Cultural Pluralism in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Cultural Pluralism is a concept relating to literature, particularly in the discipline of education. This lesson explores the general concept of cultural pluralism and ways to promote it using literature.

What is Cultural Pluralism?

In sociological terms, multiculturalism is a society that has more than one culture existing in addition to a dominant culture. Other cultures may be tolerated but are generally practiced in private space and in designated areas. Multicultural literature is that which includes or focuses on other cultures besides the white dominant customs and norms.

Cultural pluralism, in contrast, encourages all cultures present to practice their culture in the public space, and openly acknowledges and learns from the positive qualities of several cultures. This is a more nurturing and open system that doesn't just tolerate the presence of multiple cultures, but honors their norms and practices as equal and beneficial, with the exception of practices that violate accepted society-wide laws.

Understanding Cultural Pluralism: the United States

For the most part, the United States of America is an example of a society with a single dominant culture, identified as white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Through waves of immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new residents were expected to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Sometime in the second half of the twentieth century, though, nationalism began to give way to more acceptance of some retention of ethnic and religious subcultures. Multiculturalism was introduced as beneficial to everyone in maintaining ties with one's home country and ethnic heritage and building a sense of community.

Having a society that nurtures and grows from the inclusion of all cultures would be beneficial in many ways. Literature is one of the tools available to help us move toward that goal.

Cultural Pluralism in Literature

Stories and poems often reflect the cultural context of the time and place in which they're created. On the other hand, literature can also play an active and sometimes profound role in effecting cultural change.

For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist and social activist in the years leading up to the American Civil War. She wrote her widely-read novel Uncle Tom's Cabin about the evils of slavery in the American South as a message to those who failed to understand this significant social issue. This novel did in fact have a crucial role in enlightening the public and changing attitudes.

The first step in appreciating the contributions of other cultures is to see others as people with value and contributions to make. Though Stowe's novel did not reflect cultural pluralism as we currently understand it, it did depict African-Americans as having something to contribute if given the opportunity.

Another view of cultural pluralism in literature comes from the literary forms and motifs that can be created through the influence of multiple cultures. For example, the beautiful and inspiring poetry of medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam reflects both Islamic spirituality and the sensuality of Classic Greek literature.

Persian poet Omar Khayyam reflects both Islamic spirituality and the sensuality of Classic Greek literature.
the beauty of medieval Persian poetry

Examples from Contemporary Literature

A contemporary example is Sherman Alexie's best-selling young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, first published in 2007. In the story, Native American teen Arnold Spirit, Jr. learns to appreciate the value of both his close personal ties to life on the reservation and the opportunities afforded through a mainstream education. The message for other young people reading this novel promotes the positive contributions made by multiple cultural affiliations.

Another young adult book promoting the value of cultural pluralism is 1993's Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. The story centers on an unusual friendship between two adolescent boys, one who is physically strong but mentally challenged and the other who is extremely intelligent but suffers from a crippling disease. Both boys learn to use their strengths to help each other and themselves. This novels reminds us that cultural diversity is not only racial or ethnic, but also encompasses different abilities, sexual identities, and religious affiliations.

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