Sympathy and gratitude were, no doubt, the responses of many readers to a letter to the editor published last week in this newspaper under the headline "That's a Classic?" With considerable eloquence and passion, its author addressed a question that has troubled mothers and fathers for as long as children have been force-fed the alleged masterpieces of world literature: Why does my child have to read this book?
The letter to the editor was occasioned by its author's discovery that her 16-year-old daughter was being required to read John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in a Northern Virginia high school. Recalling that she had read the same novel at the same age, and that she had "hated it," the mother took the trouble to read it once again. "Now I remembered why I hated it so," she wrote, "and I know my daughter well enough to know that she will hate it as much, if not more, than I did." She commented:
"And so it continues, generation after generation. Because they carry the label of 'classics,' sordid, dreary, depressing books continue to be forced upon eager, questing young minds. Like me, my daughter is an insatiable reader. I pray that also, like me, books will be her doorway to new worlds, exciting personalities, refreshing, comforting ideas her whole life long."
She wondered why it is that "when there is so much literature that can stimulate, encourage, gladden, improve a life," a book such as "The Grapes of Wrath" is required high school reading, and concluded: "I don't know how many times I have heard a young person say, 'I hate that book, it is so depressing, and I have to read it to get a grade!' What a sad statement about our teaching methods. No wonder so many young people never learn the joys of reading."
This letter raises several interesting points. The first and most trivial of these is the puzzling information that "The Grapes of Wrath" is represented in a high school English course as a "classic" of literature. It is indeed a work of considerable power, but that derives from the ardor of its political and social commentary rather than from any particular literary qualities. Like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," it is a polemic in the guise of a novel, and Steinbeck's purposes in writing it were political rather than literary: He wanted to call the nation's attention to the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees, and he succeeded. But ever since its publication readers have confused the high-mindedness of Steinbeck's sentiments with literary accomplishment, and have accorded the novel a reverent respect that, in purely literary terms, it simply does not deserve.
But whatever the shortcomings of its prose and structure, "The Grapes of Wrath" surely cannot be dismissed as "sordid, dreary, depressing" and "destructive." How can this novel be described, as it is in this letter, as a "classic example of archaic thinking that, as happens throughout history, will be proven not necessarily so, and changed to the benefit of many"? Is "The Grapes of Wrath" a "sordid" book because it depicts ours as a society whose riches are inequitably distributed? Is it a "dreary" book because it portrays the lives of the Okies as desperate and hopeless? Is it a "depressing" book because it shows a side of American life that those of us more comfortably situated would prefer to tell ourselves does not exist? Is it a "destructive" book because it arouses guilt and discomfort in some readers?
It is difficult to interpret this letter otherwise. Yet it's a letter that speaks, forcefully and articulately, for a point of view that has always had wide currency--a view that literature should be uplifting and affirmative, that it should deliver the "good news" about the human condition and thus elevate the minds of its readers, that it should offer what our correspondent describes as "comforting ideas." Well, if that be literature, then we had best get about cleaning off the shelves, and when we are finished there will be precious little save "Pollyanna" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and Parson Weems' life of George Washington.
There'll be no more Shakespeare for the kiddies: "King Lear" is sordid, "Hamlet" is dreary, "Macbeth" is depressing, "Julius Caesar" is destructive. Goodbye, Dickens: "Bleak House" is, well, bleak, and "Great Expectations" depicts quite the wrong side of English society. You can forget Faulkner: All those sordid Southerners doing sordid things to each other, not to mention Popeye and that appalling corncob. Go back to Poland, Conrad: "Victory" has no comforting ideas and "Heart of Darkness" gets more depressing with every page. So much for the ancient Greeks--they're much too tragic--and the 19th-century Russians, with all their crimes and punishments.
The last thing on earth we want is to expose our children to books (or paintings, or musical compositions, or movies) that suggest there's anything to life except sunshine and Santa Claus. If we shield them from the alarms and discords of human existence, then presumably there will be no alarms and discords in their lives. With their heads snuggled comfortably in the sand, they'll live happily ever after--blissfully oblivious to the cold reality that this world can be, even for a middle-class American, hard and unjust and bitterly unrewarding.
Those, of course, are among the many realities that help nurture worthwhile and important books, whether they be tough polemical novels such as "The Jungle" and "The Grapes of Wrath" or masterly works of literature such as "King Lear" and "Light in August." The "joys of reading" that these books offer are not, admittedly, the same as the joys that come with being told that God's in his heaven and all's right with the world; but might it not be suggested, however tentatively, that they are deeper and rather more substantial joys?
Literature is like life: It is hard. One of the chief reasons we send our children to school is so that they will learn to recognize hard things for what they are and to develop stratagems for dealing with them. A child raised on nothing except good news and "comforting ideas" will become an adult almost certainly incapable of meeting life on its own tough terms. A child who has been taught to deal equally with ideas and facts he doesn't much like, on the other hand, will be admirably equipped for the struggle ahead--and, into the bargain, will be an interesting person.