Date of this Version
English Journal 100.5 (2011): 47-53
A teacher breathes new life into canonical works—such as those of Hawthorne, Melville, and Longfellow—by asking students to examine the differences and similarities between their own reading tastes and those of 19th-century American readers.
taste. What do our students expect from the books they read? And that question sur faces a related one about readers in Hawthorne's time: What did 19th-century readers expect from their texts and how did Melville's and Hawthorne's work address or interact with those expectations? Curious about the connections between my stu dents' reading tastes and those of 19th-century readers, I read Nina Baym's excellent text Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebel lum America to gain a sense of how readers in the 1800s might have thought about the texts that they read. Nineteenth-century readers wanted their novel to be a "story proper" (or a "novel proper") with a beginning, middle, and end. There could be complicated action and nonlinear events, but the events needed to cohere; plot was essential (Baym, Novels 71). Novels should not be allegories because allegories were too simple; similarly, characters should develop and not simply be vehicles for con cepts (92). Because novels should seek to improve us as people, they should have some kind of moral or "meaning" (we call this "theme"), but the narra tor shouldn't overtly moralize (126—27): "A novel of good moral tendency created love and esteem for one's fellow human beings; one of bad tendency made for misanthropy" (176). Dialogue—or "con versations" as it was called in the 19th century— should be "spirited and thoughtful" and should be believable for the character speaking. To see where my urban high school students lined up with Baym's synthesis of what 19th century readers looked for in novels, I generated a chart outlining her findings and asked students to agree or disagree, making sure to provide reasons. I was surprised to find a strong overlap: the students' surveys revealed that they also wanted to read nov els for pleasure; that believable and natural dialogue was central to a book being a "good read"; that nov els should have an identifiable plot (a beginning, middle, and end); and, finally, my students agreed that allegories were uninteresting as novels (which certainly helped me understand their aversion to excerpts of Moby Dick). Once I had a deeper sense of the reading tastes that underpinned my students' approach to writers such as Hawthorne and Mel ville, I was better prepared to confront this openly, using their frustrated question "Who actually read this stuff?" to frame the unit and drive our conver sations on mid-19th-century American literature.