Paul Cantor III Transcript

Table of Contents

I: Literature and Liberty 00:15 – 43:16
II: 20th Century Literature 43:16 – 1:26:03

I: Literature and Liberty (00:15 – 43:16)

KRISTOL: Hi I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very glad to be joined today by Paul Cantor, Professor of English at the University of Virginia and a previous conversant, whatever the right term is there.

CANTOR: Great to be back. “Interlocutor.”

KRISTOL: “Interlocutor,” right, right. We’ve discussed Shakespeare, we’ve discussed popular culture. People should go watch those CONVERSATIONS in my opinion. They’re very good ones.

I thought today – I called you up and asked, tell someone like me who doesn’t do nearly enough reading of good books what I should read. And tell everyone out there books they should read, maybe books they wouldn’t automatically think, okay? You’ve changed the assignment a little bit.

CANTOR: I was a little worried with just talking about books in general because there’d be an awfully long list then. I thought I’d talk about works of literature – plays, novels, some short stories – that support liberty. That teach us something important about liberty and freedom.

KRISTOL: That’s kind of a contrarian notion since I think people assume that much of literature or the adversary culture are hostile to liberty, at least economic liberty. Old-fashioned political liberty is not a –

CANTOR: There is some truth to that. I have certain ways of accounting for it. One of them is that since the market economy developed, a lot of authors are hostile to it now. They’re very mistaken; they don’t appreciate how much the market economy has done for literature. In fact, more people have been able to earn livings writing literature since the market economy developed.

But the problem is they are rewarded, but in their view, they’re not rewarded enough. The frustration to them is, “Yeah, I’m making a decent living writing novels, but Stephen King is making so much more money than I am.” I think there’s a problem with authors that they have high opinions of themselves, and they think that the market must be bad because it doesn’t sufficiently reward them.

Another interesting theory I came up with in an essay I wrote about H. G. Wells – authors don’t give freedom to their characters. They are used to running a little world. Central planning. The act of writing a novel is an act of central planning. It’s why many authors are attracted to the notion of, “Well, society should be run that way, people shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they want to do.” I wrote this up in an essay on H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man where there is this strange moment where he admits to losing sight of his main character, and it’s pretty frustrating. What happened at that point in Invisible Man? Nobody knows to this day. This is frustrating to an author. They are used to their characters following the script.

So it’s almost an occupational hazard being an author to be disposed towards central planning. Today we’re going to look at several authors who are free of that prejudice.

KRISTOL: This is great works of literature free of the prejudice – free of anti-liberal prejudice. Liberal in the old-fashioned sense.

CANTOR: In the old-fashioned sense, indeed.

I’m going to begin with, maybe, the most extraordinary of the works. It’s a play by Ben Jonson. It’s called Bartholomew Fair. It dates from around 1614. Ben Jonson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, what a sad thing to be. Ben Jonson is a great, great playwright, but he was only the second greatest playwright of his day.

He is famous for his comedies. Plays called The Alchemist, and Volpone, which are very much still produced today and very funny. This play is less well-known. It’s actually a little hard to stage because it has such a large cast of characters. It is fantastic when it’s staged. I’ve been lucky to see it twice. I looked on YouTube; I wish I could recommend something that’s available of a production, but I couldn’t find one.

Anyway, it’s about a fair. It’s about Bartholomew Fair. It was a real fair. Just a real fair. Just outside London. I like to call the play the Seinfeld of the Renaissance. It’s a play about nothing. It’s a play about a group of people who go to a fair, mill around, look at various goods, buy things, get into trouble, and then go home.

It’s as close to a slice of life as you’ll get of any drama before the 19th century. I will confess it’s a little hard to read for that reason. These ordinary people going to the fair, and at first it seems anti-market. It’s almost the cliché of what’s wrong with markets. The market, Bartholomew Fair, is full of cheats. They are adulterating, they’re – tobacco mixing it in with some other stuff. They’re giving instructions to the barkeeps, “Shake the beer so the foam comes up, and they’ll think they’re getting more.” They tell, again, the waiters, “Get the bottles off while they’re still half-full, and we’ll serve them more.”

We see all the complaints about the market. The businessmen cheat their customers, there are prostitutes at the fair. We constantly see people buying things they don’t need. Silly toys and so on. You’d think at first it’s all about what’s wrong with marketplaces, but what Jonson deals with is the people who want to regulate the marketplace. And what he shows is they’re worse than the thieves and the conmen at the market. I actually think of this play as the first defense of a free market in literature and, quite frankly, one of the first defenses of the free market anywhere. It’s based on the idea –

KRISTOL: That’s pretty early. 1614, it’s before the political philosophers we think of as being –

CANTOR: There were the Spanish Scholastics, the School of Salamanca, which were defending the free market. Not too many people have heard of them.

What it deals with is the problem of regulation. There were two main would-be regulators. One is a Puritan, he has the marvelous Puritan name of Zeal-of-the-land Busy. To him the market is the site of iniquity, sinfulness – it must be shut down. And he tries to destroy some of the little shops at the fair. What Jonson exposes is this guy is a hypocrite because he’s complaining about all these things at the fair, but he seems to know a lot about it. For example, he’s not supposed to be eating pork as a Puritan. Evidently, they went back to the Old Testament prohibitions. But he loves a pork sandwich, and he comes up with some sophistical argument about why he must encounter the evils of the pork-sellers to be able to deal with them. Then he munches down to his delight.

You begin to see that one of the sources of Jonson’s sympathy for the market is because the Puritans want to shut down the commercial theaters, so one thing Jonson understood was people who regulate markets regulate theaters and would put them out of business. Actually, the play builds up to a hilarious scene. There’s a puppet show at the theater, and they’re doing a play that’s almost as bad as “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s about Hero and Leander. One of the main arguments the Puritans raised against the theater was cross-dressing. As you may know women – there were no actresses, boys dressed up as women and staged Shakespeare’s plays.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy gets up and curses these cross-dressing actors, and of course, the puppet show – at the climactic moment, the puppet pulls up its dress, and there’s no private parts there and says, “Look, I’m neither male nor female.” It’s a great embarrassing moment for Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Again, what Johnson is showing is these regulators are no better than the people they’re trying to regulate. They have their own self-interest. They’re just trying to spoil fun. Jonson wrote to entertain an audience, and in a sense, he concludes markets are there to make people happy, and what’s wrong with that?

The even more interesting character is a Justice, a Justice of the Peace named Adam Overdo. That name is a clue that he sees all the illegal acts going on at the fair and he wants to regulate – There’s one passage that is so fascinating I’ve got to read it to you because he’s imagining what we need for this fair. He’s looking for a guy to regulate, and it says,

Never shall I enough commend a worthy worshipful man, sometime a capital member of this City, for his high wisdom in this point, who would take you now the habit of a porter, now of a carman, now of the dog-killer, in this month of August; and in the winter, of a seller of tinder-boxes.

He wants undercover agents at the fair. They’ll dress up as if they’re participants of the fair.

And what would he do in all these shapes? marry, go you into every alehouse, and down into every cellar; measure the length of puddings, take the gauge of black pots and cans, aye, and custards with a stick; and their circumference with a thread; weigh the loaves of bread on his middle finger; then would he send for ’em, home.

We’re going to check out every dimension of every item at the fair, and he would punish them, and then:

give the puddings to the poor, the bread to the hungry, the custards to the children; break the pots and burn the cans himself; he would not trust his corrupt officers; he would do it himself. Would all men in authority would follow this worthy precedent. For (alas) as we are public persons, what do we know? nay, what can we know?

That should be on every government regulatory agency as a motto.

nay, what can we know? we hear with other men’s ears, we see with other men’s eyes. A foolish constable, or a sleepy watchman, is all our information

And that, I claim, is Friedrich Hayek. The problem of knowledge. The reason you can’t have regulation is it’s too detailed. You would have to be every man himself. It would undo the division of labor; you would have a corps of regulators, which would outnumber the actual producers. It’s an amazing passage to make it a problem of knowledge. In light of all the controversy about the EU, these Brussels regulations, the curve of the banana gets specified. Here Jonson anticipates that idea as early as 1614.

KRISTOL: It’s not just anti-clericalism or anti-puritanism, which would lead you in a liberal direction, presumably. It’s a sort of more of a critique of central planning, even –

CANTOR: It’s a defense of the marketplace, the dispersal of knowledge, and the other thing that’s quite amazing is that the fair – it’s corrupt, but it’s innocent and nobody gets hurt. But both Overdo and Zeal-of- the-land Busy start hurting people. They tear down businesses, they get into fights. There is a guy named Humphrey Wasp in it, too. Amazingly, Johnson anticipates the English Civil War of the 1640s. He sees that the market has its problems, but it’s not violent. It’s a way of bringing people together to satisfy their desires, and there are these other forces – this waspishness, this puritan intolerance – he senses that this is going to break the peace. Thirty years after this play, England is plunged into war by characters like Adam Overdo and Zeal-of-the-land Busy.

KRISTOL: 1614 is amazing. I guess Shakespeare has the critique of puritanism. Measure for Measure, I guess. Not so much the appreciation of the market.

CANTOR: There’s a bit of it in The Merchant of Venice. The objection to converting Jews is that it will raise the piece of pork. It’s one of the first formulations of the law of supply and demand in literature. I think Jonson is ahead of Shakespeare on this issue.

Part of the reason is Jonson sees the correspondence between the spirit of the market and the spirit of comedy. Generally, comedy is in defense of human desires. It’s all about spoilsports, killjoys, people who stand in the way of people enjoying life. That’s the spirit of the market as well. Particularly, the defense of the market against an overzealous religious attitude and an overzealous political attitude. In all honesty, Jonson never wrote anything quite like this – though there were elements of this in the play The Alchemist as well – but it really is remarkable.

KRISTOL: Good to have the recommendation of something I’ve never heard about. I’ve actually seen one or two Jonson plays put on here in Washington. They are funny, but they seem more conventionally comic, as you say. Making fun of, you know –

CANTOR: This is very unconventional play, and it’s absolutely brilliant. There’s this great character in it called Ursula the Pig-Woman, who is usually played by a man. My dream would have been to see John Belushi play Ursula the Pig-Woman, but we’ll never get to see that, alas.

KRISTOL: Next, once we’ve read this play?

CANTOR: Next on my list is Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which is the first zombie novel. It is a novel about the walking dead. It is presented as a straight-forward nonfictional account of the great London plague of 1665.

KRISTOL: And Defoe writes in?

CANTOR: It’s written in 1721.

KRISTOL: He’s early 18th – a whole century after Jonson.

CANTOR: He was born in 1660 so he had actually experienced the plague as a child. This is very early in the history of the novel, really. The line between fiction and nonfiction was not clearly drawn. Most people thought Robinson Crusoe was a true account when he wrote that. In this case, as well, it looks like a true account, somewhat fictionalized.

It’s quite literally about the walking dead. It’s about bubonic plague in London (if that’s what it is; I guess that’s the best guess). What’s interesting about Defoe, in the history of the novel, is he really is reacting to the new individualism that comes with Hobbes and Locke and the study of the individual in isolation. That, after all, is what Robinson Crusoe is. So in the case of Robinson Crusoe, he’s dealing with something that’s obviously the state of nature. But in Journal of the Plague Year, he figured out how to recreate the state of nature in London. That’s what the plague did, it made people suddenly islands unto themselves, trying to isolate themselves from the plague. It particularly shows how the division of labor breaks down under the plague, situations where people can’t trade as easily with each other.

So it becomes a kind of narrative of survival. We talked about the TV show “The Walking Dead” last time I was here. And in many ways this show explores the same issues as “The Walking Dead” does and, in particular, the issue of how the government responded to the plague. Whether government intervention, here we go again, whether government intervention was the proper response to the plague. Here Defoe, I think, very legitimately airs both sides of the debate without acknowledging the contradiction. Sometimes, he says the government did a great job with the plague, and sometimes, he shows it didn’t do such a great job.

This was based on the curious fact that Daniel Defoe – he was in many ways the first political journalist in the modern sense, but he wrote for both parties. He wrote for the Whigs, he wrote for the Tories. There are evidently crazy situations where he’s writing editorials against himself. He’ll publish something in favor of the Whigs, and then he’ll write a Tory article against it. He was just trying to sell articles to newspapers. There is this fascinating correlation between the rise of newspapers and the development of the novel. Defoe was the Tom Wolfe of his day, a journalist that wrote novels.

So on the one hand, he does say the government did a great job, that they came in, they set up watches, they quarantined the city, they tried to confine people to their quarters, and offers a really positive image of the government supervision of the situation. I should point out that it’s the civic government of London, though, the municipal government. He’s very hard on the royal family and the court. That they deserted the city to protect themselves. You do see something of the Puritan, middle-class background of Daniel Defoe, that what he’s defending is the middle-class authorities and how they handled it.

But counter to that is, again, a kind of Hayekian argument of the unintended consequences of the supervision. For example, because houses were being shut down and people – a lot of people didn’t report the plague. He also makes the point that maybe the best way of dealing with a plague is not to confine hundreds of thousands of people to a limited area and let it spread. Of course, people didn’t understand the cause of the plague, but they suspected it had something to do with being near some of the other people. Then, he points out – again, it’s akin to Ben Jonson – he points out that they didn’t have enough knowledge. It was impossible to supervise the whole city. So in many cases, they were acting on the wrong information.

Then he makes, again, what would be a very contemporary point that this looks great in theory, but many of the guardians were bribed. You set up this watch system, and then people just bought their way out. Also, he makes the argument and presents very positively the people who fled. They were escaping the plague, not spreading it, and there’s an interesting dialectic in the book between the government attempt to keep everybody in place and the human impulse towards freedom and moving on and getting away from the problem. It explores many of the issues that a show like “The Walking Dead” does. Does the government help the situation or actually make it worse? I think it’s a fascinating read for that reason.

KRISTOL: So we have two English authors who are sort of Hayekians centuries ahead of Hayek. You sort of expect that maybe from the Anglo-American, the English tradition, the British tradition that they would have some feel for the case for liberty.

CANTOR: Particularly Defoe who was basically a Whig, although he would write for the Tory press. There was money in it.

KRISTOL: We’ve read Jonson, we’ve read Defoe.

CANTOR: We’re going over to Germany now. There was no Germany at the time I’m talking about, but the German alliance. German playwright named Georg Büchner – that’s “Buckner” to Americans. Georg Büchner. He’s a fascinating case, died at the age of 24. If Shakespeare had died at the age of 24, we never would have heard of him. Shakespeare apparently wrote his first play when he was 25. Büchner was on his way maybe to being the greatest dramatist ever. No one – even Hugo von Hofmannsthal – ever wrote such great dramas at that age.

KRISTOL: When is this?

CANTOR: 1830s, he died in 1837.

KRISTOL: What did he die of?

CANTOR: I think it was some kind of disease although evidently his health wasn’t that good. We have three plays; he wrote a fourth play that has been lost. One of the three plays that we have is Woyzeck, which was made into a movie by Werner Herzog starring Klaus Kinski, I think in the 1990s. The only way I can express this is to say that Georg Büchner wrote a screenplay for a 1990’s movie in 1835.

In fact, none of his plays were produced during his lifetime, his plays were not produced until the 20th century. This play Woyzeck became Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck because they couldn’t read Büchner’s handwriting originally. One of the greatest operas of the 20th century; the libretto was written in the 1830s. It is one of the most amazing cases in literary history. Talk about a man born before his time. He was writing 20th-century literature in the 1830s, and no one knew who he was in the 19th century. His plays were enormously influential on 20th-century drama, people like Brecht, for example.

I want to talk about his play called Danton’s Death. Most people think of Woyzeck as his greatest play, and there’s much to be said for that. I actually think Danton’s Death is greater and more important. It’s a play about the French Revolution. It’s largely about the conflict between Danton and Robespierre. I like to see it as the conflict between two sides of Rousseau. Rousseau actually comes up in the play. That is, Büchner is trying to understand why the French Revolution went wrong.

The French Revolution was potentially the greatest subject for 19th-century literature. I always laugh when people sit around and say, “We have no great subjects anymore in the 19th century.” Well, the French Revolution was as dramatic an event in world history as any. Büchner is really the one I know of who does full dramatic justice to it. What he shows is the ideological conflict at the heart of the Revolution, and it’s the conflict between liberty and equality.

He takes what we’ll call the social contract side of Rousseau. There’s a side of Rousseau who’s arguing for community, return to the model of Sparta, the General Will, the emphasis on participating in the community. Büchner shows that that’s what Robespierre stood for in the French Revolution.

Danton stands for the other side of Rousseau, the Rousseau you’d find in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in his Confessions, in all his personal writings where he talks about his own life. Where he speaks in favor of a radical freedom, which he sees as the only way of recapturing the state of nature. There’s this famous moment when he says – I think it’s in the Confessions – where he says, “I couldn’t make love if I was ordered to do it.” Even the most pleasurable experience, I couldn’t enjoy if it was under compulsion. That’s what Danton represents in the play, the liberty aspect.

It really shapes up as the political conflict, the personal conflict between the two, and it’s really interesting because what Büchner understands is liberty, equality, fraternity, those don’t go together that easily. In particular, he shows the conflict between liberty and equality. That Robespierre stands for equality. It’s quite explicit in the play that we will drag people down to the level where they’ll then be equal.

The objection to Danton – Danton’s actually a classical liberal. He’s in favor of liberty in all aspects of life, and the result is some people will get wealthier than others, and Robespierre’s very much the man of the people, the people love him for that reason. Whereas they’re very suspicious of Danton, they think he’s a new aristocrat so that’s how Robespierre is able to defeat Danton. Danton’s death ends with Robespierre’s triumph, of course. We know Robespierre will fall, too, but it’s really a wonderfully perceptive illustration of the way revolutions destroy their own, eat up their own.

This is the 1830s; it’s not that long after the event. I think he saw how the French Revolution was going to become the prototype of revolutions later. Büchner himself was a revolutionary. By the way, he was a medical doctor. He had a doctorate in medicine. This is all age 24. He wrote something called, we’d say the Hessian Courier – he had a revolutionary newspaper trying to stir up people against the aristocrats. And yet part of him saw how dangerous that was, and there’s one sequence, one wonderful sequence in the play where some poor guy, they want to rename his daughter: “Cornelia.” As you may know the French Revolution loved to rename things. Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason, and they adopted Roman names.

This guy, it’s his daughter and he wants to name her, and the crowd wants this nice Roman name. He refers to her as his daughter, and “Oh no, she’s the daughter of the Republic.” Really, you know, this gets to the sort of stuff that produced names like Lenin and Stalin. It’s an amazing perceptive work. Really raises a fundamental question that we’re still dealing with, what is the tradeoff between liberty and equality?

KRISTOL: Sounds great. I got to admit I never heard of him or the play. It’s translated in English?

CANTOR: Many translations. I’ve seen it in London. A production of it by Max Reinhardt in 1912 changed the course of 20th-century theater. It required radically new methods of production. And from that so much of 20th-century stagecraft developed because Max Reinhardt was this very great stager in German theater.

KRISTOL: That sounds great. French Revolution. Well, French Revolution was a huge topic.

CANTOR: But efforts to represent it in literature have not turned out.

KRISTOL: Napoleon was represented in literature, obviously. Sort of.

CANTOR: Even there, there are some questions about how well that was done. It’s a remarkable political play. Maybe the best political play for the 19th century. By the way, it has a strong Shakespearean element in it. There is comic relief, for example. Shakespeare was his model for it. Because Shakespeare was very popular in Germany then. In some ways, the most Shakespearian play of the 19th century. Because he’s dealing with the same issues.

And one of the great issues in it is whether history makes human beings or human beings make history. The characters fight back and forth on this. They realize that if men make history, that’s not very democratic; it’s the Great Man theory. Robespierre represents the principle that no man is indispensable to the revolution. Danton insists, “I am, I made this revolution.” That turns the crowd against him. It really deals with – It’s a great play.

KRISTOL: I’m glad to have learned about the play and of the author. I wasn’t aware that that was the origin – obviously, I know a little bit about the opera, but I did not know about the origin. It really is just the play [Woyzeck]?

CANTOR: Büchner did not finish it. So there were four versions. Modern authors have the liberty of choosing things so that, for example, the sequence of scenes in the Berg opera is different from the generally accepted version of the play. Similarly, in Herzog’s film. The play does work in Woyzeck in any order because it’s a play about a madman and part of it is about the disintegration of his mind. Scenes follow each other in different order. That works very well.

KRISTOL: You’d recommend the movie?

CANTOR: The movie is stunning. It is perhaps Klaus Kinski’s greatest performance, and that’s saying a lot. Playing a madman was not much of a stretch for Klaus Kinski.

KRISTOL: You tune in here for literary recommendations, and you get movies thrown in, TV shows, too, “The Walking Dead.” We expect no less from you. Back to Britain now?

CANTOR: We’re going to go back to Britain now to a novel that dates to 1854, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Now, Elizabeth Gaskell is at the very top of the second rank of Victorian novelists, or I would even say at the very bottom of the first rank. I don’t know how many Americans have heard of her; she’s very well known in England. The book I’m going to discuss is called North and South that was made into a miniseries in England. Wives and Daughters was made into a miniseries. Let’s say she’s just below the rank of the Bronte sisters and George Eliot. She was a very successful novelist at the time. Certainly one of the top 10 novelists in the 19th century in Britain.

What’s interesting about this book is it defends the Industrial Revolution, and it defends women working in factories. This is so counter to what we think of. It’s an amazing book. If you like Victorian novels, you’ll like it. It’s a love story, but a different kind of love story.

It’s not autobiographical, but it parallels Elizabeth Gaskell’s experience to this extent. She moved to Manchester from the south of England. Manchester, as you may know, was the ground zero of the Industrial Revolution, was a great center of the cotton mills. Everybody’s example of what was wrong with the Industrial Revolution, the pollution and the noise, and she hated it when she got there. Her first novel, Mary Barton, was very successful, and it attacked the cotton business.

This did not sit well with her neighbors in Manchester, and moreover, as she got to know the place, she began to understand it. And to appreciate the energy of it. The industriousness of the industry. She came from, really, the world of Jane Austen, from the rural south of England. Her heroine Margaret Hale comes from there. She’s from an upper-class family, not a wealthy upper-class family, but upper-class, and as a young woman, as she puts it, Margaret doesn’t like “shoppy” people.

Her mother is trying to set her up with someone – “Oh, he’s a shoppy person, he’s in trade.” You get all the, you know, her father is a clergymen, she lives in the world of gentlemen and gentlewomen. She’s a very decent person. Lot of noblesse oblige. She’s helping out the poor people back home in the south; then she comes up to the north and the noise, the dirt, the smoke. Her first vision – it’s called Milton-Northern in the novel, but it’s Manchester – first vision of Manchester, she can’t see it.

But she falls in love with a cotton baron, John Thornton, and she begins to appreciate that this guy accomplishes something, that he produces something. She starts to notice that people aren’t lazy in Manchester. Back home in the south, they sat around and did nothing. Especially did nothing for themselves. Up here in the north, the people are working hard, they’re producing things, and it’s particularly interesting she see these women working in the factories and they’re whistling while they work. When they come home they’re happy, they’re jovial. They don’t pay sufficient respect to her. These people seem independent. Back home everybody deferred to her, “Oh, Miss Margaret,” but up there, they don’t care who she is.

The other thing the family notices is they can’t get servants. They’re used to having servants, and no one answers their ads. She finally talks to some women about it, and they like working in the factory. Why? Because they’re paid money. And they can decide what to do with it. The servant jobs were basically room-and-board jobs. You worked as a servant, and then we won’t go into all the problems, because Elizabeth Gaskell wasn’t going to raise the sexual issues that came up when you worked for some master in a household.

It’s clear the women tell Margaret how they like the independence of it. They liked, well, I’m going to say nine-to-five, but maybe it was eight-to-seven. They liked the fact that they can leave the job at the office or in the factory. That they are not 24 hours, 24/7 subject to someone’s will. They liked the fact that they are not paid in kind, but in money that they can spend on their own.

Again, these things that we think of as the nightmare of Victorian England, women worked in factories, turns out that the women made a conscious choice to work in factories. In fact, the laws passed against women working in factories were generated by male labor unions who were trying to keep the work for men. Women were not allowed to testify at the Parliamentary hearings on these new laws, and people like Elizabeth Gaskell who were resented. Why? Because, again, the market had been very good to her. Here was a profession that women were able to compete in equally, and it is the 19th-century commercial British novel that was the first artistic area in which women were able to compete as equals with men and they not only held their own, they blew away the competition.

KRISTOL: Just think of the famous 19th-century British novelist. They were women.

CANTOR: This was not lost on the men who complained about it. If they could have banned women from writing, they would have. Now, Mary Barton was published anonymously. But once it was a success, everyone wanted the author of Mary Barton. And she could reveal her identity.

Dickens was her patron. That is, North and South was published serially in Dickens’ magazine, Household Words. Dickens didn’t like her, and he thought of her as a rival. Suddenly, everybody’s talking Mary Barton now, and his clever idea is “I’m getting her to work for me, she’ll write for my magazine.” They had lots of arguments actually. Dickens was actually writing Hard Times, his anti-industrial novel, and at the same time, and they were being serialized with North and South a little behind. And North and South is actually a kind of ongoing critique of Hard Times. It’s a fascinating dialogue going on there.

Elizabeth Gaskell experienced it’s nice to be a working woman. It’s quite remarkable how she was able to see that projected onto the situation of these factory women. The other thing that is the great thing about the novel in my view is that it is a critique of agricultural labor. We have these weird fantasies about the 19th century that factory work was so horrible, and it was horrible. But we’re comparing it with life today. We don’t see that what the practical alternative to factory life was working on farms.

KRISTOL: Or being a servant, I suppose.

CANTOR: Being a servant or working on farms. And the novel is very strong about how horrible it was to work on an English farm in the 19th century. We think of it as gardening. Oh, you’re outdoors. Well, be outdoors in an English fall and spring in Northern England.

Several of the characters are farmers. And then several of the laborers in the north want to go south. “You made the south sound so good.” And then she finally – she keeps defending the south even as she comes to appreciate the north, and then finally one of the laborers she likes is going to move down south to work on a farm, and she has to confess, “You wouldn’t last one week, you’ll die in that weather.”

We have this myth of English factory life as if it was Mao and the Great Leap Forward. That people were forcing the English people into factories. This was voluntary. Again, today there are many wonderful alternatives to working in factories. The alternatives then were servant or farm laborer. What Gaskell shows us now is farm labor was horrible. By the way, read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles if you want to see how hard it was.

The other thing she shows is it was soul-destroying. It was brutalizing. You worked 12 hours in the field, you came home and just want to collapse. She goes in the city, in Manchester, people go to pubs and they talk, and I can’t – it’s a bit of an idealization of it, but we need to undo this pattern of idealizing farm work and demonizing factory work. This novel is very unusual in that it does that. I really recommend that.

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