Literature and Politics Today The Political Nature of Modern Fiction, Poetry, and Drama


During the past few decades, literary studies in the United States have come to be dominated by approaches that emphasize the social, historical, and political significance of literary works. This development can be attributed both to the exhaustion of more formalist approaches (such as the New Criticism or deconstruction) and to specifc historical processes that made certain politically charged approaches to literature suddenly more relevant, as when decolonization eventually led to the rise of postcolonial studies, the Civil Rights movement helped to spur approaches focused on race and ethnicity in literature, and Second Wave feminism inspired gender-based approaches to literature.

In addition, the waning of Cold War tensions that had made political approaches to literature diffcult to pursue in the U.S. was followed by the end of the Cold War itself, which not only made political approaches to literature less diffcult to pursue, but even helped to fuel a resurgence in Marxist criticism, the most politically charged of all approaches to literature. Such newly prominent political approaches have called attention to the close connection that has existed between literature and politics throughout Western history, while also bringing certain marginalized works of literature back into the cultural center.

This is especially the case with modern and contemporary literature, which often deals with political issues related to class, race, and gender that remain of clear relevance to the contemporary world of the early 21st century. Of course, much of the most political literature of the frst half of the 20th century was written from perspectives strongly influenced by Marxism, and the chilling intellectual climate of the Cold War tended to push this literature to the margins or to suppress it altogether.

Abrahams, Peter (1919– )

Born in Vrededorp, in the South African city of Johannesburg, the son of an Ethiopian émigré miner and a Cape Colored mother, Abrahams was cast into desperate poverty following the death of his father. He then lived the life of a street urchin on the wrong side of the color bar, but his fortunes changed dramatically when he discovered the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg, whose library exposed him to the African American Harlem Renaissance writers, from whom he took a fervent black nationalist ideology. He obtained scholarships to two leading Anglican mission schools, where he was drawn to the liberal Christian humanism of the staff, whose vision of a nonracial democracy provided a critical and redemptive perspective on South Africa.

The “new liberalism” of the period was developed by whites in the industrializing Witwatersrand as a response to the threat of black proletarian militancy, and it tried to convince the black leadership to abandon militancy and rely on education, moderation, and patience. This depended for its success on the gradual reform of the racist state apparatus, and was thrown into crisis as white domination rooted itself more frmly through the 1930s. Thus, while at school, Abrahams was converted to Marxism, which he described as a “miraculous revelation” that, unlike liberalism, offered a radical opposition through organized mass militancy to colonial capitalism. The three discourses of Christian liberalism, black nationalism, and Marxism (or Socialism) would weave their way through Abrahams’s writing career.

His second novel, Mine Boy (1946), merges all three to articulate a radical liberalism relevant to the militant ambitions of the black working class. Abrahams went into exile in 1939, arriving in London in 1941, where he moved in bohemian left-wing circles. He was briefly a subeditor at the British Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, but was increasingly disillusioned with Communists, complaining of their political intransigence and racism. He was instead drawn to the Independent Labour Party and what he called its “pre-Marxist” socialism, which was “Christian, humane, caring.” In 1948 he married Daphne Miller; they have three children.

The family moved to Jamaica in 1956, where as a supporter of the social democratic People’s National Party he achieved success as a journalist and daily commentator on Radio Jamaica, from which he retired at the age of 80. Abrahams has published youthful collections of short stories and poetry; eight novels, fve of which are set in South Africa; two powerful autobiographies; and two travelogues. Of his novels, The Path of Thunder (1948) shows the impossibility of cross-racial reconciliation in the face of Afrikaner intransigence.

A Wreath for Udomo (1956) controversially identifes the greatest obstacle to African development as a backward “tribalism.” This Island Now (1966) is a critique of neocolonialism in an island nation modeled on Haiti and Jamaica, while The View from Coyoba (1985) employs a Jamaican setting to fulfll Abrahams’s lifelong interest in the “color question”; it advocates a strategic retreat for blacks around the world from the West in order to build a confdent and independent identity. Some of Abrahams’s best writing is contained in his autobiographies, Tell Freedom (1954) and The Coyoba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century (2000).

Achebe, Chinua (1930–2013)

One of the most prominent and influential African novelists and essayists, Chinua Achebe’s international recognition grew from acclaim for his frst novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). Read and studied around the world either in the original English or in one of many translations, the novel dramatizes in an accessible and incisive manner the integrity of traditional African culture and the divisive, destabilizing impact European colonialism and Christian evangelism had on it. Achebe’s reputation has flourished due to the dignity and insight that characterize not only Things Fall Apart but also his four other novels his short stories, poems, essays, and children’s books; the many interviews he has granted; and his work as a broadcaster, speaker, editor, and teacher.

In addition, his essay “An Image of Africa” (1976), which describes what he sees as the racist aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, has become one of the most controversial and widely read works of literary criticism in the past several decades. During his career, Achebe has been a stern critic of colonial and postcolonial Western domination and exploitation of Africa, and the cultural, racial, and economic arrogance on which such domination rests. Nevertheless, he has been periodically criticized for being too mild in his strictures against the West and for writing mainly in English.

Certainly Achebe’s varied oeuvre attests to a humane vision that honors the arts and progressive contributions of many cultures—including those of the West—and that resists narrow political categorization. All the same, Achebe has presented a clear-eyed view of the cultural, political, and economic ravages imposed on the non-Western world by Western systems of power and influence since the colonial era, while casting a withering eye on the injustices and failures of leadership in Africa, particularly those in his native Nigeria.

Achebe was christened Albert Chinualumogu Achebe on November 16, 1930, in Nneobi, in the southeastern part of colonial Nigeria. The son of Christian missionaries, Chinua was nevertheless highly attentive to the vestiges of traditional Igbo culture around him. He showed exceptional academic talent from an early age and read avidly. His formal education followed the British colonial and church curricula available to promising students, and included study of African cultures and languages.

He attended St. Philip’s Central School, Ogidi, and Nekede Central School, and later won prestigious scholarships to the Government College Umuahia and University College, Ibadan, from which he graduated in 1953 with specialties in English, religious studies, and history. In 1954, Achebe was hired as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, which became the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in 1961.

In that year, NBC appointed him director of external broadcasting, and the same year saw his marriage to Christiana Chinwe Okoli, with whom he has raised two daughters and two sons (and who presently teaches, like her husband, at Bard College in New York). Achebe’s work at NBC came to end in 1966 when persecution of the Igbo forced him to leave Lagos. He returned to southeastern Nigeria, the homeland of—among others—the Igbo people, and in 1967 this part of the nation declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra.

African American Literature

A Man of the People (1966) is a political satire detailing the corruption of postcolonial politics, leading to a military takeover of a newly independent, democratic, but corrupt African nation, obviously based on Nigeria. In fact, the events so closely anticipated those that unfolded in Nigeria immediately after the novel’s publication that Achebe was actually accused of involvement in the coup. In the much later Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe further elaborates on some of the same dilemmas he raised in A Man of the People:

the ruthless drive for political power in an African nation, the processes that corrupt that power, and the heavy impact of Western influences on those processes. Still, one source of hope that may be discerned in the volatile context that Achebe portrays in both novels is the goodness and decency of some exceptional and ordinary people. Yet individual goodwill is clearly insuffcient, and while Achebe offers in this novel no elaborate model for African political success, he does make clear that the bane of so many struggling African nations is the recurring consolidation of power by autocratic rulers or ruling elites.

Badly hurt in an automobile accident in Nigeria in 1990, Achebe spent his latter years paralyzed from the waist down. He continued to be active, however, teaching at Bard College until 2009, when he moved to Brown University. He also spoke out on various causes and, in 2012, published There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, which renewed international interest in the legacy of the Nigerian Civil War.

African American literature expresses 300 years of resistance, reformation, and revolutionary response to U.S. racism, gender inequality, and capitalism. It has been most politically effcacious when leading or conjoined to widespread social justice movements, such as abolitionism, Communism and Socialism, civil rights, and feminism.

Black literature has often served a vanguard function in eras of progressive political change. Likewise, aggressively political African American writing has suffered from backlash: the post Reconstruction era, the Cold War purges of the postwar period, and the post–civil rights era of the 1980s and 1990s saw a loss of political significance in African American literature. Formally, African American literature often relies on repetition, revision, and reconstruction of earlier themes, techniques, and ideas, many of them also political in nature.

African American poet and critic Amiri Baraka has referred to this strategy as the “changing same,” a creative dialectical tension between tradition and improvisation. In recent years, African American literature has developed an international audience and a sizable commercial market. It has developed its own canon, critical schools of thought, and benchmarks; it has been especially central to the establishment of liberal multiculturalism in the university.

African Literature (Anglophone)

One of the most important phenomena of world culture in the second half of the 20th century was the rise to global prominence of African literature. This is particularly true of the African novel, though many important works of political drama have also been produced by such African playwrights as Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka and South Africa’s Athol Fugard, while poets such as Nigeria’s Christopher Okigbo and Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek have produced powerful political statements as well. The intense political engagement (often from radical perspectives) of much African literature injected vital energies into global culture at a time when the political climate was decidedly inimical to the production of radical literature in the West.

In particular, African novelists have engaged with the colonialist traditions of Western historiography in an attempt to contribute to the development of viable postcolonial identities of their new nations. African writers from former British colonies have generally produced their works in English. Among Anglophone novelists, writers such as Kenya’s Ngu˜gı˜ wa Thiong’o Nigeria’s Festus Iyayi, and South Africa’s Alex La Guma have written from radical perspectives heavily influenced by Marxism. Meanwhile, writers such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah have critiqued both the Western colonial domination of Africa and the corruption of postcolonial societies from perspectives that might be considered Left liberal.

Women writers have also been prominent in African literature, with novelists such as Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga producing politically engaged works that have been particularly strong in their treatment of gender and the plight of African women. Finally, the works of writers such as Fugard, La Guma, Peter Abrahams, André Brink, and Nadine Gordimer have occupied a special position in the development of politically engaged African literature because of their opposition to apartheid, an opposition that ultimately contributed to the downfall of that baleful phenomenon.

Achebe led the way in the development of the Anglophone African novel with Things Fall Apart (1958), a searching exploration of the destruction of traditional Igbo society due to the British colonial invasion of what is now Nigeria. Arrow of God (1964) continues this critique of colonialism, while novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) explore the chaos and corruption of postcolonial Nigeria. Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969) is another crucial exploration of postcolonial corruption in West Africa, as is Iyayi’s Violence (1979), while Iyayi’s Heroes (1986) focuses on the political context of the bloody civil war that wracked Nigeria from 1967 to 1970.

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