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There are many people who say Who cares what students are reading so long as they are reading something. This may be a useful argument (especially if you hate reading) but consider the following. Imagine the Indy 500. Everyone pulls up to the start with their vehicles, shining and powerful, ready to race at breakneck speeds. A final racer pulls up in a golf cart. He should be fine, right? He is, after all, driving something. And while it is true he will finish the race, this racer will be left behind by more prepared, better equipped racers. The same is true for readers. A student whose teachers recognize the importance of teaching the themes and content found in some of the most revered American novels of all time is simply better prepared and equipped to excel in higher education. That said, let us look briefly at some of the most important novels in American history.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
One of the most controversial (and consistently ranked among the best) American novels ever written, Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn perennially retains its place among the literary worlds treasures. Initially, the novel was met with some resistance because of its realistically vulgar depiction of not only American culture but American vernacular (style of language). In fact, even today the language is a major issue and it has not been uncommon for schools to ban the book from their libraries.
At its very simplest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about contradiction, about ambivalence, the gray area between what is right and what is wrong, especially regarding civilized society. After faking his own death, Huck Finn, the child of an abusive drunk father in St. Petersburg Missouri, takes off along the Mississippi River with a runway slave, Jim. He is constantly faced with decisions pitting him between what is right according to society and what is right according to morality. This theme (among many, many others) has allowed the book to withstand the test of time far more than its language.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) A biography of perhaps the wittiest (if not most talented) writer in American literary history.
Huck Finn Resources The links on this page from Virginia University lead to information regarding the book in its time and in ours.
The Mark Twain Papers & Project An amazing resource, Mark Twains papers, those he made available to his biographer, include letters, manuscripts, and more to get to the Clemens behind the Twain.
Racism and Huckleberry Finn There are many people, black and white, who feel that some scenes and the language used to tell the story of Huck Finn perpetuates racism.
The Fight over Huck Finn Continues Read about one Harvard professor who travels the country lecturing schools on the importance of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Grapes of Wrath
A common trait of most Great American Novels is realism. In order to create an American literary identity, writers had to capture what it American life was really about whether those ideas centered on honor and morality or vulgarity and baseness. The Grapes of Wrath continues this tradition, and it, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before it, saw a ferocious reaction from the American people. In an irony usually reserved for the space between the covers of a book, many Americans responded to being depicted as volatile and violent by burning the book in volatile and violent displays.
The book told the tale of migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, times of great impoverishment in American history. Tom Joad, the protagonist of the story, and his family take off for California in search of work. The only problem with their plan is that, because of the Dust Bowl, thousands upon thousands of people have thought up the same plan, and there is simply not enough work to go around. To keep the workers dependent and desperate for work, the landowners pay little to the migrant workers, and the reader meets many characters whose children have died of starvation, and who are on the verge of it themselves. Through it all, Tom, whose attitude was largely ego-centric at the beginning of the novel, turn, with the help of a preacher, toward ideas of community and compassion. This major theme of the novel, combined with the poetic language and graphic scenes, keep the novels place as one of the best books ever written, and hundreds of thousands are still sold yearly.
Weedpatch Camp Take a virtual tour of Arvin Federal Government Camp, the place in Bakersfield, California on which Steinbeck based his Weedpatch Camp.
Steinbeck Timeline Learn about the important dates in John Steinbecks life, and how they shaped one of the most important people in American literary and social history.
Voices from the Dust Bowl Read about what life was really like during the Dust Bowl. These lives were what inspired Steinbeck to put pen to paper and to tell their story.
Reading The Grapes of Wrath Read through this classic book with Cornell University as they guide you with their New Student Reading Project Website and their blog.
The Grapes of Wrath Webquest A webquest, a guided activity through the internet, is the perfect way to gain a well-rounded education in a particular subject.
Of Mice and Men
Beloved by many adults for its heart-wrenching tale (and by many students for its short length) Of Mice and Men is a classic which continues to be taught in classrooms across the United States. Like Grapes of Wrath, this is also a tale centering around migrant workers, though the themes do differ.
Like most books which came to be known as American classics, Of Mice and Men was not met with open arms by the American people. Of course, this fact might have actually helped Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath even as he reworked Of Mice and Men into a play script, deal with the eventual criticism he would receive for The Grapes of Wrath.
The themes of sacrifice, friendship, and community resonated enough with the American public to withstand the initial backlash from some and become a book which remains widely-taught in American schools. It is the story of Lenny, a large mentally handicapped migrant farmer, and George, Lennys best friend and something of a caretaker, as Lenny tends not to know his own strength. They have been run out of the last place in which they lived and have come to a new farm in search of work.
Throughout the novel, the friendship of George and Lenny is tested, as is the idea of the American Dream. One of the major themes or ideas is that the American Dream is contradictory to the American reality, that expectations of fairness and prosperity are quickly dashed without the advantage of money.
History of Of Mice and Men being Banned Read about instances of Of Mice and Men being banned, and the reasons for it.
The Center for Steinbeck Studies A resource on all things John Steinbeck. Every book, and the rationale for reading them.
Poverty in Of Mice and Men A webquest about the rampant poverty of the migrant workers during the American Great Depression.
Steinbecks California Towns A list and the importance of the cities in Steinbecks California.
Study Questions Quiz yourself and make sure you fully understand what happened in Of Mice and Men.
To Kill a Mockingbird
For all the time teachers spend teaching the mechanics of language, it is funny how many American classics have endured because of timeless themes. While the authors on this list are undoubtedly adept at applying the English language, the reason they continue to be read has little to do with sentence structure and more to do with the ability they had to appeal to the human spirit through seemingly singular events. Twain wrote about the pre-Civil war south, Steinbeck about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, about racial relations in Alabama before the Civil Rights Movement, yet all these authors are read today because they were writing about something greater, something stronger than time and place, something permanent and enduring.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Scout Finch and her ability to stand up for what was right even when the stakes were high. The story centers on Scout as she tries to work out what is right when an African-American man is falsely accused of raping a white woman in her small Alabama town. The major concept is that of fairness, and the fact that while it may not be a daily reality it is something worth fighting for. Scout and a few other characters do stand up for what is right and, though it does not work out to the fullest, it is the standing that remains the lasting concept.
To Kill a Mockingbird Vocabulary Words Look up these words as you read through the book to further understand what is happening.
The Jim Crow Museum In 2007, a group wanted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird based on exhibits at this museum. This is the museums response.
The Big Read This site gives you a primer, a readers guide, a teachers guide, and an audio guide to ensure you get the most you can out of the book.
Banned and/or Challenged Books A list of the instances of banning To Kill a Mockingbird and the stated reasons for doing so.
The American Spectator This magazine touts the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird is still important, and reviews a documentary to the same effect.
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald,like so many titles of the early-to-mid twentieth century, tackled the American Dream. After the first World War, Americans had seen enough devastation and violence to question the American ethos, the story spoon-fed to the American people from both, and began to see that while America was the land of opportunity in ways no other country was, the dream could quickly become a nightmare. Authors of the era, like Steinbeck, Sinclair (The Jungle), and, later, Lee, realized that while the American Dream stated that with hard work and sacrifice comes opportunity for success, these authors stated that in America hard work and sacrifice was more likely to lead to more hard work and more sacrifice and eventually working yourself to death having sacrificed so much your family could barely scrape together enough cash to get you a suit or dress in which to bury you.
Fitzgerald writes about the Roaring Twenties, also known as The Jazz Age, and, rather than focusing, like Steinbeck, on the poor of the era, focused on the rich. The novels star is a young man by the name of Jay Gatsby, a rich thirty-something who rose from poverty to wealth through participating in organized crime, mostly bootlegging liquor. Gatsby is in love with a beautiful socialite, and Nick Carraway, Gatsbys neighbor who was invited to the party in which the story opens, is taken aback (and a little disgusted) by the gaudy displays of wealth by Gatsby. The shallowness and materialism of Gatsby is a microcosm of the shallowness and materialism of the time, and these characteristics of American society that Fitzgerald is addressing.
The Great Gatsby Analysis of the work and the author, and why both remain important today.
Questions of Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby Consider the questions on this site, and maybe even suggest a group activity for your class to better understand the book.
Introduction to The Great Gatsby Put the work in some context with this introduction, ensuring nothing about the book confuses you that isnt supposed to.
Top Ten Reasons you should Read the Great Gatsby Stonehill College believes The Great Gatsby is still important not only in the classroom, but in life, and gives you the reasons for it.
The Great Gatsby Study Questions Make sure you enter class knowing everything you can about the book.
Posted by Grace Nancy
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