Book Review: Beauty, Delight, Wisdom: Blown Away by ‘The Critical Temper’

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.
October 20, 2021 Updated: October 20, 2021

Joy comes in many guises.

A proposal of marriage, a promotion at work after two years of putting in extra time and effort, the birth of a child: These can leave us walking on air with a smile as big as the crescent moon.

Even transitory delights—the gap-toothed grin of a 7-year-old, an unexpected gift from a spouse, a surprise birthday party—can flood our hearts with happiness.

And sometimes joy arrives in a small brown box delivered by the UPS man.

Recently, I was sitting on my front porch when the van pulled into the driveway. I walked across the yard to meet the young man in the brown uniform, took the package in hand, waved goodbye, saw the address, used a key to rip open the box, and found what I had anticipated: “The Critical Temper: Interventions From The New Criterion at 40.”

Bliss is a word I rarely associate with books, especially those I intend to review. But here in this collection of over 50 essays, edited by Roger Kimball of The New Criterion Magazine, bliss—great joy—is precisely what I found.

Let me explain.

Epoch Times Photo
Celebrating 40 years of The Critical Review.

Artistry

Included in this gathering of essayists for The New Criterion are writers I’ve enjoyed for years, including Bruce Bawer, Joseph Epstein, John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald, Harvey Mansfield, Myron Magnet, and Roger Kimball himself.

Here too are writers I’ve never read, men and women like Andrew Roberts, Charles Hill, Brooke Allen, and Alexander McCall Smith.

Each of these commentators offers pieces unfamiliar to me, and each article is superbly constructed. Reading them, I must confess, humbles me as a writer because of both their intimate knowledge of selected topics and their sculpted prose.

Take Andrew Stuttaford’s “A Schoolboy’s Guide to War.” In just seven pages, Stuttaford marches his readers through the sacrifices of England’s public school boys in World War I. We learn of their horrendous losses during that war’s butchery and of the devotion they felt toward the men they commanded.

As Stuttaford ends his essay:

“They died together. And they are buried together, too, not far from where they fell. As the founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission explained, ‘in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the officers will tell you that, if they are killed, they would wish to be among their men.’

“A century later, that’s where they still are.”

Criticism

Whatever the topic—opera, painting, the Constitution, Henry James—these essays share one commonality: “a ferocious allegiance to the truth of experience.” In his “Introduction: Hilton Kramer & the Critical Temper,” Roger Kimball pays tribute to Kramer, one of the founders of The New Criterion, and to his passion for criticism—not just in the arts, but in all areas of public life. “Criticism is a serious business,” Kimball writes, “because life is a serious business.”

And all the writers in “The Critical Temper” hold themselves to Kramer’s high standards of criticism, addressing issues of politics and culture with a refreshingly blunt candor. In “Part II, Reputations Reconsidered,” Bruce Bawer dissects the work of academic and literary critic Stephen Greenblatt. Anthony Daniels takes a close look at Ayn Rand, author of such novels as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” and concludes that “Rand fulfilled Stalin’s criterion for the ideal writer: she tried to be an engineer of souls.” Roger Kimball’s “Guilt Trip: Versailles, Avant-Garde & Kitsch” reassesses the commonly held view that onerous conditions imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles caused World War II.

These critics may sometimes appear harsh, but in truth they all play fair. In “Bernstein at 100: A Personal Look,” for example, Jay Nordlinger writes an appreciation of Leonard Bernstein and his music for the centennial year, 2018, of his birth. Here he delivers a balanced look at the man and his personal flaws along with an analysis of his compositions, his conducting, his skills as a pianist, and the musicians who influenced him. In just over 20 pages, Nordlinger provides a mini-biography of the man and a summing-up of his influence on the arts. Though Bernstein “dreaded being remembered as the man who wrote ‘West Side Story,’” Nordlinger regards that musical as a work of genius: “As long as there is anything like musical theater, there will be ‘West Side Story.’”

A Light Touch

Criticism may be a serious business, but it is also, as Kimball writes, “compatible with humor.” In “No Flash in the Pan,” for instance, John Steele Gordon celebrates George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books. Based on a character in the Victorian classic “Tom Brown’s School Days,” who is expelled from school for drunkenness, Harry Flashman finds new life in Frazer’s novels as a handsome soldier, a skilled horseman, and one of the most outlandish rogues in the history of literature. Having praised these books to the skies—a tribute with which I fully agree, having read most of these stories myself—Gordon ends his critique with these words:

“And one final note of caution: these wonderful books are best read either alone or in the bosom of the family. For if you read them in a public place such as a suburban commuter train or a doctor’s waiting room, you will, from time to time, burst out in helpless laughter and everyone will turn around and look at you.

“You have been warned.”

Note again the excellent writing, which runs throughout “The Critical Temper.”

A Personal Favorite

One essay in particular that delighted me was John Byron Kuhner’s “The Vatican’s Latinist,” which introduces readers to Reginald Foster, an American Midwesterner who became a priest and who spent 40 years at the Vatican translating encyclicals and other church documents into Latin.

Just as important was his influence as a teacher. Foster often taught students free of charge—he became famous for the summer institutes he offered without fee—and “the number of Foster’s students [ran] into the thousands.” Kuhner’s article drew my attention because long ago I wrote to Father Reggie Foster inquiring about his summer class, and he generously sent me back a packet of materials he used with students for that particular program.

At the end of “The Vatican’s Latinist,” Kuhner includes this observation by scholar Michael Fontaine: “It’s as if the whole Latin tradition—Classical, Medieval, Renaissance—came down to just one man.”

“He was like the funnel-point for all that culture. And he worked tirelessly to bring it to people—hundreds, thousands of people. And now it comes down to the rest of us to carry it on,” Kuhner says.

Agreed.

A Big Dipper

In some of the reviews I’ve written in the last 20 years, I’ve referred to “dipper books,” works that encourage dropping into the text wherever we wish rather than reading the book from cover to cover. Works of poetry, volumes of essays, collections of short biographies—all lend themselves to such dipping.

With its broad range of topics and diverse authors, “The Critical Temper” also qualifies as a dipper book, one of the best I’ve ever read. Here readers can travel where they will, reading an essay about “The Federalist” and then skipping ahead 150 pages to Robert Messenger and his thoughts on comedic novelist P.G. Wodehouse.

A Great Education

Moreover, though these articles are more erudite than the columns commonly found on so many online sites, the authors—and their editors—aim for clarity and ease of understanding. For example, I am ignorant of all things operatic. I’ve attended a few operas, listened to a few, but am overall dumb as dirt when it comes to the history and music of this art form.

In her 2018 piece “Operatic Precocity,” Heather Mac Donald made me wonder what I’ve missed all these years. Mac Donald dives into the life and music of a 12-year-old British girl, Alma Deutscher, a prodigy whose opera “Cinderella” won the applause of sold-out audiences wherever it played. From Mac Donald’s conversations with Deutscher, her description of technique, and her comparisons of “Cinderella” with other famous operas, I discovered more about opera in 20 minutes than I’ve learned in 10 years.

One exhilarating moment: Many other composers and critics contend that Deutscher needs to “discover the complexity of the modern world,” essentially meaning that she must stop looking to the great music of the past for her inspiration and become a modernist. Here is her response: “Well, let me tell you a huge secret. I already know that the world is complex, and can be very ugly, but I think that these people have just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

Though sitting at my desk, I actually applauded and shouted “Yes!” when I read Deutscher’s comment.

A Final Note

Reading “The Critical Temper” did rouse one regret in me: I should have subscribed years ago to “The New Criterion.”

That’s a mistake I intend to rectify.

The Critical Temper: Interventions From The New Criterion at 40’
Roger Kimball, editor
Encounter Books, 2021
Hardcover: 576 pages

 

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.