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Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts, Continued

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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.

 

 

Elitist Approaches to Great Literature as Conflicting with Cultural and Class Issues

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I love all my books on my bookshelves. I love my compete set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, my New York Edition of Henry James’s complete works, my Oxford Standard Editions, my Classics Club set. All my wonderful canonical authors of Great Literature. Here I am sitting in my big stuffy leather chair just looking at my books and longing for time to read. But when I really think things through, sometimes, not often, but sometimes I get that guilty feeling that my precious privilege just might be problematic.

I’m writing about what it means to live a Literary Life and especially the last few days about ways to think about the Great Literature that means so much to us. And here’s a stickler of a question that never goes away.

Could a person from an underprivileged class, tribe, whatever, merely by sheer genius, exert himself or herself and produce Great Literature independent of any cultural or class considerations?

Well, that’s a problem when it comes to deciding who the Major Writers are and what Great Literature is. I mean, what criteria is used to decide if a certain poem or novel is great? (I use the passive voice deliberately.) By any chance is the criteria used to determine greatness criteria that supports the historical white male, privileged class power structure? If so, what are the implications?

Oh boy. We could go on and on, but these are important questions and important issues for anybody living a Literary Life. And, really, not just for reading Major British, Continental, or American writers from the past.

Think about it. Who are considered the great artists of today in the US, say, and in the world? Who says? Who do these great contemporary artists represent and what values do they represent? Now be careful. Don’t jump to conclusions that because the artists we celebrate dress far differently onstage or onscreen than anybody else, or that because so many seem utterly out of middle-class conformity, that somehow they do not mirror the values of the middle class and the standard culture in which they perform.

Again, think about it. Can an artist who does not represent the power class today be considered great? Really? Ok, name your famous, great, celebrity artist who deeply opposes your class’s values. I mean, I would assume that greatness in any field requires nonconformity, nonacceptance of prevailing values to be great (among many other things). Else, what’s to be great?

Or, consider: How do we (as members of the power class) treat those occasional artists who do not represent our class today? For example, how does Fox News treat filmmakers like Michael Moore or Oliver Stone? What hip hop artists are acceptable? Actually, not just Fox, but how do any of the major media treat any poet? Any novelist who can’t hit the New York Times Bestseller list?

Ah, my books. What are your most prized books on your shelves? What’s your reaction to these questions I have put out there? Write it in the comment box. Meanwhile, stay tuned Saturday for the next post in this series on Ways to Approach Great Literature.

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