When you want to strike up a spirited conversation with a room full of English teachers, start talking about books. I taught English for thirteen years, freshmen through seniors, and had my own favorite texts (Heart of Darkness, Their Eyes Were Watching God), books that my students loved (Gatsby, Frankenstein), and some that seemed to fall in the middle of the Venn Diagram of the two (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
I tended to change up the books I taught from year to year, whether a text worked or not, mostly, I suppose, to keep myself engaged and fresh. I found, through this ongoing experiment, that there was a short list of texts that provided something no other works did. They were works that I couldn’t substitute something else for; something about each made it, to my way of thinking, irreplaceable.
I should pause here, as any English teachers reading are sharpening their knives, to admit that this post is just one foolish fellow’s point of view. It’s almost certainly wrong. Well, at least not the only right way of looking at things. It’s a starting point, however, for a great discussion of curriculum (one probably best done over coffee, or perhaps something stronger, with friends who can disagree without malice. The ability to hold different opinions and to talk about these without coming to fisticuffs is vital for educators, and I suppose humans). So…
Part of what made the three texts I’ll mention “irreplaceable” was the richness of language, part the cultural significance, part the unique power of the story, and part …well, part that magic that a (former) English teacher like me can’t quite quantify.
I love Othello, for instance, but found that I could use Lear or Richard III to achieve a comparable experience.
One of my most rewarding teaching adventures came with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, an astounding book that provided more perspective on 20th century America than almost any other I taught. If push came to shove, however, I might have used works by Toni Morrison or Richard Wright and helped my students experience some of the same magic.
That said, the short list of books I found completely unique:
Hamlet, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey
Hear me out.
Please. This is all in good fun.
It’s not that Shakespeare, Twain, and Homer are the most important writers, nor that these three are the most important works. Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (among others) had sacred spots on my syllabi, but through years of trial and error (and error and error), I found that the title I chose from each mattered less; The Bluest Eye or Beloved, A Room of One’s Own or To the Lighthouse, the powerful point of view of the author shone through.
My evolution as a teacher, for instance, saw me move from teaching The Glass Menagerie to having students perform Tennessee Williams one acts. In both the full length play and the shorter pieces from Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton students experienced what Williams said was the purpose of his writing: “I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual.” When they got to wrestle more intimately with the shorter plays, I felt they understood this theme even more deeply.
I saw this for Shakespeare too. Once, when I was teaching at tiny high school in rural Oregon where my best friend and I were the entire English department, we decided that we’d expose our students to multiple plays by Shakespeare each year. Familiarity, we thought, was the ticket for demystifying the bard.
One of the best moves we made was to teach Macbeth to freshmen and then again to seniors. So seldom do high schoolers have the opportunity to reread texts, particularly longer ones, and so much do kids change from thirteen to seventeen. The experiment was a delight, but the truth is that we just as easily might have chosen As You Like It or Romeo and Juliet. Grand themes of love and power recur in many of the plays, and as with Williams (or Morrison or Conrad or Hurston) more than one option could open a door into the author’s oeuvre.
But then there’s Hamlet.
Elements of Hamlet appear in other plays: the taste of intrigue in Othello, the complicated love of Romeo and Juliet, the politics of Titus. But as a font of cultural significance, comprehensive wisdom, and great poetry, no single work comes close to the story of the brooding Dane.
Act by act, scene by scene, year after year, Hamlet separated itself from any other drama I taught, providing a complexity and richness to my students that continued to amaze me.
Complex and rich, but never easy, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all that Hemingway says of it and more. From the well worn arguments against (and for) the book to the unflinching engagement it invites, this novel more than any other captures the complexity of our country. Past and present, ugly, beautiful, mean, and moral, Huck is America.
I know I did a poor job of teaching Huck for most of my time in the classroom. It’s complexity and subtlety beat my best efforts year after year, and felt tired finishing the book, knowing I didn’t give my students all they deserved from their interaction with the text. Always challenged by its content and language, forever sensitive of Twain’s nuances and my inability to consistently explicate them, I lumped on, always believing I could do better.
And then Ralph Ellison showed me how I might.
My last year teaching Huck, and the only time I really think I got it right, I began my semester with slave narratives (mixing up four with my classes and creating book groups on them), moved to Frederick Douglass, touched on Sojourner Truth, and then introduced the class to Ellison’s Invisible Man. Filled with historical context, and fueled by an ongoing series of mini-lessons on the history of the blues, we read the first half of Invisible Man, got to the explosion in the paint factory, and stopped.
Students tucked Invisible Man away and we read Twain’s novel.
Better put: we laughed, winced, argued, loved and hated our way down the Mississippi. At one point I almost witnessed a fistfight in class.
And as we got to the end of the book and saw Jim’s story conclude, we pulled out those copies of Invisible Man and extended our education. Huck wasn’t really done. Beyond the references in Ellison’s novel, the shadow of Twain’s book loomed over Invisible Man, and the light of Ellison’s flame illuminated Twain’s characters and text.
I’m not saying that my approach was the right one, but it was the right approach for me. I wish for every one of the English teachers I know a similar struggle. I’m convinced that teaching Huck, and figuring out the way I needed to teach it, as difficult as it was, made me a better person.
As individual as one’s relationship with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, each reader’s response to Homer’s Odyssey has the potential to be as unique.
Unlike The Iliad, a brainpan busting war epic, The Odyssey tells the universal tale of finding home. There’s something primal and innately inspiring in the journey. Tennyson, Cavafy, and even Steely Dan riff on the story. Odysseus’ adventures fill our collective consciousness: the cyclops, the lotus eaters, the sirens, Ithaka.
Sure, there are other epics and other characters as large, but Gilgamesh, Aeneas, and even Dante’s Virgil don’t resonate with the same mythic tone or singularity.
And now is the time when you get to say: “No way!”
What about The Great Gatsby? Where is Steinbeck? Austin? To Kill a Mockingbird?
Literature is rich and diverse. Books, beautiful books, spark conversations, connections, debates …and occasionally near fistfights.
My three titles, irreplaceable from my limited point of view, might not be yours.
Which texts, for you, have that one of a kind …something, that no other works have?
Not your favorites, that’s too easy, but what books would make your list of irreplaceable?