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Indispensable Encounters

A tribute to the catholicity of the New Criterion's Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball.

By 8.27.07

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This review appears in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

Counterpoints: Twenty-Five Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts
Edited by Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer
(Ivan R. Dee, 500 pages, $35)

FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES, beginning with the Edinburgh Review, serious, well-written periodicals have played a major part in the culture of the Anglo-Saxon world. Now there are very few of them. In Britain, since the extinction of Encounter, there are none, unless you count Prospect, which is a bit too attached to the European Union to qualify as a politically independent magazine.

In the United States, happily, there are still one or two which keep the tradition going, notably Commentary and the New Criterion. Each has its strengths and limitations. Both are indispensable. I would hate to have to choose between them. Commentary is stronger on religion and politics, the New Criterion on literature and the arts. Both are highly literary and lightly (but firmly) edited, and both do honor to their country. As an Englishman, I am envious and sad that we have no equivalents.

However, the New Criterion, as this compilation shows, goes some way to supplying the lack of a truly civilized and intelligent review on our side of the Atlantic, for many of its contributors are British, and the topics touched upon often involve English literature. In the anthology under review, of the 40 or so authors, Roger Scruton is a well-known English philosopher, jack-of-all controversies, and rider-to-hounds. Kenneth Minogue, the economist, though antipodean by birth, is very much part of the London intellectual scene. John Gross, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, is perhaps our out-standing man of letters. David Pryce-Jones is our leading expert on the Middle East. Anthony Daniels and Theodore Dalrymple are our two leading commentators on physical, mental, and indeed spiritual health, and Paul Dean, head of English at Oxford's famous Dragon School, is one of our top grammarians. That list in itself shows the breadth of the British reservoir of talent from which the New Criterion draws its authors.

British literary and arts subjects also command attention from minds ranged on both sides of the Atlantic. John Derbyshire, a columnist for National Review, has a well-judged essay on Aldous Huxley. Gertrude Himmelfarb has some wise and penetrating things to say about Lord Acton. There is a wonderful piece by James Penrose, the journal's regular music critic, on Donald Francis Tovey, author of the British classic, Essays in Musical Analysis, and Brooke Allen, author of that excellent book, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, contributes a delightful and (to me) nostalgic piece on that rascally but endearing novelist, Simon Raven. There are also good pieces on the Victorian sporting novelist Robert Surtees and the irascible Cambridge literary pundit, F.R. Leavis.

Naturally, the bulk of the material deals with American creators, personalities, and issues, none of them hackneyed, however, and some of them important but difficult subjects overlooked by the rest of the media. It's both natural and right for a journal of this kind to write about "The Legacy of Russell Kirk" and "The Hypocrisy of Noam Chomsky" -- and both are dealt with in authoritative and trenchant fashion. Far less obvious, however, is the essay on "Thomas Kuhn's Nationalism," contributed by the science writer James Franklin, or the reassessment of Edward Bellamy's utopia novel, Looking Backward, by that sharp-eyed literary critic, Martin Gardner. I enjoyed too Mark Steyn's appreciation of that accomplished man of the theater, George Abbott ("Missing Mister Abbott"), and the treatment of the "New York School Poets" by the Broadway critic John Simon.

THE SHEER RANGE AND VARIETY of the essays in this volume is, of course, a tribute to the catholicity of the editors, Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, who between them have a detailed knowledge and acute feelings about most of the glories of our culture, as well as strictly disciplined detestation of trends and individuals that disgrace it. They make an unusually well-matched team, and both make characteristic contributions to this volume. Kramer asks, "Does Abstract Art Have a Future?" and gives a gloomy but well-reasoned answer, and Kimball offers his thoughts on re-reading John Buchan, that ambitious Scots imperialist who combined high-minded statesmanship with the enviable ability to tell a rattling good adventure tale.

In general, and thanks certainly to the consistency with which Kramer and Kimball have conducted the journal, the New Criterion is notable for four qualities. The first is the belief that there are absolute standards, not just in literature and the arts, but in public conduct and philosophical treatment of fundamental issues. The review is suspicious of relativism in any form but especially of its moral manifestations. Secondly, the paper and its contributions avoid any commitment to ideology and party but have a general disposition or temperament inclined to recognize the merits of long-established cultural facts, and to subject all novelties to skeptical scrutiny. Genuine originality, provided it is combined with skill and experience, is always acceptable and applauded. But here fashion gets short shrift, and every kind of specious neologism and euphemious dodging is cracked down on hard.

A third and important propensity is an eagerness to rescue from oblivion writers, artists, and ideas that have fallen from favor but are still relevant to our needs, and enjoyable. This is a very important task which, so far as I know, is undertaken by no other periodical. It is one of the chief reasons why I always look forward with relish to opening a copy of the New Criterion.

Finally, there is the sheer quality of the writing. There is nothing formulaic about the journal, none of the emollient uniformity that made the New Yorker, even in its best days, so tiresome. One gets the impression that editing is minimal. The real control of quality is exercised by the selection of the writers, who are notable for their clarity of expression, their ability to organize their material, and their liveliness of idiom. They, like the journal that gives them the hospitality of its pages, form a wide but also intimate circle of civilized men and women who light wise candles in a world that often seems threatened by modernity's tenebrae.

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About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author most recently of Churchill (Viking). His books include Modern Times, Intellectuals, and A History of the American People