Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Death to Lit

I don't know that I'd call it an epiphany, some moment that open heavens of meaning and purpose, but it certainly was a discovery that left me stunned.  There it was--and is--in a novel no human beings read anymore, a novel by Ms. Ruth Suckow, who was born just down Hwy. 10, in Hawarden, IA, where her father was a preacher in what might, back then, be called a non-denominational church.  

It's an incidence that sticks with me, I suppose, because it's so hard to believe.  In that novel, young people from town--a town not unlike Hawarden--enjoy Sunday afternoon picnics out in the country. They pack a lunch, get the wagon ready, jump in, and take Ralph Waldo Emerson along to read to each other somewhere out in some cottonwood grove somewhere beneath the indigo skies .  Emerson.  Emerson for fun. Teenagers reading Emerson for kicks, circa 1910. 

I believe it because she says it, and I believe so much of what she says in The John Wood Case.  I believe her presentation of life in a place like Hawarden in a county like Sioux. Ruth Suckow is almost a contemporary of another novelist, a man from just up the road to the north, Frederick Manfred, whose stories of Siouxland covered vastly different ground peopled by much different folks.  Manfred's young people did not read Emerson out in the country on Sabbath afternoons; they didn't go on Sunday picnics at all, and if they got out into the country, they did so on the sly.  What's more, when they got there, they made whopee.  

Manfred's teenagers were the children of people who worked harder than anyone else in the territory.  When Sunday came, the community rigidly enforced a Sabbitarian code that consisted basically of two legit activities: church and sleep. Sunday was, after all, the day of rest.  Even if they wanted to, they couldn't have headed off into the country for a round of Emerson's essays; such frolicking would have been sinful, even without Emerson, even without making babies.

But I'm reminded of that little Suckow aside in The John Wood Case because of an article in the Wall Street Journal as a contribution to a cultural dialogue about the place of the humanities in higher education, a dialogue that began, in part, because of a high profile study that showed fewer and fewer students were studying traditional humanities subjects like English, history, and art.  

It's true.  When I started teaching in college, my American lit survey courses enrolled nearly a hundred students most semesters because the class was required for graduation.  These days at Dordt College, American Literature I is lucky to get any more than a dozen enrollees, and it's offered only once every two years. The only kids taking it are majors; and they're numbers are numbered, believe me.

Some lament that kind of change, teary-eyed. Others wave it off.  Lee Siegel's WSJ article says good riddance to college English classes, not because he hates literature--that's clearly not true--but because, he says, nothing killed literature faster than making it the stuff of a college curriculum, a sure way, he says, to "extinguish the incandescence of literature."  Siegel would have loved Suckow's young people reading Emerson on their own, the way in which literature should be experienced--or so he says.
But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
Siegel's not all wrong, even though I'll dolefully admit that his basic argument makes chopped liver of the last 40 years of my life. I have absolutely no doubt that some students in my classes found literature something akin to cod liver oil as they examined symbols and motifs in D. H. Lawrence in long, boring critical papers written so late at night the only other people awake were cops and donut makers.  

Furthermore, what everyone knows is that the cost of higher education is itself an inducement to major in fields that'll actually earn enough of a salary to pay back the monstrous loans it took to get them the education. I remember writing out a check for my last semester in college--$700. Unbelievable. How can we expect people who accumulate thousands of dollar worth of debt to major in art history?  

Is it any wonder people abandon majors like English?  Besides, as Siegel says, most English majors from the last forty years don't teach English anyway--they end up in all kinds of other professions.  

Still, I'd be a little happier as I move into my dotage if I knew there were, here and there, young people willfully carting some contemporary Emerson along on their outings--or at least something a little more substantive on thier iPads than the Twilight Series or something brimming with superheroes.  

Maybe I'm just getting owly. 

Look, Siegel may be right, but if I could do it all over, I wouldn't change a bit.  

So there, Siegel.  

By the way, did you know that today is the anniversary of Emerson's "Divinity School Address" at Harvard? It's an great story, and a fascinating essay.  

It's your assignment for tomorrow.

That'll kill it for sure.


Jesse said...

Seems to me that the value of an appreciation of literature is priceless, and English majors in other professions shine the light of clear communication and eloquence in those dark places. If learning English was only for the purpose of teaching it, THAT would be the sad situation. Competent communicators with a strong understanding of the underpinnings of our culture are needed in our society more than ever.

Rietje Kim said...

I would totally take Emerson on a picnic!