June 3 2016
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot.
If you saw their works listed in a syllabus for a mandatory two-course college sequence titled "Major English Poets" to be taken by all English majors, you'd be nodding your head, yeah. They're the major English poets.
But that's because you're not at Yale. Here's what a petition submitted by Yale undergrads to the Yale English department says:
It is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors. A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity. The Major English Poets sequences creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.
And these are some delicate snowflakes!
When students are made to feel so alienated that they get up and leave the room, or get up and leave the major, something is wrong. The English department loses out when talented students engaged in literary and cultural analysis are driven away from the major. Students who continue on after taking the introductory sequence are ill-prepared to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship. We ask that Major English Poets be abolished, and that the pre-1800/1900 requirements be refocused to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.
Of course, before the year 1900, nearly all English poets resided in this country called "England." It was populated by extremely pale people because their ancestors were Celts and blondish invaderss who hailed from Germany and Denmark (I can't help it that the Vikings had blue eyes.). "Ableism" was their hallmark because it was hard to survive to adulthood back then if you had a disability. Few people back then defined themselves as gay, because nobody did; the category was unknown. An sorry no women. Women seemed to be busy crafting reputations as "major English novelists" like Jane Austen and George Eliot (no relation to T.S.).
What fascinates me is that the pushback to this bizarre petition isn't "Hey, show me the Eskimo Shakespeare" and I'll get up and leave the room."
It's: Oh, you poor darlings, don't you realize that those dead white males were just as concerned about gender, sexuality, and "ability" as you are? Here's Slate's Katy Waldman:
...Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars....
Or, if you don't agree with that:
The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway.
How about saying: The canon of English literature is filled with first-rate writing. If you're a Yalie and you don't like that, major in "Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies." Not a word of Chaucer in the required reading.