Slate: Who are some of the critics who have been models for you over the years?
James: Well, there is a stack of them in the book—but some are not in the books. I always wanted the tone of Wolcott Gibbs. He wrote stuff for The New Yorker that is still my model today. He just had the touch. Some of Dwight MacDonald. There are a lot of Americans. Of the big guns, Aron and Camus. And Reich-Ranicki in Germany. In addition to everything else, he is a laugh-riot. Right at the top, at the pinnacle of the book, in my estimation, is a man who will probably never be heard of: Alfred Polgar. He was an old man when he left Germany; he was in his 60s, my age now; too late for him to learn English properly. But he was the ideal. He could write the essay as a poem. Without being poeticized, it was all alive, all perception, all appreciation. Even Thomas Mann thought Polgar was the supreme writer in German. One of the advantages of reading a few languages—and that's all I can do—is that it increases the range of appreciation. These people are with me all the time—it's a sort of an invisible community; the cafe is an invisible community. They are all sitting there, just they have no outlines. That was the terrible metaphor of the cafe in Vienna that was kept open after the war in case the Jews came back. And two did, but they wouldn't speak to each other.
Slate: You have written literary journalism now for 40 years. In "The Metropolitan Critic," you write, "We need to decide whether critical work which has plainly done so much to influence its time vanishes with its time or continues. To continue, it must have done something beyond maintaining standards or correcting taste … : it must have embodied … a permanent literary value." I don't want to put you in the position of potentially being immodest, but is that something you strove for in your work?
James: I have my conceit, as you may have noticed. But I'm ready to lose everything. This book is as good as I can do. I can't write better than Cultural Amnesia. But it might vanish. If I'm lucky, it will do its work and probably vanish, like most books of its time. I'm ready for that. I do hope that a few things might survive—there are a few things in my first book of memoirs. But I'm probably like you in that I want some of my poems to survive. You do feel when you work on a poem that this is here, this is what I'm here for. And it would be very rough if an angel leaned over your shoulder and said, Sorry, this one's not going to make it, either. You live in the belief. You're lucky if you contribute a line or two lines to the heritage. Montale was very good when he wrote about that, when he talked about the second life of art. The second life of art was the fragment of the opera you hum in the street. Or the line of poetry you remember. As for the bulk of my criticism, it will probably be read if at all by those who do the same work. I am probably the only person who reads the criticism of Desmond McCarthy. There are seven volumes of it, and I have them all. But I wouldn't consider trying to persuade a publisher to republish. There's a terrible pomposity that gets into some writers, who treat themselves as if they were public monuments. I like to think I'm without that. I've got my conceit.
Slate: One of the things Cultural Amnesia deals explicitly with is how much gets lost. Does it ever sadden you to contemplate?
James: Culture works mainly—not by wastage so much, as that death contributes to it. It's like a reef. A coral reef consists mainly of dead creatures. But they build the basis for the live creatures on top of them. This book was originally called The Gaps in the Reef. That was 10 years ago. The gaps in the reef are how you see how the reef is built. From that, I got the idea that cultural breakdown was the way to study culture. Culture is much more like a reef than anything else. Creatures live and then they die, and the new creatures live on top of them, so the reef continues. But you don't say that the creatures who lived and died were useless. They were constructive. That's as close as I can come to it. If I can get that onto two lines, I might even be able to get onto television.