Elizabeth Kantor has undertaken the monumental task of reviving the Western literary canon. Aiming her efforts primarily at young students, she describes her new book as “an introduction to what you should have learned in college.” The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature “will teach you what every well-educated, well-read, literate, and humane American should know about English and American literature but—through little fault of his own—probably doesn’t.” For Kantor, the editor of the Conservative Book Club, the real fault lies with “P.C. professors” in all levels of academia who believe there is no objective standard to judge what makes good literature, and as a result have replaced Shakespeare and Shelley with ideological drivel.
She summarizes the traditional canon chronologically, devoting a chapter to the major literary movements from Old English and medieval literature to the 20th-century avant-garde. Each chapter includes a list of books and poems “not to be missed” as well as historical and biographical sketches of the events and literary figures that shaped the movement and period—say, the influence of the Protestant Reformation on 16th-century literature. Both the chronological structure and the historical details provide an invaluable resource to any student seeking a comprehensive account of English literature’s development. Even if one is fortunate enough to be exposed to Shakespeare or 20th-century poetry as an undergraduate, the material is often conveyed in a historical vacuum or with reference only to a limited historical landscape. Kantor’s scope allows her to draw connections between Beowulf and Flannery O’Connor and to contrast the Victorians and the Romantics. In doing so, she conveys a coherent and towering body of knowledge and an ongoing conversation between the authors, poets, and playwrights she discusses, inspiring the reader (this reader, anyway) to devour that knowledge whole.
Especially memorable are her depictions of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, whom she describes as “no-holds-barred satirists” and “pitiless mockers of mediocrity.” She notes that all three were disabled and highlights how each treated his physical limitations in his work. Pope was crippled by a tubercular disease contracted in childhood known as Pott’s disease that severely curved his spine and stunted his growth at 4’6’’. Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets recounts Swift’s “fits of giddiness and deafness,” the asperity that condemned him to solitude, which, in turn, heightened his asperity, and the gradual decline of his mental powers. Johnson’s face was not only severely scarred from an infection in his lymph nodes but he was deaf in one ear and nearly blind—and later in life, suffered from bouts of depression which, according to his biographer James Boswell, “made existence misery.”
Kantor relates these details to better illuminate the literature with which she wants readers to become familiar. In Pope’s case, knowledge of his shrunken stature helps the reader understand his poem, “You Know Where You Did Despise,” a biting response to the barbs of a society lady:
You, tis true, have fine black eyes,
Taper legs, and tempting thighs,
Yet what more than all we prize
Is a thing of little size,
You know where.
Despite his rhetorical skill, Pope admitted, in a letter to Oliver Cromwell, to feeling “The Least thing like a Man in England.”
Kantor’s guide does an excellent job at setting great authors before the reader, but the book is not a quick fix. The final section offers some direction to teach readers the do-it-yourself tools of the trade—“close reading” and “structural analysis”—necessary to read literature profitably. And Kantor seconds Harold Bloom’s “first crux” with regard to poems: “whenever possible, memorize them.”
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The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature is a useful corrective to most professors’ bromides, and the book stands out as one of the best in this series of politically incorrect guides (those dealing with U.S. history and the Constitution are especially poor). But it still falters in a couple of key respects.
Kantor states at the outset that her book presents readers with what “your professors didn’t want you know.” The drumbeat continues throughout the book, with boxes offset on several pages highlighting “What They Don’t Want You to Learn from John Milton,” “What They Don’t Want You to Learn from the Romantic Poets,” and so on, “they” being the P.C. English professors. The tacit assumption is that the professors Kantor targets know the canon as she knows it and actively hide that knowledge from their students. The tone is needlessly inflammatory and conspiratorial (a hallmark of the politically incorrect guides). But postmodernists are more ignorant than malicious; they simply don’t believe in the canon’s importance and have devoted themselves to various approaches that Kantor rightfully considers less important than her own for college students with little exposure to literature. There is no reason to suppose that “the professors” don’t believe what they profess, down to the fact that Maya Angelou is a more significant figure than John Milton.
In her discussion of several authors, Kantor also cuts against her own criticism of ideologically-motivated professors when she imposes her own contemporary political constructs, arguing that the authors were conservative Republicans at heart. Her treatment of Jane Austen is the most egregious. Against attempts to mold Austen into a feminist heroine, Kantor argues that Austen “was a fan of ‘patriarchal conventions’” and believed that “if you’re a woman, ‘finding your voice’ probably isn’t going to improve your life.” For Kantor, Austen urges men to take responsibility for their families and women to look to them for guidance. The Lizzie Bennet who, in Pride and Prejudice, tries to convince her less-heroic sister to recognize and denounce scoundrels does not fit easily into this analytical scheme. “I beg your pardon,” Lizzie responds tartly to her sister’s handwringing, “one knows exactly what to think.”
Lizzie has a voice—but she strikes the right tone. And while it’s true that Mr. Bennet and Mansfield Park’s Sir Thomas abdicate their responsibilities as fathers to the detriment of their families, women have societal duties as well. In Emma, Austen stresses the social responsibility incumbent upon the upper classes—in this case, on Emma herself. Emma neglects her responsibilities to, among others, her acquaintance Miss Bates, whose habit of ceaseless yammering she mocks before a group of her peers. The discerning Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that others are “entirely guided by your treatment” of Miss Bates. “How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?” he asks. Emma’s witticisms would be allowable were Miss Bates her “equal in situation.” But “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more.” Thus Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” notes Austen’s ability to “Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society.” The effects of wealth and poverty on relationships are a consistent strand in her work—far more significant than her advocacy of the “patriarchy.”
Austen’s novels, says Kantor, depict marriage as the pinnacle of a woman’s happiness. She overlooks the importance the author places on the economic aspects of matrimony—as Auden put it, “The English spinster of the middle class / Describe[d] the amorous effects of brass.” It is noteworthy that the man Austen herself loved couldn’t afford to marry her and she rejected her only other suitor because she didn’t care for him. In Pride and Prejudice, strong-willed Lizzie rejects the foppish Mr. Collins’s offer of matrimony despite his charming claim that “Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications.” Lizzie’s best friend, the plain Charlotte Lucas, accepts Mr. Collins’s hand (knowing full well that “his attachment to her must be imaginary”) to free her from want: “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” Austen’s message has little to do with the patriarchy, but with the very real economic pressures that weighed on women and the tragically limited choices available to them in 19th-century England.
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It is undeniable that the traditional canon is withered and desiccated, overrun by the vociferous advocates of multicultural studies. The debates that raged in the mid- and late ’90s between traditionalists of various political stripes and feminists, Marxists, and post-modernists over the canon’s value (oppressive or otherwise) have died down and the status quo has been accepted, even by its conservative critics, because it could not be displaced.
Do Americans care? Not really. Universities are subject to the same laws of supply and demand as millions of other American institutions. They are some of our country’s most image-conscious places, carefully crafting their brochures and the composition of each year’s entering class to climb a place (or ten) on the U.S. News and World Report list because that’s what Americans care about: prestige and packaging.
If we cared more about the great books than about an institution’s relative prestige, colleges like St. John’s, Hillsdale, and Thomas Aquinas would boast selectivity rates comparable to Harvard and Yale, and schools with no core curricula like Brown and Amherst would soon respond to the demand. But by and large parents and students are brand-seekers and care little what’s behind the label, the assumption being that a brand-name carries one farther than knowledge. To a certain extent, that may be true. The ignorant kid with the Harvard degree is poised to enjoy many advantages that won’t be offered to the enterprising and award-winning peer from an obscure college. Or so the conventional wisdom holds.
Until we find a way of equalizing the playing field for graduates of various institutions or begin to value knowledge over the glitz and glamour of elite institutions—in our heart of hearts—the status quo will not change.
Elizabeth Kantor’s greatest gift is to remind the reader why studying literature is intrinsically important. It has the potential to improve the minds and the morals of men, she argues. And when one comes to know the literature itself it is hard not to be moved by and aspire toward the sisterly love depicted in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (“You wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of any body. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it”); the romantic love of Eliot’s Middlemarch (“That simplicity of hers, holding up an ideal of others in her believing conception of them, was one of the great powers of her womanhood. And from the first it had acted strongly on Will Ladislaw. He felt that in her mind he had found his highest estimate”); and the patriotism and self-sacrifice of Shakespeare’s Henry V (“He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, / Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, / And rouse him at the name of Crispian”). This is the case for reading great literature. If you were subjected to too many gender studies courses at a top-tier university, pick up The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature and start reading.