My Journey Through American Literature

Arthur Edgar E Smith writes about his journey through American Literature: "My interest in America started over thirty years ago when I was very young. The U.S.I.S.
library in Freetown which became a transit point in my long journey back home in the
east from the Prince of Wales School in the west was always at the centre of it all. It
afforded me rest. But it also provided me a welcome and pleasing introduction to the
highly readable, markedly illustrated and boldly printed American texts and magazines
on varying subjects like literature, culture, economics, mass communications, and
science and technology with America already conquering space with its exploration of
the moon and other planets."My house got littered with numerous copies of American magazines such as TOPIC,INSIGHTS, DIALOGUE and V.O.A. PROGRAMME GUIDE. Books on NorthAmerican geography added supplementary materials to my texts which I studied withinterest and insight up to 6Th form broadening my familiarity with America even beforevisiting it.My knowledge of a widening area of American culture, which includes my infusion withjazz, blues and soul music through the V.O.A. where Sierra Leonean Ted Roberts andLiberian Yvonne Barclay held sway got extended and intensified. The Peace Corps alsoaided much in my education both at the Prince of Wales School as well as at the AlbertAcademy where I did my 6th form. At the Prince of Wales, a government premiereschool, I profited from American Peace corps teachers in Math and Geography. At AlbertAcademy, founded by the American United Methodist church there were more overtAmerican presence in resources and tutors who were largely American trained, this addedto the Peace Corps presence in the library and in the teaching of logic. This librarian washerself quite a resource in that library which added a stock of very useful and interestingbooks to my repertoire.But really my reading appetite started growing when I was in primary school and joinedthe newly created Sierra Leone Library Board thus adding a wide diet of literature to myhome reading which was supported by an American collection of poems, stories, extractsfrom novels and short biographies of discoverers and explorers. I could also rememberreading copies of Washington Irving's THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW and quitea good number of other writers. But at the Sierra Leone Library Board I read with delightTHE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain. I couldn't fully rememberwhether I followed it through to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Imay well have had my penchant for reading given much verve as I read volumes likethat stocked at home by my father containing classic American works like those ofJames Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, NathanielHawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. I read their novels as well as short stories with gusto. Istarted acquiring novels from the various bookshops thriving in Freetown then, often atauctions. Amongst the many I acquired and read were novels by Henry James, ErnestHemingway, F Scott-Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer,Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Bernard Malamudand James Baldwin. I also invested in quite a number of anthologies of American shortstories. It was a thrill to read American fictional works. Then on to Fourah Bay College Iadded a diet of American poets including Robert Frost whose 'Mending Wall' and'Road Not Taken' totally enraptured me with their simple but touching charm. Other poetslike William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, TS Eliot, E.E. Cummingsand Ezra Pound came in towards the end of college when I had a deep immersion intoAmerican drama through Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE and DEATH OF ASALESMANThat led me on to exploring his other plays as well as those of Tennessee-Williams,Eugene O'Neill and going on to reading English modernist playwrights such as HaroldPinter, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.The totality of literature, especially American I got exposed to was phenomenal. So whenon moving from Milton Margai College of Education to Fourah Bay College, upon beingassigned to teach American Literature though without ever undergoing any course in it, itwas not a totally daunting task. I prepared to face it with determination to measure up asan authority. My preparation for a class in American Literature starts off with backgroundwork exploring my student's grasp of the American Psyche, their ethos backed with abrief historical as well as geographical sketch. My introductory lectures now follow thatthrough by tracing how American literature developed with accent placed on theinfluence of religious and philosophical tenets such as Puritanism and transcendentalismand the centrality of this native urge for freedom, democracy and adventure and thepursuit of the legendary American dream.Apart from Modern literature, this is the only course offered in the English unit whichsurveys all the major genres in one semester. Though quite a daunting task, I prepare theminds of the students to face it head-on in spite of the acute dearth of materials. This I tryto alleviate thus encouraging them not to avoid reading the texts themselves which maywell be their easiest option otherwise. Reading assignments, written essay assignments,class discussions/seminars as well as lectures sustain the course which is offered at bothfinal general and honors levels.The texts at final general level are limited to:• 6 novels:o Nathaniel Hawthorne's SCARLET LETTERo Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINNo Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBYo Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISESo John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATHo Richard Wright's BLACK BOY• 4 plays:o Eugene O' Neil's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHTo Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIREo Arthur Miller's THE DEATH OF A SALESMANo Lorraine Hansbery's A RAISIN IN THE SUN• 6 poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, LangstonHughes and Amiri Baraka. ( To enable them to access all the poems, I select themfrom the various anthologies and collections cut and paste into five or so leafletswhich are then reproduced which they appreciably support.)A more expansive selection is offered at Honours 11 level where the course has morecredit hours per week and durates for two semesters.The following novels are added to those at General level:• Herman Melville's BILLY BUDD• Tony Morrison's SULA• Alice Walker's COLOUR PURPLE• Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN• James Baldwin's GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAINThere is need to add more plays to even them out with the other genres. I have thereforeadded THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams to George Albee's WHOAFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Adding another play by Miller possibly THECRUCIBLE and one by Amiri Baraka might be a step in the right direction. I think one ortwo contemporary plays might recommend themselves.In poetry the earlier mentioned poets are studied more intensively with Wallace Stevens,Sylvia Plath, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez added. Much moreinterest in American literature has been developed over these 6 years that I have been atF.B.C. teaching American literature. This is most evident in more enthusiastic responsefrom students in class, more extensive as well as intensive reading of the texts and morelong essays written in that area now.It was very heart-warming renewing relations with a country that has been at the heart ofmy education. This was when I was given the opportunity of being the first person toinitiate a literary evening in the reopened Martin Luther King library at the embassy afterthe war. This was a lecture I gave on the African American writer Langston Hughes. Thatmarked the celebrations for Black History Month in 2005 and was repeated for 2006celebrations.Other areas of interest include:• BOOK DEVELOPMENT - campaigning for greater access and provision oflibraries nationally, encouraging the establishment of a network of bookshops andother means of distribution, stimulating the development and maintenance ofstructures for a thriving publishing industry and encouraging the development ofSierra Leone literature and documenting it along with studies of individual effortsas well as trends.• SURVEYING AFRICAN LITERATURE• SURVEYING AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE• TRACING THE DEVELOPMENT OF AMERICAN LITERATURE FROMENGLISH LITERATURE ON TO ITS EMERGENCE TODAY AS THE MOSTVIBRANT LITERATURE NOW INFLUENCING RATHER THAN BEINGINFLUENCED. The trend of literature influencing the development of otherliteratures will be widely examined starting from the influences borne on Englishliterature by Greek, Roman, Italian and French literature. THEN that sameEnglish literature producing an international literature in English from its formercolonies now kept together in a commonwealth, particularly India, Australia, NewZealand, Canada, Africa and the Caribbean.• Some urgent attention needs to be given the study of ENGLISH as a secondlanguage in Sierra Leone. More resources and better motivated tutors are urgentlyneeded to rescue English from its endangered position.

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