"How Would a Book like Harold Bloom's 'Western Canon" Be Received Today?" The NY Times Book Review raises the question in its issue of March 23, 2014. The occasion: the twentieth anniversary since Harold Bloom published his book on The Western Canon. One of the two men asked to respond was the author Pankaj Mishra, who is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a contributor to the New York Review of Books and its London counterpart of the same locution.
Mr. Mishra writes that the study of literature classically conceived, the whole "great books" curriculum, is the product of "bow-tied men on East Coast campuses." This is no mean feat: the canon "became central to the cultural self-definition of a budding superpower's elite."
Now I understand and can appreciate that it is open season on patrician white-haired men, especially dead or dying ones, and twenty years in journalism equals an era (which is why my old Newsweek editor Ken Auchincloss forbade the use of the phrase "the end of an era"). But leave aside how Pankaj Mishra reduces the complex and original Harold Bloom to the status of a quixotic knight in an age that scoffs at chivalry. Look at the hidden signifiers in his writing. I mean especially the use of "bow-tied men" and indeed "bow-tie" in general as a metonymy for anything defunct and discarded, outmoded and out-of-touch. How unfair this is to a sartorial accessory that men of all persuasions have used for decades without risking the implicit abuse and prejudice that is so manifest in Mishra's sentence! Can't you picture FDR in a bow-tie, and Bogart too in his late movies, and Sinatra when his voice made the girls swoon?
As one who does not condone the use of derogatory comments directed at exotic accessories -- be the item in question a turban or a burnoose, a yamelka or a fez -- I feel, as a matter of principle, that I must stand up for my freedom of sartorial expression. The determination to sport a bow-tie and fedora when it suits me is not only a statement of aesthetic style but the exercise of a first-amendment right as a subdivision of freedom of speech. (I believe, moreover, that a dapper-looking three-piece suit may yet make a comeback, which would have obvious benefits for the worlds of fashion and journalism and for both management and labor in the garment industry,)
I therefore hereby declare my intention to wear a bow-tie at least once or twice a month -- and to teach, in my classes, such stalwart examples of the Western Canon as Genesis,The Odyssey, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, Crime and Punishment, Civilization and Its Discontents, Pride and Prejudice, Nietszche and Freud, Wordsworth and Keats, Whitman and Dickinson. Maybe I'll even work in some references to bow-tied humanists on the order of Erich Auerbach, M. H. Abrams, Northrop Frye, Anthony Hecht, Jacques Barzun, Frederick Dupee, Cleanth Brooks, and Mark Van Doren.
-- David Lehman (March 28, 2014)
From The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 2014, p. 6. In the version printed in the Times, the "bow-tied humanists" in that last graf are Auerbach, Abrams, Frye, Barzun, Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling.