A Brief Look at Americans and Literature (and Why We Suck?)

About a month or so ago I was patronizing a particular bar that I’ve grown fond of. Good crowd, great beer selection, awesome bartender (i.e. plenty of buy backs) and a well-stocked jukebox. It was a good Friday night and for most of it, it was just my boyfriend and I just shooting the shit over a few drinks. The night wore on and more people came and went and my boyfriend had just put some more tunes on the jukebox. For a good portion of the later part of the night, there was an older, Irish man sitting next to us. He was at the bar by himself and enjoying a few Budweisers, not really talking to anyone. As my boyfriend and myself were people watching (i.e. making fun of other bar patrons) one of his songs came on, a Johnny Cash tune. It was this song that lead me into one of the most intellectual and philosophical discussions I’ve had to date, as well as creating a new way I view American culture, especially in regards to education and literature (and just about everything else!)

The song came on and the elder gentlemen next to us (sadly, and despite our lengthy conversation, I did not actually catch his name. We had no formal introduction, but I believe the bartender may have referred to him as “Martin,” at some point, so for brevity’s sake we will call him that) began talking to us about Johnny Cash’s prowess as a musician. The conversation was welcome, since it had mainly been the two of us the whole night, even if it was drunk small talk. This brief agreement on Johnny Cash’s music, however, opened the floodgates to a fulfilling, worldly conversation neither of us were expecting. Music led to conversations about beer and drinking which led to nationalities which led to government which led to politics which then led to literature. I’ve never had such a down-to-earth, yet  intellectual conversation about literature with another person (and that’s including being a literature major in college). I think this says a lot about American culture and the educational system.

Martin is from Ireland and he is a brick layer. A menial job, so to say. He mentioned nothing about having any sort of higher education. Just a regular working class man. But he can unflinchingly quote Joyce, Keats, Shakespeare and Shaw without batting an eye. And he did so, often, throughout our conversation. Not to prove anything about himself. Not to feel superior – only because it is what he knows and understands and applies to life situations. And he wasn’t throwing out quotes willy-nilly, either. Every single one was appropriate in the conversation, and he was able to give his opinion and analysis on every one. It was amazing, but it also made me sad, as I thought about my own culture. Americans can quote so readily movies and tv shows and oft-misquoted or mis-credited celebrities. Hackneyed lines and responses we use so frivolously because that’s what we know. Do we ever try to quote Twain, or Faulkner or even any contemporary American authors, hell any reputable authors from any country, even, in a realistic sense in a way that can sum up our opinions or even facts about what’s happening in the world? And not just because it’s something we learned in class the other day or heard on a podcast. Rarely. Very rarely.

Martin didn’t just take a class on applying literature to cultural politics. He didn’t go to the library and dig his nose in a book for hours for conversational fodder (at least, I hope to God he didn’t). Martin just knew what he was talking about – because he was raised to study, admire and absorb these wonderful writers from his country and all over. As Americans, we really need to place an importance on literature – especially on our children. Expand their horizons beyond summer reading lists. Let them experience the classics before they’re forced to study them in college. Let the working class be just as educated as the upper. We all deserve it. We all have a right to be open to the wonderful words that surround us in this world. Even if it just comes about in a conversation over a few drinks – it will be a conversation that will last with you forever.

Let literature in.

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Filed under American Literature, Culture, Irish Literature, Opinions, Thoughts, Uncategorized

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