What did you read in high-school English?

Just over three months ago I wrote a post about the pros and cons of my high-school experience. One paragraph, in the list of cons, focused on what my classmates and I read in my English classes:

When I asked why we had never read any American literature, I was told “This is the English Department, not the American Department.” Actually, even that so-called explanation was a lie, as we read plenty of non-English literature (in translation): Homer, Sophocles, Ibsen, and so forth. And, I admit, we did read one tiny amount of American lit, but not any of the great authors you might imagine—we read poems by Jean Valentine as part of AP English, the course which (as I wrote above) made up for it all.

The reference “as I wrote above” was to the first item in the list of pros:

Perhaps most importantly, I learned to write better. This was not so much because of direct instruction but because I was given the freedom to write. In particular, my AP English teacher, Dudley Fitts, often gave us homework that just said “Write something.”

But now I want to return to the issue of what we were required to read, in response to a fascinating article in Commonwealth Magazine, in which Andrew Newman, chair of the English Department at Stony Brook, explores changes—or lack thereof—in “high school classics.” Newman asserts that any American my age or younger had been assigned Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. Actually, Newman hedges his bets by qualifying the list with the phrase “some of,” but never mind that; the issue here is the peculiarity of the list from my point of view. Of course that’s not Newman’s issue, which relates more to multiculturalism and relevance to a diverse student body. At Phillips Academy we had neither multiculturalism nor a diverse student body, but what books were we assigned in English class? Needless to say, my memory is quite hazy after more than half a century, but let’s give it a try. I will limit myself to novels and plays, although we also read a large amount of poetry:

  • I suppose we must start by mentioning Shakespeare. In my case it was Henry IV Part One, Macbeth, and King Lear—not the expected trio, with only one of the three appearing in Newman’s canon.
  • From the same era we had Ben Jonson’s Volpone, which is not in the same league as Shakespeare’s plays but definitely enjoyable and worth reading.
  • Going back to an earlier author we come to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which we read in the original Middle English! Modern English translations are for wimps.
  • Moving forward again, Thomas Hardy comes next to mind—one of my least favorite authors. We had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Only the last of these was palatable, IMVHO.
  • Despite the crack about “This is the English Department,” we have a whole host of ancient Greek writers who permeated our English curriculum. I enjoyed all of them. In junior and senior year we read Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Aristophanes’s The Birds and The Clouds, and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.
  • Oh yes, there was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Not truly English, but never mind. I suppose he was an honorary Englishman.
  • And what about Ibsen? Not even honorarily English, but I loved his plays. We read A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder. Wow!

Memory starts to become even hazier now. I know there were others, and I’ll probably think of some right after I post this. But even an incomplete list gives you the right flavor: lots of novels and plays, almost all English, definitely nothing American. What do you think?

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning