We Read This In Order That You May Hate Yourself
by Solomon Philbrick
A Polish friend of mine once told me that the difference between Polish anthems and American anthems was that American anthems are always about pride and how great America is while Polish anthems are about how you should feel guilty because someone died. I don’t know any Polish national anthems, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my friend was right. That being said, I don’t know much about Polish books, but American literature as taught in universities has the exact same problem as those Polish national anthems: it’s so goddamn depressing.
I stopped studying American lit for precisely this reason. Almost every book or poem I’ve been assigned in the field of American literature is all about how miserable one should feel about being American or what a miserable place the United States is. Turn around at any point in the American canon and you will find some bozo going on about the “dark side of the American dream.” It’s everywhere. Pick up Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, all they ever offer is tragedy after tragedy. It isn’t that all American literature is depressing, it’s just that professors and other folks in the establishment at some point decided that Americans should all feel bad about being American.
Even on rare occasions when an actual comedy like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn finds its way onto a classroom syllabus, professors have this amazing knack for yanking all the humor out of it. Two weeks ago I had to sit through an absolutely excruciating reading of the novel, in which one of the funniest scenes, where Huck’s father comes back to the cabin drunk and ranting about how the country was going to hell because black men (not his words) in some states had the right to vote. He rants and raves about this before falling flat on his ass. It’s a damn funny scene and the ironic pitch of just what a jackass the character is is perfect. The professor who read the passage, though, read it in a completely flat voice, skipping over every mention of the “n-word” like we were all a bunch of impressionable youths (even though we all had the book right in front of us) and treating the whole passage as if it had absolutely no comic intent. The message is clear: if the book is not a stinging indictment of American society that is so obvious it feels like being beaten with a phone book, it is not worth consideration in the academy. And we don’t want no stinking humor.
I am well aware that this country has a violent history, but what country doesn’t have a violent history? What country has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of? The English sat their pasty asses across half of the world and they’re still allowed to have humor. We still read Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis in British lit classes, and those two didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were both racist and sexist.
This is why I study ye oldy moldy English. If some author wrote something sexist or racist or, God forbid, funny four hundred years ago, no one in his right mind would complain. “That’s sexist/racist/colonialist/chauvinistic/humanist!” “Yeah, and?”
The point is that if I really want to loathe someone or something, the last thing I want to loathe is myself. I have to live with myself after all and I was born in this country, not some festering hellhole, and there are so many other things out there to dislike. Like Charlotte Bronte…Oh, do I ever hate Charlotte Bronte.