literary heritage

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.3 (Summer 2017)


Literature vs. the Academy

Last Mohicans and Lost Worlds: How the Contemporary Academy Disfigures Our Literary Heritage
Peter T. Singleton

After examining the reception given to celebrated authors of yesteryear like James Fenimore Cooper and Arthur Conan-Doyle, a professor concludes that our literary heritage merely offers a pretext for a hypocritical academy to laud its own superior moral consciousness.

I must have read The Last of the Mohicans at some point when I was a boy. I must have, because I’m now growing old, and in my boyhood the likes of Cooper and Dickens and Brontë were still considered canonical authors. That the last of these three is still taught has more to do with her reproductive organs than her mind or spirit (to hear academics explain it with misplaced celebration), for the world has gone insane; but when I was a boy, The Last of the Mohicans was the kind of title that would have appeared on my school’s mandatory summer reading list.

Yet maybe I didn’t read the book so very well. (Like any other boy of that ancient day, I thought that summer was meant for things having nothing to do with the printed page.) For whatever reason, my only memories of Cooper’s tale are owed to the Masterpiece Theatre dramatization that first aired in 1971. In those days when accuracy was still prized (and long before PBS’s flagship literary hour would mutilate classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace), I could be reasonably confident that what I’d viewed on TV was what I would have remembered if Infantile Summer Amnesia had not afflicted my recall. I liked the MT serial very much, though its special effects positively stank by today’s standards. I’m sure I must have watched one or two re-airings of it.

When I was forced to teach Freshman Composition, therefore, from a reader that featured an article about The Last of the Mohicans written by a colleague of mine, I had a feeling of strange disquiet. Had the early high standards of Masterpiece Theatre been lower than I had supposed? The Cooper classic that I remembered from the broadcast didn’t remotely resemble what my colleague described in highly censorious prose. She portrayed the novel as racist, sexist, colonialist, and jingoist. The story I recalled bore one reference to an interracial marriage whose fruit was the heroic Cora, and also carried a hint that Cora might have ended up being the companion of Uncas if tragedy hadn’t intervened. The novel was a man’s tale, naturally (or a boy’s)—but as a Romantic heroine, the Afro-Scots outcast Cora played no minor part, and far outdid her insipid blonde-haired-blue-eyed sister Alice in lines delivered. (Alice seemed to spend a lot of time in swoons.) The televised story presented some Indians as brutal renegades, to be sure—but some were children of Eden not yet corrupted by civilization’s hypocrisy; and as for any “white man’s burden” propaganda, I recalled Hawkeye as more native than European in his heart of heart.

There was nothing else for it but to read (or re-read) the book itself, which I did last Christmas—even though I particularly dislike my national literary tradition (as I do all “traditions” based on the map rather than inherent quality). Cooper, sure enough, was prolix and unpolished in ways that one would expect of writers whose readership was relatively small and untutored (though the nineteenth-century publisher’s habit of paying by the word may also have induced verbosity). All in all, though, the details of the narrative vindicated Masterpiece Theatre, and even went farther toward undermining my colleague’s impressions. I had not remembered David the Psalmist at all. His formular and somewhat rehearsed piety, though sincere in him, did not compare well with the more natural faith Hawkeye had imbibed from his Mohican companions. Magua was a ruthless adversary monomaniacally pledged to vengeance—but this made him more distinct from then similar to his followers, who never began to plumb his depths; and for Cora, with whom he shared the oddest and unlikeliest of spiritual kinships (in typical Romantic fashion), he harbored a passion that might almost have redeemed him in other circumstances. As bloody as was Magua’s butchery of the surrendered English community at Fort William Henry, finally, Cooper presents the French general Montcalm as yet more to blame for not anticipating the peril of his prisoners.

My colleague’s “scholarly article” leaves me mystified. Well, not really. For some time now, we’ve all known that the way to place a “scholarly article” with a “scholarly journal” is to push the “patriarchal”, “colonialist”, and “sexist” buttons all at once, over and over. I should add (if this makes the offense any lighter; I think it may make it worse) that my colleague’s piece also spent relatively little time discussing the literary text: most of it was devoted to non-literary features of the novel’s successive editions, especially the author’s revised Forwards. I noticed, too, that not a single genuinely historical source was cited in the process of trying and convicting Cooper of racist, colonialist propaganda. All secondary material was drawn from other “literary scholars”. This is rather like trying a black sharecropper in turn-of-the-century rural Mississippi before a jury of white male store-owners for the crime of shoplifting.

The article in my Composition textbook thus comes very close to being a lie. Now, of course you could say with some squinting and caviling that The Last of the Mohicans broadcasts cultural prejudice. How could it not? Transforming the limitations natural to all human activity, however, into evil conspiracies is beyond childish. As I say, it perverts the truth. The same game is played by rabid feminists every day in our academic workplace. Why isn’t the Chair a woman? The previous one was, and the next one’s sure to be. Do you want 100 percent? Well, why aren’t there more women in the department? Again, what percentage do you require? The present fraction is three fourths female. Oh, so you’re saying that women aren’t fit to enter the sciences—is that it? Whether they are or not, they’re choosing to seek more Ph.D.s in English than Physics. Oh, so you think that’s their free choice, huh? Isn’t it? Is there an official ban on their applying to Physics programs? Don’t you know that the patriarchy has screened them from the sciences since their first Barbie Doll? No, I admit that I have under-appreciated the anti-scientific conditioning involved in playing with Barbies. Is that why you chose English—too many dolls? Now you’re mocking me in your condescending male fashion. I sense a derisive threat in that tone, and I don’t like it. I think I hear a threat, too. Oh, so if a woman sticks up for herself, you feel threatened? That’s interesting!

Poor Hawkeye has suffered the same fate. Though his reclusive life is passed almost entirely among natives, he has earned a meager wage killing them—or killing the tribes that kill his friends, to be exact; but all Indians look alike, in this PC approach. His pride in being a pure-blood white is represented as being somewhat comical, and might (through something called “literary analysis”) be taken as proof of a distance between the author’s attitudes and his characters’—but no, whatever Hawkeye says comes straight from Cooper’s mouth. Rather than give the novelist credit for projecting attitudes appropriate to time and place upon his creations, we must set about amassing evidence both that he was not a twenty-first century feminist (the swine!) and that his characters were not. And when he stands condemned by unanimous verdict, we airbrush him from the canon (and preserve him in literary history only because we may need occasional examples of what swine they were back then to pad a submitted article’s contents).

This modus operandi soon begins to leave huge holes in literary anthologies, which we may fill with letters written by Quaker women to their daughters and transcripts of testimony that Native Americans and freed slaves delivered to courts or congresses. You got a problem with that?

My problem with it is that contemporary “scholarship” is now doing everything we once taught students not to do in their struggles to handle a literary text objectively. Do not trust your immediate “gut” reaction. Do not suppose that the elements of a crisis meant the same thing 250 years ago on the American frontier as they would if reproduced today. Do not, for that matter, assume that they could be reproduced today: whatever current conditions you imagine as similar to what you’re reading about are really not so. (Get in the habit, at least, of telling yourself that in order to whet your analytical skills.) Do not take for granted that a word, a gesture, or a custom necessarily conveyed six or seven generations ago what it conveys to you now. Most importantly, do not conclude thoughtlessly that events in an artistic portrayal have no irony or understatement or satirical exaggeration in them: beware of taking them at face value.

All of that has now gone by the board. By way of example, another class I taught this past spring—this one an upper-division offering, be it noted, consisting mostly of English majors—read Euripides’ Medea. Several students (all female) eagerly chose to dedicate their required essay to the play. The essay was to be supported with scholarly references, not simply written as a personal reaction. Imagine my shock (for I have deliberately not kept abreast of the scholarly world’s multiplying absurdities) when I discovered that an abundance of articles published within the past five years interpret Medea’s murder of her sons as a feminist declaration of independence! Apparently, since Planned Parenthood wasn’t available to free the sorceress of motherhood’s burdens in a more convenient manner, she took the next best option and timed it so as to score the most points against the man currently ruining her life.

When the enticements to read all of our literary heritage (with lunatic anachronism) as an illustrative postscript to contemporary politics are this powerful, common sense starts to dissolve. Even outright lies are the product of a more rational and deliberative process than this. (As Claude Rains’ character Dryden remarks in Lawrence of Arabia, “A man who lies only conceals the truth, but a man who tells half-truths has forgotten where he put it.”) Just because The Last of the Mohicans reflects the values of its day doesn’t mean that it’s a hotbed of bigotry. What it means is that the book is a human creation drawn from human events. I find Cooper very typical of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Romantic thinking in how he represents the “noble savage”. Chateaubriand’s closely connected novels, Atala and René, are far more sentimental (and historically less knowledgeable) but project essentially the same confidence that the wilderness is good for the soul. Disfiguring Cooper’s flawed masterpiece to make it sound like one of Goebbels’ propaganda films, with Native Americans substituted for Jews, is wrong. It’s deceptive, abusive, and quite frankly stupid. And it’s where we are today, as academicians.

I will conclude this little rant by giving a nod of a different sort to a novel of a different sort. Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Lost World was probably never on any Great Books reading list of yesteryear. Also from a distance mediated only by film productions, I’d heard of it since my youth. The creator of Sherlock Holmes had composed a sci-fi adventure in which Victorian explorers discover a land where dinosaurs yet live… how quaint. Not being the keenest of sci-fi fans (since I am myself Victorian enough to look to novels for psychological insights, not escapist fantasies), I’d felt little desire during my long literary life to track down a copy.

And then, for some reason, I took up the little book this spring. The characterization was indeed pretty static and cliché; but well before the end, I sensed that the cause of this woodenness could be much more subtle than it is in Jules Verne. Père Jules simply never figured out how to develop his characters: that wasn’t his interest or his talent. The character stasis in the warring scientific rivals Challenger and Summerlee, on the other hand, may be implying something about scientists generally. Conan-Doyle may be suggesting that professional egotism has rendered the group incapable of growth as human beings. All they can do is seek ways to shore up their reputations as scholars. Even when their very lives are in jeopardy under the pecks of pterodactyls, they can only focus on classifying their assailants with a view to publishing the results in a prominent journal.

Which does sound just like an academic, come to think of it!

If there is any satiric genius in Conan-Doyle’s adventure novel (and I believe there is), then its finest hour comes when three of the four explorers are captured by “ape-men” (the Darwinian missing link between higher primates and full humans) and Professor Challenger instantly attracts their reverence—for he looks just like their leader, absent the clothes! The premier exponent in the scientific community of a non-linear evolution fraught with eddy currents and backwaters turns out himself to be a monkey’s uncle… how rich!

The seasoned, athletic, aristocratic globetrotter, Lord Roxton, is as stereotypical as anything out of Ryder Haggard, even in his noblesse oblige defense of an enslaved South American native population: a Victorian, high-church Hawkeye, if you will. Yet perhaps the story’s narrator, the ambitious young Irish journalist Malone, shows significant transition in a humorous and lovable way. His undertaking the adventure was originally owed to a life-risking sense of urgency to impress the ravishing but haughty Gladys, who will have none to court her but a man like Robert Burton, intrepid discoverer of the Nile’s source. When Malone returns from his incredible ordeal only to find Gladys married to a prosperous banker whose great risks are taken with other people’s money, he recognizes in her a kind of feminine vanity that consumes male achievement, wealth, and social standing the way an allosaurus consumes slow-footed humans back on the Plateau. Like the Ancient Mariner, Malone ends a sadder but a wiser man—and not really very much sadder, being still very young.

And fair-minded person would argue that, while The Lost World has no female characters except Gladys, its exposure of her bourgeois hypocrisy is a feminist-friendly message. Likewise, any anti-colonial critic dealing off the top of the deck would have to give Lord Roxton his due, noting that his somewhat paternalistic compassion for the natives nevertheless sets them free (nearly at the cost of his own life). A Green critic (and I’m sure there are such strange new species now) would also need to concede in all justice that the explorers take care not to reveal the lost land’s coordinates, and that the extreme vulnerability of natural wonders to civilized “progress” is an implicit theme of the book. The ape-men could even be said to resemble Europeans in certain respects more than they do the delicate, peace-loving Indians who have somehow found their way onto the miraculous plateau.

In short, The Lost World would be surprisingly adaptable to reigning PC attitudes if the education establishment wanted to exploit the novel’s merits (for instance) in an eighth grade English class. It would be perfect for roping boys into a love of literature at a time when tastes are still being formed; and its flaws as scientific speculation (e.g., assuming that enormous Ice Age elk could coexist beside stegosaurs) could be discussed in biology class.

Instead, I write with utter confidence that if any contemporary academic were ever actually to read the novel, she or he would find only varieties of rape and racist atrocity. (This theory is immediately borne out by a quick search of Internet sites which, though popular rather than academic in appearance, have been put together by the new literati of our self-adoring postmodern establishment.) Conan-Doyle’s England, like Cooper’s America, had certain cultural prejudices that we no longer accept. It also, on the whole, had a strong sense of obligation to humanity and an insatiable curiosity about our globe’s peoples and their history. Yet our professoriate seems to be able to find nothing in the literature of the Western past but bigotry, propaganda, intimidation, and devious factual distortion. Its analyses of texts are as wearisome and priggish as some hellfire minister’s sermons that congratulate the tiny congregation every Sunday on not being like the devil’s brood swarming outside their narrow door. Nothing but supercilious sneers and categorical moral condemnation flows from the scholarly quills of today’s English departments.

How like Gladys they all are—Gladys, who reproaches Malone for deserting her rather than admit her own fecklessness after almost sending him to his death in a bid to win her favor. Nothing anyone does will please her, yet nothing she does is subject to criticism. In another way, they are all Professor Challengers, these “scholars”: apes biting and clawing for publication and promotion in very fine clothes at very distinguished conferences. Maybe a novel full of static characterizations would be ideal to portray them… for how many of them are capable of change?

Dr, Singleton will not confirm that he is retired, since he continues to explore employment opportunities in non-traditional educational settings.  He currently resides in the North Texas area.