Monday, July 11, 2011
July 11, 2011: The Okay American Novel
I call my teaching philosophy student-centered, and while that means many more things that I can elucidate in this one post, it certainly includes the idea that it’s more important to get students reading critically at all, rather than to worry about precisely what it is that they’re reading. That differentiates me from colleagues who feel that it’s vital to teach certain texts or authors, to make sure that a particular canon (however it’s constituted) remains part of our understanding of American (or any other) literature; while I don’t go nearly as far in the opposite direction as some other colleagues, particularly those in the cultural or pop culture studies camps who have been known to teach English classes in which no creative literature gets read, I would say that for the majority of my students (not the English majors, I hasten to add, but the non-majors who largely populate my survey courses), practicing the skill of critical reading (and other concurrent skills such as analysis, argumentation, and writing) is much more productive than learning about any particular figures or texts.
Yet there’s a difference between an emphasis and a sole focus, and while I do emphasize such student-focused practices, I definitely try to complement them with a group of texts that are to my mind important for them to read, both for their own sake and for the historical, cultural, and other contexts to which they can connect us. In my American Literature II survey, two of the texts we read—and certainly the two most famous and canonical—are Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). There are lots of reasons why I have those novels on the syllabus—and have kept them there through six years of teaching the course—but if I had to boil them down to one each, I might say: Twain’s novel is narrated by one of the most complex and authentic voices in American fiction, that of Huck himself, an authenticity driven home by that youthful and mostly innocent voice’s frequent and discomfiting expressions of racism; and Fitzgerald’s novel represents one of the most poignant and compelling examinations and critiques of America’s ideals and myths, a theme driven home by the lyrical and evocative prose style of its novelist-narrator Nick Carraway. Not coincidentally, those elements also provide many of our best starting points for discussions of the novels—what we make of Huck’s perspective on and relationship with his runaway slave companion Jim; what we do with Nick’s especially lyrical and poetic reflective passages, including the opening and closing ones.
As most of you likely already know, given the prominence (at least for a couple days) that the story received, a well-known Twain scholar is working on an edition of Huck (and its companion text Tom Sawyer) which revises away at least a bit of that discomfiting racism, replacing the novel’s 219 uses of “nigger” with “slave.” Today I read, courtesy of Roger Ebert’s always thought-provoking blog, about an even more aggressive and ridiculous bowdlerization, an edition of Fitzgerald’s novel for basic (and perhaps ESL) readers that clocks in at 67 pages and substitutes for the novel’s lyrical prose the most banal equivalents possible; for example, the novel’s justifiably famous final lines, quoted in full on Ebert’s blog, have been replaced with “Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?” Again, I think there’s significant value in students reading at all, and I suppose it’s possible to engage with Fitzgerald’s themes and ideas despite such a drastic difference in language; but the bottom line is that the resulting text is not Fitzgerald’s novel, just as a version of Huck without the word “nigger” does not represent the novel that Twain wrote and published. If we believe that students should read these texts, we should ask them to read them as they are and as their authors intended; otherwise, there are plenty of other choices.
I suppose this might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, particularly with the Fitzgerald example; the Twain one is less extreme and so perhaps more open to debate, although I do see the two revisions as equally destructive to the original texts. But I think the larger questions, of why and what we ask students to read, and how we can wed a student-centered and practical goal with a sense of the value of particular (and often complicated) works, are far from simple, and get at the heart of much of what literature and teaching, and life, are about. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Ebert on the abbreviated Fitzgerald: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/07/_did_it_seem_to.html
2) An article on the Twain revision, which quotes my Dad: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/40917583/ns/today-books/t/edition-removes-n-word-mark-twain-classics/
3) OPEN: What do you think?