Critical Inquiry 10 (1):1-35 (1983)

One of the major effects of prohibiting or inhibiting explicit evaluation is to forestall the exhibition and obviate the possible acknowledgment of divergent systems of value and thus to ratify, by default, established evaluative authority. It is worth noting that in none of the debates of the forties and fifties was the traditional academic canon itself questioned, and that where evaluative authority was not ringingly affirmed, asserted, or self-justified, it was simply assumed. Thus Frye himself could speak almost in one breath of the need to “get rid of…all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value-judgments” as “the first step in developing a genuine poetics” and of “the masterpieces of literature” which are “the materials of literary criticism” . The identity of those masterpieces, it seemed, could be taken for granted or followed more or less automatically from the “direct value-judgment of informed good taste” or “certain literary values…fully established by critical experience” .In a passage of particular interest, Frye wrote:Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice…The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to waste belaboring the point. [AC, p. 25]In addition to the noteworthy correlation of validity with silence , two other aspects of Frye’s remarks here repay some attention. First, in claiming that it is altogether obvious that Milton, rather than Blackmore, is “a more rewarding and suggestive poet [for the critic] to work with,” Frye begged the question of what kind of work the critic would be doing. For surely if one were concerned with a question such as the relation of canonical and noncanonical texts in the system of literary value in eighteenth-century England, one would find Blackmore just as rewarding and suggestive to work with as Milton. Both here and in his repeated insistence that the “material” of criticism must be “the masterpieces of literature” , Frye exhibits a severely limited conception of the potential domain of literary study and of the sort of problems and phenomena with which it could or should deal. In this conceptual and methodological confinement, however , he has been joined by just about every other member of the Anglo-American literary academy during the past fifty years. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is University Professor of English and communications and director of the Center for the Study of Art and Symbolic Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of, among other works, Poetic Closure and On the Margins of Discourse. Her previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories,” appeared in the Autumn 1980 issue. The present essay is part of a full-length study of literary and aesthetic value and evaluation
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DOI 10.1086/448235
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