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July 17, 2010



EHHS Blue Book: Making a List, Checking It Twice . . . .

A large section of the Erasmus Hall High School English Department Blue Book is devoted to various reading lists. Included are a list of 25 Great American Books and a list of 100 Great Books in World Literature. Both lists "represent the judgments of a number of qualified experts." The remaining lists are grouped in subject categories, alphabetically by author, and numbers from 1 to 5 denote the difficulty of the book in terms of the year of the high school course (5 denotes college level but suitable for mature high school students; Joseph Conrad therefore scores a constant 5 while Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle rate a 1 or 2).

Omissions and sometimes inclusions are striking, taking into account the probable 1958 date of the Blue Book. Conspicuous by their absence in the Great American Books list are Faulkner and Fitzgerald -- and indeed they do not appear on any of the reading lists included. Wolfe is included but Rolvaag, Marquand, Tarkington, and Harriet Beecher Stowe are not -- with Stowe completely absent from any list. One wonders how many experienced Erasmus English teachers were asked for input in compiling these lists.

Omissions in the other lists are striking as well -- shocking, even, considering that qualified experts judged what got included and what did not. Nowhere did Japanese fiction find a place on these lists: Lady Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles  and The Makioka Sisters, Natsume Soseki's Botchan and Kokoro -- all translated into English before the Blue Book was published. Also absent is Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a work of exceptional imaginative power but no doubt considered too depraved for even mature high schoolers. Indian literature is also underepresented, with no works by R.K. Narayan who, writing in English, imagined the town of Malgudi (as Faulkner did with his fabled county) and set his stories and novels therein: Malgudi Days, Bachelor of Arts, The English Teacher. Russian literature is underrepresented, with for example Turgenev and Gogol completely absent. And works by Chinese authors are given little representation but include one title in Chiang Yee's extensive and charmingly illustrated Silent Traveller series -- the likely-to-be-locally-appreciated New York entry.

Among prolific authors included, Dickens appears as author of his earlier works, but not as the creator of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, or Our Mutual Friend -- major accomplishments all. Henry James is represented by his collected stories and The Ambassadors, but not by major works such as Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, or The Golden Bowl.  Some of Edith Wharton's best books are omitted: The Reef, The Custom of the Country, Old New York, Bunner Sisters.

Singular inclusions of note, in my opinion, are: Cheerful, peppy books for girls -- Emma Bugbee's Peggy Covers London, Peggy Covers the News, Peggy Covers Washington; Alfred Margone's Things a Boy Can Do with Electro-Chemistry; two piquant books I discovered from the authors's late twentieth century obituaries -- Elizabeth G. Vining's nonfiction Windows for the Crown Prince (an American Quaker woman tutors the children of the Japanese royal family), and Frances Patton's Good Morning, Miss Dove (novel of an exacting schoolmarm over the years); Oliver LaFarge's Laughing Boy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a young man's self-identity as a Navajo in the American Southwest, and Betty MacDonald's memoir The Egg and I about a young wife's life on a farm, where Indians are rendered as dirty, unreliable, and unwelcome; Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton's novel of social protest in South Africa; the unusual sounding but welcome Imagination's Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics, by Helen Plotz; the baseball novels of John Tunis, enjoyed by Philip Roth in his Newark NJ high school days; Richard E. Byrd's Alone, a stark and terrifyingly surreal account of the author's five-month stint alone manning a meteorological station during an Antarctic winter -- later discredited as a foolhardy risk-taking stunt to bolster the author's credibility as a polar explorer and scientist.

Works I would have liked to have seen included on any list: Hardy's epic poem The Dynasts; Margaret Leech's American Civil War account Reveille in Washington; Emmet Lavery's play The Magnificent Yankee, based on Francis Biddle's biography Mr. Justice Holmes; either Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam, or Anna Leonowens's own published account of her time in Siam; Dawn Powell's sharply satiric New York novels, as well as her more pleasantly subdued Ohio novels; playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson's marvelous The Human Nature of Playwriting; the Journals of Lewis and Clark; travel accounts of 19th century visitors to America, including Charles Dickens, Frederick Marryat, Fanny Trollope, Fredrika Bremer, and others; Mary Chesnut's A Diary From Dixie, and other examples of published diaries, journals, and notebooks.

The section on Good Detective Stories (better retitled Good Mystery Stories) incomprehensibly omits anything by Eric Ambler, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, the underappreciated Ethel Lina White, and only mentions one book by Josephine Tey. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, incidentally, appears nowhere on any list, although Wharton's ghost stories are mentioned. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is completely absent from any list.

What to have done about homosexually related books, at the risk of making depravity run rampant through the halls of Erasmus?: I would have slipped in without further comment Henry Blake Fuller's understated and coded 1919 novel Bertram Cope's Year, and Mary Gordon's 1936 novel Chase of the Wild Goose, a fictional account of Ireland's Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, collectively known as the Ladies of Llangollen.

My wish list notwithstanding, the reading lists in the Blue Book were comprehensive and even took into account the input of various students who were asked to contribute ideas and suggestions. Almost sixty years later some of the entries are understandably dated and not inclusive, but the goal of the lists -- for students to achieve "the maximum literary preparation toward college admission [and] toward a possible scholarship" -- was a notable one.


EHHS Blue Book: Parallel Universes, Musical Chairs

I recently unearthed my dog-eared and seemingly dog-eaten copy of the Erasmus Hall English Handbook, aka the Blue Book, published by the Departments of English and Speech (a single department while I was at Erasmus). It was a 5" by 3" blue soft cover pamphlet, 127 pages, undated but circa 1958. Set forth within were sections covering such topics as courses of study, syllabus, words frequently misspelled, words frequently mispronounced, outline of parliamentary procedure, classification of books in the library, the minimum essentials (aka ME) test, and reading lists arranged by subject.

Herewith are the syllabuses for English One through Eight, and English A through H. (The parallel alphanumeric arrangement was designed to reverse course work within each term, in order to save the department from ordering large quantities of the same books -- setting up in effect a syllabus parallel universe of sorts. So for example English Three and English D would be offered during the fall semester, where English D would be using the books that English Four would use in the spring semester. Similarly English Four and English C would be offered in the spring semester, where English C would be using the books that English Three used in the fall semester. The full parallel options are set forth in the Blue Book, but in fact the only year that I was aware of these parallel offerings was in my sophomore year, as described above. They were not to my knowledge used in my junior or senior years, and in my freshmen year at the Annex the student body was too small -- about 350 students -- to take advantage of the cost-saving parallel syllabus construction.) Sometimes, as seen below, books recommended for the fall term were used in the spring term and vice versa, so the parallel construction had clearly been relaxed by the time I got to Erasmus -- but would probably be reinstated as post-war baby boomers arrived en masse.

Also an example of syllabus musical chairs occurred in my spring term at the Annex. I was in honor English classes in every term at EHHS except for this one. There was a conflict in the schedules of the sole French teacher and the boys gym teacher and as a result the seven or eight boys who took French could not be in honor English or honor math. This solution for the conflict involved the smallest number of students, so it was the solution that was adopted.

Additionally in the syllabus during several terms, some teachers would require students to memorize 25 lines of poetry -- probably one of the only times that students could hear what spoken poetry sounded like. In practice however this was seldom done. I never had to do it and only one teacher that I recall -- Mr. George Bartelt (pronounced Bartell) -- required his classes to do so. But in junior high school we were required to memorize speeches from Julius Caesar (my speech was "Messala / This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born. Give me thy hand . . . ") and the introduction to Longfellow's Evangeline ("This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, / Stand like Druids of eld . . . "). It also no doubt helped students become aware of rhymes and rhythms and poetic devices that were not necessarily detectable from the written page.

The Syllabus (My teachers for English One through Eight are noted in parentheses below.)

Ninth Year: Theme center is The Self-Reliant Individual.
Basic Pattern for English One (Mrs. Elaine Fialka Kramer) and English B
.Literature: one book of fiction, one book of poetry, and one book of myths. For fiction we read Scott's Ivanhoe, for poetry Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and for myths our teacher substituted Rieu's prose translation of Homer's Odyssey.
.Oral and Written Expression: the telling of a simple narrative, such as a current events talk, book report, etc.; the writing of a simple narrative and an informal letter.
.Grammar and punctuation: recognition and use of simple sentence, subjects and predicates, compound subjects and predicates, and compound sentences.
Basic pattern for English Two (Mrs. Elaine Fialka Kramer) and English A
.Literature: One book about the ancient Greeks, one Shakespearean play, one book of short stories. I don't remember any book about the ancient Greeks, but the Shakespeare play was A Midsummer Night's Dream. I also gave a speech on the modern play Blue Denim by James Leo Herlihy. We probably read an anthology of recent short stories, but I have no recollection of this at all.
.Oral and written expression: presentation of the simple exposition -- how to drive a car, how to fix a broken electric wire; the writing of the business letter; informal conversation -- obligation to share, to be courteous, to be informed; formal aspects of the business letter.
.Grammar and punctuation: recognition and use of the complex sentence; relative and adverbial clauses; parenthetical expressions and appositives; use of the comma.

Tenth Year: Theme center is The Individual as the Member of a Group.
Basic pattern for English Three (Mrs. Elaine Marton) and English D
.Literature: one novel, one book of stories from the Bible, one book of short plays. The novel that term was Eliot's Silas Marner. Our teacher forgot to assign Hermans's Stories from the Old Testament. I do not remember any short plays. I do remember giving a speech about Boris Pasternak, and taking part in a debate roughly arguing the benefits of either JFK or Richard Nixon for president (I much to my mortification was assigned to the Nixonian team).
.Oral and written expression: simplified research project involving the use of reference books in the school library; the giving of clear directions -- how to use a telephone, how to broil a cube steak; making social introductions. We were assigned the popular paperback Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.
.Grammar and punctuation: recognition and use of the participle and the participle phrase; recognition and use of the predicate nominative and predicate adjective; further use of the comma.
Basic pattern for  English Four (Mrs. Dorothy Harten) and English C
.Literature: one book of biography, one book of poetry, one novel. Our biography that term was Sandburg's Abe Lincoln Grows Up (although some classes were assigned De Kruif's Hunger Fighters, both books intended for honor classes). The poetry selection, intended for honor classes, was Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The novel was Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. I gave a speech on Steinbeck's The Pearl, which we also read. I also gave an extemporaneous two- or three-minute speech on learning to dive, one day when Mrs. Harten was absent.
.Oral and written expression: the writing of the précis, the bibliographic essay, a radio or TV script; oral reading of  poetry; how to prepare and deliver a talk before a club or other group.
.Grammar and punctuation: inversion of sentence order for the sake of variety and emphasis [no, Time Magazine for this we did not use]; sentence sense -- review of fragments and run-ons; use of semicolon and colon; direct and indirect quotations.

Eleventh Year: Theme center is The Individual and the American Heritage
Basic pattern for English Five (Miss Marilyn Jacob) and English F
.Literature: one novel, one book of short stories, one Shakespearean play. The novel intended for honor classes was Dickens's David Copperfield, but instead we read Lewis's Arrowsmith and James's Washington Square; we read a short story anthology that included Cather's Paul's Case and Carl Stephenson's Leiningen Versus the Ants (filmed in 1954 as The Naked Jungle); the Shakespearean play intended for honor classes was Henry V, but no plays were assigned to us.
.Oral and written expression: mastery of the paragraph; chapel program techniques -- reading of the Bible, an announcement, a GO campaign speech, introducing a program.
.Grammar and punctuation: mastery of unity, coherence, and emphasis within the sentence; methods of paragraph development -- instances and examples, details, division and enumeration, classification or definition; using paragraph topic sentences to facilitate outlining when studying a textbook.
Basic pattern for English Six (Mrs. Julia Ashley) and English E
.Literature: one novel, one book of modern poetry, one book of essays. The novel intended for honor class use was Silas Weir Mitchell's American Revolutionary War saga Hugh Wynne but it was not taught while I was a student. It was usually replaced by Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities; however our teacher assigned Wharton's Ethan Frome. We studied Hawthorne's short stories and Poe's tales of ratiocination, as well as 19th century American poetry. We also chose novels to read (my selections were Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo and Hersey's The Child Buyer). I gave a speech on Morey Bernstein's The Search for Bridey Murphy and wrote a term paper on spies in American literature and life. To the best of my knowledge we read neither essays nor modern poetry.
.Oral and written expression: compositions should emphasize the expository essay; a term paper using reference materials; the art of effective listening.
.Grammar and punctuation: conscious improvement of diction and idiom; avoidance of danglers and misplaced modifiers; use of parallel structure and other devices for improving one's style.

Twelfth Year: Theme center is The Individual's Quest for Universal Values
Basic pattern for English Seven (Mr. Samuel Hymowitz) and  English H
.Literature: one book of exposition or argumentation, one tragedy, one book of short stories.  The exposition or argumentation book intended for honor classes was St. John and Noonan's Landmarks of Liberty, but our teacher did not assign a book in that category. The honor class tragedy for that term was Hamlet but our teacher assigned Macbeth. Instead of short stories we read Hardy's The Return of the Native.  We also read an anthology of plays that included O'Neill's
Beyond the Horizon, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, and Galsworthy's Strife. We also acted out scenes from Strife, and were allowed to assign class members to the various roles.
.Oral and written expression: a speech to convince, utilizing a brief submitted in advance and based upon a debatable question of current significance to school or general public; debates; forum, panel, and round table discussion. None of these options were selected by our teacher.
.Grammar and punctuation: the argumentative method; the simplified brief; the syllogism; inductive and deductive reasoning; distinguishing between fact and opinion; common fallacies in logic. Our teacher discussed these topics in class and gave out fact sheets citing examples.
Basic pattern for English Eight (Mrs. Grace Denman) and English G
.Literature: one history of English literature with readings, one novel, one book of contemporary plays. We were not assigned a history of English literature. The novels indicated for honor class use were Melville's Moby Dick or Thackeray's Vanity Fair, neither of which were used in any class while I was a student. Instead of a novel we were assigned a short story anthology that included Fanny Hurst's She Walks in Beauty, and Ben Ames Williams's Ice Water Pl-... Our teacher wanted us to read either story, as an example of a famous effort that was poorly written. This term we read neither a novel nor a collection of plays, but did read Hamlet.
.Oral and written expression: practice in writing a variety of types of essays (narrative, expository, reflective, familiar, critical, descriptive); at least one essay should utilize a composition topic from a recent English Regents examination; public speaking situations, including job interview and college interview.
.Grammar and punctuation: review of tense sequence and pronoun reference; outlining of compositions and speeches; unity and coherence of the speech and essay; note taking as an aid to listening.

As indicated in the Blue Book foreword, the syllabus offered examples of how wisdom could be acquired "by putting together the words and ideas of the classics which are set before you in English." That is, if you enjoyed the syllabus parallel universes and challenging mental acrobatics of syllabus musical chairs as conducted at Erasmus Hall.


I also remember Miss Dusenberry (Nina) toward the end of her career at Erasmus. Very formidable and I later found out that much earlier in her career at Erasmus she admired and influenced the very young Dorothy Kilgallen -- who later became a gossip columnist and investigative journalist. Those were not mutually exclusive occupations in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sonia  Fredj

Just happened upon your site. I went to PS181 and Walt Whitman (PS246) and then on to Erasmus. I, too, remember Miss Dusenberry. She was quite something for those times.

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