Essays: Personal and Impersonal,
by Milton Hindus.
Black Sparrow Press, 1988
191 pp., paper, $10.00.

Milton Hindus’s Essays: Personal and Impersonal is not an encyclopaedic volume except for the climate of its thought, tolerantly revealing to Hindus and his reader each the extent of his own ignorance and temperament. As a partial autobiography, it has by design major gaps. The narrative is not formed so much by chronology as it is by aesthetic unity, by epiphanies of impression, in which learning seems to be followed by ignorance.

I’m generalizing, but Hindus’s argument throughout the volume suggests that reality is not a harmonious whole tending toward perfection; neither is reality highly complicated nor in need of detailed treatment to be understood precisely. It seems certain, in fact, that Hindus the author makes no boast that he, himself, is even at all times the substance of his own book; to do so would mean that he, himself, becomes the sole object of his own desire. Hindus’s volume is thus not the curious phenomenon of an affective memory, an imitative blend of either Montaigne or Rousseau.

The volume might, however, be labeled Proustian and Platonic simply because memory always converges with ideas; “The most important life,” Hindus remarks in his prefatory, “is that of the mind, and if this does not transpire through all the writer’s work, then indeed he has written in vain.” The contents of the pages that follow, “widely scattered . . . representative samplings,” by Hindus’s own account, reveal the writer’s habit of observation and introspection.

“The Tombstone,” a 1941 sketch opening the text proper and appearing in print for the first time, is significant more as a conclusion than as an introductory chapter; it has about it a rather nice Joycean sense of experience completed, an autobiographical past to which the scholar/artist has come to terms. The narrative direction thus seems reversed in extremis, a kind of last judgment at the beginning, reminding the reader that the tempered mood sustained throughout the book projects outward from an impressionistic, youthful dark night of the soul. “The Tombstone” is also the only chapter in which the narrator is urged to confess his guilt and remorse, attempting a kind of spiritual metamorphosis, allowing him to be something other than “a hard-hearted man of [his] own time.”

The following two personal chapters, “Portrait of an Uncle” and “Politics,” continue the autobiographical focus. In these two chapters, Hindus traces personal and intellectual influences. To be sure, the formation of a writer’s consciousness always remains mysterious, but Hindus’s cogent and touching analysis of his uncle, Maurice Hindus, has about it a sense of self-discovery as well as admiration for an uncle who was “blessed with the capacity to give to others more than they ever received from others themselves.” His influence was “never heavy-handed”; he never flattered and “tried to be objective.” The point of contention between the two was politics, specifically the uncle’s defiance of a Marxism that would produce a “well-planned, orderly, and idealistic society,” and the “immature mind” of young Milton Hindus, holding an obstinate belief that regardless of “infinite complications,” humankind could “understand the world and master it.” In time and season, the young Hindus turns against his socialist attachments, arguing that the “absence of scruples which [Marxists] decried in the bourgeois world were ten times as bad in their own case.”

Hindus’s literary criticisms, the impersonal essays, are optical devices, so to speak, whereby the reader necessarily follows the critical analysis but continues to read something of Hindus himself. The range of authors to which Hindus has attached himself suggests that he has attuned his own vision to the essence behind his author’s vision. Walt Whitman, Charles Reznikoff, Whittaker Chambers, Irving Babbitt, Marcel Proust, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Robert Frost are names and aesthetic problems upon whom and which Hindus exercises his discernments and judgments, discovering himself by discovering others.

His judgment of Whitman, to use an example here, tends to rest upon an objective ground his uncle Maurice would appreciate. Whitman is not, in Hindus’s mind, subject to the sort of analysis that would make him into a bizarre, digressive case. Judging the range of Whitman’s critical reception from 1855 to 1971, Hindus marks the influence of Whitman as an “exercise” of “fascination” upon poets over the span of years. Whitman was as hospitable to the generation of the early 1900s as he was to the generation of the 1960s. Few American poets have not made their pact with Whitman, who “belongs not only to history but to living literature as well.”

Hindus thus assumes something that literary history has amply borne out all along; he also makes his assumptions without exercising a polemic. Likewise his own sensibility is revealed when the reader understands that Hindus’s personal perspective toward Whitman, and all the authors comprising the impersonal portion of the text, is an authentic impression respecting the natural progress of his own thought. It is judicious, deeply mannered criticism, dictated by a solid, comprehensive intellect.

The writing, in fact, is at times conversational, direct, at ease, and unpretentious; still, it bears witness toa half century or so of one man’s existence and labor. We might, furthermore, put Hindus’s thought as he put Proust’s thought: “The more moral worth a person is possessed of, the more sensitive he is, the more intelligent and considerate, the less are his chances of inspiring the great love which we all need as an expiation.”

Hindus does exaggerate the pessimism a bit, and he is speaking of Proustian love. The conclusion we should reach, however, is that triumph in life is not inspiring that great love; it is, rather, the creation of stability with the aloofness of an imaginative essence, of finding one’s self at home with one’s own life—personal and impersonal.  

“The source of all the greatest events in life, like the sources of great rivers, says Proust, remain hidden from us and are sought in vain. We can trace them step by step, but one more step always remains possible after the latest discovery we have made. It is an inflexible law that, as one of the subdivisions of that vast ignorance of things which Socrates, Ecclesiastes, and the wisest men of all times and nations have recognized as the ultimate destiny of humanity, we must also remain ignorant of those whom we love best.”

—Milton Hindus, “The Pattern of Proustian Love,” in Essays: Personal and Impersonal.

Daniel James Sundahl was, at the time of writing, an associate professor of English at Hillsdale College, where he teaches critical theory and American literature.