My junior year in high school (1967-68) was, perhaps like all years, a crazy time to be 16 years old. Those nine months included starvation in the Biafran region of Nigeria; the deaths of three astronauts in a test launch at Cape Kennedy; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We went to see movies like “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “In the Heat of the Night,” and the Beatles were upended their own music and rock music in general with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
This was the high school year for American history and American literature. American history included a mandatory six-week section on communism; the required text was Masters of Deceit by J. Edgar Hoover. My history teacher was a maverick; rather than read what others said communism was, somehow she got grudging approval for my class to read a large chunk of Das Kapital by Karl Marx. It was actually a brilliant move; we learned that, if Marx was any indication, communism was flat-out boring. Who wanted that?
It was junior English that left the most lasting mark on me. Our teacher, Mrs. Prince, was new to the school, an all-boys public high school. She was tall and rather broad-shouldered and wore her hair in a beehive. And she was a presence. She had a loud voice and talked as much with her hands and arms as she did with her mouth. She wore bright colors, including the occasional turban.
The first day of class, she announced that the greatest work in American literature was Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, published the year before. Now, we may have been 16-year-old boys, but even we knew that was something of a ridiculous statement. But she continued on, and told us that, unfortunately, she wasn’t able to teach it for our class: we would have to read it on our own. But she highly recommended it: she had already read it five times and would soon be reading it again.
The statement aside, Mrs. Prince loved American literature. We read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage. We heard about Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and the Transcendentalists. She taught us about the poets we had never heard of – like Sara Teasdale, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Edgar Lee Masters – and poets we had, like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg. (Mrs. Prince also claimed T.S. Eliot for the Americans; he’d been born and raised in America, after all.) And we read The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.
Our big term papers were expected to be substantive and encompassing. We couldn’t focus on an author or a book we had studied. She preferred that we look at periods and do a survey. We would be expected to read several works, including both novels and short story collections (you can imagine the groans from the class). And Mrs. Prince would have to approve all topics.
I chose the period known as American Realism, roughly including the 1870s to the 1930s. Most of the class swung to Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I decided to focus on two writers, so different in what they wrote about that it’s difficult even today to see how they share the same period. My writers were Jack London, and Willa Cather. Actually, I picked Jack London and Willa Cather; Mrs. Prince, wildly enthusiastic about my choice, threw in Edith Wharton.
I read nine novels and one short story collection for that paper. It was the most intense, involved, and time-consuming project of all of my high school years.
I read four novels by Cather (1873-1947): O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931). The three works by London (1876-1916) were The Call of the Wild (1903), White Fang (1906), and South Sea Tales (1911). And I read The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920) by Wharton (1862-1937).
It wasn’t almost overwhelming; it was overwhelming. My English project was simultaneously competing against the big term paper in American history, our regular reading and study in English, preparing to attend state rally for Latin, and tough classes in Algebra II and chemistry.
But that project on the American Realists, coached by the expansive Mrs. Prince in her turban, was a life-changing event. It would eventually help guide me into journalism (London and Cather), an awareness of how the ruling classes inevitably decayed and declined (Wharton), and an understanding of the importance of the idea of the frontier, and the decline of that idea, in American history (London and Cather again).
That project, and those writers, also had a profound effect on my own writing. If there is a style to my three novels, it’s the American Realist style, characterized by spare descriptions, an almost journalistic reporting of a story and describing the everyday activities of ordinary people (granted, my ordinary people have some extraordinary things happen to them).
Little did I know when I walked into the English classroom that September morning, and saw the teacher in the turban, that my life would be profoundly affected and shaped.
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
O Pioneers! (1913)
My Antonia (1918)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
The House of Mirth (1905)
Ethan Frome (1911) (novella)
The Age of Innocence (1920)
Jack London (1876-1916)
The Call of the Wild (1903)
White Fang (1906)
(South Sea Tales (1911)
Header Image: “New York” by George Bellows (1911)
Glynn Young is Fiction Editor of Literary Life