Literary and Artistic Snobbery

I recall my first college English class when I informed the professor that I was going to write on patriotic elements in the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson. He made it clear that he would prefer a different author; for some reason Tennyson didn’t match up. He also made it clear he’d prefer a different theme, that he thought patriotic poetry was a less kind of poetry. The kind of battle between my professor and me continued through the semester and even to his critique of the paper (he graded it A-), in which he lamented my espousal of Tennyson’s themes. But I truly appreciated Tennyson and I still do.

I had a friend who was a musician. His pet peeve with me was my appreciation for Franz Joseph Haydn. My single favorite piece of music of any type and any period is Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat. My favorite oratorio is Haydn’s Creation. Now my friend would allow that those were acceptable music, but I also like Haydn’s concerti and symphonies as well, and he thought those had been produced by cookie cutter. Sorry! I still like them.

In art, I recall the day that a monument was put up at my alma mater to four students who had been killed in a car accident. I was working as a teaching assistant in a nearby private school, and remarked to my students that it looked to me more like someone had forgotten to haul out the garbage. The great art appreciaters, however, were ready to praise it as a great artistic accomplishment, and I was informed by a few folks that I was horrifyingly irreverent.

To extend this on literature, an area a bit nearer to my heart, there are a number of “classics” that I simply don’t find all that interesting or useful. In many cases I still regard them as important, simply because they have impacted many people. It just happens I don’t like them. After that first college English class, I was able to avoid further annoyance because of a change in academic requirements. I was allowed to take a course in literature in any major language offered, and I did so in French. Let me note that I didn’t enjoy reading Les Miserables in French or English. In political science I was assigned selections from Dostoevsky. Sorry! Not interested. I read what I had to, and I did find some value in it, but nothing that would make me put it on a “must read” list.

In fact, I started way back in college calling those “must read” lists “snob lists.” They simply reflect the personal tastes of one particular person, and I see no reason to regard their taste as particularly binding on me. Now I would note that if you can’t read the books on their list, or you haven’t tested the waters to see what you actually like and will benefit from, then perhaps you ought to work your way through a few. Note that I have read a bit of Dostoevsky and substantial amounts of Victor Hugo (the latter in French), and thus didn’t lay them aside without some consideration.

Now I hear the same sort of thing in terms of Bible translations. One should read the KJV because it’s superior literature. But why is the KJV superior literature. Even if I regard it as an excellent translation for its time and place and a major achievement, which I do, why should I now regard it as a superior translation? Literature professors and literary snobs will point to superior elements in its language and style, but superior for whom? I have never even been able to get these literary elitists to discuss the objective basis at all. It is, to them, simply obvious that what they appreciate in literature is superior. So what if other readers don’t really comprehend any of this additional value. It’s still superior.

And I can agree with them in one sense. For English professors and literary elitists, it probably is. I have to confess to appreciating the style of the KJV. But I have found that modern readers just don’t understand it. Even many of those who profess to love it and to think it’s the greatest, aren’t actually getting any value from those stylistic features. The passage may be wondrously translated, but it’s wondrously translated into something that simply flies right past most readers.

I could suggest that they all learn how to appreciate that sort of literature, get to know the vocabulary and the archaic grammar. After all, it’s also helpful in reading Shakespeare (another author who doesn’t make it to the top of my reading list). But my question is this: In today’s world is learning 17th century English a priority for my children and grandchildren?

The answer is, absolutely not! I would like them to be able to express themselves well in contemporary English and communicate with friends and neighbors. I would like them to be able to read well. I would like them to have the technical knowledge necessary for the modern world, especially computer literacy. Liberal arts are simply losing a race with time. It’s not that the goals of liberal arts are bad, it’s that culture is growing and changing, and there are lots of works of contemporary literature that need to be examined and read, but educators want to spend their time on a snob list of “things every literate person should have read.”

We would get much further in teaching our children to read if we dealt with the more important things–the things involved in current living first. That obviously includes reading and writing. After that, those who have the time and inclination can proceed to the literary antecedents of the things they deal with. I know that the literary crowd will bemoan the fate of those people who are not well acquainted with Shakespeare, or who don’t know the King James Bible, but history is moving forward and there are going to be allusions in current writing to things most folks have never read. One of the wonders of the internet is that we can look such things up quickly.

In practical terms, I’m saying that I’m going to read what I consider important, and I’m going to appreciate the art, literature and music that I appreciate (logicians, get off!), and when it comes time to vote on budgets, I’m going to be voting for people who are very practical and down to earth about their selection. (Warning: Don’t try to get rid of the arts; but consider contemporary material right alongside all those wonderful classics.)

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