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Paul Dixon

American Literature Texts

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I'm in my second year of teaching American literature, and I'm curious what other classical teachers are reading in their classes. In classical education circles, we talk a lot about classic texts without much discussion of modern books. So, what books are you teaching and how do you teach them? 

In my classes, we just finished Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and we're set to start Scarlet Letter next week. With Huck Finn we focused on the American identity and how it evolved through the 19th century with a focus on the movement from Romanticism to Realism. We'll revisit Romanticism with Scarlet Letter.

What are your favorite American texts to teach?

 

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I don't teach literature at our school, but my colleagues have their favorites. One teacher loves teaching Hemingway, another loves teaching Golding's Lord of the Flies (British, but modern). One teacher enjoys The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird, though I think we've only done those as extra curricular books. Our younger students read The Call of the Wild and a couple of Twain books.

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Great question! In addition to the Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn, we use a good number of short stories by Hawthorne (Young Goodman Brown, The Minister's Black Veil, Earth's Holocaust), Cooper (Eclipse), Melville (Bartleby Scrivener), Poe (Pit & Pendulum, Tell-Tale Heart, Purloined Letter, Gold-Bug, Masque of the Read Death, Fall of the House of Usher), and others like Twain, Harte, Bierce, London, O Henry, etc. We always read Moby-Dick (yes, every word of it – I have been surprised how much the students come to love it). We read many American poets from the Oxford Book of American Verse (edited by Mattheissen). We also include quite a few American hymns along with our primary source reading. We actually do To Kill A Mockingbird with our Modernity year, as we follow a Great Books approach. I am planning to include Wendell Berry in our next Modernity rotation as well; perhaps Hannah Coulter or a collection of his short stories like A Distant Land.

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Our American Literature students (12th grade) typically read The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Walden, and quite a few short stories, including ones by Flannery O'Connor and Edgar Allan Poe. They read To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school.

Our students take American History the same year they take American Literature (our History/Literature curriculum is aligned throughout grades 9-12); when I was used to teach American History, we'd sometimes have a text (like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God") which we could discuss in both classes.

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There are so many great options, yet so little time! I would love to read Moby-Dick cover to cover; it's a beautiful work.

On 11/20/2018 at 7:47 AM, kweitz said:

Great question! In addition to the Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn, we use a good number of short stories by Hawthorne (Young Goodman Brown, The Minister's Black Veil, Earth's Holocaust), Cooper (Eclipse), Melville (Bartleby Scrivener), Poe (Pit & Pendulum, Tell-Tale Heart, Purloined Letter, Gold-Bug, Masque of the Read Death, Fall of the House of Usher), and others like Twain, Harte, Bierce, London, O Henry, etc. We always read Moby-Dick (yes, every word of it – I have been surprised how much the students come to love it). We read many American poets from the Oxford Book of American Verse (edited by Mattheissen). We also include quite a few American hymns along with our primary source reading. We actually do To Kill A Mockingbird with our Modernity year, as we follow a Great Books approach. I am planning to include Wendell Berry in our next Modernity rotation as well; perhaps Hannah Coulter or a collection of his short stories like A Distant Land.

In what direction do your Huckleberry Finn discussions tend to go? This was my first year to teach it, and we focused primarily on Huck's sense of morality and how his sense of right and wrong is clouded by the push and pull between his own convictions and his cultural upbringing. His rebellion against societal norms is petty at the beginning but is heroic at the end. My students had a lot of fun with it. 

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In what direction do your Huckleberry Finn discussions tend to go? This was my first year to teach it, and we focused primarily on Huck's sense of morality and how his sense of right and wrong is clouded by the push and pull between his own convictions and his cultural upbringing. His rebellion against societal norms is petty at the beginning but is heroic at the end. My students had a lot of fun with it. 

Paul, sounds like a great focus! We had some similar discussions. We also discussed the banning of Huck Finn in today's classroom, and the whys and wherefores. How can we read Twain charitably? What was he really trying to do? Was he successful in his context? In ours? (I would argue that he was actually using racist language and attitudes to address "racism" as he understood it - which would differ from how a 21st century American might see it. But there is still much we can learn from him if we approach his work with humility, and recognizing our own blind spots.)

We also focused a good bit on Twain's masterful prose, his use of dialect, and of literary devices like figures of speech and figures of description, to go along with our English Studies class material.

 

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We discussed the banning of the book at the beginning, but they didn't seem too concerned with it after that. I completely agree that he was displaying racism in the book as a means of denouncing it. Huck's struggles with recognizing Jim as a human being are especially powerful. 

It's a beautiful work, and I enjoyed teaching it.

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