In cultural life, as elsewhere in human affairs, it is sometimes the outrages perpetrated by minor characters that most effectively dramatize our situation and provide a measure of how drastically things have changed. A melancholy example of this was provided by the “Campus Life” section of the Sunday New York Times for March 3, in which we were informed that a course in nineteenth-century American literature at Georgetown University is now being offered by a black assistant professor named Valerie Babb under the title “White Male Writers.”
Unlike many courses offered in college English departments these days, the reading list for English 112 at Georgetown is perfectly traditional: Hawthorne, Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, and Mark Twain were mentioned in the article. At a moment when many institutionsincluding Georgetownhave revised their curricula to include, as the Times put it, “less familiar but equally important works of minorities and women,” a course focusing on writers from the traditional canon seems “unusual.” (The fact is that the “less familiar” writers in question are seldom as important as the writers they replace, but that of course is an issue rarely faced.)
Do not think, however, that the Georgetown English department has suddenly become retrograde. Far from it. If the reading list for English 112 is traditional, Professor Babb’s approach is pure multicultural revisionism, another small victory in the multiculturalist campaign to transform literature into a species of sexual and ethnic prizefighting. Asked about the provocative title of her course, she replied, “This is just one small group within a large body of literature, so let’s title it that. Just as we say native American writers, just as we say black women writers, these are white male writers.” In other words, writers whom D. H. Lawrence had discussed under the rubric Studies in Classic American Literature are now to be reduced to specimens of their sex and skin color.
Defending the rationale behind “White Male Writers,” Lucy Maddox, chairman of the Georgetown English department, noted that Professor Babb’s course “placed the books of white men on the same academic level as books by minority or female writers.” The problem is, alas, that while Professor Babb may place Hawthorne and Melville and Twain on the same “academic” level as minority and women writers of the period, no amount of multiculturalist maneuvering can place them on the same literary level.
But then literary value is never a high priority for our multiculturalist crusaders. At least in the case of “White Male Writers,” though, there is considerable irony in the subordination of literary values to political ends. For in its effort to “foreground,” as the current argot has it, the sex and race of these great American writers at the expense of their literary achievement, the course threatens to obscure the one thing that has preserved their names in our cultural memory and made them the canonical figures they are. There have been many white male writers in American history; why should we study these and not others? While one student reported that there was less “white male writer bashing” in the course than he had feared, we were given a vivid sense of the level of literary judgment fostered by “White Male Writers” by another student whose reading of James Fenimore Cooper led him to report that “Cooper is obviously an unbelievable racist.” Indignation apparently left no room for the question of Cooper’s literary accomplishment.
At the end of the Times piece, Professor Babb waxed meditative. “Who would know white men better than a black woman?” she asked. “I've got a legacy of great-grandmothers and grandmothers who cleaned house, washed clothes, diapered babies for white males. . . . My entire education has come from what might be called a white male culture.” So now you know what it takes to qualify to teach American literature at Georgetown University.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 8, on page 2
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