Podcast: What is a Classic?

We all have favorite books, but not all of them rank as "classics."

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

37 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    I’m greatly looking forward to more of these discussions. I read Treasure Island last January, for the first time since my father read it to us about twenty three ago, and immediately afterwards read Kidnapped, which I consider the best novel I’ve read in my life.

  2. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Jacob,
    I was looking at a study by the National Endowment of the Arts that reported only one third of America males read any literature at all. When I looked up what their definition of literature was ( surprised they still had the courage to use the term literature since the New York Times Review of Books trends the chic and “novus ordo” term of fiction and non fiction ) they defined it as “The reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet. Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry.”
    In other words by reading two good books this year, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped ,
    you probably struck a deeper blow for your family, friends, civilization and the male human species, not to mention your ‘self,” than all the pitter-patter political posturing and protesting of the other 66% who learned nothing about leisure and even less about activism. Well done.
    Another enjoyable and always humorous podcast by Rex and Tom.

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Stevenson was a master both of narrative and of prose. Treasure Island and Kidnapped are nearly perfect books, and David Balfour, sequel to Kidnapped, is good. Jekyll and Hyde is profound, and both the first and second sets of The New Arabian Nights are very good–I especially like the second with its portrait of a philosophical terrorist. I think of the finest bits in the fiction of our language is Silver’s appearance, to parley, at the Blockhouse. He is threatening and terrifying, but a reader cannot help admiring the courage and determination of the undaunted cripple. It is a mark of Stevenson’s genius that he based Silver in part on one of his best friends, WE Henley, a great sailor and athletic outdoorsman, whom RLS visited in the hospital, after WEH’s leg was cut off. I also recommend the essays he wrote about his coming steerage to America to seek out the divorcee he wanted to marry. He ends up dying of TB in a mining camp, until word is sent to his beloved who arrives and nurses him back to health.

  4. Avatar Frank Brownlow says:

    Lists, though, have their uses. I think some post-classical lists would probably be a welcome addition to the site.

  5. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Our Autodidact list, which has been lying unattended like a neglected hospital patient, comes into the 20th century, but let us start with , say, ten to 20 indispensable authors in Modern English, and if we end up with 100, it is no problem. Then from the authors’ list, we select their most indispensable works. Let us work by period or century. Starting with writers who wrote some of their major works in the time of the later Tudors through James I….. Obviously Shakespeare. Let us say we can only pick one or two playwrights from the period. Will it be Marlowe and Jonson? Webster?

    In the late 17th century, Dryden is inescapable, but who else? Congreve? Defoe?

    Early 18th, Pope, Swift. Addison?

    Later 18th. Johnson, Gibbon, Burke, Goldsmith? Sheridan?

    This is just a rough first idea…
    I plead for help from Prof Brownlow and hope he could do a few podcasts with me.

  6. Avatar James D. says:

    Well, on the bright side, at least the list doesn’t include “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

  7. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    I don’t know much about Peter Kreeft except for a book that someone gave me a long while back. I didn’t think much of his writing then, especially his bizarre admiration for Islam and his terrible attempt at updating the Screwtape Letters for modern times, and his theology, at least as it came across in that one book (whose title I cannot remember), seemed void of the entire concept of sacramental grace. I’ve pretty much avoided him ever since, as well as all the other professional converts who make a living peddling books and EWTN TV shows.

    As someone who is both uneducated and at times rather dense, I’m happy for this effort to identify important landmarks and sign posts as I try to navigate through the rubble of Western Civilization, including the great works of history and spiritual writings that civilized men should know. Sometimes I feel like our elders and betters here at the Fleming Foundation take it for granted how lost many of us younger folks are, which makes me thankful for Rex serving as our spokesperson in these podcasts (no offense, Rex).

  8. Avatar Rex Scott says:

    Vince, None taken! I am hoping that more guys like you and me will discover Classic gems and learn from them.

  9. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Tom,
    I sometimes think lists composed by our elders are helpful too when a recommended age to read the book is accompanied with the recommendation. Children’s books and books for adolescents are important too along with good illustrations —- in my opinion. And

  10. Avatar Dominick D says:

    “Sometimes I feel like our elders and betters here at the Fleming Foundation take it for granted how lost many of us younger folks are, which makes me thankful for Rex serving as our spokesperson in these podcasts (no offense, Rex).”

    Heartily seconded.

  11. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Mr. Reavis – I am indebted to your recommendation from long ago of the Will James cowboy books. My sons are enjoying them, with my older boy saying Louis L’Amour is like reading cowboys in a Western movie, but Will James is like reading cowboys in real life.

  12. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    That’s nice to hear Mr Cornell. I am happy young boys somewhere are still enjoying those stories and drawings of the old Canadian turned American cowboy.

  13. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Rex is priceless and the perfect fit for the “podcast pair!” And neither of them a four flusher either. Which in our time is always a big plus!

  14. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Dominick D: I personally take it for granted that most people my age were lost by the time they reached the age of 21. I remember noting, about 1965, that the male students one or two classes ahead of me were already grown men, while I and my contemporaries were still struggling with adolescence. By the time I was in my 30’s, I would occasionally be invited to house parties where old friends from college gathered to listen to Jimmie Hendrix and smoke dope–two occupations they had been too conservative to engage in when they were students. I, who had been considered a wild Bohemian nonconformist and decidedly a non-joiner, was now viewed as a stodgy reactionary. What they could not acknowledge was that in joining the Woodstock Generation they were only doing what their fathers had done in signing up for Rotary. How someone with my temperament lived into his 70’s and actually held responsible positions puzzles me to this day.

  15. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Well whatever else you are or have been, stodgy or disloyal, is not it. Maybe cranky or impatient around fools but definitely a good friend in my opinion

  16. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    A selfish plea on my part: Maybe it doesn’t fit the Classics profile, but I’d love to hear you & Prof. Brownlow do a couple episodes on A Dance to the Music of Time.

  17. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    If I can figure out the technology, I hope to do a series of informal podcasts on classic and not-so-classic English literature

  18. Avatar theAlabamian says:

    Great podcast !
    I’m probably getting ahead of myself but in speaking of “English literature” I am wondering whether Dr. Fleming would place Charles Dickens as a top tier British author? I know his “A Christmas Carol” is very popular. “A Tale of Two Cities” seems to be mentioned fairly often as well today. Would Dickens not be one of the greatest English writers ?

  19. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Dickens has been a beloved English novelist since his lifetime, and my own opinion counts for little against a nearly universal sentiment. I say nearly, because Anthony Trollope disliked Dickens’ way of setting up conflicts between angelic heroes and heroines and demonic villains. I share Trollope’s distaste, and the older I get the less I can stand to read Dickens. But, there are several novels that people really should read, and even I like The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. On a trip to England and France, oh 15 years ago, I was stuck for something to read. My daughter had just finished reading The Old Curiosity Shop, which even some Dickens-lovers have shied away from, and I actually liked it.

  20. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Sam Weller and his father are worth the price of admission alone in the Pickwick Papers!

  21. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    I’ll add that I slogged through Little Dorrit, which is about as formulaic as a Dickens novel gets, but the chapter on “The Circumlocution Office” made it all worthwhile. If I ever feel like I’m missing my time in the office, I just need to read through that chapter.

  22. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I read nearly all of Dickens many decades ago, but when I tried to pick up Nicholas Nickleby a year ago, I found I just couldn’t stand it, whereas I have no trouble rereading Thackeray and Trollope. He was a pretty bad egg, and some of his rottenness shows itself in his phony sentimentalism. When Chesterton wrote a book on Dickens, one of GK’s favorite writers, the daughter wrote to tell him that her father and his pals were very wicked men. She was right. This doesn’t wipe Dickens off the list of great English novelists by any means.

  23. Avatar Harry Colin says:

    I think Dickens owes much of his regained popularity in the 20th century to Chesterton’s book, which is marvelous, although it does presuppose familiarity with Dickens’ works. I have an affinity for Bleak House, in large part because many years ago, in an effort to be a good citizen, I joined our local library reading club. Each month a member chose a book for the group, and since I drew number 12 that year, I had to wade through all sorts of miserable pop culture books, pseudo-religious fantasies and other such nonsense before my selection, which was Bleak House. When the group assembled the next month the entire session was nothing but wailing and moaning about the book – the length, the author, etc – and not one word about the book itself. That concluded my experiment with that reading group.

    I prefer Trollope and Scott to Old Charles, but anyone Chesterton admires gets my approval, too.

  24. Avatar James D. says:

    I’ve never quite understood Dickens’ religious views. Apparently, he was a skeptic in his youth and despised the Catholic Church. Was he a Christian?

  25. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    GKC had marvelous intuition in these things, but I still prefer to keep my own counsel. He was a great man, though less learned than some. Bleak House, I should have noted as the book most suited to our readers. CD’s religious views, so far as I can make t hem out out, would be approved hy a modern sentimental Methodist or more aggressive NO Catholic, which is to say lots of nice feelings but no hard core of principle.

  26. Avatar James D. says:

    Hmmmm. I guess I haven’t liked Dickens because there always seemed to be a darkness and nastiness of character among the common folk he portrayed. Maybe it was true to form for England of the time. I don’t know. Many characters, to me, seemed to represent the worst qualities of a group.

  27. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    Someone, a while back, gave me a copy of a “Life of Christ” book that Dickens wrote. After reading the first chapter I stopped, turned to my wife and said, “Charles Dickens was an Arian.” I think I was off on the terminology – at that point in history I think Arianism had been rebranded to Unitarianism or something like that, but it was later confirmed to me that Dickens did, in fact, not believe in the Divinity of Christ.

    Which really explains why his Christmas Carol has practically nothing to do with the Birth of Our Lord and Savior and why so many of his stories focus on salvation via charity and social activism.

    I did enjoy Chesterton’s book on Dickens. His point about the end of David Copperfield and the convenient use of Australia always stuck with me. There are definitely folks in my life that I’d enjoy sending to a Happily Ever After Down Under fate, but, as Chesterton pointed out, having them continue to be in my life gives me many opportunities to grow in charity, humility, and patience.

    I’ve shied away from film adaptations of Dickens (or BBC mini-series adaptions), but I was always tempted to watch the one where W.C. Fields plays Micawber.

    I also shy away from wearing trendy T-Shirts with hip sayings on them, but if I did, I’d want one that just said, “Janet! Donkeys!”

  28. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    James – Have you read Pickwick Papers? Dickens does well by the lower class in that book. Sam Weller may be one of the finest literary characters I’ve had the pleasure to meet.

  29. Avatar Dot says:

    What is a Classic? The Cantebury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

  30. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Probably not. It is not a classic of English literature because hardly anyone can read Middle English, and it is not really on par with Boccaccio’s Decameron, which he imitated. It is one of the books that English-speakers should read, preferably the bits that were translated by Dryden.

  31. Avatar Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: Thank you for your reply. I’m almost positive I had the Canterbury Tales my second semester of freshman English. The first semester was on The Iliad, Odyssey and Greek Tragedies. The second semester was on western culture. Although the Decameron was written earlier than the Tales and may have been imitated, it may have been that the Canterbury Tales had a religious and moral tone about them that it was chosen for the curriculum. I went to a Catholic liberal arts college. It was all female at the time but is now co-ed or else it would have met it’s demise had it stayed all female. I still help support the college for the sound education it gave me.

  32. Avatar James D. says:

    I have not read Pickwick, but I will put it on my list. Thank you, Mr. Cornell.

    “why so many of his stories focus on salvation via charity and social activism.”

    That sounds eerily similar to Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth.” From what I can tell, the industrialists of the time, turned their greed and avarice into a pseudo-Christian religion, where they thought they could absolve themselves of their myriad prior sins by building libraries and hospitals for all of the people they had abused and stepped on during their rise to prominence.

  33. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    Mr. Reavis: It is really only in the least few years that I’ve read any novels, aside from those I was given to read at school or by my parents. I used to think that if something didn’t really happen there was no use in spending time reading it when that time could be used reading about something that did. Albert Jay Nock gave a good explination of their importance in his memoirs which changed my mind about that.

    I should mention also that Pilgrim’s Progress was one of my favorite books as a child. I’ve read various criticisms of it despite its prominence in English literature. When I re-read it a few years ago, I still enjoyed it, but can see how one may think it is a bit repetitive.

  34. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    And I am glad to have everybody’s guidance here on literature in general, as it is not something I’d ever figure out in a hundred years myself.

  35. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    There are various ways of approaching and understanding reality. Logic and systematic rational inquiry are of course useful, but many people are influenced, for good and ill, by poetry, drama, and fiction. All history is in a way a cross between the epic and the novel, and one should be careful to distinguish history–whether written or document-drama–from the actual events.

  36. Avatar James D. says:

    Mr. Johnson,

    I had a similar experience in my youth. The grandfather of a friend of mine, a man I respected greatly and who was a good man who I looked up to, insisted that we only read history and biography. I carried this prejudice for many years. It was only in the last decade that I realized that I needed to pick up the books on the Autodidact list and acquaint or reacquaint myself with them.

  37. Avatar Vince Cornell says:

    In response to the idea that fiction isn’t important, a literature professor pointed out to me that when God Himself became man and walked among us, He taught us primarily by telling us stories.