Literature and other art forms celebrate and grapple with what it means to be human. In 1941, as the United States was entering World War II, Lionel Trilling composed a wonderful essay, “The Meaning of a Literary Idea.” Trilling asserted that great literature expends enormous energy on the “recalcitrant stuff of life” without providing solutions. In other words, powerful literature addresses the mess, upheavals large and small. It delves into sundry situations brimming with paradoxes, contradictions, and ironies, and offers insight (not answers) into human dilemmas on an intellectual and emotional level.
The coronavirus pandemic means that many of us—and our families, friends, neighbors, students, and colleagues—are dealing with challenges different from the ones we usually face. Going to the grocery store, the gas station, taking a walk, visiting the doctor’s office, and many other routines are no longer routine. And many people are facing much more daunting problems. As the semester nears a close, it’s important we don’t forget why the works we study and teach are vital. Boccaccio’s The Decameron
, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year
, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man
, Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider
, Camus’ The Plague
, or Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie
won’t accelerate the quest for a vaccine, but they do provide understanding in much the same way that Whitman’s Drum Taps
, Melville’s Battle Pieces
, Tolstoy’s War and Peace
, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
, and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
provide insight into people’s plights during war.
I am not suggesting that we spend the rest of the semester discussing literature about pandemics, or that we turn our courses into forums on pandemics. All of the works I mentioned deal with particular historical circumstances, but what makes them powerful is how they depict the mix of thoughts and emotions that reflect our humanity. No other art form, or human endeavor, does this as well as literature. It’s why literature matters. Hence, no matter what you are teaching, I urge you to share with your students and others why literature and the arts are essential.
Below are a few things that I’ve found helpful of late.
1) The Poetry Foundation’s page of resources for teaching
2) A poem by one ALSCW member and translated by another (Clare also is a former ALSCW president):Try to Praise the Mutilated WorldBy Adam ZagajewskiTranslated by Clare Cavanagh
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
3) And a song by Gram Parsons with Emmy Lou HarrisErnest Suarez
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English