Humanism in Literature: Ten Authors to Read
In his essay, “Humanist Literature in Perspective,” Dr. Arthur Dobrin, professor emeritus at Hofstra University and leader emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, writes,
‘Humanist literature’ is an ambiguous term. Does it refer to that which has been written by humanists about humanism; and what is literature? …It is my contention that without fiction and poetry, i.e., imaginative literature, a humanist is only half-literate.
Dobrin then contends that “humanists read mostly works in the social sciences, science, philosophy, politics, biography, and current events. Missing from this list is fiction and poetry.” He adds that literature is unique in that “it makes us feel what it means to be human, what one person experiences, what one person feels.”
When it comes to literature that explores the various dimensions of the humanist philosophy and way of life, humanists have much to choose from, including books written by Humanist of the Year recipients Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, and Alice Walker, along with works by prominent humanists Phillip Pullman and Salman Rushdie, and other authors published through the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Press.
Below, we suggest ten authors (in alphabetical order) to add to your reading list (if they’re not on it already) whose novels and collections of short stories carry humanistic themes.
1) Douglas Adams is the British author, most notably, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The series began on radio and developed into a “trilogy” of five books as well as a television series. His fans and friends knew Adams as an environmental activist and a self-described “radical atheist.” In addition to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams wrote or co-wrote three stories of the science fiction staple Doctor Who. His other works include the Dirk Gently novels, which is a series about a “holistic detective” who is concerned with the interconnectedness of things, and a posthumous collection of essays and other material, including an incomplete novel, published as The Salmon of Doubt in 2002.
2) Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand is described as “a novelist whose province is human nature” in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities. His short stories and novels are known for their depiction of oppression and poverty in lower social classes of the traditional caste system. His first novel, Untouchable, follows the life of a young man considered “untouchable” because of his work as a toilet cleaner.
3) Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century by TIME magazine). Hurston was, in the words of Rebecca Watson, a “New Atheist before New Atheism was a thing.” Her freethinker roots extend back to childhood, as she questioned the faith she was raised in as the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Her lack of religious views, as she described in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, are oft-quoted:
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.
I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men?
4) Doris Lessing was a British novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer. Her novels, like the famed The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, often focus on the plight of women and people of color during the World Wars, the rise of communism, and the beginning of the women’s liberation movement. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007, with the Swedish Academy describing her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire, and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”
5) Singaporean author Catherine Lim was recognized by the Humanist Society of Singapore as their inaugural Humanist of the Year in 2011. As they wrote, “One of the ways we let the society around us know about us and about humanism is to honor those among us who have lived a life according to these ideas and whose prominence and impact on society enables them to be examples and ambassadors of humanist principles.” She often depicts the role of women in traditional Chinese society and culture. One of Lim’s most popular novels is Following the Wrong God Home, which details the complex cultural decision facing a young woman who has to choose between a Singaporean man she is engaged to and the American she has fallen in love with.
6) Beloved British fantasy writer Sir Terry Pratchett (named 2013 Humanist of the Year by the British Humanist Association) is best known for Discworld, a comic fantasy book series, but his humanistic thought comes forth in other works as well. In the children’s novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the mice invent morality before they invent religion. In Small Gods, Pratchett satirizes religious institutions and the role of religion in political life.
7) American gothic fiction author Anne Rice may not seem like a humanist author at first, but the Pop Mythology blog argues that “all of her writings have a very spiritual perspective, and when viewed as a whole, her body of work traces the fascinating arc of a deeply spiritual life that has taken on different forms throughout successive periods: Atheistic Period, her Christian Period, and her Secular Humanist Period.” She also self-describes as a secular humanist although she was raised Catholic and has explored her beliefs over time. She is best known for Interview with the Vampire, a book in her popular series, The Vampire Chronicles.
8) French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was undoubtedly humanist in his thinking as reflected in his most famous work, The Little Prince. Presenting humans as born innocent and morally virtuous as children but prone to losing their way in adulthood, the story is essentially humanist in that it views people as inherently good, albeit flawed.
9) Canadian sci-fi novelist and TV writer Robert J. Sawyer was the recipient of Humanist Canada’s first Humanism in the Arts Award. He’s published twenty-three novels, including Calculating God; Factoring Humanity; Rollback; the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids; and the WWW trilogy, Wake, Watch, and Wonder. His books often deal with questions about existence and morality, especially in light of technological growth, as his characters make the right or wrong decisions.
10) American writer Richard Wright, whose work is often credited with changing race relations in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, was profoundly humanist. African Americans for Humanism cites Wright’s experiences at church as expressed in Wright’s memoir Black Boy:
Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen His creatures serve Him at first hand, I had had my doubts. My faith, as it was, was welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp, and nothing could ever shake this faith, and surely not my fear of an invisible power.
He is perhaps best known for Native Son, a novel about a twenty-year old young black man’s experience in an underprivileged neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s.
If you were looking to revive your reading list, this is a good selection here—though we’ve hardly touched on all of the novels and short stories that reflect humanism or that have been written by humanist authors. If you know of a humanist author or humanist-themed book not listed here, share your suggestion in the comments below.