When I was young and I embarked on my studies in what’s known in American University Speak as an English Department, I naïvely thought that we’d be studying how the English language is used, all over the world, by all kinds of people for all kinds of purposes. I thought we’d focus on how each text we studied was situated in its linguistic, social, and political context. I also thought that the main focus of literary study would be creating our own interpretations of whatever we were reading, whether that meant a universally acknowledged masterpiece like King Lear or something published in yesterday’s newspaper. (Yes, those were the years when paper-and-ink newspapers were still a big deal.)
Ha ha ha ha ha! Received wisdom and a very white and very male canon dominated my experience, and while some classes departed from this norm by including texts by female and non-white authors, they were seen as an optional supplement to the real stuff—nice to have rather than essential—and still tended to cover American and perhaps British authors rather than those from the many other countries where English is an official or at least a widely-used language. The faculty itself had some diversity, but nothing that would threaten the hegemony of the old white guys and their points of view.
I offer this story to illuminate why the title of Dana Schwartz’s latest book, The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon, is so hilarious to me. Basically, it’s funny because it’s true. Before proceeding further, I’m going to issue a trigger warning, in part because people who think trigger warnings are a sign of the decline of our society are exactly the type of person who will miss the point of this book, and it’s only fair to try to try to save them from themselves. This book is a satire that expertly eviscerates many sacred cows of the literary canon, as well as the pretensions of junior would-be literati. Proceed no further if that’s going to make you rush to social media to explain why the author got it all wrong.
I first encountered Dana Schwartz through her Twitter posts from the account @GuyInYourMFA, in which she, despite being neither a guy nor in an MFA program, perfectly captured the pretentious voice of a certain type familiar to anyone who has spent much time around any English Department or Creative Writing program. The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon captures the spirit of @GuyInYourMFA in book form, offering a series of chapters covering just what it says on the cover.
The chapters are arranged chronologically, from William Shakespeare to “The Jonathans” (Franzen, Lethem, and Safran Foer), with an emphasis on the 20th century canon. Even if you haven’t studied English at the University level, the writers included make up a substantial portion of the curriculum of English classes at the junior high and high school level as well, so there’s no reason you can’t be in on the joke as well. Besides the fun you’ll have while reading this book, you’ll also learn that many things you were taught in school were really not so.
Take Henry David Thoreau, the bane of my high school existence. It was the hippie dippy Earth Day era, and Thoreau was held up to us as the very paradigm of a self-made man whose independence drove him to scorn the comforts of the civilized world and live as one with nature. In fact, as Schwartz informs us, “Thoreau knew from a young age that he would forge his own path in the world, and so, like his grandfather before him, he went to Harvard.” She also notes that Thoreau didn’t bother with anything as common as working at a job — instead, he moved in with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Neither did Thoreau spend that much time in the woods — he lived just over two years, or about four-percent of his life, at Walden. Walden was hardly the wilderness either. Thoreau built his cabin on Emerson’s property — about one and a half miles from his own childhood home. Still, you have to admire a guy who achieves literary immortality on the basis of something that becomes less impressive the more closely you look at it.
Besides the attention paid to individual writers, The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon is full of handy tips for the aspiring literati, from how to dress like a writer (you need a cap, but not just any cap, as well as the most expensive eyewear you can manage) to how to mix a gin rickey and a mint julep (because everyone knows that alcohol and literature go together, and if you can’t show off while doing something it’s really not worth doing).
Illustrations by Jason Adam Katzenstein enliven the text, and the portraits of each writer are helpfully annotated with comments on self-presentation. When you are trying to break into a field with no natural mechanism (like the need to pass multiple semesters of calculus that faces the aspiring engineer) to separate the pretenders from the contenders, looking and acting the part is key. With the advice offered in The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon you’ll be on your way in no time.