Lies, Damn Lies, and Absurdities

Despite its optimistic title, Recovering American Literature is really about the severity of illness, the magnitude of loss. In a book weighted with evidence, Peter Shaw shows literature has suffered by subverting art to politics. Substituting the dogma of political correctness for universal themes and metaphysical questions, academics since the 1960’s have been reinterpreting the masterpieces of our literature solely as testaments to political subversion, thereby rendering American masterpieces decidedly anti-American.

Not content merely with bending them, critics of the last 30 years have essentially dispensed with traditional rules of literary discussion. Ideas considered marginal in the 1950’s have now gained general acceptance by even the most respected critics. While grains of truth often lie buried in revisionist discourse, they have been amplified to such proportions that the part is taken for the whole. To illustrate the distortions of this politicizing trend, Shaw outlines the historically evolving critiques of The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Huckleberry Finn, The Bostonians, and Melville’s Typee.

Making these works acceptable (and “relevant”) has often meant turning them into polemics devoid of their original meaning. Whereas traditional critics of The Scarlet Letter, for example, exonerated the law...

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