Great Literature as a Humanizing Influence

I’d like to begin my remarks with a caveat. In order for the reading of great literature to have a humanizing effect, students have to approach it with the right attitude. First, students need to be willing to try to understand and empathize with the experiences of characters living under very different circumstances—at different times and places, with strange sets of beliefs and practices. Second, students also need to be willing to tackle something difficult, to work hard in order to understand a complex and often alien text. They need to think and reflect on the human experiences about which they are reading: how do the characters’ thoughts and feelings compare with their own?  That means students have to be willing to give the book—be it a play, poem, or novel—a second or even third reading to see what they missed or did not take proper account of the first time through. Third and finally, students need to try to integrate what they have read, experienced, and thought into a larger, more complex view of the world. Those are the ways in which reading great literature can broaden, deepen, and enrich a person’s understanding of humanity—its great variety, heights, and depths.

In the brief time allotted to us, I thought it might be useful to give a few examples.

My first example comes from teaching an interdisciplinary course entitled “The Socratic Turn” at Carleton College. In that course we investigated the basis and validity of the claim Friedrich Nietzsche makes in the first half of his account of the Birth of Tragedy—namely, that Socrates represents the “vortex” or turning point of Western history. First, we read the books to which Nietzsche refers that come before Socrates—a Homeric epic, some fragments from the “presocratic philosophers,” Hesiod’s Theogony, examples of the works of the three great tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides–and a comedy or two by Aristophanes—especially his satirical portrait of a philosopher named Socrates in the Clouds. Then we read Nietzsche, and finally we read some of Plato’s dialogues to see to what extent Nietzsche’s claims were well-founded–or not.

Beginning with Homer I used to explain that the societies he depicts are very different from the ones with which we are most familiar. The lives of his characters and the conditions under which they live are as strange or alien, perhaps even more different from those of contemporary Americans than lives of the members of any tribe in sub-Saharan Africa or Eskimos in the Arctic circle studied by an archeologist. (There is, moreover, always a question whether the archeologist is imposing modern concepts onto the people he or she is studying, even though contemporary ethnographers strive hard to avoid such distortions.) Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Penelope, and their son Telemachus are recognizably human, acting on the basis of passions we still feel. But the reigning beliefs and institutions that shape their lives, their options and their choices, are clearly not ours. And in reading the poems we have to struggle to understand the nature and power of those very strange “things” or “forces,” the Greek gods.

Nevertheless, one year after class a Hmong student stopped me to say, very politely, that he didn’t want to challenge what I was saying in class. However, he thought that I should know that his father’s position in their village back in Laos had been very much like that of Odysseus in Ithaca. His father had been chief because the other inhabitants thought that he was wisest and most able to decide matters for everyone. In other words, this student reminded me that descriptions of ways of life we consider to be reflections or remnants of the past, in fact, depict real and enduring human possibilities. We may not choose those ways of life—they may not appear to be desirable or possible under our current circumstances—but they are parts and possible manifestations of humanity. Moreover, we can learn about these possibilities or potential forms of human existence not only by studying different “cultures” existing in the world today; we can learn about them as having been parts of the past existence and sources of our own culture by reading ancient texts. Of course, to describe such a lost way of life so vividly that we can imagine it requires that the author be as great a poet as Homer.  But it takes some openness and effort on the part of the reader as well. If we just dismiss the “Homeric heroes” as bloodthirsty monsters, and the gods as merely anthropomorphic embodiments of human thoughts and desires, without understanding why they were believed to be deities, we don’t get much, if anything out of the reading.

My second example of the way in which reading great literature can have a humanizing effect is closer to home. In the curricula for the Great Hearts academies in Phoenix, I noticed, they assign Mark Twain’s two classic novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not just once, but twice. Students are first asked to read the stories of the two quintessentially American boys in the sixth grade, then again in the ninth grade. I have never taught in a Great Hearts school; nor have I had a child who attended one—although I do have the pleasure of having several Great Hearts teachers in the graduate seminar I am currently teaching at ASU. Nevertheless, I suspect, the reason for the repeated assignments is the following: relatively young readers can enjoy Tom & Huck’s “adventures.” They can sympathize with Tom’s rebellion against the boredom and discomfort involved in attending school and going to church; they can admire the way in which he organizes and manipulates other boys—and some adults–to do what he wants; and they can understand his attempts to impress others. Likewise, they can sympathize with Huck’s desire to be rid of the constraining effects of “sivilization”—clean clothes, good manners, and regular hours. They can understand his fear of “Pap,” and his desire, therefore, to escape down the river. They may not fully appreciate how foolish his desire to go downriver was, or the implications of his decision to go to hell rather than turn Jim in. I don’t know whether they are bothered, as most older readers are, by Huck’s apparent willingness to succumb to the leadership of Tom again at the end of the novel, even though that involves a re-enslavement of Jim.

Sixth grade readers could and should be able to contrast the lives of these boys, as Twain describes them, with the lives of boys today. Many fewer would have access to the woods or the river the way Tom and Huck do; many fewer attend church; many have much more schooling. Young readers can nevertheless recognize some of their own frustrations and desires in the antics of Twain’s famous characters. They may also be able to recognize some of the reasons for the restrictions put on their freedom by various adults—parents, teachers, and civic authorities. Some might empathize with Tom’s ambitions; others might share Huck’s compassion for the suffering and his gratitude for the kind treatment he receives from others.

Twain did not intend for his stories to be read simply or primarily by children, however. Because they are great works, his novels deserve to be read again by more mature students—or adults. I’m not sure that 9th graders are old or intellectually sophisticated enough. But I do know that college-age readers (and scholars, for that matter) can be brought to see that there are very deep-going critiques of American political practices and principles embedded in these seemingly light-hearted fictional works. I have written an article entitled “Tom Sawyer—Potential President” in which I argue that Twain’s young scamp displays many of the traits we see in successful American politicians. Tom clearly wants to be a leader. He desires recognition; and, as his famous organization of the white-washing of the wall demonstrates, he knew how to get other people to do what he wants by making it attractive to them by appealing to their desire for status and prestige. He is certainly willing to lie and cheat in order to get what he wants. He terrifies Aunt Sally by arranging to have it appear that he has died, so that he can sneak into church and hear himself praised and missed. Generally speaking, he does not mean to hurt others—he is not vindictive or cruel. He demonstrates great resourcefulness, even real courage–in saving Becky Thatcher’s life as well as in capturing the murdering Injun Joe along with his treasure. But Tom unfortunately also displays a disquieting lack of concern not merely for the feelings, but for the lives and goods of others.  His antics and ambitions may seem innocent in a young boy; Twain’s accounts of them are certainly amusing. But, they are not so innocent or amusing to someone who asks what such a boy is apt to become as an adult. Suggesting that Tom has the makings of a public leader—if properly raised and educated—toward the end of the novel Judge Thatcher promises to reward Tom for saving his daughter’s life. He does not offer money which, thanks to the treasure he had found, Tom does not need. The judge promises, instead, to make sure that Tom will attend a military academy and go to law school—and intimates that Tom may become his son-in-law. Most antebellum U.S. Presidents had been either generals or lawyers. It thus looks as if the judge wants to want to prepare Tom to compete for the highest office and honor to be had in this land.

A mature reader is thus led to ask: What do Americans find attractive in a character like Tom Sawyer? His enterprise, his imagination, his ability to get away with things most others are too frightened to attempt—either because they are conventionally disapproved of or because these acts are just plain dangerous? And why is it that in both novels Twain shows that Tom runs circles around the obviously more decent, though poor, homeless, and illiterate Huck?

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is more commonly recognized to be a serious novel, worthy of study and reflection. Twain’s literary art has been much praised for rendering American colloquial discourse so accurately in all its variety. However, educators now ask, should we expose students to an author and characters who use the ‘n’ word without evident or any compunction? When do characters in novels cease to be possible models and become objects of criticism? When are students able to ask why some Americans in the not so distant past treated others so horribly? Is Twain condemning Southern racism? Or is the positive depiction of Huck’s “conscience” an implicit critique of liberal Northerners who took pride in the fact that they had never owned slaves and won the Civil War, but did little to nothing to relieve the actual conditions under which blacks in the South continued to suffer?

My point is not simply that Twain’s novels like all great works of literature operate at several different levels—or that his novels pretty evidently also raise political issues that continue to vex the nation. My point is that such novels have a humanizing effect when they become both the occasion and means for readers to reflect on their own opinions in light of what they see in the stories. Thinking about the stories should lead readers not merely to recognize the contradictions and problems in their own opinions, moreover; it should also lead them to ask about the causes of these contradictions and problems in the society around them. That is the way reading great literature not only broadens our appreciation of the great variety of possibilities—and faults—of human existence; it also leads readers to a deeper understanding of themselves and their world.

The third way in which reading great literature can have a humanizing effect is by helping us integrate the different understandings and possibilities of human existence we have read about into a richer, more complex view of the world. Some great literary works help us construct such a world by modeling the effort. Examples of such works are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

     Moby Dick used to compete with Huck Finn as the great American novel. One depicts the experience of a poor boy in the antebellum South; the other relates the experience of an alienated young man named Ishmael who ships off for the South Seas in order to prevent his tendency to strike off the hats of passersby from becoming an effort to strike off their heads. Readers are treated to technical explanations of whales and whaling, as well as descriptions of the inhabitants of Nantucket, including the Quaker owners of some of the whaling ships who, despite their pacifist beliefs, are perfectly willing to profit from a bloody trade. We also meet Captain Ahab who unites the crew in a moral crusade against the white whale that has killed or maimed so many hunters. And we are introduced members of the motley crew who ship out—-Americans of different origins and characteristics as well as a cannibal from the South Sea islands and a black African savage. We also see that both these “savages” possess the technical skills of a harpooner, essential to the capture of whales, and that they are by no means inferior to the other “white” Americans aboard the Pequod. We also read about the industrial processing of the animals aboard the ship. That is, we are exposed to a bewildering number of different characters, beliefs, and perspectives on the world. But we learn in the end how Ishmael finally came to peace with himself as a result of the friendship he forms with the cannibal Queequeg and why it is he, Ishmael, who returns alone to tell the tale.

As Martin Heidegger has famously argued, we human beings do not live isolated from others in our bodies or even in our own minds. We live together in a shared world that is made intelligible by language. The problem is that this “world” becomes stale and external when it becomes merely a product or reflection of accepted opinion. Great novels force us to re-examine and re-create the world in which each of us lives by modelling that endeavor. We see this process in Moby Dick. We also see the way in which a later novelist, Ralph Ellison, in his novel, Invisible Man, draws very explicitly on this earlier American effort as well as on the product of a different culture and time, Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.

In Invisible Man Ellison tells the story of an anonymous African-American youth who is viciously exploited first by southern whites, then by the president of the black college to which the youth has won a scholarship. Moving to New York City, the youth experiences industrial exploitation after he lands a job at “Liberty Paints,” where he is injured as a result of the jealous fear of another, older black employee. He joins black protest movements and finally the Communist Party, but in all cases he sees himself used to satisfy the desires and ambitions of others while having little effect on his own condition or that of his race. At the end of the novel he thus withdraws underground into an electronically lit “cave.”

Ellison has thus related the history of the treatment of black Americans after the Civil War through the experience of a single individual. However, by clothing his account with references to Moby Dick and Notes from the Underground Ellison reminds his readers that the life he is depicting is not simply black or American. It is the experience of oppression—on the basis of class as well as of race. It is, moreover, an experience of intellectual isolation as much as an experience of physical and economic domination and oppression. The novel begins with the first person narrator’s explanation: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie-ectoplasms. I am a man of . . . of flesh and bone. . . and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me” (3). Ellison’s story is first and most obviously an attempt to communicate the devastating character and effects of the experience of African-Americans to others. But, I think, he also has a second, less obvious goal. In his novel (and the autobiographical introduction he wrote to the Viking edition in 1981), Ellison suggests that the discrimination, the unfeeling and, sometimes, even unknowing exploitation of black Americans results from a failure to appreciate their full humanity. He himself was trying, therefore, to establish that humanity in deed as well as in word. Human beings have traditionally been distinguished by their reason or intellect. By producing a novel that is equal to any work by a white man, Ellison hoped to show that a black had the same potential.

Not all great works of literature are American or concern the issue of race, our nation’s particular fault. One thinks easily of the novels by Henry James, which seem now to be out of fashion, or of Shakespeare’s plays which, with the exception of Othello, do not center on the question of race. Nor are all great literary authors simply admirable men. T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden both wrote great poems, but both poets held views that I at least cannot endorse. And just last Sunday, the New York Times reported that the great humanitarian Charles Dickens attempted to have the wife who gave him ten children committed to an insane asylum so he could carry on with a younger mistress. Let me conclude, therefore, as I began. Reading great literature can have a humanizing effect, but it is not a panacea for all our human problems. It can, unfortunately, also become a means of escape.