On Trying to Love the American Classics

I like to think of myself as well read. I think statistically it must be true. However over the last few months it has come to my attention that there have been large swaths of the American Classics Canon that I have outright ignored or disliked to the point of disregard. 

I cared about Poe only so much as it was popular. I tried to like Hemingway to seem interesting. Faulkner bores me to tears. Twain…I just can’t.

I have never read Steinbeck. Gone with the Wind gathers dust on my shelf. Wharton, Cather, Melville all remain a mystery to me. What’s more is they are a mystery I have never been particularly interested in solving. 

A few months ago I wrote a post in defense of the classics. I meant what I wrote then. They are important for a variety of reasons. They teach us many lessons. I generally enjoy classics that take me across borders to other cultures. I’m a big fan of Victorian era fiction. I go crazy for Austen and Shakespeare. I enjoy Hugo and Tolstoy. I’m more likely to try Cervantes than most Americans. 

The more I think about the deep divide in my classic love the more I think it is due to education. I was raised in an US public schools. I learned US history. I understood the dustbowl without Grapes of Wrath and Slavery without Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where fiction would make these topics more lively, more real, I felt I already had an understanding of the timeframe, the situation, the overall setting.  

Whereas when I read Wuthering Heights I learned about the English Moors. Anna Kareinin gave me insight into Russian life. The Iliad and the Odyssey are backbones of storytelling. I feel like I am experiencing new places and learning new things. I feel like it is an adventure, not a slog through History 101. I can understand the broader history of the world from stories, not just lessons. 

As I am not actually a Historian of any era or place I should probably broaden my reading habits. I am starting with Little Women, more out of a desire to watch the new movie while stuck at home than anything else. So far I find it dry and keep comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, mostly due to the abundance of sisters. I will finish, but it won’t be a book that defines my life like it has been for so many of my reader friends. At least I’ll be able to speak intelligently about my favorite March sister going forward. I don’t think it will be Jo.

7 thoughts on “On Trying to Love the American Classics

  1. I agree that in comparison to English or Russian classics, American classics do pale somewhat. I am Russian and that means I was brought up (the early 90s) on American classics actually and do not read Russian classics to know about Russia’s history or life obviously. One of my first books was Twain’s Tom Sawyer in translation followed by all those Mayne Reid and Jack London books. Isn’t it odd how our education systems also influence what we read later in life and how we view this or that book? I mean, for me, Pushkin is associated with hard-work at school, whereas I can read Steinbeck for leisure and pleasure 🙂

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  2. I also grew up in the US public school system and I love classics. Some are definitely a miss (looking at you Moby Dick), but for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I noticed though that the authors you mentioned, Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, Wharton, Cather, Melville, etc., are all… white. You mentioned liking books that take you across borders to other cultures. So why not read American Classics like Barracoon, The Autobiography of Zitkala-Sa, Revolutionary Suicide, etc.? Because at the end of the day, what we learned in school is a white narrative of history. It’s a really narrow look at the past. Idk. I’ve read widely across genres and from various perspectives and I still wouldn’t call myself well-read

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    1. That is a fantastic point. I try to make a real effort to read more people of color in my current reading but didn’t even think about diversity in terms of classics. Clearly it is a problem and I am having a hard time thinking of many american classics pre 20th century by POCs. I clearly need to do my homework. Thanks for reading!

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      1. Honestly, same. I’ve been trying to make an effort to read outside of the usual classics that are recommended. I was planning to re-read the books that were required reading in high school but when I went over the list I realized that they weren’t really diverse. And when I couldn’t really name any classics by POC I started doing research lol. They’re out there, just takes a little more effort to find them.

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  3. Interesting thoughts regarding growing up in the US and a particular set of classics. I never thought about it that way. There are definitely classic books that I have an interest in reading and many that I do not. Just because something is deemed a classic doesn’t mean it is going to be an amazing read. Times change and many classics, if written today, would not make the cut. Many times authors were paid by the word-hence lengthy and long-winded. Plus, I often find that when books are required reading it often automatically places a negative cloud above them. Also, part of the beauty, which often goes unrealized by school-aged readers, is the background of classic authors. That age group isn’t always in the right place to truly appreciate certain aspects. PS. My bookclub chose Little Women last year and many of us did not care for it. That really surprised me, I thought I would love it. PSS. Sorry for long-winded reply!!

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    1. I finished Little Women at the end of last week and also didn’t love it. I think you are on to something with the circumstances and mythos of the authors themselves lending something to the classics. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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