Adios Chaucer! Adios Shakespeare! Americanizing the English Department and Its Curriculum—A Latino Perspective

Adios Chaucer! Adios Shakespeare! Americanizing the English Department and Its Curriculum—A Latino Perspective

From Pluma Fronteriza, Part 1, April 20, 2011; Part 2, April 21, 2011

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence / Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University

Consider this scenario: I’m at an airline terminal in Albuquerque saying goodbye to two old friends. The anxious one is rather burly and bewhiskered with unruly hair–he is not Ricardo Sanchez. The other is an endomorph of smaller proportions with graying hair and a van-dyke beard–he is not Alurista. Both are old friends of mine whom I’ve known since I was an undergraduate at Pitt–that was sixty years ago.  Geoff is the burly one, and Will is the one with the van-dyke beard. Geoff is agitated, pacing back and forth in front of the gate podium. Will is seated, calmly reading a book of Elizabethan poetry. He fancies himself more a poet than a playwright. Both have achieved phenomenal literary success. And I’m grateful that I learned so much from them, but they have both agreed, albeit reluctantly, that indeed it’s time for them to get back to the old sod—they’re both from England.

“You’re sure there’s nothing moe I can do for you, Felipe?” Geoff asks.

“Oh there’s lots moe you can do for me,” I say, poking fun at his archaic English “but I’ll get to you when I need you.

“You’re sure, now?” Geoff prods insistently.

“Stop hectoring him,” Will chides, annoyed. “Sit down, old man, and look over that book of castles I gave you.”

“I can’t help it, I’m nervous,” Geoff says.

“Of course we are,” Will responds avuncularly. “We’ve been here much too long, Geoffrey.

“I rather like it here,” Geoffrey responds. “The ale is quite good. Not as good as Harry’s, mind you, but . . . still quite good.”

A boarding announcement interrupts us.

“I guess this is it, guys,” I say.

“Yes,” they both chime, picking up their on-board luggage, tickets in hand, ambling towards the loading ramp.

I give them both abrazos and tell them it’s not goodbye, just hasta pronto. We’ll always be friends. They board the plane. I watch as it taxies towards the runway and after lining up for take-off lurches from the ground. I want to say “Beam me up, Scotty!” I will miss them. But I know where they are.

In my education in the segregated public schools of the nation and in my pursuit of the Ph.D. in English,  I was enlightened by my study of Chaucer and Shakespeare and the other stalwarts in the pantheon of English letters. I got a good education, but in retrospect I see now how much better my education would have been by studying the works of African American writers and other non-English writers of the United States.  Like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ole Rolvaag.

It’s time to look seriously at what departments of English in American universities should be about. Surely at the beginning of the 21st century, Americans ought to have a clear sense of American literature and its place in the university curriculum. But it appears we don’t. Perhaps the problem stems from the nomencla­ture we’re still using to identify departments of English language and literature–Departments of English? That strikes me as rather anachronistic. H.L. Mencken had it right. Our language is not English; it’s American. So why are we still clutch­ing the label of “Department of English”? Because so many of us have been indoctrinated into believing that a special relationship exists between England and the United States, so much so that we think of England as the “mother” country. The fact of the matter is that the United States has many mother countries. The ancestors of Americans did not all come from England. In fact, today there are fewer Americans with English ancestry. I harbor no ill will towards England, having spent a year there researching Shakespeare for my work on The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet (1966), but it’s time to accept our national identity for what it is and, surely, what it is still to become.

Reinforcing the proposition to Americanize the English department’s offerings in literature is a review of Marjarie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature that appeared in the Books section of the El Paso Times (Sunday, April 3, 2011), in which professor Garber who teaches English at Harvard is lamenting the decline of those who read literature. She cites a report from the National Endowment for the Arts indicating that “less than half the adults responding to a 2002 Census survey had read any novels, short stories, poetry or plays in their free time.” Ann Levin, the reviewer, adds that what scares Professor Garber “more than ignorance of [T.S.] Eliot is unmistakable evidence that the study of literature is no longer considered essential for a well-educated individual.” Not surprisingly, Garber cites the writers Americans should be reading: Woolf, Eliot, and Shakespeare, failing to take into account the contemporary demographic profile of the United States. In the near future, the United States will be a minority-majority country, most of whom will be Latinos.

This is not to say that Woolf, Eliot, and Shakespeare should not be read, only that there are others writers to read besides these Anglo-centric authors—that is, writers from England’s literary tradition. Why not Cervantes? Per the purpose of this piece, why not American writers like Ole Rolvaag or Isaac Bashevis Singer? Or Richard Wright or James Baldwin? Faulkner, Hemingway for that matter? Why not Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez, Jose Antonio Villarreal? It’s time to acquaint American students with the richness of the American literary tradition as it has evolved to the present.

The facts of the matter are that in the early part of the 20th century there were entrenched factions of Anglophiles in the departments of English at American universities that were hostile to American literature “as a worthy subject of historical and philological inquiry” (Vanderbilt, 185). It was only in 1921 that the Modern Language Association (MLA) acknowledged formation of an American Literature Group (Ibid.,186). Although not as formidable a hostility, since then, however, Departments of English in American colleges and universities have given preference to courses in English literature than to courses in American literature. This is not to say that American literature is sucking hind teat, just that an audit of literature courses offered by English departments in American colleges and universities reveals the bias toward offering courses of English literature still present in those departments.

While a number of American professors like Bliss Perry and Brander Mathews were teaching courses on American writers during the early years of the 20th century, most Americans like Alfred Knopf had “priggish notion[s], based on complete ignorance, that there was no American literature” (Vanderbilt, 187). Toward the end of the second decade of the 20thcentury, J. B. Hubbell complained that no graduate courses in American literature were offered at Harvard during his two years there from 1906-1908, though four Chaucerians “were busily employed” during that time (Ibid.). In 1913, Arthur H. Quinn offered a graduate course in “Forms and Movement in American Literature,” perhaps the first course in American literature at an American college or university (Ibid. 188). In the years from 1910-1918 “no more than 10 to 15 percent of the English curriculum was reserved for American literature” (Ibid. 190). The underlying assumption for this preference was (and continues to be) that there existed/exists a special relationship between the United States and England, the mother country and that the United States is the child, deserving of less attention.

Great strides were made in the 1920’s in teaching American literature in the colleges and universities of the United States. Still, English literature remained preferable in the curricula of American departments of English, that is, American departments of English valued English literature over American literature. 

Though not yet a trend, a number of English departments in American colleges and universities are transitioning toward a profile that identifies them as departments of languages and literatures, focusing their course offerings on more American literature. There is nothing Catonist in seeking this change. As a Xenophobe, Cato thought that Rome should be for the Romans. This is not an “America for Americans” campaign. It’s an effort toward long overdue parity and equity.

That transition is still problematic because of the conditioning many of us were apodictically subjected to in pursuing degrees in English. In a recent C-Span interview, Henry Louis Gates, a pioneer in solidifying African American literature in public and higher education, extolled the virtues of English literature as the summa literature of all literatures. That kind of praise for English literature makes the going for American literature more tenuous.

But as Shakespeare’s Marc Antony intoned before the bier of Julius Caesar in Rome after his assassination: The fault dear, Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. As I have mentioned, the reason why American literature has been second-fiddle to English literature is that the American literati has not valued American letters. Why not?

From the very beginning, the United States was a motley aggregation of peoples from various parts of the world–mostly Europe with the exception of American Indians, African slaves,  and the Sephardic community of New York. They did not think of themselves as a single ethnically hegemonic group. I’m talking about the beginning of the United States–1776–not about the antecedent British colonies. In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), St John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) tells us about the multicultural and multilingual character of the United States at its founding, providing us with “some of the best surviving pictures of the diversity of tongues and types . . . that soon were to be welded into a new nation” (Stern and Gross 317). In Crevecoeur’s words: “They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes” (Ibid.). He does not mention the American Indians, the Sephardic Jews of New York who came with the Dutch nor the diversity of African slaves nor the Hispanics in the population.

 There were many other diverse groups of people in the American population at the beginning. According to Thomas Sowell,

Over the years a massive stream of human­ity . . .  cross­ed every ocean and continent to reach the United States. They came speaking every language and representing every nationality, race, and religion. Today, there are more people of Irish ancestry in the United States than in Ireland, more Jews than in Israel, more blacks than in most African coun­tries. There are more people of Polish ancestry in Detroit than in most of the leading cities of Poland and more than twice as many people of Italian ancestry in New York than in Ven­ice (3).

In the beginning the strength of the new nation was considered resident in the differences of its people—differences which were prized and cele­brated. All tolled, the 13 states consisted of some 3 million people, half of them slaves. In the first his­tory of the United States, Salma Hale des­cribed Americans as “coming from every quarter of the world, speaking many different lan­guages, dis­persed over a vast extent of the territory” (12). While they thought of themselves as Americans, the concept that would aggregate them all as a nationality was still years ahead of them. The nation was still fissured with ethnic and racial enclaves.

The United States started its democratic experiment with a multicultural and multilingual crew. So, why departments of English? Why not departments of American Studies? Or American literature? I realize these identifiers may not be quite accurate, but surely together we can come up with the right name for our purposes.

Americans have been conditioned to believe that England is the sole mother country of the United States. From a post-colonial point of view, the United States has many mother countries: Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, to name but a few. As is evident, not all Americans are of English stock. Large numbers of them are from Indigenous American groups, Ireland, Scotland, Africa, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Middle European backgrounds. Increasing numbers of them are from Middle-East, Asian-Pacific, and Indo-Hispanic origins. These demographics are not new, as Crèvecoeur pointed out in his Letters from an American Farmer. .


The face of our nation is changing, and its literary canon must change with it. Census projections predict that by the middle of the 21st century whites will comprise a numerical minority in the American population. Even now, however, while the American population may be about 65% white, not all whites are of English stock. Paramount in a reconsideration of what to rename departments of English is the groundswell of American writers whose origins are not from England but from a diversity of countries whose national languages are not English.

At the moment it appears that the largest and most significant demographic growth will be with American Latinos. The U.S. Census Bureau projects an American population of 439 million by the year 2050, one-third of whom will be Latinos—66 percent of whom will be Mexican Americans. Of the 310 million Americans today, 50 million are Latinos—16% of the U.S. population. And two/thirds of American Latinos today are Mexican Americans, fueling the demographic growth trend of Latinos in every county of the United States—every county. With this demographic profile of the United States looming in the future, does it not make sense that American literature reflect that demographic diversity? However that demographic diversity does not yet include American Hispanics—that is, Hispanics of the United States. Here and there an American Hispanic author is included in the anthologies of American literature. However, not in numbers commensurate with their proportion in the American population.

Another third of the American population by mid-century will be minorities of color with origins from throughout the world: from Asia, Indonesia, Pacific Islanders, Africa, the Middle East, and a plethora of other places. Surely, the character of American literature must then reflect the character of its population? Is it not time to begin acknowledging and preparing for these demographic changes in the present?

Some changes are occurring in snippets here and there. Some textbooks are beginning to reflect the full sweep of the American experience. Some anthologies of American literature have become more inclusive, the best of which is the Heath Anthology of American Literature edited by Paul Lauter, et al. with an Advisory Board that includes Latinos. But a 2002 McGraw Hill anthology of The American Tradition in Literature (10th Edition) includes only one Hispanic writer, Isabel Allende born in Lima, Peru of Chilean parents, as representative of American Hispanic writers—that is, American Hispanic writers of the United States. This would be like including Inua Achebe, the African Nigerian writer, as representative of African American writers. Since Isabel Allende now lives and writes in the United States, she is technically an American Hispanic writer. The caveat, however, is that she has not lived the American Hispanic experience of the Mexican American born in the United States nor the experience of the Puerto Rican as a life-long citizen of the United States.

Minority writers of the United States are contesting—nay, challenging—the narrow aperture of the American literary canon. As Walter J. Ong put it, “a minority literature often negotiates for its own identity with the majority culture and constantly redefines itself, ultimately bringing the majority culture to define itself more adequately” (Baker 3; see Ortego 2010). This is precisely also the challenge of the project on Recovering the U.S. Literary Heritage of the United States led by Nicolas Kanellos at the University of Houston. The contention of the Recovery Project is that Hispanic writers before 1776 in what is now the United States ought to be considered very much a part of American literature just as the British writers before 1776 in what is now the United States are considered a part of American literature. Both are colonial roots of American literature. Moreover, the Recovery Project argues that the literature extant in the territory dismembered from Mexico and acquired by the United States as a consequence of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) and ratified by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, rightly constitutes the roots of Mexican American literature (see Ortego 1971a).

In 1887, John Gilmary Shea presented the case in an article entitled “The First Epic of our Coun­try, by the Poet Conquistador of New Mexico, Captain Gas­par de Villagra” (United States Histori­cal Magazine, April). In the 1933 preface to Gilberto Espinosa’s trans­lation of Villagrá, F. W. Hodge acknowledged that Villagrá’s work “may claim the distinction of being the first published history of any American common­wealth” (17). Jingoistic American history has negated that proposition, principally because Villagrá’s work was written in Spa­nish. To this Thomas M. Pear­ce did not mince words:

The English tradition, as it is car­ried on by the English language [in  the United States], has made few concessions to other ele­ments in the literary history of this country (“American Tradi­tion and Our Histories of Literature”  (16)

Villagrá’s work deserves consi­deration as the first epic in the lite­rary history of the United States, for the fabric of American literature is not one woven exclusively on the Atlantic frontier by New England Puritans and Southern Cavaliers, but one woven in the American Southwest by Spanish and Mexican settlers as well.

In his article of 1942, professor Pearce argued that:

If we must write history by chro­nology, let the  literature tell the story of the land. The English epic Beowulf found no mention in English literature until an anti­quary published a garbled summary in 1705; no English transla­tion was made until 1837. Yet we do not introduce Beo­wulf into English histories as litera­ture of the eight­eenth or nineteenth centuries. It is discussed as the beginning, the source materials (18).

This point was emphasized by Genaro Padilla in “Discontinuous Continuities: Remapping the Terrain of Spanish Colonial Narra­tive” (Herrera-Sobek, 34).

Indeed the Spanish literature of exploration deal­ing with the Southern and Southwestern portions of the United States—the chronicles of American ex­ploration—have been excluded as part of our na­tional literary heritage though they treat of the same themes of exploration as their British counterparts.

From 1527 to 1848, some 321 years, Spanish let­ters flourished in New Spain [subsequently cal­led the Republic of Mexico after 1821]. There were thou­sands of other works by these people in New Spain and Mexico over that span of time. The parallel between New England and New Spain as precursors of American letters is all too striking with the exception that in New Spain the language of letters was Spanish. But the point is that if the United States can claim the writings of colo­nial New England as the roots of Ame­rican lite­ra­ture, it can equally claim the writ­ings of colonial New Spain as roots of American literature also. The point is that New Spain is as relevant to the American experience as New England.

However, the fly in this ointment is that American teachers of English in high schools and colleges are ill-prepared not only for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms but also ill-prepared to teach the diversity of American literature since so few are exposed to the diversity of American literature since the focus of their training has been on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English literary canon. Like me in 1952, my first year of  teaching, when teachers of English stepped into their classrooms all they knew about American literature were the works of what was then the American literary canon, limited to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Nurtured on the Western Tradition, this is what they taught and what they passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacrosanct, the illumination of the Western Tradition in literature continued unabated until the emergence of minority movements of the post-Brown v. Board of Education era (Ortego 1971c).

My contention in this essay has been not to negate the English Tradition in which I was steeped but to augment it by opening the aperture of the American literary canon (Ortego 1971b)



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