James Seaton champions a tradition of accessible literary criticism that today is more commonly found in high-end periodicals and reviews than in university departments of literary studies. To adepts of this humanistic tradition, literature provides, in his words, “valuable insight into human life in all its variety.” Seaton traces humanistic criticism back to Aristotle and up through once-influential but now-neglected twentieth-century American critics. Among more recent contemporary practitioners of this sort of criticism we might count Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Adam Kirsch, and James Wood.
Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University, contrasts this humanistic criticism with the approach encouraged in much modern and postmodern literary theory. He claims that politicized frameworks—theoretical cookie cutters like Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis—turn great novels, poems, and drama into little more than fodder for theory. They encourage students to be detached critics, insulated against the naive view that literary works offer any lasting insight into human life. The result, Seaton says, is predictable, jargon-laden critique.
His diagnosis comes at a time when scholars across the humanities are voicing similar concerns about the dominance of a smug, flat-footed hermeneutics of suspicion. Bruno Latour, for instance, has called practitioners of formulaic critique “critical barbarians,” and Rita Felski has examined the limits of suspicious reading in her 2008 book Uses of Literature. A 2013 report by Harvard College found that the humanities have overemphasized theory at the expense of other approaches to literature, including literary history. Seaton contributes to such disciplinary soul-searching in two significant ways. First, he argues that the history of literary criticism can be understood as an ongoing battle among politicized Platonism, mystical Neoplatonism, and sensible Aristotelianism. Second, he rehabilitates some twentieth-century practitioners of this Aristotelian humanism—namely Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison—who still have something to teach literary studies today.