Mark Van Doren & American Classicism

Article excerpt

Above the columns of Butler Library at Columbia, inscribed in the stone frieze, you read permanent testimony that some writers are especially important: Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Milton, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Spinoza. The names represent importance itself. Butler Library gazes out across a series of walks and terraces at Charles McKim's Low Library, which dominates the scene with its ten Ionic columns and its low dome, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

To my undergraduate gaze, no professor was more in harmony with all this than Mark Van Doren. In our first acquaintance I was not aware of him as a distinguished scholar and critic of American literature (or as one, in many ways, who was quintessentially American). Soon I learned that he was a man of the Butler frieze, who had written that "a classic is always fresh, vernacular, sensible, and responsible," and who had elaborated:

   Poetry, story, and speculation are more than
   pleasant to encounter; they are indispensable if
   we would know ourselves as men. To live with
   Herodotus, Euripides, Aristotle, Lucretius,
   Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Balzac,
   Dickens, or Tolstoy--to take only a few names
   at random, and to add no musicians, painters,
   or sculptors--is to be wiser than experience
   can make us in those deep matters that have
   most closely to do with family, friends, rulers,
   and whatever gods there be.

His principal course in my 1950 undergraduate fall was "The Narrative Art," which extended through the entire academic year and in which we read the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Genesis and Exodus, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Trial, and The Castle. The other students in the course had taken the required Freshman Humanities 1-2, which began in the fall with the Iliad and ended in the spring with a modern novel, often Crime and Punishment. I missed this course since I had transferred from Dartmouth to Columbia, but, to my enormous benefit, began teaching it in 1956 when I joined the Columbia faculty. As a student once put it to me, rather colloquially: in Humanities 1-2 and in Van Doren's "Narrative Art," he was confident that he was dealing with the "first team." At the very least, all students who took Humanities 1-2 and "Narrative Art" knew that they were engaging important matters, much more important than those encountered in the ordinary course of things. Humanities 1-2, established after World War I, has since become famous, and is always chosen by Columbia alumni as the most influential course they took at the college.

In "The Narrative Art," the theme that held the course together was Mark Van Doren's idea that all great narrative has somewhere in it a representation of the divine. This had enormous implications, if true; for me, it still has those implications. If the authors of those books, representing mind at its most intense and memorable, possess a sense of a divine presence in life, does this not raise questions about a view of life that excludes it? Of course, in The Trial and The Castle, the divine is felt in its absence, a deus absconditus. Those novels would lack their sense of surprise if the divine were not a felt possibility. They are twentieth-century classics, it seems clear, because they so powerfully express that absence. But Van Doren confessed that while he was certain Don Quixote is a great novel, he could find in it no trace of the divine. I remember trying to argue that it is present in the transcendent calm of Cervantes's prose, which looks with divine equanimity on the huggermugger of all that passes below in Spain. I do not remember that Van Doren committed himself to this view; whatever the case, he was certain that a sense of the divine was necessary to knowing the nature of the human. As he had written,

   The comparison of men with animals, however,
   is at best a meager exercise. A richer field
   existed when there were gods and heroes, as
   with the Greeks, or God mad the angels, as
   with Christians. …