Cruz as Beowulf? Try Grendel

Chris Smith, "Grendel"

Chris Kalb, “Grendel”


Normally I would be delighted with a New York Times article that matched up presidential candidates with works of literature, such as Ted Cruz with Beowulf, Hillary Clinton with Persuasion, and Bernie Sanders with Around the World in 80 Days. This piece, however, strikes me as so uninformative that it’s all but useless.

I’ve tried to salvage it, however, by imagining other connections between the candidates and the works they are paired with. Think of it as a parlor game.

First to the article, which is entitled Ted Cruz as Beowulf: Match Candidates with the Books They Sound Like. The piece gives us a Cartesian plane, with the x axis as negative-positive and the y axis as complex-simple. To carry out his “study,” Josh Katz employed

the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook, or SMOG for short, developed by the psychologist G. Harry McLaughlin in the 1960s, and measured each candidate’s language in this year’s presidential debates. The formula is based on the number of words of three syllables or more you use per sentence. This means you’ll tend to get a higher score if your sentences run longer, or for if you use a lot of very big words.

The books used, meanwhile, were ones commonly downloaded from Project Gutenberg, as well as “selections from our personal libraries.”

As it turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders define the extremes:

Mr. Trump stands out as the simplest speaker by far and also one of the more positive. Though he is highly critical of his opponents and often rails against how terrible the world is today, he spends more time talking about how great America will be under a Trump administration. In the opposite corner of the matrix is Bernie Sanders, who prefers both complex language and dire descriptions.

Katz claims that the analysis is “based on a widely used academic approach,” and while I have never encountered it before, I admit that I am not well versed in linguistics. How the candidates line up on the graph seems at least plausible.

I can’t say the same about the books, however. The extremes in this case are Beowulf and Don Quixote (most complex), Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn (most simple), Les Miserables, Ulysses, and The Importance of Being Earnest (most negative) and Dante’s Paradiso (most positive)with everything else somewhere in between.

I’ll buy Paradiso as most positive. But under what measure could Pride and Prejudice be judged more negative than Mansfield Park? How is a lark like Around the World in 80 Days more negative than Huckleberry Finn? And while I agree that Beowulf is a complex work, I wouldn’t say it is more complex than the supposedly simple Huckleberry Finn, even if it does feature more three-syllable words and longer sentences than are uttered by Twain’s 13-year-old narrator. Nor does it achieve the high level of irony of the seemingly simple Dubliners. I could go on and on.

But okay, let’s at least have some fun with this. Unfortunately I’ve had to leave out Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich because the article didn’t find literary equivalents for them.

Ted Cruz and Beowulf: I’ll go with this one but not because Cruz’s debate rhetoric “has a complexity similar to Beowulf.” Rather, I see Cruz as the living embodiment of Grendel, the resentment-crazed troll who rampages through the halls of government, savoring the ripped bodies of his enemies. My book How Beowulf Can Save America:An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage focuses on Cruz-type anger.

Hillary Clinton and Persuasion: Clinton is hardly the unassuming Anne Elliot, but like Anne she hitched her star to an unpredictable mate that has taken her into rough waters: “His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine.”

Bernie Sanders and Around the World in 80 Days: Sanders is no well-mannered and aristocratic Phileas Fogg, so let’s say that he’s Passepartout, hair flying as he embarks on a wild adventure.

Mike Huckabee and Mansfield Park: The mind reels but, since I’m obligated to answer, maybe we can see him as the honey-tongued seducer Henry Crawford. Only Crawford is a smooth aristocratic seducer whereas Huckabee comes across as a hick snake-oil salesman.

Donald Trump and Huckleberry Finn: No doubt about this one. I’ve already compared him to the Duke and the Dauphin. 

Chris Christie and Tess of the d’Urbervilles: In the past I’ve compared Paul Ryan to Angel Claire. I guess that leaves the crude but entitled Alex D’Urberville for Christie.

Marco Rubio and Journey to the Center of the Earth: We know how Rubio would like this comparison to work out—while remaining low profile (underground) for the first part of the campaign, he then comes erupting out volcanically in a climactic finish. (I’m predicting that Rubio will be the Republican nominee.)

Rand Paul and Oliver Twist: Mr. Bumble, of course. Handing out too much thin gruel to the poor is an affront to his libertarian principles.

Carla Fiorina and Tale of Two Cities: Let them eat cake.

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  • 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.

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