Why the Classics?

Having a blog about classic literature is an idea I have been floating around for at least two years at this point. I only ever mentioned it to one person. That person saw no point because classic literature is something of a bygone in popular culture. No one cared about it, they said. The trends are all going towards things like travel, make-up, etc. From my own experience, the academic culture is trying to either dismantle the classics as we know them or trying to find ways of promoting modern social justice by either tearing them apart, “canceling” them, or just by deconstructing them entirely.

And those causes do raise some very valid questions. Most of these arise from the question of relevance whether that relevance is racial, cultural, or political. Why should we read old things which don’t seem to have any bearing on the here and now? It was in the culture when my own mother was going through school. With the advent of post-colonial theory and deconstructionism, the changed the way we teach literature itself has changed. But while all these changes in the name of relevancy may have had good intentions, not all of the changes have been good. In our quest for relevancy, we’ve ended up discarding some of the better works of literature out there. Works which, oddly enough, are more relevant now than they were even in the 20th century as we shall see in the coming months.

Before we go on, I should probably define what I mean by “the classics.” Unfortunately for me, these days “the classics” include authors I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole (*cough* Hemingway *cough* Faulkner *cough*) and excludes ones which I think are of greater worth (Take, for instance, the case of Sir Walter Scott below). When we speak of “the classics” we are generally referring to the Western Canon—the line of poets and writers from Homer on through the beginnings of the 20th century with the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, J.D. Salinger, etc. Google “Classic literature” and you will get any number of articles and lists of books which are considered “essential reading” by various people.

I accept the original definition of “classic” but I’m including works from the distant past which should be classics.

Generally, everything within the “canon” is considered highly influential, innovative, or intellectual in some way, shape, or form. Shakespeare, for instance, not only begat several other forms on his own (we’ll discover that in October), he also is responsible for an astonishing large number of turns of phrases and words which we still use. Moreover, he was studied and referenced by other writers so much so that it was a group of writers, headed up by Charles Dickens, who purchased his birthplace and saved it from being completely destroyed. Now, Shakespeare is an obvious choice, so what determines other works in the “canon”?

Well, most of the canon is along the same lines–Austen for perfecting the novel of manners and for being arguably the first woman novelist who had widespread influence, Dickens for his social conscience and characters, Milton for his poetry, Chaucer because of his use of the vernacular, Edgar Allen Poe for his short stories which included the first detective stories, and so forth. Each had their own sphere of influence. Personally, I think this method of determination is slightly misleading because, as we will see in the coming month with Gothic fiction, there are books not in the “canon” which are as equally influential—if not more so. To say Ann Radcliffe’s work, for instance, is not influential is to be very naive indeed if not slightly behind the times.

For this blog, therefore, I am considering “the classics” in a slightly broader term, as I’m sure you can already tell. Studying Tolkien, for instance, was not acceptable even as little as 20 years ago—it’s now far more prevalent. I accept the original definition of “classic” but I’m including works from the distant past which should be classics. Some of the works I’m covering are considered part of the wider “canon” but not considered “essential” reading. Others have been completely bypassed.

The fact that we have become more global in the ensuing centuries should give us greater ability to think beyond our borders of time and space. 

For instance, we talk about literary giants such as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and they are on nearly every single reading list in the United States, but when was the last time you read Sir Walter Scott? H.G. Wells? George MacDonald? Sir Walter Scott actually did something of worth with his works—he revitalized his native Scotland as a place of tourism. In fact, if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Edinburgh, you will see, larger than life, the Scott monument—more visible than even the one to Robert Burns. Why? Until his novels, everyone thought the Scots were uncouth, uncivilized, filthy barbarians. This is made evident in his novel Rob Roy, which later became a very good movie with Liam Neeson. The Outlander and Highlander franchises also would very likely not exist as we know them today without Sir Walter Scott. Does he seem just a little more important now? 

If not ask yourself this: would you rather read about people who live in misery, travel in misery and then die in misery fighting pointless wars or struggling against crony capitalistic overlords, or would you rather read a story of a man who struggles against ethnic prejudice on two different fronts and ends up not only marrying the love of his life, but defending the honor of a minority woman, and proving his own worth against his father’s prejudices? That, by the way, is basically the story of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Does that sound irrelevant in today’s world to you? I’d be willing to bet that it doesn’t. 

My point here is that we can find better narratives for our world out there than what is now commonly referred to as “the classics” and only perfunctorily taught in schools. The world has changed, but the point of a “canon” in the first place is to find books, ideas, and writers to which and to whom the world at large could relate for centuries to come and which cover the essentials of what it means to live and be in this world. The fact that we have become more global in the ensuing centuries should give us greater ability to think beyond our borders of time and space. 

What if I told you that prejudice, suspicion, injustice, and yes, even slavery both mental and physical, were called out, and punished…What if I told you those stories ended happily?

The need has never been greater either. We are now more aware than ever of the importance of mental health, of depression, of the insidiousness of our own thought patterns, of the narratives we tell ourselves. The rising numbers of mental disease tell us the situation is only getting worse—not better. Supernatural and billionaire romances, superhero comics, and international spy thrillers are big sellers for a reason—we’re desperately trying to escape our own minds and the reality which is being forced on us through every outlet available. If we’re already depressed, then creating our own reality in which we can thrive and be better human beings becomes doubly difficult because all we can see is the darkness.

Remember the post on self-talk and how we tell ourselves stories about what’s happened to us? Well, that extends to what you read as well. Are you going to read books about other miserable people? If so, then you need to ask yourself what good that will do your own thought patterns, your own self-narratives, and your own self-talk. Why? Because just as your body is whatever you put into it, your mind is also whatever you put into it. So, if you put your mind into nothing but injustices, wrongs, and wars, then what is going to come out? You are going to see nothing but injustices, wrongs, and wars. I’m not advocating that you ignore these things entirely. But I am advocating you find better narratives to give your mind a balanced diet. Go and read the great social commentary a modern novelist has written, but balance it with something else–be that a Medieval Mystery play, a poetic epic, or even revisiting Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Not everything ends with surrender to the darkness. Not everything ends with a whimper. Not everything is coated in a layer of grime.

Remember my summation of Ivanhoe earlier? What if I told you that kind of literature was elsewhere too? What if I told you that prejudice, suspicion, injustice, and yes, even slavery both mental and physical, were called out, and punished. Yes, you read that aright, punished. What if I told you those stories ended happily? That the people in them escaped and lived the proverbial “happily ever after.” Now, isn’t that a much more pleasant prospect to read? Isn’t it even more pleasant to learn that our ancestors faced and fought some of the same demons we did? It should be. If anything, it proves that we are not alone–even when we think our times are “unprecedented.”

So, this is my gift back: my attempt, however feeble, to shut out the darkness in the world, to help you create a better vision of reality for yourself. I’m going to take you on an adventure to the wild, the wonderful, and the old. Through dream literature, travel literature, myths, legends, mysteries, and haunted houses we’ll trudge together. There are better books out there—I know because I’ve read them. I have been saved time and again by them, and I have faced my own demons because of them. Not everything ends with surrender to the darkness. Not everything ends with a whimper. Not everything is coated in a layer of grime. So, come and see, find courage, take up hope, and find light in the dark world away from the troubles of the present. 


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