Get to Know a Researcher - English's Gary Kuchar


Stephanie Harrington interviewed Department of English Professor Gary Kuchar about his paper, “Milton, Shakespeare, and Canadian Confederation: Thomas D’Arcy McGee as Literary Critic,” published recently in University of Toronto Quarterly. The paper examines the influence of the writings of John Milton and Shakespeare on Thomas D’Arcy McGee (pictured above) and his contribution to Canadian Confederation.

How did you first learn of the influence of Milton and Shakespeare on Thomas D’Arcy McGee and make the connection to Confederation?

It all began a few years ago when an American colleague asked me rather blithely: “When the Queen dies, will your money change?” Despite my good socialist upbringing among anti-monarchist Ukrainians, the question struck me as a touch vulgar, as though a little voice inside me were saying “The Queen can’t die, God save the Queen.” This entirely unexpected and no doubt embarrassing response got me thinking about the power of monarchy as a cultural system (or what we’re supposed to call an “ideological state apparatus.”) One thing led to another and I found myself weighing the relative virtues of republicanism and constitutional monarchy. This involved some reading in Canadian constitutional theory and history. As I was doing this reading, I kept coming across wonderfully eloquent quotes from some Irishman named Thomas D’Arcy McGee, including references to his commentaries on Milton and Shakespeare. By the time I got around to reading his speeches and writings, I could see that his investments in minority rights, political moderation, and an educated populace animated his criticism on early modern European literature. At the same time, I could also see that McGee’s reading of Paradise Lost differed in meaningful ways from leading responses in Britain and America. Unlike many American readers, McGee did not share the Romantic view that Satan is the real hero of the poem, rebelling, as the devil apparently does, against tyranny. But unlike British Tories such as Samuel Johnson, McGee stressed Milton’s cosmopolitanism and broad-minded European outlook, praising him for being (small-c) catholic rather than criticizing him for being a puritan radical. In other words, I could see that McGee’s reading of Milton was motivated by exigencies specific to the political situation in nineteenth-century British North America. In short, I had found a distinctly Canadian response to Milton.

You write that McGee characterized Milton as a “moderate Christian humanist,” which diverges from the writer’s reputation among Americans as a political and religious radical. Why do you think McGee chose such a different interpretation of Milton’s work?

Here I think both biographical and broader national contexts are significant. As a young man, McGee was an Irish republican revolutionary who actively declared himself an enemy of the British Empire. When Irish revolutionary hopes were dashed in 1848, he escaped to America. But he soon became disillusioned with the United States, not least due to its treatment of the Irish minority. More impressed with the treatment of minorities north of the border, McGee moved to Montreal and soon became one of the most cultured and eloquent MPs in the Legislative Assembly. By this time though, he had left behind more than Ireland and the United States; he had also abandoned his revolutionary politics. As a mature political thinker, McGee modeled himself on the great eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, the so-called father of modern conservatism. Part of what motivated this turn, I think, was McGee’s realization that Samuel Johnson may not have been entirely wrong when he said with respect to the radical temperament, “It has been observed, that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it.” The fact that McGee was assassinated in 1868 by the Irish radicals he had rejected gives his pursuit of moderation some authority, I’d say.

Yet McGee not only came to see the shortcomings of Irish radicalism, but he also worried that America was succumbing to the mutually implicating threats of populism and autocracy. Like others of the age, he thought that constitutional monarchy had something to offer here. In his mature view, the genius of constitutional monarchy lies, as is often said, not in the authority that it grants to the sovereign but in the power that it deprives everyone else. In short, he thought that keeping the monarchy would help Canada avoid some of the pitfalls besetting the United States. Given this specific Burkean outlook, it was natural that McGee should stress Milton’s cosmopolitanism and broad-minded European outlook rather than his Puritanism or his republicanism. Strikingly though, this view of Milton was rare in the Victorian period. It only fully emerges in the 1940s when Milton was recruited for the war effort in works such as G. Wilson Knight’s The Chariot of Wrath which managed to make something of a royalist out of the regicidal Milton. In this respect, McGee is an early instance of a conservative interpretative tradition that would come to influence Milton studies in the mid-twentieth century, most influentially perhaps in C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost. In a minor way, then, my paper contributes to Milton’s reception history as well as to Canadian constitutional history.

It’s hard to imagine that a work of literature today could have such a profound and widespread effect on world politics that Paradise Lost had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why do you think Milton’s work resonated so deeply across the centuries?

One simple reason is that the political classes were more literate than they are today. Another is that Milton was a great political psychologist. Despite having axes to grind, Milton wrote a poem that is capacious enough to support a bewildering range of ideological responses. For revolutionaries and Romantics, Satan is the hero and God the tyrant. For Tories, Satan is ultimately a death-driven narcissist overcome by the goodness of God. While between these extremes lay a plethora of more vexed responses. The political subtlety of the poem partly rests on the fact that Milton was in a position to diagnose the excesses at work across the political spectrum of his day, from Charles I’s divine-right absolutism to Cromwell’s puritan fanaticism all the way to the libertarianism animating some of the period’s far-left radical groups ---- all of which inform the character of Satan. Milton was also, of course, a great poet. As such, he provided a language for articulating political hopes, especially the republican aspirations that took hold in America, France, and Canada. Ultimately, republicanism for Milton was a set of political and intellectual resources more than a specific constitutional arrangement; hence his value for constitutional monarchies.  

You write that, in rejecting Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, McGee was rejecting America, along with “populism, excessive individualism and materialism, amoral celebrity worship, exploitation and violence.” These feel like contemporary issues. Did you have any insights into our current political climate while writing this paper?

If McGee is of value today, it’s because he speaks across the political spectrum, challenging people on both the right and the left. For example, while his critique of the mutually implicating threat of populism and autocracy applies to Trumpism, his refusal to exploit “old-world” hostilities for short-term political gain has been convincingly applied to Jagmeet Singh (who has expressed sympathy with Sikh extremism --- unlike, say, Ujjal Dosanjh, who did the opposite). Ultimately, McGee’s intellectually subtle and highly cultured brand of politics does not easily map onto the increasingly polarized discourse we now face. As such, it provides an opportunity to see how the past reads and critiques us today rather than always assuming that we stand in moral superiority over and against the past. To that end, I suppose you could say that McGee’s legacy adds some credence to the counter-intuitive argument that Adam Gopnik made in The New Yorker in 2017 when he answered no to the question: “Was the American Revolution A Good Idea?”

Let’s say you’re exiled on a desert island with no internet, fidget spinners, knitting, or what have you, but you’re allowed to take a book. Would you bring something written by Milton or Shakespeare or someone else?  

Like McGee, I have to give the edge to Shakespeare over Milton. There is a reason they called his theatre “The Globe.” His plays seemingly contain little less than life itself.