American college students: Read any Hardy this year?

A recent survey by a major London college revealed that Thomas Hardy is the most popular author among prospective literature students in Britain. Hardy rates above Jane Austen, D. H. Lawrence, and even Shakespeare. The results of the survey were reported recently in The Times Educational Supplement.

Each year, the English department at University College, London, sends a form to all its prospective undergraduate candidates, asking them to indicate the nature and breadth of their reading in English (and other) literature. The results recorded in the Times are compiled from about half of the total -- i.e., about 500 students.

Probably the most striking fact revealed by the survey is the huge popularity of novelists compared with poets and dramatists. There are 24 novelists with more than 30 mentions, or "votes," compared with 15 poets and only 7 dramatists.

Thomas Hardy topped the novelists list with 194 votes, followed by Jane Austen, D. H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters (in that order).

The students praised Hardy for his "deep psychological insight," "understanding of social conditions," and dramatic power. Hardy's Wessex novels -- including "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and "Return of the Native" -- are immensely popular with all age groups in Britain.

Virginia Woolf is placed just above E. M. Forster and Henry James (the first American on the novel list).

The most popular contemporary novelist, according to the survey, is Graham Greene, whose recent novel, "Dr. Fischer of Geneva" is among the current best sellers. Among the other contemporary novelists who received votes were Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, and Gunter Grass.

The new generation of British students thus seem to favor traditional, realistic novels -- those with a specific background, a clearly defined plot, and strong characterization. The folk-fantasy tales of Herman Hesse and J. R. R. Tolkien appear to be losing some of the popularity they enjoyed throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The changing patterns of popularity among certain authors reflects changes in educational policy and the effects of an influx of new teachers. However, the major influence on reading choices is undoubtedly the A- level (for advanced-level) examinations texts. A-level results determine entrance to universities and colleges throughout Britain.

Nevertheless, the survey reveals that senior school pupils (sixth-formers) do read widely outside the texts specified on the school syllabus. The novelists whose works are rarely chosen as O-level (for ordinary- level) or A-level texts, and who yet have received a significant number of votes, include Camus, Sartre, Kafka, and Solzhenitsyn.

Shakespeare, as expected, easily led among the dramatists, with 163 votes. Samuel Beckett was placed second with 51 votes. Tom Stoppard -- author of the brilliant comedy "Travesties" -- was placed ahead of George Bernard Shaw, Harold Pinter, and the great Renaissance dramatists -- Webster, Johnson, and Marlowe.

The first American to appear among the dramatists is, predictably, Arthur Miller, whose two major plays, "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," were recently revived by the National Theather in London.

T. S. Eliot leads the way among the poets with 104 votes, followed by Chaucer and Wordsworth -- the latter two poets are both perennial favorites with examiners.

Contemporary poet Ted Hughes was placed high in the rankings, while there seems to be a new wave of interest in the work of Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who received more votes than Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, and W. H. Auden.

The tense, elliptical poems of Ted Hughes' former wife, the late Sylvia Plath , are still very popular with today's young scholars. According to the college survey, Miss Plath is the most popular American poet after Eliot, and she is placed above established poets such as W. H. Auden and the Romantics' Shelley and Byron.

The 17th-century "metaphysical" school of poets (Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Marvell, etc.) soared to new heights of popularity at both schools and colleges in the 1970s, and were the subject of much critical acclaim. The survey's results suggest that the popularity of the metaphysical poets (particularly John Donne) will continue well into the new decade.

It can be argued that television has affected reading choices, since most of the top-placed novelists and dramatists have had at least some of their work presented on TV.

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