My “Last Lecture”

Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye Mr Chips”


On Friday my English colleagues staged a retirement ceremony for me that drew many students and former students, as well as other friends, faculty, staff, and (this was a complete surprise) my two sons and my grandson. I also received many wonderful notes from those who could not attend. I felt affirmed to the depths of my being and spent much of the night in tears.

My colleagues also indulged me by letting me deliver a “last lecture,” even though my chair Christine Wooley observed that I was known more for listening to people than lecturing.  It was a lovely thing to say—indeed, I am endlessly fascinated by other people’s experiences with literature—but before I retired I wanted to share what I have been discovering about literature’s impact on readers. The talk was entitled “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.”

Regular readers of this blog have heard much of this before, but I post the lecture here for those who were unable to come.

When my colleagues asked me what I wanted by way of a send-off, I told them I wanted to give a last lecture. I don’t know how this appears to you, but it reminded me of a joke that a professor from the German University of Konstanz told against himself. It goes like this:

A plane full of literature professors is hijacked and, to show that they mean business, the hijackers decide to throw three of the professors out of the plane. They choose a Brit, a German, and an American. Before they throw them out, they grant each of them one last wish.

The Brit says he wants a spot of tea. The German says he wants to deliver one last lecture. The American says, “I want to be thrown out of the plane before the German delivers his lecture!”

So perhaps this desire to deliver a last lecture can be traced back to my mother’s Strehlow and Jobst heritage. But rest assured: unlike the lecturer in the plane, I’m going to make it short.

The phrase “Unacknowledged Legislators” is from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in which he argues that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley believes that poets have been far more instrumental in world history than people who have been given far more credit. Thus the “unacknowledged.” Shelley writes,

[I]t exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.

Let’s look for a moment at what Shelley includes amongst poetry’s achievements. As he sees it, poetry played a major role in what he sees as history’s two most important developments—the liberation of women and the ending of slavery. In the case of female liberation, Shelley mentions Dante’s depiction of Beatrice, which he credits for helping change the way that women are viewed.

 Whether you agree with this particular example or not, it is the case that people have been crediting literature with a great deal of power for a long time. Sometimes they have celebrated this power and sometimes, as in the case of Plato, they have feared it and wished to see it corralled. My life’s quest—one that I had even before I knew that it was a quest—has been to figure out whether literature really does possess such power. Does literature have a significant impact on human events? I share today a little window into my research.

First of all, it’s useful to specify what I mean by literature and by poetry. The aspect of literature which has both enthralled and frightened thinkers throughout the ages is its ability to pull us into its world. Think of when you have been so immersed in a novel that it seemed more real to you than the world around you.  That’s the dimension of literature that convinced Plato that The Odyssey should not be allowed into his ideal republic. Plato himself was so freaked out by the vivid scenes of Odysseus in the underworld that he feared young men would turn cowards on the battlefield for fear of ending up in this such a place. He also found Odysseus’s praise of banqueting so vivid that he feared that young men would be seduced into banqueting themselves rather than subject themselves to stern discipline. So no Homer in Plato’s perfect society.

If poetry’s emotional power terrified Plato, it enthralled Aristotle. He was amazed at the catharsis that a well-constructed drama could induce in spectators. Aristotle didn’t go much beyond individual reactions to literature, but he gave future thinkers the grounds to argue that poetry has an impact.

For instance, the Roman thinker Horace believed that poetry could be a powerful force for moral good. Great poetry, he said, both delights and instructs, and we are more likely to follow poetry’s moral advice if we are entertained in the process. Sir Philip Sidney would later compare this to taking medicine with cherries.

Sidney, who as a warrior, courtier and poet was the living embodiment of the Renaissance man, made very strong claims for poetry. He said that poetry causes us to be more virtuous people. Then he broke poetry down into its different genres, with each kind of poetry teaching virtue in a different way. For instance, comic satire makes us ashamed of certain behaviors while heroic poetry lifts us up and makes us—well—more heroic. For instance, he talks glowingly of Virgil’s describing Aeneas carrying his father out of burning Troy.

Look at the discussion so far: everyone I’ve mentioned agrees that literature is so powerful that it can move people to action. The disagreement is whether it necessarily leads people to good action (Horace, Sidney, and perhaps Aristotle) or whether it leads people to bad action (Plato). This split has continued ever since.  Samuel Johnson, sounding like Plato, was worried that novels like Tom Jones would turn young men into libertines. He therefore saw the need for critic educators, who would intervene and steer young people to beneficial reading and away from improper reading. The German parents of teenagers reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther agreed, fearing that the novel would lead them to become overly emotional and even to commit suicide, as Werther does. Jane Austen may have loved the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe but, in Northanger Abbey, she also sees them having a harmful effect.

Today there are parents, churches and school systems today who still fear the impact that novels will have on young people. Works that have been banned include Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s books, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Harry Potter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Golden Compass, and, in the St. Mary’s County school system, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In those cases, as with Tom Jones, Sorrows of Werther, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, parents are afraid that immersion will lead to changed behavior.

In the 19th century, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold thought that this power could be harnessed for what he saw as social good. Worried about the rise of the working class, Arnold believed that religion had lost its ability to keep the lower classes in their place, and he turned to literature as a replacement, arguing that English literature should be taught in worker schools. As Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton puts it, by throwing the working class a few novels, Arnold hoped that they wouldn’t throw up any barricades.

A poet with the opposite politics was Bertolt Brecht, who agreed with Trostsky that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to change it. Brecht’s plays were designed to challenge people’s middle-class assumptions and have them think in revolutionary ways.

Arnold and Brecht began the practice of analyzing art from a political point of view. Arnold would not, for instance, have wanted the working class reading Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Men of England,” and Brecht had a lot of nasty things to say about 19th century bourgeois melodrama.

Political discussions of art became even more heated when taken up groups that have been oppressed. African American thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, for instance, argued that “all art is propaganda,” by which he meant that literature is full of demeaning images of people of color. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe provided a powerful example in his attack on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, pointing out that Conrad portrays Africans as no more than a howling mob. Conrad’s work perpetuates stereotypes, Achebe said, and is more dangerous for being a great work.

Feminists like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, meanwhile, pointed out how dangerous the marriage plot is, even in the hands of geniuses like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Such novels threaten to convince women that their only future lies in marriage. In her book on the subject, DuPlessis wants contemporary novelists to write new kinds of novels that will present women with other options.

Finally, bringing my discussion up to the present, there are thinkers like philosopher Martha Nussbaum and literary scholar Wayne Booth who believe that literature has the power to make us better citizens and better voters because they teach us to enter into the experiences of people unlike ourselves and to empathize with them. Literature does this better than practically any other activity, Nussbaum believes.

So what do I believe? I’m certainly with Nussbaum and Booth in believing that literature opens our minds and that an open mind is critical is negotiating an increasingly complex world. But my favorite theorist is Shelley, perhaps because he thinks in such a wide arc. Shelley believes that literature taps into humans’ deepest longing, which is to fulfill their potential. The great artistic works have been doing this from the beginning, giving us characters, narratives and images that go deep into what it means to be human. The writers themselves may be time-bound people with local prejudices but their work transcends them. For instance, while Chaucer probably had medieval prejudices about women, in the Wife of Bath he created a woman that we can identify with today. Or to cite another example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night anticipated, by over 400 years, truths about trans men and women that we are only now arriving at. Once a literary work puts the full truth of human complexity into the world, it has an impact.

But perhaps not right away. Shelley said that sometimes history takes hundreds of years to catch up with artistic insights. The good news, however, is that, ultimately, the arc of history bends towards human liberation.

Here’s a specific example, although one with a shorter time line. When Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre first appeared in 1847, many read it as a traditional romance, what with its “Reader, I married him” conclusion. But certain readers also noticed Jane’s fierce desire for freedom and independence. It was an important novel for unionizing governesses in the 19th century as they fought against low pay and sexual harassment. Then the suffragette movement adopted it at the turn of the century. Then it provided the key image—the madwoman in the attic—for 1970s feminism.

So think of yourselves as part of this march of history. It doesn’t matter that you are an individual reader. Literature has always changed history one reader at a time. If Shelley is right that Dante set us on the road to women’s liberation, then it occurred by one person reading the Divine Comedy and then another and then another.

To bring the process close to home, let me conclude by sharing one reading experience that made a difference in my life, one which hopefully will get you reflecting upon your own reading experiences.

I was raised in segregated Tennessee in the 1950s and, in 1961, was the plaintiff in a landmark civil rights case where four black families and four white families sued the Franklin County Board of Education on behalf of their children. We were being denied our right to attend integrated schools under Brown v. Education, the suit contended. I can report that it was difficult for me going through that—not as difficult as it was for the African American children but it’s still not easy being called an n—lover—but I had a work of literature that sustained me.

My father had read me and my brothers Huckleberry Finn and I went straight to the most famous scene in the novel, the one where Huck declares that he will save his friend Jim even if it means going to hell. Although I was only in sixth grade, I got what it meant to make a principled stand, even when everyone around is believing and saying something different. It meant that, when we won the suit and had Ronnie Staten in class the next year, I made a special effort to reach out to him. Those experiences are at the foundation of my lifelong commitment to social justice. That was Huckleberry Finn working on this reader.

I know many of you have comparable stories, and one of the blessings of my being an English teacher is that many of you have shared reading experiences with me over the past 37 years. I see myself as a collector of reader stories, some of which I share on my blog and most of which I remember. Hearing your stories never gets old and has kept my teaching fresh. I’m going to miss you all very, very much.

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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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