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Those Most Nearly Touched: Social Criticism In American Literature

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One of the most influential critics of the social problems in American history was Civil Rights spokesperson W.E.B. DuBois, who believed that "Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched--criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led--this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society." One of the leading vehicles of such criticism since the beginning of the United States of America was literature. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, American literature molded its history by changing social perspectives with authors' voices. Stowe's character changed popular American society's views on the morality of permanent servitude, and other writers have introduced new views into mainstream thought by providing social criticism of their generations through characters' perspectives. Three such writers were Stephen Crane, Flannery O'Connor, and Hunter S. Thompson. Crane's criticism of the nature of war, O'Connor's criticism of gender, racism and religion, and Thompson's criticism of the deterioration of American values were all voices of American generations and essential elements of the evolution of modern American society.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was a novel that exploited an underlying irony of the nature of the American Civil War and war itself, as it was the "first non-romantic novel of the Civil War to attain widespread popularity." Rather than depicting soldiers fighting for some noble and important cause, like literature of the American Revolution, Crane painted what seemed to be "loosely cohering incidents" that demystified and reshaped his generation's views on warfare. War was not dignified; it was "hard stuff. Men ran away howling. Bodies were strewn and torn. War, went the clichй, was hell." Crane created characters and scenes that highlighted the problems of his America's popular opinion of war for "those whose interests are most nearly touched." In Crane's novel, those people were the innocent young soldiers who were thrown into "hell" and bestowed with responsibilities and expectations of highly immoral standards. He showed his generation and generations of Americans to come the horrors and the true nature of war. By exposing the fears and inner thoughts of Henry Fleming in his new environments, Crane introduced America to the harsh reality that "the blue and the gray honestly don't ever seem too entirely certain why they're fighting each other." These were merely young men killing each other without really understanding the reason. Crane allowed America to understand the point of view of an innocent thrown into chaos. By doing so, he changed the previously romantic, chivalrous perception of war, and altered it into modern society's idea of war and appreciation of peace.

The short stories of Flannery O'Connor were also vehicles for social criticism of some problems of her generation, such as gender roles, sin, and racial relations. O'Connor's stories, written in the late 1940's and 1950's, were hard-hitting writings with a sense of deep despair as to the condition of the society that they described. She grotesquely illustrated the pre-Civil Rights racism problems present in her story "Everything that Rises Must Converge". The story, which described a conflict of interest between Julian and his racist mother on a newly de-segregated bus, allowed its reader to realize in the end that both characters were wrong. The mother was ignorant for being racist and living in her own "perfect world of sacrifice", while Julian was ignorant for blaming his mother for his place in life and for seeming to only take the side of the black people in the story just to prove her ignorance. In this sense, the ignorance in the story was met with a dose of poetic justice. Julian's mother died, while he will be guilty for the remainder of his unhappy life. Another element of her society that O'Connor criticized with her literature was its lack of true religious virtue and moral substance. She used multiple Christian elements to ironically sustain internally conflicting characters like Julian, Ruby in "Revelation", and Parker in "Parker's Back". Religious symbolism pervaded O'Connor's stories, like the "hot breath of the burning tree" that Parker met after his tractor accident, which was like the bush that Moses found. The tattoos that adorn Parker's body were absolutely symbolical of O'Connor's idea of her America's moral fiber, like the tattoo of Jesus Christ on his back, where he would never see it. The tattoo of a serpent evoked thoughts of the devil in the Garden of Eden. O'Connor frequently made use of the religious epiphany, or revelation, in her stories. In "Revelation", Ruby experienced an epiphany at the end in the pig parlor as a result of the events that occurred in the doctor's office with Mary Grace. Ruby witnessed "A visionary light in her eyes; she saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vaste horde of souls were running towards heaven." In "Parker's Back", Parker's conversion was one element of revelation in the story, but the real revelation occurred outside the bar in the alley when Parker contemplated his life. In "The Lame Shall Enter First", Norton's father experiences a horrific revelation when he entered the attic at the conclusion of the story. He realized that he "had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton", and had completely ignored the emotional needs of his own son. This fickleness and moral ignorance indicated a strong lack of true religious piety present in her society. Perhaps O'Connor's greatest legacy to the world of literature and social commentary was her contribution to the widespread perception of gender roles in her American society. Stories like "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" gave a generation of readers a new perspective on life as a woman in rural America. The grotesque nature of it and O'Connor's other stories



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