Engell, James. The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000
James Engell’s The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values does not so much engage the canon debate of the 1980s as circumvent it by historicizing the complaint that canonical writing is irrelevant to modern problems. In a series of elegant essays, Engell frames the historical exigencies of a series of interventions by eighteenth century writers, interventions that commit words to political and social action, not so much by what they say, but through the rhetoric with which they say it. By Engell’s account, only by reading this rhetoric can we understand what has been centrally motivating about the study of literature in the English-speaking world from 1714 to the outbreak of World War I: “a modern practice of language and rhetoric devoted to the deliberation of public values” (163). The essays gathered in this volume show how Alexander Pope, Edmund Burke, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Robert Loweth, and Abraham Lincoln helped to “set political policies, forge compromises, criticize authority, exert pulpit oratory, and shape cultural life” (163). These writers, as read by Engell, show us how to counteract what has happened since World War I: a waning and narrowing of literature study to a focus on “fictive works and literary theory.” This general program receives its efficacy from Engell’s vivid, particular readings. For example, in Engell’s adroit reading of Alexander Pope’s Epistle “To Bathurst”, “The Politics of Greed – Wealth and Words, or Balancing the Budget on the Backs of the Poor?”, there is a compelling attention to language, the specific historical occasion of Pope’s poem, and a witty set of cross cuts to our contemporary obsession with wealth. Perhaps nothing can protect this book from the epithet from which Engell attempts to rescue Burke: “conservative.” But it is smartly so.