The Reader's Journey, Volume 1
Lesson 2: The Literary Canon
These books that engender such strong reactions are the subject of this lesson.
Why do you think certain books are routinely assigned in classrooms across the country? Some books are considered classics or must-reads, readings that all educated persons should know. Others are selected because they illustrate a theme or type of writing students should master. When works of literature are commonly accepted as classics, they become part of our literary canon.
The term literary canon refers to a group of literary works considered by a culture to be the most important and representative of a particular time period, group of authors, or place. For example, there can be a literary canon
A literary canon creates a collection of these high quality works. But what do we mean by high quality? You will also explore this concept within this lesson.
You will also begin reading a canonical work, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (also referred to as Huck Finn). You will not only master reading strategies for comprehending and enjoying this complex work, but you will also learn more about why this book has been a target for banning.
We will consider many of the factors that influence those who choose these works, such as quality, importance, and representation, as well as age-appropriateness, topic, and language.
Wondering what goals you will pursue during this lesson?
Check out Lesson 2 Goals.
Head to the next page to take your pretest.
The questions listed below are vital to this lesson, because once you and your mentor determine what your prior knowledge, skills, and understandings are, then together you can tailor this study to your needs. In addition, these questions will help you decide which, if any, of the optional assignments to explore within this course.
What are Note-Taking Principles?
What are Theories of What Makes a Good Literary Canon?
What Questions Should You Write While Annotating?
Who Determines the Canon?
What is a TCQC Short Answer Response?
What Right or Rights Does the First Amendment Guarantee?
What Language and Style Techniques Can Authors Use?
What is Reading Step Two?
What is Satire?
What is Connotation?
Your next step is to review note-taking strategies. Did you know that good note taking integrates several methods? Check out the next page.
Lesson 1 offered some challenging readings to provide you with historical context, a sense of zeitgeist, and a grounding in key concepts. How well did you do at taking notes on these readings and ideas?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will test your ability in many skill areas, such as the ability to crack the code of dialect, understand satire, note significant details from a story, and thoughtfully examine some controversial issues of race relations in 19th century America. To be prepared properly for all the twists, turns, and hills of this reading journey, you will need the skill of note taking.
In later lessons you will do more in-depth study of different aspects of note taking. For now, get a quick peek at some basic strategies.
View the Note Taking Slide Show.
Did you take notes on how to take notes? Whether you did or not, be prepared to use these strategies on the following pages.
Note Charles B. Fairbanks' thoughts about reading in the sidebar, and discuss with your mentor.
Are you ready to increase the savings in your word bank? Or do you need to dive into creating your own canon? Decide with your mentor which step to take next.
This lesson and your readings offer interesting words that might be new to you. Continue your vocabulary mastery. Review the definitions of words you don't already know that appear on this page, in this lesson, and throughout the readings. Use multiple reference sources, if you aren't satisfied with initial definitions provided, to help you decipher meaning.
(see definition #2 under "intransitive verb")
Complete the practice activity for words you need to master.
Time to explore the criteria for a canon and to create your own literary canon. Head to the next page.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn resides in the American literary canon, but the canon is an ever-evolving group of works. Many famous authors, literary experts, educators, and philosophers wrestle over what justifies a work's placement in the canon. The overarching question is, "Does this book represent the quality and impact to be required reading of many people?"
Start thinking about what choices you might make for a literary canon that all gifted sixth through eighth graders should read.
According to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, experts on literature and culture, a book should meet the following criteria to be included in the canon:
Charles Eliot's Harvard Classics and Adler's Great Books offer extensive lists of classic works. Some universities offer courses and even entire curricula strictly devoted to the study of these books. Check out these lists, and see how many names (authors or titles) you recognize or have already read.
Now that you have some background information on making a literary canon, you're ready to create your own canon of works.
Ready to play the role of professor? The first step in considering how you might update, revise, or even overhaul the canon is to consider which books you think are important, influential, inexhaustible, and relevant.
The Newsweek column, "Life in Books," asks famous authors, filmmakers, politicians, and others holding influential positions to explain five books that are most important to them, one book they hope parents will read to their children, and one they've recently revisited and been disappointed with.
Visit the Newsweek Web site and enter this phrase in the search bar: "a life in books." Select authors of interest to you, see what their favorite books are, and consider reading the books these authors list:
If Newsweek called you and asked you to provide your own answers for that column, what would you say?
This is your chance to influence what students and adults will be reading for a long time to come, so choose carefully.
Create your own canon in your Reader's Journal by answering the questions in the Create Your Own Canon hand out. The last question on the sheet asks you to create your own canon for students your age. You will also want to:
Update your canon as you proceed through the readings in this course and any other readings you choose independently. Your canon will remain a work in progress. Need some help? See what TIP Testers accomplished.
View the work of students to get a sense of how others approach the challenge of developing a canon.
View the Create Your Own Canon response of Emily, TIP Tester.
View the Create Your Own Canon response of Kanan, TIP Tester.
Read this definition of the literary canon with your mentor. It attempts to give a more expansive and complex definition of canon, ending with the question quoted below. Try to answer the question along with your mentor, and record your response in your Reader's Journal.
As the term is ordinarily used, "literary canon" is defined by definition #7 above: "an authoritative list, as of the works of an author." Yet the sense of definition #3 ("standard, criterion") is also strongly implied as the means by which individual works find their way into the literary canon. How do the other definitions of canon resonate with the concept of an authoritative list of authors who are taught in literature courses? In what sense have authors been canonized saints or priests in Western culture, or to what extent may we think of the literary canon in the sense of #8, "a composition . . . in which the same melody is repeated by one or more voices, overlapping in time in the same or a related key"?
—Kathryn B. Stockton
It's time to analyze why the canon at times comes under scrutiny, if not attack. A number of works you've seen listed are often pulled from libraries, schools, and other institutions. Head to the next page to explore the book banning debate.
No doubt as you built your literary canon you left out some books, perhaps because you forgot a few or perhaps because you thought some works were inappropriate for the canon. Did you feel so strongly about some of the books you chose not to include that you would advise the books never be read by children of certain ages?
Some people believe certain books should be banned. When and why do some books get banned? Why would a school or library decide not to teach or stock certain literature?
Take careful notes as you learn more about the issues surrounding removal of books from libraries and school syllabi.
Many advocates of book banning feel that some books are not appropriate for certain audiences. They feel that some topics are too difficult or too adult for children or younger readers. They might consider violence, language, or mature content to be inappropriate. Consider the rating system used in the movie industry. Movies rated R, NC-17, or PG-13 are considered verboten to viewers of a young age.
Take some time to look at the following Web sites containing more information about censorship, and take good quality notes.
Many opponents of censorship cite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the primary argument against censorship.
Several books are targeted for banning quite often. The Illinois Library Association and the American Library Association Web sites offer a lot of information about why books are sometimes banned, who initiates the requests, and other details.
Head to the next page to crystallize your thoughts on this debate.
Now consider your thoughts on this debate. First discuss these questions with your mentor, then determine your answers.
Create your own list of criteria in your Reader's Journal. Share that list with your mentor, and seek feedback from friends, teachers, and family you trust.
If you're really enjoying yourself, take a crack at the Disciplinary Hat activity on the Banned Book Debate.
Otherwise, head to the sections on controversial language and diction in Huck Finn.
Disciplinary Hat activities ask you to take on the role of a person who works in a particular field or discipline. In this exercise you will walk in the shoes of a professional who must decide to ban or preserve a book in the literary canon or who must develop a list for the canon. Select one of the following activities in order to consider the development of a canon or the issue of banned books from a perspective other than your own.
Select the topic that most interests you, and explore it from the viewpoint of someone else who would also have an interest in this matter. To truly put yourself into his or her shoes, you will need to know what interests are most important to a person in this discipline or situation?
Consider the banned book debate from someone else's point of view. First choose one of the following groups. Select a group that is accessible to you—meaning, a member of the group that you can interview locally or by e-mail.
Address the debate through their eyes by doing the following:
Bonus Challenge: Using local news sources and the public library, investigate whether the group you chose has challenged or banned a book in your local schools in the last 100 years. Work with your mentor to develop a list of reputable and legitimate online resources to consult, and, if needed, conduct some interviews. Write a letter to the local school board responding to the issue, representing your opinions. (Again, don't actually send the letter.)
For a slightly different angle on this activity, consider another source for your interview:
Talk to your mentor about how you could learn more about these constituencies and how they influence literary canons.
Now let's take an in-depth look at one of the factors that can lead to book banning: the author's use of language. Head to the next page.
You've probably already encountered one reason certain books are challenged or even banned: language. Even the smallest phrase or shortest word can make all the difference in a book's appropriateness for certain audiences. Every word has power.
Soon you will begin reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), considered by many to be part of the canon. It is also a book that has been banned from some schools and libraries. Before you begin reading it, let's explore how language can be the source of banning. These next few pages are crucial background to the challenge a contentious book presents.
Let's explore the power of diction in the Huck Finn.
If the reason a book is sometimes banned is due to its difficult language, why would an author choose to use a contentious word? Why would the writer not consider using a euphemism instead?
Consider your own choice of words, your diction, when writing or even speaking.
Head to the next page to explore specificity and connotation.
Let's start with a basic level of diction where things aren't so controversial. Starting here will show you how writers make incremental choices in all their words that contribute to overall main ideas, themes, and tone. Before a writer even realizes it, he or she has set a mood, inspired emotions, and created reactions. Every word has its own connotations.
Some reasons a writer might select one word instead of another are impact and meaning. General verbs are vague. They can be used by anyone for a variety of situations, but these verbs don't truly pin down the action for a reader. Active verbs create an immediate, cinematic, and memorable image.
Think about the differences in diction between the following pairs of sentences. Discuss with your mentor, then hover your mouse over the analysis (below and to the right).
Think about the differences in diction among the following four sentences. Discuss with your mentor, then hover your mouse over the analysis (below and to the right).
How would you distinguish the different types of information each sentence gives?
Head to the next page for an exploration of biased diction and strong language.
Now let's step into the more challenging territory that words create. Look at two different ways a news organization might report an event.
See your mentor for the analysis, available at Lesson 2 of the Mentor Guidelines Web site.
Have your parents or guardians ever cautioned you against "strong language"? What words are off limits, and why?
Love and hate are often cited as examples of strong language. To say you have fallen in love with someone is quite a declaration, as is a declaration of hatred. Yet do you hear people say every day:
Then, they turn around and declare newfound love or hatred for something or someone else.
What other synonyms might a speaker or writer use instead? Discuss with your mentor why such words fit that description.
Experiment with general versus specific diction, biased versus more neutral diction, or stronger versus tamer language.
Head to the next page to see how Huck Finn is full of contentious language from another era that raises some readers' hackles. Note also that there are many readers who believe such language is crucial to the book's status as a classic.
Sometimes when we read literary works from another era, we may find the language to be archaic, biased, or strong. We may even be offended by the diction and the attitudes it represents because the language reminds us of horrible injustices and past crimes. Such language may cause problems for modern readers who don't comprehend the setting of another era or who would rather not explore the prejudices and problems of that time. In other words, reading a work from such an era can be contentious.
For example, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in the late 1800s by Mark Twain, takes place in the Southern United States. Some of its language is considered racially inappropriate and offensive today. While we would never consider using such terms today, Americans from certain regions of the country once did, and that language is key to the setting Twain establishes in his story.
Be prepared for some racially offensive language that challenges us as modern readers, as you read the angry rant of Huck's father, Pap.
"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. The said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?" (35)
As you explore Step Two: Gathering the Tools, you will explore more fully how background knowledge, such as what we've covered these last several pages, is helpful to understanding a book such as Huck Finn.
In Step One, you decided on a method to assess a particular reading's level of difficulty for you. In Step Two, you will gather the tools you need to help you meet any particular challenges you might encounter with that reading.
In Lesson 1, you previewed the novel Huck Finn.
Review the notes you made about this text in Lesson 1. Do you already know anything about the author, publication, genre, and relevant historical events?
Let's explore a few Web sites and see what we can learn about the novel's background, before we begin our reading. This will help us place the novel historically, learn about the author, know how the book is received by others, and perhaps gain a few tips to help us with our reading.
Ready to take notes? Any time you see many Web sites to visit, that's your cue to get out your note-taking tools!
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain in 1884, and the novel itself is set roughly in the pre-Civil War era, about 1835-1845. You can find additional information about Mark Twain at the Official Mark Twain Web site, including some interesting fast facts.
You may have noticed this novel on some lists of banned books. Before you decide to read Huck Finn, you might be curious to know why it is so often banned. Here are some interesting facts listed on the Banned Books Online page.
Arming yourself with knowledge about the language in this book, about the time when it was written, and about the author's place in history may help you to read on a deeper level. This step will allow you to judge for yourself whether you think
For more information about Step Two, go to the next page.
In addition to background knowledge, you may also wish to gather some physical items to help you read.
Wherever you read and however you read, you might also need some annotation tools to help you succeed.
Gathering the appropriate tools before you begin your climb will help you read deeper, understand more, and ensure your success.
Now you're ready to read and annotate Huck Finn.
As you read chapter 1, jot down your initial reactions in your journal.
Head to the next page to learn more about the dialect in this novel. Head to the following page if you seek a challenge while analyzing this novel.
Some readers often struggle to decipher what the characters say as they begin reading Huck Finn. This text is a prime example of an author's use of diction and dialect. One strategy to help you make sense of the language is that of "translating" a few sentences or phrases from their dialect into yours.
Translate a few samples of dialect from Huck Finn by reading the flash cards below.
Analyze the following with your mentor:
Select one of Huck's passages of first-person narration (50-100 words) and translate it in two ways:
Another strategy you might try is to use the context in which each phrase is spoken. Think about the events that are occurring, and use cues about the characters' personalities and the setting to decipher what the characters are feeling and stating.
If you are eager for a challenge as you investigate the literary devices of this novel, check out the next page.
If you are ready to conduct an in-depth analysis through writing, skip to dialectical journaling.
Consider completing this optional activity if you need additional challenge.
As you follow Huck Finn on his adventures, he'll get tangled in all kinds of shenanigans that on the surface may seem simply to be a teen boy getting into trouble. But many critics think Mark Twain tried to challenge all kinds of social norms through the seemingly innocent antics of a young, impoverished boy.
Satire challenges social norms. Satire, for our purposes, is a literary work that mocks and critiques human error, vice, or the faulty institutions, systems, and rituals people create. Satire uses the tools of exaggeration, incongruity, slapstick, and irony, among others, to highlight the wrongs that need correcting.
View these Flash Cards to get a sense of how satire in Huck Finn uses these four tools.
Head to the next page to complete your own analysis of the book's satire of religion and racism.
If you are ready to conduct an in-depth analysis through writing, skip to dialectical journaling.
If you are ready to conduct an in-depth analysis through writing, skip to dialectical journaling.
A dialectical journal is a conversation between you, the reader, and the text. Each side of the page will represent one side of the conversation. Think about a cartoon image in which each character has his own speech bubble as he converses.
Select at least three meaningful passages from your Huck Finn readings.
Review the Dialectical Journal Rubric. What are you being challenged to do? Ask your mentor for any explanation and tips, if you need them.
Review the following journal entries from other students: example 1 of The Bean Trees; example 2 by Nicole, TIP Tester; and example 3 by Chris, TIP Tester. These examples analyze excerpts from the novel The Bean Trees and the essay "A Fable for Tomorrow" from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring—readings that have not been assigned for this course. However, by looking at these, you can still get a good idea of how a reader can interact with the text and create a thoughtful dialectical journal. What strategies do you see these students employing?
Choose one passage, and write a dialectical journal of at least 250 words in response to the passage. Remember all the strategies above, and keep the rubric close at hand.
Need help focusing your journal? Pay close attention to these topics that Twain may be satirizing:
If you continue to need challenge, you may be able to tackle the Disciplinary Hat: You, Literary Scholar.
Otherwise, continue to work on your Timeline.
Imagine you have been invited to speak to The Mark Twain House and Museum, due to your extensive knowledge and research of the text on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You have been asked to speak on a controversial topic, the proposition:
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be rewritten so as to remove any offensive language."
To prepare for this speech, you must research the book carefully, trying to imagine whether edits will seriously improve or compromise the integrity of the work.
Now it's time to get back to your Timeline.
Add the year 1884, the year the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, to your timeline.
Also add the time span between 1835–1845, since Twain set the story forty to fifty years before 1884.
Visit the sample updated timeline.
As you make this addition, consider how the events in the book might have been influenced by events in that period of history. For example, Jim is attempting to escape slavery, and Huck seems concerned about whether or not to help him.
Note the publication date in relation to the historical documents and other readings you completed in Lesson 1.
Take new notes as necessary, and update your timeline if needed.
There are two final steps to wrap up this lesson: a reflection on Reading Step Two, and a vocabulary quiz.
In your Reader's Journal, reflect on your personal experience with Reading Step Two.
Head to the next page to take your vocabulary quiz.
The more diction you master, the easier your reading becomes. Build up your word bank by proving you know words that have been defined throughout these pages and throughout the first ten chapters of the Huck Finn.
Keep in mind: if you haven't been learning new words as you read this lesson or the novel, you'll discover through this quiz where you've been taking shortcuts.
You can return later to redo these activities and test your knowledge of other words.
You might also consider returning to the pretest on page two to see what you know now that you didn't before.
Go to Lesson 3
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