This I Believe: Life-Changing Literature

Recently I had my creative writing students write “This I Believe” essays based on the NPR program of the same name.  Asking yourself to define the personal tenets you hold most strongly and dearly is a big challenge, and I was delighted when my students attacked it with enthusiasm.  I’ve assigned this essay in class before but have never sat down and written one myself, and I started to think about what I would choose to write about if I were to do so.

There are a lot of things in which I believe very strongly, but perhaps one of my most unshakable beliefs is this: I believe that literature can be life-changing.  This isn’t as trite as it sounds, I promise; I just think that books (or essays, or poems) can sometimes open your worldview in a really delightful way.  Words– they are powerful.

The first book that changed my life was assigned in my 11th grade English class.  The first one I remember, anyway; it’s possible there were others before that, like the first book I read that was so good it hooked me into reading for life, but I don’t remember them.  That year my teacher had us read The Grapes of Wrath, The Awakening, and Huck Finn, all of which I vaguely enjoyed; The Scarlet Letter, which I hated; and a play called The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.  (No, not that Robert E. Lee. This is the same playwright duo who wrote Inherit the Wind, the famous play about the Scopes trial which was later turned into a movie with Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly.)

I had never heard of Henry David Thoreau before, or Transcendentalism.  Here is a totally-cheating-by-copying-and-pasting-from-Wikipedia definition of Transcendentalism:

Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest to the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.

The play was published in 1971.  If there was any doubt that the playwrights were drawing parallels between Thoreau’s nonviolent civil disobedience (the night spent in jail was when he refused to pay taxes, since he didn’t support the war with Mexico that was being waged by his government) and what was going on with Vietnam at the time, as well as Thoreau’s eschewing of prevalent cultural norms that he considered either corrupt or useless, they made it explicit in their foreword to the play.  The Transcendentalists were also early environmentalists.  Basically, it’s a play about a damned dirty hippie written by damned dirty hippies.

Artistic interpretation.

Artist’s interpretation.


The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail espoused the same ideals as Thoreau’s Walden, a series of essays written while living in solitude on Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years and a cornerstone of Transcendental literature, but without all the dry philosophical rambling.  (Actually, I bought a copy of Walden after reading the play in class, and it’s not too bad for what amounts to a mid-19th-century political and cultural manifesto.)  And, to my 16-year-old self, those ideals were really, really intriguing.

My junior year was when the Sept. 11th attacks took place; I read this play a few months later, when I was still trying to figure out how I felt about our intensified involvement in the Middle East and the rampant nationalism that was overtaking the country.  I thought the Transcendentalist idea of God-as-watchmaker made more sense than anything I’d heard before, and I loved how closely they related nature to the divine, and believed in the inherent good of mankind.  More than anything, as trite as this may sound, this was the first time I really started thinking for myself and shaping my own beliefs.  It was probably a coincidence that the play came along when I was already branching out philosophically– more of a correlation than a causation– but it was good timing nonetheless.

It didn’t change my life in that I immediately adopted all the Transcendentalist philosophies or anything like that (although I do still think that they had some very good ideas), but it did challenge me to explore alternative ways of thinking.  It encouraged me to read more philosophy, which was something I had never thought of doing before.  It spurred me to become more politically active and support causes I feel strongly about.  It made me more comfortable with cobbling together my own set of beliefs that don’t quite fit into any given mold.  These things are easy and second nature to me now, but as a teenager, I needed that dose of confidence.  More recently (although really not all that recently, anymore), I celebrated surviving my first semester of grad school by getting a Thoreau tattoo on my wrist.

When Thoreau was living in a hut on that little pond in Concord, he wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

That quote, probably more than anything, is what has stuck with me through the years and still has relevance to my life, and (I hope) always will.  I like the idea of living deliberately.  To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean holing yourself up in the woods for two years, but it does mean looking at what you do, and why you do those things, with a clear mind and a some sort of purpose, whether that purpose is personal, philosophical, or global, and not getting bogged down by things that are ultimately unimportant.  Reminding myself of these things has helped me over the years as I’ve made big decisions such as moving to a new city after college, and then leaving that city and my job to go to grad school.

Believing in the life-changing power of literature almost seems like cheating, a too-easy answer coming from a writer and an English teacher, but I do, as much as I believe in Sunday brunch as the ideal meal and that homework shouldn’t be given over winter break.  These are my guiding tenets, my self-evident truths.  Well, a few of them, anyway.

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2 thoughts on “This I Believe: Life-Changing Literature

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