Any people is known by and knows itself through its stories. In addition to the true story of its existence—its history—there are stories that technically never happened. While these stories get assigned to the “fiction” section of the library, that does not mean they are not true—at least true to nature. The myths, parables, poems, plays, novels, and, occasionally, epics—that are given the high name of literature—are the vehicles through which the greatest observers of human nature explain that human world to their fellow human beings. Through stories we learn about the struggles and longings, the triumphs and defeats, of ordinary men and women. We learn about the human virtues and their opposite vices. We discover the sources and meaning of love, justice, freedom, and happiness, as well as of hatred, injustice, slavery, and ruin.
In a sane world, any flourishing people has sense enough to teach its best stories to its youngest people. It does so for several reasons. Stories inculcate civility and the virtues, which any people wishes to pass on to its young. Stories unveil the permanent truths of human life—that do not change with every innovation in technology or swing of political mood. Best of all, great stories are irresistible since they invite the human imagination to embark upon adventures and encounters that never grow old: to fight alongside a warrior named Achilles, to feel for a young woman in love named Elizabeth, and to float down a river with a boy named Huck.
No sensible people deliberately forgets its stories. In fact, it would take a deliberate, premeditated act to forget them. Stories are a substantial part of any culture: the agency that cultivates the human soul and teaches a people how to think and feel. A people setting aside its stories would be tantamount to a person deliberately choosing amnesia: deciding not to know who he is or where he comes from, who his friends are and, if he has any, who his enemies. Who would ever do such a thing?
Great peoples have great stories. The Greeks had Homer. The Romans had Virgil. It has been the singular fortune of the American people to be able to draw our stories from the vast literary reservoir of two great peoples, the British and the American, who share a common language—a great language, made greater by its masterful storytellers. We in America have as much access and right to the soliloquies of Hamlet, the struggles of Crusoe, and the letter of Mr. Darcy as anyone who lives in London or studies at Oxford. And in return, this literary nation has given our British brethren the creations of Melville and Poe and Twain.