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Literature and its Affect on Society

All throughout American history, literature has played an important role in the shaping of the nation’s culture and ideology. Having an extremely influential past, literature indirectly affects the television world that has swept over the minds of the baby boomers and their offspring. In a recent survey compiled by students at Glacier Bay High School, there were unanimous results that supported the fact that television was America’s favorite form of entertainment, yet literature could possibly be the most beneficial. The roots of literary influence are imbedded in the very being of the nation and the citizens that call it their home. Through the bold and brilliant work of many influential authors, literature has dramatically dominated the minds and hearts of an ever-changing American culture.

Some of the earliest forms of literature are the myths that have been passed down through history. Myths directly represent the culture and time period from which they were born (Bercovitch and Jehlen 70). Ideological meanings can be assigned to history through the myths that evolved from a particular society. Present day politics has its roots in the mythology that was passed down through Greek and Roman culture. The myth is the primary language of historical memory (Bercovitch and Jehlen 70). The demonstration of the influence mythology has had on times gone by and the present is a perfect example of the powerful affect that fictitious words can have on a group of people.

As the new world was found and the nation was settled, literature has had an enormous impact on colonial style, which influenced the newly born Americans and the Europeans still living in the old world. Writers of the eighteenth century had two primary legacies: the romantic revolution and the historical texts, which included histories, sermons, pamphlets, diaries, and biographies (Bercovitch and Jehlen 149). With the birth of a new nation evolved a new American literary history, and the words of Henry Adams say it best:

“The old formulas had failed, and a new one had yet to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it (Bercovitch and Jehlen 145).

The American literary revolution was strictly for expressing the feelings and ideals of a courageous people that were tired of confinement within the ideals of society. The authors that would be born out of the revolution would portray the hearts of the citizens; the popularity of literature grew because the message of it was for every man and the impact it had on society was greater than ever before. The political and social ideals of the day sprang not from a political leader, but from the writings that represented the internal value system of the people. (Bercovitch and Jehlen 151).

Through the masterful works of many American authors, the way people believed, thought, and felt was changed. From the politics of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne to the sentimental power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the message of freedom to think and feel the way one desired screamed off every page. Two men that had a dramatic affect on society were Edgar Alan Poe and Herman Melville. The poetry of Poe, specifically through the example of “The Man in the Crowd,” inspired people to think more intellectually about their lives and their external circumstances (Bercovitch and Jehlen 221). “No other novel of the nineteenth century was so concerned with the actions and relations of the workplace or so committed to describing the process of production as Moby-Dick by Melville (Geertz 1)”. Melville changed the way people viewed the economic and industrial settings in America’s cities. There were much social and humane benefits to the powerful and profound works of these men.

A wise man named Thomas Carlyle once said that “Literature is the Thought of thinking Souls (Bartlett).” There is so much truth in that simply profound statement; the reason America has become a society obsessed with television and movies is because people have stopped desiring to cultivate their minds through intellectual thought and hard work. America would not have the literary past and social changes, such as the Civil Rights movement, if it were not for the genius abilities of authors like Ginsberg and Kerouac, and the desire of the American public to read. On the average, a person living in the United States reads about four books per year, yet the average family watches over five hours a television every day. What is wrong with this picture? People wonder why shootings are happening in America’s high schools and teenage crime is at an all-time high. The answer is quite simply the culture of the late twentieth century is lazy with their minds and their talents. If a computer cannot do it, it must not be worth doing, and if it takes away from personal entertainment, it is not worth wasting the time over. The garbage that is being consciously and subconsciously crammed into the minds of every human being is filled with carnal emotions that ultimately lead to destructive means.

Furthermore, is it fare to ask whether or not there is a social responsibility that literature needs to have on society is it fare to hold the entertainment industry accountable? It all boils down to the fact the every man determines what he fills his mind with. Just think of the positive affect that the television and movie industry could have on society, and take the place of the once incredibly influential world of literature. People do not like to look at their own faults head on, and if one is watching a character on a screen in front of them, they would not be as likely to associate that person to themselves as they would be if they were reading it in a story. With the illiteracy rate increasing every year and as the “I don’t care” attitude becomes more prevalent, the positive power that literature could have on society is extinguished forever.

In conclusion, many feel that there is still hope for the sick and saddened culture that has seemed to forgot what made it huge and powerful in the beginning. Times are changing, and it would be better to require the media to take the foul behaviors out of there programming than to wish that literary influence will again be the salt of the nation. What is gone is gone and there is no turning back-but one can take what they have the potential goodness in and enlighten those instruments to benefit society. The words that are said and spoken are the most powerful tools in the world, It is time to break free from the pattern of normality and make a change, unafraid of the opposition like Melville, who lived almost two hundred years ago. With God as the strength, nothing is impossible.


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