As I’ve mentioned, I live in the virtual buckle of the Bible Belt — about an hour from Bob Jones U, for example. And of course, I teach at a religiously affiliated institution — not the “required statement of faith” sort, but the “non-mandatory weekly chapel” type. So although I’ve been here long enough to know better, I’m always a little startled when I realize how little my students know about the Bible. I don’t mean that they can’t give me chapter and verse — I can’t do that myself. I mean that they don’t get references to stuff like Samson in the Temple, Cain, or the Woman at the Well. (Of extraBiblical mythologies, such as Greek and Roman stuff, we will not speak, save to observe that Northrop Frye wept. See? I just did one!)
Of course, as a teacher of early English lit — as someone trying to pass along the culture in which we live — this presents a problem, and not just when I’m teaching something like Paradise Lost (which the Spawn memorably described as “Bible fan fiction.”) These stories, and the allusions to them, are inextricably intertwined with Anglophone (with Western) literature, and to miss them — not to have them — renders readers blind to much of the content they encounter.
And it would appear the problem is more widespread than I imagined. This morning I ran across Charles McGrath’s New Yorker review of Peter Parker’s bio of A.E. Housman (and I’ll admit that I envisioned the biographer doing line edits while fighting Dr. Octopus), and was somewhat startled when the reviewer threw this in [emphasis mine]:
[Parker] makes the provocative suggestion—which could equally well be applied to other Housman poems, including the strange one that recommends plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand or foot if it offends you—that not every line need be taken at face value and the whole thing might be meant angrily or ironically[.]
Yes, how odd! Where could he possibly have come up with such an image? The mind reels — or perhaps it Blu-Rays. That the reviewer goes on to compare Housman to Hardy (reasonably) and to suggest that he is responsible for a sentimentalized “Englishness” manifested in things like Brexit (less reasonably) may be interesting enough per se, but one wonders if McGrath is competent to hold opinions on Housman, given that he lacks the background that I expect (even if in vain) from my undergrads.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Helen Andrews, via Twitter.