Michael Gove plans to remove Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird from school reading lists, in favour of Dickens and Austen. It’s certainly a mistake to abandon American literature – but which US classics deserve a place in our classrooms?
Cynics will, of course, hear an echo of President Esposito in Woody Allen’s Bananas. “From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.” From now on, decrees Michael Gove, the official literature of England will be English literature.
Gove has harped on this chauvinistic string for some time now. As he told his party conference, on assuming office: “The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.” (His indifference to Scottish literature is odd for someone who went to an Aberdeen private school.)
He has expressed a personal distaste for John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Some 90% of exam candidates answer on it, we’re told. Gove clearly sees it as contaminated with the ideological prejudices of the left-leaning teaching profession. It’s a novella set in a recession, about two migrants on zero-hours contracts. In short, it’s a work of fiction propagandising for Roosevelt’s New Deal and “social security” – those welfare dragons Iain Duncan Smith is endeavouring to slay. To Kill a Mockingbird, another title on the Gove blacklist, makes a collateral fictional push for the 1964 American civil rights bill. Arthur Miller’s Crucible (it too will go) is an allegory about McCarthyism.
These texts are, Gove thinks (quite rightly), loaded, and he doesn’t think the ideological baggage they’re carrying is entirely relevant for British schoolchildren. It’s an honest opinion.
My own honest opinion is that American literature should be as prominent on the British syllabus as British literature is on the American syllabus. And what should be highlighted in the texts for the British classroom is what William Carlos Williams called that unique “American grain”. What, then, would be the best 10 prescribed works?
Why not kick off with Williams, to get the target in sight. Historically the starting point of American literature is Anne Bradstreet. All American literature, said the modern poet John Berryman, pays “homage to Mistress Bradstreet”. It marks a difference between British and American literature from the start that the New World’s founding figure is a woman.
Bradstreet was born in England in 1612. Her family was part of the Puritan “Great Migration” – under religious persecution – to “New England”. Both her father and her husband would go on to be governors of Massachusetts. Bradstreet, meanwhile, was charged with running the family farm. She did it well. But she was something much more than a competent farmer’s wife and the mother of his children.
The Puritans believed that daughters should be as well-educated as sons. Bradstreet was intelligent, extraordinarily well read and herself an ambitious writer. She wrote poetry as a spiritual exercise – an act of devotion – rather than for any fame, current or posthumous. Her poems tend to be short. Her life was too busy for long works.
Bradstreet’s poems are quintessentially of the New World – as the Puritans saw America. Take, for example, her poignant Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666:
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.
It was His own, it was not mine …
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
It’s a traditional Puritan sentiment: this world is of no real consequence – what matters is the world to come. But what one hears is an entirely new voice – an American voice, moreover the voice of an American “making” the new country. Bradstreet and her husband had built the house, now in ashes; they would, of course rebuild; America is a country constantly rebuilding America.
So: second on the syllabus, Mistress Bradstreet. Out of Puritanism came transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson is too dense and Moby-Dick too bloody long. Ideal would be Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a novel about a “negro barber” shaving his white master – he is a servant but also that razor, and the barber himself, is a “cut-throat”. Melville’s work (hugely readable) allegorises the complex, post-civil war relationship of white and black.
Benito Cereno should be read alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the novel which takes up Uncle Tom’s Cabin and shakes all the sentimentality out of it, leaving a core of still blazing racial rage.
Walt Whitman, the self-declared disciple of Emerson, embodies another aspect of the transcendental tradition: its sense that “freedom”, in all its many facets, is the essence of all American ideology, including poetic ideology. In Whitman’s case, it took the form of “free verse” – poetry unshackled from rhyme, as the country itself had thrown off the shackles of colonialism in its war of independence against the British in 1776.
American literature thinks big. But it also has the ability to fashion greatness out of the simplest materials. You just have to dangle a verse of Emily Dickinson‘s in front of a class to make them want more. For example:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
A powerful and defining impulse in American literature of the 19th and 20th century is the “frontier thesis” – the idea that the essential quality and worth of Americanness is most clearly demonstrated in the struggle to push civilisation westward, from “shining ocean to shining ocean”.James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans) is an early exemplar. Virtually every cowboy novel and film springs from the same frontier thesis root. It’s also a novel about genocide and ends with that melancholy proclamation: “The Pale Faces are masters of the earth, and the time of red-men has not yet come again.”
The western is one of the few genres one cannot credit to the authorEdgar Allan Poe, father of science fiction, “horror”, and the detective story, notably The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
So, to sum up: what makes American literature American? Is it the Puritan heritage, the constant battle to extend the frontier, the geographical and ethnic diversity, the aspiration for newness and greatness, the belief in America which underlies even denunciations of capitalist America, as in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (include that, by the way,) or the creative life it puts into “low” genres?
Yes; all of these things. But there is something else, even more important. Ernest Hemingway put his finger on it when he proclaimed: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” What is definitive, Hemingway contends, is “voice”: what Twain himself called dialect. You hear it in Huck’s first sentence:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
There is an American idiom which only American literature fully captures. The detective story writer Raymond Chandler, who gave great thought to the subject, called it “cadence”. Huck Finn is currently unteachable because of its profuse (219) use of the n-word. Hemingway’s own fiction bears out his point about the American idiom but the novel which, for me, most perfectly voices the modern American idiom is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Read (and “hear”) its first sentence:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
How, in a word, would one describe the distinctive sound of that voice? The word, surely, would be “American”. Quintessentially American.
Gove has specifically prescribed more of that David Copperfield kind of crap and more of Austen’s exquisite literary carvings on her two inches of ivory. Well and good. But let’s hear it for the US in the classroom as well.
John Sutherland’s 10 US novels for GCSE students
In the American Grain (William Carlos Williams)
Selected Poems (Anne Bradstreet)
Benito Cereno (Herman Melville)
Beloved (Toni Morrison)
Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman)
Selected Poems (Emily Dickinson)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe)
The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper)
Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)
The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)
John Sutherland is the author of A Little History of Literature (Yale University Press, 2013)