American Ethnic Literature
March 16th 2015
As we expand the literary canon that we have previously known to include the written works of American authors we are allowing what we consider to be the essential literary works that should be read to evolve and include pieces that reflect upon a portion of the society that until now have been excluded in what was considered to be valuable literature. With great works comes great challenges and great responsibility.
For a work to be considered American Literature it should first be written by an America author. A work of literature that reflects the cultural and social values that are part of the American experience. There should also be included in such writing circumstances and situations that are American in nature, dealing with American ideology, events, and experiences. Harper Lee wrote the classic To Kill a Mockingbird sharing the American experience of the Great Depression and life in a predominately white racist community. This is a time era that is significant in the American experience and not one that is shared by any other nation. It is an event in American history that helped define us as a nation. American author Margaret Mitchell gave us the American Classic Gone with the Wind which shares the American experience of life in the south during the Civil War.
The literary canon is a list of written works that every educated person should know. These are pieces that will stand the test of time. It also is a promise of a prominent creative worth for the author when a reader is looking for a worthy piece of literature to read. In the simplest terms, the “literary canon” is a term used widely to refer to a collection of literary pieces that are considered the most significant of a specific time or place. The literary canon also forms a collection of written works that are connected and related in some way. It can be from a specific country, or time frame or religious foundation. This helps audiences relate to the events and experiences that are going on now or have previously gone on in society.
The American Literary experience presents a special challenge to writers. American literature is expected to embody the ideals of our great country, this alone can be viewed as a daunting task. To classify a piece of written work as American Literature it would need to include American concepts such as freedom, liberty, justice, and equality as the cornerstone of the work. These are the values and morals of our culture in America and as so they should be included in any literature to be included in the canon. To qualify a work needs to exemplify the essential American experience, being reflective of the world we have created. Take the American author Whitman who was known as a great American poet. Whitman managed to develop as an archetype of the ideal American author and serve as a precursor of our representation of fashionable values. He was well-known for his renewed viewpoints. Yet he faced many challenges as he emerged as a great poet. American literature is expected to incorporate the story of America by illustrating the innate human need to control and understand the situations and settings.
Traditional literature is commonly defined as being reflective of the ethos surrounding it. In America many various cultures are found as we are a blend of different backgrounds. Each author will define literature according to their own values and experiences. Each culture holds different things to be important and worthy of consideration. This is represented in their written works. American’s typically hold the ideologies of Justice and Freedom to be of extremely high priority and as a result these motifs will be reflected in the writings that are produced by American authors.
Any cultural group inside of America that has an identifiable ethnic background will gift American literature with their specific hurdles and obstacles. The issues and problems faced by the African-American population, while encompassing the American values of justice and equality will be seen from the side of a people who were denied such concepts for many years. The resulting written works will include a reflection of the other aspect of their identity. For the Hispanic-Americans it will include the cultural beliefs, customs and practices that are a part of their philosophy alone. Yet, through the written works of authors of Hispanic-American heritage the rest of the world can gain some insight into the innermost working of a culture they may otherwise be shut out of. Most academic and popular readers assume that Hispanic literature of the United States is a current phenomenon, having emerged during the last twenty-five years or so as an expression of Hispanic peoples; accepting and solidifying their “American” identity. (Kannelos 1995, p.1). This alone tells us that it is a hurdle for ethnic writers within the American umbrella to be taken seriously and considered to be valuable authors.
This works to open the rest of the population to understand the experiences of the Hispanic-American society but it also does not necessarily guarantee that the written works will qualify as pieces to be included in the American literary Canon. This is because the Canon is essentially designed to shine a light on the general American experience. This poses a serious concern as America is made up of so many different sub cultures yet the canon is intended to cover the general culture. In essence it is a blanket that is proposed to cover the entirety of American life.
In American literature that is ethnically based the normal concepts of liberty, opportunity and equality are addressed by the point of view of people who may have been victimized, exploited or used to reach these qualities for the rest of the population. Consider African-American literature and the fact that African-Americans were brought to America as slaves and it is their blood sweat and tears that were used as the foundation to build a nation on. The Native Americans essentially had their world turned upside down as the settlers displaced them, took their lands, waged war upon them and forced them onto reservations. American literature from an ethnic standpoint will show all of the bias, prejudice and racism that their culture was faced with. It is a miracle that a group of individuals would be able to retain some of their identity in the face of such unsurmountable odds. Young wrote that, “not only would African culture survive in the Americas, the African heritage itself would enable African Americans to withstand a terrifying experience, an experience whose dramatic unfoldment continues to this day” (1996, p.3). Literature is an important key to understanding the African-American experience.
Kanellos, N. (1995). Hispanic American Literature. A brief introduction and Anthology. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley.
Young, A. (1996). African American Literature. A brief introduction and Anthology. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley.