(October 20, 2010)

Contact: Rick DelaHaya, Centenary News Services, 318.869.5073

Centenary textbook still going strong after nearly 50 years

SHREVEPORT, La. (Centenary News Service) — Fifty years ago, four Centenary College professors decided to write a book that could be used in the classroom and one that would take a revolutionary approach to interpretive textbooks for literature courses.

Comparing class notes, they realized how much more interested—indeed, excited—their students became when examining literary works from multiple critical perspectives, thereby understanding that no great poem, story, novel, or play limits itself to merely one interpretation—that, in truth, most great works are inexhaustible.

A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature has become a staple in the classroom in teaching and understanding literature and is in its sixth edition

While these four professors enjoyed sharing their various perspectives with each other as well as with their students, they could find no available textbook with such methodology for their classes. They agreed to write their own and not only explain several basic critical approaches, but also provide models for the students.

Now in its sixth edition, A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature has become a staple in the classroom in teaching and understanding literature.

Coauthored by Wilfred A. Guerin, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reesman and John Willingham, the first edition of HCAL ("aich-cal" as the authors fondly call it) appeared in 1966, and was truly the first of its kind—a pioneering approach which established a new mode of teaching and understanding literature.

Since then, the book has become a basic interpretive resource for teachers both here and abroad, while countless other textbooks have adopted this methodology. As the authors state in the preface, HCAL '...has been from the first the product of our shared conviction that the richness of great literature merits correspondingly rich responses. These happen most readily when the reader appreciates a great work from as many perspectives as it legitimately opens itself up to. In response to the inevitable classroom question, 'Why can't we simply enjoy this piece instead of criticizing?' we answer that 'The greatest enjoyment of literary art is never simple' and quote T.S. Eliot's famous remark that 'criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it.'"

What is perhaps most remarkable is that HCAL did not originate in one of the great graduate-and-research-oriented universities of the East, Midwest, or Western Coast, but in a small liberal arts college in Louisiana—and, most significantly, the idea was born in the undergraduate classroom, the direct result of the kind of student/professor interchange that distinguishes such classrooms where limited enrollments provide the ideal environment for such dialogue and mutual sharing of insight.

When they wrote the book 50 years ago they decided to write their own book that not only explains several basic critical approaches for interpretive literature, but also provide models for the students. As models, they selected classic examples of the short story, the novel, the poem and the play, as well as selecting two from American literature and two from British literature: Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and Shakespeare's Hamlet."

In successive chapters they decided to apply to each of these four basic works the following critical approaches: Traditional (textual/editorial, biographical/historical, and moral/philosophical), Formalistic ("New Critical" close textual analysis), Psychological (Freud), Mythological/Archetypal (Anthropology, Jung, American Dream), and Exponential (recurrent unifying motifs). The students' writing assignments would be based upon the application of these approaches to other selected literary works.

Since its initial publication the book has appeared not only in six American editions but at least a half-dozen foreign editions. "Frankly, we never anticipated what a universal success HCAL would become," confesses Dr. Labor. "We didn't know about all of the foreign editions, but we have learned that HCAL has been published in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish."

Moreover, the book has grown and changed over the past five decades. For example, in order to keep pace with current critical theories, the four original authors selected one of Centenary's outstanding alumni—Jeanne Campbell Reesman, an expert in feminist studies—to collaborate on the Third Edition, adding not only the Feminist Approach but also a chapter on Cultural Studies. Because publishers want to publish new editions of a popular text at frequent intervals, authors must create meaningful changes: ergo, the Fourth Edition featured as a basic text the addition of Alice Walker's richly interpretive story "Everyday Use."

But what about the Fifth Edition? Centenary alumnus and current Professor of English and film expert Dr. Jeff Hendricks '75 provided the answer: Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's novel had become both a classic and a favorite text for college students; it lends itself readily to multiple interpretive approaches; and virtually all students are familiar with at least one or more of the numerous cinematic spin-offs.

As for the sixth edition, one reviewer points out, "With its thorough updating of cultural and literary references for today's readers, the Sixth Edition is poised to influence a new generation of college students." Nearly twice as large as the First Edition, the latest version includes such recent sophisticated approaches as Materialisms, Ecocriticism, and Postcolonial Studies, along with a new website, illustrations, glossary, summaries of key points, samples of student essays, expanded discussions of film and visual texts, such as Velasquez's Las Meniñas (featured on the cover) and Picasso's interpretation of this famous painting.

After more than 50 years, what's next for the textbook and its authors? "I'm hoping we'll do a Seventh Edition," says Dr. Labor.

Dr. Guerin left Centenary several years ago and is now retired from LSU-Shreveport, Dr. Reesman is a Professor at University of Texas-San Antonio, and Dr. Willingham passed away this past year. However, both Labor and Morgan are Emeriti Professors at Centenary, and the name of this small liberal arts college in Shreveport, La., is still circulated around the globe. As a matter of fact, one of Labor's friends, a Professor at the University of Ottawa, sent him a Christmas card recently with the following note: "Earle, you might be interested in knowing that when my wife and I were vacationing in Hong Kong last summer, we saw a man on a bus there reading your Handbook of Critical Approaches."

NOTE: The Oxford University Press released the Sixth Edition of A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature earlier this year. One reviewer praises the book as having attained "the status of a classic textbook, where it rubs elbows with the likes of Brooks & Warren's Understanding Poetry and Perrine's Sound and Sense." Another reviewer, former Executive Director of the College English Association Earl J. Wilcox, notes that "Though called a 'handbook,' this text is in reality a comprehensive survey of the most important and popular approaches to literary criticism of the past century." In fact, it is this—and more than this—it is unique.

About Centenary College of Louisiana

Centenary College is a private, four-year arts and sciences college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1825, it is the oldest chartered liberal arts college west of the Mississippi River and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Centenary is one of 16 colleges and universities constituting the Associated Colleges of the South and has been recognized as "One of the Best 373 Colleges" by the Princeton Review and one of "America's Best Colleges" and one of "America's Best Private Colleges" by Forbes.com. In 2008 Centenary College celebrated 100 years in Shreveport and Bossier City.