American Literature Honors

For the past several years, I’ve taught a class called American Literature Honors. Immersing myself in that subject has made me realize that each of the three words in that title implies something powerful, and something contrary to the mainstream. In fact, I wonder if such a title will become controversial in the near future.

The first idea stated by the name of the class is that there is such a thing as an American identity, a nature that must meet some kind of criteria and that is discernibly different from any other identity. This is important to recognize.

It is undeniable that the term “American” exists, and therefore must mean something. Even relativism, the great intellectual cancer of the 20th century, can’t look the word in the face and say it means nothing, that it carries no more semantic weight than any current youth slang. It stands to reason that “American” can’t be defined as anything we want it to mean, but must have parameters that will include some things and exclude others. Simply admitting this is a victory over the foggy forces of multiculturalism.

The second is that “literature” exists, as opposed to other kinds of artifacts or fields of knowledge, and even other kinds of writing, and that this is worthy of being studied. Also, there is an area of intersection between the two, that some amount of this “literature” is decidedly “American” in character.

Most of us can’t define literature, much less differentiate between it and any other writing, but a simple definition might be “writing that is crafted with a conscious utilization of artistic, intellectual elements.” Even then, all literature is not created equal: with the limited time and resources we have, we must focus on the very best literature, that which is the most lasting, influential, and magnificently composed. That is why we study Hawthorne and Hemingway, but not Twilight.

Third (and probably the most important), the designation “Honors” means that this “American literature” has a sufficient depth and high caliber of quality that it can challenge our brightest students and should be a priority for them.

Many students, like most of us, assume that English is the easiest core subject because we already speak it fluently, because reading is generally not as immediately taxing as mathematical computation, and because English often doesn’t have as many facts and figures to puzzle out and remember as other subjects do. Still, when the best materials are presented properly, it should become apparent to any student that literature is indeed difficult, and that even the smartest must stretch themselves to master it.

In fact, as in any other subject which can be taught at an advanced level, many students will simply find it overwhelming or will not be able to keep up with it all. This means that there will be competition, ranking, and, as in the definition of “American,” exclusion of some. This goes against the culture’s insistence that everyone should be able to do everything, and that the nature of reality should be artificially altered as much as necessary to reach that goal. Honors classes exist in defiance of such banal egalitarianism.

Considering the propositions embedded in the components of this class name, all I can end with is, “Hooray for American Literature Honors!”

One comment on “American Literature Honors

  1. When you look at it, the most quintessentially American literature are works like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (which couldn’t possibly have been written in quilt-patch Europe); Isaac Singer’s short stories are very often about the life of refugees arriving to America; Philip Roth’s books are about the sons and grandsons of the refugees, who didn’t understand the “Old World” culture of their parents/grandparents…

    Naturally, you can throw in Cormack McCarthy (who is very “American,” plus an excellent writer, although a bit pessimistic–or realistic–for some people), or Norman Mailer etc. I think people like Faulkner and Hemingway don’t really come off as American; they just wrote the traditional Old World stories set in America…

    But, although it’s practically impossible to claim that there’s no essential “American” identity, about literature one can always have different opinions, as I opined above re Faulkner & Hemingway. Oh, The Old Man And the Sea is excellent. It was also one of my first “serious” book as a kid decades ago (1960’s if you can believe it!).

    Thanks, you made me think a little here…

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