52 Authors: Week 24 - Anne Pellowski

Liberalism Vs. Literature

It's frequently remarked by conservatives that present-day liberalism tends to politicize every aspect of life. Or should I say "aims" instead of "tends"? I'm not sure to what extent this movement is intentional, but it's certainly evident. Feminism has surely played a big role in it, starting with "The personal is political" and all that. The study of literature was an early target in this politicization, and it seems to have succeeded fairly well. I recall a professor of literature at the small college where I work bragging--I think the word is fair--that "We teach feminism, we just don't call it that." (I think it was in the student paper, and I think he was talking about Shakespeare, but I don't remember for sure.)

He was a male. A white male, of course. I'm always a puzzled and often disdainful of white men who have so internalized the left-wing and feminist attack on them that they seem willing to commit something close to cultural suicide. Around the same time that I read that professor's remark, I had a conversation with a young man of literary inclinations in which he acquiesced to the cultural judgment against his kind. He was a recruiter in the admissions office. Chatting with him one day, I learned that he had been pursing a graduate degree in literature, but had given it up for various good reasons--the dismal job market, and so forth. Then he paused, and added "Anyway, that's not a good place for a white male to be these days." And after another pause: "And that's ok." 

 I don't know what reaction I exhibited, but I distinctly remember what I felt: disgust. And what I thought: where's your manhood? Now that was an odd thing for me to think, because I'm distinctly lacking in machismo. But this is too unmanly--or, never mind gender, too deficient in elemental self-respect. To welcome to the study of literature, or anything else, those who have been unwelcome or excluded is a good thing. To snivel and abase oneself and cry "unclean! unworthy!" because of one's gender and ancestry is contemptible. Western culture--the "white male" heritage--is one of the finest achievements of the human race. To make its defects its whole is both stupid and dishonest. To be a product of it, and to participate willingly in the effort to destroy it, is, again, contemptible. 

Yesterday I came across a pathetic whimper from a young white male who wants to write but is so stricken with cultural self-hatred that he wonders whether he has the right to do so:

I am a white, male poet—a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals in and out of the writing community—but despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male. Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore...

You can read the whole thing here, though I wouldn't recommend it.

My first question about this was whether it was a joke or not. As far as I can tell it is not. My second question was whether his sad condition is more his own fault or the fault of the educational and social environment which produced him. I suspect that the world does not need his poems, but perhaps he really is a poet, in which case his spine will stiffen.

 The same day I came across that piece, I read about a high-school teacher who objects to being forced to teach Shakespeare:

I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.

And you can read that whole thing here, but the teacher is even worse than the poet: he's ashamed of being privileged, but she's proud of being a clod. It's almost worth reading to the end to see her cap it off by misusing a word in a way which suggests that she doesn't understand the conventional figure of which it's a part. I'll save you the trouble:

Let’s let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage reading and literature study.

I'd like to say that it surprises me to encounter this in an English teacher, but I'm not that naive.

So along comes Elizabeth Stoker Breunig of The New Republic to correct the teacher. But the cure is as bad as the disease. Or rather just a variant of the disease. Her justification for reading Shakespeare and other "old, dead white men" is that they are readily harnessed to the same political wagon the teacher is riding:

The past...should not be the sole province of those who would go back in time: It can also be a very powerful resource for those with progressive hopes for the future, supposing they do more than dismiss it out of hand.

The dreary title of the piece pretty much sums it up: "The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare".

You wonder if these people ever have any thoughts that don't involve politics. But in the case of Breunig, we know that she does. You may recognize her name. She appeared on the punditry scene a couple of years ago. Seemingly overnight, her writing appeared all over the place. She attracted a lot of enthusiastic attention in Catholic circles, especially in leftist Catholic circles: she is a young convert, obviously very bright, and very much on the left politically. That's okay; we certainly have plenty of Catholic voices on the right, and it's good to have the balance. And she does write about things other than politics sometimes, as you can see at her web site. But she seems gripped by the left-wing impulse to make politics everything, and everything political. Maybe she'll grow out of it.




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Recently, I have come across two very depressing articles--well lists really--having to do with children's books that we should not read to our kids. One of them was a lot of PC junk. I can't remember all of them but the one that sticks out in my mind is a Dr. Suess book in which he talks about "slanty-eyed" Chinese. Well, when you're a kid, isn't that the most wonderful thing about Chinese? And I mean WONDERful. And if it's bad to say that Chinese have eyes that are slanted, then are we saying that there is something bad about having eyes that are slanted? Isn't that some weird kind of prejudice? Bah.

The other list was by a dad who didn't like "Make Way for Ducklings" because it had too many words. There was a list of about 10 or 15 books, but most his reasons had to do with his inability to use his imagination.

I'm not sure exactly what this has to do with the post except that the work of the people you are talking about has obviously produced fruit in the current generation of parents. Maybe their kids will rebel.


Some time find a copy of the Childcraft book volume on fairy stories--one of the editions from the 1950s or 1960s, and read the introduction. It will make you CRINGE at the contempt the author shows for fairy stories and his belief that children like fairy stories because they haven't yet learned to distinguish between the real (trains and gross national product) and fantasy. Once they can ask the question "is it real," you can forgo the fairy tales and tell them stories about Franklin Roosevelt and some suburban kid who has a dog and gets into adventures on the playground.

Those are the people Lewis and Tolkien warned us against.

"Maybe their kids will rebel." One would hope. But I used to hope that the children of baby boomer liberals, sexual revolutionaries, etc. would rebel against them, and mostly they just got worse.

I guess y'all have heard about the students at various universities objecting to having to read various classics because they depict things that are upsetting in some way.

I taught Macbeth in Malawi. The students loved it. Admittedly, they weren't a very ethnically diverse lot (just Chewa and Tumbuka, with a couple of Ngoni).

This is the very reason I didn't pursue graduate studies in literature. The field was almost completely politicized, and my primary interest at the time was the convergence of literature and theology, both understood by me in a traditional/conservative way. I felt that not only would I be swimming upstream, but doing so in a polluted river. Just couldn't stomach it.

Mac has mentioned The New Criterion as a bit of a port in the storm here. Again, I'll mention The Sewanee Review. It's managed mostly to steer clear of all this rot, while continuing to engage with modern literature in an intelligent, thoughtful, and jargon-free way. Shouldn't be missed by anyone here, really. And subscribing to it is like casting a vote for sanity.

Robert, That must have been the 60s, but I'll try to look when I get home. The version I had in the 50s (and which I have now) was full of wonderful stories, poetry, crafts and beautiful color pictures. Our parents got us the new version of Childcraft in the mid-60s and it was terrible. They had cut the good stuff drastically and most of it that was B&W, and replaced it with articles about how stuff was manufactured. They replaced a lot of the drawings with photos that weren't very good.


About the students in universities--yes, I've seen that and it's very disheartening. It also fits in well with the idea that we're dealing with men with neither chests NOR heads--it's all gut. Why go to university at all? Oh right--to get a job--a heartless, soulless job like your heartless soulless education, so we can live heartless, soulles materialist lives--sort of lives.


Paul: "...they weren't a very ethnically diverse lot (just..."


Rob: "not only swimming upstream, but doing so in a polluted river" is a perfect description of so much of our cultural situation now.

Janet, the irony--well, one of the ironies--is that the people we're talking about are generally among those denouncing everyone else for materialism.

I see I put the second l in soulless and removed the second s.


Here is my full treatment of the Childcraft essay.

The edition we have is copyright 1954. the stories and poems are great; it is the introduction that stinks.

Wow. I never looked at the intro. I guess they followed through with their beliefs in the 60s.


Have any of you read Susan Cooper? She wrote a series of books, which I guess you would call "young adult" level, called The Dark is Rising. I read the first of the five and thought it was really good. The next four were different, and not as good, and the last one didn't seem very good at all. I considered re-reading them and writing about her for this series, but I'm not really interested enough. But I thought at the time (this was back in the 1980s) that she was a writer who was ruined by the '60s. The first book was published in 1965, the next one not till 1973, and the difference seemed marked to me. In place of a straightforward and pretty gripping narrative, there was a vague plot about very gnostic-occult sorts of spiritual forces banging around. I can't say much more than that, because I don't remember them clearly.

Well I want to say something positive here. I don't disagree with any of what you say. It's probably hard to take a course in English lit which is free of such garbage.

But I think the talent moved elsewhere. I think it moved into biography. If you want to read something which will help you understand a poet or novelist or playwright the best place to start, today, could be their biography.

Such biographies are perhaps largely (though not solely) written by people who are not professional professors. They are usually well written and they usually help one to understand the books which the authors wrote.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig hit the big time a couple of years ago when the Los Angeles Review of Books published a piece she wrote after the Boston Marathon bombings in which she compared the bomber to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

In a long piece she wrote this past March on Pope Francis in the New Republic, she makes it clear that she believes she is called to see and deal with everything through a political prism. Reflecting on her year spent at Cambridge studying theology, she wrote:

The study of theology demands painstaking work backward through a winding tangle of older thoughts. To do so meaningfully requires a guide, and John proved to be a particularly capable one. Faithful living for Catholics, such as myself, depends on engagement with the Church’s direction on life issues. This process is not merely an academic one, but deeply spiritual. I wanted to know, for example, what Augustine thought of private property because I feel called to the cause of the poor; John’s mentorship on the subject was for me more than an exercise in personal enrichment. He was building within me the love necessary to follow through on my spiritual calling.

My father read me The Dark is Rising series when I was a child (i guess it would be strange if he had read it to me after I had grown up). I think we started with the second book and then went back to the first. I don't remember the first book that well, but I think books 2 and 3 were very good. I definitely agree about the gnostic forces knocking around, but I think they were good stories. The last two I don't remember too well (except for there being a dog in the fourth book).

I think I reread them about 15 years ago, and I saw (which I had not noticed when I was a child) an anti-Christian element. They were good stories, but not something I would necessarily recommend to anyone I didn't think would be at least a little annoyed by them.

I read The Dark is Rising about 10 years ago, or maybe longer ago than that, and really liked it, but I never read any of the others. There wasn't any reason I didn't read them. I just never got around to it. I guess I'm glad I didn't.

There are other series that suffered greatly in the sequels. I was thinking about The Children of Green Knowe, which was great. The next one was good, but by the fourth if not the third, we were getting into political issues of the day. The first was written in 1954, the 5th in 1964 and the last in 1976. I didn't read the last couple, but I imagine they must be pretty bad.


I find the whole idea of political correctness in literature baffling. I can't imagine avoiding books (or movies or TV shows) that I disagree with. I guess as a conservative (since I was a teenager) I have gotten used to enjoying things I disagree with.

If a work of art moves me, I try to see what is true in it. I don't understand looking for what would offend me (maybe that would be too easy...)

A few years ago I was looking around in Barnes and Noble. I found a collection of stories by Kipling with an introduction by Niel Gaiman (that notorious right-winger). I read the introduction in the store. The gist was that his friends wanted to know how he could write an intro for stories by a racist, imperialist like Kipling and he was baffled by the thought that he would avoid authors he disagreed with. I thought it was a great introduction and I wish I had bought the book. Looking back, it makes me respect Gaiman (whose stories I like, even if he is wrong about a lot).

Now and then on conservative web sites you'll see discussions about music start up. It's always a little surprising to see how many staunch right-wingers like bands whose political, cultural, and religious views are completely unpalatable to them. Heck, I was admiring Slayer's guitar work a day or two ago.

I don't really (as I said) want to take the time, but it would be interesting to see if my view of the Susan Cooper books is the same now. What I distinctly remember is feeling that they never regained the narrative tautness and clarity of the first book. It was at least implicitly non/anti-Christian, but not in a didactic sort of way. The others seemed to get more and more nebulous, as the author had trouble incarnating the spiritual forces at work. At least that's how I remember it.

I really must read some Neil Gaiman.

"I think it moved into biography. If you want to read something which will help you understand a poet or novelist or playwright the best place to start, today, could be their biography."

You're probably right, Grumpy. There is also a minority strand of lit crit represented by guys like Austin Warren and George Panichas which never got sucked into that whole politicization thing.

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, this is well worth a read. A dual interview with Gaiman and Ishiguro.


That is a great, great interview, Rob.

It's long, and I've only gotten about 2/3 of the way through it, but it is packed full of good stuff. This from Ken Ishiguro really struck me in the light of some of the previous conversation.

What happens [in Educating Rita] is, when a working-class girl wants to “better herself”, she goes to college and studies literature. That’s what separates her from her class roots. She can’t relate to her family any more, but she seems to be equipped in some kind of way to move into the middle-class world.

How different this is from the ruination of literature that we've been talking about.


You wonder if these people ever have any thoughts that don't involve politics.

I think what's happened is that what we call 'liberal' politics is a form of social signaling favored by articulate people. There is a portside politics that is something different from that (see Irving Howe or Michael Walzer or Harold Pollack for examples), but among the sort of bourgeois who write things others occasionally read, that sort of portside politics is atypical. Someone like Howe or Pollack or a rank and file Democratic voter not much invested in civic life might appreciate a piece of literature or a piece of art for aesthetic reasons. For people whose thinking on public life is chewed up by efforts at self-aggrandizement and self-display, that's a tall order.

"...what we call 'liberal' politics is a form of social signaling favored by articulate people."

Yep. Although I would go a step further and say that it's in effect a religion, and the social signaling identifies adherents.

Marianne, I think I read that E.S. Breunig piece about Francis. "I want to help the poor, therefore I'm going to throw myself into left-wing politics" has always struck me as a very specious line of reasoning. Clearly her heart is in the right place, but what I've seen of her work hasn't struck me as particularly insightful.

I don't often read biographies, partly because I don't have enough time to read the writers themselves, and partly because I don't especially want to know the disappointing details about authors whose work I love. Also I had the impression for a while that it had become the sport of biographers to take down their subjects. But I read a biography of Wodehouse recently which was excellent on both the work and the man.

I don't often read biographies, but when I do I usually really enjoy them and I think the writing has been very good in the few I've read.

"Although I would go a step further and say that it's in effect a religion, and the social signaling identifies adherents."

Yes, that's probably true.

You know how I say that I always wondered if it was going to be Huxley or Orwell and now I see it's both? Well, some of you probably do. Anyway, I'm beginning to think it might be Bradbury as well.


Took me a minute to realize what you meant--we're going to live on Mars?!? But yeah, book-burning is sort of implicit in both Orwell and Huxley.

I'd never heard of the writer Marianne mentions, but I'm not sure I would necessarily (or naturally) take I feel called to the cause of the poor to imply that she believes she is called to see and deal with everything through a political prism.

I thought Susan Cooper was great when I was about 10 or 12, and took her to be writing imaginary stories with no claim to a basis in reality. Then, about 15 years ago, I read an essay or an interview that made plain that what she thought she was doing was making propaganda for some sort of new-age spirituality that she is personally deeply invested in. That made my blood run cold. Like having a conversation with someone you think is being whimsical, but then find out is deadly serious but deeply delusional.

I didn't know that, but figured something like it was the case. I guess the only question was the extent of the personal investment.

I agree about Breunig's statement. I didn't challenge Marianne's interpretation of it, though, because from what I've read Breunig does see and deal with everything through a political prism. Not literally *everything*, of course.

The Veldt, also. Think about it.

As my kids say, "Ugh."

I had forgotten about The Veldt.


It's not just book-burning either, although that's what I was thinking about. There's that robotic dog that they can feed your biological information into and he can track you anywhere.


"You know how I say that I always wondered if it was going to be Huxley or Orwell and now I see it's both? Well, some of you probably do. Anyway, I'm beginning to think it might be Bradbury as well."


Every now and then reading this blog I think I must not be a liberal! I like reading dead white men from English-speaking countries. Only recently have I added some dead white women from English-speaking countries into my personal space. Ha ha - not completely, but more likely than not. Let's keep Shakespeare and throw out the 21st century. I'm thinking that not a lot of folks running Catholic blogs are listening to Slayer, Mac. :)

No, not a lot, but I know one very traditionalist Catholic who does.

You're not one of those liberals.:-)

Thank you for this insightful post. A few years ago I resigned from a PhD literary criticism program I was in, when I was a third of the way through (I had all A's, just so you know) because the "aim" of the course was openly political. At first I thought that if I just got through the two required critical courses, I would be fine, but it became more and more evident that I 1) couldn't stomach the "lens" (cough) I would have to use in order to pass the candidacy exam and 2) with the exception of one professor who would retire the next semester, the same feminist/neo-Marxist approach would be required in all of my courses. (And all of these professors talk about how no one wants to major in literature anymore! Well- "duh"--it's not just about jobs--it's about the fact that they are bastardizing the literature and using it only to further their political agenda.) SO, I set aside a lifetime goal (I do have my master's, for what THAT'S worth now). Before I left though, I watched many of the other students set aside their own beliefs about literature, and in some cases, their religious beliefs, to fall in line with what they needed to do to pass. I understand, but. . . I feel sorry for those that those new grads went on to influence. Then again, since no one wants to major in literature anymore, it shouldn't be much of a problem...

Great blog, Cindy.


Thank you, Cindy. And your blog does look great. I'm going to have to wait till later to read the piece on Eliot, but that is a subject dear to my heart.

Read the Eliot piece. It's really good, very illuminating on that beautiful but obscure poem.

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