Literature now and then

How Stories Can Save Us
11-Mar-2013 By Professor John Ruff

The America fiction writer Tim O’Brien, in the last story of his brilliant collection of interconnected stories about a platoon of American foot soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, claims “stories can save us.”  Not our bodies, O’Brien contends, but our souls.  And I think he’s right in a number of ways.  Here’s such a story.  Once upon a time a young man named Henry David Thoreau built himself a cottage at the edge of a pond, on land a mile or so out of Concord, Massachusetts that belonged to his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  With a borrowed axe, with lumber salvaged from an Irish railroad worker’s shanty, with the volunteer labor of famous friends, including Emerson and Bronson Alcott, Thoreau fashioned for himself a place to read and think.  While the rest of country put its shoulder to the massive undertaking of development and Western expansion, digging canals, putting in railroads, building factories and forges, Thoreau read, thought, took walks, filled his notebooks with news about the weather and the wildlife, grew beans and baked his bread.  The most famous fruit of his labor there was Walden, a book to which we can trace the origins of environmental thinking in America--it is where ecocriticism begins, and where we find one of the shrewdest critiques of American capitalism and consumer culture yet written.

In his journals, we learn that nothing he reads moves Thoreau more than certain ancient Indian classics he probably borrowed from Emerson’s library, The Upanishads, The Vedas, The Law of Manu, The Dharma Shastras, and most of all, The Bhagavad Gita.  To students of American literature and culture, it can come as a something of a revelation, for some it might border on heresy, to read that one of the prime architects of American individualism, American as apple pie in his anti-authoritarianism and freedom of mind and expression, an American original if there ever was one, was in certain ways an intellectual knockoff made in India.  But it is a true, and there is evidence to support that claim all through out Walden

And why does that matter?  Well, consider how it might affect the way we read the writer of Essay on Civil Disobedience, which Thoreau wrote to explain his decision not to pay a poll tax that would support a government that would launch an unjust war against Mexico and countenance slavery and protect the legal rights of slave holders.  In whatever history of non-violent resistance you read, that essay is a landmark even as Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Apology are landmarks.  Scholars debate where and when exactly Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau’s Essay, whether it was at Oxford in 1900 or in South Africa in 1908, when he and others went to jail rather than pay a tax imposed unfairly on people of color there.  One scholar I consulted says Gandhi read (or reread) Thoreau’s account of his night in jail while Gandhi himself was in jail.  One wonders if Dr. King, in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, about to write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in the margins of a newspaper, though of these famous precedents.   Now there can be no doubt Thoreau’s essay contributed to the formation of Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha, which Dr. Martin Luther King himself would embrace and implement as a young leader of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.  King claims in “Pilgrimage to Non-Violence,” a chapter from his book, The Montgomery Story, that it was Gandhi who taught him how to read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as bodying forth a philosophy of nonviolence and love that could be applied by oppressed peoples fighting for freedom and justice.  Prior to reading Gandhi, King claims he took the gospel message of turning the other cheek and forgiving one’s enemy as applying to individuals, not entire groups.  That is a huge debt to acknowledge, as a Christian preacher descended from generations of Christian preachers, for being instructed on the true meaning of his own religious tradition by a Hindu leader, though I seem to recall Gandhi also acknowledging Thoreau on having a similar impact on his relation to the Gita.

That Thoreau influenced Gandhi, King, and Nelson Mandela is beyond doubt, and the impact of that influence in human history is inestimable.  Behind that long story stands, imperturbed, Arjuna’s story in the Bhadavad Gita.  So what is the point of all this?  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in a recent book entitled Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, makes the argument that education without the humanities will leave us ill-prepared to create a habitable future that is just and wisely governed; that the study of history, philosophy, and literature create such intellectual virtues as curiosity, integrity, and self-scrutiny, habits of the mind and also habits of the heart, especially empathy, without which a sense of community beyond the family cannot exist.  For Nussbaum, Democracy cannot exist without an educated electorate, and being educated for life means more than being trained for an occupation, and neglecting to acknowledge that endangers our development and the full flourishing of humanity and a just distribution of the world’s bounty.

By Pratibha K Singh,
Sr. Lecturer (English)


My wagon of reading has taken me to the magnificent world of literature. Entering into its realm creates a feeling of awe and surprise in me especially when I look at the acumen of literary architects who have made majestic and artistic creations with their power of creativity and imagination. Their craftsmanship is reflected in the grand, aesthetic and magical use of words. In this wordily world of literature, I have been to various lands and cities where exploring the terrains of poetry creates moments of transcendental pleasure and delving into the landscape of fiction provides moments of realistic adventures. The beauty of the scenes there is so enchanting and various plots so intriguing that all these experiences left an abiding impression. While travelling to its various places I have confronted many denizens. And there I found the dwellers so alive and some I found so strange that at times I had no option but to fall in love with them. For they have made my cry and laugh and at times given me surprise and shock. From them I have leant the art of living. And hence get inspired and enchanted by their tranquil teaching. I love to be in this world and be a part of this kingdom as it gives me peace and solace at tough times and provide me food for thought and thought for soul.

So why should then travelling to literature be confine to every now and then? If you ask me, it should be an inextricable part of everyone’s life, time and again.

For me, this is literature .What about you?