It was with a heavy heart that I saw exam boards wave goodbye to American literature last week. Oh, I know, it’s “literature from other cultures,” but, to be frank, I’ve only ever taught the American contingent of that qualifier, and oh – how great it was.
The government has strenuously denied having “banned” American favourites, such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, from our teaching; yet it cannot be escaped that the new categories for study required from students do not admit for these great texts to be taught. For all the hand-wringing and outcry at exam boards, wondering why they hadn’t been included in surplus, we must also consider: the exams will be harder. They will require different skills, such as navigating in a closed-text scenario. The exam board to direct teachers to teach more texts would not be one chosen by schools with one eye on their standing in the new, and again more rigorous, league tables.
So here we are. And as all the beautiful blogs I have read on this topic have expressed the views I would tend to share in (see below for links), I’ve decided to simply give the American Greats the airing they deserve, never to be taught in an American Literature GCSE coming to no school near you.
Is Miller the American genius? This was the question running through my mind as I watched the Young Vic’s astonishing interpretation of A View from the Bridge last Saturday. For a play described by many as “Greek” in its core themes, it resonated effortlessly. Only an American playwright, though, could so skillfully tap into ideas of identity and acceptance in the era of mass emigration; the wistfulness and disgust at the homeland; the rational and irrational behind romantic love. Miller’s Greek can be seen from his exploration of such taboos as incest and rape. And what of The Crucible? A play so crowded with lust and hysteria, it seems to pelt at the pace of Shakespeare’s best comedies, whilst including high drama, human sacrifice and, indeed, deepest, most touching tragedy.
The first time I read Catcher in the Rye was also the first time I heard an authentic voice in a novel I could really relate to. Holden Caulfield expressed everything I felt, and it is with sadness that I can no longer find that teenage connection when I re-read this slim tome of surprise suffering. Franny and Zooey, on the other hand, continues to endure for me; existential questions, literary questions, psychological and religious questions abound, and all drawn with a realist’s best hand.
Does a young nation inspire youthful literature which attracts young readers? Plath’s obsession with her father and her inner, troubled psychosis are eminently relatable for many a young person. Reading poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”, one can hardly doubt her poetic genius, her ability to clinch an argument on a half-rhyme, and to surprise and delight while disgusting her reader.
The original party-boy writer, whose life-long personal struggles precluded a Hemingway-sized output, but whose approach to writing could never have yielded results if dealt with in so mercenary a fashion. Fitzgerald’s ability to draw what he saw renders his prose so current it can’t ever quite feel historical to me. The 1920s are now; his characters are timeless; his prose like water – flowing, fluid; endlessly quotable.
If ever an author took up every key theme in American literature and made it his business to beat them all into word-shapes, it is the masterly Roth. Each book heaves with the weight of a displaced people, with families torn apart, with humour and despair. His characters dance, and groan as they dance, and yet are never as memorable as the themes.
I have often wondered if I would be more amenable to Faulkner were he a poet. His works require intense concentration and repetitious reading, but that effort can be paid off for the reader. His experimental style can occasionally obscure his message; at times style triumphs over all. And yet… The pathos evoked by Jewel and his horse in As I Lay Dying is, for me, unparalleled in any other novel.
I could go on, of course; and of course most of these authors were never likely to make it onto any syllabus, let alone within the strict confines now laid out by central government. I have already blogged on Of Mice and Men here, and how this text can provide a ready gateway for high achieving students. Looking at my year 12 class’s understanding of Gatsby, I do wonder if they would have had a similar reaction without any grounding in the literature of the USA. After all, this nation pervades our own; it takes over much of the television watched (both by teachers and the young people we educate), and its history draws on our own in very many ways. Our scholars do need to understand the literature of other cultures, and what more fertile ground for understanding than America? So like, and so unlike us; the literature of America can take on melodrama, history, taboo, suffering and humour… And win us to reading.
You should definitely look at these views on the new English curricula: