We have had a very consequential election this past week. (And I am still celebrating the results.) But the nation is only minimally changed by politics and politicians. Whether good or bad, liberal or conservative, effective or incompetent, political leaders are like canoeing. You have a paddle, but it can only direct the boat with the currents. Paddling upstream is a metaphor for being totally ineffective.
The changes in our nation and culture will be effected somewhat by what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington or our state capitals. The real force for change is the culture. The classroom, the pulpit, and the keyboard are all more central, more important, more dynamic for cultural change than anything that happens in the halls of Congress. The role of the family, the congregation, and the community, likewise, are all central to the direction of the nation.
The right books and the classics will not save our civilization. The brutal Assyrians amassed the greatest library of the ancient world. The Nazis never lacked cultural refinement as they looted the art museums and collections all over Europe.
The right books and a foundation in the classics will refine, smooth out, enhance, and beautify a good, humane, and Godly culture. Shakespeare and Faulkner won’t save your soul, but they both can widen the vision, enlarge the heart, and fill the deeper longings within a good and Godly culture.
I have recently had the honor–once again–of writing about a great teacher, scholar, and writer, Dr. Louise Cowan. The article can be found here at the Voice of the South website.
For those who squinch their eyes to read the titles in a picture featuring books, I will make the task easier. Now, I cannot begin to list all the titles on the shelves back behind the frontpiece. You will have to visit my heavy-laden bookshelves in my ever-cluttered office to see those. But here are the titles from left to right, from bottom to top, of the books seen above.
The Fugitive Group by Louise Cowan. (The brown book lying flat.) This book grew out of Dr. Cowan’s dissertation on her teachers at Vanderbilt University. This book is absolutely essential to anyone pursuing studies in Southern literature, the Fugitive poets, and the Agrarians.
The Southern Critics by Louise Cowan. (Small tan book lying flat.) This short study is “an introduction to the Criticism of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle.” When I start a college–in my imaginary world–the study of these literary men and this introduction will be required of all students.The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (Big colorful book at the bottom of the stack at the back.) Dr. Cowan has taught Shakespeare and written quite a few essays on Shakespeare’s plays. As it happens, my Humanities class is currently working through several of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, and now, King Lear). Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dr. Cowan has taught classes on Russian literature, including and emphasizing the works of Dostoevsky. Not only has that Russian impacted her teaching, his faith impacted Dr. Cowan’s commitment to a Christian view of things. The Odyssey by Homer. One of the most important essays by Dr. Cowan is “Epic as Cosmopoesis.” She has heavily emphasized the foundational importance and application of the great epics of the Western tradition, beginning with Homer’s two epics and Virgil’s Aeneid. The Fugitive Poets by William Pratt. This is a great collection of the poems by Ransom, Tate, Davidson, Warren, and others of the Fugitive movement. Dr. Cowan studied under these men and has written about and taught from them throughout her career. Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness. (Colorful standing book with pictures of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare seen on the bottom of the cover.) This book first introducted me to Louise Cowan. This is an absolutely essential collection of short essays about the great literary classics. The contributors include a number of Dr. Cowan’s former students, along with other literary thinkers, such as Leland Ryken. I have read repeatedly from my autographed copy of this book. The next four books, standing with white covers, are part of a series of literary studies called “Studies in Genre.” I would not expect everyone to want these books, but certainly every literature teacher and student needs all four of them. They are as follows: 1. The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums. This book contains Dr. Cowan’s essay “Epic as Cosmopoesis.” I re-read that essay every year or so as I try to grasp and teach epics. 2. The Tragic Abyss, edited by Glen Arbery. Too often people think tragedy in literature means a story where something bad happens. That is not the nature of tragedy (as a literary genre). This is a great book. 3. The Terrain of Comedy, edited by Dr. Cowan. Likewise, people think comedy in literature means something funny. There is much more to it than that. The Bible, for example, is a grand comedy, with particular books like “Ruth” or the Gospels being comedies within the comedy. 4. The Prospect of Lyric, edited by Dr. Bainard Cowan, the son of Louise and Donald Cowan. This book on poetry is itself at many points poetry. The essays by mother and son (the Cowans) are transforming. What is a Teacher?, edited by Dr. Claudia Allums. I recently reviewed this wonderful collection. It is dedicated to the Cowans and includes an essay by Dr. Louise Cowan on Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” This book is absolutely vital to teachers and teachers of literature. It includes essays on Greek drama, Dickens’ Hard Times, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and more. (Sorry for these Italics. I cannot get my computer to cooperate.)