subsequent attempts, the transfiguration it accomplishes achieving, in Robert Frost’s famous words, only “a momentary stay against confusion.”
Poirier believes, as do I, that this “momentary stay” is “quite enough,” but I also think that, if there is a limitation to Poirier’s critical project, it would be his (not to mention Emerson’s) underemphasis on the aesthetic satisfaction a work of literature might still provide well beyond the “momentary” act of troping. However much Emerson urges that the poetic impulse is “continuous,” never resting in any particular expression, poems, stories, and novels retain the capacity to provoke an aesthetic experience for potential readers. If the greatest works do not necessarily bear comparison to the “well-wrought urn” in their manifest aesthetic qualities, those qualities are real and are the most immediate object of the experience of literature, unless poetry and fiction differ from more straightforward forms of discourse only in being less direct in communicating “meaning.” In his focus on style, Poirier certainly does not reduce the work of literature to its interpreted meaning, but it nevertheless does seem to me that a pragmatic criticism, or a study of the pragmatic strain in American literature, could allow for the way style interacts with form and for the way their interaction in a particular text can produce literary art of more or less enduring value.
Poirier quite rightly points out that Emersonian pragmatism has always been in its anti-foundationalism “postmodern.” But Poirier also helps us understand that the writers influenced by Emerson do not despair at the contingency of language or abandon all purpose because truth will always remain elusive. Instead, they proceed according to the belief that, as Poirier puts it, “language, and therefore thinking, can be changed by an individual’s acts of imagination and by an individual’s manipulation of words.” “Manipulation of words” is finally what literature is about, and ultimately the change in thinking such manipulation can effect is a change in the disposition of words, a fresh appreciation of the “transfiguring” power of words. Arguably, Poirier’s greatest contribution to literature and literary criticism was to show us why playing “word games” does not trivialize the writer’s vocation, as some readers and critics seem to think, but is in fact the essence of that vocation, the most serious ambition a writer can possess.
Richard Poirier was an exemplary “academic critic” of a kind no longer much in evidence, one who combined formidable learning with an impeccable literary sensibility and who regarded academic criticism as a useful complement to literature—a study that attempted to deepen our apprehension of literature, not to affect a scholarly superiority to it. “Reading is nothing if not personal,” he wrote in an especially Emersonian mode in Poetry and Pragmatism. “It ought to get down ultimately to a struggle between what you want to make of a text and what it wants to make of itself and of you.” These days literary scholars are preoccupied with “what you want to make of a text,” mostly dismissing “what it wants to make of itself” and ignoring “what it wants to make of you.” Poirier could acknowledge the limitations of criticism, maintaining that “skepticism needs also to be directed at the language of criticism itself and its claims to large significance.” Those claims by academic critics have become only more inflated, and unfortunately there now few critics like Richard Poirier around to return us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirrors the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.