Monday, March 25, 2024

Shooting the Canon

In a class I'm taking on writing, the discussion of the literary canon came up, and the idea that classics are classics because they have stood the test of time with their superior craft and universal characters and themes. As an English teacher for over twenty-five years, it's been a constant struggle to diversify the curriculum and get authorization to assign readings, especially novels, that aren't the "canonical" white male authors. Even when I've taught in schools where the majority of students were of color, there's always some pushback. To be sure, some of it is just resistance to change, as well as a concern for the maturity of the content and themes that young students read. That's always been an issue, and even more now that parents, and somehow non-parents alike, are storming school board meetings across the country to challenge texts they don't like. At best, the argument usually relies on the fact that the old reliables like The Scarlet Letter are already proven to be superior examples of writing and have been tested for content by years of students reading them, where a novel like Beloved is considered less worthy because it's style is "modern" and full of "slang," and contains subjects that parents might not want their children exposed to, like slavery and sexuality.

But the reality is that no matter how good the writing or how "safe" the content, novels by authors of color still tend to get rejected. One argument I had to personally deal with is that we don't have time to read everything, and while it would be nice to diversify the curriculum, these "classics" are too important to get bumped for what amounts to an interesting beach read. Aside from discussing how important representation is, the fact that my students and my own children need to see themselves in positives roles in novels in order to become lifelong readers, I'd like to make the case that classics like The Scarlet Letter are neither as innocent nor as well-written as we'd like to think.

First, all of us have seen the "gotcha" reels where some YouTuber will stun one of the crusaders at the school board. They'll get them monologuing that a book should be pulled from shelves because of some racial, violent, or sexual content, even going so far as to call the writer, teacher, and librarian nasty names. Then they hit the complainer with a passage from the Bible that's far more graphic than the one they want pulled. Invariably, the crusader always fumbles to find a reason why the novel has to go but the Bible has to stay. This is the same argument I see with the classics. Somehow, by virtue of its age or the brilliance of its prose, novels like The Scarlet Letter gets a pass on content. Granted, there are moments of sexuality and violence in Beloved, but they're certainly not graphically depicted. In fact, some go right over the average high school student's head, and many teachers who dare to teach Beloved just watch those scenes fly away without addressing them. Similarly, we somehow find a way to gloss over the fact that The Scarlet Letter is a story about Reverend Dimmesdale grooming, seducing, impregnating, and then abandoning Hester Prynne. 

In terms of writing ability, the assumption by many English teachers and curriculum coordinators is that The Scarlet Letter is an impeccable work of prose (mainly because it's old?) and Beloved is harder to read, what with it's dialect, slang, and "modern" sense of craft. I might just be getting old, but I'm realizing more and more that what passes for craft in the classics often wouldn't make it past the slush pile on the desks of today's literary agents and editors. With so many aspiring writers, the bar for what makes good prose is extremely high these days. Ask me how I know. 

But in fairness, let's compare the first paragraphs of both The Scarlet Letter and Beloved

First, The Scarlet Letter:

"A THRONG of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

"The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers[52] of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King’s Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him."

I'm not saying that the writing is terrible here, although there are parts of the novel that are clunky and confusing. I do enjoy the novel, but the verb phrases are almost all either linking verbs or passive voice. The sentences are very long and flowery, with some strong imagery, but sometimes hard to follow for the same reasons.

One the other hand, consider Beloved's first paragraph:

"124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them."

The sentence structure is more intentionally varied, with very short sentences giving the reader some rest in between long ones. Even the long ones don't meander the way that Hawthorne's do. The final sentence, one of the longest, uses clear parallelism to hold the reader's attention and make sense of the flow of words. 

These two novels have a lot in common. Both historical novels and both based on an actual person, but fictionalized. Both novels center on a woman struggling with what it means to love her children, to love a man, and to love herself. Both evoke discussions of sex, power, and abuse. Both contain supernatural elements, especially pertaining to children. But because of this idea of the canon, because certain stories are elevated despite the fact its flaws and some are denigrated despite their greatness, one gets taught widely as an exemplar of American lit, and the other is contested as a type of genre fiction at best, and a crime against young readers at worst.

We have to confront the biases that force the one story on our students and relegate the other to the recesses of the library, or maybe the AP Lit classes, if not removed from schools altogether. Granted, any student can choose to read Beloved on their own. But by refusing to teach the novel, and others by minority authors, we're saying that these stories are not worth studying, discussing, and celebrating. In fact, we're saying the same about many of our students' lives and stories.