Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, February 28, 2008

P.C. readings of the classics

A deplorable trend in academia has filtered down into the population at large—namely, reading classic literary fiction through the lens of contemporary political correctness. I recently received an email from an acquaintance who had taken a Jane Austen tour. It was startling to read her reflections. She focused almost entirely on what she thought were the lamentable restrictions in 19th century women's lives in general and Austen's in particular. She made no comment upon Austen's literary output, but stated that she had visited her home and "felt compassion" for her constricted existence. I thought about my visit, a few years ago, to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst where she famously led the life of a recluse and died of kidney disease in the second-floor room which in her latter years she rarely left. Compassion was not my primary feeling. Emily Dickinson was a colossus.

I remember the late famous (and controversial) Columbia University professor Edward Said writing an article, and then rehashing the same material later in a lecture, concerning the implications of slave-owning in the deep (very deep) background of Austen's Mansfield Park. Yes, yes, of course there was a good deal of money to be made by English owners of sugar-cane plantations in the West Indies. Yes, absolutely, this was cruel and inhumane. But that is a subject for major discussion for a class in history or the social sciences, not a class in literature. One reads Jane Austen for her psychologically penetrating portraits, her witty and wise commentary on human foibles, her exquisite mastery of language and dialogue, her charm and subtlety, her insights into human relationships, and a host of other things, none of them having to do with economic injustice.

It has often been noted that Austen never alludes to the Napoleonic wars, which defined her era. Is this a defect? Should every novel written during the Iraq war address the subject of the Iraq war? If we want to learn about the Napoleonic wars, we can tackle War and Peace, but we will find ourselves carried away by the Tolstoyan magnitude—a theory of history, yes, but conveyed through the saga of unforgettable characters and their inner lives. Or one could try the first part of The Charterhouse of Parma—the unforgettable misadventures of a would-be soldier who wanders onto the battlefield at Waterloo and finds himself caught up in utter chaos and disorder, with no one able to find his unit or even any reliable news about who is winning. But for Stendahl, one of the great novelists, the setting in the Napoleonic era is only incidental to his major universal themes.

If we want a detailed commentary on American culture in a novel, we can read Updike's Rabbit series. But much of the greatest literature makes no comment on such issues at all. It is generally agreed that the one time Eudora Welty attempted to deal head-on with the race question in Mississippi was a well-meant failure, compared to her other work. Flannery O'Connor flatly refused to comment on racial issues except insofar as she mined them for her great theme—the workings of invading grace. As for her truncated options and her terminal illness, Flannery would have been utterly disgusted at being the object of anyone's "compassion." She left us a stunning body of work.

I cannot share my correspondent's "compassion" for Jane Austen. Endless admiration is more like it. Are we to feel compassion for the Brontës, or Emily Dickinson, or Flannery for that matter? All of them led exceedingly limited and constricted lives from our modern point of view (and died too young by our standards), but Emily's biographer Richard Sewell wrote that she had perhaps the richest inner life ever lived on this continent. How about the author of the staggering masterpiece Wuthering Heights; should Emily Brontë on her dismal moor be the object of our compassion, or our dumbstruck awe?