Playing It by Ear
Literary Essays and Reviews
This volume gathers together thirty-three essays and reviews by one of America's liveliest critics. William H. Pritchard's books on English and American writers and his critical biographies of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell are well known. But for the past thirty years he has also been steadily engaged in writing shorter pieces about poets, novelists, and critics, many of which have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Hudson Review, the New Republic, the American Scholar, and the Boston Sunday Globe. The subjects range from Frost to Sylvia Plath, from Anthony Trollope to Gore Vidal, from H. L. Mencken to Helen Vendler.
Ever willing to speak his mind about other writers' work, Pritchard has also produced less than admiring, even satirical treatments of, among others, the poetry of Stephen Spender and the excesses of Yale's "hermeneutical mafia." Also included in the book are amusing reflections of his adventures as a soap opera fan and on the art of writing hostile reviews.
Pritchard never forgets that it is a critic's job to engage and sustain the reader's attention and that they only way to do this is to write well. Readers of Playing It by Ear—the title illustrates the truth that criticism must listen to the voices of its subjects—will sometimes disagree with Pritchard's judgments, but will rarely be bored by the way he expresses them.
"A witty, stylish, and remorselessly knowing critic, William Pritchard belongs in the heady company of Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and Randall Jarrell. His taste may be catholic, but there is nothing reverential about his tone. Playing It by Ear is a splendid miscellany that shows off Pritchard at his best. It will, I suspect, startle many readers who have forgotten—or never discovered—what a literary essay can do."—Jay Parini