Despite its optimistic title, Recovering American Literature is really about the severity of illness, the magnitude of loss. In a book weighted with evidence, Peter Shaw shows literature has suffered by subverting art to politics. Substituting the dogma of political correctness for universal themes and metaphysical questions, academics since the 1960’s have been reinterpreting the masterpieces of our literature solely as testaments to political subversion, thereby rendering American masterpieces decidedly anti-American.

Not content merely with bending them, critics of the last 30 years have essentially dispensed with traditional rules of literary discussion. Ideas considered marginal in the 1950’s have now gained general acceptance by even the most respected critics. While grains of truth often lie buried in revisionist discourse, they have been amplified to such proportions that the part is taken for the whole. To illustrate the distortions of this politicizing trend, Shaw outlines the historically evolving critiques of The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Huckleberry Finn, The Bostonians, and Melville’s Typee.

Making these works acceptable (and “relevant”) has often meant turning them into polemics devoid of their original meaning. Whereas traditional critics of The Scarlet Letter, for example, exonerated the law as just, contemporary ones now condemn it as tyrannical, while rejecting out of hand James’s validation of the natural world in The Bostonians. Often arriving at such transformations by claiming an ironical intention, modern critics simplistically resolve troubling complexities and irreconcilable ambivalences and synthetically flatten symbolism to allegory. Although black critics still praise Huckleberry Finn as a book that ”reaffirms the values of our democratic faith,” many of their white counterparts, outraged Twain’s depiction of race and ignoring the book’s mythic or symbolic levels of meaning, have decided that Twain must have been waiting ironically about the false promises of Reconstruction. Some critics have gone so far as to insist that “from a correct historical point of view, the American slaves were never truly set free.” To Neil Schmitz, the notion of Jim’s freedom “seems actually obscene.” Regarding Moby Dick, too, political interest preempts all other considerations, including the spiritual. Melville’s magnum opus has been narrowed to a diatribe against capitalism and its exploitation of nonwhites, the working class, and women. It is really meant, some specialists declare anachronistically, as a warning against nuclear warfare and misuse of the ecosystem! In 1988, Professor Elizabeth Schultz proclaimed, “Moby Dick convinces me to work to prevent ecological, economic, and political catastrophe.”

Characters and plots are subjected to similar reassessments. Certain commentators on Huckleberry Finn go so far as to find all the characters contemptible, including and perhaps especially the genial Jim (why has he no murderous instincts against whites?), and the plot insipid (why doesn’t Twain have Jim lynched?) Hester Prynne, we are told, is not sufficiently radical either. One critic believes that Hester’s restraint renders her a “hypocrite” and a “liar.” Another is unhappy because she “will not surrender her commitment to her new, desexed intellectual self.” Verena Tarrant, whom both Henry and William James warmly praised, has been labeled a “nonentity” and a “fool” by feminist critics disappointed in Verena for succumbing to “nature‘s ploy” and choosing marriage over political life with Olive Chancellor. Feminist criticism of The Bostonians can be egregiously hypocritical. Dismissing negative reaction to Olive as an “embattled phallic principle making a desperate stand,” Judith Fetterly, claiming license to “a different subjectivity,” has herself said that Olive is “morbid,” ”has the psychology of the loser,” and “believes ultimately neither in herself nor in women not in their cause or movement.” In Billy Budd, it is now Captain Vere rather than Claggart who is viewed as the true villain. Melville’s description of Vere’s “rules being taken ironically. Indulging in wishful thinking, critics from the 1960’s on have sought to show how Captain Vere could have spared Billy’s life. In fact, both the martial law of the time and Melville’s well-documented conservatism at the end of his life, when he wrote Billy Budd, preclude such ”resistance readings.” The real crime is not committed by anyone of the characters but the critics themselves: “For by assuming that there is a way out of the dilemma posed by Melville, and by denouncing Captain Vere for not taking it, the resistance reader spares himself the philosophical and moral conundrum posed by the story as written.”

What cannot be rendered politically correct by reductions, omissions, and inversions is traced to authorial defects. Hawthorne’s ambivalent treatment of Hester, once considered an aesthetic accomplishment, is now explained as a symptom of “repressed authorial anxieties” issuing from “sublimated incest wishes.” In trying to defend such positions, however, professionals often make embarrassing blunders, sometimes confusing fiction with real life: “The phrase ‘punitive plotting’ . . .charged Hawthorne with mistreating a Hester in effect conceived of as a real person.” Hawthorne denies Hester her capacity to act and “condemns her to silence.” In denigrating James as a “masculinist” for his satirical treatment of feminism and the victory of heterosexuality over lesbianism in The Bostonians, critics forget that James himself was not heterosexual: “That nature’s process did not apply to all was something he knew from personal experience. But he was not interested in reducing his art to a reflection of his own peculiar essence.”

In comparison with Shaw’s essay “The Assault on the Canon” (Sewanee Review, Spring 1994), Recovering American Literature is curiously reserved in tone, but the evidence speaks for itself. The clarity and understated wit of Shaw’s prose style make this book enjoyable as well as informative. Remarking the equivocations of one critic of Typee, Shaw says: “Stern unfortunately perpetuated this king of verbal imprecision by referring to the scrounging for edibles aboard Melville’s ship when stores were low as an example of ‘western spoliation and cannibalism.’ This is a highly inaccurate way to describe eating the captain’s pig.”

The seeming arbitrariness of Shaw’s choice of classics and of his organization of his material somewhat diffuses the work’s focus. Treating each of four books in a separate chapter isolates the individual texts and suggests an open-ended and unconnected “list.” Such quibbling is immaterial, however, in light of the service this book provides, the truth it establishes. For in charting the disintegration of intellectual discussion of several of the nation’s (and the world’s) great books, Recovering American Literature proves that when criticism ceases to be an open forum of ideas centered on a text and emanating from that text’s rich store of ambiguity and ambivalence, it does indeed become vulgar. Shaw exposes the sinister nature of the lies and absurdities that can pass as knowledge and understanding in the classroom, and makes it clear that when the ends justify the means in academia, books become sermons at best, at worst tools of propaganda wherein distortions, omissions, and outright falsehoods prevail.


[Recovering American Literature, by Peter Shaw (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee) 203 pp, $22.00]