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In Praise of Virginia Woolf's Last Essays

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 23, 2015: On June 23, 2015, Chris Hedges published a jeremiad at titled "My Hatred of Authority, Along with my Loathing for the Pretensions, Heartlessness, and Sense of Entitlement of the Rich." It is an excerpt from his new book WAGES OF REBELLION: THE MORAL IMPERATIVE OF REVOLT (1915).

In her day, and in her own way, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), a feminist, pacifist, and activist, also published jeremiads, most notably A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN (1929) and THREE GUINEAS (1938). Granted, certain issues that concerned her have changed. For example, women have been given the right to vote in Britain and the United States and elsewhere, and young women in Britain and the United States and elsewhere today are allowed to receive a university education.

As a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and book reviewer, Virginia Woolf was part of a generation of writers around the time of World War I who saw themselves as being in rebellion against certain aspects of Western culture at the time, just as Chris Hedges sees himself as being in rebellion of certain aspects of Western culture today.

Thanks in large measure to the generation of writers in rebellion that Virginia Woolf was part of, it became fashionable after World War II for middle-class white Americans to see themselves as being outsiders in rebellion against certain aspects of Western culture, as Grace Elizabeth Hale shows in her book HOW THE WHITE MIDDLE CLASS FELL IN LOVE WITH REBELLION IN POSTWAR AMERICA (2011).

In both the main title and the subtitle of the book THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (1962), Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) explicitly adverts to the spirit of being an outsider (a barbarian, a fugitive) in rebellion against certain aspects of Western culture. Because Ong himself styles his own essays and studies as being somehow "fugitive" in spirit, we can see him as publishing his own kind of jeremiads, as do Virginia Woolf and Chris Hedges.

But do Ong's kind of jeremiads about certain aspects of Western culture have any implications for our understanding of Virginia Woolf's jeremiads and other publications -- or for our understanding of Chris Hedges' jeremiad?

In a similar way, do Virginia Woolf's jeremiads and other publications have any implications for our understanding of Ong's jeremiads about certain aspects of Western culture and other publications? Surely Ong can be criticized for not discussing her two major jeremiads or her major novels. That much is obvious. But are there perhaps other ways in which her work can be connected with Ong's work?

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As a follow up to the article "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that I published at on June 13, 2015, I'd like to further explore here Virginia Woolf's thoughts in her last essays, "Anon" and "The Reader."

Volume 6 of THE ESSAYS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, edited by Stuart N. Clarke (2011), contains drafts of Virginia Woolf's last essays, "Anon" and "The Reader" (pages 580-607). Around the same time that Virginia Woolf was writing her posthumously published novel BETWEEN THE ACTS (1941), she wrote the drafts of those two essays for a projected book that she did not live to complete.

As Clarke acknowledges, Brenda R. Silver published Virginia Woolf's two essays "Anon" and "The Reader" along with an introduction and commentary in the journal TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE, volume 25, numbers 3/4 (Autumn/Winter, 1979): pages 356-441.

In my estimate, Virginia Woolf's "Anon" and "The Reader" are enormously perceptive and penetrating. They should be reprinted in Norton anthologies of British literature -- and perhaps elsewhere.

In those drafts of essays, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) explicitly discusses oral tradition and the printing press, topics which both Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) and Walter Jackson Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) later published comments about.

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However, as far as I know, neither of them published anything about Virginia Woolf. (But if I am mistaken about this, I will be happy to be corrected.)

Concerning the American tradition of jeremiads, see Sacvan Bercovitch's book THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD (2nd ed., 2012; 1st ed., 1978).

Of the three kinds of civic rhetoric that Aristotle discusses in his treatise on RHETORIC (deliberative rhetoric, forensic rhetoric, and epideictic rhetoric), jeremiads would be in the category of epideictic rhetoric, as would all forms of literary criticism, including Virginia Woolf's. The category of epideictic rhetoric would also include most speeches in American political campaigns and most political editorials such as the op-ed pieces published at

In oral tradition, there is praise and blame poetry. St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of Brother Sun" is an example of praise poetry. But Pope Francis' recently encyclical about the environment is a jeremiad.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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