- Contemporary Literature AgainVol. 1, No. 3, December 1939
Like Mr. Canby, I do not believe in courses in contemporary literature, and for just the reasons which he advances, namely:
I think that the material is still too untested for satisfactory teaching, and that the very large majority of teachers are not sufficiently in the atmosphere of the writing world to interpret and discriminate in any definite way.
But I am afraid you will not think me very obliging if I merely quote Mr. Canby—you will think I am taking a very easy way of replying to your question.
I have also other reasons. In the first place, most American boys are hurried into active life so early, that even the few who have the possibility of developing literary taste have scarcely time to do so. Unless they read the great English classics in high school and in college, they never find time to read them. And that means that in their maturity they have no background. By "classics" I certainly do not mean rather special things like the works of Sir Thomas Browne or De Quincy, but the great books that still influence the life and thought and standards of the English-speaking peoples. Within the last five years, for example, an amazing number of quotations from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets have been pertinently used in the editorial columns of the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune. In each case the editor used them not to exhibit his knowledge, but to drive home his point. I think we should all, in our school days, be given a chance at Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Jane Austen—coming down as late as Thackeray, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. I don't mean that Macbeth or The Egoist or Henry Esmond can be "taught" at all. I mean that the students can be "exposed," so to speak, to the classics. If the germ "takes," even in very few, it will develop, and give them a great deal of pleasure in life. And those who do not catch the infection will certainly not be at all harmed.
As regards contemporary literature, the work of living authors, I think young people should be allowed to discover for themselves what they like. For young people, half the pleasure of reading new books is in finding them out for themselves. If a boy goes quite wild about a very silly new book, his teacher can never convince him that it is not good. If he finds a really good one out for himself, it counts with him for a great deal more [End Page 123] than if he had been told he must read it. No book can be called a "classic" until it is a hundred years old, surely. How many so-called "classics" have you seen die in your own lifetime, Mr. Johnson? A fine taste for literature is largely a matter of the ear, and is as rare as absolute pitch in music. But a great many boys and girls can enjoy a great play like Julius Caesar because of its relation to life, and they do get something out of the power and beauty of the lines.
While I do not believe that English literature can be "taught" in the sense that Latin can be taught, I know from experience that an instructor who is really steeped in his subject, who loves both literature and life, can, by merely expressing his own honest enthusiasms, or his honest objections, have a great influence on young people. If the English teacher is vain and opinionated, and wishes to astonish his classes by a lot of diagrams and formulae which are supposed to explain to them how Julius Caesar was written, and why Far From the Madding Crowd is a fine novel, he will prejudice his better students against the subject he teaches, and will immensely reinforce the self-satisfaction of the shallow and conceited ones. [End Page 124]