Mark Van Doren & American Classicism

By Hart, Jeffrey | New Criterion, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Mark Van Doren & American Classicism

Hart, Jeffrey, New Criterion

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. … 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Mark Van Doren & American Classicism


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.