English, Montana State University-Bozeman
Who has not indulged the fantasy of returning to high school or college but with the wisdom of, say, twenty years of worldly experience? Kathleen Turner did it in Francis Ford Coppola's movie Peggy Sue Got Married, and proudly informed her algebra teacher that this was a subject which would be absolutely useless to her in the future.
In 1991, a movie critic, David Denby, didn't have to rely on a twist in the space-time continuum to catapult him back to his shallow and callow days at Columbia University. Instead he got The New Yorker to finance his fantasy of repeating the same class--Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization--he had taken at the age of 18 in 1961. The result was a series of articles that appeared in The New Yorker beginning in 1993 and that became a 1996 Simon and Shuster door-stopper titled Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseu, Woolf, and other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. Unlike Peggy Sue, Denby discovered that those great books he had previously ignored with the kind of apathy reserved for generation x'ers, really are great; indeed they are foundational to our sense of a cultural identity.
I wish I could report that Denby's account of his time-travel experiment is a riveting and convincing read, given that the author is such a decent, earnest, caring, and sympathetic person, but the whole thing comes off rather like an immense Cliff's-Notes to Great Books written by someone with brains and personality. Denby dutifully and doggedly drags the reader from semester to semester, from Homer to Woolf, mixing critical commentary on the texts and anecdotes about the students, New York weather, and the author's personal life with fulminations on the way in which radical politics, both left and right, have robbed canonical works of their power to encourage in the reader both freedom and pleasure.
Occasionally, Denby stretches his journalist powers to their limits as in his genuinely stirring defense of Conrad's Heart of Darkness from attacks by leftists on the grounds that the work is racist. Mostly, though, the work sinks under the weight of two colossal ironies. The first is that the the sadder and wiser Denby of 1991 isn't much more sophisticated than the dumbed-down Denby of 1961. Where the earlier Denby didn't give a damn about the classics, the middle-aged Denby is all too willing to kneel at the shrine of Great Books and mutter bromidic mantras on their behalf. Also, the teachers he used to ignore are now crafty magicians zealously manipulating texts and psyches to expose, at the end, the Grand Pattern, the Figure in the Carpet that the Uninitiated are forbidden to behold. There is something about the elder Denby, and the book itself, that is monumentally ingratiating.
The other irony is that Denby seeks to rescue the canon--works which are often infuriatingly complex and difficult--by caving in to the contemporary reader's need for narrative simplicity. Denby may think he is being trendy when he weaves a discussion, say, of his being mugged in a New York subway into a consideration of the nasty and brutish thoughts of the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but the actual effect is like listening to a person who'd just read Moby Dick remark that he once had a fish he didn't like. Great Books is filled with instances of what the now-discredited New Critics would have called irrelevant personal associations.
Now, clearly it may be possible to present the idea of great books and the canon wars as a personal adventure, but David Denby hasn't done it, any more than Jostein Gaarder made the history of philosophy into a compelling narrative in his soporific Sophie's World.
A reader who would like an articulate, informed, and elegant defense of the canon without the egregious capitulations to the simplified tastes of the time indulged in by David Denby would be well advised to read Harold Bloom's opening chapter to his book The Western Canon. What Bloom says may be wrong but it is not dumbed-down.
The real moral of the Denby book is not that the canon needs to be protected. It is, rather: don't indulge too long the fantasy of being magically transported back to callow college days with the wisdom of experience, for you may well find that you were smarter then than you are now.