Purpose and Portrayal of History in Literature





Purpose and Portrayal of History in Literature

The collection of fourteen plays written by Walter Mosley and dedicated ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’ contained a fascinating account called ‘History’ that featured the story of and ex-police officer, Socrates Fortlow. Fortlow displayed a pitiful image of a retired officer who served over two decades for the murder of two citizens. Socrates ended up in a string of altercations with a group of friends and exemplary strangers (a burglar, a pervert and a war veteran) with whom he regularly held astute philosophical discussions on morals, repentance and justice. Fortlow also socialized with neighbors who, despite the odds, have assisted his community at the lower levels, like Mr. Burke, whose irritable spouse administered a rooming shelter for deprived African Americans, and Mr. Minette, who operated a self-sufficient bookstore (Mosley 34).

Similarly, ‘The Day of the Locust’ follows a teenager, Tod Hackett who perceives himself as an artist. However, he cannot do much painting while he working as a costume designer for Hollywood stars. On the surface, Tod looks successful and able to fend for himself. However, his own perception is that of a failure. Mr. Socrates also guided a local teenager on the ways of manhood and remorse while he was not working at a grocery shop in a different neighborhood. In the same way, Socrates had the odd group of friends and acquaintances, Tod preferred to interact with numerous Hollywood failures that hung around the stars with the hope of getting their chance at fame. His group of friends comprised of a cowboy who originated from the hills and regularly filled in for absent cowboy in movies sets, his Mexican associate who had a penchant for cock fighting, and Homer Simpson, a forlorn executive. This summary adeptly captures Socrates and Tod, the main characters in the series of short stories by Walter Mosley and Nathanael West.

In itself, history holds a great significance for writers in the literature sector as it offers a background from which artists can pick out themes, study past protégés and generally make comparisons with real life occurrences. Consequently, artists also use elements in history to shape the plot and character within their different works. Apart from the fact that using historical material would serve to authenticate the publication, numerous authors use complex and detailed historical backgrounds as way of building the plot and add flesh to the structure of every character. This was the case with the short story titled ‘History’ by Walter Mosley as far as Socrates Fortlow was concerned (Mosley 14). In the following analysis, a comparison between two main characters in different publications will be conducted with the main purpose of realizing the value of history as well as how this value was brought out by the respective authors.

In the short story that is aptly titled ‘History’, Socrates Fortlow has amassed a wealth of experiences, met many people and practiced several professions. His account of these different life changes are appropriately covered by the author throughout the book. However, the analysis is more interested in the relevance of history in Fortlow’s life as well as how this relevance was brought out in the text. Historically, Socrates has experienced several life-changing dilemmas that have shaped him into a morally upright man in the new society. When he was previously incarcerated from 27 years, he had the time to right his wrongs and make himself a better man (Mosley 21). Likewise, his struggles in getting a legal form of employment and income have been captured in detail in the account. Socrates dwells a lot on his past rather than the present or even the future since this is the most active and dramatic part of his life. For the better part of his youth, Socrates had been incarcerated and as this is usually the most memorable part for human beings, Socrates was bound to refer to his youthful days even when he was approaching midlife.

Within the plot, Socrates’ history finds a good opportunity to illustrate the extent to which Socrates regretted his earlier choices. Historically, Socrates had experiences several moral dilemmas including his own arrival into the city that happened eight years ago. In a similar way, when the community was thrown into chaos, history reminded him of the same situation he was. After seeing first hand the extent of the damage, Socrates finally caves in to his emotions and decided to plunge in and save the victims. In this particular scene, the destruction of his favorite bookshop, the Capricorn Bookshop triggered his actions to help salvage the community. For Socrates, the library provided an escape and a safe haven that could only be provided by literature and finding that the bookstore was destroyed signified the end of tranquility and order in his life. In this context, Socrates considered history and literature to be important factors that guided his everyday life and gave him a reason to live (Mosley 36). The authors in these two major publications had several intention and motivations when writing their books. In ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’, it was evident that Walter Mosley had several explicit messages. One of them was to highlight the plight of African Americans living in foreign countries especially the United States. Furthermore, his message was directed at peoples’ perceptions of African American police officers. Other themes included retribution, morality and incarceration. In ‘The Day of the Locust’, Tod was used in a similar manner to Socrates to bring out almost comparable themes (West 29).

Nathanael West took up the role of a whistleblower in his book ‘The Day of the Locust’ and successfully managed to expose the nature of the relationship among other artists who failed to successd in Hollywood. While quite a serious painter, Nathanael focuses on the failures of Tod to make it onto one of the Hollywood sets as a full time, professional painter. Instead, he ends up doing a peripheral job as a backdrop painter on the same set (West 18). Likewise, he is surrounded by other failures that eagerly wait for any remnants from the main actors to drop their way. Nathanael saw it as his duty to bring out this plight among theater prospects using a carefully plotted book that hid the message behind an interesting plot. As a nation, America has been famed as the ‘land of opportunity’ particularly in the creative arts sector. On a daily basis, many upcoming artists travel to Hollywood with the plan of succeeding as an actor, painter or in any other art. Unfortunately, most of these individuals fail to realize their aspirations and end up doing other jobs instead of practicing their art. Nathanael realized this phenomenon in the industry and as a fellow artist, sought to unearth the experiences through the eyes of a young teenager (West 23).


Art and literature are very valuable to an individual and society in different ways. One, both art and literature offer an escape from the harsh realities of the actual world into a superficial world created and shaped by the confines of the specific art or literature in question. Numerous genres and sub-genres of music, plays and novels exist as well as other forms of art and literature that address all the themes in human existence (Smith 189). With the complexities of the current global lifestyle, art and literature step in to offer an escape from the daily pressures and obligations into an organized, predictable world that may be fictional or real, romantic or scientific. Books such as Macbeth by Shakespeare or The Chronicles of Narnia have been acknowledged globally as providing an escape for children and adults likewise.

For me, art and literature also offers an opportunity to explore the works of different, talented artists and writers from across the globe. Through these two channels, I have the opportunity to explore the mindset and ideas of great people such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Walter Mosley not to mention the millions of artists and writers that crop up daily. The diversity that exists between these two forms of creativity and expression is enough to keep anyone occupied for a long period (Smith 56). Lastly, I perceive art and literature as a way through which I can better my general knowledge on different aspects of life. Works of art and literature contain two important elements that I constantly seek out. The factual evidence covered in real-life illustrations of art and literature act as a library that I can peruse and study at will. Novels that contain graphic and historically accurate accounts of World War I and II such as Winged Victory by Yeates and The Sable Doughboys by Tom Willard are usually informative. In conclusion, the purpose of art may be abstract in nature but does not necessarily imply that its purpose is indistinct. Rather, it points towards the fact that art has several unique roles for which they are created.










Work Cited

Mosley, Walter. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.

Smith, Anna D. Talk to Me: Listening between the Lines. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Smith, Anna D. Twilight–Los Angeles, 1992. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service, 2003. Print.

West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. New York: Time Inc, 1965. Print.

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