Where does Science fit in with American Literature?

After conducting research on scientific literature, I have reached the conclusion that a high quality work of literature dealing with science can achieve one of two things, but not both: a work of scientific literature can either have a profound effect on culture through the spread of compelling information that appeals to the common reader, or it can be of high aesthetic quality and leave its mark on the American literary canon. It is impossible for a work of literature to accomplish both feats, as the writing process that goes into each one is mutually exclusive with the other. In order for a work to successfully spread scientific information, it must sacrifice any attempt at high aesthetic quality in the interest of presenting the information in a way that is accessible to any reader. On the other side of the coin, in order for a work involving science to achieve the kind of aesthetic quality necessary to earn it a place in the canon, it must not be consumed by its scientific subject matter, but rather use the scientific concept it deals with as one of multiple inter-playing motifs. For example, In his essay “Literature and science: the next generation” Bruce Clark explores the highly anthologized Ezra Pound’s venture into science: “Pound’s enduring commitment to Vorticism’s goals forty years after its short life ended, and his desire to see Vorticism reinvigorated illuminates the interplay of science and [literary] culture in the modernist period in general, and Pound’s own work in particular. As developed by physicists Hermann Helmholtz, William Thomson, Balfour Stewart, and P. G. Tait, the vortex offered a model of the atom that connected matter, energy, and spirit in a physical and metaphysical synthesis that, despite its eventual demise in twentieth-century science, proved irresistible to the modernist poet. In the end, Pound’s project in the arts can be likened to the physicist’s search for a ‘grand unified theory’ that could explain and make sense of all known natural laws.” (Clark). While Pound is hardly famous for spreading information about the physics that go into a vortex, he is recognized for his compelling use of the vortex concept as a literary motif. Had Pound instead examined the physics of a vortex in plain language, nobody concerned with canonicity of Modernist literature would even think twice of his piece.

The two authors I will deal with to provide examples of these contrasting ideas I have asserted are Richard Preston and Kurt Vonnegut. In the context of this presentation, Preston represents the author of scientific literature that spreads information (and in this case fear) effectively to the masses of America, while Vonnegut represents the author who uses science as the backdrop of works that have unique aesthetic quality that place them in the canon of American literature.

Richard Preston

Kurt Vonnegut

Introduction and Reading

Kurt Vonnegut: A canonical scientific author

Richard Preston: A cultural scientific author

Official CDC website Ebola page

Works Cited




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