I bought it because I wanted to read it to see how smart, or how dumb, I really am.
I consider myself a pretty educated person; I graduated college with two majors (but only one BA; Fairfield would only let you have a BA for your first declared major), I have an MA, and 30 credits beyond it. I speak three languages and am currently learning a fourth. And I have only lost one Trivial Pursuit game in five or six years. (Every New Year's Eve, my friend Dom and I team up and completely obliterate the competition. It's become a tradition that Dom and I love, but our friends...not so much).
Anyway, I also own The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, and I figured, between the two volumes, I could see how good my education really is.
An Incomplete Education is currently in its third edition. The first chapter deals with American Studies. The first section of the chapter concerns "American Literature 101: A First Semester Syllabus".
First author: Jonathan Edwards. Never heard of him, never read him.
Next, Benjamin Franklin. According to the book, I should have read the Declaration of Independence in high school; I did, in American History class. I already knew that he invented bifocals, the lightening rod, and, since I live in Connecticut, the first insurance company. According to the book, I should have learned, when I was in college, that Franklin "had as many detractors as admirers, for whom his shrewdness, pettiness, hypocrisy, and nonstop philandering embodied all the worst traits of the American character, of American capitalism, and of the Protestant ethic." (p. 7) I did not take any American history or literature classes in college, so I did not learn this at all.
Third author: Washington Irving. My mother's family is from Tarrytown. Nuff said.
James Fenimore Cooper: Never read any of his works.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Read some excerpts of his works in high school, but can't remember which ones. We touched upon the Transcendentalist movement, but spent more time on Thoreau and read, and discussed, a larger excerpt of Walden.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Read The Scarlet Letter in high school. Hated it.
Edgar Allan Poe: Had to memorize "The Raven" in high school. Read "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" as a seventh grader. We saw the short plays of Poe's work at the Bushnell that same year. The Bushnell, and various other theatres in the area, still present such works to schoolchildren.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: We learned about her in a unit about Connecticut authors; I can't remember how old I was. I tried to read Uncle Tom's Cabin as an eighth grader, on my own, and couldn't get past page 20. I'm sure I can finish it now.
Henry David Thoreau: See Ralph Waldo Emerson. Do all Transcendentalist authors have three names?
Herman Melville: We never read Moby Dick in high school. According to the book, Billy Budd was supposed to be an extra-credit assignment. We read that instead of Moby Dick, and not for extra credit!
Mark Twain: My second grade teacher read us "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" as part of a unit on Mark Twain, right before we visited the Mark Twain House. Read excerpts of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in high school, but never the whole books.
Seems like I'm doing OK so far in terms of American authors...but just OK. I give myself a C+ on my familiarity with their works. Now let's see how well I do in American poetry:
Ezra Pound: Never read any of his works. I've heard of him, though.
T.S. Eliot: I honestly thought he was British, I really did. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" remains one of the most bizarre poems I've ever read.
William Carlos Williams: See Ezra Pound. I've heard of him.
Robert Frost: I had to memorize "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" for the same English teacher who made us memorize "The Raven."
Wallace Stevens: I should know more about him than I already do. After all, he was a Hartford insurance executive.
The book then lists the "five runners-up" of Great American Poetry, among which is e.e. cummings. You mean to tell me e.e. cummings is NOT among the top five?!?! He's the poet I remember the best! (But then again, it's mainly because of his distrust of punctuation and capitalization).
e.e. cummings is the only poet of the five runners-up I've even heard of. I've never heard of Marianne Moore, John Crowe Ransom, Hart Crane, and Robert Lowell.
My C+ has been downgraded to a C...and I have a feeling it's only going to get lower...