Thursday, June 16, 2016

Our Literary History Is Not Black & White

Imagine Major League Baseball pre-1947, when only white men played the national pastime.  Think of national politics, pre-1920, when women did not have the right to vote. Think of every institution -- financial, social, political, professional – and how the world used to be so different due to gender bias, religious intolerance, racism, and a lack of multi-cultural diversity. Is it fair to hold the accomplishments of those that succeeded under the system that permitted such segregation and exclusion against them?  Or shall we honor the best of those that got to perform or participate whether it be athletes, politicians, actors, CEOs, or English poets?

A group of English majors at one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of learning, a place that itself participated in the same prejudiced manner as other industries, schools and aspects of society had endured, is protesting the teaching of a mandatory two-semester seminar on major English poets on the grounds it excluded those who weren’t white men. Students at Yale feel that Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Milton and Yeats don’t fully represent a balanced canon.

Some students at the Ivy League school signed a petition that says:  “A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contribution of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”

Is it PC righteousness gone too far – or a much-needed correction to a distorted historical record?

If you support the students, how do you still help them see the value of these iconic writers while still looking to shine a spotlight on other, perhaps less-known writers?

If you don’t support the students, how can you show them that history can’t be corrected, that despite the lack of non-white male writers from that era, these poets have stood the test of time and their body of work continues to be a major influence on society and fellow writers?

Does such a course need an asterisk or a lesson dedicated to explaining the circumstances of the times these poets wrote, highlighting that more than half the population of those days never got even the opportunity to study and then write?  

We certainly need to put things in perspective but one can’t erase what was.  Of the surviving works of those who were in a position or who had permission to express themselves, we are left with a certain body of work that we can do nothing more than to honor.  History may be incomplete, but what we are left with shouldn’t be shunned or ignored.

Everything in this world could have had a different outcome and in some ways deserves an asterisk.  Look, I am Jewish.  Not so long ago, that was a religion that was discriminated against in the work place and in politics.  Every group of immigrants that has come to this country faced lousy treatment from the locals.  And the real locals – the Indians – well, we see what happened to them.

I guess what I’m saying is that we look back and condemn past behaviors and acknowledge how prejudice or other factors changed the landscape of how this nation was built and which leaders, talents, and experts it produced.  The canon of great writers of the 21st century will be a multi-cultural one.  The one from 300 years ago, not at all.

We can’t correct our history, but we can change the path that our future is destined for.  But our past for better or worse is the past, and where we can honor and acknowledge the great surviving works of truly talented writers, we should do so.

As time, goes on, we’ll gain a greater perspective of which books, poems, short stories, and essays are worthy of our attention, purely on the merits of whether the content survives the test of time.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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