The influence of British authors on American culture is undeniable. Some predate the country by centuries, paving the way for and influencing contemporary American men and women of letters. A smattering of British authors made their way onto the high school reading list for the Common Core Standards, adopted in most states as of 2014.
Arguably the greatest and most influential playwright in history, William Shakespeare’s plays are recommended reading by Common Core. The list includes his play “Macbeth,” but “Hamlet,” and “King Lear” also rank among his greatest works. Known simply as The Bard, Shakespeare set the standard for comedies, tragedies and histories and his work is subject to more scholarly scrutiny than perhaps any other playwright. He died in 1664. Satirist Oscar Wilde’s play “The Important of Being Earnest,” is also recommended. Imprisoned for two years due to his homosexuality, Wilde, who lived from 1854 to 1900, was widely regarded for his social commentary and wit.
Several influential British poets are recommended for high school reading, including Geoffrey Chaucer for his “Canterbury Tales,” 24 tales written in Middle English in the late 1300s. The tales are marked by their rhythm and idiosyncratic use of satirical wit. Also included on the Common Core list are William Shakespeare's sonnets and John Donne's metaphysical poetry, which uses paradoxical images to evoke new perspectives. The list includes Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, author of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Both poets advocated on behalf of imagination and a relationship with nature in the era politically defined by the French Revolution.
The Common Core list includes Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, known for their novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre,” respectively. Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, and Bronte, who lived from 1816 to 1855, defied social conventions and gave voice to the voiceless, namely women and the poor. Austen’s novels detail love stories and offer social commentary on British upper- and middle-class sensibilities. Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” concerned the inner life of its title character, an impoverished woman. Bronte wrote it under a male pseudonym and it was an immediate hit, unlike many of Austen’s tales, which gained more acclaim centuries after they were published.
Essayists G.K. Chesterton and George Orwell also belong on the list of high school reading. Chesterton, who lived from 1874 to 1936, examined paradoxes throughout all facets of society and commented on them with wit. He wrote literary and social criticism, and observations on history, politics, economics, philosophy and theology. He converted from the Anglican Church to Catholicism, and his religious explorations permeate his essays. Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” and “Shooting an Elephant” stand as incisive commentaries on puffed-up prose and totalitarianism, both of which Orwell abhorred. Orwell drew on his life experiences as a boarding school student, an imperial policeman in Burma, a tramp and son of a civil servant to inform his commentaries on jingoism and war.