Commentary Magazine


Topic: Western canon

Blue Lit, Red Lit

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

Amazon’s “Election Heat Map” has Governor Romney ahead of President Obama by 59 percent to 41 percent based on purchases of “red” books versus “blue” books. Pretty much without exception, the books on both lists are topical and perishable, if they do not yet belong in the trash (soon, though). Killing Lincoln, a popular retelling of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 by the TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, is the bestselling “red” title. (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, by an earlier journalistic hack, must be out of print.) Winner-Take-All Politics, a 350-page pile of muckraking on the “growing inequality of incomes,” is the top “blue” title.

Since the divide between blue liberals and red conservatives is as much cultural as political, this self-sorting into blue and red bestseller lists makes some sense. Anyone who reads very much contemporary literature, though, knows that any such self-division is impossible: there are not enough “red” books for a short reading list. Anything by Charles McCarry, of course, especially Shelley’s Heart. The historical novelist Thomas Mallon, who has written historical reconstructions of Watergate and the McCarthy era. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with its vituperation toward “the American berserk.” (As if to compensate for the acclaim he received from conservatives, Roth went public a few years later with his Bush-bashing.) [Update: Guido Brunetti nominates Mark Helprin on the basis of Refiner’s Fire, and Josiah Neeley reminds me that I should have mentioned Tom Wolfe. The latter is an especially stupid omission given that I will be reviewing Back to Blood, one of the best novels of 2012 and perhaps Wolfe’s best to date, in December’s COMMENTARY.] If you go back a couple of generations, you can expand the red list to include Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a novel that is not often recognized as a masterpiece of anti-Communist literature), Nabokov, Eudora Welty. But even with a few big names on the right side, the left has all the trend-lines and momentum. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to avoid Facebook, because I haven’t wanted their relentless politicking for Obama to lower my opinion of some contemporary novelists. If any contemporary writer has come out for Romney, I’ve missed it.

Whether the deep blue tinge of contemporary literature is the unanticipated consequence of a historical event (the leftist domination of humanities faculties in the universities), or whether writers are blue for the same reason English professors are blue (their self-regard depends upon it), is an open question. ’Twas not always so, however. Once upon a time literature was as likely to be red as blue:

    Blue Literature

  • Plato, Republic
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Spenser, The Faerie Queene
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  • Defoe, Moll Flanders
  • Johnson, Rasselas
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Blake, Songs of Innocence
  • Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • Dickens, Great Expectations
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  • Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Wells, The Time Machine
  • Proust, In Search of Lost Time
  • Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  • Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
  • Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
    Red Literature

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • More, Utopia
  • Montaigne, Essays
  • Milton, Paradise Lost
  • Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Austen, Emma
  • Brontë, Jane Eyre
  • Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Conrad, Nostromo
  • Kafka, The Trial
  • Joyce, Ulysses
  • Cather, My Ántonia
  • Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Blue literature is a literature of ideals with a strong nose for justice, a healthy suspicion of inherited position or class, and a fundamentally “Whiggish” confidence in human advancement. The themes of red literature are limitation, decline, responsibility, a distaste for monomania (or any kind of mania, for that matter), a commitment to institutions, and a strong feeling for place and the past. The party lines aren’t particularly neat and tidy, however, because all literature is liberal in the classic sense — literature is the affirmation of human freedom and the dignity of the individual. And perhaps the division shows little more than that “blue” and “red” are a matter of temperament and disposition more than anything else. The skeptics are found on the right; the forward-looking personalities on the left. Oh, and religious types become increasingly red as the present heaves near.

____________________

Update, II: The choice above that has caused the most consternation is Huckleberry Finn in the red list. It’s true that Mark Twain went over to the blue side, at least in his extraliterary opinions, later in life. Here is a pretty good article that sorts through the biographical evidence. Huckleberry Finn, though — classified on the basis of its content, not its author — is unambiguously a red-state book. It is a sustained attack on politically correct thinking. Huck knows what the right thing is. The right thing is to turn Jim over to his “rightful owner.” When he finds that he is unable to do so, despite a conscience that will give him no rest, Huck feels guilty. “I knowed very well I had done wrong,” he says, “and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don’t get started right when he’s little, ain’t got no show. . . .” But then he stops and thinks. Suppose he had “done right and give Jim up.” Would he feel any better?

No, says I, I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use of learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.

There is another way of putting Huck’s moral decision: he decides to act on behalf of whoever is closest to hand, the person he is nearest to. He stands by Jim because closeness trumps correctness (and because he promised to). This is the ethic of loyalty, the spirit that holds together friendships and families and the other kinds of voluntary association that red-staters like to call “mediating institutions,” a bulwark of freedom. This preference for the informality of attachment over the formality of virtue runs throughout the novel. The villains are those who defend abstract principle or public morality — the Grangerfords, Colonel Sherburn, even Tom Sawyer — and the hero is a black slave who, out of personal loyalty, stays with the boy who has been shot in an adventurous and entirely gratuitous escape, never a “better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it.”

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