My guest today discusses the matter in her article.
The Teaching of Contemporary Literature in College Courses
For most of Western history, education meant one thing to aspiring writers wanting to learn their craft: the classics. The study of the ancient poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians and orators of Greece and Rome made up the better part of any lettered person’s curriculum.
This Mediterranean dominance was first seriously broken with the rise of the cult of Shakespeare, the vernacular genius of English literature who was himself mocked in his time for having “small Latin and less Greek.” In the wake of his tremendous and all-encompassing output, English-speaking people finally had a figure they could hold up with pride against Homer or Sophocles.
Similarly, it took a long time before American literature was considered a subject worthy of study -- even in America!
To be sure, founding fathers like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin had captured the notice of the literate world. Noah Webster had codified American English as the unique language of the young republic with his dictionaries. The writers we now consider the pantheon of early American literature (Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, etc.) were all aware of their provincial status compared to the well-established culture of Europe. This comes through clearly in the Old Europe setting of most of Poe’s stories. Even as late as the turn of the last century, our most talented writers of fiction (Henry James) and poetry (T.S. Eliot) both renounced their American identity altogether, fleeing across the Atlantic and becoming British subjects.
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
So said Ernest Hemingway. And by the time American Literature was first truly embraced as an academic subject, after World War II (an event that made the U.S. the dominant world power culturally as well as politically), Hemingway himself had to be included, along with other then-contemporary writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner.
The percentage of Americans who attend college shot through the roof with the post-war G.I. Bill, and has steadily grown higher since. In the meantime, academia became increasingly politicized from the 1970s to 1990s. Multicultural and feminist critiques of “old dead white guys” coming to the fore” and ideas imported (often sloppily) from French deconstructionists making the scholarship coming humanities departments ever more theoretical and impenetrable. The end result was a confused canon, but one that rightly tried to include as many great works as possible from marginalized voices.
Meanwhile, another very different countervailing trend bubbled below the surface. The writing of fiction was taught as a practical fine-arts discipline for the first time, starting at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1936. This MFA-style approach has lately trickled down into classrooms, balancing out the overly political and theoretical approaches with an emphasis on craft.
And that’s where we are today. The Internet, desktop publishing, print on demand and e-books have all served to democratize literature. If anything, our problem today is that practically every reader sees themselves as a writer! If this seems to have some of the potential of a modern-day Tower of Babel, nevertheless it’s a good problem to have.
In the literature classes I’ve taken and taught, I’ve seen so much enthusiasm for the possibilities of contemporary writing, it’s enough to make you want to ignore all the doomsayers babbling about “the end of the book.” Even if bestsellers are largely crap, they probably always were. Today’s literate public is as informed and curious as ever before, and I think this is threatening to some of the traditional gatekeepers. Here’s hoping our college students continue to argue passionately about Franzen and Morrison, DFW and Philip Roth, Fifty Shades of Grey and James Frey...and for that matter, Homer and Sophocles too!
Angelita Williams is a freelance writer and education enthusiast who frequently contributes to onlinecollegecourses.com. She strives to instruct her readers and enrich their lives and welcomes you to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments.