"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Adios Chaucer! Adios Shakespeare!

Adios Chaucer! Adios Shakespeare!
Americanizing the English Department and Its Curriculum - A Latino Perspective

Part I
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence / Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University
Consider this scenario: I’m at an airline terminal in Albuquerque saying goodbye to two old friends. The anxious one is rather burly and bewhiskered with unruly hair–he is not Ricardo Sanchez–the other is an endomorph of smaller proportions with graying hair and a van-dyke beard–he is not Alurista. 

Both are old friends of mine whom I’ve known since I was an undergraduate at Pitt – that was sixty years ago. Geoff is the burly one, and Will is the one with the van-dyke beard. Geoff is agitated, pacing back and forth in front of the gate podium. Will is seated, calmly reading a book of Elizabethan poetry. He fancies himself more a poet than a playwright. Both have achieved phenomenal literary success. And I’m grateful that I learned so much from them, but they have both agreed, albeit reluctantly, that indeed it’s time for them to get back to the old sod.
          “You’re sure there’s nothing moe I can do for you, Felipe?” Geoff asks.
           “Oh there’s lots moe you can do for me,” I say, poking fun at his English “but I’ll get to you when I need you.
             “You’re sure, now?” Geoff prods insistently.
             “Stop hectoring him,” Will chides, annoyed. “Sit down, old man, and look over that book of castles I gave you.
              “I can’t help it, I’m nervous,” Geoff says.
             “Of course we are,” Will responds avuncularly. “We’ve been here much too long, Geoffrey.
             “I rather like it here,” Geoffrey responds. “The ale is quite good. Not as good as Harry’s, mind you, but . . . still quite good.”

A boarding announcement interrupts us.
           “I guess this is it, guys,” I say.
            “Yes,” they both chime, picking up their on-board luggage, tickets in hand, ambling towards the loading ramp.
I give them both abrazos and tell them it’s not goodbye, just hasta pronto. We’ll always be friends. They board the plane. I watch as it taxies towards the runway and after lining up for take-off lurches from the ground. I want to say “Beam me up, Scotty!” I will miss them. But I know where they are.

It’s time to look seriously at what departments of English in American universities should be about. Surely at the beginning of the 21st century, Americans ought to have a clear sense of American literature and its place in the university curriculum. But it appears we don’t. Perhaps the problem stems from the nomencla­ture we’re still using to identify departments of English language and literature – Departments of English? That strikes me as rather anachronistic. 

H.L. Mencken had it right. Our language is not English; it’s American. So why are we still clutch­ing the label of “Department of English”? Because so many of us have been indoctrinated into believing that a special relationship exists between England and the United States, so much so that we think of England as the “mother” country. 

The fact of the matter is that the United States has many mother countries. The ancestors of Americans did not all come from England. In fact, today there are fewer Americans with English ancestry. I harbor no ill will towards England, having spent a year there researching Shakespeare for my work on The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet (1966), but it’s time to accept our national identity for what it is and, surely, what it is still to become.

Reinforcing the proposition to Americanize the English department’s offerings in literature is a review of Marjarie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature that appeared in the Books section of the El Paso Times (Sunday, April 3, 2011), in which professor Garber who teaches English at Harvard is lamenting the decline of those who read literature. 

She cites a report from the National Endowment for the Arts indicating that “less than half the adults responding to a 2002 Census survey had read any novels, short stories, poetry or plays in their free time.” 

Ann Levin, the reviewer, adds that what scares Professor Garber “more than ignorance of [T.S.] Eliot is unmistakable evidence that the study of literature is no longer considered essential for a well-educated individual.” Not surprisingly, Garber cites the writers Americans should be reading: Woolf, Eliot, and Shakespeare, failing to take into account the contemporary demographic profile of the United States. In the near future, the United States will be a minority-majority country, most of whom will be Latinos.

This is not to say that Woolf, Eliot, and Shakespeare should not be read, only that there are others writers to read besides these Anglo-centric authors — that is, writers from the English literary tradition. Why not Cervantes? Per the purpose of this piece, why not American writers like Rolvaag or Isaac Bashevis Singer? Or Richard Wright or James Baldwin? Faulkner, Hemingway for that matter? Why not Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez, Jose Antonio Villarreal? It’s time to acquaint American students with the richness of the American literary tradition as it has evolved to the present.

In my education in the segregated public schools of the nation and in my pursuit of the Ph.D. in English, I was enlightened by my study of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the other stalwarts in the pantheon of English letters. I got a good education, but in retrospect I see now how much better my education would have been by studying the works of African American writers and other non-English writers of the nation Like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ole Rolvaag.

The facts of the matter are that in the early part of the 20th century, there were entrenched factions of Anglophiles in the departments of English at American universities that were hostile to American literature “as a worthy subject of historical and philological inquiry” (Vanderbilt, 185). It was only in 1921 that the Modern Language Association (MLA) acknowledged formation of an American Literature Group (Ibid.,186). 

While not as formidable a hostility, since then, however, Departments of English in American colleges and universities have given preference to courses in English literature than to courses in American literature. This is not to say that American literature is sucking hind teat, just that an audit of literature courses offered by English departments in American colleges and universities reveals the bias toward offering courses of English literature still present in those departments.

While a number of American professors like Bliss Perry and Brander Mathews were teaching courses on American writers during the early years of the 20th century, most Americans like Alfred Knopf had “priggish notion[s], based on complete ignorance, that there was no American literature” (Vanderbilt, 187). 

Toward the end of the second decade of the 20th century, J. B. Hubbell complained that no graduate courses in American literature were offered at Harvard during his two years there from 1906-1908, though four Chaucerians “were busily employed” during that time (Ibid.). 

In 1913, Arthur H. Quinn offered a graduate course in “Forms and Movement in American Literature,” perhaps the first course in American literature at an American college or university (Ibid. 188). 

In the years from 1910-1918 “no more than 10 to 15 percent of the English curriculum was reserved for American literature” (Ibid. 190). The underlying assumption for this preference was (and continues to be) that there existed/exists a special relationship between the United States and England, the mother country.

Great strides were made in the 1920’s in teaching American literature in the colleges and universities of the United States. Still, English literature remained preferable in the curricula of American departments of English, that is, American departments of English valued English literature over American literature.

Though not yet a trend, a number of English departments in American colleges and universities are transitioning toward a profile that identifies them as departments of languages and literatures, focusing their course offerings on more American literature. 

There is nothing Catonist in seeking this change. As a Xenophobe, Cato thought that Rome should be for the Romans. This is not an “America for Americans” campaign. It’s an effort toward long overdue parity and equity.

That transition is still problematic because of the conditioning many of us were apodictically subjected to in pursuing degrees in English. In a recent C-Span interview, Henry Louis Gates, a pioneer in solidifying African American literature in public and higher education, extolled the virtues of English literature as the summa literature of all literatures. That kind of praise for English literature makes the going for American literature more tenuous.

But as Shakespeare’s Marc Antony intoned before the bier of Julius Caesar in Rome after his assassination: The fault dear, Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. As I have mentioned, the reason why American literature has been second-fiddle to English literature is that the American literati has not valued American letters. Why not?

Baker, Houston. 1982. Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American and Asian American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Modern Language Association.

Hale, Salma. 1825. History of the United States from their first Settlement as Colonies to the Close of the War with Great Britain in 1815. New York: Charles Wiley.

Levin, Ann. 2011. “These days why read? Harvard prof makes the case” review of The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber, Pantheon Books, El Paso Times, Books 2F, Sunday, April 3.

Mencken, H L. The American Language. Knopf, 1936,

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe e. 2010. “Chicano Literature and Critical Theory: Forging a Literature of Opposition,” Somos en escrito: Latino Literary Online Magazine. February 11.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. 2009. “Reflections on Chicanos and the Teaching of American Literature, Latino Stories.com, July 6.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. 2008. “Latino American Literature,” in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading, Greenwood Press.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. 2006. “Chicano Poetry” in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Greenwood Press.

Ortego, Philip D. 1971a. Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (diss.), University of New Mexico.

Ortego, Philip D. 1971b. “Which Southwestern Literature in the English Classroom?” Arizona English Bulletin, April.

Ortego, Philip D. 1971c. “The Chicano Renaissance,” Journal of Social Casework, May.

Ortego, Philip D. and Jose Carrasco. 1973. “Chicanos and American Literature,” Searching for America edited by Ernece Kelly, National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Reprinted in The Wiley Reader: Designs for Writing, Edited by Caroline D. Eckhardt, James F. Holahan, and David H. Steward. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria. 1993. “Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary History: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest. University of Arizona Press.

Pearce, Thomas M. 1942. American Literature, November.

Shea, John Gilmary. 1887. United States Historical Magazine, April

Sowell, Thomas. 1981. Ethnic America. Basic Books.

Stern, Milton R. and Gross, Seymour Lee, Editors. American Literature Survey. 1968. Viking Press.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. 1986. American Literature and the Academy: The Roots, Growth and the Maturity of a Profession, University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Shakespeare’s Virgin:
Masculinity and the Virgin Mary 
2011 Faculty Lecture
May 4, 2011 • 6:00 P.M.
Blumberg Auditorium
UT El Paso Library
Sponsored by The University of Texas at El Paso
Department of English
Dr. Ruben Espinosa
Shakespeare’s Virgin:
Masculinity and the Virgin Mary 

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