A tour de force of new literary criticism.
In their introduction, Gallagher (Nobody’s Story, not reviewed) and Greenblatt (Marvelous Possessions, 1991) express the hope that “you will not be able to say what it all adds up to; if you could, we would have failed.” Alas, they succeed, and it’s doubtful that a better demonstration of the anarchy and solipsism of literary criticism today can be found. They mean to demonstrate how their varied approaches to all sorts of “texts” grow out of the rediscovery by scholars like them of the relevance of historical and cultural context to the interpretation of just about everything. But they do so in ways that their predecessors—the Victorian scholars who used history as an interpretive tool before the New Critics began to avoid it—would scarcely comprehend. Moreover, with misplaced modesty, they refuse to claim that their interpretations are any better than others—which, of course, is an imposed interpretive principle of its own. This being said, Gallagher and Greenblatt’s virtuoso readings of paintings, potatoes (yes, spuds), religious ritual, and novels—all “texts”—as well as essays on criticism and the significance of anecdotes, are likely to take their place as model examples of the qualities of the new critical school that they lead. Ironically, because everything they write suffers from what might be called the fallacy of excessive significance (i.e., finding in texts what may not be there), they reveal themselves to be as adept at close reading as the New Critics they shun. Historians (who know something about historicism) will find their teeth set on edge by the way Gallagher and Greenblatt do history. But that’s part of the fun and fascination of the book.
A zesty work for those already initiated into the incestuous world of contemporary literary criticism—and for those who might like to see what all the fuss is about. (12 illustrations)