The claims of literature

Once upon a time liberal education sought to incuclate students, in Matthew Arnold’s words, with the best that has been thought and said in the world, with the object of knowing ourselves and the world. Now the notion of “the best” has itself been displaced by the ideology of “diversity” that reigns in academia. Nowhere has this displacement caused more damage than in the study of literature.

In the current issue of the New Criterion, Jeffrey Hart recalls his teacher and colleague Mark Van Doren in an essay that reminds us of the claims of literature: “Mark Van Doren & American Classicism.” Professor Hart writes:

Above the columns of Butler Library at Columbia, inscribed in the stone frieze, you read permanent testimony that some writers are especially important: Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Milton, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Spinoza. The names represent importance itself. Butler Library gazes out across a series of walks and terraces at Charles McKim’s Low Library, which dominates the scene with its ten Ionic columns and its low dome, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

To my undergraduate gaze, no professor was more in harmony with all this than Mark Van Doren. In our first acquaintance I was not aware of him as a distinguished scholar and critic of American literature (or as one, in many ways, who was quintessentially American). Soon I learned that he was a man of the Butler frieze, who had written that “a classic is always fresh, vernacular, sensible, and responsible,” and who had elaborated:

Poetry, story, and speculation are more than pleasant to encounter; they are indispensable if we would know ourselves as men. To live with Herodotus, Euripides, Aristotle, Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Balzac, Dickens, or Tolstoy—to take only a few names at random, and to add no musicians, painters, or sculptors—is to be wiser than experience can make us in those deep matters that have most closely to do with family, friends, rulers, and whatever gods there be.

His principal course in my 1950 undergraduate fall was “The Narrative Art,” which extended through the entire academic year and in which we read the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Genesis and Exodus, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Trial, and The Castle.

I don’t know what Columbia College provides undergraduates at present in the way of a core curriculum that includes Van Doren’s reading list — perhaps it survives — but Professor Hart’s recollection reads to me like that of a paradise lost.

Our friends at the New Criterion have kindly made Professor Hart’s essay available online in connection with our intention to host a poll on “the great American novel” at Power Line News over this Memorial Day weekend. Between the idea and the reality, between the conception and the creation, T.S. Eliot reminds us, “falls the Shadow.” I hope the shadow does not fall between the conception and the creation this weekend. Until we succeed in mounting our poll on the best, please enjoy Hart’s essay and its excellent counterpoint, R. Emmett Tyrell’s annual column conferring the J. Gordon Coogler award for the year’s worst book.

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