Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture by Evan Kindley
Volume 3, Cycle 2
Even taking into consideration penicillin and the atomic bomb, bureaucracy may be the most consequential and pervasive of twentieth-century humanity’s gifts to ourselves. (Global warming we gave to all species.) Yes, administrative gears ground in ancient Rome and classical China, but in the 1900s bureaucratic organizations and institutions of every type spread like kudzu. Sociologists such as William Whyte and Max Weber documented how, over the first half of the century, bureaucracies proliferated beyond the church, the military, and the government, coming to colonize every aspect of modern life.
Even the rambunctious American literary world got “rationalized” (to use Weber’s term) and, by the postwar period, surrendered to bureaucracy. In his pithy Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture, scholar and Los Angeles Review of Books editor Evan Kindley shows how once-oppositional modernist “poet-critics” joined the bureaucratic machine, and then, from inside, used it to enshrine and perpetuate modernist literature.
The book is not just about paper-pushing, though. Instead, Kindley’s larger subject is “justification: the justification of literature, and of the difficult, experimental, elitist, unrepentantly unmarketable literature called ‘modernism’ in particular” (10). How did “modernist poet-critics” explain “what is the point of art” and “why should we pay for it”? To answer this, Kindley turns to writers both familiar (T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden) and surprising (Sterling A. Brown), tracing how these justifications evolved to reflect changing social and political conditions in the United States, as well as the institutional positions held by these poet-critics. (Although Auden and Eliot were as influential in Britain as in the States, Kindley’s lens is focused squarely on America.)
Kindley is not the first to adumbrate these poet-critics’ arguments. Theorists from Raymond Williams to Andreas Huyssen to Peter Bürger have documented modernism’s apologiae, and in particular the central role of the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy in making a case for modernism. In the book’s early chapters, Kindley carefully traces the subtly divergent, and changing, positions of Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Archibald MacLeish on aesthetic autonomy—familiar ground, but briskly and clearly recounted.
The Depression, though, made recondite squabbles about aesthetic autonomy seem irrelevant. The poet-critics got day jobs, and here Kindley’s book gets truly original. In the 1930s, he writes, “modernist poet-critics went from being slightly less obscurantist bohemians, charged with clarifying byzantine avant-garde practices to bewildered but sympathetic elites, to being civil servants, charged with reinforcing the ideals and institutions of American democracy and enlisting the energies of art in its defense” (73–74). MacLeish, the epitome of the high-minded modernist civil servant, is the key figure here, but Kindley’s discussion of African American poet Sterling A. Brown’s work for the Federal Writers’ Project, and his analysis of Brown’s poem “When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home,” is for me the standout section of this concise book. Considering the position of the black writer joining the federal government in the 1930s, Kindley notes archly that all poets have to compromise their ideals when going to work for the state, but some writers “had to compromise more than others” (108).
Bureaucracies further proliferated and intertwined in the early Cold War period, and the modernists came to use them to their advantage. Although he could have chosen any number of representative examples, Kindley ends his book with perhaps the most important of these: R. P. Blackmur’s work to embed modernism in the university while protecting the independence and autonomy of both the critic and the modernism. Moving modernism to academe would “protect literature from . . . the market for literary commodities,” but modernism had to insist on its autonomy from other market imperatives—notably, the “market for skilled labor” that increasingly organized the postwar university (112). To accomplish this, Blackmur cannily brought in foundations such as Rockefeller, which funded the critical work (in journals and the Kenyon School of English) that insisted on criticism’s importance to a liberal society, and on the need to create institutions to preserve criticism’s independence. This, though, only exacerbated widespread worry about metastasizing bureaucracies. Kindley doesn’t explicitly mention David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney’s The Lonely Crowd or Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, but their anxieties roil just below the surface here.
Where book history—and Kindley is definitely doing book history—shades into “sociology of literature,” it often tends to emphasize the sociology over the literature. But Kindley, for all of his focus on institutions, is extraordinarily attentive to reading the poetry that these poet-critics produced to justify their . . . poetry. “The anxieties that [poet-critics] resolved into dogmas or precepts in [their] literary and cultural criticism are manifested and dramatized in poems,” he astutely observes, and then proves this through close, careful, readings of lesser-known poems by these well-known poets (90).
He’s especially good with Marianne Moore. In the quarrelsome world of modernist literary magazines, Eliot, Williams, and Ezra Pound used their critical essays as “strikes and maneuvers and . . . battleship-like reconnoitering” to establish their positions (and, of course, boost their own poetry) (44). Moore, however, declined to enter this fray, because of her ethical objections as well as her “gender and Presbyterian religious background” (44). Instead, she pursued this argument laterally, through her poetry and her work not as a critic but as an editor for The Dial. Reading two of her lapidary poems, 1916’s “Critics and Connoisseurs” and 1920’s “Picking and Choosing,” Kindley argues that those works show why Moore chose to withdraw from the arena of literary combat to serve instead as a “gatekeeper,” a role that allowed her to “express her own strong preferences and judgments in a way that involved her in the society of modernism without engaging in acts of aggression or critical agonism” (53). Moving later into the century, Kindley’s paired analyses of Auden’s The Orators (1932) and “Under Which Lyre” (1946) persuasively illustrate Auden’s changing views on the roles of poet-critics and the creation of a “new postwar cultural archetype,” but neither discussion, unfortunately, tempts me to read The Orators. (Not Kindley’s fault.)
Situating midcentury literature in this burgeoning bureaucratic matrix is the crucial contribution of this short book. The twentieth century intensively rationalized many sectors of American society: corporations, government, journalism, foundations, universities, and even civil-society groups. And as these institutions grew, they enmeshed. As Kindley shows, modernist literature had to make a case for its own worth according to society’s rational-bureaucratic values, while at the same time preserving its ability to stand outside of and criticize that society and its institutions. In order to claim its due funding, it had to insist upon its independent role and justify its social use. That it ultimately settled in the university “has come to seem self-evident, but it was only one of many possible outcomes,” Kindley astutely points out (143). Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture joins the short list of recent scholarship—notably Trysh Travis’s work on “bookmen,” John Hench’s Books as Weapons, Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, and Merve Emre’s Paraliterary, as well as James Sloan Allen’s older The Romance of Commerce and Culture—suggesting that the most important development in American postwar literary history may be literature’s uneasy commensalism with the lumbering bureaucratic bodies that provided it with a paycheck and the opportunity, or imperative, to justify its own existence.