Cultural Criticism and Mimetic Criticism: A Family Connection

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From Stephen Greenblatt's essay "Culture" in Keesey's Contexts for Criticism:

"Great writers are precisely masters of these codes, specialists in cultural exchange.  The works they create are structures for the accumulation, transformation, representation, and communication of social energies and practices" (440).

The kind of cultural criticism that Greenblatt explicitly talks about seems to be the companion to mimetic criticism.  When I read the quote above, I immediately thought of Bernard Paris's article "The Uses of Psychology."  In it, Paris said, "Representation is the primary interest of realistic fiction, and the two chief objects of represention are character and social milieu" (218).  As Paris says, to make a story realistic, he or she must make a character that could be a real person (because of their thoughts and actions) but also have interactions with other people and the culture around them. 

A good example of this interaction between the two schools is in F. Scott Fitzgerald's critically acclaimed short story "Babylon Revisited."  In it, the main character, Charlie, struggles with his present life because of the way he lived in the past (his excessive living during the economic boom that took place right before the stock market crash in the 1920s).  Charlie struggles because he partied hardy, which seemed to be a characteristic of the roaring 20s.  All Charlie did was take part in the culture, but he lost more than money; he lost his wife and child.  All of these factors work together to make Fitzgerald's story seem almost painfully realistic for the reader can imagine this really happening, especially in today's economy. 

What are some other stories in which cultural and mimetic aspects work together to create a more realistic story?


Read what other people have to say about Greenblatt.


Excellent example with "Babylon Revisited." That was one of my favorite stories we read for Am Lit. Fitzgerald was expert at bringing cultural realism to life, and the fact that it remains relevant today is not only outstanding, but a little scary.

Great job.

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I really like how you related Greenblatt’s focus on “culture” to mimeticism. I think you gave a really good example which helped prove your point. I’ve never read “Babylon Revisited,” but the way you explain it makes sense to me. I particularly like that the example you use is from America. Frequently when we think of culture, we think predominantly of the differences between American culture and some other country’s culture; however, this is not the only type of cultural differences there are. As you point out, there are the cultural differences between the 1920s and now, just as there are similarities between the two. Culture refers not only to positioning in the sense of where we find ourselves in the world, but also to the time period. You commented that, “All of these factors work together to make Fitzgerald's story seem almost painfully realistic for the reader can imagine this really happening, especially in today's economy,” and I think that this statement is important because if we consider Greenblatt’s second question in considering culture in regards to literature, “Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?” We’ll realize that perhaps Babylon Revisited speaks to the reader so strongly because of our cultural positioning in an economic downswing. So maybe while the work is mimetic, our reading of the text is predominantly affected by the fact that our cultural experience is so similar to his.

Jenna said:

To answer your question: In my spare time, I have been reading The Memoirs of Cleopatra (italics) by Margaret George. It is historical fiction, but we get a great sense of the culture in Egypt as Cleopatra’s sisters overthrow their father and we get the landmarks of the time, plus the relationships between the Romans and Egypt. It is a mixture of historical and cultural. From the mimetic standpoint, there is a relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra. People may relate to her longing to see her loved one. I haven’t been able to read this book since Christmas because of this busy semester and I can’t wait to continue reading it in the summer.

AngelaPalumbo Author Profile Page said:

That is a thoughtful comment, Greta. I think that many times, in a piece of literature, the author works very hard to make all aspects fit the culture and life of a specific time period. Fitzgerald's story was definately semi-autobiographical which gives it that "real feel" as I'll call it. The work itself is a actually very good and I'd suggest you read it once you get back from France.

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