The Visionary Power of M.H. Abrams

I happened to be revisiting The Prelude this morning in preparation for a class when I came home to learn of the passing of M.H. Abrams. At the bottom of the obituary that I read, The Ithaca Voice pulled together memories of Abrams that were posted for his 100th birthday celebration a few years back. E.D. Hirsch wrote this:

“Here are 3 Abrams-isms lodged in my memory after many decades.

After a wayward 2 years at Cornell, including some disagreements with my sophomore English professor, I came to see you (around 1947/8) about an honors program you were starting. After a few minutes of chat, I confessed that I had just made a C in sophomore English. You said “You’re in. It takes a lot of talent to make a C in that course.”

My favorite scholarly Abrams-ism: good criticism requires “a keen eye for the obvious.”

My favorite airport-waiting-room Abrams-ism: I ask you: Have you read “A Sea of Thighs?” You replied without a pause: “No, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of that one.”

I wonder what he means by his favorite “scholarly Abrams-ism.” Having only recently (over the last three years) consumed The Mirror and the Lamp, Natural Supernaturalism, The Correspondent BreezeThe Fourth Dimension of a Poem, and even many of the essays in Doing Things With Texts,  the eye for the obvious seems to testify to the profound impact Abrams’s scholarship has had on the humanities in general. Thinking of that body of work, from a young graduate student’s perspective, it seems that anyone familiar with  the Modern Tradition (Ellmann and Feidelson’s phrase) as well as its theoretical outgrowths might take many of Abrams’s insights as, dare I say it, “obvious.” One need not be an academic to be aware of the secularization thesis, the belief in art’s ability to re-enchant the world, or such an idea as human self-development (whether or not we have the vocabulary of spiral development, Bildung, etc.). We are all part of the onslaught of modernity that his work chronicles, we are all still living, critical fashions withstanding, within the confines of the tradition Abrams so eloquently diagnoses and documents. This, I believe, makes his work all the more astonishing.

As I try to imagine a time before I was born, it seems to me that what makes Abrams’s achievement all the more enduring is his crystallization of the obvious by amalgamating, through unbelievable scholarly erudition, lucid prose, and a remarkable depth and breadth of insight, the plethora of contexts that underwrite what we all already know, or rather feel: from Emma Woodhouse’s “mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer” to Wallace Stevens’s “listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Am I correct to infer that Abrams’s work gains its authority by accurately locating the fundamental attributes of modern existence that are so obvious in much of the vast body of literature stretching from at least the late 18th century to the present? When we read Wordsworth, Austen, or Stevens, we tend to see ourselves caught in their predicaments, Abrams, I can only venture to guess, helps to show us why.

As I concluded my class on Jane Austen this morning, suggesting that her genius lies, among other places, in her command of language (along with my emphasis that language is all we have), I offered my students the following quote: “Visionary power / Attends upon the motion of the winds / Embodied in the mystery of words.” Would we not say the same of Abrams?


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