Since I was 16 years old, Garrison Keillor has been on the air as the host of Prairie Home Companion, bringing us stories from Lake Wobegon and other real and imagined locales. I remember talking with my students about PHC programs in my English classes in the early 80s. Some of them listened regularly, and they enjoyed the show, with its quirky humor and local color. Last Saturday was Keillor’s last program and it signaled, in my opinion, the end of an era. I doubt that many students today understand the allusions that Keillor makes in his stories, and I hope that his sense of all things middle America and mid to late 20th century America will not totally be lost. These include references to religion, history, politics, geography and more.
I often talk about an article that appeared in Newsweek on September 23, 1985. Written by college professor Jaime O’Neill, it is entitled, “No Allusions in the Classroom,” and in it the author exposes and bemoans his college students’ apparent lack of knowledge about everything from politics to history to geography. You can still find the article on the internet, (it’s interesting that there was no internet when he first wrote it!) and, in fact, the author refers to it in a subsequent piece in 2013. It seems as though some things have not changed much in the past 30 years.
Most allusions in literature come from three major sources — the Bible, mythology, and Shakespeare. It used to be that people had a passing knowledge of biblical stories, and would understand the phrases, “as wise as Solomon,” or “as strong as Sampson,” to highlight a couple more obvious allusions. Regarding mythology, most of us have heard the terms, ‘Herculean effort,” and “Oedipus complex.” Shakespeare’s characters often represent particular qualities, strengths and flaws, and have become archetypes like the hesitant Hamlet or the bawdy Falstaff. Obviously, as time has passed, we have gained many more examples of literary characters and themes that inform our culture.
E.D. Hirsch, who wrote, “Cultural Literacy — What Every American Needs to Know,” in 1988, and subsequently, “The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,” in 2002 states that, “Community is built up of shared knowledge and values — the same shared knowledge that is taken for granted when we read a book or newspaper, and that is also taken for granted as part of the fabric that connects us to one another.” He argues that there are some things that we should all know and/or recognize. With the amazing speed at which new knowledge is developed and disseminated, it is, of course, impossible to know and/or recognize everything, but even in this ever-shrinking world, there are still people and places and characters and things that we should all know.
So what does this have to do with you and me and summer in Maine and around the world?! All this to say that I encourage you to read at least one good book this summer that has not been assigned to you — something you don’t HAVE to read! Find something you will enjoy — perhaps a classic, and when you come to an allusion don’t just skim over it; look it up! You will discover new characters, new relationships, and new information, and you can come back to LA in the fall or go out into the world elsewhere and share that new knowledge with others!