As a teacher of creative writing and English, I constantly question my decisions about what to have my students read. Do they really need to read the classics, or should they simply to be aware of them? Are the classics truly the instruments of power that some politicized critics claim, or are they truly the greatest works of literature ever written? That matter is decided for me, at least on a practical level, by the course of study for 12th grade English, so we spend the year traversing “Beowulf,” the Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Matthew Arnold, and DH Lawrence. In my creative writing classes, however, those questions are more pronounced for different reasons, and there I lean in my curricular decision-making toward William Faulkner’s advice, “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” If these young people are to be the writers of the future, what kinds of readings will be indispensable to them? For that answer, I have to attempt to look to the future, to what literary progress – in the light of literary tradition – might mean and to examine what exactly it is that am I trying to teach them.
Recently, I was re-reading some critical comments by Albert Murray that address this subject. If you’ve never read anything by Albert Murray, you ought to. I will admit immediately that I was ignorant to his work for a long time, even though I have focused so much energy on learning about the history, culture and people of the state of Alabama. Murray, who was born in 1916 and raised in south Alabama near Mobile, fell in my lap when Fred Whitehead, who wrote the foreword for The Life and Poetry of John Beecher, mailed me a copy of From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure and American Identity, completely unsolicited, just because he thought I would enjoy it.
In From the Briarpatch File, the second chapter, titled “Context and Definition,” was derived from a 1997 award-acceptance speech and has Murray’s comments on how, despite being an African-American writer coming of the age in the 1930s, the black writers that he found in Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology had not inspired him nearly so much as works by “great” writers like Joyce, Proust, Malraux, et al. that he encountered in college readings. Murray discovered the then-relatively new anthology in 1934 as a high school junior, while looking for a piece to recite in his school’s oratory contest. However, where a reader might assume that Locke’s culturally and historically significant book would impress a young Albert Murray by connecting to the ideas and emotions of a young Southern black man of that time, instead Murray carries the discussion in another direction. Explaining why other writers secured a more significant place in his consciousness and regarding the matter of what makes for truly great literature, he writes:
You, of course, know that the ambition to produce world-class literature involves the matter of processing or stylizing idiomatic folk and pop particulars, which is to say extending, elaborating and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art. (9)
Murray could easily have been swayed toward literature that spoke directly to his personal situation, and thus away from “great” literature, but he noted that his recognition of greatness is derived from something larger that similarity to his own personal circumstances.
Then, in the next chapter of the book, titled “Academic Lead Sheet,” which is derived from a 1978 Honors Convocation speech given at Howard University, Murray reminds his listeners that the most “successful,” educated and dedicated among them are indeed an “elite” – however out of favor that term may be – and that the purpose of an elite is not to amass an impressive GPA but to lead the way to positive change, to utilize their abilities to affect a better world. I think his point is particularly appropriate for writers, including student writers. He notes that, in the late 1970s, being a “revolutionary” is a very popular thing to be, but he also offers a caveat:
But the primary concern of revolution is not destruction but the creation of better procedures and institutions. All too often being a rebel means only that you’re against something. Whereas being a revolutionary should mean that you are against something because you are for something better. Indeed primarily because you’re for something better. (18)
About a page later, in the same chapter, he adds: “The intellectual’s very first step should represent an effort to approach life in universal terms” (19). Yes, it is possible to be both of the institution – receiving an establishment education – and working to change the institution for the better. In fact, it is more than possible; aligning his ideas with WEB DuBois’ “Talented Tenth,” Murray proposes that the most capable among us should lead people to genuinely improved living conditions, which is done by understanding not only the current, localized conditions, but the larger, more universal human condition. In the case of writing and reading, this awareness of universality has to be present.
What I like about Albert Murray’s critical writings is that hard-nosed optimism and his definite stance on the greatness of “great” literature. He always seems to be telling us, Hell no, it isn’t easy to look around and not given in to sorrow, but we can’t do that. We’ve got to do better than that. Murray’s ideas come to me periodically, when I am thinking about what it means to teach twenty-first-century teenagers about writing and literature, especially when I am trying to convince them that canonical works have achieved that status through a process of constant, vigorous engagement and re-evaluation by critics and scholars.
Two notions that often don’t bode well with a modern teenage audience are: to stop complaining about the difficulties in order to focus on completing the task and learning from it, and to utilize that capacity for incessant questioning to achieve positive impacts rather using it simply thwart the efforts of some authority figure. Using Murray’s terms, being a “rebel” is easy enough and common enough, but being a “revolutionary” is something altogether different. I often retort to my students’ plaintive remarks by saying, Now that you’ve told me what you don’t want, tell me what you do want.
On probably a daily basis, some student talks to me about what isn’t fair, what is too hard, or what seems pointless, often in regard to some classic work of canonical literature. The complaints that I hear are common enough. According to a 2006 study by the Gates Foundation, 47% of dropouts cited their lack of interest in their classes and 69% “were not motivated to work hard.” However, in that same study, 81% understood that graduating was “important to success in life,” and 74% would not have dropped out if they had it to do over. Again, Albert Murray’s ideas come to mind. Someone – whether in any student’s life it is a teacher or a parent or whoever – is not looking these kids in the eye and saying, Yes, life is hard to understand, but everything we are teaching you really does relate to you. Too often, I hear the kinder, gentler version, where adults coax students into wanting to succeed, where we trick them with mind games into jumping just one more hurdle in the hopes another adult will coax them past just one more hurdle . . . The problem with that is: too many students learn to regard education as a series of pointless hurdles on the way to a “piece of paper” and never seen the universality in what they are being taught, namely that the hurdles never stop coming. Never. Dropping out may be an option for high school, but it is not an option in life. Which is why I teach literature and writing the way I do.
Albert Murray wrote that timeless works of literature “represent an effort to approach life in universal terms.” Trying to teach modern teenagers about Anglo-Saxon literature, for instance, requires a teacher “to approach life in universal terms.” The teacher of class literature must tell the students, So you’re 17 or 18 years old and you wish didn’t have to read “Beowulf”? Well, those people 1300 years ago who struggled against brutal cold and the constant threat of death from many sources were just like us in many ways – afraid of the dark, trying to explain the unexplainable, and waiting for a hero to save them. Or take The Canterbury Tales, whose “Prologue” mimics our modern world in so many ways – take, for example, the self-righteous and arrogant bourgeois Guildsmen who believe that their money entitles them to be better than other people. Albert Murray wrote about the “blues idiom” of the “briar patch,” an ethic of joyfully (and sometimes sorrowfully) darting and weaving around life’s many brambles and tar-pits . . . which sounds an awful lot like Chaucer’s characters, or like Rabelais’ famous quote: “For all your ills, I give you laughter.” To learn from canonical literature, students have to be taught “to approach life in universal terms.”
However, when I take such a strong socio-historical approach to teaching literature or writing, somewhere in the back of my English-major brain, I hear the formalists telling me, Stick to the text! Don’t bring in all that baggage! And that is where the “revolutionary” in me replies, No. I want to take my students somewhere better than finishing my course with little more than a rough recollection of those formalist explication exercises that the English teacher made me do. I beg my students to see themselves in the every reading, but still they fight me.
In my creative writing classes, whenever we read “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, students’ vapid objections to true engagement circle around an insistence that they can’t identify, because their own fathers have never burned down anyone’s barn and never tracked horse shit on the landlord’s white rug. That isn’t the point, I tell them – what would it be like to know that choosing to doing the right thing would mean that your father, no matter how cruel and objectionable he may be, would likely be either arrested or killed, leaving your family without a provider? Hell no, it isn’t easy to look around and not given in to sorrow, but we can’t do that. In the end, Sarty makes the choice to do the right thing, and as we leave him, knowing that his father is likely dead, he is exhausted and all alone as the sun is coming up.
Those brief chapters in From the Briarpatch File, taken from speeches given about twenty years apart, provide me with a range of lessons that I want my students to learn, chief among them that anything worth having is worth working for, that true leaders move people in positive directions, and that the value of truly great literature is found in its discussions of universal human truths, not in its resemblance to our own lives. After this holiday break, my 12th grade English students will take exams, then get into the Renaissance, during which we will begin to study works like Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins,” which resembles their lives very much in substance and content, even if not in diction and style, and and William Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” one of the greatest existential guilt-ridden backstabbing stories of all time.
Also in From the Briarpatch File, in his chapter “Art and Such,” derived from an address given in 1994 to the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Murray again insists that literature that could be considered “fine art” is directly tied to the “human consciousness.” He differentiates “folk art,” which he defines as art produced by people with the lowest levels of training and skill but which may nonetheless have some appeal, from “pop fare” and at the top, “fine art,” those “aesthetic statements” that represent the best that humanity is capable of. This idea of universality and refinement of style smacks of the ideas expressed by Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, in which he explains why William Shakespeare is the best writer of all time. Like Bloom who decries politicizing literary criticism and who warns against using criteria other than aesthetic skill as the measure of quality, Murray seems to take a similar stance, wondering out loud whether some writers are accepted for different reasons – presumably cultural or political agendas – than actual artistic skill. He states, to end his remarks:
If any of this sounds the least bit elitist to any of you, ask yourself if you really prefer anything but the most competent craftsmen, doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, or even servants, etc. Most people obviously prefer all-star quality of mediocrity in sports. Why not in the arts
Having a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in English, I can admit that Murray’s (and Bloom’s) statements do make some sense to me, yet I still hold on to my insistence that politicized criticism is not all bad, and is often quite necessary. Since I’ve had the luxury of reading many of the great Western writers, and the luxury of having been guided through by my college professors, I have a pretty solid understanding that the most widely read writers in Western history have achieved that status for their universality and their transcendence of temporality, and that politicized criticism and ideals have allowed some really pitiful writing to reach the public sphere. However, having students to read the canonical greats can also be enhanced by politicized criticism, by allowing for more than a canonical perspective of the works.
Although I agree with some of their assertions, I have to stray a little bit from Murray (and a lot from Bloom) and be that “revolutionary” who believes in taking us somewhere better, somewhere that cannot be reached through formalism alone. Teaching literature survey courses, like most high school English courses, has to be done within a socio-historical context, connecting the works to the cultures who created them, and though it must begin there, it cannot end there. Coming back to Murray, the questions have to be asked in class – and the students must participate in asking it – why do we still read this work? why do scholars proclaim that this work stands the test of time? why do editors include this work in the textbook? and who are these scholars and editors who make these determinations? The teacher must utilize and exploit that questioning aspect of the youthful personality in order to continue to re-examine concepts like the canon and universality, even in a survey course. A work may contain some quality that succeeds in “extending, elaborating, and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art.” – call that quality archetypal or “universal” or any synonym you wish – but to connect with students, or with anyone, it’s got to be an aspect of the discussion to question it, not to simply accept it.