[ilds] The Greats

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat May 1 17:55:18 PDT 2010

Bruce Redwine wrote:
>  I don't know what's being taught in the university these days, but 
> when I took a course in the Victorian novel, the syllabus included 
> selected works by Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, 
> Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad.  No apologies were 
> offered for these authors, and no effort was made to give equal time 
> to the sexes.  [. . . .]  But then I'm always being surprised — and if 
> it has changed, I find that lamentable. 
You have brilliantly missed my point, Bruce.

But I will not take offense.  I hope that we are simply not hearing each 
other as clearly as we might.  And perhaps after all this whole exchange 
between unseen posters on a list-serve illustrates my point about the 
difficulties and hazards of perception?   

You seem--note the humility of the subjunctive--you seem to have 
substituted some outstanding concern of your own in the place of what I 
had written previously.  Cervantes, the "Great" novelist who stands at 
the start of the novel tradition, once wrote two big books chronicling 
this sort of tilting.  As for misprision, at the other end of history 
from the /Don Quixote/, we have the four books of Durrell's /Alexandria 
Quartet/.   Please note that I do not exempt myself.  Perhaps my 
language in what I wrote was unclear.  I may be misreading  and 
misunderstanding what you wrote above.   I will try harder.

Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, 
George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad--yes, yes, good choices all, Bruce--I 
teach works by every one of those listed authors every school year in 
the classroom--all except for Thackeray.  (A teacher choosing to give 4 
weeks to /Bleak House/ and 4 weeks to /Middlemarch/ will find not time 
for /Vanity Fair/, sadly.)  I certainly do /not/ teach works by those 
writers according to "universal standards," which is a term I will leave 
to school-marms, government officials, and religious fundamentalists.   
And I /never/ apologize for my own insistence on aesthetic excellence as 
the final arbiter. 

And the works listed, what of them?  What do they seem to show on the 
topic of perception, understanding, and truth?  (I have already given 
examples drawn from Durrell's writings.)  But what about, say, the works 
of Joseph Conrad, an author which you name at the close of your list?  
Really, can you imagine Charlie Marlow giving time of day to such talk 
of absolutes and unshaken certainties?   A Conradian novel would mince 
such talk into a fog-bank of misty leavings, such as the one which seems 
to drive Captain Brierly to walk away from Jim's hearing and place four 
stout iron belaying-pins into his pockets before jumping overboard. . . .

I agree with you that we simply must try to find better ways of 
understanding, however provisional.   Like Marlow chasing after the 
illusory ideas of Jim or Kurtz, I do get right back up and continue the 
chase.  Like Matthew Arnold and Emerson, I am nothing if not earnest on 
that point.  But like Arnold and Emerson--both of whom insisted on 
Hellenism and Self-Reliant inquiry as safeguards against unreflective 
Hebraism--I will accept no other man's list of Greats as stone-cut 
"fact" without first establishing for myself what questions and what 
criteria shaped the list.  

>     Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather
>     immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but
>     must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the
>     integrity of your own mind.

>     At the bottom of both the Greek and the Hebrew notion is the
>     desire, native in man, for reason and the will of God, the feeling
>     after the universal order, — in a word, the love of God. But,
>     while Hebraism seizes upon certain plain, capital intimations of
>     the universal order, and rivets itself, one may say, with
>     unequalled grandeur of earnestness and intensity on the study and
>     observance of them, the bent of Hellenism is to follow, with
>     flexible activity, the whole play of the universal order, to be
>     apprehensive of missing any part of it, of sacrificing one part to
>     another, to slip away from resting in this or that intimation of
>     it, however capital. An unclouded clearness of mind, an unimpeded
>     play of thought, is what this bent drives at. The governing idea
>     of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism,
>     strictness of conscience.

Lists of "Greats" are useful tools, but they are only just that--they 
are tools, not the Greatness itself.  Tradition and Self-Reliance, 
Hebraism and Hellenism are necessary parts of a dialectic.  With that 
understanding established, I should ask with the ever-flexible and 
spontaneous Arnold, why then those books and not others? 

I teach teach the writings of the Brontës and Dickens and Eliot and 
Conrad for the same reason that great teachers and critics such as 
Richard Poirier or Harold Bloom might teach them.  That is, I teach 
works by those authors because 1) their words are the warp and the woof 
of the Novel form thus far in its development, insofar as Conrad the 
artisan looks back to Dickens and or Eliot the artisan looks back to 
Brontë as key precursors in their chosen form of writing &c.; 2) these 
works of literature bounce back--sometimes astoundingly--against 
Arnoldian inquiry and Paterian discrimination better than other works I 
have tried to teach--that is, these books seem to defy exhaustion; 3) I 
take pleasure in these writings for particular reasons of my own, 
personal whims associated with taste, memories, fears, hopes, desires.  
In a deep sense, these stories are now woven into my story.

Again, I suspect that we are not so far apart on some of these points.  
And you have made me ask questions, so I thank you for that.


Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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