Reading literature makes us more empathetic.
I tell this to students in my literature classes for nonmajors on the first day. It’s my way of enticing them to care about a subject most of them would rather steer clear of, a way of underscoring the moral stakes of reading.
What I didn’t expect when I taught an introductory course in American literature my very first semester as a Ph.D. was to find evidence for the empathy hypothesis from an unlikely source: a student who refused to do the reading.
Henry (a pseudonym) was a hard-working, rule-abiding, detail-oriented engineer, the type of student who would send an introduction to his paper for my perusal days in advance. He struck me as interested in getting good grades, if not interested in the literature itself, but still, he paid attention and would volunteer an opinion from time to time.
The opinion he volunteered on the day we discussed Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno threw me for a loop. Writing about an American sea captain who mistakes his own racist thinking for benevolence, Melville admonishes readers to be aware of their cultural blind spots. I asked the students to consider how we are like Amasa Delano, cruel in ways we don’t notice because our behavior is culturally sanctioned. I had a number of possibilities in mind when I invited speculation as to what contemporary practice our descendants will censure — eating animals, playing football, capital punishment. Henry’s response, however, was one I hadn’t considered: abortion.
His answer rattled me. By my lights, the legality of abortion is social progress, not social shame. But Henry did what I asked: He illuminated a blind spot. Mine.
Another day Henry lingered after class to talk to me about how troubling he found our reading. The American literature I was teaching, Henry asserted, had nothing good to say about the United States, or about humanity, for that matter. It wasn’t uplifting.
He had a point. Our reading was a little on the bleak side. Benito Cereno interrogates the notion of good intentions; Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour" sees marriage as an arrangement in which "men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature"; and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson exposes race as a social construct but offers no way out of its grip.
So I made the case to Henry that literature is often, if not always, critique. The greatest writers don’t engage in blind celebration, I told him; their writing shows us what needs to change.
He didn’t buy it. Literature should model character traits like gallantry, courage, and perseverance, and he thought British literature did so in spades. Henry had a taste for the epic, and the books on my reading list couldn’t hold a candle to stories of heroes vanquishing obstacles to save the world. "If this is the best American literature has to offer," he opined, "then I’d say American literature is pretty terrible."
Trying to stifle my defensive response, I pointed out that using literature as a tool for critique wasn’t solely the province of American writers. Shakespeare was a critic. Sure, his plays have heroes, knights, and kings, but Macbeth’s anatomization of power isn’t uplifting, and The Merchant of Venice doesn’t have hopeful things to say about relations between Christians and Jews. Henry hadn’t read much Shakespeare, though. When I asked him to give an example of a British writer he did admire, he offered the name G.A. Henty.
"Have you read any Henty?" he asked. I had not. I had never heard of him. But I later learned that he wrote children’s historical fiction in the 19th century, "boys’ stories" filled with risk-taking, travel, and adventure. Beyond that, Henty was an unapologetic proponent of empire whose fiction traded in ethnic stereotypes and, in the view of some, racism. This was the writer my student held up as a literary ideal.
As the semester went on, Henry dutifully attended class but started keeping his thoughts to himself. Not long into our drama unit, he came to see me, starting our meeting off with a confession: "I stopped completing the reading for this class long ago. Now I just read the SparkNotes so that I can pass the quizzes, and I do just enough of the reading to be able to write the papers." I’d never have known had he not told me. Henry was passing the quizzes, no problem, and was even writing pretty perceptive close readings. This was not a student who didn’t want to put in the time. He had a principled objection to reading the books.
Quoting the Bible — Philippians 4:8, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" — Henry explained that he didn’t want to expose himself to an envy-ridden, infighting family with a son who may be repressing his homosexuality (Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or to a philandering former thief guilty of manslaughter (August Wilson’s Fences). The characters and conflicts were not "pleasing," and they certainly weren’t "pure." As he would later write to me, "I did not want to be affected by the material."
Different as we were in our tastes and our politics, Henry and I both believed in the transformative power of fiction, and he did not want to be transformed. There I’d stood on the first day of class with my "Reasons We Read" PowerPoint, an evangelist for reading as a profoundly ethical experience. I’d referred to a study reported on in Scientific American in 2011 showing that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others and that adults who read less fiction report lower levels of empathy. I’d referred to research in cognitive science showing that readers of fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than do readers of nonfiction.
In short, I had tried to make the case that literature generates empathy, and that empathizing with those unlike us is valuable because it expands our sense of whose lives matter. It goes hand in hand with open-mindedness and tolerance. Henry didn’t disagree. The question for him was, what would our shared reading make him tolerant of?
It wasn’t that he decried empathy, in theory. But the prospect of spending time inside the mind of a character whose behavior he’d been taught to revile made him profoundly uncomfortable. Henry insisted on his right to uphold, rather than upset, his moral scaffolding, and his willingness to declare his refusal to me rather than hide it stands as a testament to his seriousness. Still, I believe that refusal was misbegotten.
At the end of the semester Henry wrote to me, "I appreciate your openness to my sometimes harsh opinions. I am glad to be one of your first students as ‘Dr. Warren.’"
I’m glad he was one of my first students, too. My experience with Henry reminded me that for some students, the everyday task of "doing the reading" involves extreme moral risk-taking. Empathy doesn’t come easy when it threatens real change, which I tend to forget because the literature I read so often affirms my worldview. Perhaps I should start looking for some that doesn’t, for I suspect it’s in those instances when we’re most resistant to seeing from another person’s perspective that it matters most that we try. That’s what I want to persuade future Henrys of.
Kathryn Hamilton Warren is a senior lecturer and graduate coordinator in the English department at the University of Texas at Arlington.