Thursday, July 7, 2016

Evangeline and me

Lines recited by a character in Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) brought me back to eighth-grade English:

Ever thicker, thicker, thicker,
Froze the ice on lake and river;
Ever deeper, deeper, deeper,
Fell the snow o’er all the landscape.
I didn’t recognize the words. But that meter: it’s Longfellow. These lines in trochaic tetrameter are from Henry Wadsworth’s Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha .

And now I’m back in eighth-grade English, where we read Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), all of it, in dactylic hexameter. That really was the forest primeval, and we were stuck in it. I remember how old the little hardcover looked in my young, irreverent hands.

A question: what would you regard as the strangest or most inappropriate or most sadly dated assigned reading of your elementary or high-school education? This post gives my answer: hands down, Evangeline .

comments: 10

Elaine Fine said...

The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I was assigned my sophomore year of high school.

Geo-B said...

This is going to sound smart-alecky, but we were reading Shakespeare, Longfellow (for some reason, we had Evangeline and Hiawatha, too), Sophocles; it all sounded old-fashioned, but that is literature--I never registered any of it as the "most sadly dated assigned reading of your elementary or high-school education." (I was raised a Baptist, and the Bible was in 1611 prose, with a lot of thees and thous--I guess I approached reading as a way of connecting with the past)

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, of course, I wouldn’t think of Shakespeare or Sophocles as sadly dated. Notice also though: “strangest or most inappropriate.” To my mind, Evangeline for fourteen-year-olds is a pretty strange choice. With all the things you could ask someone to read! High school was more promising: I remember Ionesco and Kafka in English class, and Borges on my own time. How I found my way to Borges I have no idea.

The Crow said...

I thought Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner' was older than dust, until I got into the story. (10th grade English lit class.)

Geo-B said...

The US government invaded Cambodia in 1970, and protests at Kent State University led to shootings of students by the Ohio State National Guard. My school, Northwestern University, was among many that were closed by protesters in response, and classes were suspended, put on strike status, and otherwise disrupted. In a geology class, the professor duplicated a number of Borges stories and distributed them to the class, and I was stunned and impressed. Very luckily I later had the opportunity to hear Borges speak probably about a dozen times. It's an unlikely but not un-Borgesian procession of events. (While spending a summer at Cambridge, I also visited Longfellow's house, but that made less of an impression) My 9th grade English teacher suggested I read On the Road, and my 12th grade teacher (who just turned 95) suggested I read Ulysses. I would call those inappropriate and life-changing.

Michael Leddy said...

I think I would have flipped for Coleridge. I will never know. I think I might have read Jude the Obscure in high school on my own — my paperback is old enough. I just remembered doing a paper on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school and trying Ulysses (it didn’t take then). If I had had Alice Johnson for a teacher (Karen Valentine, Room 222 ) , I probably would have loved Silas Marner . :)

Diane Schirf said...

I read The Pigman for a class and didn't get it. At all.

Michael Leddy said...

Diane, you might find this interesting to read: “Reflections on the ‘Problem Novel.’”

Elaine Fine said...

@The Crow: There was a huge illustrated copy of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the Lenox library (illustrations by Doré) that I used to look at obsessively when I was a teenager. I had no idea what to make of the poetry, though.

Elaine said...

In 11th grade (American Literature) we were assigned a reading list (part of the final exam but not otherwise addressed, since we already had a thick text and other required novels, including _All the King's Men_. One of the separately listed novels was _Look Homeward, Angel._ It was quite a slog. (Hiatus while I finished HS, then college, then worked at my first teaching post, and then went to Germany to teach adult basic reading in an Army Education Center.) The limited library on the Kaserne was my only source of reading material, and I ended up rereading _Look Homeward, Angel._ It blew me away! I could relate to so much of the (semi-autobiographical) novel. It was a wonderful experience to read this book--all because, at last, I was of an age to understand and appreciate it.

Reading it at age 16 was just too soon. Some things shouldn't be rushed.