Art aims to move. It is thoughtfully constructed to pull emotions and ultimately inspire some kind of kinesis, whether physical, emotional or psychological. Simple artistic forms can yield complicated, historical social change.
Literature belongs in this artistic class since it often aims for social change. Race, gender and religion are three cultural powerhouses scrutinized by the writer’s pen and its investigative ink.
In American history, race may be the most addressed issue within the realm of literature, especially the institution of slavery, an issue Mark Twain feverishly undertook in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” With his memorable American wit, Twain’s novel forced readers to consider the brotherhood which could exist between two seemingly polarized races. Scholars and critics continue to analyze the relationship between Huck and Jim, who unite two cultures on an epic and symbolic adventure. While Twain displayed the social stratification of a black man and a white adolescent boy, the American satirist wove a heartfelt relationship between two Americans who society thought should never have shared a moment together outside the plantation fields. Twain made this friendship possible based purely on colorblind characters. Later literary works expanded on this topic, such as Martin Luther King’s historically rich epistle “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and John Howard Griffin’s non-fiction expose “Black Like Me,” where the journalist underwent skin treatments to darken his skin, living in the segregated South as a black man.
Race relations in the United States are not the only fight for equality urging American writers to action. In the early 20th century, the oppression of women raced to the cultural forefront, especially after World War II and its subsequent geographical introduction of the suburbs.
Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” chastised the domestic repression of American women, who were prisoners in their own suburban households.
Friedan was not the first female author in the U.S. to encourage social change. Kate Chopin’s classic short novel “The Awakening” awoke many female readers and stunned most of her male audience. Written in the late 19th century, Chopin explored the female sexuality of a southern belle. Her work still has relevance in the 21st century as it is marked with temptations of adultery, the attractions of individual freedom and the imprisoning social expectations women. Other pieces of literature tackling this issue for social change include Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Hurston’s work, which Oprah Winfrey adapted for a television movie starring Halle Berry, focuses on the sexual independence of a Southern black woman.
Uncivil behavior homosexuality marks the repression of the 21st century. It is not yet determined which literature will push for this social change. Writers such as E. Annie Proulx, author of “Brokeback Mountain,” and Z.Z. Packer, author of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” have represented legitimate authors giving this issue momentum in American culture.
Not all socially-charged works require a controversial war or historical rift between two or more American subcultures. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” has sparked movements in Catholicism. While Brown’s best-seller is far from a classic piece of literature, it undoubtedly questioned which cultural values and traditions will prevail.
A book’s physical simplicity may seem unremarkable, but within the seemingly-bland columns of words lies the possibility for social change. A single page of literature can ultimately change the dimensions of any society. These typed words have ignited revolutions, stormed over oppressive institutions and altered the constantly-shifting shape of the world.