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Anne Arundel 100

Where is the Literature in "Dead Poets Society"?

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

In 1989 director Peter Weir gave literature teachers a movie of our own. Totally absorbing and beautifully shot, “Dead Poets Society” was loosely based on the prep-school experience of writer Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Set in the late Fifties at the fictitious Welton Academy, the film probes the impact of unorthodox English teacher John Keating on his students, who are suffocating under parental ambitions and demands. Keating, nicely underplayed (for once) by Robin Williams, sees literature as a powerful vehicle for personal liberation, just the antidote to conformity that these boys need.

When I saw “Dead Poets Society” during its initial release and heard Keating tell his class that “you will learn to savor words and language,” it seemed that Hollywood was finally making my job cool. Not only did Keating proclaim the wonders of language, but he confirmed that literature was important “because we are members of the human race” – a statement that seemed to support my cultural and historical way of teaching it. What resonated with me, in particular, was Keating’s slogan: carpe diem – seize the day. Doesn’t literature, and indeed all art, respond to the fact of death by reminding us to savor life?

And yet, I came away from “Dead Poets Society” feeling uncomfortable – and not just because Neil Perry, the sympathetic student played by Robert Sean Leonard, meets a tragic end. When I watched the film again last week, I remembered why. For one thing, I was struck by how little actual discussion of literature the movie contains: instead, literary quotations are tossed around like self-help mantras. For another, Keating aims to make his students “learn to think for yourselves again” by using a pedagogy that I found alarmingly controlling. Boys, tear out the introduction from your textbooks; boys, get up on your desks; boys, march in the courtyard but move in your own way. Although he tells his students to “swim against the stream,” the only viable counter-current seems to be his own. His preferred classroom title, the Whitmanesque “Captain, my Captain,” hints at an unsettling truth: his teaching is all about him.

Keating doesn’t realize this, of course. Isn’t he urging his students to “strive to fi nd your own voice”? What they really strive to do, however, is imitate his voice. Neil revives the Dead Poets Society mainly because Keating led it as a student. Treasuring Keating’s old schoolbook, Neil opens club meetings with his teacher’s chosen text: Thoreau’s call to “live deliberately.” He even does some Keating-like badgering of his own, urging his roommate to non-conform like the rest of the group: “You’re in the club!”

Literature is sometimes taught in Keating’s therapeutic, contentfree manner: without close textual or linguistic analysis and without reference to specific cultural and historical frameworks. When presented this way, literature becomes a vacuum that begs to be filled. What usually fills it, unfortunately, is the teacher’s personality – and as a result, dramatic gestures often pass for real teaching. And while Keating’s educational goals are worthy, his classroom practice seems grounded primarily in a desire to entertain, complete with a mincing (and to my ears, offensive) rendering of the “traditional” presentation of Shakespeare.

The worst result of a pedagogy based on personal charisma is the dichotomy that it creates between the teacher, who becomes the “good” adult conspiring with students, and parents as “bad” adults who just don’t understand. Granted, Neil’s father is easy to hate. Played by Kurtwood Smith, who later appeared on “That ’70s Show,” Mr. Perry is a cold-eyed villain who wants to crush his son’s love for the theater. Still, he grasps a hard truth that Keating ignores: any student who is not born rich will someday have to make a living.

This time around, my awareness of the doomed Neil’s resurrection as Wilson on the TV show “House” made his suicide somewhat more bearable. The passing of time since my first viewing brought other insights. Could there be a touch of ageism in the cartoonish portrayal of dour Headmaster Nolan? Maybe I’m cranky because the current me, if beardless, would resemble Norman Lloyd, the actor who played him. It may also be that time nudges most of us toward the middle ground between passion and refl ection. As Keating says of the first Dead Poets Society: “We were romantics.” Most young people are romantics – and it’s a good thing that they are. But it makes them vulnerable to teachers who stress varieties of self-actualization above all else.

Nolan values the same textbook that Keating mutilates as “excrement.” Its fictive author is “J. Evans Pritchard” – an unfair swipe at Oxford’s E. E. Evans-Pritchard, a pioneer in anthropological theory. The book’s title echoes a classic text edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Based on the “new criticism,” a technique of formal analysis that was popular in the Forties and Fifties, Understanding Poetry was actually an excellent book for its time. By shifting the focus from literary biography to literature itself, it offered a valuable corrective to author-worship.

It might also have helped Keating’s students avoid teacher-worship. In the end, the extreme rationalist and the extreme romantic are more alike than they know. While father Mr. Perry is insanely pragmatic, teacher Keating destroys a text instead of engaging with it. Dogmatists on either side of the head/heart line are equally shortsighted – and this, I think, is the film’s deeper point. This is literature’s deeper point, too: that human beings are a wonderfully paradoxical mix not just of reason and emotion, but of privacy and sociability. Literature is too big a tent to allow any retreats into self-righteous isolation: the sonneteers of yore and today’s spoken-word hipsters all remind us that we’re not just autonomous beings, but members of cultures and communities. Literature is both personal and social: it takes us deeper into the self, but it also helps us perceive the self’s limits and responsibilities.

After Keating gets fired, Nolan takes over his class. Upon hearing that Keating covered the romantic poets but not the literary “realists,” he vows to correct the omission. The great pendulum is poised to swing back from the heart to the head, but as this movie confirms, we poets and nonpoets alike are “dead” inside unless we honor both.