Thursday, May 28, 2015

Paul Johnston on Azar Nafisi's Sense of the American Literary Canon

Huck Giving Old Man River a Good Paddling

In an article "The Republic of Imagination," written for the Catholic journal Commonweal (May 14, 2015), Paul Johnston reviews Azar Nafisi's recent book, America in Three Books (Viking), and he begins with an anecdotal observation:
When cultural conservatives deem a book bad for young people, they often make news by demanding its removal from classrooms. When liberals deem a book offensive, its removal typically takes place out of the limelight - not before school boards, but in the graduate schools where professors teach and the academic journals where they publish. In the 1970s, many canonical books began to be rejected by the left as artifacts of the cultural hegemony of white men, and books by writers representing women, minorities, and other marginalized groups were put forward to take their place. As the midcentury archetype hailed by Lionel Trilling in 1955 as "the opposing self" came under increasing suspicion, some classic American works were criticized for exalting individualism. In Trilling's day, conformity was the province of cultural conservatives, and those who rebelled against it were celebrated by the left. But today these positions have reversed, and such figures as Emerson - author of "Self-Reliance" and mentor to America's first two hippies, Thoreau and Whitman - are anathema to many progressives, even as a rebellion against collectivist conformity, on behalf of a heroic American individualism, has become the battle cry of the right. Odd times indeed.
I was born in 1957, just two years after Trilling's expression of America's "midcentury archetype," the individualistic "opposing Self" - though in a time of cultural conformity - except for places like where I grew up, the Ozarks, which combined rugged individualism with a hardscrabble sense of community. But don't let me get off track and start monologuing! My point is that I was born early enough to learn the classic American works of literature, particularly as an undergrad, just before the Left replaced the traditional canon with works by marginalized groups, which I began to read in my spare time as a history grad student. I learned much from this transition, actually enjoyed it, but I have come to see that books are often now no longer read and critiqued on literary terms but on extra-literary ones, where literary criticism is more like social critique in which critics espouse social theory and express themselves with great confidence in their expertise on economics, political science, and sociology. What, then, should I do? Other than writing The Bottomless Bottle of Beer in defense of Western Civilization, I mean.
Enter Azar Nafisi. Niece of the Iranian poet Saeed Nafisi, she studied literature in the United States before returning to Iran in 1979, the year revolution toppled the Shah and ushered in the rule of the ayatollahs. Nafisi took a university teaching job, but when religious authorities made it impossible for her to teach literature freely, she resigned her post. Subsequently, she invited a number of young women to continue their literary study with her privately, an experience she describes in her 2003 bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran. That book explored and affirmed the importance of canonical Western writers to those living in a totalitarian society. Her new book asserts the value of canonical American literature not in another society, but right here in ours - a value that Nafisi (who moved here in 1997 and is now a citizen) fears is losing its purchase among conservatives and liberals alike. The three long sections of The Republic of Imagination deal with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, and Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - books Nafisi believes one must appreciate not only to understand America, but to be American.
Those three? As the three? Huckleberry Finn, I understand, but the other two? I've read Babbitt . . . or tried to. But The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? I've never read it because I've never been told it's great. Till now. But why is it great?
Nafisi . . . [turns] to literary appreciation intertwined with personal narrative, evoking the friendships she made while in graduate school in Oklahoma in the early 1970s. With an art student from North Carolina, the young Nafisi reflects on the particular quality of sunlight in the American South and discusses The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as an example of Southern literature. But her true interest is in the misfits who make up the novel's cast of characters.
Sunlight?! That's scarcely enough to convince me that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is great literature! But I might read it for its misfits since I'm one myself . . .



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