Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Missing out on timeless literature

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Guest View: Southern literature never ceases to inspire

This op-ed originally appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and The New Bedford Standard Times.

By Jamie Gass

Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

August 09, 2013 12:00 AM

“He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice,” Mississippi’s William Faulkner said of man upon receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, “but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

New Englanders can rightfully claim to have been America’s 19th-century literary hub, but no other regional landscape dominated 20th-century literature like the South and its genius for storytelling. Famously, Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, Chickasaw for “split land,” provided the setting for his most inspired novels.

American high school students should read Southern writers like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning “The Moviegoer.” Percy crafted stories about “the dislocation of man in the modern age,” while contributing to a “community of discourse” around fiction writing. His Greenville, Miss., was a wellspring of outstanding writers.

Greenville’s patriarch, William Alexander Percy, was a lawyer, planter and poet from a suicide-plagued family. He authored the best-selling 1941 memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” His second cousin, Walker Percy, and Walker’s lifelong best friend, Shelby Foote, were both young when they lost their fathers. Will Percy’s book-filled house became a sanctuary for writers, journalists and musicians, as the man himself mentored a region.

“I was like a colt in clover among all those books,” Shelby Foote said of Percy’s library. Foote later wrote six novels mostly set in the Mississippi Delta and spent 20 years writing his magisterial three-volume, 3,000-page, and 1.2 million-word, “The Civil War: A Narrative,” called “America’s Iliad.”

During the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Will Percy organized relief efforts; and, due to his family’s civic leadership, night-riding Ku Klux Klansmen never took hold around Greenville. The black man’s terror-filled existence in much of 1930s Mississippi was voiced by Robert Johnson, the immortal Delta bluesman, “I got to keep movin'”¦ blues fallin’ down like hail “¦ there’s a hellhound on my trail.”

Guided by fellow writers Caroline Gordon and her husband Allen Tate, Walker Percy overcame tuberculosis and depression to write descriptive, playfully philosophical books, including “The Last Gentleman” (1966), “Love in the Ruins” (1971), and “Lost in the Cosmos” (1983), focusing on how language, freedom, humor and grace can overcome crushing despair.

Walker Percy helped the grieving New Orleans mother of John Kennedy Toole publish her dead son’s tragicomedic masterpiece, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” after Toole had committed suicide. In 1981, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “All literature must draw attention to meaning beyond the moment; to man’s eternal destiny.”

The same South that produced America’s best music — from gospel, blues and jazz, to country and rock & roll — also generated many other Pulitzer winners: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” (1937), Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” (1947), William Faulkner’s “A Fable and The Reivers” (1955 and 1963), and Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1973).

These novels touch students’ souls and build vocabularies toward tangible results.

Between 2005 and 2011, Massachusetts kids topped their peers in other states on each administration of the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.” Deep immersion in classic fiction, poetry and drama was the source of the Bay State’s success on every reading test imaginable.

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know (it) by this sign,” wrote the 18th-century satirist, Jonathan Swift, “that the dunces are all in confederacy against (it).”

Fatefully, the Obama administration and Washington, D.C.-based education trade organizations, largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are pushing inferior quality K-12 national standards called Common Core, which will cut the classic fiction Massachusetts students will read by 60 percent. Now, America’s 3 million annual high school dropouts won’t be the only ones missing out on timeless literature.

“(We) live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual,” wrote Walker Percy, “because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” Clearly, if the novelist’s duty is to write about humans’ indomitable spirit, it’s the educator’s duty to teach schoolchildren great novels.