Term Paper: Nature of Literature

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¶ … American Literature?

The more broadly, deeply, objectively, honestly, and open-mindedly one reflects on the question of what is; or is not; (or should not be; or might not be; or possibly could be), American literature, the more complex the issue only becomes. It is like trying to explain "American Thought." True, Tocqueville did it in Democracy in America (1835; 1840) going on two centuries ago, but he would be much harder-pressed to define (if he even could) the vast complexity of all "American Thought" has grown into today (for better or worse). Moreover, today's America, in the first decade of the 21st century, is hardly the same place within which the Founding Fathers wrote the United States Constitution; the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence in the late 18th century. That century was the Age of Reason (a.k.a. The Enlightenment). Since then, other, later literary and philosophical modes of thinking and creativity have also included (and this is true as well for other parts of the world, especially but not only Europe) Romanticism; Modernism; Post-modernism; Post-post-Modernism. Keeping in mind all of those inherent challenges (and others) this essay shall address (or try to) the issue of what American Literature either is or is not Clearly, what is often anthologized by textbook publishers today (e.g., Norton; Longman; Bedford, etc.) under the broad heading "American literature" reflects and ha reflected (albeit, arguably in a unique way) each of those various intellectual; philosophical, and creative modes and trends: from pre-pre-Enlightenment to present. To bear that out, one need only skim through any comprehensive American literature anthology (pre-Puritans to present) to notice the enormous amount of thematic; stylistic; descriptive and other diversity within.

What I categorize as "literature," on the other hand (American or otherwise) is anything written and published, even if it is very banal and dull (e.g., this year's IRS instructional and other pamphlets) or poorly-written or offensive in quality (e.g., internet and most other written pornography). Therefore, pornographic stories, although they are not to my taste, are as much literature (in my own although perhaps not others' view) as the wonderful, skillfully-crafted, often brilliantly creative and innovative short stories and essays published in the New Yorker each week. The latter I eagerly await and read as soon as I can; the former I can definitely do without! Still, each is literature, according to my own definition.

Webster's New World Dictionary (1995) is a bit pickier than I am, however, in its definition of "literature," i.e., defining the noun "literature" instead as: "1: the production of written works having excellence or form or expression and dealing with ideas of permanent interest"; and: 2: "The written works produced in a particular language, country, or age" (p. 303). I tend not to feel up to arguing with Webster's, so (while that is still not my own "working" definition of "literature" it is one I would definitely accept as being better-informed and more discerning than mine, even if still not the only way one could possibly define literature for oneself.

The question of what it means to be an American is an even more complex one; and it brings my cynicism to the surface. When I read Walt Whitman's gigantic, beautiful, exuberant ode to America these days (Leaves of grass, 1999 [online text]) that was first published in 1855, when being an American was obviously a whole different experience than it is for Americans today, I wish I could feel half as enthusiastic about being an American today as he obviously did back then. Nowadays, I think that to be an American (in general) just means to be an overly materialistic; chronically-shallow thinker; who is (therefore) gullible to bad political influences and the wrong kinds of "peer pressure" (e.g., to smoke; to drink; to deface public property with graffiti); and whose only real religion is materialism and whose main reason for even being alive is just to buy more and more material stuff, and to be entertained (mindlessly) mostly by television. Given that cheery up-to-the-minute view of my nationality (fortunately, Franklin and Jefferson did not share it) qualities a work of American literature… [END OF PREVIEW]

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