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Literature of human dignity

‘If  false culture led us into this shambles, true culture can help extricate us from it,” Edward Short writes in his book Culture and Abortion. “And the grounds for that new culture must be humility, without which true respect for life is not possible.” Culture and Abortion, as he tells it, “is not only a criticism of abortion: it is a criticism of the false notions of culture that make abortion possible.” He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his book and literature that can nourish a culture of life.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why do you pair abortion and culture?

EDWARD SHORT: In Culture and Abortion, I set out to look at abortion from a cultural perspective. Accordingly, I revisit the work of the unjustly neglected poet Anne Ridler (1912–2001), much of whose work takes up the related themes of pregnancy and children, faith and family, love and infirmity. I ask what English literature would look like if the various past societies that produced it believed, as our own society believes, that killing children in the womb is not only morally permissible but a boon to women and society as a whole.

I chart the ways in which William Wilberforce’s work to end slavery in England in the 19th century can encourage pro-lifers today, who confront many of the same frustrations that Wilberforce and the abolitionists faced. I look at various works of fiction by Dickens and others — particularly Little Dorrit and Oliver Twist — to show how profoundly aware Dickens was of the dignity of children at their most vulnerable. I show how the southern writer Walker Percy took up the cudgels against the abortionists. I show how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose Hawthorne dedicated herself to Christ’s poor after she converted to Catholicism and became a Dominican nun, a vocation that has enormous pro-life implications.

I show how, with certain honorable exceptions, our historians have ignored or trivialized or politicized the scourge of abortion, a scourge that has killed over 55 million children in America alone since 1973. I show how John Paul II, in his great encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (1995), continues to provide the greatest analysis of the categorical evil of abortion. These are just a few of the themes I essay in Culture and Abortion. From these examples your readers will be able to see why I pair culture and abortion. The one has a huge impact on the other. If one has a dehumanizing culture, as we do, one in which creatures do not understand their relationship to the Creator, one in which creatures do not understand their own dignity as creatures or the moral obligations of that dignity, one will also have a culture that does not value the sacredness of life.


LOPEZ: What does Matthew Arnold have to do with abortion in America?

SHORT: In Culture and Anarchy (1869), the poet Matthew Arnold defined culture as a “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” This is the same culture of knowledge that animates our own society. Shot through with a Benthamite belief in the perfectibility of man, it has no appreciation for human imperfection. On the contrary, in its hubris and superficiality, its contempt for God and its defiance of human imperfection, it has led to a profound debasement of human identity, which, in turn, has led to a denial of the sacredness of life, a denial that has paved the way for the abattoirs of the abortion clinics. That is why Americans should pay attention to Matthew Arnold.


LOPEZ: How do we get to humility as a culture?

SHORT: We might begin to reform and renew our culture by pondering something that Pope John Paul II said in his great anatomy of abortion, Evangelium Vitae, which I use as one of my epigraphs. “Man’s life comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life; man cannot do with it as he wills.”


LOPEZ: How is it that “pro-life principles animate even the most morally dubious literature”?

SHORT: The best way that I can answer this is to quote from Culture and Abortion:

In looking to literature for an affirmation of pro-life principles one has to be careful. John Henry Newman was right to remind his readers that “One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same . . . . Man’s work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man . . .” And yet pro-life principles animate even the most morally dubious literature. After all, literature is only possible because poets, novelists, playwrights, biographers and historians recognize that life has intrinsic value, independent of any considerations of utility or expedience, and that as such it merits not only being looked at but being looked after — cared for, tended to, protected, affirmed.


LOPEZ: Should everyone who Marched for Life last month be reading Penelope Fitzgerald on the bus ride back home?

SHORT: Everyone, even those who fancy killing children in the womb a bright and noble thing, should be reading Penelope Fitzgerald.


LOPEZ: How did faith liberate Walker Percy, and what does that have to do with abortion and culture?

SHORT: I would not say that faith liberated Percy. Faith, after all, is a binding thing; we believe in order to be bound by God’s will, to conform our own will to God’s will, to understand the treachery of our own will. But faith did open Percy’s eyes to man’s desperate need for God’s merciful love, which liberated him as a novelist because it gave him a sense of artistic purpose. I am grateful to you for bringing this matter up, because it gives me a chance to hammer home how important guilt is in our understanding of abortion, a theme that Percy takes up with bold incisiveness in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome. We are living in a world full of people who are suffering enormous guilt — real, unavoidable guilt — for the part they played in the murder of their own or others’ unborn children. That is why I have put darling Lady Macbeth on the cover of my book. Like her, we are all traipsing about in sleepless guilt because of the children we have killed and continue to kill. The longer we contrive to keep the Father of Mercies out of our discussion of the sin of abortion, and I emphasize the dear old word sin for a purpose, the longer we will consign these poor people to unshriven guilt. Anne Lastman has lively, useful things to say about this in her brilliant book Redeeming Grief, which I heartily recommend to your discriminating readers.

LOPEZ: What’s the “sense of mystery that children nurture in all of us”?

SHORT: You are quoting from my chapter on Anne Ridler. To answer your question, I shall quote from Ridler herself, whose poetry about children and motherhood are wonderfully good. In one poem, for example, she shows how the wonder of children is their perennial gift: 

His smiles are all largesse,

Need ask no return,

Since give and take are meaningless

To one who gives by needing

And takes our love for granted

And grants a favor even by his greed.

The ballet of his twirling hands

His chirping and his loving sounds,

Perpetual expectation

Perpetual surprise —

This wonder is instructive of a far greater wonder. It prompts Ridler to consider how the lives of children recover our own lost life and herald the life to come.

. . . what can ever restore

To these sad and short-coming lives of ours

The lovely jocund creatures that we were

And did not know we were?

What can give us at once

The being and the sense?

Why, each within

Has kept his secret for some Resurrection:

The wonder that he was

And can be, which is his

Not by merit, only by grace.

It comes to light, as love is born with a child . . . 


LOPEZ: By your read, Oliver Twist is an anti-abortion tale? And all of English literature?

SHORT: Yes, those reading this should simply go to their bookshelves and take down Oliver Twist and read the first three pages of the book. There they will see for themselves how gloriously pro-life Charles Dickens is.

And, yes, all of English literature is pro-life. There is no one in any poem, novel, play, or any other piece of writing suggesting that killing children in the womb redounds to the dignity of women. I make this point in the book in a piece about Amanda Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter, which, as I show, is riddled with misrepresentation. Vickery is one of those now legion feminist historians who are avid to show that women in past societies somehow shared their contempt not only for men but for motherhood. In my chapter on Vickery’s book in Culture and Abortion, I show how the poetry that English women wrote in the 18th century — which the anthologist Roger Lonsdale has edited so superbly for Oxford University Press — demonstrates otherwise.


LOPEZ: Planned Parenthood would have none of Samuel Johnson?

SHORT: Here you are referring to a passage in my book where I make the point that if the abortionists were in the saddle in 18th-century England, poor Samuel Johnson would never have seen the light of day. Here is what I write:

It does not take much to imagine how ill-advised, imprudent and indeed irresponsible the pro-abortion mind would regard the birth of Samuel Johnson. His parents were both elderly — his father Michael was fifty two and his mother Sarah was forty. In these two unhappy people the advocates of ‘reproductive rights’ would probably see a wretched pair doomed to give birth to wretched children, and they would be right. Johnson’s parents were the prototypical Derby and Joan. His mother married beneath her and never left off regretting it. His father was a failed bookseller who found his querulous wife an intolerable penance. Johnson’s only brother Nathaniel, whom he described as a “lively, noisy man,” was a failed bookbinder who died young and miserable — possibly by his own hand. Johnson himself was a wretched child and an even more wretched adult. As he later recorded in a fragment of autobiography, “I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time.” Later, he would tell Boswell that his had been a “life radically wretched.” Nonetheless, at his birth, the male midwife George Hector looked down at the grotesque pock-marked child, held him up before the exhausted mother and cried: “Here is a brave boy.” Yet despite all of their shared sorrows, had anyone ever suggested to Sarah and Michael that they should abort their sickly, querulous, hideous child, they would have looked upon him with unutterable scorn as not only cowardly but wicked.


LOPEZ: How is it that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter “is destined to have a greater impact on American culture than all the sages of New England put together”?

SHORT: The cause for sainthood for Rose Hawthorne, Mother Alphonsa, was recently submitted to Rome, and when she becomes a saint and more of her great work is known — her continuing great work, because her work on behalf of the cancerous poor is kept alive by the immensely admirable Sisters of Hawthorne — she will indeed outshine all of the sages of New England put together.

LOPEZ: How did her father’s work inspire her?

SHORT: To find the answer to this, readers should go to my chapter on Rose Hawthorne. Rose Hawthorne’s own description of how her father inspired her is inimitably moving, and it would ruin the beauty of that inspiration — a beauty that should inspire us, as well — if I were to try to paraphrase it. Here I shall simply say that when Nathaniel Hawthorne was working in the customs house in Liverpool he had something of a revelation about unwanted children, about himself, and about the human need for love — real love, not the gruesome travesty of love that the progressives offer — and it was this revelation that inspired his daughter.  

 — Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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