(Docteur de l'Universite de Paris) is Professor Emeritus of Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.
How to Discover a Culture in its Literature: Examples from Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Pagnol
Version of Record online: 31 DEC 2008
© 1996 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
Foreign Language Annals
Volume 29, Issue 1, pages 19–26, March 1996
How to Cite
Nostrand, H. L. (1996), How to Discover a Culture in its Literature: Examples from Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Pagnol. Foreign Language Annals, 29: 19–26. doi: 10.1111/j.1944-9720.1996.tb00839.x
- Issue online: 31 DEC 2008
- Version of Record online: 31 DEC 2008
ABSTRACT The arts are the truly authentic expression of culture, and literature is the most explicit, the richest in verifiable evidence. Literature becomes even more rewarding when the author is one who rises above the received ideas to see the culture critically, as do Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Pagnol.
Situations from short stories of the two American writers, and an autobiographical film of Pagnol, are searched for evidence of the culture their authors represent. The approach proposed for this kind of inquiry assumes that the key to understanding what one sees at the surface–behavior, social relations, institutions, etc.–is to be found in the culture's underlying value system, which includes characteristic habits of mind and prevalent assumptions about human nature and society. This system evolves only at a rhythm of generations or even centuries, so that the culture has a persistent identity. The parts of the system color one another's meaning as they reinforce or limit one another, so that each culture is unique.
Provided we keep in balance the appreciation of literature's other aspects, this approach to its cultural underpinning can lead to perspective on a person's native culture, empathy toward other cultures, and awareness of one's own personal values.
Lacking from this perspective, however, are a needed awareness of non-Western cultures, and the needed dimension of time. Brief selections from Latin and Greek literature can provide the latter, and the Athenian culture offers much more from which we can benefit.
The annotated References comprise a first group concerning the integrating of an effective cultural component into language teaching (References A), and a second group on the value system of American culture (References B). For the French value system, an inventory is available in a book that also contains thorough bibliographies.