The Medieval Review 11.11.27

Cawsey, Kathy. Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011. Pp. xii, 185. $99.95. ISBN 978-1-4094-0478-1. . .

Reviewed by:

David Watt
University of Manitoba

The bookshelves pictured on the cover of Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences will likely seem familiar to students and scholars who spend much time reading Chaucer. Such readers may feel as though they are looking at their own shelves--or those of a teacher or colleague--when looking at the picture. The top shelf in the picture holds a number of the most widely disseminated and authoritative studies of Chaucer's works and guides to Chaucerian criticism. The bottom shelf holds a run of Studies in the Age of Chaucer alongside books on medieval lyric, narrative, and authorship. In the centre of the middle shelf, situated between a mischievous-looking gargoyle and two versions of the Riverside Chaucer, sits a stack of books by six seminal twentieth-century Chaucer critics: George Lyman Kittredge, C. S. Lewis, E. Talbot Donaldson, D. W. Robertson Jr., Carolyn Dinshaw, and Lee Patterson. The image on the cover of Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences subtly yet unequivocally encourages readers to draw on their own experience as they anticipate and reflect upon the structure and purpose of the book as a whole. Together, Cawsey's book and its cover invite readers take a closer look at some of the most familiar books on Chaucer as well as their place on the shelf.

Given Cawsey's focus on the importance of audience, it is appropriate that she begins by defining the audiences for whom she writes and the purpose she hopes her book will serve for each of them. She reveals that Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism was primarily written for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students trying to make sense of the "overwhelming mass" of Chaucer scholarship (ix). Cawsey's introduction and conclusion explains the significance of the books on the top and bottom shelves on the cover, and diligent students will undoubtedly benefit from her thorough yet concise account of related studies. The six central chapters help to explain the appearance of the books at the centre of the cover, and students will certainly appreciate Cawsey's accessible account of the six critics under her consideration. By helping students to understand these critics and their context, Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism will help them to engage knowledgeably in ongoing debates. At the very least, it will help them understand why their teachers' libraries look the way they do!

The book's subtitle, Reading Audiences, draws attention to the purpose Cawsey hopes her book will serve "for more mature scholars of Chaucer" and other scholars interested in "the concepts of audiences, readers, and criticism" (x). She hopes that her approach will encourage others to consider Chaucer's audiences as "a theoretical concept which a critic needs to define before the work of criticism begins, rather than as a self-evident category" (x). In order to accomplish this, Cawsey focuses on continuity and change in critical assumptions about Chaucer's audiences throughout the twentieth century. Drawing on Foucault's "author function," Cawsey introduces a concept she calls the "audience function." Her hypothesis is that "the assumptions--whether latent or explicit--that critics make about Chaucer's audience seem to dictate, to a large extent, their criticism" (4). Each chapter supports this hypothesis by drawing on evidence from the six critics under her consideration. Cawsey's book also demonstrates that "as definitions of 'audience' changed over time, so too did interpretations of Chaucer" (9). The success of Cawsey's book justifies her introduction of the "audience function" and indicates that this concept might fruitfully be applied elsewhere.

Cawsey's introduction of the "audience function" distinguishes Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences from other recent accounts of Chaucer criticism (many of which are cited in Cawsey's introduction and conclusion, so I will not enumerate them here). The "audience function" enables her to explain why Chaucer has been read in such varied ways throughout the past century rather than simply to summarize previous criticism. It also encourages Cawsey to read the criticism on its own terms, for her argument would not work nearly so well if she were constantly making ingenious (or disingenuous) claims about the twentieth-century critics under her consideration. Because she looks to the work of these critics as evidence of how their conception of audience influenced their criticism--rather than in order to justify a particular approach or to define the direction of future studies--her account of each critic's work is clear and well balanced. I will not summarize Cawsey's excellent chapters on the work of Kittredge, Lewis, Donaldson, Robertson, Dinshaw, and Patterson; my summaries would almost certainly be less helpful to new or more mature readers than the accounts themselves. I will therefore simply recommend them here and devote the remainder of this review to a more detailed exploration of Cawsey's analysis.

In order to analyze the way that critics' assumptions about audience have dictated the direction of twentieth-century criticism, Cawsey employs three abstract concepts as comparative categories: historicity, irony, and heterogeneity. The concept of historicity allows Cawsey to distinguish between critics who insist that Chaucer should be read as his medieval readers read him (Lewis, Robertson, Patterson) and critics who are willing to accept the validity of modern interpretations (Kittredge, Donaldson, Dinshaw). While these categories are helpful heuristically, it is important to keep in mind that they do not generate homogenous groups. The critics within the first group disagree profoundly about how medieval readers read; the critics in the latter group disagree profoundly about why modern interpretations merit consideration in their own right. The concept of irony allows Cawsey to distinguish between critics who believe Chaucer's audience is sympathetically "close" to the characters in the text and therefore read the text "straight" (Kittredge, Lewis) and those critics who believe Chaucer's audience is "distant" from the characters and therefore read the text ironically (Donaldson, Robertson, Dinshaw, and Patterson). Cawsey acknowledges that Kittredge and Lewis are capable of recognizing irony. She nonetheless insists there is a difference between the particular instances of irony that Kittredge and Lewis do indeed write about and the kind of structural irony that the other critics describe. These later critics' concept of structural irony relies on their assumption that the audience would be "alive to irony, mockery, and satire" (16) and, more generally, the possibility that the text means something other than that which it at first appears to mean. Finally, the concept of homogeneity allows Cawsey to distinguish between critics who perceive Chaucer's audience as homogeneous (Kittredge, Lewis, Donaldson, and Robertson) and critics who insist upon its heterogeneity (Dinshaw, Patterson).

The relationship between the six critics Cawsey considers and the three abstract concepts that she uses to conduct her analysis enables her to isolate one aspect of the "audience function" at a time. Organized chronologically, the chapters draw attention to two significant shifts in assumptions about audiences during the twentieth century. The first shift has to do with assumptions about whether Chaucer's audience read his texts "straight" or "ironically," and it took place roughly mid-century. The second shift had to do with assumptions about whether Chaucer's audience was homogeneous (and usually white, male, and upper-class) or heterogeneous, and it took place in the last two decades of the century. As Cawsey acknowledges, these two shifts reflect broader trends in English literary study throughout the century. Interestingly, the chronological organization of the chapters also reveals the extent to which questions of historicity have remained open. Cawsey's six chapters alternate between critics insistent on the validity of trans-historical (or in Dinshaw's case, cross-historical) readings and those insistent on the need to understand what Chaucer's medieval audience would have made of the text. By examining each critic's assumptions about historicity, irony, and heterogeneity, Cawsey situates the critics under her consideration historically, demonstrates the extent to which they adopted or rejected the assumptions about audiences held by their predecessors and contemporaries, and contextualizes the development of twentieth-century Chaucer studies within the broader discipline of English literary studies.

Cawsey's analysis enables her to explain the wide variation in approaches to Chaucer while also establishing plausible connections between critical approaches that have long been taken to be entirely at odds with one another. For example, Cawsey provocatively (and correctly, in my view) insists that for all of their antagonism, Donaldson and Robertson share fundamental assumptions about the importance of structural irony in their criticism. Moreover, they also share the view that Chaucer's audience was fairly homogenous. They disagree on what kind of practice Chaucer's audience would have employed when reading the text, and this disagreement is rooted in their fundamentally different assumptions about historicity. This way of understanding the relationship between Donaldson and Robertson will have implications for critics who have recently begun to re-assess their impact as well as for critics who believe that they each provide insight into the way that two twentieth-century readers responded to Chaucer's works in profoundly different ways.

Though she values the study of individual readers in the medieval period or the twentieth-century, Cawsey concludes her study by asserting, "What is needed now is a renewal of abstraction, without an attendant loss of the material and concrete" (160). She then claims there are two ways to undertake this task. First, she argues, "we need to develop a way of generalizing from 'reader' to 'audience' that does not lose the specificity and the uniqueness of the individual reader, or subsume him or her in grand theories that take precedence over concrete examples" (160). Cawsey's study implicitly provides a model for this way of addressing the need for abstraction through its focus on particular readers (the six critics under her consideration), its refusal to subsume these readers in a grand theory, and its articulation of the way that these readers might be understood to represent different facets of Chaucer's audience, both contemporary and historical. Cawsey's focus on individual critics as readers will be particularly welcome to contemporary scholars who assume that Chaucer's audiences are heterogeneous. Moreover, her conception of the "author function" also accommodates critics interested in the heterogeneity of Chaucer's medieval audience. It may even provide a framework for a theory of medieval audiences based on evidence about early readers drawn from particular manuscripts and early printed books. The second way that Cawsey believes we might renew abstraction is to use the evidence furnished by studies of individual readers and reading practices in order to engage with bigger questions: "how do audiences read literature? How does the communication process function? How do stories mean? How does language work? Why do we love stories? Why are stories and poems meaningful and powerful in a way that facts and data often are not?" (161). While Cawsey does not set out to answer these questions directly, the clarity and optimistic tone of her work will surely invite a new generation of scholars to take up these big questions with renewed vigor.

One of the most important questions that Cawsey implicitly raises through her selection of critics is this: what is the place of studies employing the more traditional methodologies associated with medieval studies (codicology, paleography, philology, textual criticism) in twentieth-century Chaucer criticism? The appearance of the Riverside Chaucer on the middle shelf on the book's cover reminds readers that these disciplines have underwritten critical studies of Chaucer insofar as they determine what Chaucer we read. Yet their place in the history of Chaucer criticism is rarely accorded a status commensurate with their importance. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism itself: Cawsey's own understanding of the importance of the more traditional aspects of the discipline is evident throughout her study, especially in her chapter on Lee Patterson and in her conclusion. Instead, I make this observation because it underlines Cawsey's recognition of the need for some level of abstraction. Scholars immersed in manuscript studies in have recently begun to recognize the need to situate their studies of particular readers or manuscripts in a broader historical and literary context, a recognition reflected in the twenty-first-century writing of Ralph Hanna, John Thompson, Stephen Kelley, Alex Gillespie, and Arthur Bahr. When a book on twenty-first-century Chaucer criticism comes to be written, it may well focus more on these traditional disciplines. I hope such a study will at least include a few more books about these methods on its cover--if it has a cover at all (this seems a good place to note that Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism is also available as an e- book). When such a book comes to be written, I hope the task will be undertaken by someone who possesses some measure of the clarity of purpose, critical insight, intellectual generosity, and sense of humour (see, for instance, footnote 56 on page 56) that Cawsey consistently exemplifies throughout this study of twentieth-century Chaucer criticism.