“One’s literary taste probably always begins in prejudice and instinctive allegiances.”
How does one move from obsessive reading and rereading of Edgar Rice Burroughs, to uncomprehendingly consuming the pornography of William Burroughs, to violently rejecting both in favor, at age sixteen, of a new but lasting devotion to Chekhov and Henry James, all in the span of less than four years? Hormones are part of the explanation. An evolving capacity for pleasure and a willingness to challenge one’s stubborn laziness and ignorance. In short, a general maturation, involuntary and otherwise. The evolution I describe is mine but some readers will recognize in it their own readerly rites of passage.
The excerpt quoted at the top is from a letter Anthony Hecht wrote on Aug. 21, 1992, to Alan Hollinghurst, then deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The subject is Tennyson but the name of almost any writer with whom we have a history might be substituted. My own dealings with Tennyson reflect Hecht’s in a funhouse mirror. “Like many others of my generation in America, I was initially put off by my sense of Tennyson as the `representative’ and `approved’ Victorian poet, whom the Queen herself admired—a fact that filled me with complete distrust.” After all, nothing is more dubious when it comes to books (and most everything else) than official approval. With an early interest in the Arthurian legends (now mercifully extinct), I discovered Idylls of the King. Then “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Break, Break, Break” and other anthology warhorses. Then, with the onset of a bad case of Modernism, I chucked Tennyson and others of his supposed ilk. Today, Tennyson is pure musical pleasure, ripe for out loud recitation, a maestro of sound in the same orchestra as Milton, Pope and Keats. Call it informed hedonism. How literary taste and tastes can evolve across a reading lifetime is nicely limned by Hecht:
“[Tennyson’s] poems, accordingly, seemed to me not quite human, and the music seemed full of Romantic virtuosity, a sort of extended work of Brahms conventionalized by Elgar. . .. It was Auden and Ransom who taught me respect for Hardy [for me, it was Larkin], and by that route I eventually made my way back to the Tennysonian domain. But it was not without a good deal of resistance.”
Hecht’s letter is useful in understanding how today’s judgments have a history and may be less than eternal. Only a thinking reader, one whom Nabokov called a “creative reader,” understands fashions in reading, the tyranny of critics and how some writers elude final understanding.
[The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013]