What might be gained by knowing about an authors cultural background?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate an artist from his/her art.  Afterall, people's perspectives are shaped by their experiences, are they not?  Such an author as John Steinbeck, for instance, pours much of his experience and beliefs into his novels.  Having been born in the Salinas Valley in California--the setting for "Of Mice and Men," Steinbeck grew up in a middle-class home.  However, according to his biographer, Jay Parini, as Steinbeck witnessed the poor lower class he developed guilt feelings about his middle-class; this guilt lead him to his socialistic ideas ideas put forth  in "Grapes of Wrath" as well as in "Of Mice and Men."  In others novels, such as "East of Eden," Steinbeck portrays women as an Eve-type.  This portrayal of women, Parini contends, is a result of his conflicts with a mother who was a perfectionist and not easily satisfied.

Another author whose experiences are background in the tableaux of his novels is Ernest Hemingway.  "A Farewell to Arms," for example, reflects Hemingway's own experiences as a World War I ambulance driver.  His "The Sun Also Rises" is set in Spain where Hemingway aided the Spanish in their revolt.  there,too, Heminway delighted in the bull fight.  Many of his short stories, such as "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" reflect, too, his adventures in hunting wild game. And, of course, the Nick Adams stories have much of Ernest Hemingway's knowledge of the Michigan woods in them.

There is an authenticity that permeates the writings of authors who have experienced about that which they write.  What reader cannot detect James Joyces's bitterness toward the British control of jobs and his resentment of what he felt was the stultifying control of the Catholic Church in his "The Dubliners"?  What reader cannot sense the authenticity of the era in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"? 

Literature has been defined as "the human experience."  It is the outpourings of the artist's heart and soul.  To know about the personal background of this artist, therefore, only makes sense.

By the way, enotes provides this much-needed background on authors in its sites such as the Salem Literature sites. Please take advantage of them.  Three such sites are listed below.

afi80fl's profile pic

afi80fl | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Many things can be gained by knowing an author's cultural background.  For one, you have better insight into their past experiences, which often influence what an author writes about.  Next, you can put things into perspective.  For example, the author is writing from their cultural point of view, and understanding this might help you gain some extra insight into the particular time or events which might have influenced the text you're reading.

Also, knowing what an author has been through culturally can be a great way to understand the tone, which refers to the way in which an author's feelings and thoughts come out through what they write. 

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