CULTURAL LITERACY REVISITED. I posted here about cultural literacy, which wikipedia defined as “[k]nowledge of a canonical set of literature.” I pointed out that cultural literacy included more than literature and said: “Mary Jane used to exclaim indignantly: ‘Cultural literacy! Why doesn’t my baby sitter know who Gary Cooper is!’” Rob Gallo commented on that post that: “… every baby sitter should know who Gary Cooper is.”
Now John McPhee has an article in the New Yorker (March 9) entitled “Frame of Reference” about the difficulty of knowing whether a reference will be known to readers. McPhee, in addition to his numerous essays in the New Yorker, has taught writing for years at universities, including Princeton. He looks at the disappearance of cultural knowledge from the point of view of a writer, and says: “The last thing I would ever suggest to young writers is that they consciously try to write for the ages.”

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  1. Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote for the Ages. He believed in Eternal Truths. And, yes,
    most of his stuff was very stiff and stale. His work was greatly admired in the 19th Century, and now, all we have left of him in our culture is: The Last Days of Pompeii, which, seemingly, will never die. Oh, and of course, this line from the novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Wait, wait, one further thing we owe him:
    He talked Charles Dickens into giving Great Expectations a happy ending for the two young people! Now, many editions of Dickens give the reader BOTH endings: the one Dickens knew was right for the book, and the one that Bulwer strong-armed him into using. Thanks, Ed. You wrote for the Ages.

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