An English professor at Vanderbilt University once related the following anecdote to a group of impressionable undergraduates in an honors seminar on modernism. The professor was a young Joyce scholar who had completed his doctoral studies at Yale. The students were all senior English majors. Some of them would go on to become doctors, others lawyers, a few would go on to get their MFAs and/or PhDs. The brief story was about a question the professor was asked in his admissions interview to Yale, which he related to the group of students, and which went something like this:
“I had applied to the PhD program at Yale, and as part of the admissions process we were expected to answer a number of questions asked by senior members of the English Department faculty. Some of the questions were open-ended. Things like: what is modernism? Or: what is Shakespeare’s greatest comedy? Or: describe the evolution of the novel. I felt confident in the strength of my responses, and, judging from the facial expressions of these professors, they seemed to be pleased with how I had answered their questions so far. And then, about halfway through the interview, one of the older gentleman, after conferring with his colleague, leaned forward and asked me: ‘What is the most important work of literature published in the 17th Century?’
I racked my brain. Immediately I wondered what they meant by ‘important.’ It could mean enduring, influential, innovative, anything. I thought first, of course, of Shakespeare and his myriad plays. Then, almost as quickly, I thought of Miguel de Cervantes and his beloved Don Quixote. And then I wondered about all of the poetry published throughout the rest of the century. Was Paradise Lost published in the 17th century? What about Spenser’s Fairie Queen? What about Goethe’s Faust? They expected me to answer quickly, and, of course, I was not able to dial a friend, and so I went with Cervantes.
The old professors nodded gravely, perhaps not surprised by my answer. Nevertheless, the old gentleman who had asked the question respectfully and calmly informed me that the most important work of literature in the 17th Century was, of course, the King James Bible.”
Midway through relating this story, the Professor had asked his students at Vanderbilt whether they had any guesses about the answer, and not a single one of them guessed the King James Bible. Most had guessed works by Shakespeare. One had guessed Cervantes. Others hadn’t a clue. It’s an interesting observation, if only because it exposes our possible inclination to overlook religious texts as exempt from literature, but its seems equally important to study and read the Koran, Bible, and Upanishads for their literary and cultural merit. Whether one believes that the texts exist as something more than literature – say, Truth — or as potentially dangerous texts that incite people to acts of hatred or crime, it’s undeniable that these great texts have influenced culture and history as much or more than any other texts in history of the written word.
Where does one start? Having stumbled across the following, fascinating on-line Bible, the Literary Man has endeavored to take down the King James Bible, one book at a time, one business day at a time, until finishing all 67 chapters. It’s in the Must Reads list. Updates will be provided, as well as occasional commentary and reflections about the 400 year old English contained within these hypertext pages. It’s strange to read the very beginning and think about whether it’s not the most famous line in the history of literature:
1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”