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On Rhetoric: Baldwin, West, and Morrison

In: English and Literature

Submitted By hlee1131
Words 1435
Pages 6
According to Milton C. Albrecht, sociologists have not given due attention to the role of art and literature in societies; rather, they have relied on the more traditional measures in examining society. Nevertheless, many people would agree that literature has had considerable influence on society and vice versa. In academia, there are three widespread theories regarding the relationship of literature and society: the "reflection," "shaping," and "social control" theories. The reflection theory suggests literature provides a fair representation of society. The shaping theory, which essentially complements the reflection theory, suggests ideas present in literature shape the behaviors of individuals. And finally, the social control theory suggests literature is used to maintain and stabilize society. Though all base their arguments on different evidence, Baldwin, Morrison, and West share the premise that literature provides an accurate reflection of society.

Many experts studying the relationship have suggested that the reflection theory is the most plausible theory present. Estorick, a prominent scholar in this discipline, contends that the type of literature present in a society is ultimately reflects the type of ideology that society embraces in Literature and Democracy. Estorick discusses the evolution of muckraking literature into reform literature. Upon analyzing the social conditions of the day, Estorick draws a connection between reform literature, through which we expose problems in society, and democracy. He contends that such literature is "impossible to conceive" except in a democracy; he states the literature of fascist countries, for example, must be a “literature of conformity, which may account for the fact that German literature, with the exception of the exiled writers, is apparently nonexistent, and that Italian literature finds its outstanding representative in the bitterly antifascist works of Ignaze Silone" (Estorick 433). He argues American literature of social protest in part is what helps preserve the American ideology – democracy – although it reflects a society that tolerates criticism about social issues; he stresses "democratic polemic" (434) is absolutely necessary, for better or worse. In The Relationship of Literature and Society, Albrecht, another well-known scholar in the discipline, explains the three main theories through utilizing real-life examples, especially those pertaining to behavioral patterns. When explaining the reflection theory, Albrecht states that literature reflects "economics, family relationships, climate and landscapes, attitudes, morals, races, social classes, political events, wars, religion, and many other more detailed aspects of environment and social life" (Albrecht 426). He believes literature is able to embrace such disciplines because it represents settings and behavior patterns in their "complex interrelationships" (Albrecht 426). Furthermore, he cites evidence such as the analysis of movies that reflect stress patterns of humans. While he does not dismiss the two other theories regarding literature in his analysis (but indeed suggests the validity of these notions), he evidently favors the reflection theory and takes it a step further in his study, Does Literature Reflect Common Values. To test his hypothesis, he utilizes quantitative data analysis that reflects the distribution of family values occurring as main themes in short stories of three cultural reading levels. He then reaches his conclusion: widely circulated magazines reflect American norms and behaviors.

James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West all utilize literature in order to raise social concerns - especially those relating to racial issues. In his works, Baldwin emphasizes that African Americans’ social status make it virtually impossible for them to be heard; therefore, the importance of literature and the arts as a method of communication becomes paramount. Cornel West highlighted the importance of addressing race matters: in his book, Democracy Matters, West, with the belief that democracy matters and race matters are extremely intertwined, insisted that racial discrimination ought to be put to a halt in order to bring greater social equality, and, therefore, greater democracy. Toni Morrison’s worked also depict the despicable living conditions of African Americans, thereby raising concern about social stratification caused by extreme racial discrimination that was egregiously prevalent during the day.

Cornel West believes literature should reflect society in order to allow for greater democracy. West specifically utilizes his work, Democracy Matters, to highlight the uncomfortable truths in the status quo and stir up public discussion about the deterioration of democracy in contemporary society. Criticizing free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism, he argued that we must work to appeal to the democratic tradition in our populace. He pointed to the inequality in our society and to the disruptions of peace in regions such as the Middle East and Palestine and suggests that such issues ought to be resolved to allow for greater democracy. He also emphasized the importance of rhetoric and literature, which can serve to reinforce democratic traditions: he argued that “progressive democrats must come swinging back with a much more persuasive and inspiring rhetoric that speaks to the democratic issues of equality of opportunity, service to the poor, and a focus on public interest” and fight the conservative rhetoric (West 74). He also eulogized Emerson, for he demonstrated a genuine commitment to activism in his literature: Emerson writes, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness" (West 69). West also highlighted the importance of democratic tradition and the idea of democratic identity present in literature, as manifested in works of Baldwin, Morrison, Emerson, and so on. Toni Morrison believes literature should reflect society to cast light on the living conditions and behaviors of the underprivileged members of society. Specifically, she utilized characters in her literature to highlight the reality of living as an African American and how society such living conditions affect individuals. As Bill Moyers stated in A Conversation with Toni Morrison, her characters “tell us about an interior reality hidden from the eyes of strangers” (Moyers). In her fiction, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison depictd the lift of Pecola Breedlove, a young African American girl who completely surrenders to the “master narrative”: the notion of “what is ugliness, what is worthlessness, [and] what is contempt” (Moyers). In other words, society inculcates Pecola with a system of beliefs. Because she does not meet the beauty standards of the age, Pecola develops an inferiority complex. Pecola therefore desires and prays for blue eyes, which are unattainable but nonetheless are the vital component of beauty in that age. And with virtually everyone around her abusing her, both physically and mentally, Pecola completely loses her mind. Through the story of Pecola, Morrison vividly reflected the status quo and the social issues, from racism to child molestation, as she did in her other works.

Baldwin argued that writers have a specific set of responsibilities to society: to reflect on reality and raise awareness about social issues. In The Creative Process, Baldwin highlighted the importance of writers' exposing problems and finding answers. He stated it is imperative that writers reserve some time for themselves and reflect on the truth; he suggested that we cannot live with one another unless we are “willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be” (Baldwin 317), which he believed can be effectively done through literature. Baldwin's underlying premise in Many Thousands Gone is that literature should reflect society because it almost is the only way through which people could confront the reality. He expresses his frustration with the status quo in which African Americans are only able to tell their stories through music. He argued that the reality of living as an African American has been denied in the United States; affected by a sense of guilt, Americans had tried to evade the reality in which racial discrimination is egregiously prevalent. He stated the issue should not be overlooked, as it is a social problem rather than an individual problem. He acclaimed Richard Wright’s Native Son, as he believed it is “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America” (Baldwin 30). Despite the bitter reactions to this novel, Baldwin believed use of literature to highlight such issues is crucial and effective.

The importance of rhetoric in a society has been paramount. Baldwin, West, and Morrison collectively believed that literature could help reinforce our democratic traditions when used effectively; literature has not only given voice to the oppressed but has also provided the public with different points of view to consider. Consequently, they utilized their own works of literature to evaluate and express concerns about the status quo with goodwill in their own ways in hopes of ultimately forging a more democratic society.

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