Conservative Literature?

This hasn’t been a great week for deep thinking but since I promised let me take a crack at this conservative literature question noted below. The short answer is yes and no. Literature can have a strong conservative viewpoint and therefore bolster that worldview but great literature transcends worldviews.

The tricky part is defining conservatism and then applying that to literature. I think that to traditionalists anything that reinforces continuity, tradition, community, an accurate view of human nature, or delivers insight into the human condition is in some way conservative. Certainly Russell Kirk, Irving Babbitt and others so literature as a powerful and necessary part of the good society; of order in the soul and therefore in life. They looked to literature to remind us of ideas beyond, to use Kirk’s phrase, “the dreams of avarice.” For them literature elevated us beyond a mere material or physical existence and pointed us to a higher order.

Given my sympathies with this world view I certainly look for literature in this tradition. But I think great art and literature can also be subversive or seek to undermine the very things conservatives are seeking to build/preserve. I think an argument can be made that much of modern literature is in fact in this mode. It seeks to break up what it views as stifling and suffocating tradition. Its goal is to highlight the absurdity and uselessness of traditional beliefs and ways of existence. This type of literature seeks to break up taboos and tear down barriers. This could flow from a romantic view of the world or a more radical political view. The romantic argues with Rousseau that man was born free but is everywhere in chains. The romantic seeks to set man free from the artificial chains of hierarchy and tradition so that he might be truly free. The radical seeks to overthrow the status quo because he views it as politically oppressive. Literature can be about power too.

So I guess what I am saying is that great literature touches something important in the human condition but that the motivation and impact of that literature might not be conservative. Conservatives, at least traditionalists, value literature as a building block and defense of civilization but they don’t insist that all great literature is conservative.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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