JULY 17, 2021
Marvin Mudrick, my touchstone for all things literary since I was 18, was born a hundred years ago, July 17, 1921, in Philadelphia. He was the smartest and funniest man I’ve ever known, and in his classes what I remember as continual were my eruptions of laughter and wonder. I was in at least twenty quarters of his classes as an undergraduate and graduate student — and worshipped him — which worship I tried to hide, because he hated that kind of reverence — reverence that maybe only his literary heroes deserved: “Almost anything at all that he says about a writer […] that is pure gold, that material, because this is an absolutely first-class mind, stored full of information and reading, which brings to bear all that information and all that reading on the text at hand.” That was one of his spontaneous classroom observations about Samuel Johnson, but if I could describe what Mr. Mudrick seemed to me, in his statements about literature, I would offer that very same observation.
Who was this amazing man?
His parents were from Kishinev (now Chișinău, Moldova), the site of a days-long pogrom in 1903 that inspired them and thousands of other Jews to leave the Russian Empire for a less dangerous America. He was the seventh and last child of a “very Orthodox” family and, he said, even as a child he was the family intellectual and gave up religion. He went to Temple University, then served in the Army in World War II. Returning to school he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, and his dissertation on Jane Austen was soon an influential book published by Princeton University Press. He married, and he and his wife Jeanne would have four children. In 1949 he took a job at the state college in Santa Barbara that shortly thereafter became UCSB, and he never left. In 1967 he created the College of Creative Studies from scratch; he was its provost until 1984.
He died 35 years ago, but there hasn’t been a week since when I haven’t given something I was reading a double-take and wondered, “What would Mr. Mudrick say about that?” A while back, I spent a few years writing a memoir about him, partly, I thought, to get him out of my head and more controllably onto paper. But he remains a presence that doesn’t diminish or contract, a reflex in my responses to literature and occasionally to minor matters like love and death. His literary opinions were so big and left such a deep impression that I still haven’t figured out where his opinions end and mine begin.
When I turned 57 a few years ago, I realized, Hold on, I’m his age, the age he was when I met him as a freshman and here I am still with my awestruck admiration (reverence)! I was and am “in thrall” is the right phrase, I think. I am not alone in my reverence, but there are also students and writers who didn’t like him, who resented his jokes and emphatic persuasive judgments. He found it hard to tiptoe. In his “Writing of Narrative Prose” course, he would read aloud our short stories anonymously and the class would discuss them — for seconds or minutes — we usually with caution, he with gusto. Sessions were thrilling; he kept reminding us, or our literary consciences, that it is possible to say what we actually mean:
You can write about your childhood and you can […] misrepresent it in various ways and then it’s uninteresting. Unfortunately we are likely to be most banal and most like everybody else when we misrepresent our experiences. Our lies are very uninteresting usually, because they’re like everybody else’s lies. We’re all trying to misrepresent ourselves to other people in the same way.
But I have new troubles with my new experiences: I’m approaching the age he was when he died. When am I going to do something? I fret. When am I going to become smart about books? I am what I am about books, but I am not and cannot ever be at his level, just as the guy at the end of the Lakers bench is never going to be where LeBron is and has been.
I understand too that ever since he died there has also been a nervous sense of freedom from his judgments and evaluations. I can’t know what he would’ve thought of Anne Carson, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Junot Diaz, my contemporary literary gods. I keep my head down and keep reading, sheepishly admitting to myself enthusiasms for writers I have doubts he would like.
I also suffer shame when my own writing squirms, wriggles away from frankness, or sputters with gush or claptrap. I still feel hopeful that he would’ve enjoyed some of my classroom narrative-essays or deemed readable some reviews and Dover Thrift Edition introductions I’ve written. Would he have liked my Anna Karenina book? (I think mostly yes, but I’m also sure it would’ve made him impatient, eager to get to my points before I did.) Or my memoir about him? Probably not. I can imagine myself sitting sideways to his desk in South Hall, watching him read it: he smiles occasionally as he leans back in his swivel chair, sighing now and again, “Sheesh,” while shaking his head, and suddenly (for some reason I now think of the conclusion of Kafka’s “The Judgment”: the glib son, condescending to his father, who is over the hill and, the son thinks, dotty, has only been lying low and, “radiant with insight” [in Ian Johnston’s translation], tells his son to drown himself in the river — this had to be one of Kafka’s guilt-dreams) Mr. Mudrick bursts out with an ultimate condemnation. Because, as always in my experience and imagination, he has seen right through me. … But he liked me, did in fact praise some of my writing, so what does that dreadful fantasy mean?
He had his little bit of fame as a critic and author of five books: which fame I thought (and still think) should have been bigger and perpetual. Austen, Mozart, Dr. Johnson, Tolstoy, Trollope, Boswell, Balanchine, Dickens, Lawrence, Lady Murasaki, Chaucer — those are just some of the people he liked, loved and exalted. “These are the greatest human beings who have ever lived […] they have literally brought something out of nothing. They have made human life more bearable.” In the same hour that he said that, six months before he died, he followed up: “when you think of the geniuses in the arts […] you should be extremely grateful to those people. And you shouldn’t allow yourself to make snide remarks about They were human too or They were stupid like me. No, they weren’t!”
He was unfortunately probably more famous as a critic for daring to mock the biggest mooiest sacred cow of all, Shakespeare, several pipsqueaks, and the world’s easiest targets, critics, Susan Sontag and Harold Bloom among them. I believe there ought to be a thousand-page Library of America volume: Mudrick: Essays and Reviews. The long bustling pieces, exactly one hundred of which he published in The Hudson Review, were essays in literary delight, outrages, and hilarity, in which he seemed to have done as much research and more serious thinking about the historical or biographical subjects than the authors, and they do what sometimes the biographies or studies themselves didn’t do: make that figure stand and sing in life. Oh, Voltaire! Oh, Trotsky! Oh, Hideyoshi! In Nobody Here but Us Chickens, his last book, he wonderfully and accurately described what he was doing:
I write about the people in this book from the angle (with the bias) of certain at least theoretical choices of my own: either over neither, both over either/or, live-and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low, energy over apathy, wit over dullness, jokes over homilies, good humor over jokes, good nature over bad, feeling over sentiment, truth over poetry, consciousness over explanations, tragedy over pathos, comedy over tragedy, entertainment over art, private over public, generosity over meanness, charity over murder, love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interest, people over principle.
He’s alive to me today as the professor and man I knew from 1978 to 1986. To me, his mind is still active, responsive: his words, lightning and thunderbolts! “There is something joyous about good art! That’s all there is to it. I mean it’s exciting and interesting and enlivening.” Music and literature, he said (and keeps saying) are “among the few experiences in life that can remain more or less pristine — and can even develop.”
I imagine him in 2021 poring through more books, absorbing and turning into verbal energy ever more various strands of history, every literary corner (mostly fiction, though maybe poetry has opened up to him again), and ever returning to and rereading Pride and Prejudice, Life of Johnson, Anna Karenina, Barchester Towers, Troilus and Criseyde, because “You don’t read for understanding, you read for excitement. Understanding is a product of excitement.”
All of the quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from Lance Kaplan’s Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks by Marvin Mudrick (1989), republished in 2018 with an introduction by James Raimes by Berkshire Publishing Group.