Rarely have I had an English class that I enjoyed. I liked the teachers, I liked many of the classmates and some of the activities and assignments, but I did not enjoy the class. This is perhaps because there was one assigned book (Shakespeare aside) that I truly enjoyed reading (and another two that I got to choose from a lengthy list). In part this could be the contrarian in me, but I see two larger systemic reasons.
The first is that I don’t like structurally analyzing literature. I’m sure that it has value and it is good to understand what a climax is, but I also steadfastly maintain that literature broken down into constituent parts loses something. Literature is story telling and is about drawing the audience in, so while breaking the story down some ways can help understand it better, other divisions end up leaving it empty. I want to experience my literature. In just one example, one of the reasons that I love 1984 as much as I do is that I have a visceral reaction to the story each and every time I read it. Few other books do that for me.
The second is a larger issue with teaching classic literature in high schools at all. While I do believe that there are great books, whether canonical or not, that everyone ought to read, I am becoming more and more convinced that high school is the wrong time to read them. However hard my teachers tried there were certain messages and certain elements in the books we read that I was only capable of understanding or absorbing in a shallow way. For some books that is still the case, and for others I will never really be ready (though accepting this as a basic truth actually helps make me able to read those books anyway). My point is that now, in my third year of graduate school (which is to say my fourth year out of college), I am realizing that I have more of an affinity for absorbing classic literature than I did ten years ago. Perhaps, then, English programs in high school would be better served finding creative ways to get children to read books of any stripe and let classic literature stand upon its own merit in the years to come rather than forcing people to read those books at a young age and thereby leave a bitter taste in their mouths.
One of the books I read last summer after finishing up my Thesis was Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had not read it before, but I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. While I browsed around for more Conrad books to read (eventually settling on The Secret Agent), I came across some reviews The Heart of Darkness. There were two prevalent critiques: racism and difficulty of reading, particularly in regard to the verbiage. I understand both complaints, but find both to be invalid.
It is readily apparent in The Heart of Darkness that Conrad is a product of his times and certainly has many of the same prejudices of his time. He is no more racist than his contemporaries and considerably less so than many. So, yes, there are racist elements in The Heart of Darkness, but that does not discredit him. The descriptions in the book, without yet broaching Conrad’s messages about human nature and “civilization,” are incredibly vivid and are critical of colonial exploitation. Keeping in mind that the entire story is told as a reminiscence of Marlow, a man who was employed by a colonial company Conrad depicts “the whites” as the active characters juxtaposed by the more or less passive “blacks.” Even if he did not intend fore there to be an overarching critique of the white behavior (which I think he did intend), and disturbing (though accurate) descriptions of behavior in much the same way as Mark Twain created, The Heart of Darkness still serves as an insight into the conscience of a generation. Was Conrad a racist? Perhaps, but he is also clearly uncomfortable with exploitation and provides a scathing critique of civilization and imperialism–even if there is also an admission that lawlessness is worse.
For what it is worth, I have not read what Edward Said has written about Conrad (though I would like to).
Conrad’s writing is beautiful, direct, and honest. I had few problems with the verbiage and syntax, though I can see why some people may struggle. Frankly, school systems in this country ill prepare people for the humanities in general and particularly history and English. Though I love reading and have a good vocabulary, I hated assigned books and most of the accompanying exercises. Most of the vocabulary and syntax knowledge people get is through their independent reading. Books are widely available, but many of those that are widely read have easier structure and vocabulary. For the most part this is to make them accessible. Many classics of literature were not meant to be as widely read simply because the literate stratum of society was not as large. Conrad uses “big” words, but I suspect that those people who read it upon release would have had no difficulties. In order for a work to survive it has to be read immediately, so I doubt any author attempts to predict what writing would make his work readable in perpetuity. Yes, Conrad provides a challenge to read, but in The Heart of Darkness it is well worth the effort.