“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”

September 8, 2009

Posted yesterday on a friend’s Facebook wall:

Random IM thoughts from this evening: [if I taught college English] I would just tell students that college English is the last bastion of Euro- and Brittano-Centrism in the academy And that it more or less attempts to perpetuate blue blood Yankee values and, accordingly, is bullshit. Charles Dickens?? Really?

To which my initial response is: You mean “Anglocentrism,” and so what? Any number of English profs have won critical acclaim and tenure by saying exactly that, and in so many words. But there’s a grain of truth here, in a “right for all the wrong reasons” sort of way.

The larger arguement here is about “the Canon,” or in layman’s terms “The X number of Greatest Books of All Time.” Rather than get into the weeds discussing deconstructionism and Harold Bloom’s School of Resentment and Chinhua Achebe’s epic misreading of Joseph Conrad and the ways in which the Modernist literary innovations of Joyce, Eliot and Pound may have created this debate in an attempt to prevent it — nah.

Instead, let’s replace “books” with “music” and summarize the debate as follows: In one corner, we have the sort of people who go around saying “Your favorite band used to be cool before they sold out/always sucked and couldn’t wait to sell out,” and in the other corner, the sort of people who (pace Homer Simpson) say: “What do you need new music for? Everone knows rock attained perfection in 1974 — it’s a scientific fact!” Now imagine these two sides assigned to come up with Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Wikipedia article on “the Great Books” basically says that a capital-G “Great” book, of the sort you are forced to read in school, is one that has a) stood the test of time, and b) remained relevant. This would be acceptable for books and albums both, except that in both cases, it’s mostly a bunch of Dead White European Males who have made the cut so far.

So the your-band-sucks crowd says: “Fuckin’ hippy music ain’t relevant to me, maaan,” and become more and more obscure in an attempt to one-up each other’s indie cred; while the rock-achieved-perfection crowd says: “You’re just jealous because we had real music to listen to when we were your age,” and stagnates.

Aside from the fact that I didn’t find that to be true in my own experience when I was an undergrad, choosing Charles Dickens as the epitome of bullshit blue-blood values, Anglocentrism, etc. may explain where my pal has jumped the track.

I’m not going to defend Dickens as a writer per se– he was paid by the word and it shows. On the other hand, he was also an outspoken opponent of the social and economic exploitation of his era and therefore antithetical to “blueblood values” then and now.

As for the bullshit, in Dickens’ case it’s because he realized that social commentary has to be entertaining to be effective — and 100 years on, the entertainment value has endured while the commentary is forgotten. When people hear “Dickens” they think of Scrooge and Tiny Tim and a chorus line of plucky, cheerful urchins. This bears about as much relation to his actual message as “West Side Story” does to “The Wire.”

In fact, let’s compare Charles Dickens to David Simon, producer of “The Wire”: Both journalists who turned to fiction; both focusing on poverty, crime and corruption in their work, out of firsthand knowledge and a desire for social reform; both producing their work in regular weekly (or monthly) installments to popular and critical acclaim. The only major difference is that Dickens’ audience believed in sentimentality, that good guys stay good and live happily ever after, whereas Simon’s audience expects a good deal more cynicism.

Will “The Wire” be considered a beloved classic a century from now? Very possibly it will, but I’d be damn surprised if they re-make it as a Broadway musical, a la Oliver Twist. The real question is, given the choice between novels and TV, which would Dickens choose today? Which did David Simon choose to tell a story “Dickensian” in its breadth and subject?

College English is not bullshit because it’s infested with Dead White Males and their attitudes, it’s bullshit because the cash and the eyeballs of society as a whole are elsewhere, because the true test of contemporary fiction’s popularity is whether it gets made into a movie, and because print media is no longer the place for “serious, socially relevant” tales written by people who want to make the world a better place, not if they ever want anyone else to hear what they have to say.

These are all facts David Simon can attest to, and complaining about Eurocentrism in the English department today is like complaining about the vinyl hiss from your Stones LP’s in an era of Napster and MTV. Nobody cares except us few geeks who never left, and we’ve learned to tune it out. We put up with the annoyance because we’re too lazy or stupid or set in our ways to get with it — or maybe just because we don’t want to let go of the past.


One Response to ““One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing””

  1. Jon said

    Fair enough, fair enough.

    You might be taking my drunken blatherings a bit literally, but I will say this: even if English professors are criticizing the “canon,” they are still using that frame of reference.

    The trouble with the canon, of course, and perhaps the idea of “English” as a core subject is that only a minority of Americans are descended from English stock (and there are enough Scots in the mix to fairly call it “Britanno-centric”).

    And, perhaps I overstate my case a bit by going into college English. Perhaps I should talk about K-12, where our European background is only a part of the mix of cultures we descend from.

    There is little, if any, African lore in this “canon.” Kipling absolutely does not count. And what we get of folks like Douglass or Hughes is so disinfected as to render it transformed into the triumphalist American narrative that justified the further Eurocentrism. The same goes for Indian writings, what token few we see growing up.

    We even get some Judaized version of step’n’fetch with a few authors whose Jewishness is confined to the very highest registers of the dog whistle, so high that it practically requires a degree from the Hebrew Union College to perceive.

    The literary canon is not quite as rotten as the historical one, but it is rotten.

    And our alma mater, my friend, is far far away from a normal experience, especially the kind of community college experience my IM was referencing, though that wasn’t included in my snippet.

    Dickens himself or all I know was a radical. But Dickens is the kind of author you might have to discuss “intelligently” to get admitted to Skull and Bones, not Neruda, not the real Langston Hughes, and not Sholem Aleichem.

    I probably am taking it too literally — and it’s not because I actually disagree. It’s just that “the Canon” is supposed to be a common cultural frame of reference. “Whose culture?” you ask, and the question is a fair one. It just seems to me that in a society which does not seem to have a consenus on the nature of reality (eg. Creationism, birther-ism, death panels, etc.), consenus on a common cultural frame of reference is exponentially more difficult, and it isn’t aided by the fact that the medium in question — print — seems to be rapidly losing cultural relevance. In other words, why not put it that way? Go in with both eyes open …

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