An Apology for Literature

An Apology for Literature

by Arlette Hernandez

I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the early modern period. All throughout high school, I dreaded reading Shakespeare. My first English class in college, a seminar on revenge tragedies, was painful. It felt like weights were pulling down on my arms as I waded my way through the prose of Middleton and Kyd and Marlowe. As compelling as the plots sounded, reading something like The Spanish Tragedy was made difficult by the fact that it seemed so dated and irrelevant. Though, I’ll never forget some of the real gems I found in Shakespeare’s plays.

It wasn’t until this year in my literary theory class that I began to gain an appreciation for the early modern period. And all thanks to Sir Philip Sidney.

In 1595, Sir Philip Sidney, a prominent figure and author of the Elizabethan period published his essay An Apology for Poetry, also known as A Defence of Poesy. The essay was a response to The School of Abuse (1579), “a moralistic attack on poetry written by Puritan minister Stephen Gosson and dedicated (without leave) to Sidney himself” (Richter 112). Commenting on contemporary perceptions of the arts, Sidney writes, “Poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughingstock of children” (116). The rest of the piece is an attempt to restore poetry’s dignity, while overturning all the claims lain against it.

But even though this essay was written in the 16th century, I cannot help but think of our current socio-political moment every time I read it. There’s been a lot of talk about the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. And looking at the departmental statistics of any university, one can see a decrease in the popularity of subjects within the arts and humanities. English departments across the nation are struggling to recruit majors, while business programs are seeing an influx of students (look below for some fun infographics). All this to say, our society seems to privilege the “practical,” or the “scientific” while marginalizing the arts and the humanities. Every time I tell someone I’m an English major the immediate response I get is, “Oh, what are you going to do with that?” or “You’re not going to make a lot of money.” History is repeating itself, and a lot of us in the arts are finding our craft under attack.

The Most Popular College Majors 2012

From Visually.

My goal is not to cause a rift or demonize any one party, but rather to emphasize the importance of the arts in our society. As someone who wants to go into education, I’m always thinking about the different ways I would run a classroom, and literature and creative writing always plays an important role.

I’ve gone to public schools my whole life—both really good ones, and some that were not so good. But one of the things I’ve seen repeatedly is a student withdrawing the moment he or she can’t emotionally invest in their own education. I think that’s why many of my teachers in elementary school were so adamant about acknowledging holidays like Black History Month. How are you supposed to reach out to a classroom full of students of color who are either keenly or subliminally aware of their position in society from watching television shows or the five o’clock news or even just going to the grocery store with their parents?

Here is where literature comes in, and here is why I think it’s so important.

I had never read a novel written by a person of color until I left high school. By the beginning of my freshman year of college, I had read five Shakespeare plays, poems by Wordsworth and Keats, and “canonical” novels like Madame Bovary, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Catcher in the Rye; but nothing by Morrison or Hurston or Ellison. I never saw myself in the curriculum except as a slave or an impoverished immigrant; always as an “oppressed minority,” rarely as a successful person.

No kid should have to go through this. We need to teach our kids that for every Joseph Conrad, there is a Chinua Achebe. For every Emily Dickinson, a Gwendolyn Brooks. English is without a doubt a “practical” major. It teaches people how to think critically and how to engage with history, psychology, and our physical and social surroundings. We can’t give up on literature because it has so much to teach us. And we especially can’t give up on the production of contemporary literature because with every publication of novel written by a woman or a person of color, a queer individual or an immigrant, a disabled person or a religious minority, we are reshaping a literary canon that has traditionally excluded several of these groups. These works show disadvantaged students that they have a place in our society, in the world, while increasing the overall empathy of a classroom’s students. Encouraging a student to engage in the arts shows them that they have the power to produce things, that their voices can be heard, and their experiences are important.

For these reasons, and so many more, I will always believe in the importance of literature and the arts. I’ll channel my inner Philip Sidney and keep defending it until the day I’m gone.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford St Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2016. Print.

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4 Responses to An Apology for Literature

  1. ferrise20 says:

    Speaking from personal experience, very little literature that my classes studied in high school was written by women or minorities. That doesn’t suggest that the literature we did study was not valuable. Rather, it just means that literary curricula should expand its horizon even further. Sadly, it’s true that many people fail to see the value of literature in education, especially as most college students pursue more ‘practical’ fields. I appreciate this reminder of literature’s practical role in society. It certainly does impact the study of everything from history to psychology. There is so much valuable knowledge to gain from it. Arlette’s discussion of the significance of contemporary literature by minorities rings true today, especially as some groups have traditionally been discriminated against and excluded from the art.

  2. Virginia Kettles says:

    Arlette, your piece struck home for me. As an avid reader growing up, I remember immediately noticing the disparity when it came to representation of my parents in the books I read. While I recognized my father in many of the dozens upon dozens of white, male characters, my mother, with her brown skin and immigrant status, was never represented. In middle school and high school, the few people of color found in the novels we read were always presented as someone of a lower status, serving only to enhance the plot or make the hero learn something about themselves. If a person grows up reading books in which the few people who look like them are maids, slaves, crooks, concubines…it leaves a mark. I’m glad you’re calling attention to this, and hope you push for a broader and more diverse range of books to better serve students, if and when you go into education.

  3. Sierra Terrana says:

    Arlette, I really love this post. Having also been pushed in the direction of the more “practical” professions, I appreciate your emphasis on literature’s value in everyday society. In high school, I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to literature written by and about a wide variety of minorities, and I know now that I should not have taken that for granted. Your comment regarding the arts as a platform by which individuals, especially minorities, can make their voices heard is great, and I think that this is one of the most important roles of literature in the lives of young people.

  4. Laurel Myers says:

    As a fellow English major, I have been asked the same questions about future jobs and financial security. Even though these questions can make me question that I am in the right major, realizing that passion and drive are equally, if not more, important in my academic career encourages me to stay on the path. Your passion for literature and the power of words is evident in this post, and I am certain being in a class taught by you would be an enriching and inspirational experience.

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