An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man's Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we've dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don't want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing–weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it–the logic of celebrity culture–and move on.
It has been decided of late that the face of literary criticism shall belong to James Wood. A writer first at the Guardian (from 1992 to 1996), then at The New Republic and now, since last year, at The New Yorker, Wood has long been considered, in a formulation that soon assumed a ritual cast, "the best critic of his generation." Coming from elders like Sontag, Bloom and Saul Bellow, and nearly always incorporating that meaningless word "generation," these consecrations have bespoken a kind of Oedipal conflict, betraying the double urge first to possess one's offspring by defining them, then to destroy them altogether. For Wood has come to be seen as something more than the best of his generation: not just the best, full stop, regardless of generation, but the one, the only, even the last. Beside him, none; after him, none other. The line ends here.
Contributing to this mythology is a belief in cultural decline, as constitutive a feature of modern consciousness as its reciprocal faith, a belief in material progress. Cynthia Ozick recently called for a "thicket of Woods," a battalion of critics raised in Wood's image, to renovate not only literary criticism but literature itself. Wood is the "template," Ozick announced, from which a new cultural "infrastructure" must be built–or rebuilt. For Ozick, Wood recalls the glory days of American criticism during the middle of the last century, the age of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Indeed, he may surpass these forebears. "We have not heard a critical mind like this at work," Ozick declared, "since Trilling's The Liberal Imagination." The Liberal Imagination was published in 1950. Everything since includes some of Wilson, most of Trilling himself and nearly all of Kazin and Howe. Perhaps Ozick was only indulging in a bit of polemical hyperbole, but the comparison she urges convinces me that there may be something to the idea of cultural decline after all. Wood may be the best we have, but to set him next to Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe is to see exactly how far we have fallen.
But before we measure that distance, let us first give Wood his due. It is large. A critic's first necessity is learning, and Wood's learning is immense. He has not only read all the novels; he has read all the lives, all the letters and all the manifestoes, and he quotes them, with an exquisite ear for accent and echo, as if he'd read them all yesterday. He has read criticism, theory, aesthetics and, a special interest of his, theology. The apostate son of an evangelical childhood, he writes about literature as if our souls depended on it, which, for any serious reader, they do. For Wood, literature is truth, or as close as we're going to get to it in a world without God. In this postmodernist age, when Wood's New Yorker colleague Louis Menand can note, with a sense of amused relief, that the language of entertainment has displaced the language of moral seriousness in popular literary discourse; when Caleb Crain can declare, in the hipster literary journal n+1, that "literature is only an art," no more worthy of university instruction than wine tasting; when those same universities can turn literature over to ideologues who fear and despise it; Wood's unapologetic commitment to literature's transcendent value and criticism's high calling is his most important virtue.