To read these facts, or not to read these facts—that is the question!
Remember all those annoying little books and plays you were forced to read and write about back in high school? Who would have ever thought that some of these books are actually pretty good when you’re old enough to appreciate them? I guess there’s actually a reason why these same works are regularly chosen to be taught to young people. Whether you’re an avid reader or you’ve done everything in your power to avoid hearing the names of these books since the day you graduated, here are 38 scholastic facts about the texts we were all forced to sit through back in our youth.
We all know that Shakespeare was pretty good with a pen, but it’s hard to truly understand just how profound of an effect he had on the English language. Countless common, popular phrases and expressions that have made their way into the English language were originally coined by Shakespeare, from “bedazzled” to “cold-blooded.” In Hamlet alone you’ll find the first instances of “primrose path,” “method in my madness,” and “there’s the rub,” among many more.
37. Maybe Coulda Stayed Buried
Although To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1960, Harper Lee shocked the literary world in 2015 by coming out with a “sequel” of sorts after this 55 year hiatus. Though Go Set a Watchman was marketed as a follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird, it was really an early draft of what was to become the iconic novel, and it received, at best, mixed reviews when it was released.
36. Family Pride
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a relative of the man who wrote America’s National Anthem, Francis Scott Key. In fact, the “F” in his name stands for, you guessed it, Francis; he was named after this distant relation.
35. The Classics Work
Mark Twain himself developed his views on slavery in a similar manner to Huck Finn in the book—going from accepting it as normal to realizing that it was morally wrong. The experience that the reader goes through while following young Huck’s coming of age is the main reason why the book is basically the quintessential classroom novel to this day, despite it’s controversial language and it’s frequent appearance on “banned books” lists.
34. Behind the Scenes
George Orwell’s book 1984 describes a frightening, dystopian future in which a totalitarian government has taken over people’s lives and erased their freedom. A 1944 letter, from several years before the book came out, reveals that while Orwell was concerned about figures such as Hitler, he was also concerned that Hitler’s fall would only strengthen other threats, including not just Joseph Stalin, but also “the Anglo-American millionaires.” It was these fears that inspired him to write 1984.
33. True Identities
The familiar names of many iconic authors, such as Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Lewis Carroll, are actually pseudonyms used solely as pen names. These three authors were actually named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Eric Arthur Blair, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, respectively.
32. From Print to Music
Many musicians were inspired by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, including U2, The Offspring, and Iron Maiden, each of whom have had song titles that reference the book.
31. On Location
A big part of many of these books is the distinct and unique settings in which they each take place. Some of these places are real, some are totally fictional, and some are a combination of both—fictional but based on real places. The town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville; West Egg in The Great Gatsby is based on Great Neck, Long Island; and St. Petersburg in Huckleberry Finn is based on Hannibal, Missouri.
30. Two Way Street
Some writers don’t try to hide their political leanings, but they sometimes pay for it. Arthur Miller was ostracized for the allegation that he was a communist sympathizer, and was even made to testify at the famous McCarthy hearings. On the flip side of the coin, George Orwell was ostracized in some of his socialist-leaning literary circles for the anti-Soviet stance that inspired much of his writing.
The reason that Arthur Miller’s McCarthy testimony was so noteworthy is that it instigated a feud between him and his long time friend, director Elia Kazan, over the fact that Miller refused to name communists for blacklisting, while Kazan did. Miller wrote a new play, The Crucible, in response to these events, while Kazan directed a movie alluding to his own take on the matter, On the Waterfront.
Were you confused by the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, in which a fight breaks out over a servant “biting his thumb” at a group of other servants? Believe it or not, thumb-biting was an Elizabethan insult, and can be thought of as the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger today.
27. Gatsby & Daisy
Though F. Scott Fitzgerald based many scenes from The Great Gatsby involving Daisy Buchanan on his actual relationship with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, she wasn’t the main basis for the character. In various letters and journal entries he says that the character was inspired by another real-life socialite—a woman from Chicago named Ginevra King.
26. Tyrannical Irony
In addition to 1984, George Orwell wrote another popular book to satirically demonstrate the threat of tyrannical and totalitarian government—Animal Farm. Recently, the book was banned by the government of China. I gotta say, if you’re trying to convince people that you’re not running a totalitarian government, banning a book like Animal Farm is probably not your best play.
Herman Melville, the author of the American classic Moby Dick, did most of his writing from an inspiring and beautiful house in Massachusetts known as “Arrowhead.” He put his writing desk in the upstairs study, whose window perfectly framed Massachusetts’ tallest mountain, Mount Greylock, which Melville said “looked like a sperm whale rising in the distance.”
24. Leaves of…What?
You may have found poetry boring in school, so the name Walt Whitman might be the last thing you want to hear. It almost seems like Whitman knew how you would feel, because the title Leaves of Grass was actually a slang metaphor which essentially meant “pages of nothing.” I bet a can find a whole lot of teenagers who would agree!
23. High Impact
Few books have been as influential on American society as To Kill a Mockingbird has. The 1960 book and its 1962 film adaptation are a perfect example of the way that art can have a concrete effect on modern societies. The Economist has described the novel as “a testament to the ways fiction can expose a society’s sins, alter consciousness, and advance the gradual work of social change.”
22. Shakespeare on Broadway
Did you know that one of the greatest and most decorated Broadway shows of all time, West Side Story, was just an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Leonard Bernstein took the plot of Shakespeare’s play, plopped it into an Upper Manhattan setting instead of an Italian one, and added some amazing music. The result was a new classic born out of the old one.
21. Dystopian Alliance
Brave New World author Aldous Huxley had an interesting ongoing relationship with fellow dystopian novelist George Orwell—he was actually Orwell’s French teacher at one point! Birds of a feather do indeed flock together!
20. Before Shakespeare’s Time
Although many people struggle with Shakespeare’s language, calling it “Olde English” or sometimes “Middle English,” it’s actually considered to be Modern English, just like you and I speak today. If you want to see real Middle English, check out Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Here’s the first couple lines, just for a taste: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour,/Of which vertu engendred is the flour.” If you think that’s confusing, then don’t even get me started on Old English—you can still kind of see the connection with Middle English, but Old English is a completely unrecognizable language.
Shakespeare is undeniably the most respected person to ever write in the English language, but believe it or not, there are those who believe that he doesn’t deserve that praise—because he didn’t actually write his plays! Some people even theorize that Shakespeare is nothing but a character and that those plays were written by various other playwrights.
18. One Door Closes, Another Opens
Another classic American novel taught in many schools is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This book was written when Hawthorne found himself with a lot of free time after getting fired from a government job due to electoral change. I guess elections really can impact our lives!
17. Bartleby the What?
So many of these older novels refer to all kinds of careers we might not recognize today. For the record, in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, a scrivener is a paper copier. I guess the invention of the photocopier explains why we’re less familiar with this job today. But I guess people back then would have been confused to see “Bartleby the Social Media Manager.”
16. Unfinished Classic
F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on another major novel project at the time he passed away. He had made comments suggesting that The Last Tycoon was intended to be his magnum opus. Alas, The Great Gatsby will have to retain the title instead. Tough break.
15. Secret Door
In many ways, Charles Dickens lived his life like he was in a book. He actually had a secret door in his study covered by a fake bookcase full of non-existent books with made-up titles.
14. Other Paths
If you’re a big fan of Catcher in the Rye, you almost didn’t get the chance to ever read it—J.D. Salinger’s father had wanted him to become a meat packer rather than an author.
13. Unintended Audience
Many of us were assigned to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most important and well-known Founding Fathers, but did you know that it was actually first published in French? Franklin was deeply popular in France, and the book had a much easier time being published there than it did in the United States.
12. Young Fear
What novel has been adapted into more formats and has remained as familiar culturally as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus? You may be surprised to know that this iconic story about human progress going too far for its own good was actually written by a teenager—Shelley was 18 when she starting writing it.
11. More Youthful Efforts
Mary Shelley wasn’t the only familiar teenage author to write a popular book. S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was just 15 years of age.
Mark Twain based his ever-popular, adolescent Huck Finn on an actual boy from his youth. The boy’s name was Tom Blankenship, and Twain described him as “the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”
9. Modern Classic
One of the most recent novels to have become a popular standard for the classroom is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It tells the story of another dystopian society, which initially appears to be a utopia until more details are revealed. The book was inspired by a visit that Lowry had with her elderly father who had lost much of his memory, causing her to reflect more seriously on memory as a concept.
8. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mary
Many parts of Jane Eyre were inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s real life experiences. Most surprisingly, this includes the character of Bertha Mason, a woman who lives locked up in an attic. She was inspired by a woman named “Mad Mary,” who actually lived in the attic of a house that Brontë once visited.
7. Unplanned Success
Another staple of many school curricula is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Surprisingly, Alcott never wanted to write this book, and only did it due to pressure from an editor and as a favor to her father, who was going to get his own book published as part of the deal.
6. Shakespeare’s Sources
Many of Shakespeare’s classic plays are dramatizations of historical events or older stories. This includes Romeo and Juliet, which was inspired by several earlier sources, such as an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello called Guilietta e Romeo. I bet he wishes royalty fees were around back then!
5. Catch How Many?
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was originally going to be called “Catch-18,” but he felt this was too similar to another novel with the number 18 in the title. Heller actually went through three more numbers before settling upon 22 his title. I guess the fifth time’s the charm!
4. Loud Pitch
J.D. Salinger submitted his short story “The Boy in the People Shooting Hat” to The New Yorker, but they rejected it, saying “it has passages that are brilliant and moving and effective, but we feel that on the whole it’s pretty shocking for a magazine like ours.” Later, when he finally finished The Catcher in the Rye, he drove right to the magazine’s fiction editor’s house and read him the entire thing, start to finish. If you wanted to read his earlier, “shocking” story, you’re in luck! It ended up becoming chapters three to seven in the acclaimed novel.
3. Early Start
Many great craftsmen began their professions as child prodigies. While Charles Dickens began working at the ripe-old-age of 12, it wasn’t writing Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities—he was working in a factory full time to support his family after his father was thrown into debtor’s prison.
2. Shakespeare: Cartoon Edition
West Side Story isn’t the only smash-hit musical to be based on a Shakespeare play. Hamlet was actually one of the main inspirations behind the plot of The Lion King. More controversially, the animated classic bears an unmistakable similarity to another story about talking lions—a Japanese cartoon from the 1960s called Kimba the White Lion. In fact, the two properties are so similar that Matthew Broderick, who voices Simba (if you look really hard you can see the similarity), assumed he was doing an American adaptation of Kimba, because he was familiar with the anime.
1. Unlikely Match
Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller married Hollywood star and glamor girl Marilyn Monroe in 1956. Sadly, early on in the marriage, Marilyn stumbled upon a diary in which Miller had written some unflattering thoughts about his new bride, and their relationship was never the same. The couple divorced a few short years later, and it is believed that Marilyn would have patched things up with her ex, baseball star Joe DiMaggio, if not for her untimely death in 1962. I guess we’ll never know.