We’ve neglected great professors of English literature in the Power Line Best 100 Professors roster so far, but our first selection in the field, Paul Cantor, the Clifton Walker Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is so intellectually peripatetic that it risks an injustice to call him merely an “English professor.” Narrowly you might consider him a Shakespeare specialist, but once you begin to pull back your field of vision you can see he is remarkably adept at political philosophy and economics, too. And then there’s popular culture.
Ordinarily almost anything that might be considered “cultural studies” can be counted upon to be a nihilist wasteland, but Cantor’s works on popular culture are the notable exception. His splendid 1999 book, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in an Age of Globalization, managed to tease out some interesting and serious themes from two icons of 1960s television (Star Trek, the original series, and Gilligan’s Island), and two iconic shows of the 1990s (The Simpsons and the X-Files). In Cantor’s hands, Publishers Weekly said, “television has never been more interesting.”
He returned to this theme with a new book out at the end of last year, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV. In this new oeuvre, he adds South Park, Deadwood, and classic films such as Mars Attacks! to the mix. Beyond pop culture, Cantor, who studied some economics with Ludwig von Mises at NYU years ago, can also bring an A Game in the dismal science, too, and naturally make it a whole lot less dismal. How many literature professors can you name who’ve also won the Ludwig von Mises Prize for Scholarship in Austrian School Economics? More significantly, though, is the way in which Cantor turns the tables on the Marxist literary critics, and shows how the libertarian tradition of the spontaneous order is a much superior economic framework for understanding the evolution of cultural trends.
But if you want the standard scholarly High Lit stuff, you can also take in his books on Hamlet and another on MacBeth (though his MacBeth book seems to be available only in German). Cantor clearly resembles the classic “Renaissance man” more than an Elizabethan; you might call him an Erasmus for our time, a veritable one-man walking university. Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard says, “Paul Cantor knows all the words to the songs in the South Park movie, speaks fluent Klingon, and has forgotten more about the X-Files than Fox Mulder ever knew. Finally, pop-culture nerds have an intellectual to call their own.”