Commentary Magazine


Recovering American Literature, by Peter Shaw

Battle of the Books

Recovering American Literature.
by Peter Shaw.
Ivan R. Dee. 203 pp. $22.00.

One of the peculiar luxuries that literature has always afforded us is the chance to experience to the full the kind of conflicted emotions we often have to suppress in our daily lives. Confronted with a painful dilemma in our own experience, we are forced to shut out certain perceptions, longings, sympathies in order to act upon others. Confronted with a painful dilemma in the life of a fictional character, we need shut out nothing; since no action is required of us, we can respond to all the competing claims on our sympathies.

This is surely at least part of what was meant when it used to be claimed that reading was a broadening experience. And by this reckoning, the greatest novelists are those who make us feel most intensely the conflicts their characters face, conveying both the anguish and the necessity of making impossible choices.

Nowadays, however, such a view is considered not only old-fashioned but morally obtuse—at least among professors of literature. Rather than addling our brains with complexity, novels, especially the great novels of the past, are expected to deliver unmistakable messages, to contain explicit verdicts on matters of right and wrong exactly as the professors see these matters; their authors are now judged—and usually found wanting—according to the positions they are deemed to have taken on the evils of consumer capitalism or the subjugation of women. Ambiguity, once regarded as something of a virtue in literary works, has come to be seen as an ethical defect, a refusal to engage directly with sociopolitical questions.

There is, of course, something inherently ridiculous about the spectacle of literature professors poring grimly over 19th-century novels to determine how strictly they adhere to the tenets of political correctness. But as is amply demonstrated in Peter Shaw’s valuable new book, Recovering American Literature, the humor of the situation is lost on the professors themselves; irony, like ambiguity, has been stringently excluded from the range of their responses, and righteous indignation is the order of the day.

One of the appealing qualities of Shaw’s own writing is his lack of counter-indignation. If today’s “Battle of the Books” has sometimes grown strident on both sides, Shaw retains his tone of mild reasonableness throughout, with occasional leavenings of rueful wit. And despite his justifiable dismay at the wholesale politicization of literature in our universities, he fully acknowledges the adversarial impulse, the “oppositionism,” that lies “at the heart” of the 19th-century American novels that are his particular objects of discussion. The project of “recovering American literature,” he writes, “does not mean neglecting those extra-literary impulses. But it does mean treating each of them in its literary as well as its political dimensions.”

To accomplish this aim, Shaw examines—and patiently discredits—recent critical writing on five classics of American fiction: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James’s The Bostonians; in an appendix, he also dissects current academic interpretations of Typee, Melville’s youthful memoir of a brief stay among the cannibal islanders of the Marquesas.

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For anyone unfamiliar with Shaw’s previous book, The War Against the Intellect—or anyone fortunate enough not to be acquainted with current trends in the academy—merely reading the quotations he adduces in evidence may come as something of a shock. We find, for example, the cannibalism of the South Sea Islanders (as depicted by Melville) lavishly praised by one academic as a “ritual ingestion of the antagonist’s virtue” and a practice “mindful of the individuality of the vanquished.” “Who are the real cannibals,” another critic asks scornfully, “the Typees who practice a ritual of eating the flesh of their dead attackers or the aggressor nations who have come to devour the islands?” And despite Melville’s explicit horror at the Typees’ eating habits—which extended to many others besides their “dead attackers”—still another critic has Melville believing “that savagery was a term applicable to the Europeans’ colonial and missionary activities in the Pacific rather than to the people they practiced upon.”

A similar antagonism toward Western “so-called civilization” also permeates the critics’ views of Billy Budd, one of the greatest portrayals in fiction of a character caught in a tragic dilemma. Billy is a guileless sailor, a pure spirit, serving on a British warship heading into battle with the French. When he is wrongly accused by a malicious master-at-arms of planning to mutiny, the ship’s captain, Vere, brings Billy face to face with his accuser so that he can clear himself; but Billy’s stutter renders him helpless to answer the charges against him. In his frustration, he strikes out instead, and accidentally kills his accuser.

Captain Vere, who believes absolutely in Billy’s innocence, is nevertheless compelled by the harsh code of martial law to have him tried by a jury of ship’s officers. Since the only allowable sentence for killing a senior officer is death, the innocent Billy is hanged the next morning, leaving Vere haunted by his memory. Shortly afterward, Vere dies in battle, with Billy’s name on his lips.

Yet the critics cited by Shaw have decided that Vere, notwithstanding Melville’s sympathetic portrayal of him, is actually a symbol of corrupt authoritarianism, of utter depravity, of capitalist exploitation of labor; they not only designate him a “war criminal” but compare him to the “commandant of a concentration camp.” Though no critic has been able to deny that Melville presents Vere as a thoroughly honorable and decent man, tormented by his part in Billy’s end, the current received wisdom is that we are not supposed to take him literally; the admiration Melville expresses is actually, we are to understand, offered in a mocking spirit.

According to this view of things, the only moral course for Vere would be to abandon the entire social system he is pledged to uphold—and risk a total breakdown of discipline among the crew he is about to lead into battle—by refusing to bring Billy to trial. Furthermore, although Vere, his ship, and the particular laws that mandate Billy’s death are all British, the tale has been interpreted as being actually about the “police state” and the “war machine” of the United States: “[It] foreshadows . . . the triumph of militarism and imperialism in America.”

Then there is Huckleberry Finn, which is denounced for its failure explicitly to condemn the institution of slavery and all those who failed to wage war against it. As for The Scarlet Letter, it is either attacked for its evident ambiguity on the question of the Tightness of Hester Prynne’s punishment for adultery or reinterpreted as a novel of protest against the allegedly patriarchal, phallocentric society Hawthorne portrays.

Finally, we come to The Bostonians, the story of Verena Tarrant, a young woman caught between her newfound devotion to the feminist cause—and to the rich, puritanical suffragist who has made Verena her protégée and mouthpiece—and her attraction to an impoverished, reactionary, ex-Confederate soldier named Basil Ransom. The novel’s outcome—Verena deserts the cause for the man—has traditionally been interpreted as the triumph of Verena’s natural impulses over the bloodless dogmas she has been enlisted to serve.

Whatever one thinks of the cause of women’s rights, the ending—which James never tries to present as morally correct, or even necessarily a promise of happiness (in fact, the novel’s last line hints at the sorrows that await Verena in her imprudent marriage)—does seem like an affirmation of ordinary human feeling, particularly since Verena’s friend and sponsor, Olive Chancellor, has developed a neurotically controlling, morbidly possessive feeling for Verena that cannot seem other than unhealthy.

But of course this point of view is no longer acceptable. For critics of James, the question of Olive’s latent lesbianism has become a focal point, and the whole idea that marriage might be a more natural or more attractive prospect for Verena than a lesbian relationship is seen as nothing more than prejudice—never mind that Verena herself, having no evident lesbian inclinations, would have to distort her own nature in order to choose Olive over Basil. Meanwhile, other critics, who wish to claim James for the side of the angels, insist that his intention in The Bostonians is “subversive,” and accuse Basil (whom James makes vividly appealing despite his various faults) of being “narcissistic” and “manipulative,” and of evincing “male brutality” and “sadism”; his running off with Verena at the end of the novel is denounced as “a virtual rape” and “a murder of some sort.”

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As Shaw points out, the reactions of certain of these latter-day critics to the characters they discuss are so rabid that they almost seem to have forgotten they are dealing with fictional personae. Theirs is approximately the mentality of 19th-century audiences in small mining towns out West who, when a stage villain was about to double-cross the hero or abduct the heroine, would stand up and threaten to shoot him. But presumably those miners did not hold doctorates in American literature.

Shaw asserts, rightly, that “the academics in question have neither experience nor standing when it comes to the aesthetic evaluation of literature.” Perhaps even more depressing, however, is their lack of ordinary wisdom, of any compassion for humanity. Human beings are imperfect, social structures are imperfect: this is something Melville knew, and James, and Hawthorne, and Twain. It is something every adult learns in the sorrowful process of growing up. Only the professors cited in Recovering American Literature seem determined, in their shrill righteousness, not to know it.

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