Young People And Old Literature

Olivier Oberon Wuthering HeightsPhoto Credit: Photo of Lawrence Olivier (as Heathcliff) and Merle Oberon (as Catherine) in the 1939 film version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, from The Film Daily, January 12, 1940, published by Wid’s Film And Film Folk, Inc.: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

I think sometimes we make too many assumptions about young people when it comes to art and literature. I know that I did. I assumed young people (I’m talking here especially about teenagers and young adults) simply were no longer interested in literature from the past. Classic literature was too heavy for them, classic film too slow-moving, and the old masters of painting and music too confusing and antiquated.

But I came across an article by author Amanda Holmes titled “Reading Wuthering Heights With Juvenile Offenders” recently. Holmes’ story about working with first-time youth offenders (most of them girls) in a reading program reminded me of some of my own experiences teaching literature to freshmen college students. Some works of literature and art can transcend the boundaries of age.

Holmes admits that her decision to include Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights on the reading list for the program was a risk. She points out that many of the young people in the program struggle with reading and for some, English is not their first language. But, she writes, “thousands of girls their age have read and responded to Wuthering Heights and I wanted to prove it could also speak to them.” (Holmes, par. 3).

Using a 19th century text poses more challenges than using a text that was published in the 20th century and certainly the 21st century. Going into the differences between 19th and 20th century literature is way beyond the scope of this post, but 19th century fiction has much to recommend it. In this article in the New York Times, Richard Bernstein says that 19th century novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn have a “mightiness of theme, … narrative power [and] transgressive originality” (Bernstein, par. 7) that many 20th century novels just don’t have. Such literary qualities make them harder to understand for many of the younger generation who have grown up with the ease of Google searches, Facebook walls, and Twitter tweets, all of which require much less time, effort, and concentration than trying to decipher Victorian idioms. Pair this with the different (and sometimes absurd) social rules depicted in many of these novels and you come up with a very poor motivation for anybody, not just young people, to reject, say, Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland in favor of a Harry Potter book when they’re looking to get caught up in a fantasy read.

But harder doesn’t mean impossible and young people are much smarter and more world-wise now than in the past and they can extract more from these stories than adults might. The trick is to bring the ideas of any artistic work from the past into terms that will relate to those in the present. Holmes talks about putting the story of Wuthering Heights and its characters in terms that her students could relate to. This included discussions on Heathcliff’s bullying, mental health, and manipulation and biases. While characters might live during a time that is unfamiliar or remote, their struggles, emotions, and triumphs are universal and that’s where art can touch young people’s lives.

I found this out when I taught an introduction to literature course about ten years ago. The course was one of those general education courses that first-year students are required to take so it included largely students from other majors besides literature. They were very young Midwesterners who had better things to do than read short stories and novels. The course required students to read a short novel of my choice and the English department provided us with a list of the most popular choices. However, I made the decision to go off the list. I chose a novella written by Henry James called Washington Square, published in 1880. I felt, like Holmes, that I was taking a risk because the novella is a psychological fiction piece, less about action and more about human drama. James is known to be a wordy writer though Washington Square is considered one of his most accessible works. But I felt that I could get my students interested in the psychological aspects of the novella while learning to do the kind of literary analysis that the course required.

The decision ended up working for my classes. While students did grumble about the language and pace that they weren’t used to, they found a lot in the story to interest them. I discuss the story a bit in my post about adaptability in fiction. My students were intrigued by Morris’ gaslighting and wanted to see whether he would succeed in winning Catherine’s hand or not. They could identify with Catherine’s situation, since Catherine was about their age, and many were sympathetic towards Catherine’s disillusionment about her father. They also found Aunt Lavinia’s overblown romanticism entertaining.

Holmes mentions in her article that one of the ways in which she broke through the resistance of her students to Bronte’s novel was to relate it to something more accessible to young people. In her case, this was a pop song. She says, “I played them a recording of Kate Bush singing ‘Wuthering Heights’ and as they listened, something behind their eyes began to change.” Bush’s song sums up, in a very dramatic and intriguing way, the ghostly love between Kathy and Heathcliff and indeed makes you want to read the book.

I did something similar with the James’ novel. I’ve always found literature easier to understand and more enjoyable when put into context. I put students into groups to discuss the book in different contexts, such as historical (what was going on during the mid-19th century, when the book takes place? How does it relate to the events in the book?), social (What were some of the social rules regarding men and women during the mid-19th century that might explain the behavior of the characters), and biographical (What are some things in Henry James’ life that went into the writing of this book that might have influenced it?). One group had the task of relating the book to the film version made in 1949 called The Heiress. This became a lesson in the power of literature on young people for me. By chance, the group included two rather tall and muscular young men who were athletics majors. I was nervous about how they would view the book alongside the classic film. These students gave some of the most thoughtful discussions about the book in light of the film and one of them even came up to me after class to tell me how much he really enjoyed both.

I know the trend these days is to “update” classic stories using popular trends, especially in films, such as inserting zombies in Austen’s Pride And Prejudice  and adding hip-hop versions of songs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I have nothing against this but I think that searching for the common ground in literary classics still makes them more than worthwhile for younger readers.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Richard. “Critic’s Notebook: 19th Century Novelists, Stop Spinning In Your Graves”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 28 July 1998. Web. 24 August 2016.

Holmes, Amanda. “Reading Wuthering Heights With Juvenile Offenders”. Women Writers, Women’s Books. Women Writers, Women’s Books. 25 April 2015. Web. 24 August 2016.

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