by Mark Dunbar
A recommended reading list by conservative theologian Douglas Wilson, Writers to Read isn’t very revealing—except, that is, when it doesn’t intend to be. Written as a series of vignettes, the book consists of nine chapters, one for each of the authors that Wilson thinks should be on any bookshelf. The authors are presented in chronological order—Chesterton, Mencken, Wodehouse, Eliot, Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Robert Farrar Capon, Marilynne Robinson, and his son, young adult author N.D. Wilson. Those already familiar with the pastor’s previous works won’t be surprised by most of the names on the list—or at least the first six, anyway. Much of what Wilson writes either directly quotes from Chesterton or subconsciously ventriloquizes him. He’s already written a book about Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and has set up a graduate writing program in theology which bases its curriculum around Lewis’s popular apologetics. And Wilson’s worldview is largely the same as Mencken’s, which is to say an unfavorable mix of Social Darwinism and flamboyant moral posturing. It’s as easy to quote scripture for this worldview as it is for any other, and Wilson is a brilliant hermeneuticist.
The latter three are more surprising, however. Capon was an Episcopalian priest who divided his time between writing theological books and food columns. What Wilson says he finds most appealing about Capon is his ability to present his religious and metaphysical speculations even in the course of a cook book. This makes sense. After all, Owen Barfield's line about Lewis—that what he “thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything”—is one of Wilson's favorites to draw on. Nonetheless, the only other time I've come across a mention of Capon by Wilson is in a single blog post, where he quotes an uncomfortable passage Capon had written about how men give during intercourse while women merely receive. (Garnished with the innuendo that the thing being transferred is love, let the reader hope it isn't even that indecent.) One would think a writer worth reading would be worth mentioning more than just once.
Robinson also makes little sense on the list, either politically or stylistically. Wilson tries making a corrective nod at this, saying she’s included solely because of her exceptionable writing ability, but that sentiment seems to go against the rest of the book’s strong emphasis on the relationship between form and content, such as when the author quotes Lewis’s commendation of Chesterton’s viperish wit. One is left unsure what to make of Robinson’s inclusion, other than that it’s perhaps an attempt to forestall charges of sexism, which have been leveled at Wilson before.
It’s not surprising, then, that the chapter on Robinson is the weakest. In fact, it seems set up as less a theatre on the talent of Robinson’s writing and more as a warning to conservative evangelists to be wary of those outside the tribe that seem to lend a sympathetic voice. While Wilson admits that in her novels Robinson “creates absolutely no cartoons,” it is quite the opposite, he says, when it comes to her public pronouncements. Thus she thinks opposition to gay marriage (“gay mirage” as Wilson louchely calls it) is an old issue, and that those who most bemoan the modern practice of abortion are suspiciously quiet when it comes to the suffering and dying of innocent babies already born. Wilson is extremely disappointed in these thrift-shopped political views: “As it turns out, her abilities in cross-cultural empathy are limited.” Still, one’s reminded, “that woman can write.” At this point it goes without saying that Wilson is the sort of conservative who believes that when he’s taking a jab at the Clinton clan he’s simultaneously getting the goat of The Socialist Worker.
The inclusion of his son N.D. Wilson isn’t surprising in the same way the inclusion of Capon and Robinson is, though it seems obviously frivolous to include one’s own son on a recommended reading list. I have to admit to not having read any of N.D. Wilson’s writings up to this point, but from the passages quoted in the book, he hardly seems noteworthy. For instance:
I live on a near perfect sphere hurtling through space at around 67,000 miles per hour. Mach 86 to you pilots. Of course, this sphere of mine is also spinning while it hurtles, so tack on an extra 1,000 miles per hour at the fat parts. And it’s all tucked into this giant hurricane of stars.
Which only goes to show that the younger Wilson is a fan of Douglas Adams, and that Mencken was right when he said that if an individual’s religion is stupid, then his science will be as well.
But back to the first six: As already alluded to, Wilson does a good job emphasizing the crucial dialectic between form and content (since the style of one’s prose not only reveals what one thinks, nor only how one thinks, but also how one thinks about what) and if the content of these six writers isn’t always the same, they’re at least always pointing in the same general direction. Within this moribundity of writers is the bucolic conservatism of Eliot and Chesterton, the race romanticism of Tolkien and Mencken, and the political quietism of Lewis and Wodehouse—each of which lead them to similar vulgarities on race, religion, and nationality.
Chesterton was one of the more outspoken proponents of a belated feudalism, called either medievalism or distributivism depending on the speaker’s affection for the idea, that had a strong programmatic hold on many right-wing English intellectuals in the late part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. Eliot similarly romanticized a pastoral idyll of the English countryside that probably never existed, as well as one in the American South that certainly never did. The comfortable illusion of a simple and gallant plantation culture in the South was so warming to the “British poet from St. Louis” that he lamented the Civil War as “the greatest disaster in the whole of American history.” (Which was true enough, at least up to the time in which he said it—just not for the reasons he thought it was.) He also slyly likened urban London to Hell via a literary phrase lifted from Dante.
The two also shared a suspicion of Jews that sometimes expressed itself in outright contempt. Eliot published a collection of lectures in 1934, in one of which he warned that “any large number of free-thinking Jews [is] undesirable.” Chesterton, for his part, mephitically blamed the ideology of Nazism on the Jewish notion of a “Chosen People.” Mencken bought into the notion of a hierarchy of races, wrote to his death essaying that the confederacy was in the right, and for a man who considered himself a tough guy and who couldn’t keep himself shut up about anything, expressed a relaxed silence when it came to fascism. Wodehouse infamously provided his voice for a series of English-speaking Nazi radio broadcasts shortly after they had conquered France in 1941, for which Orwell comically defended him by saying, “It is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity. The really interesting question is how and why he could be so stupid.”
This hopefully isn’t to make the uncharitable as well as boring claim that one’s aesthetic tastes ought to be in some sense related to—or derived from—one’s political ideology, and Wilson’s book on reading shouldn’t be reduced simply to the social and moral failings of the suggested authors. But just as the way one writes about what tells a great deal about the author, how one reads whom will also tell us quite a bit about the reader. It’s one thing to admit to getting pleasure from reading Mencken’s acerbic effusions—although he had a talent for repeating himself and the hack trait of mistaking vicarious nationalism with a free-thinker’s independence from it—and it’s quite another to celebrate his taking bleacher shots at women, blacks, and Jews. The difference being the same as the one between congratulating someone for putting up a good fight and honoring them for putting up a good fight for a just cause.
Of course, many readers value these six writers for reasons other than religious or political affiliation. In his readings of these authors, however, Wilson reveals that like Chesterton he is attractive when he's being flippant and a little more than faintly sinister when he isn't; that like Lewis he calls for empathy always right before he's about to expose just how little he has; and that like Mencken he is so good at fighting off the demons of hyperbole and sentimentalism in others because he is so bad at fighting them off in himself.