Classics we'd like to say good-bye toI don't teach 11th grade English, but I tried my best to justify to one of my 11th graders why 18th and 19th century American lit. is important for us to study....

Classics we'd like to say good-bye to

I don't teach 11th grade English, but I tried my best to justify to one of my 11th graders why 18th and 19th century American lit. is important for us to study. I just couldn't do it! I myself yawned through most of it in high school, and I took it in college only because I had to for my degree.

Am I the only heretic here? I say let's leave colonial Am. lit. to the colonials!!!

Who's with me? What do you want to abolish?

30 Answers | Add Yours

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

As an American Literature scholar, I am quite disturbed and perplexed by the dismissive responses to our own heritage here.  Yes, some of the texts mentioned may not be your cup of tea (or Starbucks, as it were) but it disturbs me to see American literature treated as if it were an annoyance.

What of American Romanticism?  Of Transcendentalism?  Of First Wave Feminism?  Of the Industrial Revolution which forever changed society, from rural to urban, from family to anonymity?  

Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Alcott, just to name a few off the top of my head?

Americans were trying to break away from the cultural stranglehold of England. The political, social, and cultural changes were fascinating and complex. 

I urge you to try to tie history to your texts and to try to make students understand how American literature is important, and why they should value and love their own legacy.  Of course, some of it is horrible, that legacy, but it should be known.  Please don't perpetuate the idea that all good literature is to be found in Europe!  It is simply not true. 

We are not barons and kings, but farmers and entrepreneurs.  Our battles take place on the prairies, not in the ballroom. 

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dcuevas | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

As a high school teacher of literature, I am disturbed and saddened by many of these posts. It would be simple to say, "If you don't like it...leave." That, however, does not speak to the real issue. If you hate a piece of literature, it is very probable you yourself have not understood or looked deeply enough. Why not try a section rather than the whole - could you not take the 3 day chase from Moby Dick or the opening scene from the Scarlet letter.

Creativity coupled with reality is a necessary skill for working with complex texts. Think what you can help them achieve if you don't quit.

Now for the anti-American comments. American literature is rich, varied, and so integral to our national identity. The Great Melting Pot, our Puritan roots, and the massiveness of our country blossoms in the ever evolving literature of the people of this great country.

I feel sorry for you and your students. You and they will never know or enjoy the beauty of words unless you step back, change your attitude, and spend some time working at being a literature teacher.  

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Shame on you amethystrose! Dickens is GREAT! I do agree that Moby Dick would be one I would love to forget about. On a different note, has anyone had to teach a book they have really been bored with? Can it be done? I can't imagine doing it myself....

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I hated The Scarlet Letter in high school, but after having to teach it, I have such respect for the book.  It is American gem, and so important to the recognition of how attitudes and communities developed during American colonization and beyond.  In addition, I have had great luck teaching this to students.  In understanding the inner workings of a novel and the authorial choices that help develop theme, it is the breakthrough book.  My suggestion - read Chapter One aloud, no matter what level the class is.  Encourage students to illustrate the prison door and then explore the idea of criminality being a necessity to all socieities.

I do love American Lit - but I have to agree with the snooze factor on Moby Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I mean, really....

Finally, a comment on colonial literature - why must we abandon it completely?  While it might be lacking in stimulating details, some exposure to the attitudes and perspectives of the early settlers seems vital to understanding the development of the country.  Why are Americans considered cocky?  Well, lets look at John Smith!

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malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

Well, were would we be without passion?

Perhaps it's my own proclivity to the integrated studies, but my feeling is that literature cannot be divorced from history. To understand either makes the other richer. 

Precisely why I want to get my American Lit students studying US History during the same year, rather than World History.  It just makes sense to me! :)

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Well, were would we be without passion?

Perhaps it's my own proclivity to the integrated studies, but my feeling is that literature cannot be divorced from history. To understand either makes the other richer. 

jeff-hauge's profile pic

jeff-hauge | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

As an American Literature scholar, I am quite disturbed and perplexed by the dismissive responses to our own heritage here.  Yes, some of the texts mentioned may not be your cup of tea (or Starbucks, as it were) but it disturbs me to see American literature treated as if it were an annoyance.

What of American Romanticism?  Of Transcendentalism?  Of First Wave Feminism?  Of the Industrial Revolution which forever changed society, from rural to urban, from family to anonymity?  

Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Alcott, just to name a few off the top of my head?

Americans were trying to break away from the cultural stranglehold of England. The political, social, and cultural changes were fascinating and complex. 

I urge you to try to tie history to your texts and to try to make students understand how American literature is important, and why they should value and love their own legacy.  Of course, some of it is horrible, that legacy, but it should be known.  Please don't perpetuate the idea that all good literature is to be found in Europe!  It is simply not true. 

We are not barons and kings, but farmers and entrepreneurs.  Our battles take place on the prairies, not in the ballroom. 

I have what I think might be an interesting perspective on this - I am teaching English at High School level (in England) and have recently re-discovered Robert Frost! I found myself required to teach on his poetry.

Well, what a revelation! Although I had always loved "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I had never had time to pursue it.

American or not, his poetry is clear, lucid, colorful and (as with all my most-loved authors) - his love of the natural world shines through it.

I am glad to have had the opportunity of re-discovering this paragon of American literature, and of pursuing his poetry in greater depth.

Highly recommended (PS It needs to be heard read aloud I feel.)

And Robert Frost is 20th cent., right? My point is that we spend too much time on colonial Am. lit. and not enough on modern Am. lit., except maybe in an electives course.

Oh I totally agree with you. Colonial Literature is barely literature at all. The Captivity Narratives and such are more like cultural and historical artifacts. I don't think we Americans were much more than imitators until the CW tragedy brought out our own voice. Whitman, Twain etc.

I go as fast as I can through Sinners in the Hands, Devil and Tom Walker, Emerson, HDT and then settle in the Realists, Naturalists and Modernists.

... Jamie, I wasn't slamming HBS too hard, I just find no subtlety in that mechanism. Show... don't tell, right? You are way more versed than me in that area. I think Kate Chopin is a literary genius in comparison, for example. Edith Wharton, as well, provoked thought. They had touch and respected the reader. Stowe... is like a bad sermon.

and I will enjoy that virtual brew. :)

linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

Wow! I never intended to cause so much conflict. I guess we are teachers because we are passionate about the texts we teach. In that case, I think this conversation was a good idea.

linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

As an American Literature scholar, I am quite disturbed and perplexed by the dismissive responses to our own heritage here.  Yes, some of the texts mentioned may not be your cup of tea (or Starbucks, as it were) but it disturbs me to see American literature treated as if it were an annoyance.

What of American Romanticism?  Of Transcendentalism?  Of First Wave Feminism?  Of the Industrial Revolution which forever changed society, from rural to urban, from family to anonymity?  

Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Alcott, just to name a few off the top of my head?

Americans were trying to break away from the cultural stranglehold of England. The political, social, and cultural changes were fascinating and complex. 

I urge you to try to tie history to your texts and to try to make students understand how American literature is important, and why they should value and love their own legacy.  Of course, some of it is horrible, that legacy, but it should be known.  Please don't perpetuate the idea that all good literature is to be found in Europe!  It is simply not true. 

We are not barons and kings, but farmers and entrepreneurs.  Our battles take place on the prairies, not in the ballroom. 

I have what I think might be an interesting perspective on this - I am teaching English at High School level (in England) and have recently re-discovered Robert Frost! I found myself required to teach on his poetry.

Well, what a revelation! Although I had always loved "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I had never had time to pursue it.

American or not, his poetry is clear, lucid, colorful and (as with all my most-loved authors) - his love of the natural world shines through it.

I am glad to have had the opportunity of re-discovering this paragon of American literature, and of pursuing his poetry in greater depth.

Highly recommended (PS It needs to be heard read aloud I feel.)

And Robert Frost is 20th cent., right? My point is that we spend too much time on colonial Am. lit. and not enough on modern Am. lit., except maybe in an electives course.

linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

In reply to #7 and #8: I think "disturbing" is too strong a word to use for our dislike of colonial American literature. I understand that the colonists were too busy colonizing, building homes and cities, to spend time on the esoteric business of poetry or novel writing. Yes, that colonial literature has its place: in the history class. My argument is that we spend so much time on the first two centuries of Am. lit. that we don't get to the real treasure of later texts. Maybe that's why I despise it so much!

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Certainly Stowe made a political and historical impact. I just have to choke down when I read it aloud. To interrupt her own narrative with "...and this, dear reader, is...." shows no craft.

I am sure Clemens had a tough time losing and then regaining his fortune while she sat on her bags of money.

I do draw a line of demarcation at the Civil War. Washington Irving was creative, but the cupboard is pretty bare there. The Realists onward were powerful. The Modernists were imaginative. The Post (Meta)- Modernists (or whatever they are now) were/are irreverent and creative.

The thing is, Biology teachers don't have to excite the whole class about Adenosine Triphosphate Energy Release cycles. Physics teachers don't have to have young minds day dreaming about  Avogadro's number. But for some reason English teachers put it on themselves to have every student aflame for their own personal literary tastes or it is a failed year.

Our burden is different, but we get to work with something no one else does. We get to deal in the human situation every minute of the year.

The problem of capturing the attention of youth works best in the other direction.

We don't excite kids into understanding literature.

We assure them that the author of this literature understood them. Then they feel connected and motivated. Great American lit works wonderfully with young people. 

Jeff-  You and I need to have a virtual beer and hammer this out! :)

The "dear reader" thing...a very, very common convention in 19th Century lit, esp among women's fiction.  They were unlikely to have found it as annoying as do we (and I do, but I guess I've read so much in women's lit/history) that it doesn't phase me much.

Love your point about science teachers and not having to worry about setting them aflame (Ha!).  But this is why I love what I do...I can't imagine droning on about formulas and such.  They can't imagine being troubled with the human condition...

Now, if we can only make the rest of the world see how much more valuable our teaching is and reverse the salaries!!

 

jeff-hauge's profile pic

jeff-hauge | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

Certainly Stowe made a political and historical impact. I just have to choke down when I read it aloud. To interrupt her own narrative with "...and this, dear reader, is...." shows no craft.

I am sure Clemens had a tough time losing and then regaining his fortune while she sat on her bags of money.

I do draw a line of demarcation at the Civil War. Washington Irving was creative, but the cupboard is pretty bare there. The Realists onward were powerful. The Modernists were imaginative. The Post (Meta)- Modernists (or whatever they are now) were/are irreverent and creative.

The thing is, Biology teachers don't have to excite the whole class about Adenosine Triphosphate Energy Release cycles. Physics teachers don't have to have young minds day dreaming about  Avogadro's number. But for some reason English teachers put it on themselves to have every student aflame for their own personal literary tastes or it is a failed year.

Our burden is different, but we get to work with something no one else does. We get to deal in the human situation every minute of the year.

The problem of capturing the attention of youth works best in the other direction.

We don't excite kids into understanding literature.

We assure them that the author of this literature understood them. Then they feel connected and motivated. Great American lit works wonderfully with young people. 

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Faulkner could be chucked and not missed? Toni Morrison is boring? Arthur Miller is irrelevant? Tennessee Williams is "stinking"?

If we gauged literary merit on what 14-16 yr olds found exciting, we would be knee deep in Hannah Montana Chronicles and stolen MySpace Poetry.

Mind you I could do without flimsy works like "A Separate Peace", but American Literature, at least post Civil War, is anything but boring.
Invisible Man
would sell itself if presented correctly. Buy Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman and tell a kid it is boring. Or Maus. Kids would tear the covers off to read that book.

I teach both honors and remedial English. When I show Death of a Salesman after reading it, I make sure the room is as dark as possible so the "tough" guys in my class can feel the emotion with some privacy.

American Literature has a singular purpose; to investigate the power, capacity, value and depth of the common individual.

Every high school student (high or low acheiving) feels "out of place", unaccepted, or lacking in some way or another.

Every great American work hits that point and hard. How that theme can't be sold to that audience is a mystery to me.

... unless we just read for plot. Then Dickens wins hands down.

(Uncle Tom's Cabin has zero literary merit and is only important historically. The fact that Twain had to live next door to that fraud in Hartford is one of life's cruel mysteries.) 

I regrettably must agree about UTC as a pretty poor piece of Literature ("Die, Little Eva, Die!")  Regrettably, b/c Stowe had the best of intentions.  Have you read Frederick Douglass' eloquent response to the reception of the novel? If you're interested, I'll try to find the link to the article. 

As a piece of political rhetoric, if not literature, UTC  had amazing power.  Abraham Lincoln (as you prob know) said to Stowe upon meeting her for the first time, "So this is the little lady who started the Great War!"

 

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

To all:  Please forgive my brief foray into politics here, but I just heard a line from Barack Obama that gave me chills (the good kind). 

"...the unlikely story of America." 

Doesn't that say it all?  Why Am. Lit is so important?

If you haven't seen the video, it's beautifully done.  Check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjXyqcx-mYY 

 

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