Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Zombie Classics

When I was a kid there were a lot of fusty old 19th century novels that were still being sold to us as classics. I don't mean Middlemarch. I mean Ivanhoe and Westward Ho!-  books that built the Empire. They had warrior heroes, they were stuffed with racial pride and they weren't very good. When the Empire fell apart they went out of print. We didn't need- or esteem- their teachings any more. Tony Blair once- revealingly- named Ivanhoe as his favourite book.  It was a choice that no-one who loves books- and has actually read Ivanhoe- could possibly have made.

Westward Ho! is about the colonisation of America and the defeat of the Armada. Its hero- a blond sea-dog called Amyas Leigh- is chivalrous,  pious and chaste.  It is, I'm told, full of historical inaccuracy. Charles Kingsley, its author, was an exemplar of that weird mode of being known as "muscular Christianity" and an admirable public intellectual of the sort who if he were alive today would never be off the telly.  His best known book is The Water Babies.

Books like Westward Ho! don't exactly die. No-one reads them for pleasure any more- or even- as I did- out of a sense of duty- but their one-time popularity has made a mark in the collective unconscious that is never going to be erased- and they continue to enjoy a cultural half-life.  They are known to the compilers of crossword puzzles and pub quizzes- and historians of their era are bound to take them into account.  They have become zombie classics. You want to take the temperature of mid-Victorian England? Westward Ho! will give you as accurate a reading as Bleak House- and without the distracting flourishes of genius. 

Good news then for Dan Brown: his work will never die. He may not have the respect of posterity (actually, who knows?) but there'll always be someone who'll need to read him for the light his enormous sales undoubtedly cast on the taste and obsessions of our time.
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