Why Do We Care About Literature of the Past?

In 1574, an Italian courtier named Stefano Guazzo published a book entitled Civil Conversation, meant to serve as an etiquette guidebook, particularly for women and how to be the most successful wife for your noble husband. In 1813, Jane Austen came forward with Pride & Prejudice, a groundbreaking novel of the time that challenges gender and socioeconomic roles in 19th century England. In 1985, Margaret Atwood released The Handmaid’s Tale, an unsettling dystopian novel that explores the haunting suppression of women in the recent modern day. These books span over four hundred years of literature, and yet each brings a new angle to the same discussion: a woman’s place in society. This comprehensive, historical look at a pervasive social issue such of this allows for a more multifaceted way of understanding our current perception of women and can even inform new ways to move forward today. This concept is true for any number of the damaging issues and ideologies we continue to perpetuate. From race to gender and even sociopolitical factors, recognizing the birthplace of these biases and the impact they had over time, allows us to better understand the way we think today, and how to even shift those beliefs to be more inclusive.

One way to move forward is to more actively engage with this literature of the past, particularly in the classroom. Take Edgar Allan Poe, for example. As an American writer who did not live to see the end of the Civil War, his works reflect an attitude indifferent toward the conversation on race during this time, as they were never openly critical of the slave trade or treatment of African Americans. In his story, The Gold Bug, the protagonist, William Legrand, has an African American servant named Jupiter who fulfills many of the racist stereotypes of the 19th century, including his jilted dialect, low intelligence, and complete lack of independence and agency. Furthermore, at many points throughout the story, he serves as a scapegoat, being harshly blamed for any of his mistakes, and is then further degraded by Legrand and his friend’s casual use of the n-word.

An illustration from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Gold Bug. Jupiter, with exaggerated features meant to critique his race, can be found on the right. Source: Eichenberg, Fritz. “The Gold Bug.” Shakespeare is My Religion, 1944. https://richnovotney.com/tag/gold-bug/.

Over two hundred years after the story was published, some readers may try to shy away from this cruel treatment Jupiter, and other African Americans in Poe’s literature, refusing to recognize the demeaning way an entire group of people was treated. However, it is important to acknowledge the pervasiveness of these aggressions in this culture and literature and then compare them to some of the same aggressions we witness in our own lives. Not only that, but understanding the evolution of these relationships through time, and this progression of racial tensions, can help readers better understand an uncensored history of America. Some can find it easy to brush off certain racist comments or behaviors, claiming they are not as bad as some make it out to be. Yet literature can force them to bluntly face these cruelties and the long history of these abuses, possibly even changing someone’s perspective.

This way of viewing historical literature, however, does not come without its dangers—namely the offensive and triggering qualities they contain for the groups being represented. Bearing this in mind, it important to recognize these truths and discuss them in a way that is inoffensive and actively considers the implications and even possible solutions moving forward. Many times, these more complex, nuanced conversations are avoided in the high school classrooms where authors like Poe are introduced, but this also means ignoring an entire aspect of his writing. In a more socially aware culture today, these conversations are more critical than even in moving forward.

At the very least, understanding the literature of the past demonstrates the power of words, of being published. While it may be difficult to place oneself in a world two centuries, or more, in the past, there is a wealth of information to understand and engage with that can further shape our ideologies and stories today.

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