I’m grateful that I got to read this serious and challenging book, which presents a core of strong, persuasive critical discussions of earlier American literature wrapped in layers of provocative, deeply felt polemic. At its heart there are chapters on Wheatley, Poe, Thoreau, Whitman, and William Wells Brown. American literature is not my field, and so I can’t say how López’s readings fit into it. But they are stirring readings, compellingly argued but also compellingly imagined: the authors that emerge look quite unlike their anthology portraits. Thoreau gains from the Iliad an experience of intensity and the imperative of mastering it; and the civil disobedience he practiced and advanced celebrates not impulse but discipline. The Aeneid is for Whitman first the occasion of a glib and spurious superiority, then a challenge he cannot shake; but then he goes beyond both Virgil’s poetry and his own, finding in the nursing of the wounded soldiers and the verse that emerges from it an understanding of a fully engaged comradeship that includes all the registers of erotic, amiable, idealistic, and democratic aspiration.
Outside this core of the book is an argument about how to understand the relations through time of readers to authors and authors to predecessors. A judicious chapter takes us through theorists of literary-historical relation (Eliot, Bloom, Foucault, Henry Louis Gates). Moving through this progression, almost a century’s worth, we find the historical aspect of the historical relation treated with increasing depth and justness, but the relational aspect of it growing impoverished. To these he adds his own model, conversation. It’s a deliberately modest term he chooses, and its implication is immediately evident: thinking of conversation with a tradition lets you imagine both listening to it, even being changed by it, and talking back to it. He is able to cite Anzaldúa and Bhabha as models of borderland, but one that borders on different times. In this evocative model, a conversation is somewhere you can go to be changed.
And to be pulled from what is easy, obvious, narrow in the moment. For the outer layer of this book is, as its title suggests, an argument about, and for, a style of conservatism he calls colorful; not “conservativism of color,” as if his were some exotic species, but a thing broader in some directions and more specific in others. “Colorful” conservatives are those who value tradition as a specific against convention, those who appeal to the “other customs” of “other times” in order to get some distance on, some freedom from and power over, oppressively right-thinking and non-thinking attitudes of their own moment. He contrasts these with liberals of most stripes on the one hand, who value convention as a specific against tradition, and Burkean conservatives, who value tradition as a sort of long-term convention. His critiques of both these energies are trenchant, though there is something more Burkean than he would care to admit in his own model; for, like Burke, López seems to offer few substantive grounds for the value (the liberating value in his case) of particular traditions.
López’s argument about the politics of academic literary studies is original. It is also deliberately provoking, beginning with an unapologetic screed that quotes those conservative journalists most notorious among and most obnoxious to the academic world of which he is himself part—Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh. It is clearly meant to stagger readers, and it staggered me a bit. I can’t say I like it, but I take the implicit point: when a professor at a major research university suggested a perfectly middlebrow MSNBC commentator might make a good university president, the reaction was polite; had he suggested a Fox News commentator, it would have been contemptuous. At the other pole of the book, the final chapter concludes with an unapologetically admiring and unconventional reading of Brokeback Mountain, which seems designed to get on the nerves of those who love the movie and those who hate it. It’s a fight in which I have no dog, but I thought the reading superb.
Here’s the thing. Political and cultural discussion in the humanities, and still more the shared attitudes that underlie them, are generally monotone, thoughtless, and banal. When conservatives complain about that, they are right. But when they complain that the research and thinking done within its disciplines is just a con, a self-rewarding game, a fog of empty jargon, they are wrong. The problem is that too few of them have been willing to engage intelligently with poststructuralism, ethnic literary studies, queer studies, and to sort out what is valuable and rational in them from what is not. López has had the wit and courage to do just that. We could use more of it.