by Kim Bartenfelder
Falling for a book is a strange, inevitable phenomenon, but to fall for American literature is an especially enlightening experience. You know these books: “In Cold Blood,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Time and time again, American literature has had the ability to span generations, making a reader’s experience of the narrative one that supersedes time. Relying on thematic parallels between reality and fiction, readers are intrigued by the hopes, social commentaries, and love stories that keeps them coming back for a second, third, and maybe even fourth read.
You know these books: “In Cold Blood,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”
At the core is truth to past, actuality of the present, and a glimpse into the future. By intertwining narrative and a larger social commentary, the genre functions to serve the American public. That these timeless pieces of literature can be reinterpreted and expanded upon throughout the years, speaks to a vast audience.
More often than not, people reflect on past experiences to guide them through current obstacles in their lives. The same can be true of literature. American literature revolves around the idea of the past and gives readers insights into how best to [not] repeat it. The canon is stimulated and driven by social issues, and diverse enough that the modern day reader can live and learn from the books contained within it.
In one of the most monumental books in American literature, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), author Harper Lee critiques racial injustice, innocence, law, and education with brutal honesty. She asserts throughout the text the mortal sin and logical inconsistency of killing a mockingbird. Contextually, a mockingbird represents innocence, portrayed in characters like Boo Radley, the mysterious figure throughout the novel, and Tom Robinson, the African-American man falsely charged with the rape of a white woman. Lee’s novel confronts the splintered relations between white-normative society and other races in a frank, but literary way.
It’s also worth taking into account the influence of the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” released in December of 1962 and featuring many noteworthy actors. The physical transformation to film enabled viewers to watch the words of the pages play out and draw comparisons to their lives in real time. Lee’s novel is still taught in schools today, used in social rhetoric, and loved by generations of readers, making it a monolith in American literature for examining social frameworks.
The canon is stimulated and driven by social issues, and diverse enough that the modern day reader can live and learn from the books contained within i
Another renowned— yet distinctly different— product of love, secrecy, and immortal hope is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925), which depicts the American social hierarchy and true love. The characters represent the levels of wealth, a dramatic love triangle allowing readers to place themselves on Team Gatsby or Team Tom in the fight for Daisy’s love and loyalty. Ultimately, the hunger for power and status is all-consuming, and readers are faced with the detriment of social hierarchies and the destruction and pain that love can cause.
Fitzgerald’s novel emphasizes the pure lavishness of living one’s best life. After the 1929 stock market crash and the great depression, however, many Americans were forced to reflect on their spending habits, materialistic lifestyles, and survival. The characters and their stories were no longer relatable, but might have served as an escape from reality and a suggestion to future generations about the perils of wealth and recklessness. Adaptations have also been made of Fitzgerald’s work, including at least six different films, and for reasons no less compelling than Lee’s narrative, the ideas remain personal and applicable to vast audiences.
American classics are not intended for scholars and students to beat to death with analysis. They must be experienced and enjoyed. But they should also be used to detail the social issues that are present in our lives, for they are essential to instructing readers about the past, engaging young minds to think independently, and encouraging cultural metamorphosis.