Friday, February 10, 2012

Every “best” list is now a “personal inventory”

Yesterday Terry Teachout conducted a “purely personal inventory” of the ten American novels he “most wished” he had written, and this morning Patrick Kurp countered with his own list of ten. If you removed the alien and seditious titles from my own three-year-old list of the fifty best English-language novels published since the Victorians — a list originally compiled for students who kept pestering me for recommended readings — you’d be left with this roster of ten:

( 1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
( 2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
( 3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
( 4) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
( 5) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
( 6) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
( 7) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
( 8) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
( 9) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(10) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

As one of Kurp’s commentators said, this is a “nifty parlor game.” But it also, I think, points to something serious.

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with,” Hugh Kenner wrote years ago. But no one believes that any more. It’s telling, don’t you think, that Teachout, Kurp, and I agree on just one writer — Cather — without even agreeing on which of her novels ought to be first read. I have tried to update Kenner’s apothegm (“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although no one will ever agree on what they are”), but even this innocuous paradox is enough, in today’s English departments, to get me housed with the reactionaries, the racists, or worse.

All that’s left are parlor games, offered (as Teachout says he offered his) “apropos of absolutely nothing.” If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it.


scott g.f.bailey said...

Who needs an English department when we have Goodreads to tell us that The Hunger Games is a better book than Moby-Dick?

D. G. Myers said...

Well, yes. But do you really think anyone learns in an English department anywhere on earth these days that Moby-Dick is better than The Hunger Games? (Assuming, that is—a mistaken assumption—that “better” is even in the current English department vocabulary.)

scott g.f.bailey said...

I was a PoliSci major so I can't speak intelligently about English departments, but I've heard the horror stories, certainly, and I've had a gander at recent course catalogues. But yes, I'm aware that invoking the idea of a "civilized American" immediately brings argument about whose "civilization" we mean and whose cultural artifacts are privileged over whose and how the canon is an engine of European repression and all of that. I'm also aware of the way expert opinion and book larnin' have been marginalized to make way for crowdsourcing and the false equivalancy of egalitarian taste. Dead horse, singing to the choir; I know.

What do people want from a degree in English these days? What does an incoming freshman think is meant by "literature?" I have no idea. I also have no idea why anyone would read The Hunger Games when they could read Melville or Fitzgerald or Cather or O'Connor et cetera.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

What do people want from an English degree these days? They want The Hunger Games!

See Princeton's most popular English class, ENG 385: Children's Literature.

Professor Gleason's empty speculation on why the class is so popular is amusing. He omits the main reason, though, which one of the students hints at: "as a balance to my engineering courses." The exact nature of the balance is unspecified, but I have a guess.

Anonymous said...

Your posting is a wonderful surprise. I thought you might have given up on your blog. In any case, "parlor games" (i.e., book lists) are always entertaining and often worthwhile; after all, the canon (established by the establishment) is something of a "parlor game," and the contents (for better or worse) keep changing over time. My English Department has been abandoning canonical literature in favor of the "flavor of the month"; we have not yet embraced The Hunger Games, but my colleagues have long ago abandoned Moby-Dick in favor of some truly wretched (politically correct) contemporary drivel. Alas, I ought to retire before things get any worse. Now, in closing, I say again that it is wonderful to read again your postings. Regards. Tim Davis

D. G. Myers said...


I haven't given up on my blog. It's just that I write it now under the auspices of Commentary.


Anonymous said...

I recently introduced 2nd year students to E.D. Hirsch Jr's "Cultural Literacy" which they apparently found hilarious. I was a bit disconcerted... after all, the idea of a commonality of things to talk about isn't all that funny, is it? I asked a fellow in the back row what he was laughing at, and he pointed to an item in the voluminous appendix: "Ride a Cock Horse." Oh, I said, innocently: that's a nursery rhyme. Ahhh, now I see.

schultzie said...

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with”

would nowadays be:

“There are some authors of works of literature that every civilized reader of English should be able to recognise even if they are not familiar with their works”

I haven't read any of Cather's works but I recognise the name and intend one day to read some (oh the list is so long...and I now read German too...)