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The Antidote to Marxist Literary Criticism

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Literary criticism is a field that mystifies many people. Although its goal of evaluating and commenting on works of literature is straightforward enough, the theories that inform the work of many critics often muddy the waters. Some employ arcane terminology that makes them inaccessible to the uninitiated. Others make assertions that defy common sense, e.g., that an author’s intent has no bearing on how a reader should interpret his work, or that a laundry list has as much intrinsic literary merit as a Shakespearean play. It’s little wonder that some have blamed literary critics for destroying their love of literature.

For decades, Marxist theory has occupied a preeminent place in the field of literary criticism. (I recall one of my conventionally liberal history professor’s stating around the year 2000 that “Marxism is dead everywhere except in English departments.”) The Marxist critic views works of literature, as well as those works’ forms and meanings, as products of particular social institutions that reflect a particular ideology. The Marxist critic evaluates these works according to how “progressive” they are. Christians and others who reject the materialist assumptions undergirding Marxism need different ways to approach literature. In Literature and Liberty, Allen Mendenhall presents libertarianism as an alternative lens through which to view works of literature as a means of understanding them better.

The economist Thomas Sowell has written that much of the academic work that calls itself “interdisciplinary” is in fact non-disciplinary when it fails to require the actual mastery of multiple disciplines. Fortunately, Mendenhall’s work is not vulnerable to this critique. As the holder of both a Ph.D. in English (this book was published when he was a doctoral candidate) and a law degree, Mendenhall is well qualified to write on the intersection of literature, political theory, and law. However, those without any background in one or more of these fields, or who have never been acquainted with libertarian theory, may find this collection of essays difficult to navigate. In fact, the first literary scholar asked to review this book handed the review copy back after a few weeks, saying, “I don’t get it. I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad. I just don’t understand it.”

What has Mendenhall done in Literature and Liberty that is so unusual? For one thing, his true interdisciplinary background allows him to critique literary studies from both the inside and the outside. He writes, “A person gets used to the smell of his own house; sometimes it takes a rude guest to point out when the house smells funny.” What smells funny? “I have heard professors in the classroom present critiques of capitalism that have no basis in economic research or reality ... much of what they criticize is a vulgar caricature of capitalism that does not represent the things capitalism means to me or other serious capitalists: freedom, liberty, mobility, voluntarism, peace, originality, exchanges, creativity, cooperation, prosperity, happiness, health, trade, production, beauty, collaboration, ingenuity, variation, diversity, mutuality, agency, and independence.”

Fortunately, Mendenhall’s libertarian lens is not the simple replacing of an anti-capitalist lens with a pro-capitalist one. Whereas Marxism places great emphasis on a person’s cultural conditioning as a result of a society’s prevailing ideology, libertarianism allows for a much greater degree of human agency without denying that cultural conditioning can take place. It also pushes back against the erroneous belief of Marxist critics that all human motives are economic as well as the belief of many conservative critics that economic motives are somehow separate from other motives of human life. Moreover, it recognizes that economic activity such as the setting of prices in the marketplace is a much more bottom-up affair than Marxists tend to recognize or appreciate.

The figures and works to which Mendenhall applies this lens in this volume of essays are many and varied, ranging from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century work The History of the Kings of Britain to Shakespeare to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, along with many others. Most of the chapters deal with some aspect of the treatment of law in the works under consideration. For example, Mendenhall calls Geoffrey’s work “a history of the rise of law,” arguing that Geoffrey responded to the factional nature of the British legal system in the generations following the Norman Conquest of 1066 by crafting a narrative in which the establishing of a unified legal system plays the central role. In a good example of applying libertarian insights to literary texts, Mendenhall shows how Geoffrey’s use of symbols and images to establish law’s authority (and thus the authority of the king) tracks with libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard’s discussion of the methods by which the state legitimizes itself. (Rothbard wrote in his prominent essay “Anatomy of the State” that the state relies on intellectuals to create an ideology according to which the state’s rule is seen as preferable to all existing alternatives.)

Another chapter focusing on the connection between law and literature is the second, “Liberty and Shakespeare.” In fact, this chapter provides a survey-in-miniature of the entire subfield of “Law and Literature.” Mendenhall shows how attorneys, some of whom who are not career academics, have made meaningful contributions to the study of Shakespeare. He even holds out the possibility that in the future most important literary scholarship might originate outside of universities’ English departments, which too often have gotten bogged down in outmoded Marxist criticism. In general, Mendenhall urges the pursuit of collaboration across interdisciplinary lines so that scholars can take advantage of each others’ expertise in a world where disciplines have become so highly specialized.

Not all the book’s essays deal directly with the intersection of law and literature. The shorter chapters on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Hazlitt focus respectively on the concepts of individualism and literary criticism itself. Mendenhall also gives us a chapter in which he critiques Alan Gribben’s “sanitized” edition of Huckleberry Finn that occasioned so much public comment upon its release in 2011; Mendenhall connects this subversion of the novel’s original text to the “cultural Marxism” that arose in the mid-twentieth century in the writings of theorists like Herbert Marcuse.

Allen Mendenhall’s Literature and Liberty is a thought-provoking work that provides new looks at a number of classic texts from a perspective that is, quite frankly, refreshing given the current climate of literary criticism. Readers interested in canonical texts, political theory, law, or economics will find something worthwhile here.

This review originally appeared in Journal of Faith and the Academy. 


Contact Jason Jewell

Jason Jewell is the chairman of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. His research interests include religion and politics in early modern Britain, the Christian philosophy of history, and the intersection of Christianity and culture. He is a contributor to Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views (Bloomsbury, 2014) and The Inklings and King Arthur (2015).

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