Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?

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