Professor Paul Cantor, libertarian literary critic and historian, died on February 26 in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the age of 76. He had suffered a series of strokes.
Paul was a great scholar and a great person — generous, learned, wise, and thoroughly original. One of the few libertarians in his field, he applied libertarian theories of human action to the interpretation and assessment of culture, always with brilliant and often with surprising results. Most surprising was his delightfully entitled Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (2001), in which he identified many ways in which authentic debate about social and political values is conducted even in the humble medium of popular TV. Also surprising was his demonstration of the value to libertarian thought of many literary works by collectivist authors, most notably H.G. Wells, a particular fascination of his. Readers who have heard Paul’s lectures on the politics of Shakespeare’s plays will recall his vivid and profound insights into the literary representation of political problems.
One of the few libertarians in his field, he applied libertarian theories of human action to the interpretation and assessment of culture, always with brilliant and often with surprising results.
Anyone who was around Paul for a few minutes was certain to learn something; and for Paul himself, learning, teaching, and writing never stopped. His devotion to Shakespeare was continuous from his early Shakespeare’s Rome: Republic and Empire (1976) to his much later Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of the Ancient World (2017). He demonstrated his mastery both of popular culture and of libertarian analysis in Gilligan Unbound, in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (2012), and in countless contributions to learned and popular journals. Paul and I collaborated on Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (2009), in which we figured as editors and contributors. The book includes Paul’s considerations of Percy Shelley and Ben Jonson, and two essays of particular interest to libertarians: “The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H.G. Wells’s Critique of Capitalism,” and “Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow.’” Paul discusses our book in an excellent YouTube interview; it’s clear as crystal, as he always was. Many other YouTubes featuring Paul can be found by searching his name.
When Paul was in high school, he attended Ludwig von Mises’ famous seminars — he looked Mises up in the phone book and gave him a call, and the great man invited him — and he was one of the principal means by which Mises’ economic and praxeological ideas made themselves known to general readers. Like Mises, Paul was lofty in intelligence and penetrating in thought; unlike Mises, he was a lively writer whose work is always a pleasure to read. His ideas, which were not the product of any contemporary academic tendency or fad, are invulnerable to time or change of fashion; they will be read with joy and a sense of discovery whenever and wherever people love literature and want to know more about it.
Paul was a unique personality. He received his doctorate from Harvard, and he spent his teaching career at another elite institution, the University of Virginia, but he had nothing of the elitist, or even of The Professor, about him. The idea of respecting social or occupational class would never have occurred to him. He was a true gentleman, cheerful toward all and haughty toward none — except, perhaps, the haughty. He loved the fact that the Minnow, which as you know was the boat in Gilligan’s Island, was satirically named after Newton Minow, the elitist government bureaucrat (Chair of the Federal Communications Commission) who called commercial TV “a vast wasteland.” Paul knew how to appreciate Gilligan’s wasteland as well as T.S. Eliot’s. I remember attending a conference in Las Vegas during which I accompanied Paul on a delighted expedition to Luxor, the casino that looks like a pyramid. He’d heard that casinos have good food, but Luxor didn’t. The best we could find was a barren cafeteria buried as deep in the structure as the Queen’s Chamber. There, amid a maze of plastic, Paul tolerantly noted that the edibles weren’t what they ought to be, but refused to be distracted from the fun of observing and analyzing all the slick postmodern kitsch.
Like Mises, Paul was lofty in intelligence and penetrating in thought; unlike Mises, he was a lively writer whose work is always a pleasure to read.
Paul was what we Midwesterners call a good guy, a very good guy. He regretted the intellectual dilapidation of today’s university; he regretted the personal slights it sometimes gave him; but he never complained. He just kept doing his work, which was consistently creative, sound, and solid, almost in an architectural way. He was full of what Blake called “mental fight,” cordially loathing and determinedly combating the tawdry collectivisms of the current age; but he was incapable of unfairness or vindictiveness, either to living people or to the literary dead. And like others of his generation of Misesians — I’m thinking about Murray Rothbard and Ronald Hamowy — he had a terrific sense of humor. (How different from Mises himself!)
One especially endearing quality was his desire to do the best he could for other scholars who were intellectually disconnected from the vast gray Borg of modern “education.” He gave his advice, he gave his support, he gave his magnificent letters of recommendation, and he gave his lively, witty blurbs for the backs of people’s books. Some publisher asked him to be a blurbist for a new book, and Paul couldn’t get over the word. “I’ve never thought of myself in that way,” he said. “But all right, I guess I’m a blurbist. And I believe I’m one of the best!” Which he was. But the best thing was that he never said anything that wasn’t the truth.
So many experiences with Paul come to mind. When I complimented him on the great number of books and articles he had published, he grinned and said, “It’s because I need to sleep only four hours a night.” When he visited the town where I live, San Diego, I took him to the Timken Museum, a very small, private gallery with superb examples of European and American art. Paul, whose interests were by no means limited to literature, greeted the paintings as old friends who’d been waiting to surprise him. He was ecstatic; he practically danced around the room. “Imagine!” he cried. “Rembrandt, Bruegel, Ruisdael, van Dyck! All in this one little room! It’s so amazing, so amazing!”
Of course, it was Paul himself who was amazing. He was an intellectual artist of the first quality, yet he was a human being who would, I’m certain, have been deeply embarrassed by the next thing I’m going to say about him — even though it’s perfectly true. In his epitaph for Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson declared that Goldsmith “left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn.” That’s what I say about Paul Cantor.