Pulitzer Prize winner Coles (Psychiatry and Medical Humanities/Harvard Medical School; Political Leadership, 2005, etc.) spotlights artists who guide us toward moral and social awareness.
Transcribed and edited from recordings of lectures for “A Literature of Social Reflection,” a course the author taught for two decades, the text has a casual, intimate tone. Coles frequently offers personal reminiscences, seeking to encourage students to connect literature with “the hidden curriculum we have before us over the decades of our existence. By this I mean not a subject matter that is intellectual in nature but one experiential and moral in nature. Indeed, he spends a lot of time taking potshots at intellectuals—himself as a younger man included—who avoid emotional engagement with art (and life) by overanalyzing and putting everything into academic categories. Though his central questions are the biggies—“How does one live a life? What kind of life? And for what purpose?”—Coles prefers writers who grapple with these questions on the level of daily detail and texture: William Carlos Williams, Raymond Carver, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston. (The author looks glances back at the Victorians, but his primary concern is with 20th-century literature.) Even when dealing with works generally evaluated as political statements, such George Orwell’s writings, he focuses on the authors’ personal relationship with the material, the way they challenge us to look into our own hearts for the sources of injustice and prejudice. That is also the Coles’s agenda, but with a distasteful twist. He assumes his students, and readers, are privileged people whose privileges are largely invisible to them, who must be goaded to acknowledge their human kinship with the poor, the ignorant and the oppressed rather than merely pitying them. This stance can be irritating, especially when the author parades his superior sensitivity under the guise of personal anecdotes.
Intelligent observations about an array of important writers and worthy reflections on leading a more thoughtful existence, delivered with an off-putting undercurrent of self-satisfaction.