(Unfortunately, because in my education I lacked proper exposure, most of these books are by white women, not people of color. I am always looking for recommendations for PoC classics. Also note that I'm including an asterisk by the titles that I was exposed to within my formal education for your reference.)
3) Wuthering Heights* by Emily Bronte. The Bronte sisters' works are phenomenal examples of Gothic Romanticism and therefore also indicators of the female influence on Romantic-era literature. Wuthering Heights is by far my favorite Bronte novel; both my high school and my undergrad senior theses were about it. A+ stuff with vital themes of domestic violence and abuse.
4) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl* by Harriet Jacobs. Similar to the clear masculine influence on Frankenstein, there's clear white influence on Jacobs' autobiography. Nonetheless, this is a vital story that vividly presents the harsh intersection of the female-and-black struggle. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl brings up all kinds of important points about morality and humanity and is an important addition to American education.
5) Trifles: A Jury of Her Peers* by Susan Glaspell. One of my absolute most favorite plays, Glaspell's Trifles takes a good hard look at the issues that arise with justice in a sexist society. Definite themes of female power, domestic violence and abuse, and morality. Great stuff.
6) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When I stumbled across this book, I found myself very angry that I hadn't been exposed to it in my English classes. It made, and continues to make, me wonder how many great classics I'm missing out on just because they weren't written by white guys. This is a gorgeous and thoughtful Gothic romance interwoven with mystery. I love it.
7) To Kill a Mockingbird* by Harper Lee. I consider this novel to be the best general examination of marginalization and prejudice I've ever read. It touches on racism, sexism, classism, and ableism and does so through the brilliantly chosen perspective of an innocent child. I mean, if you haven't read it, you definitely need to get on that ASAP.
8) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. While Plath's novel is appropriate only for mature readers, it should definitely be included in the classical canon. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical story about a college-age woman who suffers from a mental breakdown, and it's one of my favorite novels ever. The intersecting experience of female-and-neuroatypical is powerful, important, and realistic (which I can personally confirm as a mentally ill college-age woman).
9) Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. I haven't seen the television series, although I hear it's fantastic, but I can and do highly recommend this book. It may be one of the most educational reads I've ever had in regards to the African American experience. It traces the history of Haley's family all the way back to Africa in a gripping, visceral, and humanizing fashion. Definitely a must-read that ought to be promoted in the classroom.
10) The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. A key feminist text and modern classic, The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel where, after a infertility epidemic, women of the future are societally reduced to their ability to bear children. Another book that's more appropriate for mature readers, this is nonetheless a vital (and intriguing) text that readers need to have access to.
Some other picks that I'd like to add: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, And Then There Were None* by Agatha Christie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.
And yes, I do think it's that important that we make an effort to expand and diversify our literary canon. As fantastic as many classics by white men are, they are, by nature, limited to the white male experience. Students need and deserve to be exposed to more than just that. Until the voices of women and people of color are heard, we as a whole will suffer from a lack of knowledge about the world we live in. Even more importantly, we will never learn to see people who identify with marginalized groups as human.
Reading has been proven to increase empathy. So let's take advantage of that in the classroom. Give a higher priority to classics like the ones I've listed and to the more diverse modern literature, and do it in order to create a better world, in order to give students a broader education. For the benefit of all.
(Also, viva la YA lit! One of the reasons I love it so much is that, as a category, it's much more open to experimentation and to the inclusion of marginalized viewpoints. Yay!)
So. Do you have any recommendations to add? (Seriously, especially for classics by people of color.) Any thoughts on my picks? Comment below!
I'll see you all tomorrow.
Image via ya-aholic.com.