Don't Read Politics into American Literature

By Shaw, Peter | Insight on the News, May 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

Don't Read Politics into American Literature

Shaw, Peter, Insight on the News

In the hands of politically correct teachers, American literature has gone from being studied in an objective, responsible manner to being utilized as little more than a vehicle for attacks on America. During the last 25 years, as one minority movement after another has declared its members victims of American society, college teachers of American literature have, as have teachers of other subjects in the humanities, accommodated their classrooms to the complaints of each group. They have done so by declaring the classic works of 19th-century American literature to have been politically retrograde and insensitive to minorities.

In response to charges by black activists that America is irremediably racist, the professors have taken the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, beloved around the world for its high spirits and good humor, and complained that it strays too far from the dour condemnation of slavery they would prefer. In response to feminist claims that America is a patriarchy directed against women, they have taken Henry James's love story with a happy ending, The Bostonians, and asserted that the heroine is betrayed by James when he marries her off at the end. In response to charges of American homophobia and insensitivity to Hispanics, American Indians and other ethnic groupings, the professors have in one way or another distorted the works of virtually every other American author as well.

As I argue in my book, Recovering American Literature, teachers in the 1990s have shifted their basis of judgment from literary excellence to political correctness. College administrators, intimidated by the same activists as the teachers, endorse politicization in the classroom. Hiring quotas now favor teachers who dismiss literary judgment in favor of politics. Once hired, such teachers are expected to use their classrooms to advance a political agenda. And they do. Standing before their students, they spew an unending denunciation of the very American society and the very universities that frantically are scrambling to satisfy the demands of an the self-proclaimed victim groups.

"Teaching," as younger faculty members such as Sam Abel, an assistant professor of drama at Dartmouth College, firmly believe, "is a form of political action." On behalf of the victim groups, the professors declare, they are willing to sacrifice the plain sense of the greatest works in the American heritage. Accordingly, they turn the heroes of books into villains, right into wrong and good into bad. And when these gestures do not fully satisfy, they turn on the classic American authors and blame them for not being politically correct.

Students who used to be taught the principles of literary evidence and the techniques of careful, attentive reading now are taught to distort works to make them seem to indict racism, American capitalism or the mistreatment of women and minorities. Students are told that literature should serve social activism and that this activism should be of the kind favored by the post-1960s, overwhelmingly left, radical-to-liberal English departments of American universities.

It was not until 1993 that the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of literature teachers, responded to criticism of this state of affairs. At a discussion of the question of whether literary criticism should contribute to polities, the audience of teachers and graduate students was shocked when two discussants actually said they believed that, after all, partisan politics were better left out of the classroom.

Take, for example, what college professors have done wit Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, by most accounts the greatest single work produced by an American author in the 19th century. (To be sure, the very idea of superiority by which one work is judged better than another is rejected widely in English departments.) Until the 1960s, Moby-Dick was understood to be an adventure story with a metaphysical-speculative soul. …

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