Literary Landscapes: Charting The Worlds Of Classic Literature, edited by John Sutherland
This is a book that really hits home the fact that a lot of people write books that are full of ulterior meanings and ideological axes to grind. Unfortunately, as I have found out, the people who write about the sense of place that one can often find in literature often do so from a point of view that includes the desire to spread some sort of illegitimate and immoral worldviews along with it. It’s not clear why this should be the case, but the authors included in this book are less interested in geography then they are in celebrating authors, especially those authors whose words are somehow unseemly. Naturally, some geographies get mentioned over and over again–Lyme Regis is mentioned both for Jane Austen and for a more recent work, and there are of course many portrayals of New York City. This is a book that could have been so much better–a lot of novels and series have a real strong sense of place that deserves to be celebrated, but the authors here are more interested in scoring points in cultural wars and in defending immoral and improper behavior than they are in rooting reading in a firm sense of place, and that is a great shame.
This particular book is divided into four parts, after an introduction by the editor. The first part of the book looks at romantic prospects, namely the romantic literature of the 19th and early 20th century, organized chronologically (as the geographies are based on the publishing date of the books), and these include classics like Austen’s Persuasion, Dickens’ Bleak House, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Hardy’s Return Of The Native, Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and Cather’s O Pioneers!. The second part of the book is where things start to go particularly awry with a look at modernists like D.H. Lawrence, (more happily) Sigrid Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter epic, Wharton’s New York from The Age of Innocence, and a strangely tepid look at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie. Postwar classics include such works as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as well as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, as well as numerous other far more obscure works, and ones like Peyton Place that are not really classics either. Finally, the book ends with some contemporary works that wallow in various sorts of sin and identity politics, ranging from gay tales of San Francisco to Maori whining, and Native American works, and even Pamuk’s Kars from Snow.
Overall, this is an immensely disappointing book. Again, I expected this book to focus on the sense of place that rooted novels, and expected some ability on the part of the writers to examine the way that the same places are viewed differently by different authors who have created different works in different genres. Instead, this book offers individual essays (liberally included with artwork of various kinds that is quite attractive) that focus on individual works, often looking at them from a point of view that seeks to use them for support for politicized fights over identity. Ideally, a look at the landscape of literature and the effects of geographical context would be a rather conservative matter, but these authors are leftists activists and just can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to politicizing everything they write about, which makes everything they write about a lot worse than it could be if they had any sense or any interest in staying on topic. Alas, this book is not written by people who really want to focus on geography and a sense of place, but instead who see that as a means of attracting readers who are interested in their perspective and approach or who want to read more garbage literature that is labeled as classic.