Throughout our collective years in the American school system, we have all come across a selection of what we call “the classics.” Since middle school, our literature classes have handed down the works of generations past, whose popularity seems to be upheld only through this tradition.
As we have grown up with this literary history, we recognize more and more how the merits of these works are tempered by their flaws. Though they encompass a vast collection of human experience, many of these works hold outdated and harmful views. Our generation’s push to make the world an inclusive and equal place for everyone is at odds with this dichotomy. So why do we still hold onto these works? Why are they hallowed in the halls of academia? Is it time to let them go in favor of more modern pieces?
The label of a classic novel or play comes simply from its staying power. They often have themes that touch on universal human experiences, such as love, family, loss, and political or social strife. They are influential, shaping the way we look at literature and informing writers of the future. As they weave their way into our society, we use their language and themes to define our own experiences. Though they may have been written decades or centuries ago, we are still able to find something new upon another look. As our context changes, their meaning transforms as well.
For these reasons, it is unfair to say that “the classics” have no merit in the classrooms of today; their influence and worth have spread far beyond the original texts. Mary Shelley invented the genre of science fiction, as well as one of the most recognizable monsters of all time. Sci-fi has pushed the boundaries of science and technology, inspiring many commonplace items today. Shakespeare helped to modernize the English language, and his works are still the basis of almost 3,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Phrases and ideas that are a part of our everyday speech were created or popularized by the Bard (in a pickle, gossip, fashionable). Orwell’s 1984 shapes the way we respond to censorship and surveillance in the political sphere. By learning where these ideas come from, we can better wield or criticize them, based on our own interpretations.
Speaking of criticism, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many of the books we laud as classics were created by, for, and pertain to the issues of the ruling class of their day. Plenty has been said in the past about the cognitive dissonance required to continue praising books we know to be racist, sexist, and in other ways troublingly bigoted. There is certainly something to be said for the idea of critical reading when it comes to these themes. It is possible to read a book, say Jane Eyre, and appreciate it for what it is, while still recognizing the racism and misogyny at play there. We are, after all, looking for deeper meaning within these works.
It’s not hard to grasp that classic literature, like so much of our past, is based on very different views than most of us hold today. That can be a benefit as much as it is a detriment. Just like a history book, reading the classics as a first-hand source from a specific era can give us an unparalleled view into the past. “It is a truth universally acknowledged” that reading Austen can make one an expert on upper-class customs of the Regency period. The Iliad and the Odyssey are incredibly detailed works that have carried Hellenic mythology into the modern era. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde represents contemporary fears of the way that emerging scientific discoveries would clash with existing religion. Perhaps we should hold classic lit at a distance, the same way we do artifacts in a museum.
Perhaps they hold value for their ability to teach us more about the media we create and consume today. So much of new media, especially since remakes came into fashion, is at the very least directly referential to what has been made before. A recent example would be the film The Invisible Man, which is very loosely based on the novel of the same name, but nonetheless gains clarity when understanding it as a sort of remake. This is not a new concept, as many works of classic literature are also directly referential to something else. Hamlet, which consistently sits at the top of lists of the most famous plays of all time, is based on Norse legend of the rulers of Denmark. It may even be a direct rewrite of the play Ur-Hamlet, of which no copy exists today. Hamlet is renaissance Hamilton; Shakespeare was the Lin-Manuel Miranda of his time.
The way our society treats the classics means that the common thought surrounding them is often at least somewhat removed from their original content. While evolving interpretations of a work and the concept of death of the author are often helpful for recontextualizing certain factors of our favorite works (e.g. rereadingHarry Potter post Rowling’s TERF reveal), to completely remove the original meaning of the text would be intellectually dishonest. 1984 was written in the wake of WWII and the effects of totalitarian rule around the globe. Today, right-wing commentators will use the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe a people’s movement for social equality. Yes, these works can be tools to reframe the events of today within the words of the past, but that does not mean they will always apply. That is where we as writers come in: we must continue the narrative.
Writers have been reiterating and building on ideas since the beginning of time. Storytelling began to remember and carry on the histories and legends of our ancestors. As writers, it is valuable to know the history of written English. For the same reason that a Herron student would take an art history course, so too do we read classic literature to learn the history of our craft. Learning the origins of archetypes, plot devices, and tropes that make up the basis of our literary history can make us better and more discerning writers. Who doesn’t love a good subversion? And where classic literature may fall short in encompassing our modern-day struggles, we will be there to record it and interpret it for those who follow in our footsteps.