Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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An Amazing Birthday Day

Happy Birthday to Tom Wolfe, Dr. Seuss, Emerson, Longfellow, Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Victor Hugo, Renoir, and Anthony Burgess. You might rank these in order of human excellence or in terms of improving the world.

I’ve particularly enjoyed and learned from Wolfe, Ellison, and Burgess. Seuss, Steinbeck, and Emerson are overrated and may have done more harm than good, although I can see that Steinbeck and Emerson are geniuses who have plenty of moments. Dr. Seuss always annoyed me, although I generally like children’s book and children. Hugo and Renoir are certainly French and may be above or not relevant to my paygrade. It’s a sign of our lack of class, perhaps, that Longfellow’s edifying amd finely crafted poems were so popular in his day but not in ours, although I have to admit that I’ve never read one voluntarily.

Discussions - 14 Comments

I don't think Dr. Seuss is overrated at all. The language is them has a beautiful rhythm for children and also a lot of fine tongue-twisting humor. I have two small children and know just how vacuous and politically correct and terribly written a lot of picture books are. Also, there's a good conservative message in many of them (even if he might have been a socialist as I've heard, though I've never done any research into his life).
Read Horton Hatches an Egg and Horton Hears a Who to see what I mean about faithfulness and the value of human life. Sadly, many of the movies and videos made about Horton Hears a Who misses the essential point and makes it into some kind of parody. I vote that he is a lot more interesting than reading about a turtle crossing a road for 30 pp. in Grapes of Wrath.

Which Renoir? The painter or the film maker? Whichever, it's an amazing birthdate.

Regarding Emerson, I agree he has done harm, but American literature is unthinkable without him. JF Cooper's greatness (truly great) would have been the fate of American literature if not for Emerson (and others). The American Scholar resonates to this day in politics, as we are warned not to become another European social democracy. Emerson's "party of hope" may resonate with today's Obamaphiles, but Emerson was hardly some Dr. Pangloss. He may have been duped by John Brown, but he never gave a cent to the man--regardless of what confederate nastiness holds.

Besides Emerson becomes a foil (not a straw man) for some of the most profound reflections on the nature and purpose of the American regime to have ever been writ. He serves as a father, an interlocultor, and a provocateur. I'm thinking in particular of Robert Penn Warren--Emerson stimulated of some of his best poems. I think of Warren's exteneded meditation called "Homage to Emerson, On a Night Flight to New York." Warren asks--

Let us move toward the city. Do you think you could tell me/What constitutes the human bond? Do you ever think/Of a face half in shadow, tears--/As it would seem from that muted glitter--in the/Eyes, but//The lips do not tremble.//Is it mererly a delusion that they seem to smile?

I have to agree that Suess is better than Grapes of Wrath...my AP students are reading that right now and they too commented on the turtle in class today! :-)

Seriously, Suess is part of American culture and as both a teacher and a parent, I find his books very useful and entertaining.

When I began rhapsodizing (all apologies), I forgot what I meant to say. Let me say it now--

I agree Emerson has done harm, but I vehemently disagree that he has done more harm than good.

Real question - how has Emerson done more harm than good? I've always loved him.

Emerson's fault, if any, points at the problem of an excess of confidence. I can't say it more forthrightly in part, because of Emerson's oracular style itself. It is hard to pinpoint Emerson, as he himself says with regard to the image of touching a mercury ball. Stanley Cavell uses that image as the premise of his book Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.

Emerson loves paradox and irony. Luckily later American writers did not dwell on the paradox in itself. As Charles Williams notes in his book on Dante, paradox and irony cannot be ends in themselves. One must choose.

Emerson's audacity of indecision prepared the way for Twain's strictly American themes and dialect. It prepared the way for Howell's emphasis on fact. But it also paved the way for the spiritual megalomania of Melville's Ahab. These are examles or real choices.

In the twentieth century, RP Warren returns to the emphasis on paradox and irony, but with the modernist influence of the dour genuis of Eliot and Faulkner. Unfortunately, it seems that contemporary lit is stuck on the horns of this dilemma. It is all too sincere (the definition of bad poetry according to Oscar Wilde) or all too self-conscious. It refuses to offer room for choice.

In this way Emerson stands as a riddle for the present. He may be overrated, but only for those who do not bother to stop and ponder.

Tom Wolfe, on the other hand, is definitely overrated. Neither Dreiser nor Sinclair Lewis nor John Dos Passos, he's simply an Ayn Rand for the contemporary softened yuppie male. He satisfies in his good critiques of society. He's David Brooks' muse in this regard. But for all his "new journalism" he simply adds stupid plots to give the critique of society some sense. As such, it's mainly unreadable--almost embarassingly so. I think there is a term for Wolfe's writing, viz. cheesy. All American cheese, but no choice.

Have you read THE RIGHT STUFF?

The Right Stuff is Wolfe's best.

"He may have been duped by John Brown"

Yeah, bring back the slavery! John Brown is the only truly authentic hero, and prophet, this country has ever produced. He wasn't fooled; he knew what had to be done. He knew the slaveholders would never part with their chattels unless forced to do so at the point of a gun. You may think his methods abhorrent, but he succeeded where the Garrisonians and the political anti-slavery people had failed after thirty years of effort. Dec. 2 is celebrated in my household as a day to remember one of the lowest deeds the law has ever perpetrated in this country.

I have to agree with Tony Williams about Dr. Seuss. Apart from all the good things Tony says about him, nothing else was ever so helpful to me in getting my kids to learn to read and enjoy doing it. (Though I do confess to being happy, eventually, that they did not want to pick up Green Eggs and Ham again! But I suppose it will be fresh to me again someday when my grandkids want to read it.) And I think few novelists--American or not--have ever been as masterful as Steinbeck in developing an ensemble of characters . . . I especially like Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday.

I can't say why I like Anthony Burgess, but I do.

My favorite Seuss is The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins which I read as an argument for natural rights.

I like Tom Wolfe, and do not see the Ayn Randian thing at all. I do appreciate what you, John with an email, wrote about Emerson. It's a different way of looking at him than I am used to, but I can see it.

I find Renoir overrated. Is here anything really appealing about females seemingly made of raspberry tinted blancmange? Actually, at my stage of life, I ought to find the thought of them as beautiful a comfort.

As a lover of Degas, I can't find Renoir overrated. His "Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette" is a cornerstone of art history education and should be for its attempt to fuse Degas' ability to capture movement with a greater sense of realism. Impressionism, and European art as whole, would be very different without Renoir. His importance, I think, cannot be dismissed.

Good comments. I hadn't noticed Dr. S's argument for natural rights. Tom Wolfe is not a great novelist, it's true, but a great social critic. He's no Walker Percy, but he's much, much better--because of his genuine concern for the soul--than David Brooks. He's no Ayn Rand; he certainly doesn't flatter. I think the comments on Steinbeck and Emerson confirm my pont. I didn't deny their genius after all, but Steinbeck is no Faulkner and Emerson is no Tocquevile in terms of psychological or political insight. I'm still not sure whether Renoir is overrated and still don't care that much.

Late to this, but I'm stoutly pro-Seuss and anti-Emerson. Emerson is a prime source for various strands of Mainline Protestant theological self-destruction, and, do note that the great late Wilson Carey McWilliams loved Hawthorne, was willing to forgive Thoreau his faults and absurdities, but loathed Emerson. And, I've always understood Moby Dick to be, in part, a long roasting of Emerson's transcendentalist pantheism. Yes, he was learned enough and prolific enough that there probably are some good essays and bits here and there, but particularly in terms of impact, the negative judgment holds.

But how could anybody be against Dr. Seuss? Just because of some sentimentalist peace-nik-ery?

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