Long live the terminological buccaneer! You probably didn’t notice at the time, but the middle of the Twentieth Century wasn’t just notable for some real humdinger-style global military conflicts both hot and cold; it was also the site of two pitched battles in the EXCITING WORLD OF LITERARY CRITICISM! I put that part in capital letters so it would seem more dramatic.
The first World War, if you will, was between the “Formalists” and the “New Critics”. The Formalists had ruled the roost for a long time, and they believed that you couldn’t understand a book (or poem, or any other “text”) without understanding the author. If you took a high school English class where you were lectured extensively on Herman Melville’s poverty or Toni Morrison’s infallibility, you were the (unwilling target) of watered-down Formalism. The New Critics, on the other hand, had the CRAY CRAY idea that everything you needed to understand a “text” was inside the text itself. They believed that the purest and most intelligent criticism came from treating the text like a found object, the same way we regard something like the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.
As an idea, New Criticism was long overdue — and as a way of wedging humanity out of Formalism, it was absolutely necessary. There was just one problem: no text is truly a “found object”. Imagine Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Word being read by someone who doesn’t know what a “flivver” is, or what the line “Ford’s in his flivver” is meant to reference. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that, because it’s happening right now in colleges across America. Our eighteen-year-olds are very skilled at Fortnite and they know the lyrics of Ariana Grande songs the same way people used to know the King James Bible, but they don’t read Robert Browning and they don’t know enough history to identify a “flivver”.
The New Critics would tell you that you can fully understand Brave New World without any of that information. This position was so obviously absurd that it eventually yielded, in a sort of Second World War, to Post-Structuralism, which is obsessed with context. A proper Post-Structuralist reading of Brave New World would require that you know everything that Huxley knew when he wrote the book. This, as you’d imagine, is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible. As a result, there was a long Cold War between the people who could not abide New Criticism or Post-Structuralism. The Cold War was resolved when a milder, more practical version of the Post-Structuralist philosophy was advanced by the eminent critical scholar Northrop Frye in the Sixties. Mr. Frye, who considered himself a “terminological buccaneer”, borrowed and stole liberally from the best aspects of New Criticism and Post-Structuralism to create a workable framework for literary criticism.
Frye shaped the course of “lit-crit” from 1960 to 2005 or so, at which point gender and race theories became all-powerful, effectively terminating our culture’s chances of obtaining any further understanding of literature on any basis that is not directly related to university-grade progressive dogma. Our schools are busy teaching themselves to forget proper criticism, which is why today’s readers are drowning in a tsunami of young-adult trash and third-tier feeling-junkies like Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. We simply don’t know any better, and deliberately so.
Happily for Frye, he did not live to see this stupidity become canoncical. He died in 1991 with his position as the first man of literary criticism utterly secured, believing that he would continue to influence the way thoughtful men read books for decades to come. He may have even influenced you — Frye was often tapped to assemble anthologies of literature and/or criticism for undergraduate education. His influence on me was somewhat more direct. One of Frye’s most devoted students was a fellow named Edward Tomarken, who in turn became my faculty mentor and life-long friend some twenty-six years ago. “Eddie” and Frye maintained a personal correspondence until Frye’s death. I, in turn, continue to meet Eddie once a year or so either in Florida or at his home outside London. Which goes a long way toward explaining why I have a hyper-critical attitude towards automotive journalism; once you’ve learned to thoroughly disassemble a brilliant writer like Alexander Pope or William Makepeace Thackeray, reading the dreck in today’s car magazines is like sticking your hands elbow-deep into a construction-site latrine.
It might also explain why one of my son’s Christmas presents led to the two of us having an uncomfortable conversation about prison snitches.
If you follow my Instagram, you may know that I have been the guest of Taylor Guitars at a few recent music-industry shows, and that I’m currently playing the Taylor 614ce V-Class Builder’s Edition as my primary instrument. (The guitar can also be seen in my Mississippi Blues piece.) My conversion to the Gospel Of Bob Taylor is just about complete; in the past month I’ve sold all of my Martins, and I’ll be selling a couple of high-end Gibson acoustics, including a Ren-Ferguson-built Doves In Flight, at my local consignment shop next month. During the winter, I’ll continue to play my RainSongs, but if you see me playing unplugged any other time, I’ll be strumming a Taylor, guaranteed.
My son started playing the upright bass in his school orchestra a few months back, so I decided to call my pal Matt Emick at Sweetwater and buy the Taylor GS Mini Bass for him as a Christmas gift. Happily for me, John took to it like the proverbial duck to water. A few days, he asked if we could play some songs together, so I selected three simple tunes that wouldn’t wear out his hands or his patience.
We started with “Ragged Wood” by Fleet Foxes, which he liked but which is also a little boring for the bassist. Next was “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend, which he liked enough to make his own copy of my sheet music together with his notes. Finally, we picked “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers. This one was by far his favorite, and after I put him to bed I could hear him singing it quietly to himself.
Yesterday we had a three-hour roundtrip to an indoor skatepark and we listened to a variety of “Midnight Rider” covers. His pick for second place behind the original: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, as seen in the video above. (The affiliation with the Revel Ultima system in the Lincoln MKZ turned out to be a happy coincidence.) He started asking me questions about the song: What is it really about? Why does he have one last silver dollar? Can you even buy anything with one dollar? and so on.
This was the perfect time for me to make a decision: Would we approach this like New Critics, using only the “text”, or would we discuss the history and context of the Allman Brothers, a topic which, as it happens, has been covered here before? Given three hours in which to chat, it didn’t surprise me that we eventually got around to that context: Duane Allman’s death, the uneasy status of the Allman Brothers as both cultural appropriators and superb innovators, and the fact that Gregg Allman is a snitch.
“Dad, what do you mean when you say he was a snitch?”
“Well, he testified against his drug dealer, and his drug dealer went to prison for 75 years.”
“Aren’t drug dealers bad people?”
“Well, yeah, but…” And all of a sudden I had to consider the wide gap between my own life and the life I want for my son. I grew up around people who considered “snitching” to be the worst thing a man could do. Regardless of the crime in question, and regardless of the consequences. I would no more snitch on someone than I would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Were my son in Gregg Allman’s position, however — facing serious time and potentially fatal consequences — I’d want him to snitch immediately. It should also be noted that “Scooter”, Gregg’s dealer, eventually had his 75-year sentence reduced to five years, and that he would later credit Allman’s snitching with saving his life. So I took a deep breath, and continued, “…You know what, drug dealers are bad people, and maybe Gregg was right to get his dealer in trouble. I don’t ever want you to get hurt, or bullied, because you refuse to tell a teacher or an adult about something bad that has happened. If you can’t find a teacher, or an actual adult, you can always tell me.”
“Okay, Dad.” He was clearly satisfied with the interaction, and I felt that I’d successfully defused yet another one of those land mines that lurks in any conversation with your own children. It would be smooth sailing from here to the skatepark. Until…
“Dad, why was the album called ‘Eat A Peach’ if Duane didn’t really get killed by a peach truck?”
“Well… Duane once said that he would eat a peach for peace.” And I snickered.
“Why is eating a peach funny?”
“Uh, because peaches are, ah, fuzzy, and, ah, it’s just funny to eat a peach instead of an apple.” Another land mine defused, albeit badly! I might have to run away from my son’s occasionally eerie perception, but I’m not gonna let ’em catch me, no — not gonna let them catch the terminological buccaneer!
Brother Bark reviewed all his rental cars at once.