The Spectacle Blog

Illegitimately Illiterate?

By on 12.11.05 | 5:08PM

Prof. Sean Wilentz of Princeton has a great piece in the New York Times today, discussing the broadening chasm between literature and politics. Here's a snippet:

The memory of a time when American party politics was worthy of a writer's respect, let alone professional involvement, has almost disappeared. American literature has distanced itself from an essential part of national life, and American politics has debased what was once an uplifting language of democracy.

There's a great tradition from Dante to Orwell of literature promoting political philosophy, and there can be no substitute for it. I think Wilentz is a little too zealous here. For one thing, he omits the literary talent involved in politics in the latter half of this century (though he does mention Gore Vidal), such as William F. Buckley, Tom Wolfe, Christopher Buckley, or Ayn Rand (forgive me for lumping them together), among others (I'm also thinking about Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, though I doubt someone of Wilentz's preferences would agree). I'll forgive him for not mentioning Mark Twain stumping for Rutherford B. Hayes. But it's interesting to see he doesn't address how film has supplanted the novel in this regard. And what of the New Yorker? I can't imagine their writers are terribly pleased to be left out of the clubhouse.

This reminds me of National Review's 50th anniversary and Bill Buckley's 80th birthday, which served all the highbrow rhetoric surrounding National Review as the staging ground for the old cry of how politics is nowhere near as civil and thoughtful as it used to be, while failing to note that those who started NR were exceptional for their time -- these were mental giants by any standard, not symptomatic of an enlightened era, and their protests were exemplary of just how unique they were. There was a steady stream of anti-intellectualism then in politics, and there is very much one now, and for all Wilentz's efforts, I'm willing to bet that Andrew Jackson, unfairly maligned as he may have been, capitalized on that anti-intellectualism in his time too.

Yet allow me to pull the rug from beneath myself; I actually agree with the substance of the article, but I think it has more to do with the liberal drive to establish education "that mattered" as the norm, casting aside the novels of dead white men in favor of books that ventured into multiculturalism, etc. If Professor Wilentz is serious about reestablishing a literary political tradition, I wonder if he's pushing for a Great Books requirement at Princeton.

Quick, someone, publish the Democrat Review and get Barbara Boxer as Editor in Chief!

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