This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas C. Foster. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Why should you familiarize yourself with an author’s background before reading their literature? Why are politics so common in writing?
If you don’t familiarize yourself with the world as it was when an author wrote a book, you risk missing important political commentary. Especially in American literature, the role of an individual character is almost always politically charged.
Keep reading to learn more about political writing in classic literature.
Political Writing and Social Criticism
Writers tend to be people who are observant of the world around them and interested in commenting on society. That is why political writing is so common—a consideration of the class relations, power structures, sex and race relations, or ethical dilemmas of its time. This is a pattern you should be looking for every time you pick up a piece of literature.
If you neglect to familiarize yourself with the world as it was at the time and place the author was creating the work you’re reading, you put yourself at risk of missing the political and social commentary that is most likely behind the text.
Political writing is meant to change the reader in an effort to eventually change society as a whole. The story might question one way of thinking, while presenting another, nobler, viewpoint.
Poe and Irving
Not all literature will be overtly political. In fact, overtly political writing tends to be reductionist and lacks staying power.
Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving were some of the first to create a specifically American political consciousness through literature, though they did so in two different ways:
- Edgar Allen Poe used stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher to criticize the European system of classes. He characterizes European-style language and behavior as corrupt and decaying, and suggests that the inevitable result is madness.
- Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for 20 years and wakes up after the American Revolution. Although the society he sees is slightly disheveled and exhausted, they are free. They are in the process of defining their own way of life.
Both of these stories exemplify political writing that is definitively American because they question the features of previous rule and celebrate American freedom.
Especially in American literature, the role of an individual character is almost always politically charged, because matters of free will are inherently relatable to society.
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