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This chapter summarizes a range of different ideas about literature that all center on the identity of authors, their characters, and (in part) their readers. In each paper we find a close consideration of the way different groups interact: how they perceive and represent each other, how they talk to and about each other, and how they exert power against each other. Whether discussing the effects of colonialism in nineteenth-century Africa, the perils of assimilation for Native Americans in the early twentieth-century United States, or the economic parallels between slavery and whaling in nineteenth-century America, each paper takes seriously the cultural and political realities that underlie the creation of literature, and each sees literature as a force that can shape those cultural and political realities. When reading literary works, you should be attentive to issues of identity, power, assimilation, and/or prejudice.
If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to writing a compelling paper on racial, ethnic, or cultural themes:
In short, you want to ask how the work you are studying represents the identities of the groups it depicts. If you can begin to answer these questions, you’ll be well on your way to a cultural analysis of a literary text. Remember that you can write a cultural analysis in many modes: you can celebrate a work’s progressive representation of race or you can critique a work’s problematic complicity in negative social attitudes. Either way, you can write a compelling argument about race, culture, and ethnicity in literature.