This year, I’m starting my American Lit Honors classes with The Crucible, the classic play about the Salem Witch Trials. I usually end my introduction to it with a joke like this:
“So this is a story about desperate, repressed, stressed-out people crowded into a little village in a hostile wilderness, whose desire for excitement and importance makes them break out in hysterical, paranoid drama, and then the innocent, unpopular people around them suffer greatly. So basically it’s a lot like 7th grade.”
One of my favorite jokes of the whole year!
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.