Catechisms and cliches

by Henry Farrell on September 17, 2007

Alan Wofle (no, sorry, I mean _Wolfe_ ) is quoted in the “New York Times Review of Books”:

As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ” — Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

Having just written a post with a title taken from that poem in the assumption that many/most CT readers would get the allusion, I perhaps have a little too much skin in this game to be entirely objective. But this seems to me to be a frankly bizarre assertion (about the poem, not the Achebe novel). The poem is so well known that minatory prognostications about slouching towards Bethlehem have passed beyond cliche into kitsch – Christopher Hitchens had a very funny review of one of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s books a few years ago which belaboured it, _inter alia,_ for trotting the rough beast out yet again (I wonder: does it ever chase after the owl of Minerva when it’s let out for its night-time pee???). Am I wrong here? Are there vast multitudes of the canon-educated public, which is what Wofle (damn! I did it _again_) is supposed to be talking about, who _don’t_ know Yeats’ poem?? I’d find it surprising (but I’ve surely been wrong about many weightier things than this).

Via “The Valve”:

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09.17.07 at 9:29 pm



Peter 09.17.07 at 4:50 pm

Who’s this Yeats fellow you keep talking about?


Cryptic Ned 09.17.07 at 4:57 pm

In the US we don’t read poetry in high school, basically. But “Things Fall Apart” is one of the most frequently assigned novels in high school classes throughout the country.

I never had any non-American poetry in school. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.


Henry 09.17.07 at 5:01 pm

ned – fair enough but the article seems to be about humanities education on campus, not in high school.


Jordan 09.17.07 at 5:13 pm

1989 US public high school graduate (Maryland.) Read “The Second Coming” in 12th grade AP English, didn’t read (and still haven’t read) the Achebe novel.


foolishmortal 09.17.07 at 5:16 pm

I did get a laugh out of Rice’s line about how the recent war in Lebanon represented “the birth pangs of the New Middle East.” Like Iraq and Lebanon weren’t enough, now we have to worry about rough beasts with bad posture.


jaytee 09.17.07 at 5:18 pm

Well, maybe Wofle’s audience HASN’T read it. This IS the NYTRB, after all. I would object had he said such a thing about the TLS readers, the LRB readers,or even the NYRB readers. .


josh 09.17.07 at 5:19 pm

(What is this recurrent animus against Alan Wolfe? Of all the people out there to be irritated by, surely he doesn’t stand out that much?)
As another public high-school grad (1998), I also have read the Yates, and not the Achebe. But then I had an Irish nationalist H.S. English teacher, so there was quite a bit of Yeats (and Joyce, and Heaney, and even O’Casey). Nigeria, not so much.


Luis Villa 09.17.07 at 5:20 pm

My experience was like cryptic ned’s- no poetry in HS/college; Achebe assigned in 11th grade English. And my HS english teacher, though obsessed with deeper context, never mentioned Yeats or the poem.

(Running off to find it now.)


dsquared 09.17.07 at 5:27 pm

What’s a yeat?


Matt Kuzma 09.17.07 at 5:43 pm

We had poetry in highschool, but mostly we focused on the Harlem Renaissance and to this day Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. While I remember being tortured by Walt Witman, I don’t remember any Yeats and I’m sure I hadn’t read “The Second Coming” before today.

We did read Things Fall Apart in highschool.

I didn’t take any poetry or literature classes in college.


MattF 09.17.07 at 6:01 pm

Well, “what rough beast” had about 50,000 Google hits, “what tough beast” had only one hit– and “what louche beast” had none.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.17.07 at 6:12 pm

If Anthony Soprano Jr. was reading Yeats’ The Second Coming in his community college class, and repeating it incessantly throughout that episode, then it has now become part of mass culture. To which Wolfe would no doubt reply (quoting Mad Magazine circa 1958):

“Television? Who watches tel . . . e . . . vision?”

And, yes, we read it in high school.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.17.07 at 6:14 pm

I read Myles na gCopaleen in high school too, but it wasn’t assigned reading. A hard, but not cold fact.


bob mcmanus 09.17.07 at 6:16 pm

Who is this Alan Wolfe fellow you keep talking about?


chris y 09.17.07 at 6:24 pm

Who’s this Yeats fellow you keep talking about?

The brother of the more famous Jack.


ejh 09.17.07 at 6:28 pm

Funily enough just yesterday I was sitting in a picnic area in the Spanish Pyrenees and I burst out laughing thinking – God knows why – about John Reid referring to “the owl of Minerva”.


Bloix 09.17.07 at 6:31 pm

I read Things Fall Apart in college (in a history class, not literature) and I thought then that the title sounded distinctly African – perhaps part of a proverb. I never read any Yeats at school and came to him years later and entirely on my own. Before today if you’d asked me I would have said that I knew my Yeats fairly well for an American who doesn’t read much poetry (Those that I fight I do not hate, Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone, was there another Troy for her to burn, I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, etc)- yet until this moment it never remotely occurred to me that the novel’s title was an allusion to The Second Coming, not even when my own children were assigned it in their high school classes.

I think that’s partially because Africa and Ireland are so distant, but even more because in my mind the title has three accented syllables – THINGS FALL a-PART – while the phrase from the poem has only two – Things FALL a-PART – so, in the way my mind works, the two phrases were entirely different, not even close to one another.


chris y 09.17.07 at 6:36 pm

Seriously, I’m not surprised at this. We read a little Yeats in secondary school in England, but never a line of any American at all, except Eliot (resident in England). No Whitman, no Dickinson, or any of the women with three names. No Pound – perhaps too close to the war. But really, I don’t think the people who set the curriculum (in the 1960s) cared a damn about American literature – no Melville, Hawthorne or Twain either. I don’t imagine, given the Grandgrind imperatives of subsequent governments, that it’s changed a lot.


jacob 09.17.07 at 6:37 pm

My (private) high school read the novel in freshman year English–except for the year I was a freshman, when we managed to spend an entire quarter reading Genesis. I’ve never read Yeats, either.


lemuel pitkin 09.17.07 at 6:45 pm

1990 graduate of public high school (also Maryland). The Second Coming was assigned reading in my honors English class (as opposed to AP, which I didn’t get into — I’m still bitter about that). I believe it was assigned again in a required Humanities course my first year of college — certainly a lot of other Yeats was.

The Achebe book was also assigned my first year of college, to be fair.


Keith 09.17.07 at 6:52 pm

I went to a private school where I had a teacher who quoted it to us from memory and implied that if you didn’t make at least a half assed effort to read some poetry (Yeats, Ferlinghetti, dirty lymrics on the bathroom walls; something) you weren’t quite fully human. Never got to Achabe. Had to read Ethan Frome, though.


Mike 09.17.07 at 7:03 pm

I don’t think the people who set the curriculum […] cared a damn about American literature […]. I don’t imagine […] that it’s changed a lot.

Given that it seems their population knows virtually nothing about its own literature any longer and that their culture is being thoroughly undermined by an unstoppable inundatation of American popular culture via TV and film, I should hope not.


Henry 09.17.07 at 7:05 pm

josh – there are many worse things in the world than Alan Wofle, but I reserve the right to find him highly annoying. I can understand why most of the people I read in the NYTRB etc are there – they may not be my cup of tea or whatever, but I can see how they might appeal to others. I can’t see this in Wofle. FWIW, Scott McLemee’s (one sentence) summation of the d’Souza-Wolfe match is _much_ more devastating than mine was – “Imagine a slime mold in conflict with a patch of mildew.” Hard to top that …


joel turnipseed 09.17.07 at 7:13 pm

Ditto to everyone who says, “Yes, Wolfe’s assertion is entirely plausible.” Though his implication, that the Yeats poem is more worthy of being taught, strikes me as questionable.

In the meantime, went off to Google for search on “most assigned novels high school” and the fifth-ranked result for these keywords was… this Crooked Timber post.


Kenny Easwaran 09.17.07 at 7:15 pm

I thought at first that he must have gotten things backwards – surely more people have read a little 10 line poem (especially one with such a famous first line!) than a whole novel! But then I remembered that I had been assigned the novel in high school a year before being assigned the poem, and that the first line is famous because it’s the title of that book.


aaron_m 09.17.07 at 7:16 pm

I also had not read Yeats until I was shamed into it today, and Yeats himself made a good run of making me feel bad about belonging to the “vast multitudes.”

Down with the Aristocracy! It surely was the only thing keeping this Yeats nut from his rightful place on a street corner mumbling insanities about the approaching end, the approaching vindication.


Sam 09.17.07 at 7:28 pm

What things?


CJColucci 09.17.07 at 7:30 pm

The real scandal is the number of people who have read neither. But, really, the comparison is silly. If a well-regarded contemporary novel used as a title a phrase from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, would it be the least bit odd that more people have read the novel than that specific Shakespeare play?


chris y 09.17.07 at 7:31 pm

27. You mean what things fall apart? Cheap crockery. Self-assembly furniture. Society. Respect for one’s betters.

You know the kind of thing.


wood turtle 09.17.07 at 7:34 pm

Maybe we’re still waiting for the first coming. No slouching, either.


samuel 09.17.07 at 7:40 pm

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is not a book about postcolonial Nigeria but colonial Nigeria.


Fats Durston 09.17.07 at 7:55 pm

…and precolonial, though we seem to be privileging the colonial marker here…

North Carolina public high school 1989, neither, though it might just be I don’t remember Yeats’ poem from the English year of English. Can people remember their secondary schooling poetry assignments that well?

No English courses for B.A.

Read Achebe on my own in grad school, but that’s ’cause I’m an Africanist.


Doug K 09.17.07 at 7:56 pm

I also thought it an odd assertion. We read TFA in high-school: as I recall the first thing Mr Jewell did was read the poem aloud, from the prescribed poetry collection, Inscapes.

In addition, Joni Mitchell had a song ‘Slouching toward Bethlehem’ on one of the later albums, ‘Night Ride Home’ if memory serves. That would put it fairly in the mainstream I woulda thunk.


Thers 09.17.07 at 8:00 pm

The really weird Yeats poem is the one where he wants to go live on an island in a hut “of mud and waffles made.”

That makes no sense. The mud would totally ruin the waffles.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.17.07 at 8:03 pm

Maybe I just had an exceptionally good teacher, but we were assigned the book and later the poem, so that we could discuss the title, book and poem. Surely that isn’t uncommon!


Toadmonster 09.17.07 at 8:08 pm

I’ve never heard of Achebe or Yeats, but I do listen to The Roots.


BillCinSD 09.17.07 at 8:12 pm

I had quite a bit of poetry assigned in my HS classes, mostly classics like Beowulf, Shakepseare’s sonnets and the American poets (Longfellow, Dickinson, Pound, Eliot etc.) including Keats. We did not read Achebe due to the structure of the classes I took (American Literature, Literature of the Great Plains, British Literature and Science Fiction) didn’t match with “Things Fall Apart”


c.l. ball 09.17.07 at 8:23 pm

Sad to say Wolfe is right — I never read “Second Coming” until I was in my 30s. My brother was assigned Things Fall Apart in high school.

Of course, in US high schools, we read Hemingway for post-WWI alienation in literature.


JP Stormcrow 09.17.07 at 8:27 pm

I always thought that “The Second Coming” had jumped the shark after Joan Didion used Slouching Towards Bethlehem as the title for her essay on the the “hippies” (and subsequently the book of essays in which it appeared) in the late ’60s. But I assumed that it retained a place in the semi-popular canon. Not quite a Top 10 poem, but Top 25 at least … I’m sure VHS-1 did a countdown sometime.

I’ve not read the Achebe.


Cool Bev 09.17.07 at 8:34 pm

“The Second Coming” is like, 30 lines long. “Things Fall Apart” is a BOOK. I know which one I’m more likely to have read (and memorized a greater percentage of).


mollymooly 09.17.07 at 8:46 pm

School curriculum in Ireland in the 80s and 90s was entirely focused on the state exam syllabus. English had about 12 poets averaging 4 poems each: Yeats had 6 but not Second Coming. There were about 7 novels: A Handful of Dust, Silas Marner, The Charwoman’s Daughter; The Great Gatsby maybe; I skipped the others. Definitely nothing ethnic. I was left with no love of literature and have read little since. I have read Second Coming once or twice though — as Kenny says, it’s only 10 lines(…googles…22 lines…)long.

I believe schools are still completely exam-focused, but the syllabus is a bit looser these days.

Most school systems seem to make the acquisition of an appreciation of literature central, while an appreciation of music is peripheral. Why is this?


aaron_m 09.17.07 at 8:55 pm

“nothing ethic”…”the syllabus is a bit looser these days”

Shit pomfritt!


Bloix 09.17.07 at 9:04 pm

Oh, yes. I remember my HS poetry assignments very clearly. And a grim bunch of poems they were. Ted Hughes, View of a Pig. Henry Reed, Naming of Parts. Wilfred Owen, Dulci et Decorum Est. Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Emily Dickinson, Because I could not stop for death. Andrew Marvell (at last a cheerful one, but still about death), To His Coy Mistress.


F. Blair 09.17.07 at 10:08 pm

Why does everyone here keep talking about high school, when Wolfe’s quote (and Donadio’s article) was clearly about college? In any case, I’m with Henry — I’ve surveyed my friends (relatively well-educated writers, for the most part) and while all of them have read the Yeats poem, only a fraction have reac the Achebe. I frandly don’t think Wolfe thought at all about what he was saying — the juxtaposition of the two texts just made for a quoteworthy, albeit completely fasle, soundbite.


JakeB 09.17.07 at 10:15 pm

Funny, I found the assertion hard to believe, but I recalled that I was assigned the Achebe book in intro. to sociology first year of college and only read the poem later, on my own. Hmmmph.

They’re both really good, it seems to me, although the poem is the only verson I’ve memorized. One may also note there’s several Spenser* novels in a row that refer to lines from that poem; it’s irritating enough to be one of the reasons I gave up reading those books.

*(that’s Spenser the private eye, not the Faerie Queene author).


Aidan Kehoe 09.17.07 at 10:21 pm

I was assigned Things Fall Apart in second year in .ie in around 1993, FWIW. I knew the title was a reference to Yeats, but I didn’t know the actual poem. I could probably still recite a couple of Yeats’ other poems from memory if asked, together with various bits of Shakespeare, Shelley, that bit from The Inferno at the start of Prufrock, and one (and only one, to my vague shame) Rimbaud poem, from my degree.

That’s actually still vaguely satisfying, now I think of it. Cool.


Doug 09.17.07 at 10:23 pm

9: A traditional Irish measurement of a meal. Surely there is a Welsh counterpart, D2?


Clyde Mnestra 09.17.07 at 10:37 pm

There’s some confusion about the original claim, and what it takes to rebut it. Henry doesn’t seem to challenge whether everyone’s read the Achebe, only whether “few” have read The Second Coming. I don’t know what few means for this assessment, except to guess that this is a pretty unrepresentative crowd.

Some (e.g., #44) seem also to challenge the claim that everyone has read Achebe. Well, not everyone, but a hell of a lot of people. The interesting and implicit question is whether more read Things Fall Apart than read The Second Coming — perhaps that’s even what Wolfe meant, and he was writing or speaking sloppily, or exaggerating for effect. It wouldn’t surprise me if more had.

P.S. Probably more read either one than read Thackeray.

P.P.S. As to #44’s assertion that the quote was clearly about college, that simply isn’t clear from the piece — he may have been speaking about “the canon” more generally.


matt m 09.17.07 at 10:41 pm

I read “The Second Coming” in high school and Things Fall Apart in college, and did the same with Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” and Achebe’s No Longer At Ease.


John Quiggin 09.17.07 at 11:17 pm

I’ve read at least three books with titles taken from the Yeats poem, including Achebe, Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Jerusalem) and an Australian Marxist volume on the role of the State called “What Rough Beast”. Even my son’s science fiction novel in progress alludes to it.

All in all, the best defence of Wofle is that, having seen every single word in a literary allusion of some kind, no one actually has to read the poem.


Walt 09.17.07 at 11:20 pm

I’ve read both “The Second Coming” and Things Fall Apart, but it never occurred to me that the title of one came from the other. “Things fall apart” has to be the least distinctive phrase in the poem.


jacob 09.17.07 at 11:22 pm

Why does everyone here keep talking about high school, when Wolfe’s quote (and Donadio’s article) was clearly about college?
Probably because that’s when most of us (from the testimony offered here) read one or the other of the texts. Also because it’s high school (at least in the U.S., at least nowadays) that is the most canonical, in both structure (students all take the same classes) and content. I made it through college without any English department classes, and the handful of literature classes I took were by no means based on the canon (well, one was certainly based on the Yiddish canon, but that includes neither Achebe nor Yeats).


JP Stormcrow 09.18.07 at 12:36 am

Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Jerusalem)
John seems to have gone through the looking glass.

Turning and turning in the tightening gyre
The falcon returns to the falconer;
Things come together; the centre cannot fail;
Mere anarchy is banished from the world,
The blood-loosed tide is dimmed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is revived;
The worst lack all conviction, while the best
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at an end.
The end of the Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Gladdens my sight: somewhere in the dark of the jungle.

A shape with human body and the head of a lion,
A gaze deep and welcoming as the moon,
Is moving its quick loins, while all about it
Reel images of the joyous forest birds.
The sunshine comes again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of watchful waking
were lulled to sleepfulness by a soothing breeze,
And this rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Jerusalem to be killed.


Jacob T. Levy 09.18.07 at 12:38 am

Like Henry, I thought this was an obviously-crazy assertion. I’m astonished at how many people find it plausible.


Amy 09.18.07 at 12:55 am

I’ve also written on this one at my blog:

I teach college Literature courses so my take is a little different, but I essentially agree with you that the NYTBR is seriously oversimplifying the situation and underestimating its audience. They’re behaving as though every person gets 3 hours to read a book at age 20 and after that, you’re a cooked goose. The reality is that every English major’s degree is more or less unique, built by the student’s individual interests and his/her college’s strengths and overall offerings. And for anyone committed to studying literature as a vocation, the degree is hardly the end of the education: reading is a lifelong activity.

The article also seems to be implying that when someone like Achebe uses a Yeats quote to title his novel, he is somehow undermining Yeats, instead of honoring him and keeping his words alive. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a Hemingway novel and a John Donne line. Brave New World is a Huxley novel and a Shakespeare line.

Shakespeare, Donne, and Yeats aren’t going anywhere. :-)


DonBoy 09.18.07 at 1:02 am

The National Lampoon, when it was real, in the 1970s, once ran a fake best-seller list in which the titles, in order, made up all of The Second Coming: “Turning and Turning”, “In the Widening Gyre”, and so forth, each with a plausible description of a book attached. The readers were expected to get the joke.


John Quiggin 09.18.07 at 2:12 am

I’m always doing that kind of thing, JPS. Pardon my brain.


Jim Johnson 09.18.07 at 2:24 am

Well, I don’t recall ever reading this Yeats poem but the entire first stanza is now more or less cliche among those fretting about political disolution of one or another sort.

Funny thing, I bought the Achebe last summer as one of those things I ought to have read but never had. Still haven’t. But Wofle’s recommednation doesn’t prompt me to pick it up soon.


sbk 09.18.07 at 4:13 am

I went first to a private school (1 year), then a public school for h.s., and then a private college, all in the U.S. I was assigned the poem in my second year at the public school (1994) and wrote a substantial paper on it; I haven’t ever been assigned the novel. Oddly enough, I’ve also never heard anyone talk about the contents of the novel, not once before this thread anyway — if it is widely read, does it not make any impression on its readers? The poem, by contrast, comes up again and again. I knew a guy who maintained that the rough beast was Aleister Crowley, for instance — but that may also be a cliché.


Praisegod Barebones 09.18.07 at 6:56 am

Is ‘The Naming of Parts’ grim? I found it hilarious when I had it read to me. (one-upmanship here – it was in elemetary school…)


dsquared 09.18.07 at 7:30 am

48: Oh, it’s like a keat then.


bad Jim 09.18.07 at 8:51 am

I think I encountered Yeats’ poem as a high-school sophomore, exiled from class when grammar was on the menu: “Jim, here’s a book of poetry I got in college. Write a paper about this one.” I never became more than minimally competent at writing, obviously, but in study hall I had the leisure to leaf through my luscious young teachers’ paperback poetry compendia. I’d put Yeats alongside Pound.

I wasn’t aware of Achebe until I was in college (I seem to recall seeing it in the Bancroft Library around 1972), and still haven’t read it. Perhaps it could be a point of pride to reel off a list of books one hasn’t read, but

all you kids who read this book in high school?

get off my lawn!

Yet, as I grow old, I have to instruct my mother NOT to roll up the bottoms of her jeans. The cares of a family man, or the fashions of Southern Californians?


Ginger Yellow 09.18.07 at 11:30 am

I’ve read The Second Coming many times, for school/university and for myself. I’ve never heard of the novel. Or anyway, I couldn’t have told you what it’s about before reading this post. This may well say more about the Anglocentrism (including pre-Free State Ireland) of Eng Lit courses at Oxford and my admittedly atrocious knowledge of contemporary novels than anything else. I’ve always leaned more toward drama, poetry and non-fiction, with a handful of exceptions.


Tom T. 09.18.07 at 12:23 pm

Read the Yeats in high school. Never encountered the book.


rea 09.18.07 at 1:26 pm

I always thought that “The Second Coming” had jumped the shark after Joan Didion used Slouching Towards Bethlehem as the title for her essay on the the “hippies”

Surley the defining shark-moment was the publication of Robert Bork’s, “Slouching Toward Gomorrah,” a reference to the poem everyone else in this thread seems mercifully to have forgotten, or at least, suppressed . . .


Mark Schmitt 09.18.07 at 2:38 pm

I have a B.A. in English literature from an Ivy League school, and while I’ve read Yeats, I don’t think any of it was in the course of my formal education, either high school (crappy public) or college. I’m pre-p.c., so did not read Achebe either, and have not.

I discovered recently that lots of well-educated people don’t seem to have read “Dover Beach” either. Half the titles in the world come from those two poems!


James 09.18.07 at 2:54 pm

As a Canadian, the poem was on my curriculum in Grade 13, although I think I had read it already. The book I had never heard of.

Oddly, although I have an M.A. in English, I don’t think the poem was on any university courses I took (and I did at least two courses involving modern poetry, including the entire Cantos, so it wasn’t simply avoiding the period).


aaron_m 09.18.07 at 4:28 pm


Shush for f**k’s sake. Letting them know that some Canadians go to grade 13 is gonna make us seem like boneheads even if “The Second Coming” was assigned reading.


JP Stormcrow 09.18.07 at 6:33 pm

Surley the defining shark-moment was the publication of Robert Bork’s, “Slouching Toward Gomorrah,”

Don’t call me surley ….

Did give me the idea to check out other “Slouching Towards” completions, (205,000 total hits) – not all are books:
Tehran, Bedlam, Utopia, Adjournment, Creation, Kalamazoo (A DeVries book), Big Brother, Wisdom, Consensus, Ganache, Extimacy, Consensus, Dublin, Nirvana (Bukowski), Liverpool, Birmingham ….

In fact, a test of your cities chops is whether you have a Slouching Towards xxx hit on Google. Pittsburgh, for instance, does not.

But my forgettable favorite is Bork going to the well one more time with a piece in the WSJ in 2005: Slouching Towards Miers– “Bush shows himself to be indifferent, if not hostile, to conservative values.”

Maybe he is trying to establish a “Slouching Towards” franchise the way Hunter S did with “Fear and Loathing”


trane 09.18.07 at 11:44 pm

“there are many worse things in the world than Alan Wofle, but I reserve the right to find him highly annoying.”

Right. But do you have to make it show so inelegantly? You are usually – fortunately – much better than that.

Oh, the Danish high school system/college, how is that now? Lots of poetry, also in the English language, But I must say nay, have read neither Yeats (at least not that particular poem) nor Achebe.


vanya 09.19.07 at 12:48 am

I graduated an Ivy League college as a lit major in the late 80s. I’ve read the Yeats poem, I’ve never even heard of the Achebe novel (although I know Achebe by reputation). Needless to say, I don’t know anyone who has read the Achebe novel. I know plenty of people who read Yeats. Maybe it’s a generational thing, or maybe I hang with a very different crowd than Alan Wolfe.


nnyhav 09.19.07 at 1:39 am

Ooh! Ooh! Slouching Towards Fear and Loathing!


Theron 09.19.07 at 1:51 am

My English prof parents would be embarrassed to know that I don’t have a clue if I read that poem at any point. I took multiple literature classes, so I’m sure I must have, but I have no clue. I know all of you didn’t just get out of school last week, so I’m impressed that so many of you can be very precise about what you read and when. Maybe it’s because I read far more science and history than literature – we remember what we are most interested in. As a professor myself (history) at a less-than-stellar institution, I can bet that a very high percentage of my students have read neither book nor poem and could identify neither one unless they had one or the other coming up next week on an exam. And even then, they might struggle.


J Thomas 09.19.07 at 10:24 am

I thought I hadn’t read the poem but then when I looked I recognised it.

I’d seen practically each line quoted repeatedly in various contexts where they looked irrelevant, and they stuck.

I’ve probably seen most of “The Hollow Men” in quotes too. It’s something you can’t get away from just by not reading it.


JP Stormcrow 09.19.07 at 12:37 pm

Ooh! Ooh! Slouching Towards Fear and Loathing!

Or Fear and Loathing in The Gyre.


Anderson 09.19.07 at 10:24 pm

Let’s not forget Dan Savage’s double-play with Skipping Towards Gomorrah.


Danny Yee 09.20.07 at 8:59 am

I’ve read Arrow of God and not Things Fall Apart, but I have a copy of the latter on a shelf somewhere. It never occurred to me that it had a link with the Yeats poem. (I’ve read through an anthology which had a couple of dozen Yeats poems, though I’m not a big reader of poetry.)


paideia 09.20.07 at 7:08 pm

sadly, I learned the Yeats poem because I liked the Joni Mitchell song [which was, yes, from Night Ride Home. I seem to recall buying a volume of Yeats specifically for that poem. This was around the high school era; did not read the poem as an assignment, despite my rather drunk (and very good) Irish AP English teacher. [We did read “To His Coy Mistress, Number 43]

Achebe’s TFA was the assigned book for my college first-year orientation [circa 1996]. I think I was the only one in my group who knew the reference.

Apocalyptic fun inevitably comes up when teaching religious studies, and I’ve yet to have a student catch any reference I have made to the poem.


g 09.20.07 at 9:27 pm

I read the poem before I read the book. I’d guess, completely at random, that at least twice as many people have read the poem than have read the book (even if we restrict attention to, say, the last 10 years so as to make up for the fact that the poem has been around for much longer).

The fact that the NYTRB writer feels the need to gloss “Things Fall Apart” seems to me to give the lie to the idea that “everyone” has read it, even in the rather attenuated sense of “everyone” that’s presumably being used.

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