There was a little piece in the New York Times today about some filmmakers who are shooting some short films about Shakespeare's sonnets: 154 sonnets, 154 short films--all shot it in New York City. (Link to article about the project.)
It's astonishing, really, that Shakespeare, dead since 1616, still lives in so many ways, in so many media--from stage to screen to MP3 to T-shirt to coffee mug to ... newspaper cartoon. You can still find in the pages of newspapers (remember them?) cartoon images from the plays re-designed to evoke a laugh. Take this recent Bizarro comic from a couple of years ago. The cartoonist was confident that everyone knows the first few lines of "To be or not to be." Safe joke. Every now and then you'll see, as well, a cartoon playing with Hamlet-and-the-skull-of-Yorick, too, although I'm fairly certain that most people nowadays could not really explain that situation; they just know that in Hamlet there's a skull thingy going on with our dark protagonist.
Anyway, all of this got me to thinking even more about something I'd been thinking about anyway: the assumptions that cartoonists can make about our common literary knowledge, assumptions that will probably weaken and eventually disappear, for the most part, as time and advances and public knowledge of our Western literary heritage evanesces.
When I was on Facebook, I used to upload cartoons with literary content all the time. And there are still a lot of them. Cartoonists still employ images from Frankenstein (though they're almost always images of the creature from the 1931 film with Boris Karloff, not the 1818 novel), from Poe (ravens remain common), from A Christmas Carol, Dracula (again--almost always from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi). The Headless Horseman from Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" often rides back into the funnies during Halloween--and sometimes after (as this cartoon shows). Irving's Rip Van Winkle also appears from time to time.
Every now and then I'll see a reference to something that seems so specialized that I feel the cartoonist seems to be saying, Screw it. I know that a majority of my readers are not going to understand this, but I think it's funny! In this Frazz comic from a couple of years ago the characters are talking about Cormac McCarthy. A popular writer, sure--but among a generally limited readership. I'm guessing it's the recent films based on McCarthy's works that made the cartoonist go for it--No Country for Old Men and The Road.
Ahab and the white whale. The images remain familiar to virtually everyone (like Hamlet's skull, like Frankenstein's creature), but I wonder how many people these days--beyond English majors and graduate students--read Melville's novel? I taught for some years at Western Reserve Academy with a wonderful colleague, John Haile, who loved the novel and taught it often. (A couple of times he even arranged all-night read-throughs of the novel with his students and other faculty.) But I would guess not many high schools teach the novel these days. It's so long, for one thing--and so rich in complexities of language and theme.
As the years and decades proceed, I'm guessing the last to linger will be the whale, Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, perhaps Poe's raven? The Headless Horseman?
But I'm guessing, as well, that our actual knowledge of these works will continue to diminish. Most of the juniors I taught at WRA--bright, college-bound, wonderful young people--had read neither "Sleepy Hollow" nor Irving's other classic, "Rip Van Winkle." But they sort of knew the stories.
That's the natural history of literature--and of us, as a matter of fact. Our loved ones know us intimately. Our descendants sort of know our stories. Our further descendants perhaps recognize a photograph, Then ... oblivion.
And on that happy note ...