Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies

Article excerpt

Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. James Seaton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

This well-wrought well-researched book tackles one of the major academic battles of our times: the culture wars. The purpose is set forth in the "Introduction": to make a case for the continuing vitality of a tradition of cultural criticism obscured by present-day "post-modernists" and deconstructionists. It endorses a tradition going back to Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold. It denounces or at least criticizes "contemporary cultural leftists" such as Richard Rorty, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and Stanley Fish-all of whom agree that the past is not a corrective to the present but a source of error. The error, Seaton argues, is theirs.

In his conclusion Seaton takes us back to Aristotle and the notion of the good life-"which requires not innocence but, rather, prudent judgment and practical wisdom" (239). Where do we get this wisdom? Not only from our own personal experience, but also from the absorption of human experience embodied in literature, philosophy, and religion. This humanist tradition in literary criticism is what Seaton is defending, and he does so with gusto and authority. He even provides names of those whom he thinks have championed it: Lionel Trilling, H.L. Mencken, Irving Babbitt, Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, Diana Trilling, and Ralph Eillison. They all believe that literature can aid us in the difficult art of life. They, and not their faddish detractors, are our best hope for the future. …