Anthony Esolen’s plan for saving American culture is as incendiary and inspiring as its governing metaphor — a phoenix rising out of the ashes of what he sees as a decimated society.
But it may be just as mythical.
Out of the Ashes, the latest book from Providence College English professor, author, Divine Comedy translator, and 2017 Hillsdale College commencement speaker Anthony Esolen presents a vision of the state of American culture and education that is nothing short of apocalyptic. His solution for a post-mortem America is a nostalgic shot in the dark — Americans should call up the ghosts of teachers and educational systems past to resurrect a culture centered on local churches, small classical schools, and pickup games of baseball. And though I can’t pitch a baseball to save my life, Esolen’s enchanting picture of an America reborn in city parks and backyards tempts me to believe it’s worth a try.
But before he can sell readers on his grassroots vision, he must open their eyes to their accustomed wasteland. He opens as a Virgil to his readers’ Dante, walking his readers through the empty halls of their own hometowns: our libraries are empty, their copies of Dante, Shakespeare, and Alexander Pope long left unread. Our ballparks are deserted as young boys play on computers inside. And our colleges do not teach students to refurbish the homes of their minds with virtue, curiosity, and faith.
Seen through Esolen’s eyes, America lives in a cultural nightmare, and he doesn’t leave any stone unturned in his jeremiad: Esolen’s ghost story reaches from the inner workings of Americans’ minds — embroiled as they are in our identity-politics- and feminist-movement-fueled confusion — all the way to the empty churches that echo with the loss of the ultimate end of human education and creation.
Esolen has recently come under fire from students and colleagues at Providence College for his prophecies of doom about the state of modern education, particularly in a response to a column for the Catholic Crisis Magazine in which Esolen argues that the current preoccupation with “diversity” above all else impoverishes study of the liberal arts:
“Why is intellectual diversity not served by the study of a dozen cultures of the past, with their vast array of customs, poetry, art, and worship of the gods?” he writes in his essay, polemically entitled “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult” by a Crisis editor.
The essay led to a rebuke from the president of the college and a petition to remove Esolen from his job — which, as Esolen points out, shows a telling lack of interest in diverse views on the part of Providence College members.
But perhaps Esolen does lean too heavily on polemic. Esolen has brought various levels of declamation into his pleas for the resurrection of intellectual culture throughout his career. For example, his “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child” is Esolen at his preachiest with his pseudo-satirical tract about education for young children. But Esolen, a teacher at heart, uses humor to more positive effect elsewhere; his “Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature” allows him to show off the culture he hopes to resurrect — one that can afford to take itself lightly, centered as it is on Divine Light.
The more Esolen focuses on praising his much-beloved classic stories, the more clearly his voice sings out — and through him, a glimpse into literature and learning as he would have them. His translations of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” are not to be missed for their music or their honesty to the Italian language. The introductions and footnotes show that Esolen’s mind is attuned to the harmony of Dante, one of the world’s most lively, expansive poetic minds. Esolen is at home here, recreating in English Dante’s medieval world with its ordered holistic view of eschatology, morality, poetry, and spirituality.
This reconstruction of worlds is the strength of Out of the Ashes, as well — not only does Esolen lay out a blueprint for rebuilding what he sees as an empty culture, but he takes care to furnish the place, as well. He adorns the book with references to stories from the literature he teaches in his English classes. For students familiar with the great works of the Western tradition, his references to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and great Protestant hymns will be welcome guests and points of light in an otherwise dark polemic. For others, the stories can serve as a recommendation list of the works that Esolen finds most essential and enlightening.
How, then, does Esolen reconstruct American culture? Through avenues familiar to many Americans — literally. Esolen calls Americans to take their towns back — the town halls, the school houses, the impromptu baseball games, the country parishes, and the lending libraries.
For readers tempted to look down their noses at the quaintness of such an existence in a world that is too “complex,” too far “developed” for such rustic pleasures, Esolen includes a page or two of pointed questions that can lea to some soul-searching: Do you have the skills required to go on a fishing trip for the afternoon? Have you ever thought about the social skills boys are learning when they play a game of baseball? What are the names of the trees that you walk past as you get in your car for work?
Perhaps his most ardent cry is to institutions like his own: Esolen would see new colleges in the classical education tradition — small, Christian ones that make the pursuit of education again a conversation between friends. He has his models: Patrick Henry College, Wyoming Catholic College, and Hillsdale College get shoutouts for their small size and focus on the liberal arts.
Are Esolen’s solutions practical? Workable? Maybe not, but they are tempting as ideals, and his warnings about our separation from the world and people around us ring true, harsh as they may be.
In an ideal world, Esolen could leave behind his strident calls to action and focus on the work he does best: teaching and translating the stories he loves without “Out of the Ashes”’ defensive edge.
Perhaps it is enough that Esolen allows us to hope with him as he attempts to raise the phoenix of American culture from the ashes.
Esolen’s is a small and precious idyll, a modern pastoral: “Think of it, everyone — preachers, parishioners, choristers, artists.”