It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.
Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.
In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly, that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.
In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.
And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?
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