National Council of Teachers of English to Gatsby: “Move Over!”

This is not a book review, but rather my response to a recent piece on School Library Journal, a follow-on to an earlier, longer piece about the results of a survey. In collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English, the editors of that publication pursued a project called “Refreshing the Canon.” In case you did not know the meaning of that term, they helpfully provide one: “books considered classics by U.S. educators.” Reading this news filled me with dismay, but not surprise.  Both SLJ and the NCTE have long expressed concern about representation and diversity in literature, a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion in the educational community. They also advocate attracting students to literature by offering them contemporary books which, superficially at least, seem to reflect their own lives.  Reading these recent works is a terrific idea, but, without the tradition behind them, it creates a sadly superficial image of how reading enriches our lives and deepens our understanding of our world

I fully understand that this list does not represent book burning, book banning, or official censorship. It is not the equivalent of Florida’s outrageous attack on LGBTQ students or on math textbooks that dare to mention social inequality or the contributions of Black mathematicians.  However, the National Council of Teachers of English is not, presumably, proceeding from the same motives as the governor of a red state determined to roll back political, economic, and social progress. That organization, along with SLJ, should be committed to protecting and promoting literacy and to encouraging the highest standards for students and other young readers.  The entire tone of “Refreshing the Canon” sends the message that the books on this list are past their shelf life, whether in the library or in a student’s living room.

What is the problem with the books on this list? Some, apparently, fail to meet the criteria of “relevancy of subject and theme, diversity and representation, and the contemporary needs and interests of current students.”  The first failing is obvious in some of the books, and I don’t wish to repeat the arguments about whether or not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be addressed in the context of its era and still considered one of the greatest American works of literature.  I actually believe that the second part of the stated requirements, “relevancy,” may be more insidious.  It’s entirely clear that reading Shakespeare is more challenging than reading contemporary poetry.  Perhaps it is unrealistic for most students to take on his poetry or drama as independent reading, although some would welcome the opportunity to do so.  Other books are the list would seem less obviously “irrelevant.” 

At first glance, the inclusion of Catcher in the Rye might seem puzzling. It’s short, and its central premise is the insensitivity and essential “phoniness” of adults.  But apparently the compassion, empathy and biting humor in its exposure of mid-twentieth century hypocrisy is too difficult to read today.  There are still cultural and political references, as well as language, which are as seemingly distant as the world of Shakespeare. 

Then there is The Great Gatsby. Again, it is not a daunting four hundred plus pages like The Grapes of Wrath. If progressive ideals are part of the equation in choosing books, Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel is a profound questioning of the American dream and, like Steinbeck’s, of capitalism itself.  Yet SLJ confidently proclaims that, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it can be found “topping the list of titles that should go.” Make no mistake, the argument that this list is only a recommendation is belied by the language used in making its case.

Finally, the graphic presented reveals which books were considered most and least toxic.  Ayn Rand’s Anthem earned fewer objections than Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, or the works of Shakespeare. Rand’s poorly-written endorsement of individualism and capitalism, a book which never even appeared on school reading lists until it began to be heavily promoted by corporate fans of her philosophy. Yet it provoked a milder reaction than some of the literature which is most powerfully critical of American inequality. Did everyone who responded to the SLJ survey read these books?

I hope that readers might be inspired to take a look at these works of literature, which are actually of varying quality, but all about to be tossed into the dustbin of history.  To paraphrase the quote often attributed to Trotsky, you may not be interested in Gatsby, but Gatsby is interested in you.  Pick up his book again and bring it back to your students with renewed excitement.

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