Why Literature Matters

2016 Volume II


Does literature matter?  Instead of framing the question that the fellows and I were addressing this summer in such a blunt way, one that almost seems to invite a negative answer, we began with the assumption that literature does matter.1  If that is the case, the only questions remaining – and they are enormously complex and challenging questions – are those of why, and how, and to whom. 

All our discussions focused on these three queries – to whom, why, and how?  We began our reading with a collection of twentieth-century children’s stories, then went on to classic texts by such nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American writers as Brontë and Faulkner, along with the work of a variety of literary theorists; and we ended by reading a selection of multicultural texts.2  To give some structure to our inquiries, we adopted a version of the device that M. H. Abrams used in The Mirror and the Lamp to illustrate the various ways in which a work of literature can be approached, each of the coordinates indicating a traditional school of literary criticism.3

Because the fellows and I were primarily concerned with meeting the demands of teaching, the effect of a text on its readers was the relation that we considered in all our discussions.  Next in terms of its role during our meetings was the relation between text and world, both the world of our students and the historical world in which a work of literature was originally created.  The curved line pays tribute to the continuingly important New Critical conception, now identified with close reading, that the relations that matter most are the connections of the parts of the text to each other and to its whole.  Many of the units produced in this seminar treat the work of a single author, but when we looked at that coordinate, we tended to pay attention to an author’s surrogate, the persona of the Dickens or Whitman or Dickinson that seemed to be addressing us from a text, even when, as in the case of Ishmael of Moby-Dick, the voice of the story was that of one of its characters. What this triangular device leaves out – and fortuitously so, I think – is the relation between teacher and text:  it goes without saying, though we said it often, that another of the guiding assumptions of the seminar was that what students can come to know is more important than what the teacher already knows. 

Although Abrams’s mnemonic device might seem both reductive and mechanical, it actually encouraged probing and profound discussions of literature and all the issues that it raises:  race, status, family, identity, inequality, even life and death.  The practical value of this model was also made clear in the curriculum units that emerged from this seminar, each of which asserts the value of literature by giving priority to one of the coordinates in our device and by exploring its implications for the other possible relations to a text.  

Prioritizing the author of a text, as Debra Titus and Kathleen Radebaugh do, turns out to emphasize the status of that text as literary art and the student as a writer of potentially significant and complex texts.  Deb plans to focus on the craft involved in three novels by Sharon Flake, an African-American local author, with her fifth graders in the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh.  Once students surmount the challenge of reading for craft, they will be able to “translate” what they learn “to their own writing.” Moreover, in Deb’s words, they will be able to use “what they have learned to face any other challenge” in their educations and beyond.  Kathleen boldly and even courageously decided to teach the poetry and prose of William Butler Yeats to eighth-grade students.  By focusing on Yeats the man and the pain of unrequited love and the impulse toward rebellion in both his life and his art, she hopes to make connections between a twentieth-century author and school-aged children in Philadelphia.  Like Deb’s, Kathleen’s students will learn not only how to appreciate the craft of Yeats’s poetry but also how to use his literary techniques in the poems that they write for their portfolios:  if “Yeats used metaphor and symbolism and varied the length and stanza structure of his poems,” then students will show their understanding of those features by incorporating them into their own verse.  In her unit Kathleen writes feelingly of the “lack of expression” and the “lack of poetry” in the texts that her students have previously produced in her classes, even when the subject that they were studying, such as “the engineering process,” was full of “beauty and chaos.”  By reading Yeats’s poetry, her students, Kathleen predicts, will learn how to express what they feel in poetic form. 

Similarly, Carla Jones and Amandeep Khosa are using works by a single author to respond to their students’ needs.  Carla hopes that literature will help her students imagine a future for themselves.  For her, this has been a particularly urgent aim ever since, in response to a challenge that she had set her students, one of them, “an 8-year-old boy,” said that “he didn’t know how to set goals for his life because he was going to be dead at 18.”  To address such pessimism, pessimism perhaps more than justified, Carla is turning, like Deb and Kathleen, to the work of one author, in this case Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery.  Even those in primary school, Carla believes, can find inspiration and encouragement by reading excerpts from a difficult text that introduces them to a “positive role model,” a man who was capable of rising above his “dismal circumstances.”  Carla, like Deb and Kathleen, then turns her students into authors by asking them to “write and publish a family story of perseverance.”  By having her students locate in their own genealogies analogues to Booker T. Washington, she hopes to extend the lessons she teaches beyond the classroom to the parents of her students:  “In this unit I want to provide a space in which families can share their family stories and therefore empower themselves and others by hearing about the resilience of their families.”  Aman finds in A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh a text as demanding as Up from Slavery, but it is one that will be used to encourage even third-grade students to appreciate the virtues of empathy and to discover different modes of problem solving.  Drawn to Winnie-the-Pooh by its delightful humor and enduring charm, Aman also sees in this book a repository of skills crucial to both her students’ social and intellectual growth.  As Aman concludes, “through an imaginative text like Winnie-the-Pooh, students develop a higher level of thinking that in turn helps them go from factual to metacognitive knowledge and apply the examples from the book to their daily lives.” In all four of the units that I have so far described, the focus on an author begins and ends in understandings of what students most need to learn. 

In the same way that Carla is bringing the past into relation with her students’ present, Tim Smith and Maureen Becker and Sara Stillman have created units that will bring the past alive.  Tim, who teaches eighth-grade United States history, makes primary in his unit the connection between text and world so that his students will develop “a greater understanding of the complexities of the issue of slavery” by reading excerpts from a slave narrative, specifically Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography, and the novel that, to a great extent, was written in response to it, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Literary works like these, Tim believes, will help students move beyond simply saying that enslavement was “socially and morally abhorrent” so that they can have frank discussions in which “they argue and validate [that] claim in a more substantial way” than they would if they were reading “a textbook alone.”  Maureen counters conventional feminist readings of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire by also giving priority to the world in which Williams wrote.  Nominating Blanche, instead of Stella or Stanley, as the main character of the play, Maureen proposes that if her IB students pay attention to “post-war American values,” they will recognize that Blanche represents an “empowered woman” who is so unsuited to that culture that her fate involves being raped and going insane.  Blanche also serves as a counterpoint to Williams’s practice as a playwright:  as Maureen explains, “While we read a play about a main character who is immersed in an ever-disintegrating fantasy world and who even rejects realism in favor of magic, the work itself is upsetting when one considers its all-too-real social and cultural commentary . . . . The observations that Williams makes about the domestic life of a post-war working-class couple are astutely realistic and brutally, unapologetically honest.”  Finally, Maureen also explains that what her unit can give her students is the opportunity to reach their own judgments about A Streetcar Named Desire by opening out subtle and sophisticated possibilities of interpretation that earlier readings have ignored.  Sara offers her students the same opportunities, but she does so in a teaching situation unlike Maureen’s IB class and with a work of literature that is even more canonical than Williams’s play:  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Because every student in Sara’s ninth- and tenth-grade Visual Arts class is an English Language Learner, she will work with an adaptation of the play written by her fellow teachers, along with “the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novel Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits’ song Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet, as well as the paper cut artwork by Elsa Mora.”  This diverse material will allow Sara to explore with her students the intricacies of metaphoric expression in both word and image – a subject often deemed too demanding for ELLs.  Like Kathleen and Deb, Sara puts the creative talents of her students at the center of her pedagogy:  “As an Arts educator, I do not want my students to simply be consumers of culture; I want them to be contributors as well. Therefore my challenge is greater than teaching my students to understand the metaphors they read, hear, and see; I must help them to think metaphorically.”

Last but certainly not least, Robert Schwartz and Mark Holston make their priority the needs and interests of their students as readers.  Both have chosen to introduce them to what are now known as culturally relevant texts:  in Robert’s case, a variety of works from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement, to be followed by James McBride’s The Color of Water; in Mark’s case, a memoir by a Vietnamese-American, Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala.  These pieces of literature are culturally relevant because they speak to the experience of those whom Mark calls “hyphenated Americans” – African-Americans and Vietnamese- Americans.  Yet, as Robert points out, “A story about race is a human story, as are stories about struggle, oppression, triumph, identity, family, and survival”; and that point, he believes, can be made with “any literature that is accessible, concise, appealing, relevant, and visceral.”  Not surprisingly, then, both these fellows find particularly significant how these texts represent the difficulties of defining one’s identity.  Robert’s goal is to have his students discover the joy of reading literature while they also discover themselves in what they read.  Mark has a comparable goal: he wants his students to become “excited by what they read . . . and possibly even develop an understanding of the value of literature and become passionate, life-long readers.”  As he says, “Pham’s prose is challenging and full of rich examples of literary writing that make it ideal for practicing analysis,” although “it is still accessible to students at most reading levels.”  Like Deb, Mark has chosen to have his students read the work of a local author, his school being close to the town in which Pham was raised; and like Robert, Mark has chosen literature that helps students find their places in relation to a dauntingly powerful dominant culture.  For Mark and Robert, as for all their colleagues in this seminar, the lessons taught by works of literature are lessons that begin in the classroom and extend out into the world in which their students live.

These curriculum units emerged from seminar discussions that had many remarkable moments:  among them were Mark’s demonstration of what he calls the “circle of empathy”; Robert’s identification of a physical “stir” that one feels when reading great literature;  Sara’s proof that we all could come up with a drawing that represented a metaphor; the exercise that Tim used to show us the deeply personal ways in which we read literature by asking us to identify our equivalent to Ishmael’s recourse to the sea; and our communal response to the news that one of the fellows, Victoria Parrish, would not be able to complete the seminar. The most remarkable event, however, may have occurred during the hour when Jessica Zelenski, a teacher of English at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, visited our seminar. 

Jessica’s approach to teaching has been given quite a bit of publicity because David Denby featured it in his 2016 book, Lit Up; and we were eager to share with her our reactions to his characterization of her teaching and her students.  Yet we were all so taken by her extraordinary commitment to those students, her willingness to use any method that she could think of to engage them in what they read, and her ability to honor the individuality of each of the tenth-graders in her classroom that Denby’s account quickly faded into the background.  Told that the topic of our seminar was “Why Literature Matters,” Jessica – without any preparation and without any hesitation – listed many answers to the implied question in that title, ending with the goal of giving her students a sense that they are part of a bigger world than the relatively narrow one that they already know.  At the end of Jessica’s visit, Deb offered an eloquent tribute to the kind of model that she provides for every teacher – a tribute with which we could all agree.

Charles Dickens hoped that his fiction would bring his readers together – as if they were all gathered around the warmth of a sitting-room fireplace – so that they could unite in a common undertaking, one that would allow them to share vicariously the same feelings, desires, expectations, and satisfactions.  For Dickens, this was an important ethical matter, a way of defining his work as a social good.  When I think back on the seminar that the fellows and I participated in and the literature that we read and the conversations that we had, I am moved to suggest that in a classroom at Yale in the summer of 2016 we embodied Dickens’s ideal.  We had the advantage of being in each other’s presence – not something that Dickens’s widely spread and diverse audience could manage, except when he was giving public recitations of his work.  Like his readers, however, we came together from afar, from Tulsa and Berkeley and Richmond and New Haven, as people facing different challenges in the classroom, having had different previous experiences of reading, and having come from very different backgrounds; and our discussions led to remarkable revelations that we shared many of the same concerns and hopes and values.  In sitting in that room together, we proved, day after day, how moved we could be as we recognized the connections that reading a work of literature had created among us.  So I can now answer the more skeptical form of the question that we could have pursued:  Does literature matter?  Yes, it does.  And for the gift of that certainty, I will remain deeply grateful to the fellows with whom I had the honor of working in this seminar.

Janice Carlisle


  1. There are so many books with the titles that are various combinations of the two words Literature and Matters, that I was able to photograph a pile of them as an illustration to the talk I gave for all the fellows in the 2016 Yale National Initiative:
  2. When in our last meeting I raised the issue of my discomfort with the way in which the readings of our seminar could be construed as a marginalization of the works by African-American, Latina, and Asian-American writers, the fellows explained how they solved that problem by arranging their syllabi according to theme rather than according to chronology.
  3. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 6.