How We Lost Literature (And What We Can Do To Get It Back)

So we lost literature, as I've explained, writing recently in these pages ("Equal Opportunity in Fictionland). How did it happen, then? And, where do we go from here?

To begin with, the route from literature could not have occurred without the connivance, passive or active, of the majoritarian victim – meaning us. In this instance of European traditionalist male displacement, as in every other, we acquiesced in our own banishment from a venerable institution that, in spite of a long list of women writers of genius, was more our own creation than otherwise. We need not, furthermore, continue to suffer banishment indefinitely: In literature as in politics, the academy, and our families alike, we can reestablish some at least of the ground surrendered, provided only we recover our nerve and make up our minds to fight to take back something of our own so that our voice may be heard again, too. (I did, in fact, make the point to my friend the writing teacher who, with a wary look, signaled that she had to agree with me!) More on this later, however….

Acquiescence, ideological fashion, and the designs of a cadre of canny operatives aside, the story of how the custodians of what used to be called American letters half-abdicated, half were edged out from their former estate is not a pretty one: unflattering and, I'll assume, disconcerting to conservatives who care about such things. But that is precisely the answer: Too few conservatives and conservative activists do care about literature anymore, and haven't for a couple of generations now.

The recently late Auberon Waugh gave up writing novels decades ago, not because his talent as a fiction writer was overshadowed by his father's genius, but because he came to believe that the high bourgeois culture that supplied the literary novelist with his audience had simply ceased to exist. He was right about that (John Luckacs, the greatest historian of our age, has devoted a lifetime to analyzing, among other phenomena, the effect the demise of the civilized and civilizing bourgeosie has had on the post-modern world). This, however, is only a partial explanation. For most of the past century we lived in … interesting times that have only grown more "interesting" as the twenty-first launches itself. We live, to be exact, in an era of moral and political crisis, both of them reflected in extreme cultural confusion. In times like these it is natural – but not sensible, excusable, or civilized – for men (and here I mean men, not mankind) to be tempted to conclude that public affairs are properly the sole concern of educated, public-spirited males.

With Western civilization assaulted by communists, heretics, and gnostic barbarians, what responsible man has time, either as creator or patron, to devote to learning, culture, the fine arts, literature, the novel? As late as the 1940s and even the 50s, writers of the caliber of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dos Passos found an audience – and therefore a market – in upper-middle-class professional America: lawyers, doctors, teachers, and businessmen (perhaps even a few politicians), who kept up with the book review pages in the national and local press, subscribed to the book clubs, and patronized their local libraries. This audience was at least fifty percent male, and probably a good deal more; it was also the audience for general-interest magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as the magazines of opinion (The New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury.)

Back then, it was not unusual to know a medical doctor who was also an accomplished cellist, a business executive who (like Wallace Stevens) wrote poetry, a lawyer who collected rare editions of Dr. Johnson. Today such people are increasingly rare to the point of extinction, a condition reflecting not just the low standards of American education from the 1950s forward but a seachange in the attitude of American men (especially politically conservative ones) toward literature in particular and the arts in general.

Since the 1950s and beginning with National Review, a respectable number of conservative magazines has in fact appeared, the while the conservative publishing business (starting with Arlington House, I suppose) burgeoned. Rightist magazines, however – with the exception of the more academic ones such as Modern Age and The New Oxford Review – have given literature relatively short shrift, in the recent past especially: Compare, for example, NR's "Books, Arts & Manners" section of twenty, thirty, and forty years ago, when the magazine still had a cultural memory, with that of today. (What fiction does get reviewed in conservative periodicals nowadays are the usual midcult bestsellers and novels with an obtrusive political message Bill Bennett couldn't possibly miss.) Also, unlike their liberal counterparts, these publications have not been open to printing short fiction, excerpts from novels, or serious poetry (Chronicles being the proud exception to the rule).

As for the conservative publishers, the situation here is far worse than with the magazines. As a novelist and book review editor of twenty-five years' experience, I'm hard put to think of a single "conservative" house that has any real interest at all in fiction, or even narrative nonfiction: Their lists are an unrelieved diet of politics, economics, sociology, foreign policy, and international affairs, with an exposé of Bill Clinton's shenanigans tossed in for a lagniappe.

This state of affairs is, of course, very bad or even fatal news to conservative, Christian, or otherwise traditionally minded novelist whose themes, even when not tendentious or overt, are as readily identifiable by liberal editors as consecrated Hosts are said to be by satanists. Over the past quarter century or so, as the New York publishing business approached – intellectually and morally speaking – terminal decrepitude, numerous small book publishing enterprises, usually identified as "alternative" or "non-commercial" presses, have sprung up. Indeed, they are more concerned with literature than the Gotham giants. Since, however, they are equally committed to the liberal cultural agenda, and tend actually to be even more ideologically pure than their New York counterparts, they offer the conservative fiction writer few safe havens, and still fewer contracts. This leaves specialized publishers like Ignatius Press in San Francisco – a fine house, but one known to maintain a crisp, selfconsciously Catholic identity – as possible outlets for him and for his work.

The conservative view of imaginative literature is, unfortunately, one of a frivolous or anyway unserious avocation properly left to a) the Little Woman and her more earnest and better-educated friends who need a hobby beyond bridge and the local hospital board; b) literary scholars at a handful of conservative colleges and universities; and c) the New York Literary Mafia and its lesser counterparts around the country. And yet, plenty of conservatives continue to write fiction (I hear from some of them from time to time, always in plaintive terms) and struggle to get their books published; just as, I am convinced, there exist plenty of educated cultural conservatives to provide a lucrative market for their work. (An apt analogy, it seems to me, is opera, whose future in a world of rock, rap, and Britney Spears is despaired of by James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera's musical director. Yet, every generation produces a sizable number of young musicians who desire more than anything else in the world to sing opera, while audiences continue to flock to the Met, the Santa Fe and Chicago Operas, and other houses around the country.)

Conservative America has enough – maybe more than enough – magazines, book publishers, think tanks, research institutes, policy centers, and publicists itching to invest money in policy wonk, the promotion of family values and the public morality, educational reform, the Christian Right, the global economy, global democracy, the New World Order, and so on and so forth. Even as it enjoys, however, the spectacle of the first Republican president in half a century presiding over a Republican Congress, it lacks general trade publishers of learning, discrimination, and conscience, with a commitment to furthering the grand tradition of American letters that the culture at large has succeeded in traducing almost to the point of total destruction.

I hate to apply the word "philistinism" here, but what other one quite gets the job done? Yes, American culture and the American political system are in terrible shape. Yes, our country is in peril of being destroyed by saboteurs, fifth-columnists, and traitors bent on swamping or even replacing the native population with wave after wave of barbarian immigrants and invaders. Yes, organized environmentalism is working to tie the country down with knots, like a modern-day Gulliver. Yes, we are being marked for destruction by foreign terrorists and enemies, the direct creation of our government's evil policies and actions abroad. Yes, murderers are at work ripping children from their mothers' wombs, mad scientists plotting to replace the human population with clones and pod people…

On the other hand, life goes on, and so civilization must too. And civilization, if it means anything at all, means literature, perhaps mankind's oldest art form and radically connected to the logos, to the Word. Ultimately, national security and economic wellbeing are merely the support system for civilization: for religion, for philosophy, for art, for the examined life. "What availeth it for a man to gain the entire world if he lose his own soul…."

What George W. Bush and Jesse Jackson alike have taken to calling the New America understands the importance of literature and a literary tradition – however jerrybuilt, makeshift, and ersatz it may be – to its campaign of destruction and domination. Literature is as valid and as vital an aspect of the counterrevolution as economics, law, and politics. It's time the Old America relearned what it, too, once knew.

March 2, 2001

Chilton Williamson is a novelist and non-fiction writer, and a columnist and senior editor at Chronicles. His most recent book is The Immigration Mystique: America’s False Conscience.