The Devolution of American Lit

by Malcolm Unwell (February 2012)

English class has devolved. It went from the passing on of our rich literary heritage, to its present form; a dumping ground for multiculturalism, self-esteem building, and therapeutic self- expression. Below, I will deal with just one aspect of how English class has been perverted into something other than the serious study of language and literature.

It has been assumed by education bureaucrats, quite erroneously, that minority students will thrive if they see their own cultures reflected in the curriculum. According to this paradigm, we must get rid of about fifty percent of the Western Cannon (which is mostly comprised of dead white-males anyway) and replace it with new material by Hispanic, African American, and Native American authors.

Native Americans account for about 1 percent of the population, so their representation in American Literature textbooks vastly exceeds their proportion of the population. Their input to American Literature does not quite justify this overrepresentation based on literary merit. In fact, there was no written language amongst any Native-American tribe at the point of European contact. The first written representation of a Native American language was a translation of the King James Bible, completed in 1663. It was written as a phonetic version of Algonquin; but in the English language, by John Eliot, a man of Anglo-descent. Other efforts which are considered Native-American lit were actually written by Europeans who spent substantial amount of time amongst various tribes and therefore had the ability to fictionalize elements of those cultures into a narrative.

The politically correct antidote to this state of affairs is to invent a new, self-contradictory term: “oral literature.” Never mind that literature by definition denotes a written document. “Oral literature” sounds much better than “they told stories to each other.” A significant bulk of this “literature” in one current American Literature textbook is comprised of origin-myths of various Native American tribes. These stories do not serve as helpful, useful, or even interesting texts with which to teach or learn. Granted, they may be interesting to anthropologists and other scholars; and they may well be of value to the tribes themselves. But as for students, there is a certain non-linear aspect of these origin myths which makes them almost impossible to follow. Here is a sample of an origin myth from the Modoc, a tribe from Northern California, which is in a current American Lit textbook:

Before there were people on earth, the Chief of the Sky Spirits grew tired of his home in the Above World, because the air was always brittle with an icy cold. So he carved a hole in the sky with a stone and pushed all the snow and ice down below until he made a great mound that reached from the earth to the sky…Then the Sky Spirit took his walking stick, stepped from a cloud to the peak, and walked down the mountain. When he was about halfway down the valley below, he began to put his finger to the ground here and there, here and there. Wherever his finger touched, a tree grew. The snow melted in his footsteps, and the water ran down into the rivers. The Sky Spirit broke off the small end of his giant stick and threw the pieces into the rivers. The longer pieces turned into beaver and otter; the smaller pieces became fish.

Suffice it to say that such myths make poor classroom texts, and that they also serve no particular cultural purpose in learning. If the Bible were to be studied in school as literature, it may be problematic for several reasons; but at least that knowledge would be useful in a student’s comprehension of the abundant literary and cultural allusions to that text. Compared to Native American mythology, Greek mythology is similarly convoluted, if more inventive. It is still widely taught to freshman high school students. But, again, there are abundant references to Greek Mythology in literature, and even in modern psychology, so there is some purpose to studying it. 

If one objects to the idea of text-selection based on racial and gender quotas, he may advance the seemingly obvious proposition that texts ought to be selected on their merit. Then, the relativistic objector may demand, “But who decides the merit?” Their implication being that it is in fact white males who have decided. What is odd, though, is the notion that no judgment of this sort can be considered politically neutral. This must be a recent phenomenon. Would it be so horrible to admit the obvious fact that Western civilization has excelled in literature more so than other cultures?

Included in another current textbook is a poem from Ki no Tsurayuki:

When I went to visit

The girl I love so much

That winter night

The river blew so cold

That the plovers [a type of bird] were crying.

Had this poet presented me with the above as a submission for publication, I would have used his middle name as my monosyllabic response. When you get to the last line, you think…. ‘that’s it?’ Yes, that is the whole poem. Consider that this poem is grouped with a Shakespearean sonnet, as though to imply equivalency:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

Summertime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest [own];

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

            So long as men breathe, or eyes can see

            So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

One need not point out the self-evident contrast between Sonnet 118 and Mr. Tsurayuki’s effort, they speak for themselves. One is the affirmative action poem; the other is the real thing.

The point is certainly not that non-Western cultures have nothing to be proud of in their history, heritage, and perhaps even literary canon. Certainly, other cultures have produced worthy efforts. V.S. Naipaul comes to mind. Even he, though, is a product of an Anglo-education and hence his success tends to provide further evidence for my thesis rather than contradicting it. The point is this: throwing anything into textbooks that happens to have been written by someone “of color” in order to establish racial parity makes all multicultural literature suspect in the eyes of serious readers.       

Malcolm Unwell is an English teacher and writer.  He can be contacted at [email protected]


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