Saturday, May 12, 2007

What is Literature?

edify - To instruct especially so as to encourage intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

It is not entertainment. Yes, it may entertain, but to my mind, to be literature, it must edify. It must instruct and clarify. Perhaps it puts into words something that we already knew on a subconscious level. Perhaps it opens a corner of our minds that we were unaware of. And perhaps it introduces an idea, a concept we never considered before.

Narrative fiction can elucidate equally as well as any piece of history, biography, or other nonfiction. After some initial resistance, I succumbed to the allure of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, a novel that addresses elements of my own heritage and, at least halfway through the book, concerns in part the Cherokee Removal (you know that as "The Trail of Tears").

My own ancestry includes both Cherokee heritage (a great, great-grandmother) as well as descent from the soldiers tasked to escort the mountain-dwelling nation to Andrew Jackson's proposed refuge west of the Mississippi. My mother's sister wrote a novel about that, in fact, and although by appearance I am clearly Scots-Irish, my mother's clan is clearly discernible as descended from Native American blood.

The protagonist of Frazier's followup to Cold Mountain is also Scots-Irish, but adopted into a Cherokee clan. In Tennessee, and in North Carolina, which once included the Great Valley of Tanasi, Cherokee heritage is today generally claimed with some pride, much as the rest of America now, rightly or wrongly, claims descent from emigrants from the Emerald Isle.

A few days ago I shared with Ann a passage in the current book that was as dense as the prose of Melville, the first great American novelist. But that quickly passed. Thirteen Moons is engrossing, and evidence that it is entertaining and still edifying comes in this passage that speaks volumes: What I wanted to do was slap him down with a bit of wit and words. Grammar and vocabulary as a weapon. But what kind of world would it be if we all took every opportunity presented to us to assault the weak?

May I encourage you to consider that this book, novel and Novel as it is, would be entertaining literature?

No comments: