Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


February 2011

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum

This American fantasy story about an imagined world of tin-men, talking scarecrows, witches, wizards and flying monkeys is a tale that’s been read by and to children for more than one hundred years. Although there have been attempts to ascribe political meaning to the symbolism in the book, it is most often read as entertainment – a children’s flight of fancy.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz tells the story of Dorthy Gale, an orphan being raised by her aunt and uncle on a farm in Kansas. On the farm, life with her dog Toto is a pretty bleak and uninspiring place for Dorthy, and she is plagued by the sense that somewhere else there is a more magical and special life for her. All that changes when during a tornado, Dorthy and her dog are trapped in the family farmhouse which is picked up in the air and transported to the magical land of Oz. This is where the main story takes place as Dorothy and her dog travel towards the Emerald City picking up companions – the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man – along the way. Each of them hopes to meet the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City in order to fulfill their own wish – courage for the lion, brains for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man, and a way home for Dorothy. Along the way, they are plagued by the Wicked Witch of the West who seeks revenge for the killing of her sister – the Wicked Witch of the East – who died when the Kansas farmhouse fell from the sky onto her. Thus the Wicked Witch sends wolves, crows, bees and winged monkeys to attack them on their journey which leads to the scene in which Dorothy vanquishes the Wicked Witch by throwing a pail of water onto her which causes her to melt. The journey culminates in the Emerald City where the travelers beseech the Wizard to help them, but ultimately he is proven to be a fraud (a hot-air balloon traveler from Omaha). Despite this, each of the travelers is given a talisman to help them focus their desires which helps them to fulfill their destinies – except for Dorothy who is told there is no way for the Wizard to send her home. Summoning her courage to travel one more time, Dorothy finds the Good Witch Glinda who instructs her that all along Dorothy has had the key to returning home on her feet in the form of a pair of silver slippers which she received from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East upon her arrival in Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted many times, most often under the name The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. The most famous of these adaptations is of course the 1939 musical by MGM which is one of the most well-known films ever made. Adaptations of the story take many forms – and most recently include the well-known book and stage musical Wicked which seeks to retell the tale from the point of view of the Wicked Witch. Several new adapatations are apparently in the works as this story endures in the imaginations of each new generation of North Americans.


Umberto Eco on the Infinity of Lists

At first sight we might think that form [list]  is characteristic of mature cultures which know the world around them, whose order they have recognized and defined. Contrary to this, the list would seem to be typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise image of the universe and limit themselves to listing as many of its properties as they can name without trying to establish a hierarchical relationship among them. For example, we might interpret Hesiod’s Theogony in this sense: it is an inexhausted list of divine creatures that certainly refer to a genealogical tree that a philologically patient reading could reconstruct, but this is definitely not the way in which the reader reads or listens to the text. It presents itself as a rather intolerable swarm of monstrous and prodigious beings, a universe overpopulated with invisible individuals that runs parallel to that of our experience, and who’s roots are sunk in the mists of time.

Yet the list turns up again in the Middle Ages….. in the Renaissance and in the Baroque period…. and especially in the modern and post-modern world; a sign that we are subject to the infinity of lists for many diverse reasons.

From The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay by Umberto Eco

Hesiod’s Theogony

700 BC

Theogony is a 1000-line Epic poem composed by Hesiod in approximately 700 BC. In it is recorded the genealogies of the gods of ancient Greece.  It is the first recorded cosmogony in the Greek mythical tradition, and thus serves to narrate the origin of the universe from its primal beginnings in Chaos and Gaia. Written as a hymn to Zeus, Theogony describes the natural world and the generations of the gods who struggle for power over the the newly-created world. In addition to the major and minor gods, Hesiod also personifies and assigns origin stories to many of the earth’s more challenging aspects such as Death, Toil, Strife, and Murder. Much of modern understanding of Greek mythology comes from the stories recounted by Hesiod in addition to the genealogical lists which populate his narrative. More than just an exercise in story-telling, Theogony is an early example of an attempt to provide a coherent explanation of the cosmology of Greek society – from its formless beginning to the ultimate mastery of the universe by Zeus.

An Essay on the Principle of Population

An Essay on the Principle of Population
Thomas Malthus

One of the most important non-fiction books of its day, and still a classic of economic thought, Malthus’ theory of population continues to influence thinking on resource use, distribution, demographics and population health – and continues, too, to inspire significant controversy and debate.

Originally published anonymously, …The Principle of Population outlined the Reverend Thomas Malthus’ “iron law of population” – that continued population growth would increase the supply of labour and drive down wages, ultimately triggering crises that would only be resolved by significant population loss. War, famine, and disease would signal severe population crisis, and result in widespread and furious struggles for survival until such time as the population was reduced to manageable numbers – only, however, a temporary relief, before the cycle repeated itself.

Malthus’ solution? Active state management of populations, through the enacting of poor laws, celibacy for those deemed ‘unproductive’, discouragement of charity, and higher wages for those who were working productively. Attacked as lacking in morality and effectively promoting an increase in social inequality and the use of state power to control the poor, Malthus’ book has for over 200 years been both a central target of reformers and radicals and a foundational text of classical economic theory.

The Raven

The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe

“The Raven” is one of the most famous writings by American short-story-writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe, the image of the raven and its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore” being among the most widely-recognized references in twentieth-century poetry.

Like so much of Poe’s work, it is known for the musicality of its rhythm and ominous, super-natural tone, telling the story of a young lover in distress and his descent into madness.

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from the years 161 to 180, and considered as well one of the most significant philosophers of stoicism, a Hellenistic philosophy concerned with the relationship between determinism and free will, and which emphasized the features of a virtuous life in accord with nature. His Meditations is one of the greats of classical thought, distinguished from other such texts for its personal nature. While so much of classical thought is contained in philosophical tracts, plays and epic poetry, Marcus Aurelius produced the Meditations as an exercise in self-reflection, to provide for himself a guidebook to his thought and his rule.

Comprising 12 books, the Meditations have been described as “plain”, “uninspiring” and “contradictory” even while recognized as hugely important historically and philosophically. But given that these are writings intended only for himself, personal reflections as much philosophy, that is perhaps not surprising. The books span a wide range of topics, from the nature of human existence to tips for daily living, but do not constitute a coherent or even especially original philosophy as such. They do provide, however, a profound insight into classical Roman thought, and that time’s ideal of the philosopher-king.

The Jungle

The Jungle
Upton Sinclair

In the early decades of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair was one of the most popular authors in the United States, writing more than 90 novels. A socialist and onetime founder of a utopian community, Sinclair was a prolific producer of novels, many of which were equal parts story and journalism, only thinly-veiling major political events to reach his audience. Despite his incredibly wide readership in his day, Sinclair is little remembered, his overly-journalistic writing style and the red scare of the 1950s combining to largely erase him from historical memory. The exception? The Jungle, which continues to be recognized as one of the most important and influential books of the twentieth century, not so much for its literary contribution as the immense and lasting political impact it had.

The Jungle tells the story of Lithuanian immigrants working in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, and was instrumental in exposing the widespread poverty, abominable working conditions, and rampant political corruption of the time. Published in 1906, the book is the result of weeks of undercover research in which Sinclair took a job as a meatpacker to investigate working conditions for a series of articles (the basis of the novel) in the left wing magazine Appeal to Reason. The impact was swift and far-reaching – as a result of the novel, the US government ordered surprise inspections of meatpacking facilities, which ultimately led to legislation that would establish what has been known since 1930 as the Food and Drug Administration.

Upton Sinclair hoped to generate national outcry at the abominable working conditions he had seen; in fact, it was the impact of those conditions upon food safety that ultimately got political attention, leading him to comment that The Jungle made its mark “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef”. Nonetheless, a mark it made, and today is remembered for exactly the purposes Sinclair hoped – its depiction of the brutality of America’s industrial capitalism in the early years of the twentieth century.

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook by Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing is a powerful piece of feminist writing that explores themes of Communism and the Cold War, anti-Stalinism, and the emergence of a women’s movement in Britain as well as sexual liberation and identity. Examined through the first-person narrative of Anna Wulf, a writer who keeps notebooks in which to record her life (the Golden Notebook being the one which ties the others together), the story realistically follows the lives of Molly and Anna and the people who surround them (lovers, children, ex-husbands) through the internal and external challenges they face as women of the late-fifties/early-sixties.

The Golden Notebook shows up on most of the “best-of” lists of the 20th century including the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, The Guardian 100-best list and the TIME Magazine 100-best from 1923-2005 list. Not only is this an excellent example of Lessing’s finer writing, it was profoundly influential in the feminist movement of the early sixties and continues to provide an essential insight into the lives of women during these transition points in British and women’s culture.

Culturally-Significant Texts? What the Hell Does that Mean?

This blog is dedicated to producing a list of texts – from theology to novels, chemistry to philosophy – that have profoundly shaped the english-speaking western world over hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. Continue reading “Culturally-Significant Texts? What the Hell Does that Mean?”

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