Better Austen than Bronte on the Court

Elena Kagan

An interesting New York Times column by David Brooks has me doing some more thinking on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice.  Here is some of what he wrote:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

If you listen to people talk about Elena Kagan, it is striking how closely their descriptions hew to this personality type.

Brooks concludes:

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

So that we don’t give Brooks the only word on her (there seem to be a hundred different versions of Kagan floating around), here’s a nice counterview that showed up yesterday on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. A mother wrote, “She sounds like a nice Jewish girl.  Wants to make everyone happy.”

The reason I bring Brooks up is because his column made me think of a trend that a teacher observed back in the 1980’s. Her article spoke to the changing responses of generations of students to Pride and Prejudice and to the other novel I wrote about yesterday, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. She said that, in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, students far preferred Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen seemed too tame while Bronte spoke about desire so passionate that it could tear apart homes and survive even death. This seemed in tune with the youth movement, the sexual revolution, and feminism.

By the 1980’s, however, the teacher discovered that student preferences had switched to Pride and Prejudice. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that Catherine Earnshaw just needs to grow up.  Austen’s far more prudent heroine who gets both true love and money seemed more in accord with the Reagan era.

And, I can report, with the Bush era, the Clinton era, the Bush II era, and the Obama era. If reading preferences are any indicator of the character of college women, then the phenomenon that Brooks describes has been going on for a long time. My own experiences of teaching these two works over the past 30 years is that I find more enthusiasm for Austen than Bronte. To be sure, there are always a few students who thrill to the passions displayed in Wuthering Heights. But far more find Bronte a tad too melodramatic whereas Austen represents for them a perfect blend of prudence and romance.

So Kagan’s love of Pride and Prejudice may bear Brooks out. Only the characterization extends beyond women at elite schools to college-educated Americans generally.

Which leads me to believe that, since the 1960’s, we have become a less romantic and more prudent society—something I would have thought that a self-described “boring conservative” like David Brooks would like. Since Obama is going to appoint a progressive to the court (which it sounds like Kagan is), then wouldn’t he prefer a cautious progressive like Kagan to a, say, crusading civil libertarian like William O. Douglas? An Elizabeth Bennett rather than a Catherine Earnshaw?

In fact, when Obama tried to put a compelling life story onto the court–I’m thinking of Sonia Sotomayor–and when he talked of an empathetic woman (as opposed to an umpire who “calls balls and strikes,” to quote Chief Justice John Roberts), he got roasted. So much for poetry in the nominee.

I wonder if Brooks isn’t indulging in a little nostalgia for a romantic past when people didn’t have to guard their views quite so closely. The risk-takers he idealizes probably couldn’t get through today’s Senate gauntlet. So shouldn’t Brooks be complaining about the process rather than the people who do what is necessary to become Supreme Court justices?

Brooks’ nostalgia isn’t new, incidentally. Since I wrote about Citizen Kane last week, I’ll end with an example from that movie. Kane is a larger-than-life figure whereas the news organization making a newsreel about him is smaller than life. We only observe these people in a darkened room, and we never do see the face of the reporter who tries to uncover the meaning of rosebud.

In real life, Kane was based on the great yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst while the news organization was modeled on Henry Luce’s Time. One kind of journalism had personality—a fascist personality but at least Hearst was colorful—whereas the other strove for anonymity (for decades Time reporters didn’t even get bylines). Welles may have disagreed with everything Hearst stood for, but he loved his drama, which he felt was disappearing from American life.

If personality was draining from the social and political scene in 1941, then we must really be bloodless by now. On the other had, if I were on the Supreme Court and had to choose between having Elizabeth Bennett or Catherine Earnshaw as a colleague, there’s no doubt which one I’d choose. Our tasks are difficult enough without adding a moody drama queen into the mix. What’s wrong with a nice Jewish girl who likes Jane Austen and wants to make everyone happy?  And who’s also really, really smart?

Update: I was right about about Brooks preferring Kagan to other justices Obama might have chosen.  As he said later in his weekly conversation with liberal columnist Gail Collins,

My own view of Kagan is that she’ll probably be a very good justice, and is almost certainly the sort of open-minded pragmatist I would like to see on the court. What’s sad is that she has to repress the normal expression of opinion, which is the God-given right of every New Yorker, in order to get the job.

He and Collins agree on that point.  Speaking of Jane Austen, by the way, Collins may be our most Austenian of political columnists, someone who seems to live by the principles of Mr. Bennett: “’For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”–although she is more like Elizabeth than Mr. Bennett in that she doesn’t only laugh but cares as well.  And like Elizabeth, she is not afraid to be self-critical: she acknowledges in this conversation with Brooks that the Supreme Court nominating process started to get out of control when the Democrats “Borked” Robert Bork in the 1980’s.  (At the same time she admits that she’s glad Bork was not chosen.)  The result has been, she and Brooks agree, a whole string of “safe” justices and an alternatively vacuous and vicious Congressional approval process.

,

This entry was posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Emily) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete