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Beyond Traditional Literature
Literature is a slippery concept to define, and over the years people have changed its definition. From the 1400's-1700's 'literature' was more or less synonymous with 'literacy' and was a characteristic of the reader. In the mid-eighteenth century though, we see a shift where the term ‘literature’ is being used more to describe the reading material rather than the reader. Since then, literature has been subject to many other changes, exclusions, and inclusions, and today we have narrowed the definition to include only fictional poetry, novels, and drama.
So there is a problem.
Poetry, novels, and dramas are only a few forms of storytelling, and certainly not the only forms practiced by women and other disenfranchised groups throughout history who used the means and material available to them. Some of the other forms include: diaries, oral accounts, scrapbooks, and letters. Why is this a problem? Because until very recently, the only people publishing poetry, novels, and dramas, were mostly males, and women had no public means of expressing themselves or their stories. If we value traditional literature for its ability to render the human experience concretely and help us to understand the mysteries of ourselves, then nontraditional literature is wrongfully excluded from our canon.
Women’s letters in particular give us perspectives on our world that the business and political letters of men during the same times do not. Some recount historic events, some give heartfelt advice, and still others give us incredible insight into their resilience and bravery. In 1776 Abigail Grant wrote a letter to her colonial husband calling him a coward for refusing to fight at Bunker Hill, and offered to trade him places so she could fight:
"Inform me how it is, And if you are afraid pray own the truth & come home & take care of our Children & I will be Glad to Come & take your place, & never will be Called a Coward, neither will I throw away one Cartridge but exert myself bravely in so good a Cause."
Literature is vital to human beings to understanding our nature, teaching our youth, and questioning the world around us. If we exclude work like women’s letters from the canon, we are limited to bias expressions of our nature. I hope we all expand our libraries to include more nontraditional literature and pursue a more complete understanding of our nature and culture.