The American John Milton

Robert Pinsky in Slate:

080818_book_miltontnGreat art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the American essayist and political leader, begins the peroration of his great essay “On the Training of Black Men” with a sentence like a symphonic chord, fortissimo, compact, rousing:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.

This statement, and the paragraph it introduces, come at the climax of an argument against the idea of measured progress, associated with Booker T. Washington: first training a generation of freed slaves to be cooks and carpenters, then a generation of clerks, then artisans, and, finally, in four or five generations, doctors and judges and scholars. Du Bois, on the other side of this famous and crucial American argument, had emphasized individual qualities: “teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools.”

More here.