Forty years ago today, in the privacy of a letter not made public for another thirty-four years, Anthony Hecht articulated what many of us had already known for years:
“. . . when a [Robert] Bly review turns up I normally read it since I can count upon a number of splendid imbecilities that keep me humming contentedly to myself for days on end.”
Many of us keep handy an annotated list of literary confidence men like Bly who perform a useful service by being reliably wrong. Think of them as the Bizarro World's Consumer Reports. If they like a book, there’s got to be something wrong with it. If they pan something, it must be gold. In his Feb. 16, 1978 letter to Harry Ford, Hecht congratulates Ford on writing a letter of protest to the New York Times regarding Bly’s review of W.S. Merwin’s Houses and Travellers. To be fair, Merwin isn’t much of a writer, and Hecht may be more motivated by loyalty to a friend than critical acuity. Still, when Bly intones, “What I like about Merwin’s work is the persistent energy, the willingness to set down the imperfect,” you know you’re in the presence of an accomplished bullshit artist. Hecht writes: “In his own odd way [Bly] was very nearly a reliable critic; which is to say, I could almost be certain of liking any book with which he found vigorous fault.” As an example, Hecht cites a gratuitous disparagement by Bly of C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy (a book I have not read by a writer who does not interest me), and writes:
“This is a book I had always been meaning to read, and Bly’s attack, converging upon my discovering the book, in paperback, remaindered at a sale, encouraged me to buy it, and I’m now reading it with all the pleasure of which I was virtually guaranteed by Captain Bly’s maledictions.”
For the record, I knew several guys in upstate New York who fell, briefly, for the Men’s Movement spawned by Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). Each was a lost but harmless soul. Soon they grew embarrassed by the drumming, chanting and running around half-naked in the woods. Each has grown up and become a contributing member of society.
[For the full letter see The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).]