The face of politics in America is changing. The face of literature in America is changing. And according to one report from the National Review Online, the catalyst for change may, in fact, be the same.
For this reason – or for the title alone – I’ve chosen “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Obama” by John Darbyshire for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:*
If you go to a recognized university to study English literature, you should naturally expect to encounter the great names. At Ohio State University, one of those great names will be Barack Obama.
The syllabus for the OSU course, English 275: Thematic Approaches to Literature, subtitled “Barack Obama and/as Literature,” (linked through the NRO article) asks students to consider these questions:
- What do his words (his books and speeches) say about him as a writer?
- What do his literary interests say about the relevance of literature to contemporary American politics and culture?
- How does race affect this literary conversation?
All are questions worth consideration. But do they qualify Barack Obama as a special topic in a literature course? Maybe.
Granted, it was the National Review’s choice to place Obama in the company of Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer. The comparison creates interest in the article and is thus a wise move. To me, it leads to questions that English departments are asking more and more frequently: What is literature? What is classic literature? What qualifies a work for study?
19th-century French writer Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve defined the substance of a modern classic in this way:
A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.
Although you could arguably apply some of these characteristics to President Obama (I have yet to read his books, so I’ll refrain from judgment), I appreciate the inference of time. President Obama’s writings have been in circulation fewer than 20 years. The full effect of an author or work is also seen in the way it “weathers” over time.
To that extent, I would agree with the unnamed student who instigated the article. President Obama is charged with governing the United States. Let’s not add to that already extensive pressure the burden of one-upping the Knight’s tale or matching wits with Falstaff.
Thanks, John, for a thought-provoking article.
*Please note: The course information could not be confirmed by this blog author via the Ohio State University website. The course link (see here) did not contain a description of the course number in question.