Friday, June 02, 2006

Great American Books

This fall I get to teach a course called Great American Books, and so I have to figure out which great American books to teach. My favorite "friend" gave me one piece (among others) of excellent advice: end the course with Philip Roth's American Pastoral. I'm very excited about this. But now what do I teach for the first 14 weeks of the semester?

Now, I know that Melville has to be on the syllabus. He just has to. But, and I'm sorry Casey, I have always had trouble getting through Moby Dick. If it killed me when I was an undergrad (and grad student), won't it make my students want to kill me? I found myself discussing this today with my younger brother. He's 16 (much younger than me, as I slouch toward 30), and has read it twice, the first time when he was around age 10, which puts me to shame as, ironically, when I was that age I was memorizing entire books of the bible as if my life depended on it. But why is Moby Dick a greater American book than, say, Alice Walker's The Color Purple? When it comes to choosing which books are the American greats, like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Choose, that is.

But take one look at my overfilled bookshelves and it is clear that I do have an opinion regarding the great American books. Judging by the stacks of books not collecting dust, what I consider to be great American books have one thing in common: they are all Jewish. Many are obviously Jewish books (Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Cynthia Ozick), but others are a bit more sneaky in their connections to the covenant. People (even literati) are often surprised to discover that The Natural or Catch-22 were written by Jewish authors, or that Nathaniel West is a Jewish writer. But there's no denying that some of the best books of the century in this country have been penned by Jewish writers.

I can't, however, turn the Great American Books course into the Great American Jewish Books course. So here's what's on my list so far -- any advice would be greatly appreciated:

Melville: Moby Dick
Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Malamud: The Natural
Faulkner: Sound and the Fury
Morrison: Beloved
Roth: American Pastoral

5 comments:

nedric said...

I was wondering if you have a certain set of objectives to meet, and why a course on great American Jewish writers would not meet those objectives?

Casey said...

Haha -- Monica, no problem about Moby-Dick. One of the great blessings of my life has been that I didn't read Moby-Dick until I was 23, and I'm certain that if I had read it any sooner I would have hated it. I won't do a sermon on why it IS a great novel--at least not in this little comment (saving that for my blog, soon).

My hypothetical list would probably include EITHER _The Scarlet Letter_ or _Huck Finn_, but not both. I have taught Flannery O'Connor's _Wise Blood_, and students generally like that. You could always get your Melville quota fulfilled with _Billy Budd_, which is about the best short novel ever that has to do with justice and ethics, etc.

They'll hate the Faulkner, but it's good for them, I suppose. _Beloved_ is probably unavoidable, if only because it's just about the best book written since _Moby-Dick_.

When I took that "teaching college literature" course a few years back I did a mock syllabus for ENGL 250 -- I'll see if I can find it and email it to you.

How about a war novel? Either Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, maybe?

Monica said...

Yes, unfortunately the course has to cover a wide array of so-called great American books, which means a bit of everything, from the nineteenth century on -- which is virtually impossible in less than 16 weeks.

Monica said...

Thanks, Casey -- I'm glad you think I don't need to teach both Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter. I was hoping to avoid Twain. Flannery O'Connor might be a good choice I hadn't thought of. And, Vonnegut -- that's a good one too. Thanks for the tips, Casey.

nedric said...

I was wondering if Kesey's "Cuckoo's Nest" is on the radar?

Good luck with the course.