A stack of 3 closed books, next to an open notebook on which rests a ballpoint pen. Text: Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

Life Stories in Literature




we are what we remember

inside vs. outside stories


hidden identities & secrets


creating/controlling one’s own narrative

cultural appropriation

alternate life options

alternative selves

turning points/life decisions

when/how lives intersect

multiple points of view

rewriting history

change your story, change your life

How Pants Went From Banned to Required in the Roman Empire

“Six hundred years in the history of trousers.”

One of the most obvious functions of culture is the creation of customs about how people should or should not dress. Here Vittoria Traverso examines how, in ancient Rome, men’s wearing of pants gradually morphed from a sign of otherness (and therefore of censure) into a requirement for serving in the imperial court.

Fairy Tales Have Always Been Dark—Really Dark

“Despite the fact that fairy tales were grim and often violent, they were read to children in the eighteenth century to teach morals,” writes Samantha Larsen. Such tales comprise a tradition of storytelling used to teach children what their society deems to be proper behavior.

Folklore is philosophy

Abigail Tulenkois is a PhD student in philosophy at Harvard University and a research assistant for the Anansi Story Project at Harvard’s Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution Lab. She defines philosophy as a discipline that “seeks insight into the nature of such universal topics as reality, morality, art and knowledge.” Here she argues that, to remain relevant in the current social, political, and economic world, philosophy must expand beyond its traditional framework of thought by “an elite literate demographic” of wealthy, educated men and a few women.

She advocates looking into the history of childhood stories: “Folklore is an overlooked repository of philosophical thinking from voices outside the traditional canon. . . . Folklore originated and developed orally. It has long flourished beyond the elite, largely male, literate classes.”

Further, “The most obvious philosophical application of folklore is to ethics. Most of us are familiar with the parting moral lesson found at the end of familiar childhood tales.” It seems that her concept of folklore includes fairy tales like those discussed in the article above. Such tales communicate, from generation to generation, the beliefs and values of the societies that create them. 

How English Took Over the World

Language is the most obvious socially constructed aspect of societies, so much so that we seldom even think about it (and when we do think about language, we do so on our own language). In this excerpt from her book The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language, Rosemary Salomone examines how English has become the world’s dominant language.

English has become . . . the dominant lingua franca of the world. It is an official language of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, and NATO. Yet just as in Europe, English divides the world population in complex ways and creates cultural strains across the globe. As we will see, the ongoing impact in any setting has much to do with history, politics, and economics, which shape decisions over language choices and policies, most notably in education from primary school through the university. Those decisions, in turn, determine “opportunities and access” that socially include or exclude certain groups. English governs the books young people read, the films and television programs they watch, the cultural values they absorb, and their career options. As that reality has intensified in recent years, it has spawned loosely connected debates with decidedly common themes that continue to engage scholars, educators, policymakers, and the courts across continents.

Silencing of the girls

When I began my doctoral studies in psychology, one of the earliest books I read was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982), which describes her research about how adolescent girls learn to suppress their own voices: “I was taken aback by the incentives held out to girls not to say what otherwise they would say, and by the force brought to bear in making sure that, once a girl has come of age, her voice – a voice readily heard among young girls, a voice artists have heard and recorded across time and cultures – will be covered or, if outspoken, will be heard as ‘too loud’ or too much or somehow not right, and will not be listened to or taken seriously.”

In this recent article Gilligan describes how and why she has once again started visiting schools and listening to adolescent girls:

I am back in girls’ schools because I have come to see them as lab schools: educational experiments in freeing democracy from patriarchy. What this means is that the fight for relationship is a battle worth fighting and an inescapable part of girls’ education. To educate girls, it is necessary first to join their healthy resistance and strengthen their courage to not make what is a bad bargain: the bargain of silence that women make with patriarchy. And then to take up the challenge of discovering how to be present and live in deep connection, both with oneself and with others, especially in the face of conflict and disagreement.

Gilligan’s latest book is In a Human Voice (2023).

STARRED Book Review: Patterns by H.L. Gaydos

“PATTERNS by H.L. Gaydos is a beautiful take on how the moments that make up the story of a life can only be fully revealed with the perspective of time. Reviewed by Erica Ball.”

“In Patterns: The Mystical Journey of an Ordinary Life, visual artist, professor, and long-time psychiatric nurse Honey Lee Gaydos combines memories and collage art in a look back at pivotal moments in her life,” Erica Ball writes to introduce her review of what sounds like a remarkable book.

What piqued my interest in this review is what Ball has to say about its perspective: “From the perspective of her later years, these moments form important parts of the patterns she can now see in her life, and with this book, she attempts to explain them as they now appear to her.” 

This statement reminded me of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s statement that we live life forward, but we understand it backward.

When the C.I.A. Turned Writers into Operatives

“A new show about the Cold War, ‘Not All Propaganda Is Art,’ reveals the dark, sometimes comic ironies of trying to control the world through culture.”

Sarah Larson, a staff writer for The New Yorker, introduces us to a nine-episode podcast called “Not All Propaganda Is Art,” which aims “to illuminate the shadowy maneuverings of the cultural Cold War between 1956 and 1960.”

The article provides a link to the project, if you want to listen. But just reading the article provides insight into the relationship between art (or literature) and culture.

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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