Right to Life in Literary Theory:
the Silence Screams

Pro-life elements in the canon

While literary theorists have formed and based their theories on certain works and trends in literature, there should be recognized also the emergence of an increasing pro-life canon.

The canon of pro-life literature can -- indeed must -- be constructed archaeologically. Our work as pro-life educators is truly an excavation: we must first sift through the various theoretical layers covering a text, much like archaeologists uncover an ancient city. Having sifted through the various theoretical layers, our task is to reaffirm the importance of a literary work. Literary archaeology is not new. Naomi Schor states that

Woolf undertook through an archaeology of women's writing to theorize and valorize a specifically female subjectivity and textuality, and that specificity was bound up with the maternal. (266)

As feminist literary theory was compelled to dig into past literary works to show that women's writing was not only being produced, but important, so we who are pro-life educators must archaeologically recapture our literature.


James Fenmore Cooper's Deerslayer can be viewed by the student as just a weighty novel written in thick nineteenth century language depicting life on the frontier of colonial New York. It is also a battleground of values concerning what constitutes valued life. Hetty, described negatively as a "feeble-witted" woman, is further described as one who has been "struck by God's power" (14-15). The striking is apparently positive, for Hetty refines the way other characters view life.


Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter may be viewed in contemporary terms as a prototype of the dysfunctional family, modeled on contemporary sexual values. A pro-life reader-response application of this novel, however, would have our students identify with Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth as actors in the great drama of a woman who chose a pro-life course of action: giving her baby life in the face of obstacles from her lover, her husband, and her community. After all, the relief promised and often performed by characters like Mistress Hibbins (a follower of the Black Prince) was available to Hester. True to a reader-response methodology, our students' own experiences with single parenthood are validated by the actions of these characters.

While I am unfamiliar with characteristics of your student populations, I can comment on those of students at Cuyahoga Community College. According to statistics generated by the College's Office of Academic and Student Affairs, most students usually entered the college between the ages of 20-24: in 1994, 6,876 students. The second highest age category is the 25-29 year old age group: for 1994, 4,153 students. The average age of the CCC student, dominantly a woman, is, due to the general aging of our population, increasing towards the age of twenty-nine years.

These young women who are either unmarried with children, or divorced, or who have been abandoned by their boyfriends/husbands/lovers can identify with Hester's situation. They can come to intellectually understand and, perhaps more importantly, to feel the significance of Hester's pro-life action.


George Eliot's Adam Bede addresses the pro-life issue of infanticide. Hetty Sorrel is accused of "a great crime -- the murder of her child" (389).


Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy was well aware that in killing his lover, Roberta Alden, he would be responsible for "the death of that unborn child, too!!" (477). I think that Dreiser's punctuation was an extra signal to the reader. Why use that seemingly superfluous exclamation mark? Of course, the pro-life mind suggests that the exclamation marks represent Roberta and her unborn child.


Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" does not favor an anti-life position, as though abortion is a positive value in the relationship between the man and the woman. On the contrary, the abortion is devastating to their relationship.


John Dos Passos' U.S.A. similarly depicts abortion as a factor which contributes substantially to the failed relationships not only between union activists Ben and Mary, but also assorted other characters.


Richard Brautigan's The Abortion: an Historical Romance 1966 is another text which does not ultimately seem favorable to abortion, since the confusion of the text replicates the confusion in the minds of the characters regarding whether the main character, Vida, should have the abortion.


Walker Percy's Father Simon in Thanatos Syndrome is a character with whom all pro-lifers can sympathize. Set in the future, the world of Thanatos Syndrome has legalized abortion, infanticide (called "pedeuthanasia"; see 333), and euthanasia. Maybe the best thing to do in such a world is to move beyond political action, beyond education, and, like the good priest given the appropriately-generic name, Smith, hole yourself up in a tower and wait. Waiting for what is the mystery of Percy's novel.

Our own additions to the canon

Moreover, the pro-life canon can be constructed by additions from our own people.

I think immediately of Stephen Freind's narratives. Freind's God's Children is a fictionalized account of the passage of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. The copies of the handout you have (page 263 and following) can be a useful tool in the literature classroom. In this section of the novel, Freind has his main character, Kevin Murray, debate an anti-lifer. This section relies on ancient rhetorical redefinition to assist the reader in understanding how anti-life terminology has corrupted a language which formerly was pro-life. This passage illustrates a Marxist literary application of the struggle between a pro-lifer and an anti-lifer extremely well.

I was fortunate to discover another pro-life author here at this conference. Carl Winderl of Eastern Nazarene College is able not to compose, but to construct poems on the theme of the right to live. Besides its mastery of onomatopoeia, I think that "Dead in the Water" can be analyzed from the structuralist perspective quite well.

I remember when I presented Jean Blackwood's "Generation" before my fellow students in a Recent American Poetry course. I wanted to present "a pro-life poem" for this show-and-tell portion of our seminar, hoping to excite substantial discussion not only about the poem, but also the issue. Of course, except for one openly pro-life fellow student who advocated it, the poem was attacked as either being deaf to the concerns of women who wanted abortion or, in the opinion of the professor, not even "good poetry" after all. The poem aroused no anger. Despite the strong opinion of the professor, the supposed discussion which I had hoped would bring out the animal in all my fellow students never materialized.

Here is Blackwood's poem which did, however, "generate" silence:

Is this the generation
That Marched in Birmingham and Selma?
That spoke for free speech in Berkeley?
That sang of love in San Francisco?
That swelled the Peace Corps ranks?
Whose hearts responded when he cried,
"I have a dream!"
Is this the generation?
Are these the flower children
Who called for peace in Vietnam,
For justice for the Indian nation,
An end to hatred, prejudice, and war?
Are these the flower children?
Does it mean the freedom ride is over,
When the dream is half fulfilled and half forgotten?
When we trade songs for screams and love for violence,
Where does the ride take us now?
When we put away the agent orange
to brandish prostoglandins (sic);
When scalpels replace the bayonette,
And People's Park has no children left to play in it...
Then, old friends,
You are indeed past thirty,
Not to be trusted again.
Guess I'll throw in my lot
With another generation. (12)

While it is beyond me that some in academia schizophrenically advocate certain humanitarian and animal rights causes yet ignore the first civil right to life, Blackwood's poem is a litany of questionings of an activist of the 1960s who sees through such schizophrenia. The persona looks at the paradigm presented by his or her own experience of rights and finds that it does not compare with current history; it contrasts.

I think this poem would most immediately benefit from a New Historicist approach. Our students, as is supposed to be typical of American students, may not be familiar with things which happened in ancient times -- that is, thirty years ago. Certain elements of the poem's contrasts will need to be explained ("People's Park" and "agent orange" for example).

After settling these historical concerns, students may be made aware of the power of the pro-life message in the poem through a Marxist or a Cultural Criticism approach: the former to delineate the power structures operating in society now, and the latter to encourage questioning regarding why the deplorable situation of killing babies is tolerated when it contradicts civil rights.

Finally, the pro-life canon can be constructed by the emergence of a pro-life faculty. Let's see. If I finish Ph.D. coursework this summer, learn a foreign language in autumn, take comps in winter, then I'll be one of those ABDs and can get me a job at a college or university, teaching students about the glories of the pro-life perspective in, on, and through literature.

Seriously, though, just as the current crop of literature professors reached their positions carrying their anti-life baggage with them, so future professors of English -- especially those who are pro-life -- will have a chance to apply the archaeological method of pro-life work to literature. Such pro-life future professors need to be encouraged, certainly; more importantly, they need to be hired.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premiere advocate of African-American signification in literature, recalls that he was once asked, quite seriously, "Tell me, sir, ... what is black literature?" As a partial response to that, Gates stated:

It is a thing of wonder to behold the various ways in which our specialties have moved, if not from the margins to the center of the profession, at least from defensive postures to a generally accepted validity. (289)

We who are pro-life in the academy must ask and answer a similar question: what is a pro-life literature? The future of our students and the fate of our culture depend on our answer. If we in the humanities cannot find evidence for the pro-life viewpoint, then what justification can we provide that we are a people who have exercised freedom of choice and chose life?

Think of the analogy with legislative history and its importance in judicial decisionmaking. Often courts will not only refer, but defer to legislative histories created while a law was progressing through a legislature. How much more important is it for us to emphasize the pro-lifeness of our literature?

I look forward to that time when a pro-life perspective on the canonical works will be as valid an approach as a feminist or a Marxist one. I look forward even more to the inclusion of what are now noncanonical works by our own poets and authors.

Works Cited

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