As high school English classes start up again across the United States, teenagers will be taught today's version of the “canon”-some Mark Twain here, some Nathaniel Hawthorne there, and perhaps some Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The past 100 years may have seen John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, and even such recent works as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight added to the curriculum, while even courses that aren’t American literature-specific have shifted away from specifically British classics—Milton, Tennyson, Scott—to more geographically diverse fare.
But the titles representing the first two centuries of American history are relatively unchanged. In fact, in a survey published by the Renaissance Learning company this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne was “one of the only constants” when high school reading lists were compared from 1907 to 2012. What students probably won’t read this fall are some of the most popular novels from the time of the nation’s birth: books like Hagar by Alice Carey, a Scarlet Letter-like tale with a Gothic spin; or Mary Gove Nichols’s Mary Lyndon, about a woman who wants an open marriage; or William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which centers on Thomas Jefferson’s children by one of his slaves.
Last April, a book by Phillip Gura, professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina, argued that these once-popular, now-overlooked novels are in fact are some of the richest sources available for learning about the themes and great debates of early America. What’s more, purely by looking at the more popular titles from this time, a student might receive a surprisingly diverse and even radical portrait of early 18th- and 19th-century people and morals.
To understand more about Gura’s motivations for this project, encapsulated in Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, and which books he, as an advocate for a more diversified curriculum, has been focusing on, we called him up.
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