The Happy Critic: Introduction and chapters 1 & 2
*** Read Chapter 7 of The Happy Critic as soon as possible.
The readings I have assigned in Birenbaum's Happy Critic are important
introductory readings which will greatly aid your understanding of the
literature for this
class and will also lay a good foundation for all your British literature
These will be especially helpful for those of
you who have not had any upper-level literature courses, or who have been out
of the classroom for some time. The book is an easy-to-read and spirited
(sometimes even a bit cor
ny) introduction to the principles of reading and writing critically about
literature. In it you will find fundamental and advanced concepts which we
will use throughout the semester.
The Happy Critic:
In his "Introduction" Harvey Birenbaum addresses the reader (you) as a serious reader
of literature and offers a vision of literature as a meaningful part of your life. 1.
"The 'happy critic,' then, takes the task of criticism as serious pleasure, a pleasure
that involves one's self-awareness, one's sense of reality as a human being in the world,
one's passion to know the features of life and art, one's friendly capacity to
mingle with other minds. Such pleasure includes frustrations, difficulties, and
uncertainties, but it comes from dealing honestly with the richness of literature.
It reflects the excitment of reading with satisfaction as one grasps the nature and signi
ficance of what one has read" (3).
What I like about Birenbaum's approach to the study of literature is that he invites us
to open our minds as well as our emotional selves to the experience of literature, to
relate to it through an open and honest investigation,
a quest to learn and to experience that will have a meaningful
effect on who we are and how we understand our world.
As you read these chapters, try to keep the spirit of Birenbaum's endeavor in mind, and
take away as much as you can from the ideas he has to share. On the other hand, do not
be afraid to question his ideas if they strike you as fundamentally unsound.
There are definitely parts of his philosophy that I do not find palatable. On the whole,
however, he provides an excellent introduction to the study of literature.
Chapter One: Thinking about literature
As you read this chapter, keep in mind the example of Addison's poem to begin to understand
how some of Birenbaum's concepts might apply to Eighteenth-century British Literature.
NOTE: The distinction between naive readers and sophisticated readers is very important.
It is my goal to have every student reading at a more sophisticated level than he or she is
upon beginning the course. Where do you fall now? Honestly try to
evaluate how you respond to literature right now. How can you become a more sophisticated reader?
In this chapter Birenbaum lays out some very instructive tips for writing and thinking
about literature. What does he suggest that you never thought of before? How can you
begin to employ some of his ideas in your reading and writing?
"The first requirement of good reading is shrewd observation. . . . We recognized that
the details [in literature] are selected (or created) deliberately and follow patterns
that the details fall into" (9).
This is a crucial step. Read carefully and observe the details that the author uses to
tell his or her story.
Tone is a very significant aspect of a literary work. What does
Birenbaum say about discovering the tone of a work? What does he mean when he says
"the tone of a work lies in the particular attitude toward life that it expresses"? (11).
NOTE: On page 11 he begins to list the fundamental activities involved in writing a
critical paper -- Representation, Interpretation or commentary, Analysis, and Evaluation.
Learn these and begin to practice them consciously in your writings.
NOTE: Throughout the all-important first chapter, Birenbaum introduces major concepts
in literary studies which I will expect you to understand. For instance, be familiar
with the meaning of terms like paraphrase, summary, and explication.
Generally speaking, the words in bold type should become a part of your literary vocabulary.
NOTE: Birenbaum also provides some excellent ideas for developing your critical essays:
questions to ask, points of departure, perspectives to consider. Review these if you
become "stuck" in your own critical writing.
Of the many useful ideas Birenbaum posits, his explanation of interpretation is
particularly relevant. Interpreting literature may seem like a mystical
discovery of hidden meanings, but let me assure you that meaning in literature
(or significance, to us
e Birenbaum's preferred term) comes as a result of the conscious artistry of the
author and the practiced and sensitive understanding of the reader.
His explanations of terms like allegory, imagery, symbol and their variations
should greatly aid your understanding of literature in general.
"Ultimately, all literary works are symbolic, for all represent life with a
particular slant, which we interpret" (24).
One of the skills needed for reading eighteenth-century literature is the ability
to identify the slant of the author and to determine what symbolic value that has
for the work, and for us.
Also take note of his explanation of the "significance" of a work of literature, and
in particular avail yourself of his outline of implications.
Pay particular attention to the section on style and genre, because these are issues
that greatly concern eighteenth-century authors.
Recall Addison's account of the greatest English poets, and consider Birenbaum's
statement: "All writers belong to a literary community. . . . it is a community
of contemporaries and also a community of past writers culminating in the present,
so that what our author 'mean's' is determined to some degree by
the position he or she takes
in a larger dialogue" (33).
How does Addison construct his literary community? What are the criteria for inclusion?
Consider Birenbaum's claim that "the writer's style is, by and large, the
individuation of a tradition. All this we understand well only by going on reading,
expanding our repertoire, or by studying writers in relation to their time period
and the sequence of literary history" (33).
What does it mean, then, that it is in the eighteenth-century that writers first
begin to account for a literary tradition? How might this explain the impulse toward
categorization? Toward imitation of past authors? Toward stylization?
Because the literature of this course is very stylized, it will be especially helpful
for you to review Birenbaum's explanation of conventions.
NOTE: Generally speaking, I am less enamored of schematics than Birenbaum
apparently is. I do not find such reductive models very useful. I suggest
that you use them only to the extent that you find them helpful. Do not
rely on them.
Chapter 2: Understanding Understanding: How Valid is
In this chapter, Birenbaum addresses some enduring doubts that students
express about the process of learning to understand literature in a
He begins with the premise -- that I share -- that literature is communication,
and to that extent it is a worthy exercise to try and understand its significance,
despite the slippery nature of "meaning."
Birenbaum: "Instead of asking why authors did things the way they
did . . . it is often safer to ask what effects they have achieved
by doing what they did" (44).
Allow me to underscore this suggestion; it will lead you to more productive
lines of thought in your understanding literature.
Birenbaum emphasizes the insights that literature induces,
or experiential knowledge. He stresses that such observations into the way
life works help us to better know ourselves, and vice versa that
better knowledge of ourselves
improves our sensitivies to the insights of literature.
I want to emphasize a slightly different point, however. While literature
does point us to what is human in human experience, we must be attuned to
what is different from us and to the reality that there are multiple experiences
of life that are equally
valid. In a collaborative classroom, we will work through the differences
among readers and see these as an important aspect of experiential knowledge.
NOTE: Make yourself familiar with his distinction between response
and reaction, because these are crucial
distinctions in literary studies. While response is an open reception
of the communication in literature, reaction is a rejection.
Try to become aware of your reactions: what makes
you close down to communication? What preferences or prejudices do you
bring to the reading experience? Knowing your own predisposition can
help you guard against hasty reactions and
move to a fuller appreciation of literature -- even if you still do not
Finally he addresses the question: who has the right to say what
literature means. Although literature can be purposely elusive, we
have the right to offer opinions and educated interpretations. To
shape the "educated imagination" is one of the objectiv
es of this class.