• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

The importance of cultural context in reading classics

ByCat Tatu

Oct 7, 2023
a range of books on a shelf

While it is their very essence for classics to be timeless in their messages and themes, it’s impossible to completely remove them from time. Cultural context is of utmost importance in reading and understanding classics, it defines the author’s intentions, subject matter, and often the effect the novel has on a reader.

Take, for example, the novel On the Road written by beatnik (“beat”) author Jack Kerouac in 1951. Kerouac’s free-form prose and fast-paced narrative appears to be something of a jumbled mess to some. The beat movement in the United States was a movement featuring the ideas of breaking free from the normal, rejecting the standard narrative, and embracing spirituality. The 1950s were a time heightened by conflicting beliefs on these ideas of exploration. Censorship due to the Cold War was massive and other beat authors like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs found themselves called to court on account of the themes of sexual liberation and the rejection of materialism found in their works. The beats could be considered autobiographers in a way, especially Kerouac, whose novels were often inspired if not wholly based off of people he encountered and the experiences he had. Without the context of the Beat Generation, nor the history of Kerouac and Neal Cassady of whom the protagonist of On the Road is based off of, the novel is perhaps beautiful but the message may be overall incomprehensible. 

Aside from the history of literary movements and the lives of the authors and their influence on a novel’s themes and content, there’s a second point to consider. Older novels often contain biases that to us would be considered reproachable. This might be shown through the depictions of characters of different nationalities or races, the use of slurs, and the representation of harmful or damaging stereotypes. That being said, eliminating the study of authors such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and even William Shakespeare is damaging to the study of literature as a whole and instead an emphasis on context should be considered of great importance to exploring these works. With many of Faulkner’s short stories, having been written during a time of segregation by the violently nationalist Southerner that Faulkner was, have clear racist undertones as well as a plethora of slurs that have slowly been phased out in more recent publications. Despite this evident bias, Faulkner still reigns in the American literary canon as an important figure due to his experimentalist writing style and his importance to the Southern Gothic Literary movement.

There is perhaps one issue with reading literature as mainly a product of cultural context, which can be shown in the example of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. When Lolita was published, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind and the idea that literature and author are so intrinsically and psychologically connected that one can hardly be removed from the other, was a pretty popular criticism. Nabokov himself had many issues with the Freudian readings of literature, ones that were only heightened when Lolita was published and people assumed that it was, as Freud implied all literature was, a manifestation of Nabokov’s subconscious. Nabokov is brilliant for his subversion of the necessity of context in much of his writing. Understanding Lolita in the realm of Nabokov’s life and his experiences makes the book fall completely flat, and rather it should be understood as simply a novel, rather than a novel by Nabokov.

While cultural context is undoubtedly important in approaching most literature, we must be careful about how we apply this cultural context and how lost we become in the connections between author and fiction.

Classic Literature and Poetry” by squeezeomatic is licensed under CC BY 2.0