Kate Every

Dead white males

By Kate Every

A modern English Literature degree. A “flexible and wide-ranging course”, just, you know, without anything written by women or non-white Europeans. Two years into a literature degree I’m constantly confronted with issues of difference as categorized by feminism or post-colonial studies, but somehow a programme that teaches the importance of these literary movements manages to carefully sidestep actually including anything by women or non-Europeans on the course. Unless these groups are focused on through tokenistic modules such as “Global Literatures”, a blaring disclaimer, just in case anyone thought the course could be perceived as racist. We assure you it’s not, I mean look at this module that’s all about foreigners and “their” literature.

A semester on the Renaissance came up with expected results: Shakespeare, More, Sidney, Spenser, Wyatt, Donne. The list of dead white males could continue for quite some time. Well I guess you could make quite a case for the lack of source material for women’s literature of the time. But that’s just it, there is plenty of women’s literature. Yet it can only be approached in that way, look at these clever women from the 16th century who could actually write poetry or prose: let’s anthologize them altogether, so they can continue to be subjugated by their gender classification just as they were back when they were writing!

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century, and to a land that prides itself on its multifarious population. The modern American literature course doesn’t offer up much hope either. Walt Whitman, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster. Ooh how about including Nella Larsen, she may not have been as major a literary figure, but African American and a woman, ticking two boxes at once means she’s a keeper! Oh and don’t forget Elizabeth Bishop, need to represent the gays somehow!

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams


Perhaps this reading of the module programme is somewhat too cynical. But my point stands. It still feels as though groups that do not represent the dominant culture are rather ungracefully shoehorned into the curriculum to show some kind of diversity. The fact that a module could even be called American literature without even batting an eyelid to a continent-wide group of cultures (outside those of the USA directly) is alarming. Canada (a country that is actually larger than the USA), the Caribbean and Central and South America in their entirety do not even get a look in. That’s not even to mention indigenous groups whose literature is perfectly easily accessible.

In 2013, a university of academics who are fully aware of, even preaching about, the pitfalls of patriarchal and colonial dominance in literature, it is worrying to think that this continues. I wonder when, in practice, things will actually change?

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