In the midst of sixteen years of schooling, including four years at college, many readers find themselves weary and unenthusiastic when it comes to reading for required literature courses. This exhausted reaction may be attributed to continual re-assignments of classic works of fiction throughout the years.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men are all commonly taught pieces of literature high school and college students can expect to see on one or more syllabi throughout their educational duration.
While each of these repetitious assignments is culturally relevant and artistically crafted, eagerness subsides and questions begin to develop regarding who authorizes which texts have enough merit to be taught. With an endless array of richly-engaging texts, high school teachers and college professors frequently manage to choose primarily the same novels to teach to their classrooms. Ironically, the word ‘novel’ literally means new, yet academia continues to use the old. Students young and old often have read the same novels as one another during their time in school.
Some of the most popular novels teachers monotonously include in their syllabi every year include Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these famous American novels is centered on major moral American downfalls or notorious scandals in the United States.
For example, Twain’s regionally-guided text has gained academic popularity and canonized literary status because of the author’s use of derogatory slang and the memorably picaresque adventures of his adolescent, morally-ambiguous protagonist. Yet, the most intriguing element of Twain’s text lies beneath the mischievous actions and presence of blatant racial slurs during the 19th century. Huck’s older confidant Jim juxtaposes well with the young Huck, and their relationship is memorable, signifying why many teachers continue to utilize this exciting and morally-relevant journey down the Mississippi River.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, one of the most popular novels in all of literature, contains a high, but accessible level of symbolism and epitomizes the ubiquitous and unparalleled popular attraction to the American dream. Set during the recognizably money-hungry era of the Roaring Twenties, it dictates the eventual fall of the stock market, the legal implementation of Prohibition and the glitz and glamour of flappers and socialites.
Fitzgerald’s American classic pinpoints the life of a self-made man, Gatsby, and his eventually fatal downfall. Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby attracts many teachers and professors because of its classic conflict between moral values and greedy capitalism, its purely American-driven themes and its ironic twists and turns.
Perhaps as popular as Fitzgerald’s tour de force, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has become a reliable staple of educational literature taught in classrooms across the country. First published in 1960 and winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, To Kill a Mockingbird reminds its readers of the disgusting, inhumane nature of bigotry. The story provides a compassionate hero in one of the most memorable characters in literature, Atticus Finch. Lee’s unforgettable novel demands compassion while tragically narrating the violent rippling effects of racism. Its glowing theme reminds readers of the true meaning behind humanity.
Regardless of their merit, some students and tuition-paying parents may still wonder why the same highlighted, note-ridden pages of literature find their ways in thousands of backpacks every year. These novels include Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. It is an issue of power and authority, and the answer lies in the elusive, but omnipresent canon of literature in American academics.
While there are anthologies and lists of works arguing the merit of certain novels, there is not a specifically-designated, singular group collectively deciding which books are included and which are exiled. Who dictates whether students will read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or whether Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God contains enough literary value for academic instruction? This group of literary authorities is comprised of significant members of academia, publishers and occasionally parents.
A shared thread runs through many of the commonly taught pieces of literature. Like all pieces of art, literature is bound in history. This country’s biography is deeply rooted in strict, moral codes of religion, specifically Protestantism. It should be no surprise then that a majority of our famous works deal with major moral decadence and moments of ethical indifference. The protagonists lose their moral compass and must find their way back to the ethical avenue.
At the heart of each of these commonly taught novels lies the critical reason why teachers across the country choose to constantly assign these masterpiece novels: morality and the hope for an eventual ethical epiphany in the reader.