H Is for Hawk and the Future of Criticism

Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, already a bestselling and award-winning book in the UK, was released in the US last week, and promptly hit #5 on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s the kind of book that makes me hopeful about the future of literary criticism. Part memoir, part literary biography, H Is for Hawk weaves together Macdonald’s experience training a hawk and the story of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King. Macdonald adopted her hawk as a way of working through grief at her father’s death in 2007; White’s The Goshawk narrated his experience training his own goshawk in 1930s England.

Both Macdonald and White turned to goshawks as a way of turning away from human society—Macdonald looking for solitude to mourn her father, and White aiming to forget his gay identity and his sadistic impulses. It didn’t work, of course—it never does. The loner who turns to the wilderness to escape society but ultimately cannot escape himself or herself is one of the oldest stories in the book. But Macdonald is savvy enough to recognize that, and H Is for Hawk registers the impossibility of the human/nature split in intelligent, historically informed ways. Her English landscape is wild, but it has a human and more-than human history, as she captures in this passage:

Here I was, standing in Evelyn’s Travelling Sands. Most of the dunes are hidden by pines—the forest was planted here in the 1920s to give us timber for future wars—and the highwaymen long gone. But it still feels dangerous, half-buried, damaged. I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It’s not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness. It’s rich with the sense of an alternative countryside history; not just the grand, leisured dreams of landed estates, but a history of industry, forestry, disaster, commerce and work. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to find goshawks. They fit this strange Breckland landscape to perfection, because their history is just as human.

In both the UK and the US, the myth of unspoiled nature often erases the history of our places and animals. (I was reminded of this recently when I read Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, a fictionalized report of the Narváez expedition to Florida in 1528. How easy it is to forget that most of the places I have lived were once Indian settlements!) Macdonald explodes the myth of a history-less nature, but does so without diluting the strangeness of the nonhuman, especially in the form of the goshawk.

H Is for Hawk is equally insightful about the life and work of T.H. White. I’ve never been much interested in White, even though I study twentieth-century British literature. This book changed that. Macdonald takes a biographical approach to White’s hawk book. Sometimes her method is psychoanalytic; she says, for example, that The Goshawk stages an epic battle between man and hawk, human and nature, because White was trying to master his own deviant sexual desires:

Once again White was engaged in a battle to civilize the perversity and unruliness within himself. Only not he had put those things in the hawk, and he was trying to civilize them there. He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against. It was a terrible paradox. A proper tragedy.

Other times her approach to White is historical. Placing him in the context of late 1930s England, on the eve of World War II, Macdonald suggests that The Goshawk also represents a desire for a safer national past:

His fear of war meshed darkly with all his other fears. He’d long had nightmares of bombs and poison gas, of tunnels and flight and escape routes under the sea. The previous year he’d published Gone to Ground, a kind of mid-century Decameron in which foxhunters told each other stories as gas-bombs and incendiaries fell from the sky… Modernity was bunk, and danger, and politics, and posturing, and it was going to lead to the end of everything. He needed to run. Perhaps he could escape to the past. It would be safe there. He started reading a book on falconry by Captain Gilbert Blaine.

This is criticism trained in the university, versed in theory and historicism, but also committed to narrative. It is criticism framed not as argument, but as story.

And that is why it gives me hope. Library book budgets are falling, academic publishers are struggling, doomsayers are beginning to ask in public forums why academics even bother writing books and articles that will only be read by a tiny handful of people. These are real and legitimate concerns. But a book by an academic that devotes almost half its pages to a mostly-forgotten author just hit #5 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Perhaps criticism isn’t dying. University administrations and state legislatures will keep trying to defund the humanities and eliminate research positions in literature departments, and that’s something we need to fight. But criticism itself? I think it will find a way.

One of the subtexts of H Is for Hawk that only occasionally surfaces is Macdonald’s work as an academic historian in the contemporary university system. In the midst of her depression over her father’s death and her challenges in training her hawk, Mabel, Macdonald also worries about her future. Contingency stalks in the background of this book, visible in glimpses:

In two months, I think, my college job will end. In two months I will have no office, no college, no salary, no home. Everything will be different. But, I think, everything already is… In my three years as a Cambridge Fellow there’d been lectures and libraries and college meetings, supervisions, admissions interviews, late nights of paper-writing and essay-marking, and other things soaked in Cantabrigian glamour… Now, standing on a cricket pitch with a hawk on my hand, I knew I had always been falling as I moved past these things. I could reach out and touch them, pick them off their shelves and replace them, but they were not mine. Not really ever mine.

The itinerant life of the twenty-first-century academic is only one of the things that make Macdonald feel alienated. But it is there, an ever-present feeling of insolidity, a deep-seated part of the book.

One might expect that in a book about falconry, the bird’s-eye view would play an important role. But the dominant perspective in H Is for Hawk is a view from the ground, from the muck and the grass. Macdonald crashes through briar and wood with her eyes to the sky, following Mabel; her father gazed at airplanes as a child, rooted firmly on the ground. If the view from above is a view of mastery, one that separates viewer from earth, the view from the ground represents a kind of participant-observer ecology. “So I sat in the stubble,” Macdonald writes, “woozily glorying at the beauty of it all. The mist rising in the hollows. Flocks of golden plover pouring over in sheaves. The way the bluish new rapeseed leaves contrasted with the vertical straw of the stubble at my feet.”

The view from the ground is a way of rejecting the human/nature split, but I think it also makes a good metaphor for the type of criticism this book represents. In graduate school, in literature departments, we are trained to write with authority. We learn to develop mastery over our material, and to speak as if we are separate from and above it. That kind of writing, we’re told, can get you published; it can get you a job. But not everyone is satisfied with this form of criticism. Rita Felski, for example, suggests that the “hermeneutics of suspicion” currently in vogue in literary studies inflate the critic’s power by deflating the text itself: “The critic probes for meanings inaccessible to authors as well as ordinary readers, and exposes the text’s complicity in social conditions that it seeks to deny or disavow.” Criticism, in other words, is a matter of looking down on the text from above, of “knowing it far better than it can ever know itself.” Felski calls for a different approach to literature that explores, rather than renounces, the critic’s attachment to the text. “What would it mean,” she asks, “to forge a language of attachment as intellectually robust and refined as our rhetoric of detachment?”

H Is for Hawk, to me, embodies this kind of criticism. (So does Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, another memoir-cum-literary-criticism marketed to non-academic readers.) Macdonald’s reading of White is attached, affective, empathetic, but in no way naïve or untutored. It’s not the kind of writing that will get you tenure in a typical US English department (unless it is a creative nonfiction position). But it’s not like there are any of those jobs left anyway.

I don’t think we should let the neoliberal reform of the university happen without a fight. But transformation is happening, one way or another. Maybe, like seedlings, new and different forms of criticism are sprouting in the ruins of the old university.

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