book cover image“English as It’s Taught”
by Joseph Epstein,
in A Literary Education and Other Essays.
Axios Press, 2014.
pages 335-40 (of 537).

In A Literary Education and Other Essays is found Joseph Epstein’s 2011 review, “English as It’s Taught” in The Cambridge History of the American Novel. This hefty tome has seventy-one chapters with some twelve hundred pages brilliantly written, to Epstein’s amusement, so that no one else but professors teaching in English department could or would read them, and he is not sure about them either. English departments, as I have long suspected, are the last bastions of Marxism in the Western world. As Epstein puts it: “If one is still looking for a living relic, the fully subsidized Marxist, one is today less likely to find him in the Economics or History Department than in an English Department, where he will still be taken seriously.” Ideologues can only converse with each other.

Epstein recalls those earlier happy days when a student who “majored” in English was, in effect, telling the world that he was not concerned with mundane things like business or making a living. He would follow that other world of literature that encouraged him to see things before they happened to him. “Undergraduates who decided to concentrate their education on literature were always a slightly odd, nonconformist group. No learning was less vocational; to announce a major in English was to proclaim that one wasn’t being educated with the expectation of financial payoff. One was an English major because one was intoxicated with literature—its beauty, its force, and above all its high truth quotient.” This is the literary version of Aristotle’s “things worth doing for their own sake.”

What is studied today is mostly governed by “race, class, and gender” studies that make reality mostly unintelligible and incoherent.

English departments also become pseudo-history departments that teach us how bad everything has been, especially in America. What would a stranger chancing on the United States find out about this country? He would learn that this country was “founded on violence and exploitation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism. The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” This is not a pretty picture.

Epstein takes The Cambridge History of the American Novel, which needs a “fork-lift” to raise it up to one’s lap, with a light-hearted seriousness. How could there be 1,244 pages on such a topic that did not explain “why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others?” He rightly points out that if we accept the premises of multiculturalism or historicism we have no grounds for saying that anything is better than anything else. If Aztecs insist on sacrificing the hearts of their youth, or cannibals insist on having us for supper, who are we to impose our “beliefs” on them?

The heart of Epstein’s trenchant remarks deals with the issue of high and low culture. The Cambridge History of the American Novel “could only have come into the world after the death of the once crucial distinction between high and low culture.…” Yves Simon, in his A General Theory of Authority, considered the purpose of authority in things of the mind. Authority ought to guide us to what is worth knowing and studying. It simply ought to know that some things are better than others, closer to the truth. The function of authority is to be a guide that enables us to see things sooner and clearer than if left to ourselves.

Thus, Epstein remarks. “In today’s universities, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren’t fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing.” And if there is no indication about what is or what is not worth reading, then any normal student will conclude that it really does not make much difference. No one has the “right” to discriminate against me if I read or write on anything. Even the rules of grammar and syntax, let alone the metaphysics behind words, disappear. We no longer affirm, with Plato, of what is that it is; of what is not, that it is not. Such affirmations might limit our “freedom” to deny being.

Epstein thinks that this academic dullness and ideology are responsible for students, on a large scale, deciding no longer to take the adventure of studying the literature that reflects what men ought to be, even if they do not live as they should. The dramas of our personal stories include our sins and foibles. The greatest novels abound in hints of redemption both for the noble and the ordinary, even if these hints are rejected. Students of noble literature suspect damnation is possible, even to the heroes, as well as to Miller’s “salesman” or Flannery O’Connor’s parsons.

This essay of Joseph Epstein, as I mentioned, is great fun. He lists several of the “dopey” words and phrases that he found in these “new-speak” chapters—“problematized,” “tasks himself,” “alterity,” “poetics of ineffability,” and, a word to end all words, “non-heteronormativity.” I did not have the courage to look this word up in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language for fear that I might find it listed, or that it might indicate some psychic disorder that I was sure to discover in my own soul.

As practitioners of their trade, “These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite.” No doubt, the Cambridge publishers of this opus will be appalled at this witty review of their earnest efforts to say the last, or, at least, the latest thing about the American novel.

Epstein is no respecter of academic rankings or prestige. He tells us that Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser are his “candidates” for the best American novelists. Today, however, in this literary field, the “barbarian” professors are “through the gates.” They are, in fact, “running the joint” today. “Multiculturalism assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures irrespective of the quality of those works.”

No one, I think, denies that one can “learn” something even from the worst of literature. But what is the “worst” if there are no standards to distinguish bad, worse, worst—let alone the good, the better, and the best? Such a question always brings us back, as Epstein has tried to show, to a consideration of whether what it is to be human is merely to do whatever we want to do.

In a sense, great literature is also the account of what happens to us when we try to live as if there were no standards. In such living, the great novelists see in the lives that pass before them hints both of judgment and transcendence. To deny this level of being is to lock ourselves into our time and place, never to be heard of again, because all that we did, in the end, had no meaning.

As Adeimantus already implied in the second book of the Republic, the ancient poets seemed to tell us that, in the end, the wicked are not punished for their deeds in this world, nor are the good rewarded for theirs. My reading of Epstein’s little essay suggests that the denizens of our English departments, and probably not them alone, have read many a curious yarn, except perhaps those in Plato. We have, in other words, come full circle. The “barbarians” are “running the joint”.  

Father Schall reflects on state of the university English department after reading an essay by Joseph Epstein.