Ear Training sounds less like the title of a collection of literary essays than of, say, a manual for aspiring musicians. “Blame it all on my mother,” writes William H. Pritchard ’53, wryly evoking childhood hours spent over the Steinway grand piano under the tutelage of his music-teacher mom. In time, he recounts, memorizing music led to memorizing poetry, fostering a “deep connection” between words and music and leading to a literary calling profoundly shaped by his hero Robert Frost’s adage: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.”

That adage underscores Pritchard’s interest in tone and voice, and informs his view of poems and novels not as compilations of ideas, but as compositions whose meaning, like that of music, is the experience they involve us in.

Pritchard, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, and a mainstay of the Amherst English department for over 60 years, taught his last class just four years ago, at the age of 87. Relentlessly active as a literary critic, he has produced numerous books on 20th-century British and American writers, along with hundreds of reviews and essays. Ear Training collects previously published pieces, mostly from the ’90s and the ’00s. In keeping with his central motif, Pritchard includes admiring commentaries on musicians from Toscanini to Sinatra.

The bulk of the collection is divided into “Novelists,” “Poets and Poetry,” “Critics, Criticism,” and “Epistolary.” Via sympathetic, deft judgments, Pritchard champions writers who have disappeared from syllabi and bookshelves, like Anthony Trollope (Pritchard confesses “addiction”), or those who never got their due, like British novelist Elizabeth Taylor (“she turns funny and appalling life into art”). In poet Philip Larkin, he finds “a voice that invites trust, though not all speakers in his poems are trustworthy.” James Merrill ’47’s poems “twist and turn in the motion of an imagination working something out.” Pritchard praises critic Edmund Wilson (“never less than shrewd”), and appreciatively deems the Evelyn Waugh revealed through his letters “an impossible person.” As evidence, he quotes with a chuckle Waugh’s account of a 1961 party at an English country house where a horse “bit an American pornographer who tried to give it vodka”—the “pornographer” being Norman Mailer.

Perhaps my favorite piece takes up the author’s surprising love of soap operas. It’s a love well known to generations of Pritchard’s students, and he recounts here the long-ago story of how, having published a letter in the newspaper lamenting the cancellation of Search for Tomorrow by a local affiliate, he was rewarded with a walk-on role in the show. Likening a soap’s “endless proliferation” to British novelist Anthony Powell’s 12-volume opus, A Dance to the Music of Time, Pritchard ruefully notes his own “encasement within the ivory tower” and thanks soaps for keeping him linguistically au courant. “I will now attempt to ‘be there’ for someone I love,” he vows, hilariously, “and in no circumstance will I ‘bail’ on that person, but rather ‘have his or her back’ at all times.”

An illustration of a man conducting while standing on a stack of books and sheet music swirling about him

The earliest essay is “The Hermeneutical Mafia or, After Strange Gods at Yale,” a 1976 broadside against literary theory, aimed at a group of formidable Yale literary critics. Scolding them for submerging literature in “a world of abstraction,” Pritchard reveals his abiding mistrust of any critical approach that exalts theories about literature over the experience of literature. Assessing the kinds of sentences that these critics deployed in their own writing, he finds them woefully obscure, impenetrable and self-inflated—“huffing and puffing,” he writes, “rather than demonstration.”

By “demonstration” Pritchard means “practical criticism”—the kind of probing questioning that he spent his long teaching career submitting to “the test of the classroom.” And in hoisting these Yale deconstructionists by the petard of their own turgid prose, he displays his belief that all good writing is a performance that captivates, and that our challenge in responding to that performance—whether student, teacher or critic—is to do likewise. Good writers are never boring was Pritchard’s implicit message to his own students. Why should you be? You had to answer style with style.

The book’s penultimate section contains notes fashioned during COVID and sent weekly, in lieu of Zoom, to students in his course on 18th-century British writers. Somewhere between lecture and letter, these notes invite students into their professor’s thoughts, including his hesitations: Pritchard at one point confesses that while “I may have been some help in reading Dryden and Pope,” with Jonathan Swift

I have my doubts, mainly because he’s such a strange character whose relation to his reader is almost never straight and who delights in destabilizing any stable procedures. He writes to Pope at one point that while Pope and his friends want to reform things, make the world better, he wants to “vex” it. Perfect word for his delight in unsettling things.

Such doubts have always been the lifeblood of Pritchard’s practice of literature. To vex, to unsettle, to destabilize: like the poem “that rides on its own melting,” in Frost’s indelible metaphor, a literary text under consideration in Pritchard’s class was never a fixed object whose interpretation the teacher would deliver, but rather one whose meaning was discovered in the very action of its being discussed. A writer’s kind of teacher, he has always valued a certain elusiveness in writing, the quicksilver way a poem or story lives most fully in the difficulty we have in pinning it down, and whose meaning is inseparable from the way in which it happens to us—with this word or phrase or figure of speech, and not some other one.

Ear Training closes with “Confessions of an Impertinent Reviewer,” chronicling Pritchard’s decades of writing about books for a range of journals. He winces to recall his ferocity as a younger critic, his readiness to demolish a poet or novelist. “Where did all this animus come from?” he muses, and quotes vehement letters from readers defending books he had skewered—some so inventively scathing, he notes approvingly, that “you end up admiring the wit of your assailant.”

Regarding the enduring appeal of writing about books, the essay, written in 2010, notes the example of critics who persisted into their 90s. “I should be so lucky,” Bill Pritchard wrote in conclusion back then. Fourteen years later, he is still at it. The luck is ours.

Cooper is a fiction writer, critic and former student of Bill Pritchard.

Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg Lara