The Public Role and Value of Literature

Here are three interesting recent essays that raise major questions about the relationship of modern literature to religion, politics, and the market.

Joseph Bottum:  “The Novel as Protestant Art: A great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage.”

“Nonetheless, for more than two centuries, the West increasingly took the novel as the art form most central to its cultural self-awareness: the artistic device by which the culture undertook some of its most serious attempts at self-understanding. And the form of that device was developed to explain and solve particularly Protestant problems of the self in modern times.”


Robert Huddleston:  “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”: W. H. Auden’s Struggle with Politics”

“Auden revived the art of civic poetry in the Horatian mode: asserting the poet’s right to express himself or herself as an individual, to speak apart from rather than for the collective. Civic poetry has typically also involved a rejection of radicalism. It is political, therefore, mainly in the Aristotelian and Arendtian sense of being concerned with the relationship between public and private life in general terms. Concern, however, does not imply activism but rather a stable sense of citizenship in which private needs are balanced against public affairs. In contrast to Sartre’s radicalization of the civic tradition, littérature engagée, both retirement and engagement, distance and proximity, are available to the Horatian civic poet.”


Adam Kirsch:  “A Reputation more Durable than Marble” — a review of Those Who Write For Immortality:  Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame by H.J. Jackson

“Why do we now read, teach and talk about Keats instead of Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth instead of Robert Southey, Austen instead of Mary Brunton? It is not, Jackson argues, because the former had genius and the latter only talent: ‘The historical record suggests, rather, that there are many ways of earning fame, and that while a minimum standard of literary competence can be taken for granted, not all famous writers owe their fame to outstanding literary merit alone (I would argue that none of them does).’ The fortunate few benefit, rather, from a number of circumstances unrelated to the merit of their writing.”

February 26, 2015

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