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Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts, Continued

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January 2016
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Let’s keep considering the Great Writers of English Literature and seeing how they responded to their roles as part of the power structure of the ruling class of Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how Cultural Studies work at its most basic.

Let’s accept the fact that the British Writers of, say, the nineteenth century, were a major part, a highly influential part of the power structure of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and let’s think about what the values were of that power culture and how those values shaped the world then and how those values persist today.

Great Britain was the greatest colonial power of its day. Its empire covered the globe and its former colonies still feel its cultural dominance, right? The values of Great Britain’s power class we now know have proven terribly destructive to most of the world. And yet many of us as part of the power class of the current most powerful nations in the world may be blind to the terribly destructive cultural values of our predecessor as most powerful nation on earth.

Of course, you may say “So what,” and even among intellectuals, most simply leave such issues at that. But for those who consider Cultural Studies professionally, this question has long been settled across the board. How do you answer the question “So what?”

Let’s see your comments.

That’s it for my series on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Now, go back to your study and pick a fine volume of Great Literature from your shelves and lose yourself in their poetry, fiction, or drama.

As for me and The Literary Life blog, how about we take up perhaps the biggest question of all about literature and art: What is Art? And we will do so by examining what one of the greatest writers ever had to say: Leo Tolstoy.





  1. Ty Frost says:

    Perhaps, simply by representing a culture that is not _our_ dominant culture, the voices of the “classics” call us to an “other.” That is not to say that they call us in the same voice as the Subaltern or Feminist, but it is good to be called to any voice that is not familiar, and by the call reminded that not all voices are our own. Our culture is an echo-chamber that exhibits such conformity in some parts (politics, for instance) that the most minor of variations from the unified whole is often treated as an entirely different “gospel.” How would we be able to hear the voices of people truly different than we when we cannot even understand those who are so very like us?

    Also, if I may ask, what is the effect of entertainment as the goal of modern literature on the content of literature in our time? Does it make for better writing or shallow writing?


    • Paul Varner says:

      Of course, the question of entertainment has been a major one for Great Literature since the late 19th century. For much of what we often call high culture, the artist is alienated from the audience. Did James Joyce worry about entertaining his readers? Or, in our own time, what about Thomas Pyncheon? Is Gravity’s Rainbow an entertaining, popular read? Someday I hope to take up the idea of consumer fiction as opposed to literary fiction in this blog. But for now, can a novel aimed primarily at making money be art? Inquiring minds often wonder.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Brian Rusher says:

      It seems that, as I grow older, I skew more Marxist, and it becomes difficult for me to separate notions of “entertainment” from notions of cultural hegemony. My most recent university experience was at an institution that offered not even a single course on the Greek or Latin classics, but it did offer a course titled “Young Adult Literature,” and that is disconcerting to me–what it represents is disconcerting to me (i.e., power asserting itself upon the literature department).

      I believe that most people are capable of reading great literature if given the opportunity to develop the skill to do so. I’m not optimistic about many things, but that is something I firmly believe.

      From time to time, I do read a popular novel, and there are some out there I enjoy, but I can’t think of a novel that was written primarily for money that I consider art.


  2. Paul Varner says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. You mention automatized literature. I have published quite a bit on what I call consumer fiction in the past. I once wrote a paper on Walmart Westerns that showed how Walmart controls the quality and specifications of its Western paperbacks ( as well as its romances and other popular genres) the same way it controls from the factory its tires, auto parts, shoes, clothes, groceries, and everything else. Talk about a power class controlling the means of production and distribution, Walmart has its own publishing label. I hope I can get more comments like yours.


  3. Brian Rusher says:

    I’ve thought on these two most recent posts quite a lot, and I think that it is important to acknowledge the prejudices of unjust social systems and to explore what impact that has had on the production of and access to art. I suppose so we can be aware of our past and learn from it, as cliche as that is.

    And, while white males dominate the Western Canon, I feel very fortunate to live in a time in which there are strong voices of resistance against that status quo, thus making me aware of great female and minority authors. Robert Browning and Byron may have benefited from the values of the British power class, but I am reluctant to say that this is the only thing their literature represents. I mean, we can use great literature for other purposes, such as empowering those outside of the power class.

    Finally, I’ll say this, I’m much more concerned about people who only read “mass cultural” literature (e.g., Dan Brown, Sue Grafton) because I believe that automatized literature is much more a tool of the power class than Wordsworth, Shelley, or Blake. An elitist approach to literature empowers the human spirit. At least, that’s what I think.



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