Collecting Criticism
Here are two books that put into high relief the best of what Amherst represents in the criticism of music and letters.

The late William H. Youngren ’53, for many years professor of English at Boston College, obtained a second doctorate, this one in music, from Brandeis. He wrote about music in The Atlantic and elsewhere, along with reviewing new recordings for Fanfare magazine. His classmate William H. Pritchard, Amherst’s Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, and an instrumentalist himself (he plays piano), has gathered some of Youngren’s criticism in a book, Of Music and Musicians.

There are illuminating and unexpected judgments on nearly every page, often stiffened by Youngren’s training in musicology: that Paul Whiteman was no deep-dyed villain or mere vulgarisateur, and certainly didn’t drive Bix Beiderbecke to drink himself to death; that “Strange Fruit” was the ruination of Billie Holiday; and that, after Louis Armstrong lapsed into a mere—mere!—entertainer, any one of his recordings can recall momentarily the glory of his best work.

Of Music and Musicians
Of Music and Musicians, by William H. Youngren ’53; Impress

Youngren’s range was enormous: Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, Monteverdi’s and Haydn’s operas, Alban Berg and Elliott Carter. Youngren “wrote long,” Pritchard notes, and the effect is both scrupulous and loving, as when Youngren shows that the recordings of dress rehearsals of Arturo Toscanini’s 1946 La traviata are better than the broadcast, or in his consideration (playfully titled “Serious George”) of the symphonic and operatic Gershwin.

There are cavils. Was it necessary to end the book with Youngren’s long and dolorous account of the end of his friendship with the great music critic B.H. Haggin? The latter certainly doesn’t come off well, but it is no way to end the book.

Writing to Live: Commentaries on Literature and Music
Writing to Live: Commentaries on Literature and Music, by William H. Pritchard ’53; Impress

THAT CAVIL, THEN, IS WITH THE compiler, Pritchard himself, who for his own part has just publishedWriting to Live, a collection of his own recent criticism— book reviews, mostly.

If this book were washed up on a cannibal island, the reviewer likes to think he would recognize its author as one of the most tolerant, skeptical, urbane, rigorous, humane and humorous critical voices around. But since it was in Pritchard’s classroom (full disclosure) that that same reviewer learned the standards of discrimination that go into the making of such a judgment, the fancy is circular.

Never mind. The book is a terrific guided tour of the territory covered by one of the great teachers and critics currently in business. Over the years, Pritchard has taught and written about Shakespeare; he’s been a lively and acute reviewer of contemporary fiction; he’s been a sharp observer of the current critical scene. All are represented here. The reader can also find reviews of the correspondence of the departed greats (Cather, Eliot), and of books on music, too (the piece on Duke Ellington is especially fine).

Two of the best pieces in the book are a talk (not a book review) on Robert Frost and a review of a recent biography of Ben Jonson. The first piece sets about making the case that Frost is the greatest of modern poets, and though Pritchard doesn’t quite close the sale for this reader, if there is a case to be made, Pritchard makes it.

The Jonson piece is especially valuable because it recalls Pritchard’s classroom procedure. When Pritchard teaches, the author in question is the focus of the composition; but arrayed in the negative space around that author are the critics (in this case Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot and the author of the biography under review, among others), who serve no other function than to render the poet’s diction and movement with even greater intensity, in this case the sometimes massive grace of Jonson’s occasional and lyrical verse.

Pritchard manages, movingly, to recall an emergent occasion when Jonson’s verse was absolutely the right thing, in retrospect the only thing, to say at a public function at this college. I won’t give away what or when it was; you’ll have to buy the book to learn. It’s the best argument for the permanence of the work of this wonderful poet—work that, to the casual eye, or ear, can sometimes seem rebarbative. And you’ll get all this other richness thrown in. What’s not to like? Theodore Iacobuzio ’76, an analyst in the financial services industry, writes from suburban New York.