Liberals, I say! Liberals, all of them!

The Norton Anthology of American Literature

In “Why the Right Hates English,” Stephen J. Mexal analyzes why right-wingers have targeted college English classes and professors since at least William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, when by his lights the curriculum remains focused on American and British literature in the main, and on uncontroversial authors to boot:

Every English literature class I have ever taken, taught, or observed has spent the vast majority of its time on exactly what all these writers claim is missing: the study of literature. In my experience, English classes do pretty much what they’ve always done. Students read literature closely, and then talk about how it works and what it means. The courses I teach in American literature today contain pretty much the same authors you would have expected 20 or 30 years ago: Twain, Emerson, Dickinson, Douglass, Melville, Wharton, and so on. Of course, people teach some newer authors, too (Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo tend to show up often), and some authors are not taught quite as frequently (D.H. Lawrence, for instance), but English departments are not eternal guardians of a frozen literary heritage. They change a little over time, sure, but they still do what you’d expect.

For that matter, [Andrew] Breitbart’s English departments did pretty much what you’d expect, too. He had to take two semesters of American literature at Tulane University, and as Mark Howard and Alexander Zaitchik have reported, students in those courses were assigned to read Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Stowe, and so on. Not much “cultural Marxist theory,” in other words.

What do all of the bolded names have in common, friends?  They’re all liberals!  Why do college English professors insist on assigning only nineteenth (and the occasional twentieth-century) liberals?  Why aren’t James Henry Hammond, John C. Calhoun, Roger B. Taney, and George Fitzhugh on these syllabi to provide balance and alternative viewpoints?  What about William F. Buckley?

Why instead are we indoctrinating students with the scribblings of confessed assailants and fugitives like Frederick Douglass, leftist propagandists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, cultural relativists like Herman Melville, and crypto-feminists like Edith Wharton and Emily Dickinson?  Even the more staid New England Renaissance-types, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, are suspect:  Emerson believed in social welfare for the Alcott family, on whose windowsills he frequently left $20 bills so that the large family of the feckless Bronson Alcott didn’t starve.  Furthermore, Hawthorne was a Democrat who accepted a government sinecure to support his writing when he wasn’t living off of his wife’s inheritance.  (He was thank God certainly no feminist!) 

What are your theories for the domination of liberals on English department syllabi?  Are all English professors bent on left-wing indoctrination of their students?  Are liberals truly just better writers, are the best writers usually politically liberal, and/or do liberal ideals stand the test of time better than conservative ideals?  Me, I think it would be a grand idea to pop God and Man at Yale onto a syllabus, just for kicks, and just to hear what students make of it, 60 years on.  (Unfortunately, I don’t teach American intellectual history, nor am I an English professor, so I probably won’t have the opportunity myself.)  What was it that the atheistic Mark Twain (who didn’t believe in “American Exceptionalism”) once said?  “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”

Me, I’m happy if my students leave my classes successfully indoctrinated with the correct use of the apostrophe, in addition to the “cultural Marxist theory,” of course.  (What is that, anyway?  I think it’s right-wing agitprop meaning any discussion of power, but I’m open to other ideas on this.)

22 thoughts on “Liberals, I say! Liberals, all of them!

  1. I think writers are often liberals (small l) because part of writing — at least imaginative writing — involves exploring alternate realities, looking at the world from varied perspectives, etc. And that kind of writing, if it’s any good, militates against any kind of rigid orthodoxy. But I could imagine Buckley being assigned in a Cold War course, for instance. (And from what I’ve read about the writers in the CP in the 30s, they often had real trouble always following the rules.)

    One of our former students wrote to me last year asking whether the history department would teach a course on American Conservatism, and helpfully pointed me to some conservative organization’s syllabus for such a class. I responded that as a British historian I wouldn’t teach a course on American conservatism, but I’d expect conservatism to be studied in its historical context, not to be pulled out of context and studied on its own. That, it seemed to me, was what political scientists would do. I forwarded the message to my (very left wing) US colleague, and he actually looked at the course they wanted us to teach, which would not meet our standards.


  2. Dunno about any sort of “conservatism” philosophy, but American political conservatism is very easy to explain and doesn’t really require a course: white christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, in the service of insanely wealthy plutocrats, descendant of the Confederacy.


  3. There are lots of politically right wing writers particularly in the 20th century. Ezra Pound, Celine, and Junger just to name those with a political inclination towards Fascism. For that matter Faulkner and Hemingway are considerably more conservative than Steinbeck. Politically writers like Kerouac and Bukowski were certainly not leftists. I think it would be rather easy to assemble a literature class on politically right wing writers in the 20th century or at least one that did not have any left wing political content.


  4. OK, so I have never taught Buckley. But I *have* taught Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative and students love it.

    Why? I’m not altogether sure, but I think it is because, not unlike the texts you cite above, he makes very forceful arguments with great clarity (then of course you have to walk them back and say, “OK. This business of ending the Vietnam War with nuclear weapons — whaddaya think of that?”) But I think this can be said for all of the writers you cite above. I’ve also taught John C. Calhoun’s speech on the concurrent minority, Booker T. Washington, and Thomas Dixon.

    Because you and I share a common mission Historiann, it might make more sense for us to teach such texts than for our colleagues over in English. But I think there is another issue as well: the high/low culture divide in literature was produced, and has been sustained, in English departments as much by conservatives as by liberals and radicals. Hence, conservatives don’t actually view conservative novels like The Clansman, Atlas Shrugged or Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series as “great literature” either.


  5. Tenured Radical, I think you’re right about historians teaching this stuff more easily than lit proffies, and in fact I was able to rattle off all of those slavery apologists so easily because my U.S. survey students just read stuff by all of them in some of our primary source readers.

    I have never taught a Thomas Dixon novel, however, because my 19th C teaching pretty much stops ca. 1865. But the more I think about it, the more I think teaching a course on American conservative intellectual history would be a ton of fun, and hugely educational for me.

    You are right about the high/low divide, of course. In fact, I was surprised to see Stowe on Mexal’s list of 19th C American authors. She’s a fairly new addition to the canon, and has until pretty recently been considered low culture (compared to Melville, Hawthorne, and the other male authors whose works she far outsold.)


  6. Cultural Marxist theory? Using critical theory in regards to gender, race, and family. See also: The Frankfurt School, N.B. Adorno.


  7. We can gloat all we want about the relative dearth of great conservative literati, but they keep winning in the political sphere. The only way to confront and best a political enemy is to understand how it thinks. Until liberals take conservative ideas seriously, they will continue to get beat like a drum at the polls, because the other side is a whole lot better at communicating their message to the public, no matter how asinine liberals might find it to be.


  8. Well, I’m not a literature prof, but it seems to be part of the zeitgeist of the nineteenth century was a stringent social critique, and the idea that engaging in social critique was *part* of the literary endeavor. So many of the “great” (ie, canonized) nineteenth and early twentieth century writers engaged in the “big” questions of their day and agitating (often) on behalf of them. I think that’s one reason why Austen was forgotten and dismissed for so long – the problems in her books were “small”, local, and personal, rather than the grand narratives of Eliot, Melville, Dostoevski, Hugo, etc. As J. Otto Pohl points out, this shifts with new literary styles, socio-political context, and literary theories in the 1920s and 1930s, when the great progressive era gives way to something else. Of course there are still many 20th century novels-as-social-critics, but there are also more “conservative” voices moving in as the political times change (ie, Pound and Joyce.) In fact, I heard two guys, recent college grads like me, having a spirited conversation about why All the Great Writers of the 20th Century were fascists, with an undertone that there was some connection between fascist sympathy and literary greatness, which creeped me out. You can imagine how my counter with Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Marquez was accepted by that crowd.


  9. I like your analysis, Perpetua. I never liked Pound, even before I knew of his fascist sympathies.

    I’m going to check out God and Man at Yale today, and may write up a book report here later this summer.

    I just wanted to clarify the purpose of this post, which was not (as WHB suggested) to “gloat” over the absence of conservative writers in the American lit canon. Rather, it was just an observation, one that somewhat surprised me when I started thinking about it. Furthermore, this thread has been all about taking “conservative ideas seriously.”

    However many of us may engage with and even teach conservative texts (as many of us here do), I seriously doubt that university professors are in a position to advocate for liberal or leftist ideas effectively. That’s not our job. Our job, as I see it, is merely to inform our students and to encourage crticial thinking via engagement with historical and literary texts. Students can and should think for themselves–I’m much more interested in inculcating in them the appropriate use of the apostrophe than any contemporary political viewpoint.

    Political persuasion is the job of political operatives and politicians–but as only a tiny minority of them are really interested in promulgating an effective liberal or progressive message, I’m not holding my breath.


  10. If you are serious about the conservative intellectual history thing, Withywindle put a sketch up of a conservative intellectual history over the course of many posts at his blog Athens and Jerusalem. It’s very intellectual history oriented and avoids a lot of the more unpleasant issues. But it’s certainly more serious than something you are going to find from a think tank. Among the selections I look forward to reading is one described as “Whitaker Chambers going medieval on Ayn Rand.”


  11. I have heard the theory about the connection between great literature and fascism and there is something to it. Not that all great literature is fascist, but that some elements of fascist aesthetics are quite compatible with great literature.


  12. Pingback: Your free laugh today: George Tierney of Greenville, South Carolina : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  13. I’m with you on 95% of this post, Historiann. But I’d be hesitant to label all of the writers you name as “liberals,” and just as hesitant to name all of the writers J. Otto lists as “conservative.” It’s not that I don’t believe in long-standing liberal and conservative traditions. It’s that these figures don’t fit neatly into the boxes marked “liberal” and “conservative” in 2012.

    Part of this might be because I teach figures from an earlier era, whose imagine the terms of political debate very differently. (Is Milton a liberal? A conservative? A radical? Yeah.) But you know “Hawthorne was a democrat” means “Hawthorne was a close friend and supporter of Franklin Pierce,” which necessarily akin to supporting Obama. And Hemingway might be considered a “conservative” on the basis of his racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, if one considers those things as the core elements of conservatism, but I’d prefer not to. Certainly, supporting the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War was not a big conservative move.

    I did recently teach Stowe to undergraduates. And certainly, Stowe doesn’t fit easily into our current categories about politics and race. In fact, I was teaching her precisely because she is hard to fit into our current terms of debate. The racial politics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin really are their own thing, not ours.


  14. Doctor Cleveland, I completely agree with you that it’s very difficult to fit historical authors into our contemporary political definitions. This post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, esp. w/r/t Hawthorne as a Democrat (with the implication being that Democrats = liberals, when in the 1840s and 50s they were of course the reactionary/conservative party.) But then, there’s that whole Brook Farm chapter of his life, and the fact that many in that Concord crowd were effectively proto-hippies. (And Emerson really did leave large bills laying around the Alcott household because he felt sorry for Bronson’s hapless wife and growing family of daughers after Bronson left teaching and wrote only unpublishable crazzy stuff while letting his wife and daughters–and Emerson–support him.)

    But still: it is a curious fact that most of our most revered writers in the canon today were expermental in the way they chose to live their lives, and/or progressive in the ideas that they wove into their most famous novels and essays.


  15. Sorry to miss the ironies, Historiann. My only excuse is that I’d been reading the more recent post about that idiotic bigot’s twitter feed, and my sense of irony had been undone.

    I would like to agree with you that the greatest writers were personally experimental and/or progressive, and I would like even more to agree that their experimental and progressive tendencies are what made their works great. But I’m afraid the truth is probably that I am personally a liberal, and so tend to remember and emphasize the liberal or proto-liberal tendencies in writers whose works I love. *My* Dickens is a progressive social reformer, which is true enough. But I(automatically, unconsciously) neglect the other aspects of Dickens that I find less congenial. I can focus, without trying in the least, on the single issue in the universe on which Yeats and I can agree (Irish independence), and filter out his superstitious fascist-sympathizer nitwittery. Everybody does this, more or less. It’s part of our response to literature. The cultural authority of great writers is so compelling, that we naturally want to recruit them to our own cause.

    This is what the whole “Death of the Author” thing in literary studies is about, on one level: the attempt to break up a little of that Great Writer authority, and to make them seem less oracular.

    What the right wing is really so upset about, I think, is that we’re NOT using English class to indoctrinate students with *conservative* ideas. What they would like is for us to talk about the Great Authors and their Values, in ways that uphold the conservative worldview. And in fact, university English classes used to do just that, in living memory. The conservatives are upset that we don’t do more of it.


  16. I think you’re exactly right, Dr. C. At least, their Pater, Bill Buckley, thought so in 1951! In God and Man at Yale, he combines a touching and rather naive faith in the authority of the faculty and our ability to influence student opinions with a rather creepy willingness to name names and call out Yale faculty members of the time by name for their supposed atheism and “collectivism.” He would have fit right in with Joseph McCarthy, who was doing the same thing on a much larger stage at exactly the same time.


  17. I’m way late to this party, and yet I can’t resist noting that I read Celine, for an undergraduate class, at that notorious bastion of left-liberal-hippie values, UC Berkeley, back in the 1980s. I mean, just as a tiny little counter-example to the claim that profs are all liberals who indoctrinate their students by assigning only lefty lit, not that anyone will pay any attention. Because we couldn’t possibly be teaching or studying literature for literature’s sake.


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