Monday, February 20, 2017

When literature was king

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously (Dorothy) Day and others took it -- reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
David Brooks, The Road to Character

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a Catholic activist and writer who is one of those people David Brooks uses as as a model for character formation in The Road to Character. The period he writes about above would be her teens and 20s, which would make it the years just before and after 1920. Among the writers who influenced Day at that time were Upton Sinclair and Jack London, as well as the Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Brooks reminds as that at that time in history, and for many years before that and a few years afterward, literature was taken much more seriously than it is today. Even ordinary people with relatively little formal education knew their Shakespeare, knew their Scott and Dickens and knew their Wordsworth and Milton. They also knew their Bibles.

Such reverence for literature still had a glimmer of life in my own youth. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck were still alive and were household names. So we're such poets as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. How many living poets can you name? Many poets continue to write, and I meet one occasionally, but none has reached the prominence of a Frost or Sandburg since then, which may help explain why Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As for novelists, most people think first of people like John Grisham and Danielle Steel, not more literary types. We still have good writers, but fewer people read them.

Today the great film directors, the likes of Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, are the artists most widely known and discussed. You don't need a college degree to intelligently discuss The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as you once didn't need a college degree to intelligently discuss Hamlet.

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