Cornel West on Jane Austen

The Huffington Post has an interesting article about Cornel West’s love of Jane Austen. If you don’t know who Cornel West is, he’s a political philosopher who specializes in issues of race. He is a very prominent intellectual and a well-known activist for issues within the African-American community. Whether or not you agree with his views (he’s a socialist and a Christian), you won’t find him boring.

I enjoyed reading West’s comments about Jane Austen in the Huffington Post article. As is my normal practice for this blog, in this post I’ve included a few quotes from the article. But I’m hoping that you’ll read the article.

His Love for Austen

Cornel West loves Jane Austen.

That’s right, Cornel West — the famous public scholar and political polemicist whose many books include Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and The Rich and the Rest of Us — cares about the novels of a dead, white, privileged British woman of the Regency Era.

On Austen’s Persuasion

West considers Persuasion, Austen’s last completed work, to be one of the greatest novels of all time, right up there with War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment. Like other giants of the genre, it plumbs “the depth of the melancholic wrestling with one’s destiny, with human isolation and the breakdown of human communication.” His favorite character is Persuasion’s protagonist, Anne Elliot, Austen’s “culminating character” in her maturity and spiritual development. “So melancholy, lonely and sad. She reminds me of myself.”

What a Great Book Is

A “great book,” to West, is one that most effectively addresses “the challenge of trying to be a decent person in the world.” There is no more fundamental question.” In this, he considers Austen to be in a league of her own, due to her profound “eloquence, honesty, precision, and candor” in portraying her characters’ struggles to grow, their “wrestling with freedom on the inside.” Elizabeth Bennet’s climactic personal awakening in Pride and Prejudice exemplifies her author’s encouragement of such courageous growth: “Till this moment I never knew myself.”

The Importance of Austen’s Religiosity

He regrets that people do not want to talk about her devout Christianity, her groundedness in the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, sermons, hymns, and the way her work is tied to this tradition. “Eloquence, prudence, and providence are the foundation of the great humanist tradition, the PK [preacher’s kid] tradition.” One cannot ignore Austen’s religiosity and its enriching impact on her literary genius.

Austen as a “Radical Revisionary”

Blues man Cornel West views “Sistah Jane” as a radical revisionary whose promotion of courageous truth-speaking amid a tragicomic theater of humanity challenges us to change society by changing ourselves, by cultivating simple but now revolutionary virtues. Reading Jane Austen’s novels will aid us in this endeavor, by showing us how to extend subversive sweetness and radical tenderness to others.


(This last quote is my favorite quote from the article. I agree with West that the “simple” virtues are the most important for changing a society and influencing those around you. But these simple virtues are often undervalued––or even overlooked––today.)

You can read the entire article here: ”Why Cornel West Loves Jane Austen”.

Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.