THR Web Features   /   September 14, 2023

A Sentimental Education

Why the deepening and sharpening of emotional powers is so important.

Alan Jacobs

( AARN GIRI/Unsplash; THR illustration.)

Karl Kroeber (1926-2009) taught English literature at Columbia University for many years, and in 1984 was asked by the journal PMLA to write an essay on the evolution of literary study. At the end of the essay he made an interesting claim:  

Literature involves above all else emotion rather than reason or sensuality. What we teach is in good measure the deepening and sharpening of emotional powers, and such teaching succeeds only when teachers and students interact, with both sides feeling the effects. There is plenty of evidence that an individual’s major ideas take shape before the age of thirty—mathematicians by twenty seem to have little left but bad manners. Feelings appear to mature more slowly. Undergraduates are capable of understanding fine works of literature, but, with rare exceptions, it is only in graduate school that students begin to respond to these works with appropriately powerful feelings. It is often the aging teacher (I confess astonishment at this fact as I struggle with the damnable deterioration of my body) who best sustains in all their precise intensity the searing emotions that are at the heart of the beautiful, and therefore terrible, mysteries of literature.

A note about Kroeber: He once ruefully noted that a certain theme ran through his life. When he was a young man, he was often asked whether he was related to the famous Alfred Kroeber, the first anthropologist hired by the University of California-Berkeley and one of the people most responsible for forming the discipline of anthropology in the United States. “Yes,” Karl would reply, “He’s my father.” Then, after his father’s retirement, he would be asked if he were related to the bestselling author of Ishi in Two Worlds, Theodora Kroeber. “Yes, she’s my mother.” Still later, he was regularly faced with a new question: Do you happen to be related to the novelist Ursula Kroeber Le Guin? “Yes,” he would reply, presumably with a sigh, “she’s my sister.” Should anything ever happen to his sister, he figured, one of his children would instantly be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Perhaps this lifelong experience of being related to outrageously talented, productive, and influential people led Kroeber to think of his own career not as that of a scholar, though he published several books, but as a teacher. Indeed, and unsurprisingly, his is the only essay in that PMLA issue devoted primarily to teaching. It is clear that he had given great thought to what the teaching of literature is, and what it should be—and this tribute from a student suggests that at least some of those he taught understood where his primary commitments lay. And I find it especially noteworthy that, writing at the apex of the age of High Theory, he would have identified the teaching of literature so closely with “the deepening and sharpening of emotional powers.”

It is an idea that for many years I would have scoffed at, because in it I would have perceived an implicit denigration of the intellectual quality and content of literature—as though the other disciplines are about knowledge but literature merely about “feelings.” But such a reaction is incurious about what feelings are—and how they may change. The disparagement of feeling is based on the belief that they simply happen, like the secretions of glands; but what Kroeber rightly indicates is that feelings can develop—can “mature,” as he puts it, which means to become more capable, more adequate to what they encounter.

Kroeber makes an interesting and useful distinction between “understanding” and “response”—a person with a good intellect can, even at an early age, understand much of what happens in a story or poem—but can that person respond appropriately? Perhaps; but only if the kind of response deemed appropriate is a simple and straightforward one—largely, in our moment, it is a matter of hating what deserves our hatred. (Racism, sexism, homophobia.) And that sort of glandular impulse scarcely requires maturation. It simply is.

There are many good reasons to seek, actively to cultivate, more complex responses, but in what follows I will appeal to naked self-interest. Unless you are a fantasist, what you hate, whatever you hate, is real—it is active in the world, it is consequential; it almost certainly has adherents, and those adherents see it in a different light than you do. You may think that this is true because such people are wicked. Isn’t it pretty to think so?


Because Humbert Humbert narrates Lolita, the novel’s author, Vladimir Nabokov, cannot within the text comment on him. This has led many people over the years to condemn Nabokov as Humbert’s defender or even celebrator—because why would you ever fail to condemn the condemnable?

An interviewer once said to Nabokov, “Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality—that of the spoiled artist.” Nabokov did not agree. “I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’” This is an intriguingly precise way of putting the matter, and an implicit rebuke to the interviewer. In effect Nabokov is saying: If you find Humbert touching, you’re one of his marks. You fell for his manipulative game. But of course it’s impossible to read the novel without sometimes being drawn into Humbert’s way of seeing the world, because of his evident intelligence; because he is shrewdly insightful about almost everything other than himself—he is a brilliant commentator on America in the 1950s—and sometimes even about himself; and because he writes like a dream. As he himself says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

In a famous review written in 1958, three years after the book’s original publication, Lionel Trilling asks why Nabokov would write a book like Lolita, and settles on a very interesting explanation: that he wanted to tell a story about love. It is a clever argument, and I commend it to you; but I want to look back to something Trilling says earlier in the essay, before he commences his explanation.

[O]ur response to the situation that Mr. Nabokov presents to us is that of shock. And we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents…. And it is likely that any reader of Lolita will discover that he comes to see the situation as less and less abstract and moral and horrible, and more and more as human and “understandable.” Less and less, indeed, do we see a situation; what we become aware of is people. Humbert is perfectly willing to say that he is a monster; no doubt he is, but we find ourselves less and less eager to say so.

Yes, but—

But we have only to let the immediate influence of the book diminish a little with time, we have only to free ourselves from the rationalizing effect of HH.’s obsessive passion, we have only to move back into the real world where twelve-year-olds are being bored by Social Studies and plagued by orthodonture, to feel again the outrage at the violation of the sexual prohibition. And to feel this the more because we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.

The pronoun “we” is doing very hard labor here, labor that it may not be capable of performing. For what Trilling does with “we” is to universalize his own experience without asking whether such universalizing is warranted. (Would a bright teenage girl, even in 1958, have felt the same way?) Have indeed “we” been “seduced”? If so, then who has seduced us? Here we might revisit Nabokov’s correction of his interviewer: “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’” But manages that difficult achievement how? And to whom?

These are the questions that Trilling, by veering off into an (admittedly interesting) meditation on what Nabokov was trying to do in the novel, manages his own difficult achievement: not thinking too much about his responses, not asking questions about what Karl Kroeber called “the searing emotions that are at the heart of the beautiful, and therefore terrible, mysteries of literature.” By such evasions we avoid understanding either our enemies or ourselves.


The story of how one might, how one does, respond to Lolita (perhaps I have found a pronoun as comprehensive as, but more evasive than, “we”) illustrates both the value and the danger of the approach to teaching literature that Karl Kroeber advocated. Even setting aside questions of trust—rare, surely, is the teacher whom students find a reliable custodian of their strongest feelings—we’re left to deal with the pain that so often arises from honest self-reflection. It’s simpler and easier to keep those “searing emotions” at bay and to make our inquiries more abstract, or in any event less personal.

But such evasions are also costly. Our feelings, when unquestioned and unchallenged, never mature; indeed, they probably become cruder, especially if we indulge the simplest of them. And emotional crudity, the chief form of emotional immaturity, is a great affliction for persons and also for societies. You could argue that the tensions that afflict the American body politic today are largely the result of unexamined crude feelings–especially feelings of aversion, aversion to defilement by the Repugnant Cultural Other.

An education in emotional maturation is not something we are likely to receive via television or social media. Then where might it be found? That is a question to be asked. The study of literature is not a commonplace thing in our society, but it is better to begin somewhere than never to begin at all, and Karl Kroeber is right: The literature classroom is an unusually fit environment in which to pursue “the deepening and sharpening of emotional powers.” I wonder whether any of us who teach literature will dare to use it for that purpose.