Why Literature Matters: A Historical Perspective


Mr. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and the author of A History of Russia, 2 Vols (2d ed., 2002-2005) For a list of all his recent books and online publications, see http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm.

To paraphrase Harold Hill in The Music Man, “We got troubles, my friend, right here, I say, troubles right here in the USA.”  I needn’t enumerate them. A quick look at a week’s headlines does the job.  Or take the special March 28/April 4 issue of Newsweek entitled “Apocalypse Now.”  True, it also deals with more global problems like Middle East revolutions, economic crises, nuclear meltdowns, tsunamis, and earthquakes.  But in this globalized world, the effects of problems in one region of the world soon affect other parts.  In the face of all this, one might ask, “What good are novels, poetry, and other types of imaginative literature—except perhaps as escapes from our present miseries?”

I would argue that many of our present-day problems stem from our cultures and subcultures, which are too narrow and limiting, and that literature can offer us alternatives and broader visions.  The word “culture” has two primary meanings:  1)  an anthropological one to describe the whole way of life of a group, like a tribe or nation, including their physical and mental activities, and 2)  as a collective term for the arts, humanities, and higher knowledge generally.  In addition, we often refer to subcultures, like American youth culture, which are subdivisions of the first meaning.

From the late nineteenth century to the present, the dominant cultures in the Western industrialized countries have been ones heavily influenced by capitalism.  Its success has been dependent upon the constant consumption of more and more products, in turn propelled by advertising that often insults our intelligence.  The term “consumer culture” is often used to brand the type of culture that has mushroomed out of capitalism.  While it is true that there are differences between say U. S., English, and German cultures, the centrality of capitalism to all three has meant that consumption has heavily influenced each one of them.  And with the spread of Western influence around the globe, the Western capitalist model and the necessity of constant consumption has increasingly influenced other countries.

One does not have to look far to see how such influence works.  One of the most important “needs” of consumer cultures is energy.  And this ever-increasing need for more energy to produce more goods and fuel more cars in turn leads to more emphasis on what happens in oil-producing states like Iraq and Libya and to more reliance on nuclear energy in oil-poor countries like Japan and France.  Burning up energy also is a major cause of pollution and global warming.  For countries where people lack many of the material goods produced by capitalism, the media age we live in, despite government censorships, has let individuals know what they are missing.  The unfavorable comparison between Western affluence and the dearth of goods in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s was one of the reasons why communist governments fell in that region.  The present turmoil in the Middle East may also be affected by the dissatisfaction of many young people with the paucity of material goods they possess as compared to the West.

But if capitalism has helped produce consumer cultures that are often envied by less affluent societies, it also inadvertently gave birth to cultural dissatisfactions among people within capitalist systems.  In fact, culture in the sense of a higher knowledge (the second definition above)   was perceived by the Englishman Matthew Arnold, in his Culture and Anarchy (1882),   as an alternative and corrective to the values and manners that the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire capitalism had introduced into English society.  Later, Raymond Williams stated in his Culture and Society, 1780-1950 that in the period he dealt with “the development of the idea of culture has, throughout, been a criticism of what has been called the bourgeois idea of society.”

In 1950, Henry Steele Commager, one of America’s most prominent historians, wrote:  “Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ?  Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them. . . . Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.”  These writers, especially the novelists, “exposed the inequities of business, romanticized labor, lamented the slums, and denounced corruption.”  The literature of the 1920s, reflected “aversion to Mammon, . . . distaste for the standards of the market place and the country club,” and “hatred of vulgarity.”  Writings of the 1930s, after the Depression had struck, “pulsed with anger and pity—anger against an economy that wasted the resources, paralyzed the energies, and corrupted the spirits of the people, pity for the victims of that economy.”  Even in what remained of the first half century, even with victory in World War II, very few novelists revised “the judgment which had been passed on the acquisitive society. . . . The novelists remained irreconcilable.”

In Germany in the half century preceding Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 we see a similar phenomenon among writers, many of them influenced by Nietzsche.  Novelist Thomas Mann thought that Germany stood against “a rationalist, bourgeois, materialistic, superficial, optimistic civilization.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s writers of the Beat Generation, like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg in the USA, and the Angry Young Men in England, like Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, carried on the struggle against cultures consumed with consumption.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the Western countercultural movement that opposed “the system.”  Writers were not alone in the fight.  There were the protest songs of singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and films like The Graduate and Easy Rider.  But despite the spread of mass-media, imaginative writers continued to matter.  As The New York Times wrote on the death of Kurt Vonnegut, “It was his novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s.  Dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the United States.”

What literature offers us then are alternate visions of life.  We can be much more than the type of citizen satirized by W. H. Auden in his poem “The Unknown Citizen” (1939):

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Literature can help us appreciate more the beauty and goodness that are there for the seeing, if only we train our eyes to see.  In 1929, novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence wrote that “the real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness.  The country is so lovely:  the man-made England is so vile.”  He knew that capitalism valued profits, not beauty.  In many American novels, like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) we see a similar sentiment expressed.  As we do in humorous poet Ogden Nash’s lines:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.

The alternate visions might at times be simplistic, but literature can also teach us to value complexity, that life has no easy answers.  When I taught Russian history, I often had students read the novel Doctor Zhivago, not only because it is full of beauty and wisdom, but also because it helped them feel, and therefore better understand, the complexity of the Russian revolutions of the early part of the twentieth century.

Nor must we remain stuck with whatever alternate viewpoints literature offers.  When she was young Dorothy Day (1897-980), a lover of books from an early age, was moved by the socialist sentiments of writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London.  Their sympathies for the unfortunates in capitalistic America never left her, but she moved on from her early socialist sentiments to co-found and develop the Catholic Worker movement that took seriously and literally the New Testament words, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  By 2010 there were, according to the Catholic Worker website, 213 of their communities, which remained committed to “hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken,” and opposed to “injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.”

Literature can also teach us empathy, a value that President Obama stressed in his The Audacity of Hope (2006), where he stated that it was central to his moral code and that it was important "to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."  In 1953, when the Rosenbergs were awaiting their execution for espionage, Dorothy Day’s empathy for them was heightened by recalling the story of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot about the mental suffering of a man about to be put to death.  When I wished my students to understand what it was like to be an African victim of Western imperialism around 1900, I had them read Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959).  A novel like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) helped more affluent Americans empathize with poor migrants from Oklahoma.  Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952) helped whites better understand what it was like to be black when segregation and widespread discrimination still disgraced our land.  Men trying to gain insight into a female perspective were able to turn to female novelists like Doris Lessing.  Today, the old can read novels with young protagonists and vice versa, and so on with people from different nations, religions, ethnicities, and political persuasions.

At a time when the United States and the world generally seems as confused, intolerant, and without answers as ever, any steps forward out of our Babel-like existence toward more mutual understanding are to be welcomed.  Moreover, Matthew Arnold was correct, culture (in the sense of higher learning), especially literature, can be a “great help out of our present difficulties.”  It can help us see that the inane ads that constantly urge us to purchase more and pursue a false “American Dream,” as well as much of our mass-media culture that is driven by the profit motive, are dead ends.  Concern about culture is not a frivolous matter in our troubled world.  In an interview printed in 1977 Ralph Ellison, who did much to enlighten us on race relations, said, “While others worry about racial superiority, let us be concerned with the quality of culture.”  First-rate literature can stretch our minds and our sympathies and bring us closer to experiencing the beauty, goodness, and truth that humanity’s best minds have always sought.

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Mike Schoenberg - 4/11/2011

Depressing to think that over a 100 years since "The Jungle" by Sinclair was published, we still get food poisining. Same with the 19th century novel "The Octopus".