It’s all too easy to dismiss the novels assigned to us as high schoolers as landmarks or mists, adore or forsake like we did our outfit at prom. This narrative of either fits both how we encounter these “big books” in education (as non-negotiable demands) and an educator’s hope for our response (that their “greatness” changes our lives). It can be a lot of thinking without shades of gray on my part. As proof, I’ll accept a “meh” review on Moby-Dick Where The scarlet letter of anyone tasked with writing an essay about it as a teenager.
Is there a third way? I hope. I spent the last year re-reading the books my high school teachers assigned me. My thought: It’s not enough to give a classic a different look just because “it’s a classic”. A classic is also classic because of its resonance and usefulness over time, JST like Shakespeare’s Henry V was a patriotic salute when Laurence Olivier adopted it in 1944 and a warning about the cost of empire when Kenneth Brannagh did so at the end of the Cold War.
Below are 10 high school classics where I found that useful thing that I missed the first time around.
Gatsby the magnificent by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fast cars, huge houses, a raised martini glass and a love that cannot be. No wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel is credited with both naming and embodying the most glamorous era of the 20th century. I had forgotten that Nick Carroway tells the story of Gatsby and Daisy in flashblack, praising a romance and a bygone era. The unforgettable last passages of the novel speak as much of acceptance as of nostalgia, as much of the pain of age as of forbidden desire and American dreams.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain- Another pretender to the great American novel that, slyly, speaks as much of maturity as of youth. Huck and Jim’s time is almost half a century before their story was published in 1884. It took Mark Twain 8 long years to write this sequel to Tom Sawyer (1876) during which he also wrote a memoir about his 20 years as a young riverboat pilot. But if Twain meant that Huck Finn was a song of nostalgia about childhood innocence and an earlier America, he used all of that in Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn’s America is violent, cruel and unforgiving, as much about blood feuds and human servitude as it is about adventures with best friends. Yes Tom Sawyer is about an American childhood, Huck Finn is about a country that has grown up and how we are doing better.
The age of innocence by Edith Wharton – Edith Wharton was 57 and living in Europe when she wrote The age of innocence. The world of this novel, her childhood in New York in the 1870s, was an ocean away and several decades past. However, despite Innocence being the story of a love affair thwarted by the rigidity of tradition, Edith Wharton does not criticize the traditions that raised her. Instead, she reserves a withered look at her protagonist Newland Archer and her inability to come to terms with her own choices. A stifling culture is the barrier to love, says Wharton, but circumstances beyond our control. And how, despite this, we can still show initiative in our own lives.
Kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee – How did I miss Scout Finch telling us this story in flashback, as a grown woman? It’s right there in the final scene with Boo Radley when Scout says “I never saw him again.” Harper Lee was around 30 when she wrote this novel and originally named it Penthouse. Maybe she saw herself around the age of the adult scout. May be mocking bird is a tribute to his own father who was also a noted civil rights lawyer. And maybe recluse Harper Lee saw herself more as recluse Boo Radley than in Scout? May be mockingbird is more a literary invention than an autobiography?
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – The phrase “Fahrenheit 451” is now a stand-in for all sorts of government-sponsored crackdowns. But look closer, O angry youngsters: there is no “big brother” in Bradbury’s story. Crimes against books are committed by foot soldiers. Guy Montag comes to hate both what he does to the books and his work itself. As an adult, it stuck with me that Farhrenheit carries with it a quiet but equally relevant message: a job that makes you hate yourself is its own kind of burn.the stranger by Albert Camus the stranger is a dark, scary, argumentative existence is a useless labrynith with no way out. I adored it as a teenager and was sure the man who wrote it was the dark, mysterious older brother I never had. Wrong. Albert Camus was a high school sportsman, handsome as a matinee idol and obviously a happy, contented person. Perhaps the answer to the chaos and mystery of his masterpiece is a kind of cool head, a reverence for calm and rationality that his narrator couldn’t hack and that Camus exhibited in much of the political journalism that defined the second half of his literary career.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka- What teenager does not react to the disorientation of Gregor Samsa waking up with the body of a cockroach? But Gregor Samsa doesn’t need to go to school or work like a cockroach. In his mid-twenties, his salesmen’s salary supported his parents and sister. His parents have to take boarders to compensate after Gregor’s transformation. His fate is as much determined by his being an economic nuisance to them as a giant insect. The family is the whole space in which Kafka’s great story unfolds, asking us, “Isn’t it just as weird to wake up a member of a group you haven’t signed up for as it is a cockroach ?
Emily Dickinson’s Poems – “Who are you? I am nobody. Who are you?” These are the big words of Emily Dickinson and the mantra of generations of high school students who failed to show up for student council. But Dickinson, as the shrinking purple-head, purposely ignores the story. Re-read her poems (and some fairly good recent biographies) and you will witness an artist of great ferocity. Dickinson wrote with fire (a poem a day in his best years), coldly knew the work of his poetic heroes, and sought out mentors and constructive criticism. Although she never intended to publish, her discipline was on par with a professional athlete. The only image we have of Dickinson as a frail 17-year-old is a half-truth.
The tears of lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – Often referred to as a young person’s entry point into the world of Thomas Pynchon’s cracked mirror, I found Batch 49 so bizarre that the teenager took it personally. No author would confuse me so much on purpose and get my time off if I could help him. Pynchon is actually a much nicer guy than that. Batch 49 is nutty. But Pynchon does not sadistically mystify us. Structured like a roadtrip that never reaches its destination, the novel and its author seem to say. “Life is crazy but it is better to live it in all its madness than to leave the road. Wanna ride with me? »
farm animal by George Orwell- Whose fault is it farm animal going so bad so fast? Pigs, of course. Isn’t that Orwell’s message? Beware of tyrants disguised as liberators? But a tyrant needs followers and it’s the other animals who are convinced that a revolution means everything is different. It’s the “first year” thought, the same thing we all do when we start a sentence with “Everything will be better when…” There is no ending with the truth. Instead, Orwell reminds us that we are all the same imperfect creatures yesterday as we are today. farm animal is a lesson in how tragically human we are all.