The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about stories that have endured not just in the Western Canon, but in popular culture as well. Romeo and Juliet, for example, are still instantly recognizable characters to most people, but I don’t think you could say the same of Heathcliff and Catherine, even though Wuthering Heights will continue to be read and appreciated long after I am dead. Similarly, most people might be able to give you a Cliff’s Notes version of the Iliad and Odyssey, though probably not the Aeneid.
Obviously, these are ill-defined criteria. How could we ever prove what “most people” would recognize, or even define what constitutes a recognition? (Is it enough that someone knows that Romeo and Juliet are lovers? Would they also have to know that the two come from rival families, or that they die in the end?) But this is a blog post about a conversation that took place over a couple of beers at an outdoor chili cook off, so I will play fast and loose where I damn well please.
The point of the conversation was not actually to make a list of what has survived, but to predict which stories in today’s popular culture will stand the test of time. (And for the sake of argument, we set that test at about 500 years).
There are a number of stories inching forward already, currently somewhere between the 100 and 200 years marks, that I think will be with us for a while longer. I would put Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, and A Christmas Carol in here, along with the collected works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (but only because, if you were to ask someone to explain to you what happens in a story called “The Time Machine,” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” even someone who had never heard of those stories could probably tell you based on their titles alone.) You’ll notice my usual bias toward science fiction here, but I also honestly believe that stories with supernatural or otherworldly qualities tend to survive longer because they appeal to us on the level of mythology. Also, stories about visiting the past and bringing people back to life are fundamentally relatable. And Moby Dick because…well, it’s Moby Dick.
I have less hope for stories about class divisions and social issues because I think that those works come with a certain amount of cultural specificity that keep them from feeling universal. One could argue that there will always be class divisions and social issues, but they have different boundaries in different cultures, and the further away from them we are historically, they less sense they make to us socially. We might recognize something of ourselves in an episode of Downton Abbey, but probably not so much in the Eumenides. Sorry, E. M. Forster and Upton Sinclair.
More importantly, you need a fairly straightforward narrative, something that can be summed up in a sentence or two, with some form of iconic imagery or character. The Wizard of Oz will never die because we would have to forget all we know about wicked witches, yellow brick roads, and the phrase “there’s no place like home.” There’s just too much there to stick in our collective memory. It’s also been adapted, referenced, and parodied enough to make knowledge of the original source material irrelevant. I think Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels will live a sort of half-life in this regard, owing to their abundant iconic images but picaresque structures. We will always remember the windmills and the Lilliputians, but we might loose our sense of the rambling narratives into which they fit.
What about now now? Which of today’s guilty (or even not-so-guilty) pleasures do I think will be tomorrow’s cherished classics? Well, the good thing is I can make any predictions I want, and no one I know will be around to prove me wrong in 2513. If we were to look at the pop culture juggernauts of the last 30 years, I don’t think that many of them have staying power. I might have made a case for Star Wars if George Lucas had stopped at the original trilogy. There’s something satisfying and primal about the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader cycle, but it is far too muddied by decades of spinoffs, Christmas Specials, and prequels to be considered a single, straightforward narrative at this point. Harry Potter might stand a chance, but again it’s not really one clear story, and I think that works against it. Seven novels is a lot of baggage to carry through the centuries. As much as it pains me to say Twilight, with its Dracula/Romeo and Juliet parentage, might fare better than either of them.
But if I had to choose one story that I thought, without a doubt, would last, I would pick Superman. I’m not even that big of a Superman fan, but I think his origin story hits a number of nails on the head. It’s otherworldly, it’s heroic in a mythological sense, it’s been adapted more times and in more ways than anyone can count, and it is translatable to any culture (the rules of what can happen on another planet are not bound to any society). Once it passes into the public domain (assuming that it does) there’s no reason for it not to be retold and retold. Superman himself is so blandly perfect and powerful a hero that he can be given whatever characteristics a particular generation needs. There may not be a definitive telling of the story, but if Faust can reside in the works of Marlowe, Goethe, and Murnau without choosing a favorite, then Clark Kent can do the same with whatever storytellers are yet to come. In all likelihood, I am wrong. But then again, so are most people who make predictions.