Loose Canons

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Much ink has been spilled amid the recent sound and fury over “political correctness,” freedom of thought on campus, and what kinds of literature and history should be taught in American universities. With this collection of ten uniformly strong, thought-provoking essays, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., fires an articulate volley across the bows of those on both sides who would simplify the question of what constitutes the “canon” and who would prescribe curricula in coercive and unhelpful ways.

Gates, a distinguished critic of American literature and culture at large, is one of the foremost advocates of African American studies. He is editor of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, and W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and chairman of the Afro-American department at Harvard, where he arrived via Cornell and Duke. He nicely if somewhat glibly summarizes the debate:

The Conservative (these are caricatures, and I apologize), extolling the achievement of…“Western civilization,” says: Nobody does it better. We Liberal Reformists say: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and—hope for the best. The Left says: Let’s do unto you what you did unto Others; and then see how you like that.

Dinesh D’Souza handled the left and its excesses rather ably in his controversial book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991). “[W]hile people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts,” writes D’Souza with a George Will-ian smirk; many of the facts D’Souza recounts are, if accurate, disturbing indeed. D’Souza’s competently researched and written “jeremiad” (Gates’s term) about the excesses of what he calls the “victim’s revolution” on university campuses is a valuable contribution to the debate over the state and future of liberal education. One wishes Gates had offered a similar sustained, book-length argument, rather than (his words) “something very much like a book.” One is grateful for what he has offered, though: ten cogent, challenging, and entertaining essays on the need to redefine that much-discussed, elusive creature, the literary “canon,” and on the importance of African American studies to that endeavor. He shows himself—in contrast to the ploddingly earnest, often mean-spirited young D’Souza—to be a highly talented writer and agile thinker, moving gracefully from tight, well-reasoned literary criticism to personal anecdotes, to humorous, well-conceived parodies of crime fiction.

“In all of human history,” claims D’Souza, “there is no example of a successful multiracial and multicultural society.” The crux of this flawed assertion is its absent definition of “successful.” Notes Gates: “[W]hatever the outcome of the culture wars in the academy, the world we live in is multicultural already. Mixing and hybridity are the rule, not the exception.” He also observes,

As a student of African-American culture, of course, I’ve come to take this kind of cultural palimpsest for granted. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane have influenced popular musicians the world over. Wynton Marsalis is as comfortable with Mozart as with jazz.…In the dance, Judith Jameson, Alvin Ailey, and Katherine Dunham all excelled at “Western” cultural forms, melding these with African-American styles to produce performances that were neither, and both.…Then again, even a vernacular form like the spirituals took as its text the King James version of the Old and New Testaments.

Multiculturalism, then, is the condition of human society, especially in today’s small world. The culture wars are a battle between the complex, multifarious present and a sentimental, ossified notion of the European past, offered by mossbacked ideologues such as Allan Bloom. Multiculturalism is a fact, like it or not, and as D’Souza rightly notes, people are not entitled to their own facts.

Gates leavens occasionally jargon-heavy essays (two of which originated as talks at professional meetings) with two hilarious, pointed pseudo-detective stories and a number of apt references to his own childhood and love of literature. In “Canon Confidential: A Sam Slade Caper,” one of the parodic pieces, Gates has the critic Elizabeth Hardwick tell hard-boiled private eye Slade: “All the films you’d never see if it were up to you,...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)