The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature
reviewed by R. V. Young
A book with such a title, by the editor of the Conservative Book Club, in a format reminiscent of the popular “For Dummies” series, is likely to evoke certain misgivings: Will this book be nothing more than a shallow, shrill, sarcastic screed? Will it be yet another recounting of horror stories about the postmodern professoriate? It takes only a few pages to disabuse the reader of these misconceptions.
This Politically Incorrect Guide is, to be sure, polemical, and Elizabeth Kantor bags her politically correct quarry with an inerrant aim and carves it up with an acute wit. She shows how numerous “English” courses either reduce literary works to “products” of the hegemonic power structure or ignore works of literature altogether in favor of film, fashion, feminist polemics, and other assorted preoccupations of popular culture, denying any sense that great works of literature provide an imaginative vision of the human condition.
Nevertheless, the principal business of her book is a joyous tour of the greatest monuments of literature in English, conducted not only with enthusiasm, but also with learning and critical insight.
Given the subject—all of English and American literature—and the length of the book—under 300 pages of rather large print with numerous sidebars—Kantor is necessarily selective; she is not, however, superficial. She wisely eschews any attempt to deal with every important author and instead highlights a few exemplary figures from each of the major periods.
Part I, comprising about two-thirds of the book, provides a sufficient overview of the traditional canon of English and American literature to help the novice reader put in context any work he has taken up and to whet his appetite for more. The novice reader, as Kantor points out, may very well be a recent college graduate who majored in English, because English majors are less and less likely to have even been offered the opportunity, much less required, to survey the entire field.
Part I also includes many sidebars, largely devoted to pointing out virtues and truths of the classic works of English and American literature that are distorted and suppressed by far too many professors of English.
The remaining third of the book explains first how the politically correct postmodern approach fails to engage the true nature of literature and to acknowledge literary greatness (Part II), and then gives advice on acquiring a literary education on one’s own or (better) with the help of friends (Part III).
The central discourse of Kantor’s book, however, focuses largely on the works themselves. The broad survey is complemented by detailed discussions of some of the major achievements of the most important authors.
The discussion of Jane Austen provides an especially luminous instance, since Kantor argues persuasively that the novels that inspired the successful films of the 1990s affirm traditional Christian morality, conventional social restraints, and—dare one utter such heresy?—patriarchy. The women in these novels who get in trouble and cause misery for themselves and others, she argues, break the rules and assert their own wills.
Austen’s most insufferable characters are loud, aggressive women, and it is irresponsible, feckless men who break hearts. Disaster results from men failing to exercise their masculine authority (e.g., Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice) rather than from their asserting it excessively. “Surely,” Kantor suggests, “even feminist professors who study Jane Austen must know more men who are ‘afraid of commitment’ than they know men who are jealous, abusing control freaks.”
A Gift for the Jungles
The entire volume is enlivened with similarly pertinent comments on the entire range of the Anglo-American literary tradition.
When describing the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, for example, the author recalls an Arizona State professor who mocked the heroic death in Afghanistan of the former professional football player, Pat Tillman, because he died from “friendly fire” in a badly managed war. The poem celebrates the heroism of soldiers who died in a losing cause in part because of the cowardice of some of their comrades and the misjudgment of their commander, and in thus understanding heroism displays far more intelligence and compassion than the modern professor.
The Politically Incorrect Guide also shows how literary artists of the first order do not distort the integrity of their plots and characters in the interest of a preconceived political program. Kantor is very good at showing that the really great writers never indulge our complacency, no matter what our party or persuasion.
It is the liberal reformer Charles Dickens, for example, who in Bleak House shows the fatuous futility of the liberal reformer Mrs. Jellyby, who loves the children of Africa so much that she neglects her own. It is the conservative Catholic Evelyn Waugh whose hero Guy Crouchback in The Sword of Honour admits to a Jewish refugee that he is one of those men who longed for war as a chance to prove his own nobility and compensate for an indolent life.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature would thus make an ideal gift for a child on the way to college—a vade mecum in the jungles of darkest Academe—and for a recent college graduate, to compensate for the education he was not offered.
Above all, it is a godsend for home schools. Even mothers of young children will find their own sense of what they are doing with their children’s literature enhanced by the context provided by Kantor, and of course it will be invaluable for anyone instructing high-school-age students.
This is, in short, an excellent book that has appeared at just the right time.
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry (Boydell & Brewer), and he is currently at work on a book on Shakespeare and on a translation and critical edition of the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius?s De Constantia. He and his wife, who are parishioners at St. Joseph?s Catholic Church in Raleigh, have five grown children and eight grandchildren.
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