QUICK VIEWS ON LITERATURE AND SOCIAL CHANGE

[also see additional critical excerpts and related posts]

(1883) You may well think I am not here to criticize any special school of art or artists, or to plead for any special style, or to give you any instructions, however general, as to the practice of the arts. Rather I want to take counsel with you as to what hindrances may lie in the way towards making art what it should be, a help and solace to the daily life of all men…. Since I am a member of a Socialist propaganda I earnestly beg those of you who agree with me to help us actively, with your time and your talents if you can, but if not, at least with your money, as you can….

– William Morris, On Art and Socialism

 

(1903) [The novel] may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people, fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible movements that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations.

– Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist

(1926) …all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.

– W.E.B. DuBois, African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.)

(1932) As a group [revolutionary writers] are convinced that present-day industrial society is based upon exploitation and injustice; that it creates distress and misery for the many and brings happiness only to the few; that its dedication to the ideal of profit instead of use is destructive of everything fine and inspiring in life; and that until its private-property basis is destroyed and replaced by the social control of all property, the human race will never be able to escape the horrors of unemployment, poverty, and war. More than that, [these writers] believe that their literature can serve a greater purpose only when it contributes, first, toward the destruction of present-day society, and, second, toward the creation of a new society which will embody…a social, instead of an individualistic ideal. Unlike Ibsen, they do not ask questions and then refuse to answer them. Unlike the iconoclasts, they are not content to tear down the idols and stop there. Their aim is to answer questions as well as ask them, and to provide a new order to replace an old one. Their attitude, therefore, is a positive instead of a negative one.

– V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature

(1936) I think that literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence. It is this duality, intrinsic to literature, that produces unresolved problems of literary criticism…. I suggest that in the field of literature the formula “All art is propaganda” be replaced by another: “Literature is an instrument of social influence”…. [Literature] can be propaganda—in the more limited sense of my definition of propaganda; and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation. However, it often performs neither of these functions and yet does perform an objective social function…

– James T. Farrell, “Literature and Propaganda,” in A Note on Literary Criticism
 

(1939) The aims of socialist critics were propagandistic, and it was inevitable that they should be paramount in a time when American critical systems were divided between art for art’s sake, art for morality’s sake, and various compromises between those two exhausted theories of esthetic purpose.… “Propaganda” is not used here as an invidious term. It is used to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work “propaganda” is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally “propaganda” for something.

– Bernard Smith, Forces in Literary Criticism

 

(1941) Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, “purest” art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda.

– Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form

(1964) “In the last analysis, what we ask of the social novelist is not so much that he should reflect our view of society, but that he should make us see society his way” and that such novelists “look beyond [the national experience] to the universal human experience of which it is inevitably a part…. In admiring the novels of George Eliot, we need to remember that what seems to us the accuracy of her social observation is in some degree an indication of her greatness as a novelist, of her power to make us accept the image of society she presents.”

– Michael Millgate, American Social Fiction

(1978) The successful critic of society, it may be suggested, is the writer who learns the wisdom of indirection. He is the writer who learns to combine instruction with delight, without in any way compromising his integrity of blunting the force of his social criticism. Some literary forms are especially suited to methods of indirect attack: satire, for example. From the time of the Greeks onwards, satirists have invented a variety of ways to maintain apparent detachment and the indirect approach, while pressing home their attack. The three commonest forms are the beast fable, the imaginary journey, and the Utopian fantasy. The beast fable has been used by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes in the Frogs, by Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and by George Orwell in Animal Farm. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels provides a model for the imaginary journey, while the history of literary utopias stretches – to take it no further – from More’s sixteenth-century Utopia, to Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Morris’s News From Nowhere (1891), and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). It is essential for the satirist’s purpose to shock us into seeing our own familiar world through unfamiliar eyes; some radical change of perspective is therefore absolutely necessary. Each of the three devices, the beast fable, the imaginary journey, and Utopian fantasy achieves this end.

– John Colmer, “The Writer as Critic of Society,” Coleridge to Catch-22: Images of Society

(1990) I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably to social change. So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either-or proposition. Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up. I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.

– Audre Lorde, Black Women Writers at Work (Claudia Tate, Ed.)

 

(2003) I suggest that the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media…. It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say…. It is absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government to say that it is not doing what it should be doing to safeguard the right of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. We must be able to look at ourselves, to look at our country honestly and clearly. And just as we can examine the awful things that people do elsewhere, we have to be willing to examine the awful things that are done here by our government.
– Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War
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See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini

 

 

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Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Quick Views
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature

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