Riot Response: In Defense of the Classics

Last week, my fellow Book Rioter Cassandra Neace published a piece called “A Case Against Reading the Classics”. I had the reaction that you would expect a classics blogger to have- I sputtered, raised an eyebrow, lovingly patted Bleak House and told it I loved it. In the spirit of lively discussion, I’m going to answer Cassandra’s case against my beloved genre.

Cassandra’s first point is that the authors of classics “had to handle things as delicately as possible,” restricting themselves to polite prose in order to avoid scorn. I don’t think there’s much support for this- Jane Eyre was criticized for being feminist, uncouth and un-Christian. Edith Wharton faced massive criticism for her honest portrayals of New York high society. To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were all banned for their rule-breaking portrayals of racism. More often than not, the authors of the classics were pushing literary boundaries, polite society be damned. And while some of the classics may lack literal curse words, that could be more of a reflection of the times in which they were written as opposed to an attempt on the author’s part to self-censor (and who’s to say that the curse words of today were the curse words of yesteryear?).

Cassandra also makes the point that modern literature has more sex and violence than the classics, making universal themes more palatable to the modern reader. Again, I don’t think there’s much textual support for this. Sex and violence have been part of the human condition since whenever that condition began, and literature has never truly excluded it. War and Peace and Gone With the Wind have some of the most gut-wrenching scenes of war violence ever written. The House of Mirth showcases a cast of characters whose sole purpose is to sleep around. Henry James’ What Maisie Knew is about the psychological damage done to children of adulterous parents who eventually divorce. Of course, modern literature is more open about describing the mechanics of the physical act of sex and showcasing more graphic violence, but assuming that all modern readers want that is over-generalizing. Do modern readers need descriptive sex and violence in order to understand universal themes? I don’t think so.

The post makes a point I do agree with- a large number of the classics were written by white people, mostly men. However, that doesn’t mean that all classics are racist and sexist. These authors spent a great deal of time addressing the evils they saw in society. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo attacked society’s treatment of the poor. Tolstoy’s meditations on serfdom speak to economic inequality in modern society. Dostoevsky addresses political oppression. Jane Austen and the Brontes all critique society’s treatment of women. Many classic authors were white, and some were men, but lumping all classic authors under the “dead white guy” moniker is dismissive (though it makes a nice title for a satirical blog) and misleading about their portrayal of women and minorities. It’s true that a reader will need to look to contemporary novels to find positive portrayals of some minority protagonists. However, that’s not a case against reading the classics as much as it is a case for also reading modern novels. Readers don’t always select a book because the protagonist is the same race and gender they are- if that were the case, I wouldn’t be interested in anything but books about young brown women. Readers don’t always need a protagonist that is exactly like them in order to identify with the book.

The classics are not irrelevant. They offer insight into our shared past- they show us how far we’ve come and, at the same time, how humanity has hung on to certain aspects of itself throughout civilization’s recorded history. The classics have shaped the course of literature, outlasted literary fads, and added value to the whole of human thought. Assuming that the modern reader doesn’t want to experience that (or worse, that they can’t because it involves too much effort) is unfair. Readers don’t need profanity and iPods to understand themes concerning racism, poverty, compassion, love, and family. Do we really think the modern reader is so lazy that s/he can’t read the classics because they’re too hard? I’m not saying we should force any sort of book on anyone. I read 60 percent contemporary literature last year, so please don’t take this as an indictment of the modern novel. I am saying we shouldn’t make assumptions about what the modern reader wants or is capable of. People are smart enough to handle A Tale of Two Cities– if they don’t want to, that’s great, but let’s give both the classics and the modern reader the credit they’re due.


Amanda Nelson is a freelance writer living in Richmond, VA. She blogs about (mostly) classic literature at Dead White Guys. Follow her on Twitter: @deadwhiteguys