Make Washington Irving Great Again!


August 29, 2018

I’m teaching an undergraduate, junior-level American Lit course this semester. It begins with colonials and runs through Walt Whitman. Elizabeth Renker’s The Origins of American Literature Studies, which covers the history of the American Lit curriculum, is on the reading list along with the longer Norton anthology, 9th edition.

Renker’s study has fascinated me over the past few years since Baylor, where I teach, and other universities have been revamping the curriculum. In recent decisions, our College of Arts and Sciences has settled on an American Cultures class as the one core English class for all students.

As an Americanist, it’s tough to argue with this decision. But it’s troubling for those on the British side and for those who specialize in writing. Ironically, Renker reminds us that writing and British Lit were once at the top, and American Literature was the “step child” of American education.

American patriotism after World War One and World War Two greatly impacted the teaching of American Lit, and I’m left wondering how the latest wave of “Make America Great Again” is being factored into our current curriculum changes.

In my American Literature classes, we always discuss definitions for “great” and “American,” and we also talk about “early” if it’s an Early American Lit class. These definitions are fuzzy and open to interpretation.

For example, an American was once an inhabitant of the Americas, and now it typically means a citizen of the country. Early could mean Native-American culture, explorers, or colonials. Literature has dozens of definitions.

Beyond literature, America is split on the definition of “greatness” as it relates to America’s past, which further muddies the waters. Some want to look back to “the good old days” and bring back values from a perceived exemplary past. On the other side, some view the past as horrific, not great, and want to do much better in the future.

I’m not here to take a strong stance on any of the issues presented, but I am left wondering if Mr. Washington Irving, “The Father of American Literature,” might benefit from current and future waves of American patriotism.

Instead of specializing in one particular American author, scholars follow the trend to focus on a specialized theoretical approach (Atlantic studies, disability studies, and such). But is that trend open to change, not because of pressures from the “ivory tower,” but from cultural pressures?

Might the need for Washington Irving and a Washington Irving scholar one day be more valuable than it currently is?

Let’s make Washington Irving great again, I say!

Published in: on August 29, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. What great concepts, all of them and how very precise! As a ‘Brit’ (i.e. I happen to hold a British passport) I can only offer you my condolences for having to define what the ‘great’ in “Let’s make xxx great again!” actually means.
    As a lover of Washington Irving and his tales, ( and all good literature) I envy you your fascinating work.
    Thank you for an enlightening article.
    Regards. Marie.


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