- Cultural Entitlement in the New Age
As we slip closer and closer to the brink of the millenium, we hear more and more the cry for cultural literacy, that angel that will save our children from the abyss. The search for a transcendent Logos, a Logos that will unify us in our diversity, is in a humanist culture bound up in the search for texts that reveal those unifying, affirming, hospitable, time-tolerant values that nearly every schoolteacher, librarian, and parent can endorse. I would like to approach the question of cultural literacy as a matter of capitalized letters, capitalized in the sense that they stand tall in booktitles and, in a quasi-economic sense, that they possess the potential for future investments. Such entitlement may also apply to movies and other cultural phenomena; for the purposes of this essay, books will do.
Let me begin by introducing, from my personal library, three former bearers of cultural capitals, now, like some department stores, in ruin, but once—had the children (our grandparents) been invested in them—sources thought by the well-educated to bring a modicum of sweetness and light to America. The first, found recently as I wended my way through the back roads of Connecticut, a well-preserved The Boys' and Girls' Plutarch by John S. White (1884), declares its mission boldly, both in its title and in its instructive cover illustration. Beneath the "Plut" of the title stands, in an ornamented picture frame or doorway, silhouetted against a black background, a spear-wielding warrior in gold leaf, his eyes, his outstretched shield directed at "Boys," his spear, a perfect horizontal shaft, aimed at the "and" below "Boys." Below the "Girls," framed in a plain black circle, or keepsake medallion, a reconstructed Parthenon (so much longer than the actual ruin, one wants to describe it as "recumbent," relocated to a flat plain), in the sky above which mysteriously anthropomorphic clouds gather. In the immediate foreground, two figures mounted on two horses; in the distance, two figures, one wearing a long skirt, head for the temple. Then follow 448 pages of Lives, some in their entirety, some reduced, from that of Theseus to that of Alexander, and ending in a brief excerpt, "The Death of Caesar." In anticipation of the "whole language approach," a table entitled "Weights, [End Page 57] Measures Etc., Mentioned by Plutarch. From the Tables of Dr. Arbuthnot" occupies p. 449, followed by "A Chronological TableUIVR" (from Dacier and other writers) that reveals both that Theseus lived in 1228 B.C., which was the 2,720th year "of the world" (1884, then, was year 5,575 "of the world") and that the great flood, called "Deucalion's deluge" (Pyrhha, his mate, was there too) occurred just 261 years earlier, in 1511 B.C. Finally, a copious index sounds the roll-call (there's a pronunciation guide) of the nearly 1,500 Greek and Roman person and place names encompassed in this man-to-man-about-men (2 1/2 lbs., 9" × 7" by 1 1/4") account of approximately 1,300 years of early Western history.
The second, in a plastic wrapper, fell into my hands in a darkly lit used paperback book store in Hyannis, Massachusetts. From the ECSR (Every Child Should Read?) library, this hardcover edition (1908) of Heroines That Every Child Should Know, edited by H. W. Mabie (actually coedited by Mabie and Kate Stephens, and subtitled "Tales for Young People of the World's Heroines of All Ages," the title page tells us) is slimmer, smaller, and lighter but manages nonetheless to present the stories of thirteen women, among whom Pocahontas and Lady Jane Grey sit, chapterwise, side by side. The voice of the editor intones the lesson from the beginning loud and clear: "Heroic women have not cared for public recognition and do not need it; but it is of immense importance to society that the ideals of heroism should be high and true, and that the soldier and the explorer should not be placed above those whose achievements have been less dramatic, but of a finer quality. . . . In a true scale of heroic living and doing...