The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, ll. 190-191
My high school English students in Upstate South Carolina throughout the 1980s and 1990s were mostly unmotivated by huge portions of the early American literature canon—notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The problem was reading those works, but many of the conversations that the assigned reading spawned were some of the best moments of my teaching career.
After plodding through Emerson and Thoreau, tackling the ideologies of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism, the darker vision of humanity offered by Hawthorne allowed me to pose a powerful and often unexamined question to students about the essential nature of humans: Are people basically good or evil?
These were 10th and 11th graders, most of whom attended fundamentalist Southern Baptist…
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