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Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Claim

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 09/15/07 at 01:23 AM

Alan Wolfe is quoted in this NYTBR piece: “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ” — Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

Even before the last season of The Sopranos, this was so far from literal, allegorical, or anagogic truth that my eyes are still burning. Did Wolfe write this somewhere other than an email? (Emails are quoted.) Was this a silvercroak from Orthanc, so that it might be printed? 


That’s nuts. I’ve never taught the Achebe, but I would expect it’s de rigeur to include the Yeats as part of the teaching. After all, it’s a short poem, so something one could squeeze in easily.

By Karl Steel on 09/15/07 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This might depend, somewhat, on one’s interests—I know I find the claim staggeringly unlikely, but then, as a kid, I was big into the kinds of comic books, TV shows, and pulp novels that quote The Second Coming at the drop of a hat (Chris Claremont, I believe, was especially into the poem).  So I read Yeats well before I had any idea about Achebe—well before I’d read just about anything worth reading, in fact. 

But if you haven’t read Yeats for fun, my sense is that you’re not hugely like to have him assigned as reading in high school or college unless you’re an English major or take applicable electives, while Things Fall Apart I believe is often included in high school and undergrad survey courses (maybe less so than was once the case?)

Still, at very best I can convince myself of the plausibility that roughly equal numbers of people are familiar with both—the “everyone"/"few" disjoint is very hard to credit.

By on 09/15/07 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The misplacement of the modifier ‘postcolonial’ is also egregious.

By nnyhav on 09/15/07 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amazingly, I have something which might count as evidence on this point, though it’s anecdotal. I teach an African Literature course, and usually assign Achebe’s Arrow of God under the assumption that they will have read Things Fall Apart in high school—but I always ask at least for a show of hands on that point. Usually about 80% have indeed read it, and this has remained fairly consistent over the past decade. But when I ask them where the title comes from (something I think relevant to Achebe’s first three novels) I only occasionally get an answer. So either high school teachers are not explaining the book’s title, or students are forgetting the explanation. Either possibility seems plausible to me.

By on 09/15/07 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read Things Fall Apart in college, but it was not until years later that I knew where the title came from.

Then again, I probably just wasn’t paying attention in that class.

By Brock on 09/17/07 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I’m remembering correctly, the first couple of editions of “Things Fall Apart” I saw--as an undergrad at Michigan in 1974 and as a teaching assistant at Iowa circa 1984 had the relevant lines of the poem where one might expect an epigraph.

I’m inclined to think that any student who read Achebe’s novel and didn’t get the message that it was based on a famous Yeats poem wasn’t paying attention--and may have failed to pay attention when the poem was discussed on its own.

So the “everyone"/"few" distinction strikes me as just nuts.

And, btw, Achebe’s novel is a fairly easy read, compared to most high modernist poetry, so assigning Achebe to high school students while not reading lots of Yeats strikes me as a reasonable assessment of the interpretive abilities of said students. Just because high school teachers assign “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” instead of “The Tempest,” doesn’t mean they think the former’s a better play in some absolute sense.

Then there’s the possibility that Achebe is being assigned in classes other than lit classes.

So I’m not sure what Wolfe’s point is.

By on 09/17/07 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Then there’s the possibility that Achebe is being assigned in classes other than lit classes.

I read it in an anthropology class.

By Brock on 09/17/07 at 07:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The observation wasn’t meant as a certain proposition, but I find it believable.  I’ve read TFA; everyone in my high school was required to read it.  I’ve seen “The Second Coming,” and perhaps I even read it once upon a time…

Basically, in my high school every single person had to read TFA, but would only have been exposed to Yeats in a fifteen minute “let’s look at the poem that the title comes from” segment which a few of the teachers did.  How many people read poetry at all in America?  Let’s say 5%.  How many people who seriously read poetry (in a course, or as a hobby) have at least a passing familiarity with this poem?  If we mean that they at least would recognize lines other than the three most famous ones, I think we couldn’t be talking about more than 5% of poetry readers.  So maybe .25% of Americans.  Whatever percentage of high schools make Achebe’s Things Fall Apart mandatory, it’s probably higher than that, and then you have a decent number of people reading it in college, too (at least 1-2% of college students, which is about 1/3 of a given cohort).  So, Wolfe is probably right, at least for the last few cohorts that have gone through the educational system.

By on 09/17/07 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and to also weigh in on Wolfe’s point, which Pat questioned: a great deal of literature builds, very self-consciously, on previous literary classics.  These classics were touchstones for later authors, and for the intended audience of later authors.  Chinua Achebe probably intended for the allusion to shed light on his own narrative.  Joyce probably thought that readers of Ulysses who had read Homer were going to get more out of it.  And so on.

By on 09/17/07 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[retry] Having fortuitously read the Achebe days prior to this pullquote on a pullquote, I find its radical decontextualization within the framework of canon deformation to be something of a misfire.

By nnyhav on 09/18/07 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure, but given what we’ve seen in AIR studies and surveys of American adults, one gets this feeling that most Americans will not be able to recognize Achebe or Yeats, even after reading them in school.

By on 09/19/07 at 01:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yup, I’m pretty sure Achebe meant something by the allusion.

That’s why we read the poem in the introductory lit classes when I taught Achebe. We also talked about the novel’s connections with tragedy and then discussed the use of canonical European literary forms (novel, lyric poetry, tragedy) by an author who clearly respected and valued non-European cultural traditions. Pretty standard stuff in an intro class, although my first year students at Iowa had a bit of trouble imagining a culture in which the primary literary form is something other than the novel.

But we didn’t talk about the allusions Yeats built into “The Second Coming,” because, really, who has time to read “A Vision,” except for English Phds, god help us?

Actually, if you reread the Times piece, you’ll see that Wolfe’s point wasn’t about how literature is taught.  It’s about the reading list, pure and simple. Remember that he’s a professor of political science. He may have some awareness about how Achebe and Yeats are taught at the college and the high school level, but it’s not from direct experience as a student (he got his terminal degree forty years ago) or, I’ll bet, as a literature teacher.

All Wolfe did was count. I’ll bet the number of high school students who superficially read “Things Fall Apart” and remember the title is far larger than the number who carefully studied “The Second Coming” in high school. That doesn’t entitle him--or anyone--to the incredibly loose language he employs.

By on 09/19/07 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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