Elizabeth Kantor is author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. In it she chronicles both what is wrong with U.S. English departments and what you can do to both combat them and make up for their deficiencies in your personal library. Kantor recently took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about higher ed, remedial education under the Christmas tree, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: The cover of your book has a friendly professor calling it “Truly offensive — in the best sense of the word.” But if you truly wanted to offend, wouldn’t you have avoided Jane Austen and Flannery O’Connor and kept it all dead white males?
Elizabeth Kantor: Actually, the Jane Austen section is the part of the book that will really annoy the feminists. Because, contrary to what you may have heard, Jane Austen’s novels are not “subversive.” They’re funny. Jane Austen made fun of men (and of women, too). But it was human folly and vice, not “patriarchal oppression,” that made her mad. If Jane Austen were living today, we’d call her a conservative Christian. She was quite comfortable with traditional sex roles. The villains in her novels are not jealous, controlling patriarchs. They’re weaklings. The men who cause the real trouble in Austen novels are distant, uninvolved fathers; uxorious husbands who do selfish things to please their awful wives; and lovers who pay too much attention to girls they aren’t ready to marry. Jane Austen clearly thought a lot of men would be improved if they were more patriarchal than they actually are.
Lopez: What’s so special about Flannery O’Connor anyway? She ain’t Shakespeare.
Kantor: No, there’s only one of him. But Flannery O’Connor’s a great American writer. And a great one to start with, if you’re at all intimidated by the thought of plunging into good literature on your own. O’Connor’s works are strange, funny stories about eccentric characters living in the Bible Belt. But they’re also profound investigations into original sin and supernatural grace. Not, as you can imagine, the hot topics in our English departments at the moment.
Lopez: Speaking of: Who says women shouldn’t read Shakespeare? What would Maureen Dowd do if our alma mater Catholic University (all three of us went there) didn’t teach any Hamlet?
Kantor: I can’t even begin to imagine. Of course women should read Shakespeare. However great an injustice it was that mostly “dead white males” had the opportunities necessary to write great literature in the Renaissance, it doesn’t fix that injustice to teach not-so-great literature instead. Affirmative action in the curriculum is as counterproductive as affirmative action in admissions. I mean, what good does it do women and minorities to enroll in college in greater numbers than in past, if the curriculum they get once they’re there is drastically dumbed down from the curriculum that white men used to get, back when mostly white men went to college?
Lopez: Rewinding a bit to some core questions: How bad is English and American lit teaching really? If you read Beowolf in high school were you just really, really lucky?
Kantor: It’s pretty bad. Postmodernist “literary theory” got a foothold at places like Yale in the 1960s and ’70s and has now swept across the country and through every level of our educational system. When I was doing research for The Politically Incorrect Guide, I looked at the MLA job list, which is the first stop for anybody hoping to get a tenure-track job in English. There were numerous openings for experts in multiculturalism, but only a single listing mentioned that the job candidate should know anything about Shakespeare. And that one was for a job at Hardon-Simmons University in Texas, which also required a “philosophy of teaching in a Christian context.”
Lopez: Is it your contention that English professors are worse than professors in other disciplines?
Kantor: English is unique, I think, in a couple of depressing ways. First, in that English professors seem to prefer teaching almost anything but their own subject. Including even the jetsam of other disciplines — discredited cast-offs including Marxism, Freudian analysis, and I, Rigoberta Menchu. Not to mention the English professors teaching foreign films, detective novels, comic books, and pornography. Second, in that English departments are ground zero for the postmodernist attack on — well, on almost anything of value you might name, from truth and beauty to Western civilization to the idea that words mean things. Virtually every college student takes one or more English classes. That made good sense when those classes taught universally valuable lessons such as how to read Shakespeare and how to write a coherent sentence. But now those English classes mean that virtually every college student gets introduced to some variety of anti-Western, anti-rational ideology.
Lopez: Who’s to say what literature is really great? I mean that both because I’m being a jerk and as a practical administrative and policy matter.
Kantor: Whoever makes the most compelling case that a work of literature is great — on the basis of its emotional power, the beauty of its language, its truth to the human condition, its expression of the eternal verities, its ability to inspire noble deeds, or its capacity to purge the mind of terror and pity. Or some combination thereof. In other words, on the basis of any actual criteria of literary excellence. We absolutely can — despite the silly arguments you used to hear in English departments in the 1980s — establish that the works of Shakespeare are more worth teaching than The Boy Scout Handbook, or the phone directory.
“The canon” was never absolutely fixed in stone. It was more like a snapshot of where informed judgments about literature were at any given moment in time. Even Shakespeare’s valuation has fluctuated over the centuries, though his stock never crashed. T. S. Eliot deflated Milton’s reputation gave the metaphysical poets a huge boost. The problem we’ve got now is that what you might call the free market in literary judgments was essentially shut down by the proponents of “literary theory” who have wrecked our English departments. They attacked the canon with the argument that some people — mostly women and “people of color” — had been excluded, and that therefore the standards for inclusion must have been skewed to “privilege” some groups over others. But, as we know from the world’s experience with Marxist economics, insisting that nothing can be done until everyone is included on a 100-percent equal basis is a recipe for disaster. The first step back toward sanity on this question is to quit paying attention to arguments that authors should be picked by their status as victims.
Lopez: Only a Regnery book would manage to work an Anita Hill reference into Beowolf. How did you do it? And did they pay you enough?
Kantor: You know, my cousin (who’s not a conservative) asked me essentially the same question: Does Regnery pay you to include these political references at regular intervals, the way the authors of bodice-rippers are supposed to be paid by the sex scene? No, it comes naturally. Wouldn’t you immediately think of those activists who kept saying how important it was that everyone “get it” about sexual harassment, during the Clarence Thomas hearings — with apparent total disregard for the question of whether Thomas was actually guilty of sexual harassment — if you read an English professor’s describing a female character’s murders (of men who looked at her the wrong way) as her mimicking the objectifying, destructive male gaze? That’s why I call Modthryth “the Anita Hill of the Dark Ages.”
Lopez: Why am I not supposed to read The Allegory of Love? Why should I?
Kantor: The history of courtly love is very politically incorrect. The feminist conspiracy theory about human history is that women have always been at a disadvantage because of patriarchal oppression. Putting women on a pedestal is supposed to be an especially sneaky way that men maintain their privileged status. Or perhaps “the patriarchy,” working away behind the scenes, makes this happen all by itself. But if you read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, you can see that special courtesy towards women — which started out as a medieval literary fad, but by Chaucer’s day was trickling down into ordinary marriages — was transforming relations between the sexes in a way that was very liberating for women. (Unless, of course, you figure that Chaucer just told the story that way because he was doing his bit for the patriarchy.) There are reasons women have more freedom and dignity in the West than in, for example, Saudi Arabia. And it’s got little or nothing to do with 1970s feminism.
Lopez: Say something in postmodern English.
Kantor: I freely admit that I’m not fluent in the English professors’ wretched jargon. But I’ll give it a shot. How about: “As a cultural-studies professor, I interrogate Romantic texts to investigate the foregrounding of the problem of subjectivity in the nineteenth-century imaginary.” Rough translation: Because I’m a Marxist, I spend my time trying to show that Wordsworth’s poems about the imagination and the extraordinary powers of the human mind are the results of impersonal historical forces.
Lopez: You seriously suggest adult Americans should take time out of their busy lives to give themselves the lit educations they missed (even though they may still be paying off loans for that miseducation)?
Kantor: Well, somebody has to keep Western culture alive. Seriously, Shakespeare and Milton used to make educated Americans and citizens of the West. English professors who are into Marx and radical feminism aren’t succeeding in converting American college students to those dreary ideologies — at least not in large numbers. But they are, I’m very much afraid, successfully preventing the transmission of our literary heritage to the next generation. The Politically Incorrect Guide has lots of suggestions for making great literature a part of a busy adult life. Upgrade your bedtime reading: Trade in Tom Clancy for Tom Jones. Learn how to memorize a sonnet while you’re in the doctor’s waiting room, or with your toddler at the park. Throw a Shakespeare party — and find out which one of your friends is just a little bit more like Lady Macbeth than anyone else. And in case you do have time to thoroughly reeducate yourself (or want to teach your children), there are lists in the Guide that together make up a curriculum for a complete survey.
Lopez: Okay, okay. So let’s say I want my husband to get the best of American and British lit. Before he files the divorce papers because he’s so insulted that I think he’s uneducated, what would make a worthwhile Christmas-gift book collection?
Kantor: This is just what The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature is for. Let him read it and decide for himself that he needs a real literary education, and where to start. The Guide’s not condescending — the readings of the literature are for grown-ups. But it’s written to amuse as well as instruct. And I’ve done my best to hit all the basics: every period of the literature, and the essential techniques, such as “close reading.” There’s great literature for every taste, and something is bound to strike a chord with him — whether it’s the devastating satire of Dryden and Swift, T. S. Eliot’s painfully beautiful modern poetry, or Mark Twain’s quintessentially American stories. Give him the opportunity to find the literature that’s his own kind of thing. Once he gets started, he’ll want to branch out.
Lopez: What about a college student who, while I’m paying $40,000 a year, I need to make read real books she’s not reading in any of those classes she supposedly goes to. What do I give her? And how do I do it so there might be a shot she reads some of them, gets something out of them, and maybe even enjoys ‘em?
Kantor: Again, I think you have to start from where she is. If she likes chick lit, romance novels, or Jane Austen movies, get her started on Austen’s novels themselves. They’ve got everything of any value that you can get out of The Devil Wears Prada, but there’s so much more in Austen. Going from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Pride and Prejudice is like going from a potato chip-and-Twinkies diet to being fed by a five-star chef. If she spends all her time with an ipod in her ears, try her on some of the more musical poetry: Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Tennyson. If she’s a Lord of the Rings fan, give her Beowulf or The Battle of Maldon — after all, J. R. R. Tolkien spent his life studying Old English poetry, and it colored all his writing. But try something! Don’t trust her English professors — not if you want her to have a real education.