Looking Back to See
[I’ve also a post today on Free Exchange on Campus, “Thoughts for the New Year,” on faculty responsibility under the umbrella of “academic freedom.”]
Sixty-six years ago, the Athenæum Press of Ginn and Company published Readings for Our Times edited by Harold Blodgett and Burgess James of Union College. As both a cultural historian and a teacher of introductory literature surveys and first-year composition courses, it is interesting to me to look back on college readers of earlier times. Assumptions of value change, and new modes of teaching often require new types of texts–and can be reviewed by a look at what has been cast aside.
The book precedes the split between composition and literature that, I believe, so damages the teaching of both. Perhaps Blodgett and James would agree:
The first business of a college English course—or any other college course, for that matter—is to equip students for the business of living. The immediate objectives of the English teacher are to arose an intelligent interest in good literature and to train students in effective written expression. If these two things are to be taught by the same teacher, and in the same classroom at the same time, they must somehow be so taught as to strengthen each other. (iii)
When we decided that they needn’t be taught together, we somehow also started to assume that they weren’t needed, each by each. That was a mistake. The synergy the editors allude to is quite real, as most composition teachers have discovered, providing stimulus, example, and more.
The editors go on to say that:
It is not essential, even in a composition classroom, that all reading should have a vocabulary limited to words and phrases in common use today. Any intelligent reader can substitute in his own mind a current term for one that is obsolete or obsolescent, and hardly lose momentum as he reads. And it is worth while to be reminded that all contemporary writing which is worth preserving owes a vast deal to writing of the past. (iii)
To me, this sounds extraordinarily contemporary. Until recently, there has been an unspoken assumption (growing from the 1960s on) that we can’t challenge our introductory students overly, in terms of subject matter, style, or vocabulary. Today, many of us see that our students can stretch beyond their immediate experiences and can be trusted to grapple with texts themselves.
What really interests me, when I pick up an old anthology, is the selection. Who, I want to see, has gone out of style? Who remains? Who, ubiquitous today, was once ignored completely? The answer to these questions can tell a great deal about the cultural shifts from one time to another.
Blodgett and James were aware of this, even as they made their selections—and sometimes felt they had to defend themselves:
When critics make their lists of England’s great novelists of recent years, the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [whose “A Study in Scarlet” is included] is likely to be absent. We are reminded of Hardy, Conrad, Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy—indeed England’s greatest. (5).
The first three are still considered “great” (Wells maybe just on the list), but Bennett and Galsworthy and not Forster, Huxley, Waugh, Ford, Lawrence, Maugham,or Greene, all of whom, though younger than Bennett and Galsworthy, were writing successfully before World War II? The question of just why our conception of “great” changes is always intriguing. Satire, sexual intrigue, and suspense, for example, may not have been acceptable parts of the “greats” to the earlier time—though any blanket statement like that, of course, should be met with a great deal of skepticism.
Some of the writers from this book who I rarely see in anthologies today, but miss, are O. Henry, Ring Lardner, Rudyard Kipling, George Ade, Don Marquis, Ogden Nash, Carl Sandburg, Archibald MacLeish, and Sidney Lanier. Many, today, may consider them “lightweights.” I think that’s as much a reaction to past popularity as real analysis of their work. Some who will still be found are Porter, Jewett, Hemingway, Frost, Harte, Parker, cummings, Eliot, Dickinson, and Schwartz. Poor F. Scott Fitzgerald is nowhere to be found. Same with Ezra Pound. And James Joyce… who’s he?
We like to think that we know what is good, and that it is good for all time. What looking back at a volume like this does for me is remind me that taste does change—and that mine has no more permanence or solid grounding than that of any other. I am reading Wilfrid Sheed’s The House that George Built (With a Little Help from Irving, Cole and a Crew of About Fifty) where he posits a golden age of songwriting from the twenties up to the advent of rock and roll. That reminds me of the arguments within the science-fiction community about the genre’s golden age. The combatants finally all gave up, resigned to the truth that ‘the golden age of science fiction is 13.’ Each generation defines new golden ages for its own needs and experiences. To me, the golden age of songwriting is the 1960s when lyrics pushed way past anything the “songbook” writers imagined. But that’s as open to argument as the idea that the Edwardians Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy deserve mention as recent English greats in 1942 while E. M. Forster does not.