1.09.2012

Review: The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Falkner, by Sandra Newman

With a wit akin to Dave Barry's (at least, for the first half of the book), Sandra Newman takes a big old stab at literary history with The Western Lit Survival Kit, new this past week from Gotham Books. Using a series of ratings (on a work's importance, it's accessibility/difficulty and its fun), Newman holds her readers' hands through the minefield of Western literature from the starting point of the Greeks and Romans, all the way up through the first half of the twentieth century.

This is a comprehensive analysis, but not wholly inclusive. She spends a lot of time on writers whose works are most read and most analyzed (did we really need an entire chapter on Shakespeare?) and almost no time on authors whose works had an impact on other writers but aren't studied so much. She states very early on (in good humor) that, for the purposes of this book,
Western literature is what you traditionally learn about when you go to college to study literature. This book wil not redress imbalances or redefine canon...the present author, like everyone else, would be happier if Western literature were not quite as white and male as it is. Like almost everyone else, however, there is nothing I can do about it...
 Newman says towards the end of the book (as we get into the twentieth century) "We will only deal with authors who have been properly canonized; those works that have begun to ossify in a suitably grand pose." For this, she chooses a handful of poets that I've never heard of (and I've studied literary history fairly extensively), another handful of poets that I have heard of, then James, Stein, Kafka, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway and Faulkner. She only includes writers of the twentieth century who were born in the nineteenth century. Steinbeck is left out even though his works are not only important, but also some of the best non-derivative writing we have in the twentieth century.

Not only that, but Newman claims (in an earlier chapter) that "Stephen Crane's work is the most important American contribution to the genre of Naturalism." There's really no other mention of Naturalism for the rest of the book...she puts Stephen Crane on this pedestal (and rightly so, his work is definitely important), but then ignores Steinbeck, Wharton, Chopin and even Upton Sinclair, whose canon is both extensive and terribly important.

She leaves out Sylvia Plath, Ambrose Bierce, and mentions Richard Wright, but leaves him out. Jack London isn't even on her radar, which is weird. I was only an English minor in college, but I studied a lot of writers that she has decided to leave out. Many of these are women and minorities, which frustrates me because of her earlier statement of not being able to do anything about how white and male Western literature is. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is left out, Charles Chestnutt and Paul Lawrence Dunbar are left out, Zitkala-Sa and Sui Sin Far are left out...these are writers who are not only studied, but who defy convention...and Newman just passes them by.

As for her ratings system, it's a bit confusing. Starting with Chapter 2: "Ancient Rome: When the World was Ruled by Italians," she switches from using a rating for Accessibility to a rating of Difficulty, without any explanation for it. She does it in a couple of chapters and, when it happens, it almost reads more like a judgement, and less like an evaluation.

All in all, this is a great book if you've actually read much of the material discussed - you'll probably laugh your head off for half of it. If you haven't read the majority of the works, the jokes will be kind of empty, but also you'll be missing out on a huge chunk of literary history that Newman left out. This book should not be used like Cliff Notes or whatever the kids are using these days, and it should not be used to help you study for that midterm in your Romantics class. It's also not a great book if you want to understand anything past about 1850. Anything after that has been either left out or seriously cheated in its representation, with the exception of James Joyce whom Newman seems to love.

If you've read this book and are curious about those Newman left out, here's a list of those that probably should have been mentioned, even given her limits about being ossified, and given her unspoken requirement that none of them should have lived past about 1972 (Ezra Pound is the latest-living author mentioned, all others died prior to him). Some of these were blanketed over by generalizations in the book... I apologize if any of these were mentioned or discussed in the book, contrary to what I remember reading, and I apologize if I left anyone of merit out of this list. I'm linking to wikipedia so that, if you've read this book, you can read everything you probably would have read from Newman...but there are probably fewer jokes.

Louisa May Alcott*
J. M. Barrie
L. Frank Baum
Ambrose Bierce
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Lewis Carroll
Charles Chesnutt
Kate Chopin
Wilkie Collins
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Sui Sin Far
E. M. Forster
Upton Sinclair
John Steinbeck
Robert Louis Stevenson*
Bram Stoker
Jules Verne
H. G. Wells*
Edith Wharton
Richard Wright
Zitkala-Sa

* I'm fairly certain they or their works were mentioned, but never actually discussed.

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