Dead white males are alive and well

January 31, 1994|By Renee Swanson

THERE'S a dirty little secret in the multicultural halls of American universities:

Dead white males are alive and well. Although many contemporary African-American, Latin and Asian authors are being introduced, a close look at college reading lists and publishers' best- sellers reveals that Western classics remain an essential part of the English curriculum at most schools and a top choice for book buyers.

At my own school, Holy Cross, English majors are required to take a one-year course called "Traditions," based on outstanding classic works of literature.

There are hundreds of colleges -- such as Columbia College, Auburn University, Harvard and Smith College -- where Shakespeare, Hemingway, Hawthorne and Homer still are required reading. In 1991, "Reading Lists for College-Bound Students" was published as the definitive answer to what books are most recommended by America's top colleges -- and the answer was classics.

What are the classic texts that remain popular today? Thomas J. Slakey, dean of St. John's College in Annapolis, a school whose curriculum is organized around the study of classic texts, says that the so-called great books are "those texts that over time have proved best at forcing their readers to rethink fundamental questions, and at helping them understand themselves and the world around them."

Adam Bellow, senior editor of Macmillan Free Press, says American classics such as "Moby Dick" and "The Scarlet Letter" are the "mental furniture" of American life. They "convey a sense of American civilization in its formative stages and are of great moral and literary importance," Mr. Bellow says.

Classics appeal to Americans of all ages and have become the mainstay of the publishing business. Many publishing houses, such as Viking Penguin, W. W. Norton and Random House, are publishing new collections of older titles. W. W. Norton, for example, will be adding Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" and selected essays of John Locke to its line of Critical Editions in spring 1994. Also at W. W. Norton, such popular titles as Kate Chopin's "Awakening" and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" are being released in their second and third editions. At Reader's Digest, the World's Best Reading Series, which is composed solely of classics, is in its 10th year of publication and still gaining in popularity.

There is even a mass market for classics: "Flannery O'Connor: Collected Writings" topped the Chicago Tribune local best-seller list in the fall of 1988, and "Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings" has over 100,000 copies in print.

Despite the robust popular sales of the classics, many insist that multicultural titles represent the wave of the future. Gary Carey, editor of Cliffs Notes -- the company that produces the yellow-and-black study guides hidden in student book bags -- believes new multicultural titles soon will move into the 100 top-selling titles, displacing many classic texts.

So far, however, the 10 top-selling titles at Cliffs Notes are all classics. "The Scarlet Letter," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" have been the three best-selling titles since Cliffs Notes began in 1958. Contemporary multicultural titles are at the bottom of the sales list.

The ultimate classic, of course, is the Bible, containing poetry, history, humor, theology and every theme from grand infidelity to quiet heroism. According to a survey of Doubleday's Book-of-the-Month Club members, the Bible is the book that has most influenced readers' lives.

Currently published in more than 3,000 editions in the United States, the Bible is undoubtedly the all-time best-selling book. The Christian Booksellers Association estimates that over 900 million copies of the King James version alone have appeared since its first printing in 1611. Thomas Nelson Inc., one of the largest publishers of Bibles in the United States, distributed 6.5 million Bibles and scripture collections in 1992.

If Bible sales were counted with the rest of the national best-sellers, John Grisham or Michael Crichton would have some real competition.

Classic texts continue to be popular for the same reasons they seem to be eternally relevant: They speak to us in a way that forever changes the way we look at our lives. When William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950, he said: "The poet's, the writer's duty is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man. It can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

When multicultural texts begin to meet this high standard, perhaps they will become best-sellers as well.

Renee Swanson is a senior at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.

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