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July 14, 2007

V. F. Calverton

A comment at The Valve starts out with a reference to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (who knew folks would still be talking about it this late in the day?) and goes on to another topic of interest:

V.F. Calverton isn't exactly a marginal literary historical figure; his best work isn't exactly a peripheral achievement. That is, shouldn't be. Not in reality. Though he surely is in the reality of the academic lit establishment today (and previous days). What percentage of the lit establishment has even heard of The Liberation of American Literature, let alone read it? 1 percent? .... Who has even heard of V.F. Calverton himself, editor of the Modern Quarterly for 17 years, from 1923 until his death in 1940. Just as Calverton was eventually marginalized in his own time, for ideological reasons as well, so have many central progressive literary concerns been marginalized by the academy.....Leftward Ho! V.F. Calverton and American Radicalism, by Philip Abbott, was published in 1993 as part of Greenwood Press's series Contributions in Political Science. This seems to be how a limited amount of work of some "radical" substance gets done in the academies. It can be easier to get it published in someone else's field other than your own. Less threatening that way, I suppose.

That certainly caught my attention. I posted the following response, which is in moderation but will presumably appear at some point:

Well, I know Calverton's work pretty well. As an editor and someone opposing the more sclerotic tendencies in the far left of his day, he was obviously an important figure, and his theory of "cultural compulsives" is interesting as a very rough-and-ready approximation of a Marxist sociology of knowledge.

But Calverton's writings on literary criticism and history have been forgotten for the simple reason that most of it was not very good. A satirical piece in the New Masses from the late 1920s portrayed the method of a critic everyone reading it knew was supposed to be Calverton. He sat down to prepare an essay on Marxism and Bulgarian literature despite not know Bulgarian or ever reading a single Bulgarian writer. Instead, he copied some facts about Bulgarian history out of an encyclopedia, added some thoughts on how the class struggle shapes literature, and voila! This was cruel -- Calverton wasn't quite that bad -- but there was a reason why the satirist could expect readers to recognize his target.

Calverton is worth studying in context. (There are much better things to read about him than Abbott's book, by the way.) But if nobody much in English departments reads The Liberation of American Literature anymore, that is not proof that there is anything wrong with the English departments. It's full of errors and is often crude in its interpretations.

I wish this weren't true. There is a lot to admire about Calverton, but even his friends were often aghast at how sloppy he could be.

To which it might be worth adding that the fact Abbott's book appeared in a political-science series, rather than one on literary criticism, does make sense in a way. Calverton played an important, if idiosyncratic, role in the life of the far left during the 1920s and '30s, and not all of it had to do with his work on cultural matters. Why not a book about him in political science? Besides, that's pretty daring for poli sci. It's too bad the book is so poorly written that it makes for teeth-grinding after any ten pages.

I spent some time going through Calverton's papers last year and want to write about him again at some point. It was surprising to have the occasion to do so now, in such informal circumstances, but I'm glad to think of anyone paying attention to the topic at all.

Update: And now the reply to these comments.

Posted by smclemee at July 14, 2007 4:25 PM