Professor Wayne Booth

Leading exponent of the New Criticism and author of 'The Rhetoric of Fiction'
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The Independent Online

Wayne Booth was the most influential pupil of the Chicago School of the New Criticism, perhaps because he moved so far beyond its dogmatic boundaries. The New Criticism, with its attention to close reading of text, has made something of a comeback after the more extreme lunacies of the Deconstructionist movement that supplanted it. But although Booth borrowed many of its techniques - close readings, for one; the Chicago School's obsessive interest in genre for another - he rejected the New Criticism's treatment of text as an independent object, seeing it instead as the focal intermediary for the relationship between writer and reader.

Booth spent most of his professional life in the very secular environs of the University of Chicago, but he was born and raised in Utah, the descendant of Mormon pioneers. He lost his father when he was six and he suffered a crisis of faith during the Second World War, when many of his army friends were killed in combat, and the social conservativism of the Mormon Church appalled him. He was, moreover,

passionate about rationality and critical thinking, and I kept encountering in the church . . . the doctrine that you should not apply critical thought to church doctrine.

But he retained a lifelong interest in spirituality, and found much to admire in the close community ethos of Mormonism; overall, his attitude towards the church of his youth was one of lifelong ambivalence, what he called "Wobbling on the Fringe". Certainly it helped form his lifelong interest in ethics, which in turn influenced much of his later writing.

After graduating from Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, where an inspiring teacher of literature led him to switch majors from Chemistry to English, Booth moved to Chicago. There he took first an MA (1947) and then a PhD (1950) in English at the University of Chicago, where he studied under the major figures of the Chicago School, Ronald Crane and Richard McKeon, and also under Kenneth Burke, who published A Grammar of Rhetoric in 1950. Burke's influence on Booth was immense, for Burke viewed the study of rhetoric as integral to the study of literature, arguing, "Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and wherever there is 'meaning' there is persuasion."

Yet the theoretical preoccupations of Burke's writing make it largely inaccessible to all but other critical theorists, and it was Booth who brought the argument for the importance of rhetoric to a larger audience in The Rhetoric of Fiction. The book was published in 1961, shortly before Booth returned to the University of Chicago, after a decade spent teaching at the small liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Earlham. Its impact was immediate, attracting the attention of his peers and becoming a standard text for undergraduate students of English.

The Rhetoric of Fiction is essentially about narrative strategies - how novelists create the effects which, quite simply, make us enjoy their work. It is about the relationship - collusive, adversarial, suspicious, engaging - between writer and reader, with the work as the intermediary or buffer through which this relationship is built. In this emphasis, Booth moved well away from the core characteristic of the New Criticism, which treated texts as objects independent of writer or reader, and also argued that discussing an author's motives was to commit the "Intentionalist Fallacy", while discussing the impact of a work on readers was to commit the " Affectivist Fallacy".

The New Critics paid most attention to analysing verbal effects, as in Cleanth Brooks's preoccupation with verbal irony in A Well Wrought Urn (1947). Booth's focus, however, was more structural than linguistic. He stressed the importance of readers' perceptions of a novel's author, showing how, in works as famous as David Copperfield or Huckleberry Finn, we draw distinctions, often unconsciously, between the narrator (David or Huck) and the "implied author" (Dickens or Twain) in order to understand the story. An "unreliable narrator", moreover, such as Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, necessarily requires a sense of an author behind him for his story to make sense.

Booth's descriptions of rhetorical technique are almost exhaustive, especially in his account of the myriad possible "points of view" by which stories get told. The Jamesian acolyte Percy Lubbock, and indeed Henry James himself, each wrote seminally about the importance of point of view, but Booth went much further, showing not only what all the possibilities were, but drawing on his own voluminous reading to show examples of these techniques.

Whether despite or because of this extraordinary detail, The Rhetoric of Fiction has been one of the most influential works of literary criticism since the war, rivalling Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry (1938) and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) in popularity and influence. After it, Booth continued to write about the role of rhetoric in criticism, and his A Rhetoric of Irony (1974) was, though less popular than its predecessor because less wide-ranging, an equally detailed and authoritative study

A conscientious and popular teacher, Booth conducted a democratic sort of classroom, in which he emphasised "the importance of dialogue in which the teachers don't have total control and the students' ideas count". He had a long and happy marriage, though the family was struck by tragedy when Booth's son, Richard, an aspiring actor, was killed in 1969 in a roadside accident in Michigan when he was only 18. His son's death haunted Booth, and perhaps triggered an increased interest in larger social and moral issues, most notably in Now Don't Try to Reason With Me: essays and ironies for a credulous age (1970).

His interest in rhetoric's role expanded from literature to all modes of communication, and he wrote with equal facility about television, political speeches and classical music. Among the more interesting of his later books is For the Love of It: amateuring and its rivals (1999), a defence of the cult of the amateur, and an account of Booth's own cello-playing, which he only began at the age of 35.

More broadly, he became increasingly interested in the role rhetoric plays in the ethical conduct of everyday lives, and how, in the pluralist vat of modern-day America, seemingly irreconcilable views can learn to talk together. He was himself a notably calming influence while serving as Dean at Chicago during its extremely strife-torn 1960s.

Andrew Rosenheim