In my sophomore year at Keene State College I took Eng 253, American Literature. Because I save everything, I still have most of my notes, tests and papers from that class; because I now teach literature, I am interested in what I learned then; and because the academy’s approach to the subject has changed since 1979, I am curious about what I was taught.
The instructor, Professor Richard E. Cunningham, was a stickler. He served as dean of the college a few times, and he was a scholar of the old school – according to the syllabus, he would flunk you if you missed more than three classes. I vividly remember that when I skipped class to circulate the student newspaper one week, upon my return he gave me an icy stare.
About that syllabus: It was one page, a list by class date of the authors we would discuss and dates of tests (what he called “examinations”). That was it. Oh, and we had to write one 5- to 7-page paper only vaguely mentioned at the bottom.
But what a list it was. We read five novels: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. (I should say 4.5, because I never made it all the way through Elmer Gantry.)
That was not all. There was poetry: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
William Carlos Williams was at the bottom of the syllabus and got crossed off. Even the toughest professors sometimes don’t get to everything.
My class notes are detailed, fairly neat, with only occasional doodles. Cunningham introduced each author with some contextual information and a brief biography. “Eliot was conservative; man must control his feelings – unbridled emotions are evil,” I wrote. Edna St. Vincent Millay “was flip in public – a pose” and “fits into this advanced feminist world” of the 1920s and 1930s. Willa Cather’s books “dealt with rugged character of pioneers, mostly immigrants[,] then began to write about the past.” They were “a conservative response to the times she lived in.”
Cunningham was erudite; he could talk about anything; I don’t remember him reading from notes, as some professors did. Some of the names he dropped, such as Joseph Wood Krutch, I had heard of, but others, like Frederick Lewis Allen, I jotted in the margins to look up later.
Even when he gave me an A, there was always a “but.” The review sheet for one test listed 11 possible areas we would be expected to discuss, in four essays and more than a dozen short answers.
Here are some examples: “Discuss the East-West motif in Gatsby.” “Discuss the view of the South in The Sound and the Fury; how does Faulkner depict the Southerners?” “Show [the] thematic function of three allusions in The Waste Land.”
My paper was on Faulkner’s Sartoris. Only the rough draft has survived: “In Sartoris, Faulkner’s third novel, he uses the character of Byron Snopes to contrast the changing role [sic] of the Southern male and female and how the old chivalric ideals of Southern romance have been debased.”
Most of the class discussion was thematic, but we were expected to have a command of such terms as naturalism, realism, and imagism, and figurative language such as metonymy, synecdoche, simile and metaphor.
Here are some American writers we did not read: the Southern writers that I loved, including Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Any writers of color, including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
If anyone had questioned Dr. Cunningham’s selections, his response probably would have been that he selected the most influential writers since 1900 (in fact, the class had a discrete time period that I’ve forgotten).
That they were, in fact, probably the same writers he had studied at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s did not concern him. In fact, a revolution was taking place right under our noses but you would not have known it – influential writers like Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Erica Jong were on best-seller lists, not syllabi.
I do not condemn Dr. Cunningham for his choices, however. His approach could have been broader, but it could have been worse (he at least had some women in there).
While he could have explored Faulkner’s attitudes toward race further, he did not shy away from the racial and feminist themes in any of these works.
He noted “Hemingway’s treatment of women as mindless,” the anti-Semitism of Jason in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s romanticization of the black servant Dilsey as “anti-intellectual,” natural, an idealization.
My approach to a similar introductory literature course isn’t perfect either. I include far more women and writers of color than Cunningham did, including Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, and Julia Alvarez. But I’m still teaching many white 20th-century writers, including Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Theodore Roethke, and Eugene O’Neill. (And I always leave room for William Carlos Williams.)
Some of these texts are problematic. Faulkner and O’Connor use derogatory terms for black people as a matter of course; Faulkner, as part of his realism, O’Connor satirically. But should we subject students to these words, even when foregrounded with context? Other writers, including Roethke, have been criticized for ignoring race altogether.
Each semester I ask my students what they think. I introduce them to the idea of the Western canon, and then ask them to evaluate the works on the syllabus. Their answers are not the only criterion for what I include the following semester, but they are taken into account.
These introductory literature courses are like overstuffed suitcases. What do we absolutely need to bring on this trip? What did we leave home last time? How have our needs changed?
The instructor still needs to pack in all those literary terms and “isms” while exposing students to as many writers as possible. The suitcase always feels too heavy to carry. But each time we unpack it, we learn a little bit more about what it should include – and what to leave home next time.