How does literary representation of historical events help create our sense of cultural identity?

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Literary representations play important roles in making culture come alive. In novels, the author can create characters who embody important aspects of the time under consideration, place those characters into challenging settings, and make the nuts and bolts of facts come alive to the reader. Many people who would not read a history book will be drawn into the power of imaginative renderings of a culture.

Some literary interpretations of historical material have become so well known as to become iconic of the period and place they evoke. Leon Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example, remains the quintessential presentation of Russia during the early 19th-century Napoleonic Wars.

Novels can also bring the social dimensions of a particular culture into clearer focus through sympathetic characters. Charles Dickens' novels such as Oliver Twist called attention to the plight of an individual boy, but also informed his readers' understanding of the social problems of England's poor in the Industrial Revolution.

Furthermore, novels can take liberties not only with the facts but with reality. The genre of "magical realism" became a dominant force in Latin American fiction. The invented town, Macondo, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude provides a specific setting for the events through a century of Colombia's history after gaining independence.

In a similar vein, the horrors of slavery in the pre-war U.S. South have recently been dynamically evoked by taking a figurative concept literally. Colson Whitehead, in The Underground Railroad: A Novel, posited that railroad rather than a connection of contacts as actual train tracks going under the southern states. His characters’ hopes for getting on that train, and the travails they endure while enslaved, are brought to life through that fantastic conceit.

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This is a very complex question.

First, it is important to consider how many people perceive history. History is the study of past events, which often includes long-dead participants in unfamiliar locales who completed outmoded, archaic tasks. As a result, many people do not enjoy studying history, because they find it difficult to relate to something “outdated.”

Historical fiction, however, takes the outdated and creates a narrative in order to illustrate the same information. Abstract dates, places, and names are organized into a realistic story in which a humanized, sympathetic character experiences history. This allows the reader to connect with the real historical context of the story because it is more relatable.

Humans have always had a desire to tell and hear stories, because they allow us to make sense of an often confusing world. Shared histories among groups of people are fully realized in the narrative form. This helps to create cultural identity, because it allows society to work through its feelings about the past.

For instance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is often considered the quintessential American novel. The reason for this is because Twain captured the culture and time period in which the novel is set, including accurate dialogue and regional elements, while exploring the social issues of the time, like poverty, religion, race, and so on. The unique American perspective of the novel shaped the course of American literary history and continues to impact us culturally. Allusions to the novel are still relevant in popular culture today, for example.

In these ways, historical literature helps unite people with a similar background and actually shapes culture itself.

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