Retelling History

A few years ago, David Denby wrote about his experiences as a student in Humanities I-II, the “Great Books course,” at Columbia College.  In Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe, Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart “teaches,” for the general reader, his own version of the class, the distillation of decades of teaching and reflecting on the story of Western civilization.  By the time the reader has worked his way from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he has learned a great deal about important works of Western literature and has come to know a wise teacher with a sense of style, and a sense of humor, as well.

Undergraduates and older folk who remember their college days, even people without a college degree, will profit from Jeffrey Hart’s learning and insight.  They often find themselves today, like Dante at the beginning of his Comedy, wandering confused and afraid in a dark wood.  Beatrice in heaven sent Dante a helper: not one of his friends, such as Guido Cavalcanti, or another poet, such as Arnaud Daniel; not even Thomas Aquinas, the great Italian philosopher who provided much of Dante’s intellectual foundations.  No; in Dante’s hour of need, Beatrice sent Virgil, a damned pagan poet (if you will excuse the theologically exact description), because Dante needed to go back to the sources of his culture in order to get out of the forest, to...

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