Analysis on William A. Henry III’s “In Defense of Elitism” Elitism” is a term that has always made me just a bit uneasy. I have never believed that I needed that label to verify my status as professor of English, as editor of one of the most respected of scholarly journals, or as literary critic. I chide those of my students who assume that reading Ulysses or even Finnegans Wake makes them part of an intellectual elite.
I do not believe that Joyce wrote his books for an elite, that he spent so many years and so much of his life’s blood—”gallic acid on iron ore, through the bowels of his misery, [he] wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body,” as he says of Shem the Penman—intending to be read only by those as knowledgeable and dedicated as he to his art.
No, it seems to me that Joyce’s intent was to create a new kind of reader—a general reader, like the reader of Dickens a generation or two earlier, but with new capabilities and interests—who would master and, in the process, enjoy his new demanding yet rewarding, funny yet humane forms of fiction; as I interpret it, this is an inherently anti-elitist activity. I also do not believe that being able to quote the Wake (or even to refer to it as such) makes me one of an elite. Conversely, I will not agree that such beliefs make me (or Joyce) an egalitarian, that other extreme which William A.
Henry III poses as the enemy of the elitist. “The great post-World War II American dialectic,” he writes, “has been between elitism and egalitarianism. ” Many of the interests which activate this book seem to me, however, to have little to do with either elitism or egalitarianism; or, to put it a bit differently, if these efforts to reconstitute a shrinking political and economic pot can be called egalitarian, their obverse—their enemy—is not made thereby a member of an elite. There are reasons to oppose and/or to propose many of these issues.
But the results of opposition, or of approval, will do little to offend, or defend, anything that I would call elitist: they are usually issues of another sort entirely. Proust’s Mme Verdurin attempts to rise in society on the strength of her snobbism and, during the Dreyfus Affair, as a vocal anti-Semite, and eventually she succeeds, becoming after the war the new Princesse de Guermantes. Does this make her a member of the elite? Marcel barely bothers to consider the question: it is so patently absurd.
It seems equally absurd that a “culture critic” for Time magazine—however well intentioned, intelligent and decent a man he may be, however old his name—should elect himself defender of the elite. That he does so—intimating in the process that he is naturally part of the elite that he would defend—suggests that this is a pliable elite indeed, open not only to academics or to artists or to specialists or even (another arguable term) to intellectuals: an egalitarian elite, if you will. Such an elite may merit a defense.
But it needs to be better reasoned, more consistent, better informed than this one, and perhaps a little less attuned to what seem the hot issues of the day. Is this an academic, closet elitist putting down a popular essayist on the strength of profession(s) alone? Perhaps. But it seems pretty evident to me that Henry confuses a variety of issues that need to be kept separate; that he often does not know the facts of a case and that he often misinterprets the facts that he knows; and that some of the conclusions which he reaches in the name of…