Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Traveling through World Literature . . . Join me

This is our second snow day . . . this week!  So, as I'm housebound, I thought I'd begin a new weekly blog series.

I'm teaching a new class this semester - World Literature 2!  I've been teaching World Literature 1 for six years, and we cover texts from the beginnings of known literature - Gilgamesh - to Shakespeare.  World Literature 2 picks up in the 17th century and moves through the centuries to the present day.  How does one choose literature over such a vast period of time and covering the entire world.  I don't!  The editors who put together World Literature anthologies have that daunting task.  All I need to do is choose which of the offerings in the textbook to include in the class.

Our class began last week, so for the next 14 weeks, take a trip with me.  I'll share each week what text we covered in class, how the students responded to it, and even share links to the text - when available - if you have the time and inclination to read it yourself.

Last week we read "A Modest Proposal" out loud in class.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the essay by Jonathan Swift, in it he proposes a drastic solution to the problem of poverty and starvation in Ireland in the early 1700s.  The Irish women should sell their 1-year-old children to British aristocracy, who may then eat them for dinner.  This will solve the problem by not saddling the women with babies they can't feed, and provide much-needed income.

The tone throughout Swift's essay is one of reasonable thoughtfulness.  A few of my students -- I hadn't warned them in advance -- actually thought Swift was serious.  Of course they "googled" and found out it was satire. According to John Simon in a book review he wrote about Jonathan Swift, His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch, Swift wrote "what is the greatest satire in English (and perhaps any language), "A modest Proposal," which proves by careful arguments -- satistical, mathematical and social -- that the solution to impoverished Ireland's problems is the eating of babies and the selling of their carcasses."

So we began the semester with a little "shock and awe."  After discussing what satire and irony are, and the conditions in Ireland at the time the essay was written, my students understood and even enjoyed the text.  Here is a link so you can read the short essay for yourself.  Let me know what you think.


  1. I remember reading that in high school. (Also: Gulliver's Travels).

  2. Now I'm impressed with Jersey City high schools!