June 18, 2010
Dear Parents of Pre-AP English Sophomores:
Enclosed in this letter you will find two items concerning your son’s summer reading assignment for Pre-AP English, Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood: 1) we would like to share with you why we have chosen this book for summer reading, specifically how the selection aligns with the goals of the school and our English department; 2) the final pages of this letter explain specifically your son’s summer task.
Why we are reading In Cold Blood
The larger situation of In Cold Blood resonates with a central structural pre-occupation of the American literary tradition, namely that of the Garden and humanity’s original Fall. We find the American literary psyche not only fascinated with the tragic movement of the Fall itself but also with the possibility of a New Jerusalem, the comic pattern and redemptive hope of the New Testament. The novels placed throughout the AP curriculum reflect both these aspects of the Garden and its moral implications.
More specifically, anchored deeply within this Christian story of origin lies the serpent, the presence of evil, its stealthy and furtive movements that violate the logic and order of God’s original creation. Capote emerges from a Southern literary landscape of writers particularly concerned with the presence of evil in our daily lives—most notably the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor [whose short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” we shall read in conjunction with our discussion of the Capote text] and William Faulkner. These American tales hence realize an important spiritual dimension, the exposure of evil, an exposure often depicted in situations of violence.
Literature such as In Cold Blood, then, requires that we consider not only the purposes of such representations but also how such scenes within larger works are read through the lens of the Christian tradition. How might such grotesque and vile details remind us of man’s earlier crimes, not simply the sin in the Garden, but the consequences of our exile, including the first murder, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel? How important is it for the Christian to keep the image of the Garden and the Fall close to him, to maintain vigilance for the serpent? Do we sometimes need to be startled into an important truth—that evil exists in the world, that it follows spurious logic, that it moves stealthily and finds us unaware and often unprepared, as was the case of the Clutter family and the 1950s community of western Kansas, a place of peace and perceived safety, a world resplendent with fecund orchards and unlocked doors? Does our Christian tradition invite us to reflect on evil? We believe it is much more than an invitation; it is a necessity.
Flannery O’Connor, the explicitly Catholic writer of the South, speaks fervently of exposing evil within the context of a Christian tradition. In Mystery and Manners, she writes that “the Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that is has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge, not narrow, his field of vision.” What concerns O’Connor is what shapes many in this American tradition: “We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption, which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it.” The writer must, according to O’Connor, “look at the worst,” which is “an act of trust in God.” What O’Connor underscores is that “the Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage, he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God, which involves his eternal future.” One of our responsibilities as teachers of literature at Jesuit College Preparatory School—be the literature by Capote or Twain, by Melville or Milton, by Homer or Shakespeare—is to bear always in mind that we are readers and Christians in a world in which, as O’Connor writes, “a drama (is) played out with the devil, a devil who is not simply generalized evil, but an evil intelligence determined on its own supremacy.”
Sadly, we live in a world, as Pope Benedict has written, that is beset by the “trivialization of evil.” Ours is a world, the Holy Father states, beset by relativism, a culture “building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” It is this worldview, one that seeks to deny evil’s presence that Catholic education seeks to redress. Those who worship at the altar of relativism all too readily conceal the horrors of evil, rhetorically diminish its force, and ultimately deny its existence. Violent images in aesthetic works function, for serious writers, not gratuitously but morally, reminding us of evil’s wrath, reminding us to remain vigilant and not to delude ourselves into thinking evil has vanished from the world or to think evil has lost its sly and stealthy manner.
This moral vision finds voice again in Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, wherein she explains the role of the Catholic novelist and thus echoes the sentiments of Benedict:
The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic—the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. These are doctrines that the modern secular world does not believe. It does not believe in sin, or in the value that suffering can have, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that since the sixteenth century has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. This means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated to the Catholic mind. (185)
Our own Jesuit documents speak to the importance of concentrating on the consequences of the Fall. The seminal document “Go Forth and Teach” reminds us of our function as moral educators, to assist students in the development of keen observation, to recognize and distinguish between good and evil: “Jesuit education includes formation in values, in attitudes, and in an ability to evaluate criteria; that is, it includes formation of the will. Since knowledge of good and evil, and of the hierarchy of relative goods, is necessary both for the recognition of the different influences that affect freedom and for the exercise of freedom, education takes place in a moral context: knowledge is joined to virtue.”
Works such as Capote’s, as well as others studied in our department, articulate the presence of evil, and thus re-create its most vile transgressions against a God of reason and consummate goodness. We communicate to students that, as O’Connor asserts, “With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.”
When we begin our fall semester, Capote’s book will be placed within this larger religious and aesthetic framework. More specifically, we plan to place alongside this work of nonfiction, the fictional works of Flannery O’Connor and various poets, including Emily Dickinson, Richard Wright, and Robert Frost, who likewise investigate evil’s presence in our world today and our moral obligation to witness and respond to it. These are some of the central questions we will encounter throughout the year as we read The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Twelve Angry Men, and that our students will explore in their junior year as well when they read such works as Macbeth, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and the Iliad.
Finally, we look forward to an intellectually challenging school year with our sophomore AP students.
Dr. Michael Degen
Mrs. Mary Beth Farrell
Dear 20010-2011 Pre-AP English II Student:
For the first day of class in August, complete the following summer reading and writing assignment. The purpose of the assignment is to gauge your strengths and areas for improvement at the beginning of sophomore year.
Read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and then write a multi-paragraph essay (showing introduction, multiple body paragraphs, and conclusion). Your essay should demonstrate an ability to assert an analytical voice (textual evidence, associative understandings, and relationships between and among evidence) and produce a sophisticated style, incorporating sophisticated vocabulary and a variety of grammatical structures. Chapters two and three in Crafting Expository Argument (Fourth Edition-Extensively Revised) contain numerous examples of quality sentences and paragraphs. A list of essay prompts is included with this letter. Please type and double-space this essay.
To inform us that you received this summer assignment, please send an e-mail to email@example.com. In the subject line, type “Assignment Received,” and as your message simply type your name. If you do not receive a response to your e-mail, it has not been received.
Bring In Cold Blood and your typed essay to class on the first day. These assignments will be collected for homework grades.
If you have general questions about the assignment, feel free to e-mail Mrs. Farrell or Dr. Degen at any time throughout the summer. We are looking forward to working with you.
Good luck, and have a great summer,
Mrs. Farrell Dr. Degen
(972) 387-8700 ext. 483 (972) 387-8700 ext. 393
The following prompts are samples from previous AP Literature exams. While each prompt asks you to “choose a work of literary merit” or “choose a novel”, we intend that your choice be In Cold Blood as the subject of your essay.
In great literature, no scene of violence exists for its own sake. Choose a work of literary merit that confronts the reader or audience with a scene or scenes of violence. In a well-organized essay, explain how the scene or scenes contribute to the meaning of the complete work. Avoid plot summary.
From a novel or play of literary merit, select an important character who is a villain. Then in a well- organized essay, analyze the nature of the character’s villainy and show how it enhances meaning in the work. Avoid plot summary. Do not base your essay on a work you know about only from having seen a movie or television production of it.
Some works of literature use the element of time in a distinct way. The chronological sequence of events may be altered, or time may be suspended or accelerated. Choose a novel, an epic, or a play of recognized literary merit and show how the author’s manipulation of time contributes to the effectiveness of the work as a whole. Do not base your essay on a movie, television program, or other adaptation of a work.
In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant presence. Choose a novel or play of literary merit and write and essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work. You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters. Avoid plot summary.
Writers often highlight the values of a culture or a society by using characters who are alienated from that culture or society because of gender, race, class, or creed. Choose a play or novel in which such a character plays a significant role and show how that character’s alienation reveals the surrounding society’s assumptions and moral values.
Critic Roland Barthes has said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” Choose a novel or play and, considering Barthes’ observation, write an essay in which you analyze a central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers any answers. Explain how the author’s treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present actions, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.