There’s been a handful of critics I’ve read through the years who’ve put out works like this. Early American criticism almost universally looked like this, and the appeal must be quite alluring for iconic critics who both do and don’t specialize. This is a collection of essays — 5 to 10 pages each — in a literary and cultural touchstone kind of way. James avowedly tells us from the beginning he is not looking for a universal understanding of “Western” writers, and he has not accomplished such, but does want to talk about important authors, reckon with them, and asses various aspects of their work, their lives, and their thinking. He spends not a lot of time with almost any non-white writers, women, or people from marginalized groups, and I couldn’t imagine he could remotely handle any kind of indentitarian politics whatsoever, and we’re all the better for him not trying. He comes closest with Edward Said, whom he basically calls white and Western, and well, it’s good he stopped there. And he even likes Said! His reading has both weird additions — Beatrix Potter and Norman Mailer — and some glaring omissions — Foucault, Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida. He’s best when he’s hitting, let’s say center-mass and worst when he stretches himself too much. He’s above it all, when it comes to anything beyond a generic “humanism.”
On the one hand, I hoped I would like this more than I did. I feel like he’s got some real blindspots in his approach, his biases, and his thinking that show up in both gaps and in a few of the essays. On the other hand, it’s hard to reckon with the sheer volume of this thinking and the expansiveness of it. It’s still an interesting and challenging work, and it’s fun to disagree.