Book Review: Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

By Cavallo, Jo Ann | Libertarian Papers, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism


Cavallo, Jo Ann, Libertarian Papers


Allen Mendenhall: Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-73918633-6, 161 pages.

By subtitling his book "Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism," Allen Mendenhall situates his work within an exciting methodological approach that is still off the radar screen of most academicians. Not since the appearance of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) has a new literary approach invited us to read texts from a vantage point that jolts us into recognition of deep-seated ideological undercurrents that had previously remained unnoticed, or were simply passed over in silence. Yet whereas Said alerted readers to a literary misrepresentation of "the Orient" implicitly supporting European colonialism in the early modern and modern periods, libertarian literary criticism offers a more sweeping analysis of political power structures, aimed at understanding literature and society in any time period and at any point on the globe.

This interdisciplinary approach also shares with Marxist criticism the belief that politics and economics are relevant to an understanding of literary texts--as well as an underlying desire to improve the human condition--yet it offers a vastly different theoretical grounding. The fact that Marxism continues, under various guises, to have a stronghold in academic literary and cultural studies even though it has been largely discredited as economic theory and practice leads me to suspect that many mainstream academicians are blind to its inherent totalitarian apologetics and are unaware of a viable alternative approach. A strong remedy for the first condition is Dario Fernandez-Morera's American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas (1996), while the essays by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, David Osterfeld, and Ralph Raico in Yuri Maltsev's Requiem for Marx (1993) provide a useful discussion of the economic principles of the Austrian school in relation to Marxism. The above should be required reading in any university course devoted to methodological approaches to literature and culture.

Nonetheless, as Mendenhall points out, "even the latest anthologies of literary theory and criticism have sections devoted principally if not exclusively to Marxism, but nothing at all to capitalism, an assumed evil" (144). To my students and colleagues unfamiliar with libertarian literary criticism, I like to recommend Paul Cantor's introduction to Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (2009)--the groundbreaking volume he co-edited with Stephen Cox--which reads like a manifesto of this critical approach. Since the essays in this volume focus on canonical European and early American authors (Cervantes, Jonson, Shelley, Whitman, H.G. Wells, Cather), I generally also mention (when I have the occasion) that libertarian analysis works equally well outside the parameters of the Western literary canon, yielding new insights in fields as diverse as ancient Chinese moral philosophy (Long, 2003) and modern American popular culture (Cantor, 2003, 2012; McMaken, 2012). And since articles on a wide range of topics can be found in the interdisclipinary Journal of Libertarian Studies (19772008), and, beginning in 2009, in Libertarian Papers (both of which are available as free pdfs through the Ludwig von Mises Institute), there is really no excuse for scholars in the humanities to remain ignorant of this burgeoning field of study.

It is a pleasure to now add Mendenhall's deftly argued and passionately engaged volume to my list of recommended readings in libertarian scholarship. The introduction, entitled "The Basis for Liberty," and the conclusion, "Toward a Libertarian Literary Theory," argue from a theoretical standpoint for privileging individualist methodology over collectivist doctrine in the interpretation of texts. Although, as the author acknowledges, the volume lacks an overall unity of focus, each individual essay offers a practical 'case study' of a topic or direction within the purview of libertarian literary criticism. …

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