Prolific to the limits of comprehension, Terry Eagleton writes books like Dickens published installments. He writes too fast to be taken seriously all the time, which means some of his work gets overlooked.
This is unfortunate. Over nearly 40 books, Eagleton, who has held professorships throughout the English-speaking world, has written with passion and admirable clarity. And he isn’t timid. Recent books include, “On Evil,” “Why Marx Was Right,” and my favorite title of the bunch, “Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ.” Eagleton’s “Literary Theory,” which renders comprehensible the most influential schools of thought of the last century or so, has been indispensable to theorists-in-training since its publication in 1983.
For his spring-summer 2013 line, Eagleton offers two quite different books, both aimed at the general reader. “Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America” is Eagleton’s contribution to the persistent subgenre of Toquevillian analysis: the European curmudgeon’s critical, ultimately appreciative and, in Eagleton’s case, loving guide to the wacky Yanks and their nation, both “fleshly and ascetic, worldly and otherworldly . . . as metaphysical as it is materialistic.”
Eagleton also offers the aptly titled “How to Read Literature.” No false advertising here. “How to Read” is a pleasingly readable overview of what we talk about when we talk about books, if by “we” we mean people that read George Eliot to obtain something nobler than entertainment.
Lest you wonder, both books are quite good, displaying Eagleton’s cardinal virtues of intelligence, clarity, and wit, of a sort. Eagleton’s humor tends toward a dated avuncular bonhomie. But his insights more than compensate for his unfunny jokes.
Eagleton’s a committed Marxist. He doesn’t proselytize in either book, but a softly Marxian form of justice furnishes the books’ animating philosophical commitments. This is most evident in “Pond” when Eagleton addresses the American fetish for individualism and the connected “dismissal of social conditions that underlies the American Dream.”
Our sunny dispositions and our habit for proclaiming things “awesome,” two things Eagleton finds childish, allow us to relax into civic sloth. To each according to his worth, from each according to his frailty, and the like. As Eagleton writes, “One reason why so many people end up on death row in the United States is because social conditions are thought to be irrelevant to their behavior.”
To dislodge his readers from the lure of American individualism, Eagleton makes a rather bold move: a full-throated defense of stereotypes.
“Stereotypes,” he writes, “need not deny that we are all distinctive individuals. It is just that, like medical textbooks or prayers for the dying, they focus on what we have in common. To attend only to differences would be as misleading as to see nothing but similarities.” Eagleton seems to make use of stereotyping and skewering American cultural foolishness to poke at what he views as our collective corrosive narcissism and individualism. No American is successful, or happy, or silly after his own fashion.
Much of the book is given over to a discussion of American habits and etiquette, linguistic and otherwise. The book is smart, but Eagleton’s observations aren’t consistently novel. Then he’ll write something that feels both unique and as if it should have been obvious.
For instance, “If there is so much obesity in the United States, it is among other things because the idea that you should eat only as much as is good for you suggests a standard independent of one’s appetites, which is a distinctly suspect notion. . . . Desire is its own measure.”
“How to Read Literature” obliquely approaches some of the same issues, particularly in its discussion of Romanticism — that book’s version of individualism — and its “passion for the particular.”
“Our current notions of literary character,” Eagleton writes, “are for the most part those of a robustly individualist social order. They are also of quite recent historical origin. They are far from the only way of picturing the human person.” This is, perhaps, projecting too much topicality onto “How to Read,” but our default aesthetic ideas and notions of political and social justice are often intimately linked.
“How to Read” can be appreciated beyond its soft social critique, though. The book is a primer on “Openings,” “Narrative,” “Interpretation,” and the like, and a good one. Over the course of this slim book Eagleton offers brief, trenchant précis of postmodernism, modernism, and realism, subtly drawing attention to things often overlooked. For instance, “[w]hen we describe a work as realist, we do not mean that it is closer to reality in some absolute way than non-realist literature. We mean that it conforms to what people of a certain time and place tend to regard as reality.” As true as it is basic, yet often unsaid in literature courses.
Perhaps the intimacy of the term alienates people, but we often overlook the role that trust plays in our ongoing debates about critics and writers. That’s the key issue, though. With both of these books, Eagleton has been incisive and honest about basic issues. Even if he’s a bit of a snob, you trust his intentions.
HOW TO READ LITERATURE
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University, 216 pp., $26Michael Washburn writes about books, politics and culture for a number of publications. He’s @WhaleLines and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.