The Literal Imagination


Frederick Crews


Ian Watt's lasting fame as a literary analyst was secured in 1957 with the publication of The Rise of the Novel, which remains an indispensable text nearly half a century later. For countless academics who were then chafing under the dominance of New Critical formalism, Watt's book pointed a way out-not the only way, certainly, but the only one that wouldn't risk degenerating into a comfortable routine in its own right. The Wattian imperative was to take nothing for granted, to declare no subject matter off-limits in principle, and then to account for a literary work, career, or whole movement by reference to every factor-biographical, economic, social, cultural, philosophical-that appeared to resonate with the spirit of the text(s). The program was inexhaustible because it entailed no bias toward any given interpretative line. It was a model not of connect-the-dots "methodology" but of open-minded investigation.

I wish I could count myself among those who profited at once from The Rise of the Novel. It was, I realized much later, the perfect antidote to a more imposing book published in the same year, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which presumed to taxonomize all of literature within a few superordinate types. Here was no agenda for the historically curious inquirer but rather a summa formalistica declaring the range of possible imaginative expression to be already fully mapped. Recoiling from such an airless system, I soon found myself groping toward a mode of criticism that might do justice to the psychological immediacy of complex, self-divided works. Alas, another form of question-begging deductivism, the psychoanalytic kind, lay in ambush-obliging me, after a few years of rash theoretic enthusiasm, to spend decades trying to warn others against repeating my own error. How much better for all concerned if, from the outset, I had taken Watt's canny empiricism to heart! (1)

As fate would have it, I soon became professionally associated with Watt and, in remarkably short order, found myself the beneficiary of his friendship. When, fresh out of graduate school, I joined Berkeley's English department in 1958, Watt was already one of its luminaries, along with Mark Schorer, Henry Nash Smith, Josephine Miles, Bertrand Bronson, and James D. Hart among others. There was no reason why the author of The Rise of the Novel should pay any regard to the greenest of recruits. But distinctions of rank never meant anything to Watt. More than any other senior colleague, he made me feel like an intellectual peer.(2)

The Ian Watt I came to know was ruggedly handsome, self-assured, and down-to-earth. He moved with athletic quickness, and his mind, too, was always a step ahead of you. Every form of sentimentality and sham amused him, and he typically punctuated his irreverent observations with a sharp sardonic laugh. As graduate chair of our department he was something of an autocrat, striking fear into students who sensed, correctly, that his personal judgment trumped the official rules. But later in the sixties, as Stanford's chair of English during a period of truly warlike turmoil, he would show himself capable of heroically restrained statesmanship.

There is, I am sure, no contradiction here; in both cases the same take-charge Ian was trying to keep his department focused on its intellectual mission. But the violence at Stanford, incited in part by a member of his own English faculty, brought to the fore a wisdom he had acquired in the 1940s when he had endured three-and-a-half years of harsh imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese military. As you can see from the final chapter below, that experience taught him that "the continuity of human affairs will not happen of itself." When the social fabric was tearing at Stanford, the former British army lieutenant put all provocations and insults in abeyance and became a paragon of diplomacy, patience, and resolve.(3)

Watt's role as a successful administrator-he also served as the first dean of the University of East Anglia's School of English Studies and as founding director of the Stanford Humanities Center-bears fascinating connections with some of the other essays in this book. Now and again the reader will find Watt directly confronting the fallacies of unrestrained individualism, variously manifested in Romantic poets and radically negative modernists, in Hollywood's melodramatic clichés, in tenured anti-institutionalists, and in the contemporary intellectual's "image of himself as a passionate defender of the last citadels of human reason against the mounting tide of folly, vulgarity, and commercialism." For Watt, the missing ingredient was always the same: a properly humble consciousness of the way we are defined, supported, and rendered useful by those whose tasks and trials we share.

It is fitting, in this light, that the last of Watt's books to be published in his lifetime was called Myths of Modern Individualism (1994). So, too, it makes sense that the author to whom he would devote the most attention was Joseph Conrad-the subject of what many consider his finest work, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1980). That monograph casts a steady light on Conrad's themes and their multiple filiations with intellectual history; and typically, it neither idolizes the novelist nor succumbs to the faddish temptation of deploring his political benightedness. But beneath Watt's evenhandedness one detects a tacit endorsement of Conrad's core insight: that mundane solidarity is invaluable precisely because every other source of meaning is illusory.(4)

Watt, then, was a sophisticated student of a virtue that few thinkers today perceive as such: strategic compromise. That preoccupation is most subtly expressed below in the chapters touching on what he calls the Augustan empirical temper. Like Watt himself, the great Augustan authors were empiricists not in the sense of skeptically testing every proposition or of spurning all abstractions, but rather in their upholding of norms that spoke to common human experience. They were, in short, studiously anti-ideological.

Instead of fetishizing that posture, however, Watt recognizes it as yet another ideology, a quietistic one, and he shows how it emerged as an attitudinal truce after an epoch of exhausting wars and purges. More-over, he lets us see that the Augustans, though perfectly sincere when invoking natural bonds and standards, were simultaneously advancing the interests of a propertied class. Likewise, he bares the elite assumptions behind their famous irony, which depended for its effect on a false show of deference to the democratic mob whose illusions would be scorned by the cognoscenti.

It would be a mistake, then, to assume that Augustan high irony struck a note that Watt himself was striving to emulate. "Isn't Swift a cook," he brilliantly asks, "who cares so much for cleanliness that all his dishes taste of soap?" Watt prefers the "open irony" of the last Augustan, Dr. Johnson, who considered himself no better or worse than the rest of the errant human race. And in his study of The Ambassadors Watt pauses to ask, "Is there really anything so wonderful about being distant and objective? Who wants to see life only or mainly in intellectual terms?"

The answer, of course, is that academics do. They were intellectualizing in 1960, when marmoreal verbal icons were all the rage, and they are still doing so today-but in an opposite mood, to literature's detriment rather than its worship. Neither mode can do justice to, say, the fertile messiness of a Tristram Shandy or to the complex temper of its age. Although ideology and history were familiar terrain for Watt, he would have endorsed neither an "identity politics" that aims to decertify the white-male classics nor an alleged historicism that caricatures our forebears as mere vessels of prejudice and oppression. Criticism, for him, was not a means of staking out turf or demonstrating one's radical bona fides; it was a jargon-free conversation among equals whose shared love of literature could be taken for granted.

The title Bruce Thompson has chosen for this collection is drawn from its final chapter, where Watt tells us that the humanities ought to uphold "a way of responding to experience which involves what I would call 'the literal imagination' entering as fully as possible in all the concrete particularities of a literary work or the lives of others or the lessons of history." That ideal is articulated at several other points below, but it would be just so much hot air if it weren't continually embodied in agile feats of analysis. Watt's own "concrete particularities" form the most telling, if implicit, critique of an academic practice that by now is humanistic in name only. Would it be too much to hope that, when the dust has mercifully settled over poststructuralism and postmodernism, critics will rediscover the kind of engagement from which Ian Watt never swerved?


1. Watt himself, it must be said, infrequently toyed with Freudian schemata, as manifested in Chapters 10 and 12 below. Even there, however, the reader will note a wealth of observational detail attesting to Watt's temperamental preference for anchoring his conclusions in facts.
2. Indeed, the present book contains fossil evidence of that welcome. Watt's great essay "The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors," originally published in 1960, acknowledges advice offered by "Dorothea Krook, Frederick C. Crews, and Henry Nash Smith."
3. In this regard, see William M. Chace, "Ian Watt: The Liberty of the Department," Stanford Humanities Review 8:1 (Spring 2000), 42-50. That entire special issue, entitled Critical History: The Career of Ian Watt, can be consulted with profit.
4. Not surprisingly, some of Watt's finest shorter writings deal with Conrad. They can be found in his other posthumous collection, Essays on Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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