Luận văn Some Aspects of American culture and society in the twentieth and twenty-First centuries through short literary works

I was born to a family whose members are all business people except me. My father used to be a successful businessman who traveled all around the world from Asia, Europe, America to Australia. After each trip, he told me about the places he had been to and about the people he had met with vivid examples of their culture. From my father, I learnt about the beautiful Singapore city and Copenhagen capital of Denmark whose people are very well aware of keeping their city clean and green

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Part I: Introduction I.1. Rationale I was born to a family whose members are all business people except me. My father used to be a successful businessman who traveled all around the world from Asia, Europe, America to Australia. After each trip, he told me about the places he had been to and about the people he had met with vivid examples of their culture. From my father, I learnt about the beautiful Singapore city and Copenhagen capital of Denmark whose people are very well aware of keeping their city clean and green, about fast-food and the work-oriented and individualistic people in California compared to the out-going and neighborly people in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. My father has left in me the curiosity to learn about culture of the countries around the world. Besides, my father and my brother were my first teachers of literature who blew in me the wind of passion to study literature, moving my heart with the poem “Me om” by Tran Dang Khoa, “Nguoi thay dau tien” translated from a Russian short story by a Russian writer, “Chiec la cuoi cung“ translated from an American short story by O’Henry. These literary works provoked in me the love for men, the understanding of the people, their culture and the social circumstances in and about which the works were written. I am now a teacher of English at Haiphong Foreign Language Center under Haiphong University. For a teacher of English, having good knowledge of the culture and society of English speaking countries is of great benefit since such experiences do help to make the teaching and learning of the target language easier, more lively and vivid. It can not be denied that the teaching and learning of a language would fail if the teacher does not have good cultural and social background knowledge to explain to his or her students the situations in which the native speakers use the language or the social circumstances in which the language is used. Once watching the “Sao mai diem hen” and “Bai hat Viet” competitions, the favorite music tournaments of the Vietnamese on television, listening to most competitors singing all pop songs, which originated from the United States, it came to my question that “To what extents has American culture penetrated the Vietnamese?” Beside pop music, we can witness the practice of American culture by a large number of people in our country, especially, by the young generation, through the way they sing pop, rock, Hip-hop songs, dance and dress in American style with jeans and T-shirt, through the way we eat fast-food, drink soft drinks and spend money, through the way young people think more practically about love and money and so on. No one can say how much we have absorbed American culture, however, it is obvious that American culture has more or less had an impact on the Vietnamese. I have recently become interested in American literature, especially the short stories. When reading pieces of literary work of this genre, I have in mind a clear mosaic of American people, their culture and society. I find it very effective to learn about the culture and society of a country through their literature since literature is the art of words made up from the “raw material of life”. Reading literature not only provokes our thoughts and imagination but also enriches our knowledge of the people, and aspects of the target culture and society. The twentieth and twenty-first century have witnessed a breakthrough of American economy as the United States of America has become the leading power of the world, and especially witnessed dramatic changes in American society and culture. Literary works of this time in general and the short stories in particular have done a good job to depict these changes in the liveliest ways. Short stories do not require much time and effort to read. The reader can enjoy the whole piece of a short story without interruptions or even without changing his or her posture, therefore, he or she can have a more thorough and correct interpretation of the work as well as of the cultural and social context in which the work is written. I.2. Aims and objectives Doing this research, I wish to gain an in-depth understanding of some aspects of American popular culture and society in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through highly-appreciated short stories. Once at a time, I have chance to study both American culture and society and a special cultural category, that is American literature in general and the short stories in particular. People may think that I am too greedy to “catch two birds with one hand”. However, I myself acknowledge that this greediness is for the sake of my students’ advantages. When their teacher of English has a thorough understanding of one of the target cultures, the students would benefit. Instead of being taught about the language, they are explained about the cultural and social contexts in which the language is used. Thus, they could use the language in a more natural way and, therefore, engage in language activities more actively. I have always insisted that teaching literature in a foreign language is not for the sole aim, that is to teach the language and the art of language to express the ideas, but it is for the greater aim, that is to broaden the knowledge of the students of the target culture and society. With such knowledge, my students would be more conscious of their cultural identity and practice the target culture more selectively. I.3. Scope of the research Within the limitation of a minor thesis, I only discuss some of the most prominent aspects of the culture and society of the mainstream American in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries such as individualism, American informality, racial discrimination, modern American women, generation gap and American people in the turbulent ages. These are the features of American culture and society that arise most prominently in the short stories I luckily came across. The literary works used for analysis are the short stories written by recognized American authors such as William Faulkner, Jesse Stuart, Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley and the new generation of writers including Charles Bowden, Tom McNeal, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bobbie Ann Mason, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Nathaniel Bellows, Julia Alvarez, Akhil Sharma and others. Besides, I include one piece of memoir and a literary essay which I find helpful to support my discussion. I.4. Design and methodology The paper is divided into three main parts: Part I presents an overview of the whole research, providing readers with the rationale, the aims and objectives, the scope, the design and methodology of the study. Part II is the development of the paper, consisting of two chapters. Chapter 1 is devoted to the literature review of the subject matter which deals with the concepts including culture and society, literature, short stories and other genres of literature, techniques in storytelling, and short literary works and their portrayal of culture and society. Besides, the first chapter also provides an overview of American society in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Such overview of American society, along with the theoretical background in the previous section are the bases for chapter 2, which discusses the main issues concerning aspects of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries reflected in the short literary works. The explicative method is employed to exploit the cultural and social circumstances embedded in the literary works since this research does not aim at studying thoroughly the techniques of the writers. Part III gives the conclusion of the whole discussion in part II along with implications for teaching. Part II: development Chapter 1: Literature review In this chapter, an attempt is made to clarify some basic concepts such as culture, society, literature, short stories and other genres of literature including essay and memoir, techniques in storytelling and moreover, short literary works and their portrayal of life . With the understanding of such concepts, our discussion on some aspects of American culture and society in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through literature in the next chapter would be more precise. II.1.1. Culture and society For many people, culture is an abstract and, therefore, it is very difficult to give a brief definition of it. Nevertheless, culture is a very simple term to me. When we talk about Japan, people think of cultural artifacts such as “kimono” “shusi”, “gheisa”, tea art, and the hard-working Japanese people. Regarding Vietnam, international friends discuss our charming women in the “all revealing and all concealing” “ao dai”, “pho”, “Ha Long Bay”, “Hue ancient town”, the street sellers and the brave and intelligent Vietnamese who won the victory in our struggle against the American. Meanwhile, when the United States is considered, no one can exclude their hamburgers and fast-food industry, the jeans, the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the skyscrapers, Hollywood, the king of pop Michael Jackson, the king of basketball Michael Jordan and the “golfing genius” Tiger Wood. These examples are to prove that culture is not unfamiliar with us, but it is anything, both tangible and intangible, that we have, we think and we do. As M. Thomas Inge and Dennis Hall pointed out in their book The Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture, “Man’s culture is the complex of all he knows, all he possesses, and all he does.” (2002, xix) “All he knows” can be his knowledge and ideas of life, science and his explanation of the relationship among people, their customs, religion or so. “All he possesses” includes all his material property, his family, his relationship with other people, his belief and values, his personality as well as his talent. And “all he does” is concerned with either his material or spiritual activities. In the same light, Michael Kammen in his book “American culture, American tastes, social change and the 20th century” identifies culture as “the way of life of particular people living together in one place. That culture is made visible in their arts, in their social system, in their habits and customs, in their religion…” (1999, p.8) What Kammen meant by the “particular people living together in one place” is what we call society. In Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, society is defined as “people in general, living together in communities” or “a particular community of people who share the same customs, laws, etc.” Such customs, laws and etc make up a culture. Culture and society are closely related. We do not have two different societies with exactly the same culture or one society with completely different culture. Let consider American society and Vietnamese society. The two communities live in different parts of the world on different continents. With different geographical features and history, each community develops their economy in different ways, therefore, each country has a distinguished culture. With its origin in water-rice agriculture, the culture of Vietnam is often regarded as community-based culture whereas the American tend to develop their individualistic culture owing to their hunting, and farming origin supported by developed industry. Within the American society, there are many races such as white, black or African-American, American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander and ethnic groups due to immigrations from all around the world. However, when all these races live together in one united society, they share the mainstream culture such as fast pace of life, individualism, informality, modernity although their practice of these criteria varies in terms of degree. II.1.2. Literature II.1.2.1. Definitions Before having a discussion about literature, I would like to spend some words for Earnest Hemmingway, one of the greatest American writers, who I find some similarities with the excellent writer Nguyen Tuan of Vietnam. Earnest Hemmingway and Nguyen Tuan, who were restless, share the passion for traveling and writing about the people and places they had been to. Hemmingway spent his whole life traveling all over America, Europe, Cuba, Africa and wrote his masterpieces A Farewell to Arm when he was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during the World War I, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Death in the Afternoon based on his experiences while living in Spain and joining the Spanish civil war. Meanwhile, Nguyen Tuan, who is claimed to be an adventurer and a motionist of Vietnamese literature, gained great success in variety of literary forms, one of which is essays (tuú bót) with the works such as Mot chuyen di (A Trip), Vang bong mot thoi (Echo and Shadow Upon A Time), Chiec lu dong mat cua (The Crab-Eyed Copper Censer), Song Da (Da river) and others. These brilliant works are the result of his never-stopped watching, listening, involving and writing. The examples of Earnest Hemmingway and Nguyen Tuan are to prove that literature is the art of employing language as a tool of symbolizing what the writer sees, hears, feels, involves in and understands real life. A writer can not stay in one place all his life if he wants to sharpen his senses for the production of literary works. As David Stuart Davies has appealed, writers in general and story tellers in particular are the “magicians who can take the raw material of life, enhance it and mould it into something that both entertains and provokes thoughts” (2000, p. vii). This statement not only points out two of the many functions of literature and story telling, that is entertaining and provoking thoughts, but also reveals the realistic basis of literature. It is obvious that the ideas which inspire writers for a worthy piece of literary work often come from real life. Therefore, it can be understood that literature is a tool for the reflection of life and for the expression of viewpoints of the writers . Davies emphasized that “True literature is not just there to entertain…it is there to help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live that little bit better.” (2000, p. viii) As he suggested, a real literary work does not only provide readers with pleasure but also helps to improve their critical thinking of their own ways of life, their belief, their religion, which means their culture and “the world in which ” they live in, which is the society . In the same light, Norman N. Holland also stressed the roles of literature in providing readers with knowledge of the world and, moreover, with approaches to their understanding that world. He insisted that “Literature is not things but a way to comprehend things.” (as cited in Beaty, Booth, Hunter & Mays, 2002, p. xxviii) What Holland meant by “things” here is everything in the world around us including culture and society. Literature is not only concerned with problems of a culture and society but also reveals how the writer deals with such problems. The writer approaches the subject matters in one way and the reader may approach them in a different way but the thing is, the writer brings about his experiences and views of life for the reader to expose to, to compare with and to sharpen his owns. II.1.2.2. Short stories, memoirs, essays and other genres of literature The classification of literary genres or types of literature is often based on many categories including theme, form, technique, tone, length and others. Regarding the form, literature is traditionally divided into three main genres including prose, poetry and drama. Prose is distinguished from the other genres in the way the ideas are organized in paragraphs made up of complete sentences. Short story is a sub-genre of prose. Regarding the technique whether to use real or imaginary materials, literature comprises of fiction and non-fiction As defined in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, fiction is “a type of literature that describe imaginary people and events, not real ones”. The characters and events are invented to promote the writer’s point of view or ideology about life. However, there is still some real in fiction. As I have said in the definition of literature, a piece of literary works is made up from the “raw materials of life”. Therefore, there must be something true in the work. The “something” here can be either the social context or the features of the characters which resemble ones in the real life. This genre comprises short stories, novels, poetry, dramas and others. On the contrary, non-fiction, the broadest “category” of literature is a type of writing about real subjects although the characters or events can be imaginative or invented. “Under this umbrella term come autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, essays, speeches, travelogues, news articles and many more types of writing.” (as cited in Chin, et al, 2002, p. 422) The genres of literature used in this study are primarily short stories supported by a memoir and a literary essay. II. Short stories As the term itself suggests short stories are pieces of writing which are short. However, what is the criterion to say that one work is short and the other is long. In the Preface of the book Fiction – An Introduction to the Short Story, Jane Bachman Gordon and Karen Kuehner (1999) argue that a short story often contains around five hundred words. Those contain much less than five hundred words are considered short-short stories. And if a story is made up of about fifteen thousand words, people call it a novella, a short novel. However, what is counted here is not only the matter of the length of a story. Edgar Allan Poe described a short story as “a short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.” (as cited in Gordon & Kuehner, 1999, p. vii). Regarding the form of a short story, Robert DiYanni pointed out: “Short stories…typically reveal character in dramatic scenes, in moments of action, and in exchanges of dialogue.” From the scenes, the moments of action and what the characters speak to each other, the readers can understand the characters, which contribute to the understanding of the underlying ideas of the author as well as the cultural features and social aspects of the time. Like other types of story, a short story consists of five elements: Setting is the time and place in which the story takes place. The setting here means either the physical environment or the belief, values, ideas, traditions and customs. Characters are the people, animals or anything that the writer chooses to act in the story. The main character is called the protagonist and the other characters that support the conflict of the story are the antagonists. Point of View is the “vantage point” of the author from which the story is told. This “vantage point” can be depicted from the first person stand (The first person is the narrator named “I” or “me” that tells the story.) or the third person stand (The third person can either be an omniscient narrator who knows everything that happens or a limited narrator who is the outsider of the events and describes from the points of view of one character in the story.) Theme is the message of the story that the author wants to send to readers. The message is often about human behavior and relationship, human nature, conflicts in the society and the solution and so on. The theme can be explicitly stated or implicitly presented, which encourages readers to consider all the elements of the story in order to infer the message. Plot is the sequences of related events which help conveying the theme and the point of view. A plot is often developed in five stages: exposition, which provides introductory information for the setting, the characters and the conflict; rising action, which develops a