How all seventeen volumes of an early twentieth-century edition of the Columbia University Course in Literature came to Africa, eventually to appear in a Cape Town thrift shop, might be an interesting story in itself. But I have no room in my curiosity for that. I am too excitedly comparing the selections to the beginning university literature courses in my own life. I not only had my freshperson dose of Great Books at the University of Michigan, but I also taught this stuff at Harvard, at the University of Cape Town, and, most truculently, at the University of Kansas. There, one student reported in the first essay I assigned (“My Favorite Book”) that his favorite book was one on the Jayhawks, because he lived for Kansas basketball—had spent the rest of the day sobbing after one loss, and joined his twin brother in trashing their dorm room in rage after another. I have long been sunk in my own psychopathology, featuring among other symptoms a delusion that the canon actually matters, so that my lust to debate what young people should read can survive any number of young people themselves. I should probably be locked up. Failing that, indulging me in a disquisition like this could keep me from much worse.

It is striking, first of all, how much university students were expected to read back then. Each volume in the Columbia University Course is over five hundred pages long, in small type, and the organization is not anthology-like but textbook-like. Here, for example, are the most important Russian authors; these are their most important works, but first comes a long essay on how they all fit together. The chronology is tight within the ethnic and generic sections. You were supposed to read all of these volumes straight through, as if they were a physics course with interdependent logic and applications. In the anthology we used at Kansas, my students read perhaps a hundred and fifty pages in a semester, plus a paperback novel, and whined about their busy social and professional lives. I wish I had had these tomes on hand then to shame the little weenies with images of their gaitered and pince-nez’d ancestors quietly swatting because it was the duty of pretenders to education to learn about world literature.

World literature it actually was, but without the sub-Saharan African, Oceanic, and Native American provinces. At the time, however, there were splendid excuses for that. Scholarship had so far retrieved barely anything from oral traditions. Balkan oral composition linguistics—studied in connection to Homer—forms much of the basis of the modern interest in and understanding of oral literature. That without the work of Milman Parry (whose first collecting trip was in 1933) there should have been a full admission of the world’s preliterate literature into the canon by the 1920s is either a disingenuous or a not very well informed demand—especially given that most of this literature was in languages known to no Westerners but missionaries. Stephen Watson, a poet at the University of Cape Town young enough to have been my own colleague (and the victim of my reviewing), publishes groundbreaking popularizations of Bushman folklore. The oral literature arguably most accessible to the Columbia editors was African American, but in 1928 Zora Neale Hurston had scarcely started on her career-long project of making it known to the mainstream. (She was opposed, interestingly enough, not by white bigots but by radical black writers and their radical white patrons.)

But the editors plainly wanted to get at different experiences any way they could, and their use of the only voices and the only categorizations they knew of cannot be held against them. Colonial literature such as Kipling went under the headings of the mother countries, and postcolonial literature was an orderly queue. The United States and Canada and a few other former colonies happened already to have had a fully evolved written literature, which is represented. Australia and New Zealand appeared not to, so they didn’t get a slot. There is a Latin American Literature section, but a short one, which must have been because there didn’t seem to be much from Latin America per se yet. As Latin Americans are darker than most New Zealanders and more distinct from us in their ways of life, it would be hard to convict Columbia of literary eugenics or cultural triumphalism. On the evidence, the institution not only took literature as it came, but also made notable efforts to go after it.

The breadth of the array in these textbooks is Saharan. Volume I is called The Wisdom of the East. It starts with Egypt, passes through Babylonia, Assyria, ancient Israel and the early Diaspora (Yiddish literature comes later, in another volume), Arabia, Iran, India, China, and Japan. Volume VIII, The Great Literature of Small Nations, graciously welcomes groups as unexpected as the Finns and the “Roumanians.” Personal and political criteria for the choices are not even in evidence, let alone being objectionable. The editors simply state, “It is not easy, even if possible, to say anything new about literature.” Cumulative opinions are what count. There is no suggestion that a contemporary professor would have had the authority—if he first had had the daring—to oppose anything that had “become classic” in its home environment.

So here it all is. “Different epochs, different languages, and different civilizations have found varied modes of expression in literature for their reflection, emotion, and aspiration. To gather together representative selections of these is no slight or easy task, but when accomplished it matters mightily for those who, not themselves scholars or masters of several languages, are seriously bent upon reading the best that has been said and written in the world and upon bringing themselves under its influence.”

So keen are the compilers on “representative selections” that a literary hierarchy is almost invisible. The Homer excerpts cover eight pages. Aesop covers five—you wouldn’t think that he needed fanfaring back into Greek and Roman survey courses as a previously scorned African. Shakespeare gets his sixty-five pages, but somebody called Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616) gets his sixteen. Giving only twenty-two to Jane Austen—I wouldn’t have been equal to it, and I quail at the frosty-heartedness of anyone who, merely for the sake of the science of literature, was.

I swoon at the rosy modesty of editors who even left out all of the popular, established, and rising authors of their own generation, on the pretty much self-evident theory that time had not passed its verdict on such persons and that contemporary academics were not good substitutes for time. Every last author in the final volume (The American Tradition in Letters) was dead at the time of this publication, and there’s nobody who died after 1908. Mark Twain is absent, probably because he lived until 1910. (It is unlikely to have been because he was a humorist or an iconoclast, to judge from some other selections—if you want pomposity or religious or philosophical censorship, look somewhere else than at Columbia in 1928.) But his exclusion did not mean that students were deprived of him. Literature courses at the time were to get them to read what they would not otherwise, not simply to get them to read.

It makes pedagogical sense, if you think about it. When works are chosen for us, we should read the dead. They do not know us, cannot maneuver to get anything from us. We can see them, in their helpless fixity, more objectively the further away they are (unless we’re so abysmally dumb that Homer or Classical Arabian literature makes us fans of slavery). The instructors who set us reading a “representative selection” would have a hard time using it to sell anything in particular. When we choose our own reading, that’s us reinforcing our personal tastes and beliefs, according to where life takes us. We’ll naturally go for contemporary literature, but if it’s ephemeral—or if it’s simply garbage—what it does to us is not any educational institution’s responsibility. If we’ve read the dead, we’ll at least have a broader critical sensibility.

So how did the legend of an army of racist, sexist, classist dead white males (with their standard-bearers, the racist, sexist, classist live white males) and their heroic adversaries, the multiculturalists, come about? I have a feeling that it had something to do with soft targets. The Columbia literature faculty didn’t leave any fingerprints on anti-immigration laws or lynching or other abuses of their time. Whoever at the entry of the U.S. into WWI was prancing around bonfires in Ohio, enriching them with German books, and ending a bilingual school system, it wasn’t Dixon Ryan Fox, A. H. Thorndike, and company, in spite of their suspicious WASP-y names. If so, it would be hard to explain their Volume IX, The German Mind, with the Goethe frontispiece, a mere decade after the Armistice, exactly as if the war had never happened. In those days, in fact, you would probably have been hard put to find anyone less political than a literary scholar at a university. The very low-paying, very obscure profession in business-mad America would not have attracted political people.

Just to make it safer, the multiculturalists attacked the ghosts, generations later. By this time, literature professors, with the multiculturalists among them, had become “researchers” who “advanced their disciplines” and “theorists” who “broke ground” and not history- and language-grubbing, genius-worshipping scholars. Professors had often emerged as creative writers in their own right. Was imputing evil to past canons essentially another power play of the trade?

Looking through Columbia’s discarded paradigm for my education, I am resentful as all get-out that I didn’t get a version merely updated to include the Modernists. I’ve missed—practically everything. Take Heine, for example. I’ve read some Heine lyrics in German, but my German isn’t good enough to lead me into his prose—not that I ever knew much at all about it even at second hand. At this moment I’m dandling, with envy of the youth of people now aged or dead, a translated scene from The Harz Journey, “The Supper on the Brocken.” The two lovely and mutually infatuated young men lament Lora, who pined away gazing at the canary her now vanished lover had given her. The youths soon move off to declaim at the moonlight through a window, but are too drunk on literary rapture to realize that they have opened a large wardrobe instead. Their speeches are scarcely interrupted—changing in topic but not tone—when a prankster has shoved them in and they believe they are sprawled dying at the foot of the mountain. If only I could have relaxed and let that, instead of anything I could say, explain Romanticism to the Greeks, the jocks, and the stoners in my classes. But in the multiculturalist program, we’ve all been robbed of Heine—and Kant and Schiller—because of their nationality or ethnicity.

Give them back, you bastards! But I’m beating at a steel door, not of actual multiculturalism, as that term cannot fit what goes on in any present-day intro-lit classroom, but of the narrowest ideology imaginable—one that cripples us as a nation having more and more urgently to deal with the rest of the world—disguised as an inclusive one and defended with all the consequent sanctimony. The administration of the Kansas introductory literature course mandated the assignment of a couple of very recent short stories to cover the Hispanic American and African American points of view, but the message of both stories was (as far as I could see) “Other people in the world are you with darker skin. They feel exactly as you would about everything, and they do not have any problems but prejudice against their darker skin. They are partially excluded Americans. Don’t you even think about people outside the U.S., whom you might be tempted to suspect of being deeply different in background, in beliefs, in expectations. Their literature, though they wrote it themselves about themselves, makes them caricatures. We must have forced them to caricature themselves or something.”

In this way, every literary tradition but our own is being gradually excluded from the “multiculturalist” curriculum. How much blood would have run in the gutters had I insisted on assigning a really foreign work like—I open Columbia at random—Benito Peréz Galdós’s tale of Rosaria following her retreating mother on her knees after confessing her elopement plans—the fainting—the cries of “Kill him!”—the shots ringing out. Oh, and here, from the Ramayana, is Viçvamitra’s several thousand years of “unequaled self-torture” ending in a favor granted to him to prevent the destruction of all creation: that he be counted a Brahman priest. How could we expose young people to such melodrama about other cultures, solely because it’s the truth?

And here’s the really ironic part: “multi-culturalism” is strangling off new literatures in the developing world—not in places like India, which had their own books and also instituted the old Western (and particularly the British) curriculum back when it was prestigious. These countries let our authors assist the growth of modern national literatures by amalgamation and competition. But in South Africa—one example of many —there is no prevailing indigenous literary tradition, and our classics have been for the most part not available to people of color. Into this near-vacuum came multiculturalism, holding that a combination of the indigenous and the pseudo-alien is the only proper set of cultural offerings. This does enough damage in the U.S. It’s naturally a much bigger problem where there is very little of either the homey or the funky on hand. Here, what is authorized—and, as follows in the still very authoritarian Third World, what a disadvantaged person can get physical hold of and acquire the minimal training to decipher—is, as they would put it where I come from, pretty much the short end of nothing whittled down to a point. The situation asks young authors to build on nothing.

I was invited to “do something” with the Cape Town Central Library’s monthly gathering of aspiring writers, to prepare them to fill a whole issue of a local journal that they have been granted. Their talent dazzles me. But they won’t stand a chance as professional or even amateur writers unless they read something as a model for organizing and revising their own work. For this, their educational and ideological resources leave them nowhere to turn—and they’re the lucky ones, who can at least afford the public transportation to get to a library that was decently stocked back when this was allowed.

And now I’m going to get self-righteous and say to all of those prissy curriculum planners, the original ones back home and their imitators over here: You did this. Promising to do the opposite, you’ve denied a future voice to the voiceless. Was it what you meant to do all along?

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 50
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