- Brave New Worlds: How Literature Will Save the Planet by Elizabeth Ammons
Three years after she ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on television, Sinead O’Connor released her single, “Famine,” a listing of the British Empire’s offences against the Irish. Many of us watching her had studied Irish history, but her monotone hip-hop delivery was spectacularly different than what we read about in books. This was deeply personal, barely emotionally restrained, furiously offensive, and socially conscious. My feminist roommate and I were riveted. It was that semester I decided to drop my plan for the language intensive in Germany and complete my study abroad in Ireland so I could explore O’Connor’s list of repressions, which the Irish, by the way, are not afraid of displaying throughout the streets of Dublin, on the sides of buildings, on billboards, and even on their bodies through tattoos. One undergraduate’s study abroad choice likely would not have happened had it not been for O’Connor’s delivery. The reason is that activism is compelling. It is immediate and loud. It provides fodder for politicians and personal narratives. It can even change the way resources are spent at an undergraduate institution. And, as Elizabeth Ammons details in her text, Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet, activism has been a consistent subject in American literature and culture, connecting ranges of gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. Ammons argues that activism, although present in theory and discussion, should move from the text to an actual active addressing of global inequities since one may not exist as a critic in suggestion alone. Five expertly researched chapters outline the activist tradition in American literature and call for humanists to unify their goal moving from writing about literature to the “collective struggle to achieve social justice and restore the earth” (xi).
Secondary classroom teachers today will encounter students whose prior schema has been shaped less by texts such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and more by Twilight and The Hunger Games. The twenty-first century [End Page 167] student’s knowledge of the activist tradition may very well be linked more to a New York Times bestseller than an actual event in history. The traditional Western canon in the English classroom is still the center of curriculum and instruction, and unless students are within a curriculum that highlights nonfiction, their exposure to recent activism through the medium of literature will likely be limited. Ammons’s text argues for the need for greater exposure to social and environmental activism by choosing texts that allow current students access to issues in nonfiction that will compel them to echo Thoreau’s claim: “I would remind my countrymen that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour” (63). This seems to be Ammons’s indirect thesis, that as readers we should look less at form and more at our ethical obligation to relate these texts to direct social inequities. Expression should be a consequence of a call for change, not a mere theme within a text. Ammons’s theory is that these elements have been present in our texts for many years and that since they are already within our content, our focus must be the next step: an active addressing of these problems that still persist well into the twenty-first century.
One snag with an agenda such as this is how exactly we as feminist teachers can engage activism within the literature without an override of the rich-with-conflict canon, the germ of Western expression. One’s response to the text and the subsequent assignments that grow from the socially-conscious mind of the twenty-first century reader would provide a more palatable introduction to real activism so that there may be a merging of the canon with progressive, ethical classroom thought. In great detail and with impressive research Ammons outlines the history of social justice in literary texts ranging...