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What Makes a Classic a Classic?

Heroes of the Imagination

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed

__Ernest Hemingway

As a child I convinced myself it would never do to learn to read, with all the perfectly good pictures and reasonable mouths in the world to tell me where I needed to go and what to do. Imagine the chagrin of my former self, then, to be tasked with the undertaking of putting into words (for people to read, of all things) those elusive qualities of a truly masterful work of fictional literature. In my mind, I know I’m no one qualified to define these characteristics. Pure intentions had me reaching far and wide to attain that golden insight on the subject, knowing that such a package will not be so easily wrapped. A common thread or two have emerged for me from the woodwork of these vastly different tales. Let’s be pioneers and go there together, shall we? Delving into the sea, daring to drink the wild air drifting out from the wrinkled pages of those books that made your childhood summer reading lists, filled your high school libraries, and still echo their most memorable lines through the hallways of your life. What allows a tale to evade the folds of time, yet intertwine, as to bind the pages of human history? Words insistent upon being heard, ringing through the hearts and ears of generations.

When I say classic, I do not necessarily mean a likable, easy read. Most of the classics I have read, on task or at leisure, have not proven themselves to be “light” reading. I struggle with every page, through length and depth, my head spinning with politics and straining to see the plot past the dialect. Yet by the end I know that I have taken something away with me that, for better or worse, has changed me; there is often something that lay between the crossed t’s and dotted i’s that impishly weaves into my thoughts, determining to chew on me more than I chew on it.

If instant critical acclaim were the defining attribute I could ascribe to a classic, there are many on Penguin’s list that simply would not make the cut. J.D. Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables were not exactly number one bestsellers at their time of publication. Both were well known authors by the time each text went public, yet Sallinger found himself receiving mixed reviews while Hugo’s book, critically speaking, fell flat on its face. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was barely noticed by critics during her lifetime and, upon first go for this book in 1797, originally titled First Impressions, was altogether rejected for publication.

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I was confident that, were I to write about what makes a classic timeless, I would not be discussing what goes into the making of said classic. Nevertheless, I have found that a successful recipe does require the right ingredients, and so it is logical that the two go hand in hand. Every single writing offers a lesson of great conviction; Hemingway himself is quoted in saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Stephen Crane went to great lengths to live out the realities that he wrote about. Strangely enough, The Red Badge of Courage was entirely fabricated from fancy, intermingled with first-hand written accounts of the war and a myriad of veteran interviews. Able to see into the hearts of men and stare right back at his own, he wrote in detail the psychological struggle of a man’s efforts to be brave and valiant in the face of terror and chaos.

Born after the war and inexperienced in combat, Crane revolutionized the way war stories were told. It took someone so convinced of the need to be in the midst of a thing, someone who was willing to emotionally embody the struggle of every man or woman against their own instinct, to be an ambassador for the untold stories. Up to that point, war was depicted on a macro scale, examined at a distance, rather than peering straight into the heart of one man to realize the struggle of them all.

These works are never quite what they appear to be, as all fiction comes to us under the pretense of a good story in want of being told. Common folly is to assume that it is story for story’s sake; even still, we know that a good story does not always a classic make. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice appears to be the embodiment of a romantic novel, women of all ages swooning over the prospect of unswerving affections from their very own dream Darcy or his more unreserved counterpart, Bingley. Yet underneath the thin veil of romance we discover a much deeper commentary on the rights of women. The independence and brashness of her heroine Elizabeth, her blatant distaste for the lofty ideals placed upon women, and the debunking of an entire class system with her marriage to a man she loved who was openly declared to be socially and economically “above her,” was Austen’s heart’s cry for women to be independent thinkers, equals of men, and educated for the betterment of society.

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With every book, I always found myself asking, “Why this? What makes this a story so worth telling?” It captivated me that any writer was so compelled to spell something out, page by page, spilling their hearts and imaginations before a reader. Hundreds of pages, years of writing and rewriting, and for what? Was it simply to tell a good story? Was it only for fame and regard? To read these writings is often to know agenda and personal manifesto. I don’t say that to insinuate Steinbeck was an advocate of euthanasia because of how Of Mice and Men turns out. Steinbeck, on the surface, writes crudely and full of sorrow—his tales are as dusty and barren of hope as the characters and the lives he depicts in his novels. Yet we see that many of his tales were based on true accounts in his life. He was fixed on exposing the injustice of migrant workers and the hopelessness of their situations to bring about change. He wanted people uncomfortable and angry with the truth, and he wasn’t alone.

Hugo was certainly not writing volumes of Les Misérables for the sake of flowery descriptions. His beliefs about education, the justice system, the value of the Industrial Revolution, and his dissatisfaction with the monarchy were made quite clear in his five volume novel. To write such a tragedy was to put a mirror in the face of France, to reflect her beauty, flaws and all. Though his attentions were toward France, his words transcend class, political system, and nation, with the life and struggle of our wretch turned tragic hero, Jean Valjean. All the lives of these miserables, as the title so accurately foretells, intertwining with the life of Valjean, show that no matter how your circumstances have burdened or enslaved you, hope and good overturn every captor. Though our hero is destined to come to an end, it proves a valiant one, displaying Hugo’s belief that to die in truth is better to live in the hollow comforts of a lie.

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So what conclusions can be drawn about a classic work of fiction, then? In reading and researching the history of these writings, I have seen a road unfold before me of authors who champion their causes. Men and women who prose the way a minister might preach, evangelizing their plan of salvation through parables; pressing narrative, like seeds, into the fertile ground of the mind through the subtle art of story. These are writers who instinctively find a way to pen what they know amidst a paper world constructed by imagination, cultivating characters in such a manner that their triumphs and failures become our own. I found fictional lives being grafted into mine, and though I may have begun reluctantly alongside a sordid, rough-hewn man or disreputable femme fatale, despicable upon first glance, they develop in such a way that I see, in life as in the well-written word, there are no two-dimensional characters.

Countless pages are inked with the idea that what counts for evil often depends upon which side of the coin you find yourself on. In these ways a writer muddles the lines for us, tearing at our preconceived notions and opening doorways to what they believe to be higher truth, in one of the greatest ventures of all: to liberate themselves and others from the delusion that any man is an island, and that what he thinks or does bears no consequence for his neighbor.

A classic achieves such a status by bearing the burden of a message generations should tremble to forget. If the writing is filthy, beautiful, raw, magical, sharp-tongued, or condemning, it will not be so absentmindedly. These books are intentional reflections into the heart and soul of understanding what it means to be human, to want justice, to crave life, to be with and to go without. We experience humanity more deeply through their words, what Neil deGrasse Tyson calls “empathy training.” It would seem that the authors of such timelessness write, not so that we may sleep better by their words, but in hopes that someone else might live better for our having read.

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