ADVERSITY'S SWEET MILK ...

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In the January issue of Harper's magazine, Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for fiction, and consequently ought to have more sense, unburdens herself on the subject of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which many people, Hemingway among them, consider to be the American novel from which the rest of our literature is descended.

Not so, says Ms. Smiley, who re-read Twain's novel recently while recuperating from a broken leg. The leg is fine but on reading Jane's piece in Harper's, you wonder how the injuries to her head are coming along.

We, and American lit, would all be a lot better off, says Jane Smiley, if our literature came down to us not from "Huck Finn" but from "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Since few people read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" these days it might be helpful to recall it was a powerful antebellum tract with its portrayal of plantation life in the American South in the era of legalized slavery. "Huck Finn," she says, relegates the runaway slave "Jim" to a mere sidekick of "Huck's," while "Uncle Tom's Cabin" gives us a more noble black male as role model and literary hero.

This sort of overlooks the fact that "Jim," the "sidekick," is a complex and subtle and just plain wonderful man and model and Twain rarely if ever drew a better character, wiser by far than Huck, strong and loyal, determined to be free.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" as an abolitionist tract was terrific; as literature it is pure melodramatic potboiler.

In The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd has also been stirring the lit'ry waters with her rip job on Georgetown University for a revised curriculum which downgrades in importance such "dead white European males" as Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare.

Although I dearly love the Jesuits and Georgetown, I am with Ms. Dowd on this one. Especially where she quotes the curriculum chairman as declaring:

"We want students to be aware that there are problems in Shakespeare's plays with the way women were portrayed. We want to get away from the notion that literature is sacred..."

To the extent that, under this new program, even English lit majors will no longer be required to read Shakespeare or Milton and Chaucer. Which is sort of like excusing math majors from learning to count.

But here we have a Floridian, a member of the National Organization for Women, writing to applaud the Georgetown prof (in charge of curriculum revision) "for having the courage to right past wrongs against women and other oppressed group..."

So not reading Shakespeare can "right past wrongs against women?"

Maybe if they knew that out at Nebraska there wouldn't have been so many women beaten up by football players. Lawrence Phillips wouldn't have gotten into trouble and his girlfriend might never have been thrown down the stairs, if Lawrence hadn't spent so much time poring over "King Lear" and reading up on "The Wife of Bath" and mulling the genius of "Paradise Lost."

There is so much ado here about nothing that you really want to cry out in exasperation about the dumbing-down of the country and specifically of its schools and its literature. Are there problems in Shakespeare about the way women are portrayed?

Yes.

Also in his portrayals of Danish royalty, Scottish Thanes, Moors residing in Venice, English kings and Roman senators.

Political correctness is appalling; it has also become ludicrous.

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