The quantity and quality of writing produced by those having served time at Harvard is apparent to anyone familiar with the literary currents of this country. One reason for this distinction is the extremely high verbal aptitude found among the undergraduate body, in part due to the attraction of the Law School. In addition, a reputation for producing good writers mushrooms the number of writers in attendance.
But yet a more important reason might well be the diffentation and assumption of superiority by the Harvard community, somewhat attributable to the Boston setting and to the preponderance of the upper social and intellectual classes. For most Americans, Harvard society is about as far removed as one can get from one's native background while still remaining in the continental limits of the United States. For many, being at Harvard necessitates a major reevaluation of culturally induced values and ideas.
It would seem that Toynbee's "Challenge and Response" theory of history, has application to literary vigor. To Toynbee, a productive culture is one of moderate physical rigor, located on a strategic frontier in conflict with another culture. There is much evidence indicating that a very favorable situation for literary production and excellence occurs when a relatively homogeneous culture with definite values comes into contact with a culture, usually larger, which asserts the superiority of its values.
This has happened on several notable occasions, usually resulting in a burst of literary creativity. It is significant that perhaps the greatest novelist, the greatest poet, and the greatest play-wright of this century, Joyce, Yeats, and Shaw all came from Dublin. This is a city located in a country with definite national and Roman Catholic values, a country in conflict with a larger culture claiming superiority, England. The Nineteenth Century Russia of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev in which the whole upper class become aware and submitted to the cultural superiority of Western Europe, especially that of France, is another European example.
In our own country, much of the literary talent in the past thirty years has come from the South: Wolfe, Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and John Crowe Ransom. The South has its own colorful history, way of life and values, all of which came into conflict with the North, a region claiming moral superiority and possessing physical superiority. Southern writers became increasingly aware of the value of regionalism and fought the omnivorousness of Megapolis the exclusive formation of literary taste by New York. This moment reached its peak with the Southern Agarian movement led by Robert Penn Warren.
Perhaps the most interesting case study is that of Mormon culture, an area of small population, but one which has producer an amazing number of good writers. Ezra Pound, Vardis Fisher, Maureen Whipple. Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto (the last two having both attended Harvard, a long, long, ways in all respects from Mormon Country). Like the South, Mormon Country has a very colorful history, established mode of life, and a much more definite set of values than even the South. Also like the South, and Ireland, and Russia, this has been a region in direct conflict with a larger culture, in this case, that of the rest of the United States which claimed moral and possessed physical superiority.
Art for art's sake is fine, but if a writer is going to have any lasting value and interest, he must have something to say. He must have had to think during the course of his life. If a person is exposed to the values of conflicting cultures, he is forced to reexamine his ideas and decide either to reject, accept, or modify his previous values. If one rejects, there is a need to justify one's actions, often in writing. If one accepts the values of the original society, there is still a need to justify, having been exposed to conflicting values. Pound, Fisher, and DeVoto rejected Mormon values. In Fisher and DeVoto can clearly be seen a marked concern for saying something (and justifying), rather than that with form and style. Whipple and Stegner, in large part, accepted Mormon culture but felt that they need to explain why they did so. There are a host of excellent minor poets and novelists born in Mormon Country, but writers of prose predominate: in this gendre there is more opportunity for idea-expression than in poetry's emphasis upon form.
And at Harvard, in a culture quite different than that of the rest of America, culturally-induced values and ideas are examined, and rejected, modified, or reinforced. Harvard serves as a focus of cultural conflict and this contributes to its production of many of America's finest writers.
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