- Worldly Rereadings of American Classics
352 Pages; Print, $17.00
As with the blockbuster Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Azar Nafisi organizes her newest book, The Republic of Imagination, around only a few novels. Whereas Reading Lolita featured The Great Gatsby (1925), Daisy Miller (1879), and Pride and Prejudice (1813), this book has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Babbitt (1922), and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). These two books, separated by eleven years, are eerily alike. Each presents opportunities for Nafisi to write about the “universal” themes of oppression, justice, dreams, and war. Both mix critical observations with memories of friends, family, and acquaintances. Why so similar? If your first book makes you a star (Nafisi was on Late Night with Seth Meyers to promote this recent one), why not duplicate it to try and cement that status? When you’ve got a good thing going…
Azar Nafisi became a celebrity after publishing Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book created a dual identity for her: scholar and entertainer. Over two years on the New York Times Best Seller List, this book seemed to catch America’s readers at a time when Iran coalesced into the ultimate image of the totalitarian state: a Muslim culture without freedom, human rights, or tolerance. However, the author’s fame at times turned into notoriety within intellectual communities. She was criticized, sometimes quite harshly, in several academic venues, by writers like Hamid Dabashi, Negar Mottahedeh, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi.
The general critique was (and largely still is) that Nafisi has turned into an “Orientalist” as she reads her own culture as one-dimensional (a version of Bernard Lewis’s “clash of civilizations”). Lewis, after all, was a kind of inspiration for her. Both imply that Iran’s loss of modernity creates a backward, primitive culture. A book length example of this argument against Nafisi occurs in Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars (2007). This review will not arbitrate that debate. Instead I want to consider how this popular text might contribute to the recent interest in a “worlding” of [End Page 13] American literature.
I’ll start with Huck Finn because that is how Nafisi begins her book. To read about Huck Finn in Tehran includes reading about Nafisi’s friends, and in a small way, this combination “worlds” American literature. Much of the chapter focuses on reactions, memories, and activities of Farah, Razieh, Faramarz, and others. This has the potential for excitement as Nafisi notes how these individual stories, and American literature more generally, moves “from public mores” to “individual experience.” Even though Iranians wanted to read American literature as “repressive,” Nafisi urges them to see the “purer lessons of the heart.” Huck’s story shows Iranian students that there is a deep “violence” when we refuse “to acknowledge” someone “as a human being.” Or again, “…no one can erase the bond between Huck and Jim.” Such is the American tradition: from Twain into “…Hemingway… Faulkner…right up to Marilynne Robinson.” This is the heritage of “our imaginations.” She ends by asking if we are brave enough to “risk striking out” for it. With these uplifting and valuable prompts, some readers, especially those in Tehran, will resonate with the “worlding” that occurs.
Nafisi earns credit for her next chapter by taking a somewhat underappreciated novel like Babbitt and seeing its prescience in predicting the allure of our current consumer culture. Capitalist efficiency becomes a kind of spiritual virtue. With the rise of “Learning Outcomes” and the demotion of Shakespeare, she presents Babbitt as a harbinger for the Common Core, vocational coursework, the weakening of the Liberal Arts, and the loss of the imagination. Babbitt’s utilitarian approach moves seamlessly into the “spirit of modern advertising” and a culture of “Business English.” Astute, entertaining ideas; they may not be closely related to the perspectives of Iran (no stories in this chapter about her friends), but they still provide pleasure. Toward the end, however, she becomes more focused on a thornier problem: how Sinclair Lewis developed the first American novel of urban “anxiety.” But...