Do you ever feel that, even if your child is doing well in literature, he’s not actually benefiting from it? Literature was always my best subject, but there were many aspects of literature that didn’t always connect for me. I always thought the stories were interesting enough in themselves without all the historical detail. Most discussions about literary history seemed to come from the dustiest and most disused corners of the library.
It’s easy to unintentionally let literature become an island subject. Math almost demands a constant connection to reality, and science and history don’t exist without the real world. But for readers and nonreaders alike, literature can seem like a complete subject with just the stories themselves.
But literature means much more when you understand who the author is and where he or she is coming from.
Understanding Literary History Deepens Meaning
For example, take Jack London. Though London is better known for his novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, your child will study his short story “The Law of Life” in American Literature. In “The Law of Life,” the story follows Koskoosh, an old man who accepts that it’s his time to die. He can no longer contribute to his tribe, so he passively waits for the end. His tribe always leaves the elders behind to die.
I’ve never liked London’s writing because everyone always seems to die, even the dogs. But your perspective on London’s writing changes when you approach it knowing some important history.
London worked hard his whole life, whether he was writing or working in a factory. But no matter what he did, he found little success. His best-known works are all from this period of his life. His efforts to raise himself above the station of his birth largely failed for much of his life. He finally began publishing in leading magazines in the early 1900s. London lived during the height of the progressive movement in the United States and when On the Origin of Species was gaining ground in academic communities. As a result, Darwinism and the beginnings of the American socialist movement were big influences on him.
Knowing these facts, the meaning of “The Law of Life” changes subtly. It’s not just a simple story about an old man giving in to death. Instead, it becomes a statement about how a man, as little more than an animal himself, should accept the inevitability of his death. He once was able to live and contribute, but since he is no longer able, he has no purpose. He must die.
Countering Literary Ideologies Sharpens Thinking
Literature is an ideal vehicle for teaching beliefs. In a story, the author gets to tell everything from one side, and it all makes sense. But without an understanding of literary history, a child may not always see the truth about what he’s reading. After all, from a certain point of view, London’s beliefs about life and death make sense. You should replace a tool once it’s broken or too old to work, shouldn’t you? Animals are often put to sleep once they become too old and sick, aren’t they?
Looking at literature from a historical perspective gives you an opportunity to discuss many of the beliefs that authors have poured into their writings. Once your child is able to recognize the false beliefs that contribute to an idea, he should also learn how to counter them from a correct biblical worldview. Our response to Jack London’s beliefs could be to point out that people are neither tools nor animals. God cherishes the souls of His image-bearers, no matter what they’re physically capable of.
If your child learns to make connections between authors and their backgrounds and beliefs and learns how to assess the beliefs he encounters, he’ll be better equipped to face similar issues in other media, such as movies, TV shows, and even music.
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