Literature as ‘Sweet and Useful’ and Other Letters to the Editor

Famous Amis

To the Editor:

In Martin Amis’s By the Book interview (Oct. 25), Amis ascribes to the 17th-century poet laureate John Dryden the idea that literature must delight in order to instruct.

While it’s good to see Dryden’s name in the Book Review, I feel compelled to point out that this pairing, often referred to with the Latin words dulce and utile — the sweet and the useful — was popularized by the poet Horace in or around the year 15 B.C. It was not a particularly new idea when Horace referred to it in his “Ars Poetica.”

The film adaptation of P. L. Travers’s “Mary Poppins” put it this way: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Deborah J. Knuth Klenck
Hamilton, N.Y.

The writer is a professor emeritus of English at Colgate University.

To the Editor:

In his By the Book interview, Amis singles out Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” as the last great book he read. What’s remarkable about this is how invisible the very flagrant anti-Semitism of this novel seems to be. Amis goes so far as to term it “universally inclusive,” as implied by its title.

It’s actually far from universally inclusive for readers who are at all sensitized to anti-Semitic stereotypes. This is not noted as a reflection of Amis’s attitude, or even to denigrate the merits of Trollope’s novel from a purely literary perspective. What it does reflect is how deeply anti-Semitic stereotypes are interwoven into our culture. Like the air we breathe it’s just there, unnoticed.

Maybe at a time of increased consciousness of racial stereotypes, this too needs to change.

David Friedman
St. James, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Like Martin Amis, I earnestly celebrate Herman Melville and “Billy Budd.” Having read “Moby-Dick” in the late 1970s in medical school, I got hooked on Melville, and read all of his short stories (and “Moby-Dick”) twice.

Living in the Boston area, I was able to participate in the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual “Moby-Dick” marathon, and made a pilgrimage to the author’s home in Pittsfield, Mass.

I, too, was late to discover “Billy Budd” 10 years ago, when it was assigned as my son’s high school summer reading.

Amis alludes to Budd’s noble salute, “God bless Captain Vere!” But the words “fated boy,” spoken by Captain Vere after John Claggart’s death, have stayed with me as an alternate title.

Angela E. Lin
Westwood, Mass.

Fiction vs. Faction

To the Editor:

There was a sentence that really stood out to me in Jia Lynn Yang’s review of James A. Morone’s book “Republic of Wrath” (Oct. 18). It demonstrates a real command of good writing.

“These days, millions of Americans appear quite willing to jeopardize their own well-being to prove their factional bona fides.”

In my quick read I read “fictional bona fides.” Factional works just as well.

Edwin Myers
Tybee Island, Ga.

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