Harvard University has just made another of its weathervane decisions, based on the prevailing academic winds. This time out, the English Department has announced that the new curriculum will focus on authors who have been “marginalized for historical reasons.” The decision was made, according to James Simpson, Chairman of said department, in response to a “very reflective” letter sent by a student. It stated that Harvard’s standard curriculum short-changed certain minorities and that this injustice should be corrected by the creation of a diversity course. Since the contents of the letter were not made public, green students (and their parents) could only wonder.
It goes without saying that the neglected writers would have to be members of overlooked or ignored groups. But which groups? Women? Yet there is the anti-slavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who with a meager gift but an indomitable will helped raise the consciousness of a generation. Indeed, upon meeting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have declared, with only a hint of jocularity, “So this is the lady who started the Civil War.” And Stowe’s sisterhood is widely recognized and praised—Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, et. al.
Would the neglected writer be African-American? But here is Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, turned into a fiery abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, widely published memoirist, commemorated on a U.S. Postage stamp. And Douglass was followed by such literary icons as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois and scores of others.
Would he or she be Native American? But here is Vine Deloria Jr.’s bestselling Custer Died for Your Sins. This forthright declaration, enumerating the ways in which the white man spoke to the tribes with forked tongue, was published way back in 1969 before any of the Crimson undergraduates (and many of their parents) were born. And there are other books on the shelf by authors of similar background, among them novelist Louise Erdrich, poet Simon Ortiz, and Harvard’s own Winona LaDuke.
How about Asian authors? But there is Maxine Hong Kingston (China Men), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and dozens of their brilliant colleagues. None of the above have been ignored in college curricula.
What about those in the LGBT category? Well, Woolf’s Orlando addressed the switch of sexual identities early on; and since the trials of Oscar Wilde, there have been writers as flamboyant as Truman Capote, as intellectual as Edmund White, as self-confessional as W.H. Auden. Indeed, many colleges offer majors in Gay Studies.
Still, somehow, somewhere, there had to be a literary vein untapped. And suddenly, for those looking closely, it all became clear. The Harvard English department must have unearthed the obscure volume The Stuffed Owl, compiled by the British writer Windham Lewis. Subtitled “An Anthology of Bad Verse,” the 1930 anthology includes execrable rhymes, incoherent thoughts and outright doggerel from famous and obscure versifiers. William Wordsworth made the cut; so did the English Poet Laureate Colley Cibber. But the lodestar of the collection is Julia Moore, otherwise known as the Sweet Singer of Michigan. A quatrain in praise of a colleague:
Lord Byron was an Englishman
A poet I believe
His first words in old England
Was poorly received
She crafted this one too:
While eating dinner, this dear little child,
Was choked on a piece of beef.
The doctors came, tried their skill a while,
But none could give relief.
Surely Ms. Moore deserves the attention of freshmen and sophomores. A bard from across the pond, the 19th-century aristocrat, the Earl of Lytton, should have equal time:
She sat with her guitar on her knee,
But she was not singing a note,
For someone had drawn (ah, who could it be?)
A knife across her throat.
Thus, the Harvard English Department is about to provide a unique service, ceding class hours to that hitherto neglected minority—the untalented, the maladroit, the inept who have been left behind in the Academic sweepstakes. One of Cambridge Mass. favorite aphorisms: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Manifestly, having provided the former for three centuries, Harvard is now offering the latter.