Denis Donoghue obituary

Literary critic who defended traditional values against campus radicals

Denis Donoghue, a formidable defender of traditional literary values, has died at the age of 92. From 1979, as Henry James chair of English and American letters at New York University, he largely shared his time between Dublin and New York. He remained devoted to his Irish identity, but became a notable combatant in the American cultural wars of the Ronald Reagan years.

His occasional essays were collected in We Irish (1986) and Reading America (1987), but he was not particularly interested in Irishness (or Americanness). Donoghue had no time for the idea that there were metaphysical essences of this sort that the critic was obliged to measure, rewarding passing grades for some, but not all. That kind of teacher’s report was remote from his learned and subtle analyses of how writers coped with the conditions that aided or stunted the task of writing.

He viewed with scorn labels that were too readily attached to cultural products. The cultural bureaucracies perhaps found them a useful dimension of their marketing strategies, but he argued that they made consumption of art too easy. In any event, Donoghue did not wish the public to become “consumers” of modern art, or to be reassured or comforted by the advanced literature they read. Pop art, minimal art, confessional poetry, action paintings: each label seemed designed to replace puzzlement and hostility before the new with a tolerant indifference – which was the least desired outcome of his pedagogy.

In his 1982 Reith lectures for BBC radio, The Arts Without Mystery, Donoghue set out to restore the element of mystery to the products of imagination. He was no friend of complacent reassurance, flatly rejecting the idea that there should be some kind of peace between the artist and society. In Adam’s Curse (2001) he made explicit his desire to restore the thunder to God, thus alluding to a book by John Crowe Ransom, God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (1930), which Donoghue praised as “a remarkable book which must be recovered”.

He had nothing but scorn for the practitioners of radicalism then running rampant throughout the humanities in American higher education. In this Donoghue shared the oft-expressed hostility towards campus radicals of George Steiner and Harold Bloom, if not quite their violent language. “If I am listening to a quartet by Bartók or reading Nostromo,” Donoghue wrote in The Practice of Reading in 1998, “I should not be using the occasion to plan my next move in the class struggle or the war of all against all.” He rejected the Frenchification of American intellectual life: “I detest the current ideology which refers, gloatingly, to the death of the author, the obsolescence of the self, the end of man, and so forth” (Ferocious Alphabets, 1981). Donoghue felt that that doctrine was disgraceful, and led to the death of critical intelligence.

Born in the Irish market town of Tullow, County Carlow, with its once-a-day bus service to Dublin, Denis was the son of another Denis and his wife, Johanna (nee O’Neill). He was raised in Warrenpoint, County Down, in Northern Ireland, where his father was stationed as a sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As a Catholic, he had no prospect of promotion. In a memoir, Warrenpoint (1990), and lectures he delivered at Notre Dame University in 2001, Denis Jr described their relationship: “I started out in awe of my father, went on to revere him, and ended by loving him in a style that never presumed on intimacy.”

Educated at the Christian Brothers’ school in Newry, he went on to study for a BA in Latin and English at University College Dublin, while at the same time enrolling in the Royal Irish Academy to study harmony and counterpoint. After taking his degree he secured a civil service post (1951-54), which he was pleased to leave. He went from assistant lecturer at UCD to professor of modern English and American literature there in 1965, having spent the previous year as a lecturer at Cambridge University.

Denis Donoghue accepting an award
Denis Donoghue receiving the American Academy of Arts and Sciences award for humanistic studies in 2013, with his daughter Emma Photograph: none

At 6ft 7in tall, with formidable energy and a serviceable literary style, Donogue was a charismatic tutor. Students noticed that he delivered his lectures without notes, and appreciated his spontaneity.

Donoghue might begin with a text – say, two lines from Yeats’ poem September 1913 – and he spoke eloquently, bringing the audience of graduate students with him as he traced the memory invoked by Yeats’ refrain: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave”. The dream of Romantic Ireland, that lost world of wholeness and coherence, was distinctively Yeatsian. Donoghue’s essay on Romantic Ireland is collected in We Irish.

What the golden past meant for Yeats and his generation of writers reverberates through Donoghue’s work. He connected Yeats’ plangent refrain to Ireland as it was in 1972: “For a small country, Ireland has had a lot of experience, many chances if fewer choices. The best writers in Ireland are those who remember most: I mean those who feel immediate experience not merely in itself but in relation to a long perspective, mythological and historical, pagan and Christian.”

Donoghue’s students at New York University, and the much larger audience he reached through the many pieces he published in the New York Times and in the New York Review of Books, were unlikely to regard “Romantic Ireland” with scholarly interest, or to be enlivened by sophisticated rereadings of dead masters such as Swift, Yeats and Joyce. There were academic battles, new critical doctrines in the air, generational struggles greatly agitating traditionalists, of whom Donoghue was one. But in the pages of New York’s premier cultural organs Donoghue seized his opportunity to say something to American readers.

By the 1970s, the rigours of the New Criticism, and the standing of its leading exponents, had begun to wane. In the New York Times in March 1987, Donoghue wrote: “When I was a student it was an article of doctrine that I should read poems and novels as if they were all written by Anon. I shouldn’t be deflected into biographical or historical matters.” Donoghue’s substantial essay-reviews of Kenneth Burke, Yvor Winters (both 1968), John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate (1969), and RP Blackmur (1981), were followed by a forceful and hostile set of pieces on Geoffrey Hartman (1980), Paul de Man (1980, 1989) and Terry Eagleton (1983), which, despite Donoghue’s gentlemanly politeness, took apart the leading exponents of the radical edge of the new turn in literary studies.

Donoghue referred to himself as a “latitudinarian”, but he knew what side he was on, and so did his readers. He set out a strong case for the rediscovery of Burke, Ransom, Blackmur and Tate – and the neglected tradition of American critical achievement.

As a prolific author, Donoghue shared his time between books that were assembled from essay-length chapters on verse drama with a strong emphasis on the plays of TS Eliot, and an assortment of other practitioners – The Third Voice: Modern British and American Verse Drama (1959); a study of 10 American poets in Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry (1966); and The Ordinary Universe: Soundings in Modern Literature (1968).

Considerably more attention was devoted decades later to sustained investigations of individual authors, with Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls (1995) and Words Alone: The Poet TS Eliot (2000). The status of Pater belongs to a different level of cultural presence: little read nowadays, and with good reason, as Donoghue demonstrates with clinical precision. But the concerns he pursued in his book on Pater were not marginal. He describes his study of Pater as “an irritated elegy for the contemporary death of aestheticism”.

Pater’s life, almost a blank canvas, offered a daunting challenge for a biographer, but through careful examination of the successive editions between 1873 and 1877 of Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Donoghue demonstrated the importance of Pater’s belief that art should mind its own business, without asserting moral designs upon his readers. All this seemed a desirable corrective in an age in which “a work of art is merely an illustration of a certain ideological formation”. At the conclusion of his book on Pater, Donoghue cited Eliot as a champion of aestheticism: “Eliot was right: if you read literature, it is as literature you must read it and not as another thing. Another thing: politics, religion, democracy, any ideology one cares to name.”

Eliot, on the other hand, is probably the most heavily analysed poet in the English pantheon. Donoghue’s book contains 13 chapters tracing Eliot’s emerging style, his language, beliefs and his evolving meanings. “To read Eliot is to ponder the uncertainty of words, and their certain force of presence in relation to other values: silence, form, pattern, speech … ” He had been reading and commentating on Eliot for nearly a half century, yet there still remained things to say, mysteries to elucidate.

Baptised into the Church of England in 1927, Eliot spent the following decades in lectures, radio broadcasts and essays in the search for a Christian society. Eliot found ways to defend “a fierce exclusiveness”. In Donoghue an interpreter and defender of the idea of a Christian society enters the fray. Having traced Pater’s determination to exclude writing that made moral claims upon his readers, the critique he found in Eliot was “religious dogmatic, and Christian”. Donoghue had reached an understanding of the enduring nature of Eliot’s achievement.

In 1951 he married Frances Rutledge, with whom he had eight children, David, Helen, Hugh, Celia, Mark, Barbara, Stella and Emma, the novelist. Frances died in 2018, and he married Melissa Malouf, who had been his partner for more than two decades. She and his children survive him.

Denis Martin Donoghue, literary critic, born 1 December 1928; died 6 April 2021


Eric Homberger

The GuardianTramp

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