Originally published November 4, 2016.
Here at the Kansas State University English Department, the world’s foremost purveyor of literature listicles, we’ve been thinking a lot about the 2016 election. Some of us have even been weeping about it, but that hasn’t stopped us from compiling — for your edification and maybe even enjoyment — the top Five Works to Help You Survive the 2016 Election. Please note that no English professors or politicians were harmed in the making of this listicle! It’s also worth noting that politics have always been, to say the least, disconcerting. Here are the top five literary works to help you take a deep breath and process — and maybe even appreciate — our political system:
1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: The 1386 meeting of the English Parliament, called the “Wonderful Parliament,” sought to curtail royal power, threatening to depose King Richard II and to impeach his closest advisors. One man caught up in these political machinations was a newly elected member of Parliament for Kent named Geoffrey Chaucer. Biographer Paul Strohm maintains that the Wonderful Parliament precipitated a professional and personal crisis for Chaucer, depriving him of patron, home, and job, and forcing him to invent a career that did not then exist in English — man of letters — as he committed himself to the ambitious and unprecedented project of The Canterbury Tales, which chronicles the story-telling competition of a group of pilgrims who represent not nobles and saints but a cross-section of English society. Thus, a failed political career changed the course of literary history and inspired one of the most enduring works of English literature. — Associate Professor Wendy Matlock
2. John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Given the vocabulary of hate, diminishment, insult, and anger that has infected this election season, I would like to draw all of our attentions to John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, and perhaps to the most well known part of it: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” It’s not simply that the personal is political, but rather, since we have to live in whatever world we make this election day, it can never be anything else. — Associate Professor Kimball Smith
3. George Eliot’s Middlemarch: Middlemarch includes some of the most famous electioneering scenes in nineteenth-century British literature. Set just before the Great Reform Act of 1832 (the piece of legislation that would open up the vote to the middle classes for the first time), Middlemarch includes a depiction of the hapless election campaign of Arthur Brooke, a well-meaning windbag. Brooke’s progressive policies aren’t matched by his practices as a local landowner, and he soon finds himself the object of satire, mocked by an effigy of himself at the hustings. In a novel about the gap between our intentions and our actions, Brooke’s failed election campaign serves a counterpoint to the failed ambitions of medical doctor Tertius Lydgate and would-be philanthropist Dorothea Brooke, reminding readers that reform at the individual or social level is generally achieved in anything but a straightforward fashion. — Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Anne Longmuir
4. Ronald D. Parks’ The Darkest Period: In an era of cutthroat politics, I’d like to suggest a must-read for folks who live in Kansas: Parks’ The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homelands, 1846-1873. Parks’ text shows the landscape of Kansas politics, which involved a great deal of lying, stealing, and illegal activities as settlers did everything they could think of to claim other folks’ land in the name of god and country. It’s a compelling read that might just make the present day election scene look warm and fuzzy. — Professor Lisa Tatonetti
5. Joan Bauer, Hope Was Here: A Newbery Honor Book, Hope Was Here shows what can happen when adolescents get involved in a small town Wisconsin mayoral campaign, pitching in to support a local diner owner in his bid to unseat an unscrupulous, well-connected incumbent. It has been more than ten years since I first read this young-adult novel, but I’ve never forgotten the young people’s commitment to their cause and their desire to be responsible citizens, as well as their zeal for building a coalition of allies. — Professor and Associate Department Head Anne Phillips