Tag Archives: Stefan Kanfer

Coarse Courses Cause Critical Cries

Enthusiastically aided by Academia, the late 20th century saw such English Lit stalwarts as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Lake Poets dismissed as passé. In their place came the likes of Alice Walker, Rigoberta Menchu and Amy Tan, some talented, others fraudulent, but all with impeccable credentials: they were neither dead nor white nor male.

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Is This Book Invisible?

By Stefan Kanfer

In full-page newspaper ads, the Kindle displays the first page of an e-book. Its opening is famous: “I am an invisible man.” Or is it famous anymore? How many high school seniors—or for that matter college undergraduates—can identify Ralph Ellison’s novel? True, the author was an African-American, but he was a male African-American, hence of lesser importance than, say, Maya Angelou or Alice Walker in the PC world of American education. Say the words “invisible man,” to most students, and odds are that they’ll speak of H. G. Wells’s fantasy, or even more likely, that perennial TV favorite, The Invisible Man, a 1933 movie starring Claude Rains in the title role. Or its cinematic sequels, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman, (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) or Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).

This ignorance is part of a general myth, aided by programs like “Mad Men” and such twisted accounts as Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. According to these shows and books, the 1950’s was a decade of American rapacity, sexism, war-mongering, profiteering and mindlessness. In fact, that decade saw a flowering of literary talents that has not been equaled since. J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, John Updike published important books in the 1950’s, and in 1952 Ellison put himself on the map with his own Invisible Man, a powerful narrative delivered by a black man who calls himself invisible because he walks unnoticed through the white world.

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School Daze: The Best Novels About The Campus

“I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior.”

– Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928

Those were the days. A novelist could teach for a year or two and emerge with enough satire to fill a library. Alas, the Academy has grown more ludicrous and exaggerated with each succeeding generation and is now almost beyond parody. Today, all a smart writer has to do, in Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase, is tell the truth but tell it slant.

This melancholy observation was brought to mind by Roger Rosenblatt’s comic tale Beet, the story of a professor who fatuously assumes that college is a place for colloquy and intellectual adventure. Instead, he finds an arena rife with faculty politics and political correctness, with courses like Little People of Color and Postcolonial Women’s Sports. The administration is even worse than the staff: eyeing the Internet, the chairman of the board of trustees demands, “Why couldn’t we run the whole college online? From one building? From a Quonset hut! From a lean-to, for Chrissake! An outhouse!”

Funny stuff. But the fact is that colleges are falling all over themselves to hustle dollars from the Net. Google has more than six million references to courses you can take without bothering to enter a classroom. As for PC, the very real Occidental College offers The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie?; Oberlin has a seminar called She Works Hard for the Money: Women, Work and the Persistence of Inequality; and UCLA makes much of Queer Musicology, exploring the ways in which “sexual differences and complex gender identities in music and among musicians have incited productive consternation” during the 1990s. I could cite hundreds more.

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