Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To English And American Literature

The Politically Incorrect Guide To English And American Literature, by Elizabeth Kantor

This was a deeply entertaining book, full of wit and wisdom about literature and its positive purposes and a great deal of insight as to why so many contemporary professors of literature fail to do their jobs and actively seek to teach people not to take classic literature seriously.  I am no stranger to thinking about great books [1] or literary criticism and found much to enjoy here.  Many readers will no doubt find the author and her thoughts to be greatly old fashioned, but there is nothing wrong about that if what is old fashioned is so for the right reasons.  Rather than a blind adoption of the views of the past, this book is indeed deeply critical, but of the right sort of criticism that seeks to encourage readers to become familiar with the ennobling aspects of great literature, regardless of who writes it and when it was written.  The author free acknowledges why many of the authors of great books were dead white men and also points out that the corruption of literary education has hindered the writing of great books by anyone else since widespread English literacy reached a wider population.

In terms of its contents, this somewhat more than 200 page book is divided into three parts and twelve chapters.  The first part of the book examines the canon of great English literature and presents it as something “they” don’t want you to learn (I), containing chapters on Beowulf and other classics of Old English (1), some excellent works of Middle English (2) like the Canterbury Tales and poetry like Piers Plowman, the Renaissance writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare (3), the seriously religious writings of John Donne and John Milton (4), four dead white men from the age of Reason, namely Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Johnson (5), the revolution and reaction of 19th century romantic literature (6) including writings by Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bryon and the Shelleys, as well as Austen and Dickens, along with some writings by decadents and aesthetes and modernists (7), and some neglected American classics (8).  The second part of the book examines why contemporary professors shy away from really teaching great literature (II), namely the suppression of literature and its replacement with bogus literary theories and hideous postmodernist jargon (9), forgetting that literature’s purpose is to teach and delight (10).  The third and final part of the book examines how it is that the reader can teach themselves English and American literature (III) through close reading (11) and mastering poetry, plays and novels like Jane Austen did (12).

Overall, this is an excellent work and it is well-worthy of being read by those who want to educate themselves through reading classic literature.  The book’s chapters give plenty of helpful tips both on some good classics to read, quite a few of which I have read and reviewed myself, and how those books are to be enjoyed and what qualities one is to seek in great literature.  If there is one criticism I could make about the book it is that the author does not appear to be very well read in the great literature in the English language that appears outside of the United States and Great Britain.  Of course, that limitation means that the author is unable to bring classic writings in English from speakers of English as a second language (writers like Nabokov come to mind here, though he might have been considered as a Russian author first and foremost) or the classic writing by Indian writers in English in the twentieth century.  With that mild criticism aside, though, this book both encourages a love of literature and defends its value in a world that wants to focus on bogus political agendas instead.  It’s better to stick to the literature.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: The Politically Incorrect Guide To English And American Literature

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Student’s Guide To Literature | Edge Induced Cohesion

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