Jane Austen Will Cure What Ails You

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in the film Becoming Jane

Wednesday

My librarian friend Valerie Hotchkiss alerted me to an article by Professor Misty Krueger recommending Jane Austen for people undergoing stress. The purported subject is how those suffering from the Covid pandemic will benefit from reading or rereading the novels, but it also touches on how those traumatized by war and by cancer have turned to her. Given that the article sprawls in these many directions, I’ll just note some of the highlights here. For instance, there this:

Austen’s plots provide a welcome escape from reality while also helping us both better understand ourselves and the people in our lives and handle as best we can what life throws at us.  During the pandemic, for example, many people have spent too much time isolated from family, friends, coworkers, and even potential companions; for others the pandemic forced us to spend more time with our loved ones than perhaps we ever imagined or wanted.  Whether we felt isolated from other people or even from our own active selves or felt the desire to escape our remote, stay-at-home routines, turning to Austen during this difficult time made it easier to process the effects of the pandemic on our lives and, through this universalizing experience, to empathize with Austen’s characters as well as fans across the globe. 

Krueger and I were on the same wavelength here since, after reading this, I instantly thought of Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Janeites,” which she turns to as well. The Janeites are a club in the World War I trenches who find solace in Austen’s novels. One of them recommends “Jane when you’re in a tight place.”

Krueger says that Jane Austen therapy has not been confined to fiction:

Doctors prescribed Austen’s novels to soldiers during and after World War I due to what Claudia Johnson calls the “rehabilitative” nature of Austen’s writings on “shattered minds,” and what [Mary] Favret likens to “restorative therapy.”  Lee Siegel too writes of “shell-shocked veterans” who “were advised to read Austen’s novels for therapy, perhaps to restore their faith in a world that had been blown apart while at the same time respecting their sense of the world’s fragility.”

Austen also played a role during World War II. For instance, Winston Churchill, when he was recovering from pneumonia in 1943, turned to Austen:

Austen helped Churchill regain his sense of self.  He states that in his convalescence he felt disconnected from himself:  “it was like being transported out of oneself.”  In his recovery he was instructed not to work or worry, so he “decided to read a novel” (actually, to have his daughter read one to him):  Pride and Prejudice.  Churchill enjoyed the “calm lives” of Austen’s characters and saw them as free from the stresses of war and living in a world for which the biggest problems concerned “manners” and “natural passions.”

Nor was Churchill alone, as Professor Favret notes in another article:

Other individuals wrote to the literary journals to report that they too were reading—and re-reading—Austen’s novels, often at a terrific rate. War years in England provoked an energetic discussion of the merits of re-reading; and though she wasn’t the only re-read author, Jane Austen always figured in the discussion. There was an assumption at the time that re-reading books from Britain’s tremendous literary past served as fortification against the upheavals of wartime. Austen provided something additional, at least in the eyes of British novelist Rebecca West: her work demonstrated an “underlying faith that the survival of society was more essential to the moral purpose of the universe than the survival of the individual,” and such faith could prove crucial in wartime. The public re-read Austen in particular, writes a London paper in 1943, because “Her books are full of the drowsy hummings of a summer garden, which can deafen ears even to the hummings of the aeroplane overhead.”

Krueger says that reading Austen helps build up our resilience. Reading the novelist, she notes, can be a form of what Mayo Clinic researchers have called “self-directed stress management,” helping patients “divert negative thoughts and interpret experiences positively.” Although the clinic doesn’t mention reading Austen, Krueger says that her novels can help us survive “months of uncertainty and social isolation”:

Austen’s world…holds up a mirror to ours, and people have identified with her characters’ life-threatening maladies, quarantines, and social distancing.  It seems that we share the troubles faced by Marianne Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Tom Bertram, Harriet Smith, Louisa Musgrove, and more; some of us might even identify with hypochondriacs Mr. Woodhouse and the Parkers as we panic about coronavirus. If Austen’s characters can survive sickness and seclusion with grace, surely we can too. Right? One of the things we admire about Austen’s characters, Janice Hadlow reminds us, is their resilience.  

Later in her piece, Krueger mentions the “Jane Austen Guide for Surviving Covid,” which I believe I’ve blogged on in the past. Created during the lockdown days of the virus by Megan O’Keefe, it recommends

only leaving the house to take long walks and “essential trips”; “suddenly wearing gloves, writing letters to far away friends, and taking on unique hobbies”; “maintain[ing] a respectable distance of at least six feet” while in public; and skipping large gatherings like parties (or balls)—to our own pandemic habits.

Krueger also mentions Josephine Tovey’s article “Sense and Social Distancing: Lockdown Has Given Me a Newfound Affinity with Jane Austen’s Heroines”:

The article recalls the absurdity-cum-reality of the scene in Pride and Prejudice when Caroline Bingley encourages Elizabeth Bennet “‘to follow [her] example, and take a turn about the room’” because it is “‘refreshing.’” Tovey “discovered a newfound sympathy—affinity even—for every character battling tedium in that room.”  Surely, many of us can relate:  “All of a sudden, period dramas have become extremely relatable.  Ceaseless hours indoors with your family?  Fretting about falling into financial ruin?  Feeling an outsized thrill at a neighbor who stops by to visit?  There’s an Austen for that.”  Tovey speaks to the “inherent suffocation of a life lived almost entirely within the same four walls” and how our experiences in pandemic lockdown are providing us with a “fresh appreciation for why characters like Elizabeth Bennet and . . . Marianne Dashwood find a simple walk so electrifying.  It gives them freedom and perspective.”

In short, you can find better living through Jane Austen. For an author whose first work appear in 1811 and who died six novels and six years later, she’s had a hell of an impact.

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The Classics as Teen Survival Guides

Artist unknown

Wednesday

Last week I wrote about the early chapters in Phuc Tran’s memoir Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (2020). Landing in Carlyle, Pennsylvania after he fled Saigon with his parents, Tran would later find refuge in a “great books” list. Seeing literature initially as a ticket to acceptance and assimilation, he eventually discovered that literature gave him a framework for navigating his identity confusion.

In other words, literature did indeed provide him with a special key. Just not in the way he thought.

In his memoir, Tran uses different works to capture different moments of his experience. I wrote last week about how Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment helped him deal with family violence and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter with the racism he encountered. Here are some of the other works he mentions:

Madame Bovary

Tran notes that, the first time her read Flaubert’s novel, “I knew immediately that she and I had shared a passion”:

In Flaubert’s novel, Emma Bovary yearns for a life that is beyond her grasp. Her desire for a grander existence burns from her love of romance novels, and her devouring of these bodice-rippers enflames in her an unyielding desire.

It doesn’t matter that her novels are trashy, Tran says, and he quotes Flaubert: “Emma tried to find out what one means exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”

For Tran, comic books served this purpose:

But if literature moves you deeply, does it matter where it comes from? Does it matter that it’s trashy or lowbrow? Isn’t that emotional connection one of the purposes of art? To make you feel—really feel—emotions? To resonate with your life? And perhaps, in that connection, to introduce you to a world that lies beyond your own perspective, the utopia beyond your myopia.

Pygmalion

Shaw’s play hit home because Tran, in high school, felt that, like Eliza Doolittle, he was trying to pass himself off as someone he wasn’t. How else would he escape the racist bullying and fit in? This had some good effects in that he found a gang of boys that accepted this new self. But he also encountered Eliza’s crisis at the end of the play and describes what many immigrant children have experienced:

At the end of Pygmalion, Eliza laments that she cannot go back to her old life, to her old ways, and she cannot find a place in her new world, either. In the currents of fitting in, in the push and pull of Americana that was sweeping me and my brother away, I could no longer communicate deeply with my parents. I had begun to forget my Vietnamese, and that act of forgetting was my Vietnamese forfeiture for my future in America…. Sometimes, in annoyance, I chose to answer my mother in English, bypassing Vietnamese altogether. I didn’t bother to consider what was lost in the undertow of the flood.

I was in the waters of America, and gasping, dying. I chose to survive.

I held my breath and dove deeper.

The Metamorphosis

Kafka’s famous story about a man who wakes up one morning and discovers that he has metamorphosed into a giant roach captures, for Tran, his experience of being an alienated adolescent in a family that did not—could not—understand what he was going through:

You read The Metamorphosis and you realize: it’s his family’s ugliness toward Gregor that moves the story. Gregor is now a giant roach, and he cannot do anything about it. His family, instead of acting with compassion and kindness, sends Gregor to his room and locks the door.

What’s worse that turning into a giant bug? Turning into a giant bug and having your family act like a bunch of assholes.

Tran’s framing of the story makes one realize that it addresses adolescence in general, not just the experience of immigrant teens:

And isn’t that adolescence? A biological change over which we have no control? And then our family, like a bunch of assholes, treats us like an insect in the midst of a metamorphosis that we ourselves hardly understand. Suddenly, with a different focus, from the perspective of a bug, we see who they are.

The Importance of Being Ernest

Wilde’s play for Tran worked as a sequel to Pygmalion: one thinks one is faking an identity, only to discover that one really is that person. Or as Tran describes the ending,

In the course of lying about his name being Ernest, Jack finds out that his real name is Ernest at the play’s end….Truths and lies are the same.

After trying out alternative names, “Phuc” having an obvious drawback, Tran concludes,

Phuc. That was enough to be the sum of who I was and who I would be. And it would never be a lie. I just had to find the courage to be him and ask myself why I was afraid to be Phuc.

The Iliad

The final work Tran mentions is the Iliad. Having established himself, by this point, as a standout student in his English classes, he finds himself relating to Achilles–which is to say, the best warrior in the Greek army but put down by the Greeks’ insecure leader Agamemnon. As he finds himself explaining to the other students in class,

“Achilles’s conundrum is complicated because he is the best fighter on the Greek side but not the leader of the Greeks and then he’s shamed in front of the whole group. The MVP on the team but not the captain of the team….Achilles can’t figure it out—the system seems rigged. I mean, maybe it is all rigged.”

Fortunately—this is one thing that America does better than many countries—the system is not so rigged as to entrap Tran for ever in lower-class status. His academic success in his public high school earns him a substantial scholarship from a very good liberal arts college (Bard), and he goes on to major in classics and become a high school Latin teacher. He has also given a TED talk and, according to his bio, is a “highly-respected tattooer.”

As someone who used the great literature in a similar way in high school, although my challenges were nowhere near as great as Tran’s, I can say that he is no anomaly. Give teenagers substantive works and a number of them will rise to the occasion.

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Letting Go of Summer

Modest Huys, Flax Harvest

Tuesday – Fall Equinox

As fall officially arrives, here’s a poem about the change of seasons. The poet feels it is wrong to uproot her tomato plants until she recalls how her great-grandmother sang as she harvested flax. The memory, I think, carries the reminder that “for everything there is a season” and that it’s time to let go of summer.

It’s not only tomato plants that die, her great-grandmother seems to be telling her through her singing. This woman is so tied in with the cycle of the seasons that her great-granddaughter realizes she must accept that, sooner or later, the whiskey stink of rot will one day settle into her garden. In the meantime, she can live, and sing, in the moment.

September Tomatoes
By Karina Borowicz

The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises
when I touch the dying tomato plants.

Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots
and toss them in the compost.

It feels cruel. Something in me isn’t ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I’ve carefully cultivated all these months.
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.

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Longing for Consequences

Clift, de Havilland in Washington Square

Monday

I realize how hungry I have been for consequences—that there should be repercussions for political bad behavior—by the way I madly applauded the conclusion of Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to last week. With Donald Trump apparently paying no price for his lying, his corruption, and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election by strongarming election officials and inciting an insurrection, I find myself wondering if anything matters. I feel the same about those following in his footsteps, like governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis, who apparently can get away with playing politics with Covid as hundreds in their states get sick and die. I’ve wanted to be reassured that smooth talkers don’t always get away with everything and, in Washington Square, they don’t.

To be sure, Morris Townsend causes significant emotional damage along the way. But in the end, he can’t talk his way out of what he has done. His victim sees through him and throws him off.

As a young man, Townsend is a very charming and handsome gold-digger who goes after the shy and somewhat plain Catherine Sloper, the daughter of a wealthy doctor. The doctors sees through Townsend but, because he himself is a hard and imperious man, is unable to stop his daughter’s infatuation. He therefore declares that, if she marries him, he will disinherit her, leaving her only with the money her deceased mother has left her.

He measures the man right, and Townsend, despite having sworn eternal love, backs out of his marriage proposal. Because he has a smooth answer for everything, he assures Catherine that he doesn’t want to get between her and her father, but he breaks her heart in the process. She never gets over it and so never marries, although she matures into an admirable spinster.

Eventually, decades later, her father dies. Because he is obsessed with Townsend, however, he alters his will at the last moment, essentially disinheriting Catherine anyway. But Townsend comes back anyway.

He assumes, since he’s always has his way with Catherine, that they can start up where they left off. She may not be as wealthy as he wants, but he’s suffered a string of failures and she at least has some money. He starts in with his clever talk.

Only this time she sees through him and, in a blow to his immense ego, rejects him. She has more of a spine than either Townsend or her father ever realized. The rejection appears to finish off what is left of Townsend’s ego, given that he has returned fully confident of his success:

Then he added, with a deeper tenderness, “Catherine, have you never forgiven me?”

“I forgave you years ago, but it is useless for us to attempt to be friends.”

“Not if we forget the past.  We have still a future, thank God!”

“I can’t forget—I don’t forget,” said Catherine.  “You treated me too badly.  I felt it very much; I felt it for years.”  And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way, “I can’t begin again—I can’t take it up.  Everything is dead and buried.  It was too serious; it made a great change in my life.  I never expected to see you here.”

“Ah, you are angry!” cried Morris, who wished immensely that he could extort some flash of passion from her mildness.  In that case he might hope.

“No, I am not angry.  Anger does not last, that way, for years.  But there are other things.  Impressions last, when they have been strong. 

The last word we hear from Townsend is “Damnation!” as he strides from the house. Having thought that he could salvage his self-respect by regaining the woman whose love he once commanded, he finds his easy self-assurance shaken to the core.

When I was listening to the novel, I worried that Catherine would return to him, given how in the past he has been able to bend her to his will. But the electorate finally wakes up and says, “No more.” The master manipulator finally gets his comeuppance.

Would that we’d get this conclusion in real life.

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Like an Ocean Thundering to the Moon

Gustave Courbet, The Wave (1869)

 Spiritual Sunday

John Frederick Nims’s “Prayer” is an apophatic poem, which is to say, it strives to capture the immensity of God through negation: the poem lists things which cannot fill the vast emptiness we feel inside us. These include nature’s beauty, material treasure, and different forms of human love. “For we who are nothingness can nothing hold,” he declares.

The poet asks God to come like “an army marching the long day/And the next day and week and all that year,” as though we are besieged by an enemy and in desperate need to help. Or ratcheting up his analogies, the poet compares God to the moon, which moves the ocean tides. “Come like an ocean thundering to the moon,” the poet begs, “Drowning the sunken reef, mounting the shore.”

I wonder if this last request is a response to Matthew Arnold’s famous “Dover Beach,” where the poet laments that the sea of faith is receding from the world. Arnold writes,

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Nims’s prayer echoes some of the same desperation but recalls that, just as the tide ebbs, so does it also flow. Only something as large as the sea can fill the “ancient crater” he feels inside. Or in the words of one of my favorite hymns, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,/like the wideness of the sea.”

The hymn, however, is confident, and therefore gentle, in its declaration. Nims wants a more violent intervention, an inundation. The imagery has been intense: a king who senses his kingdom crumbling beneath him, a lover who awakes fearing his lover has abandoned him. Nims has translated St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and one sees him describing his own dark night here. Feeling isolated and alone, like stanzas seven and ten, the poet lifts up his prayer.

Prayer
By John Frederick Nims

We who are nothingness can never be filled:
Never by orchards on the blowing sea,
Nor the rich foam of wheat all summer sunned.

Our hollow is deeper far than treasure can fill:
Helmets of gold swim ringing in the wells
Of our desire as thimbles in the sea.

Love cannot fill us either: children’s love,
Nor the white care of mothers, nor the sweet
Concern of sister nor the effort of friends;

No dream-caress nor actual: the mixed breath,
Lips that fumble in dark and dizzily cling
Till all nerves tighten to the key of love.

The feasted man turns empty eyes about;
The king builds higher on a crumbling base,
His human mouth a weapon; his brain, maps.

The lover awakes in horror: he gropes out
For the known form, and even enfolding, fears
A bed by war or failing blood undone.

For we who are nothingness can nothing hold.

Only solution: come to us, conceiver,
You who are all things, held and holder, come to us,
Come like an army marching the long day
And the next day and week and all that year;

Come like an ocean thundering to the moon,
Drowning the sunken reef, mounting the shore.
Come, infinite answer to our infinite want.

Her ancient crater only the sea can fill.

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Getting to Know Henry James

Henry James

Friday

I’m currently on a Henry James kick after having long ignored the author’s novels (with the exception of Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady.) Thanks to Sewanee Library’s fantastic books-on-disk collection, I just finished listening to Daisy Miller and Washington Square as I drove around on errands. I am now embarking upon the much longer Ambassadors.

What impresses me about James is that his protagonists have more to them than one expects. In the two novels I’ve just listened to, the other characters sell Daisy and Catherine Sloper short, and we the readers may do so as well, only to discover unexpected substance. Daisy at first seems a shallow American flirt and Catherine Sloper a timid and dull woman. Catherine’s brilliant father, in fact, sees Catherine in exactly this way. The danger of reducing them to types, a favorite activity of Dr. Sloper, becomes apparent.

The result is that one’s sense of human possibility expands in the course of the works. Quiet Catherine is much more than either of the two men in her life, both of whom ceaselessly mansplain. In fact, I can’t think of another novel that has such incessantly patronizing men. The fact that, in her quiet way, she breaks with both of them is a real victory. If this is what men are like, then her decision to remain unmarried makes perfect sense.

As I listen to James’s works, I sometimes think of the very high status he attained in the eyes of figures like scholar and critic F. R. Leavis, who cited him as one of England’s four greatest novelists (along with Austen, George Eliot, and Conrad). English departments in the 1950s and 1960s followed suit and lionized him. In his Introduction to Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton has fun poking holes in their belief that reading figures like James will save civilization:

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James.

Eagleton is wonderfully witty here, and, given his Marxism, I think he singles out James because he is an acquired taste and because he sets his works in upper crust settings. And yet, I have to say that I could feel my own humanity expanding as I listened to the novels. Rather than flattering me with the sense that I was a member of some elite, the novels made me feel more connected with other people.

This, indeed, is the aspect of James that University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum appreciates. As she sees him, he is extraordinarily sensitive to the delicacy of relationships, both how we bruise each other and how we prove resilient. He respects his protagonists in profound ways and invites us to carry that respect into the world. In Nussbaum’s view, society is strengthened when we do so.

You’ll be hearing more from me about my James experiences.

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The Great Books as Assimilation Manual

Thursday

Sue Schmidt, friend and occasional contributor to this blog, has alerted me to a Vietnamese immigrant’s story of how the classics came to his aid as he wrestled with the challenges of cultural transition. Phuc Tran recounts his encounters with racism at school and violence at home in Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (2020).

I’m only in the early stages of the book but what I’ve read so far is riveting. Tran’s family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon—a story that has suddenly become relevant again with the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan—and to stop the bullying in school, he concluded that he needed to be “less Asian.” Therefore, he “tried to erase my otherness, my Asianness, with an assimilation—an Americanization—that was relentless as it was thorough.”

One of the tools he chanced upon was Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan. As Tran describes it, Fadiman had “listed and summarized all the books that he thought educated, cultured Americans should read over their lifetime, beginning with the Bible and ending with Solzhenitsyn.” As Tran describes it, his introduction “was unapologetically American, classist, and white—and I loved it. The Plan would be the most powerful cannon in my war for assimilation.” The list of authors included Flaubert, Twain, Kerouac, Bronte, Kafka, Camus, Ibsen, James, Thurber, Shakespeare.

But something funny happened on the way to assimilation:

My reading molded me, the tool hammering its hand into shape. By some miracle—and by miracle, I mean great teachers—I pushed past the shallowness and stupidity of my own motivations. I fell in love with the actual literature and the actual ideas of great literature. As an immigrant, as a Vietnamese kid, as a poor kid, I had collected so many scarlet letters of alienation that I connected profoundly to the great works.

Tran elaborates:

As I read, I began to understand that all the great works wrangled with big questions, important questions: our place in the world, the value of our experience, the fairness and meaning of our suffering, our quest for love and belonging. Universal themes bound these great works together, and they bound me to their oaky, yellowed pages like Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship. I felt a connective and humanizing resonance in books: I wasn’t alone in my aloneness. I wasn’t alone in my longing for love. I wasn’t alone in my fear of being rejected, my fear of never finding my place, my fear of failing. The snarl of my journey was untangled and laid out clearly by books.

And further:

In the great classics, there were so many moments for me to divest my age, my town, my skin, so many moments to be part of a universal conversation. Homer sharpened my mind’s edge. Dickinson gave me winged hope. Thoreau made a whole cabin for me.

To cite a couple of examples, Dostoevsky gave Tran a framework for the violence he encountered at home, triggered by his father’s PTSD and the stress everyone felt at being strangers in a strange land. Trans explains the power of the work as follows:

Violence lashed Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to my childhood. The violence of Dostoevsky’s world is woven throughout Crime and Punishment, stitched into the very language of the novel’s narrative. In his tale about a desperate college student who murders two helpless women Dostoevsky plunges his reader into a paranoid world where violence hangs thick in the air. The violence and assault of his raw imagery, feverish and unyielding, is indelible. This was a world I knew from experience, a world I had grown up in, a world where violence was potentially everywhere.

The Scarlet Letter, meanwhile, provided its own complex framework. Originally thinking that Hester is a fool for accepting her punishment instead of leaving the colony, Tran comes to see her as consenting to be publicly shamed

because it’s where she has a powerful (albeit negative) identity, and from that robust identity comes her purpose and meaning. Hester chooses to stay where she is Hester.

Tran, meanwhile, came to accept a community that was calling him a gook. He allowed himself to be harmed by the word because, if he did, he

was showing them that I belonged at least by virtue of understanding their language. And all I wanted was to belong.

I’m early in the book and will report more as I get further into it. You can already see, however, the rich resource that literature provided him.

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Surveying Great Thinkers about Lit’s Power

Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson

Wednesday

In my almost-completed survey of what great thinkers have said about literature’s impact upon audiences, I recently arrived at a new clarity at what I think my book accomplishes. Below is an excerpt from the introduction that explains why I find the approach useful.

I can report that the book is currently being reviewed by professional colleagues, whose feedback is proving invaluable. I am also putting together a book proposal to send out to publishers. There’s finally an end in sight for a project that I have been actively working on for ten years and indirectly working on my entire career.

Excerpt from Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate

When we reflect on the richness that comes from studying readers’ responses to literature, we encounter a theoretical problem. How can one generalize about literary impact when individual responses are so unpredictable and vary so widely?

The task is so daunting that we can understand why Reader Response Criticism and Reception Theory have never caught on as widely as other theoretical approaches, such as (in their time) New Criticism and Deconstruction and New Historicism.

Some scholars have argued that we should skip readers altogether. In literary criticism’s formalist period following World War II, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley contended that to judge a work based on its emotional affect was to commit “the affective fallacy.” They found it cleaner and a more purely aesthetic and intellectual exercise to look only at the text.

The rest of the world isn’t interested in clean, however. Most people who have had intense literary experiences aren’t willing to dismiss them as irrelevant. And then there are English teachers, who have a stake in figuring out why their students respond as they do to a work, and parents, who have the same concern regarding their children and teenagers. If people really thought that literature didn’t change human behavior, we wouldn’t see the censorship battles that never go away. Messy or not, we’ve got to grapple with whether literature affects human behavior and, if so, how.

To arrive at answers, my approach is threefold. By showing, side by side, those thinkers who believe that literature packs a punch, I strive to reassure readers who are distressed that so many regard literature as a luxury rather than a necessity. Or as Sir Philip Sidney puts it, who are distressed at how “poor poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children.”

By surveying the arguments that have been put forth, you will get a sense of literature’s potential and, in the theories that resonate most with your own reading experiences, find the weapons to fight back against the naysayers. If you hope literature can fend off cultural barbarians who want to trash revered traditions, Sidney, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and Allan Bloom will come to your aid.  If you see literature as vital in bringing about a more just and equitable society, you’ll find allies in W. E. B. Du Bois, Bertolt Brecht, Herbert Marcuse, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Wayne Booth, and Martha Nussbaum.

Second, while some of the theories conflict, certain recurring themes reveal themselves. Throughout the book we will be tracking common concerns as we search for, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “a great constancy.”

Finally, because no generalized observation can do full justice to idiosyncratic responses—often there’s no predicting what an individual reader will take away from a specific work—I present the thinkers as models. Their theories, like yours, are based on their immersion in specific works, and seeing how these men and women have derived meaning from intense reading encounters can help you in your own analysis. My final chapter is devoted to helping you arrive at customized insights about why you love the books you love and hate the books you hate.

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Biden as Dryden’s Ideal Leader

John Michael Wright, Charles II, model for David in Absalom and Architophel

Tuesday

When Joe Biden declared his anti-Covid measures last week—required vaccines for many, required vaccines or weekly testing for others—I was put in mind of King David in John Dryden’s long poem Absalom and Architophel. Fed up with hoping that his rebellious son Absalom will see reason, David lays down the law.

In his satire, Dryden uses the Biblical story as an allegory of how Charles II, somewhat passive initially, should lay down the law in responding to the Duke of Monmouth, his illegitimate son who led a rebellion against him. Ultimately Monmouth was executed for having done so.

After announcing the new policy, Biden said,

We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.  And your refusal has cost all of us.  So, please, do the right thing.  But just don’t take it from me; listen to the voices of unvaccinated Americans who are lying in hospital beds, taking their final breaths, saying, “If only I had gotten vaccinated.”  “If only.”

It’s a tragedy.  Please don’t let it become yours.

The following day, when asked by reporters that Republican governors would be suing him for “overreach,” he was similarly defiant:

Have at it.

And then:

I am so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities.

In Dryden’s poem, David/Charles has watched Absalom/Monmouth “ma[k]e the lure to draw the people down.” He has seen Absalom’s evil advisor Architophel “turn[ ] the plot to ruin church and state.” He has seen the Council (state legislatures in our case) acting irresponsibly and “the rabble” (unruly Trump supporters) acting even worse. Because he, like Biden, is responsible for the stability of his country, his patience finally wears thin;

With all these loads of injuries opprest,
And long revolving in his careful breast
Th’event of things; at last his patience tir’d,
Thus from his royal throne, by Heav’n inspir’d,
The god-like David spoke…

Having hoped that people would be reasonable, David explains why he hasn’t been more forceful previously. Don’t misinterpret a father’s love of his son for weakness, he says:

Thus long have I by native mercy sway’d,
My wrongs dissembl’d, my revenge delay’d:
So willing to forgive th’offending age;
So much the father did the king assuage…

He may have been mild in the past, David states, but he refuses to take any more flack (or “heap’d affronts”):

Yet, since they will divert my native course,
‘Tis time to shew I am not good by force.
Those heap’d affronts that haughty subjects bring,
Are burdens for a camel, not a king…

Like Biden reminding Americans that he’s responsible for the health of all Americans, David reminds those around him that “kings are the public pillars of the state,/Born to sustain and prop the nation’s weight.”

Then David, comparing Absalom to Sampson, says that he must expect the consequences that come with shaking the column. One is tempted to say the same of vaccine resistors who end up in ICU wards only they unfortunately threaten the rest of us:

If my young Sampson will pretend a call
To shake the column, let him share the fall:

King David would much prefer that his son get the vaccine “repent and live”:

But oh that yet he would repent and live!
How easy ’tis for parents to forgive!
With how few tears a pardon might be won
From Nature, pleading for a darling son!

And then my favorite line in the entire poem:

Beware the fury of a patient man.

David gets God’s endorsement for his speech, which is more than Biden can claim. The president would like to believe, however, that the people will come to acknowledge his lawful health measures:

And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran:
Once more the god-like David was restor’d,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.

If everyone took the vaccine, we could end the pandemic in 30 days. And if that were to happen, historians could look back and report, “Henceforth a series of new time began,/ The mighty years in long procession ran.”

Dare to dream.

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