Closer Readings Commentary

What’s the Right Balance between Informational and Literary Texts?

Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since 1989. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). His scholarly books include The Pragmatic Mind (1997), Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), and Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 (2001).

As the 45 states and the District of Columbia that have adopted Common Core proceed to develop curricula and lesson plans aligned with the English Language Arts standards, many teachers wonder how much they will have to sacrifice novels and poems for informational texts. After all, the reading standards number ten for informational texts and only nine for literary texts, and it is generally understood that Common Core asks English to observe a 50/50 split in reading assignments. There is, however, a ready way to maintain the centrality of literature and still meet Common Core’s stipulation. Let me give an example that can be easily adapted to secondary level reading strategies:

When I teach Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to undergraduates, the opening paragraphs don’t make sense to them. The first sentences identify main characters and a setting—Lily Bart, Lawrence Selden, and Grand Central Station in New York circa 1900. He spots her in the afternoon crowd and can’t tell what she’s doing. She stands there for no apparent reason, lovely yet out of place and “irresolute,” and he is “perplexed.” Perhaps she has a “definite purpose,” he wonders, though one she conceals. They’ve known each other for years, but he doesn’t approach her directly. Instead, he turns and walks directly through her line of sight, testing whether she will address him. She does, and they head off for a cup of tea.

To 21st-century teenagers, the encounter seems overdone. What’s the big deal? they think. A women in a train station, a guy who sees her—so what? They’re just friends and they’re not kids. Wharton speaks of Lily’s “conspicuousness” and “imprudences,” and of Selden’s “speculation” and “curiosity,” but to contemporary teens their actions far exceed such an ordinary occasion.

And they don’t comprehend it for a simple reason: they occupy a wholly different social habitat. In the world of The House of Mirth, people of a high station observe strict canons of behavior, canons that no longer exist. Most students don’t know them, and when they see them in action they don’t discern them. How, then, to carry students over that divide? The House of Mirth itself doesn’t explain them—it presumes them. We have to look elsewhere for the right “scaffolding.”

We find it best in a genre of books popular in the 1880s and 90s and addressed directly to Wharton’s real-life upper-crust society: conduct and etiquette books. They go under titles such as The Etiquette of New York To-day, Correct Social Usage: A Course of Instruction in Good Form, Style, and Deportment, Morals and Manners; or, Elements of Character and Conduct, and Morals and Manners: Elements of Character and Conduct. They instruct young ladies and gentlemen in proper conduct on the street and at the dinner table, with acquaintances and with servants. Clothing, speech, introductions and farewells, gift-giving, party-going, dancing, weddings and funerals ... all are covered in these manuals, and their lessons circulate as decrees. Lily Bart herself says, “My aunt is full of copy-book axioms,” and Wharton recalls in her memoir, A Backward Glance, that a young man or woman of refinement in those decades lived within a ubiquitous web of manners, mores, and scrutiny.

Students chuckle at the strictures, which sound ridiculous to them, but they explain the oddity of a woman of class alone on a busy platform and the care with which a gentleman notices her and allows her seemingly to notice him first. Indeed, the privilege Selden grants her follows precisely one of those copy-book axioms. The conduct books assert:

  • “The man who recognizes a lady before she does him, commits a gross error;”
  • “An established rule is that after having been presented to a woman a man must wait for her to recognize him when they meet again before venturing to claim her acquaintance;”
  • “A lady, under all circumstances, should first recognize a gentleman. It is her prerogative, and she should take pains to exercise it if she desires him for an acquaintance.”
  • These are informational texts with the advantage of elucidating Wharton’s novel and imparting a social reality important to our past culture. Without them, students miss the significance of a great American novel and ignore customs and class-thinking essential to civic awareness and historical knowledge.

This example also points a way out of the literary-VERSUS-informational set-up. By incorporating it and other cases (The Scarlet Letter, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Billy Budd, etc.), we may retain the tradition of American literature in high school English and add informational items to the syllabus. We’ll also observe Common Core’s Grade 11–12 literary reading standard that mandates, “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.” Teachers help students meet it by surrounding each foundational work on the syllabus with non-literary texts that develop a context for understanding, background knowledge that clarifies and orients.

EDSITEment offers ample resources for teachers who wish to contextualize the literature with relevant and illuminating informational texts. For instance, to understand Wharton’s remembrance of the world of etiquette in A Backward Glance, it helps to know that she believed that World War I destroyed it forever. Why? Because she saw the consequences of the War at first hand when she set up hostels for refugees and aide programs for displaced children, toured the battlefront, and interviewed soldiers. For a year, she wrote about it, and this lesson, Edith Wharton War Correspondent, examines her resulting journalism. After that experience, when she recalled that lost world of her youth in her next novel, she named it the “Age of Innocence,” a label that only makes sense in light of the mass killing, disease, ruin, and trauma of the War.

In making use of EDSITEment websites and lessons, teachers don’t diminish their literary offerings. They enhance them. If interpreted in the right way, Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction doesn’t replace great novels with not-so-great informational prose. Instead, it yields a richer literary-historical presentation than before and sends high school graduates to college with a stronger and deeper cultural literacy.

To be continued ...