SSAT Upper Level Reading : Determining Authorial Purpose in Narrative Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Upper Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #22 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Humanities Passages

"Poetry and Philosophy" by Justin Bailey

As the logical positivism rose to ascendancy, poetic language was increasingly seen as merely emotive. Wittgenstein’s influential Tractatus argued that only language corresponding to observable states of affairs in the world was meaningful, thus ruling out the value of imaginative language in saying anything about the world. Poetry’s contribution was rather that it showed what could not be said, a layer of reality which Wittgenstein called the “mystical.” Despite Wittgenstein’s interest in the mystical value of poetry, his successors abandoned the mystical as a meaningful category, exiling poetry in a sort of no man’s land where its only power to move came through the empathy of shared feeling.

Yet some thinkers, like Martin Heidegger, reacted strongly to the pretensions of an instrumental theory of knowledge to make sense of the world. Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur all gave central value to poetry in their philosophical method; signifying a growing sense among continental thinkers that poetic knowing was an important key to recovering some vital way of talking about and experiencing the world that had been lost.

The author is primarily concerned with __________.

Possible Answers:

arguing that given the current trajectory of philosophy, poetry will soon no longer be studied in mainstream society

enumerating the reasons why Wittgenstein and his successors were misguided in their philosophical approach

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions

exploring the contribution of philosophy to discussions of poetic method and appreciation

explaining various theories of why poetic language has the power to move the human spirit

Correct answer:

describing the mainstream marginalization of poetry among philosophers of a certain period before noting significant exceptions


The first paragraph states the main argument, which can be gleaned from the first and last sentence of the paragraph. The second paragraph introduces a contrast with the word "yet" and then proceeds to enumerate three examples of philosophers who made poetry a part of their philosophical method. 

Example Question #1 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836)

Whoever considers the final cause of the world, will discern a multitude of uses that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes; Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.

Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind, and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.

Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.

The primary purpose of the passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to show how man takes from nature and gives nothing back

to show how nature allows man to create beauty and language

to show how beautiful the features of the world are

to show how nature is useful to man

Correct answer:

to show how nature is useful to man


The primary purpose of the passage is simply to show how nature is useful to man as a commodity.

Example Question #205 : Comprehension

Adapted from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax (1910)

The big ranches of the West are now being cut up into small farms. The nester has come, and come to stay. Gone is the buffalo and the free grass of the open plain—even the stinging lizard, the horned frog, the centipede, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake, are fast disappearing. Save in some of the secluded valleys of southern New Mexico, the old-time round-up is no more; the trails to Kansas and to Montana have become grass-grown or lost in fields of waving grain; the maverick steer, the regal longhorn, has been supplanted by his unpoetic but more beefy and profitable Polled Angus, Durham, and Hereford cousins from across the seas. The changing and romantic West of the early days lives mainly in story and in song. The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era. He sits his horse easily as he rides through a wide valley, enclosed by mountains, clad in the hazy purple of coming night,—with his face turned steadily down the long, long road, "the road that the sun goes down." Dauntless, reckless, without the unearthly purity of Sir Galahad though as gentle to a woman as King Arthur, he is truly a knight of the twentieth century. A vagrant puff of wind shakes a corner of the crimson handkerchief knotted loosely at his throat; the thud of his pony's feet mingling with the jingle of his spurs is borne back; and as the careless, gracious, lovable figure disappears over the divide, the breeze brings to the ears, faint and far yet cheery still, the refrain of a cowboy song.

Why does the author start the passage by listing disappearing species of the plains?

Possible Answers:

To draw attention to the problem of endangered species

To compare the cowboy to other disappearing figures of the American West

To give the reader important context about the ecosystem of the American West

To describe the sparse economic resources that cowboys had available to them

To highlight the bravery of the cowboys

Correct answer:

To compare the cowboy to other disappearing figures of the American West


The author starts the paragraph by describing how the entire western landscape, including the variety of animals that live there, is changing. He then shifts to talking about cowboys with this transition: “The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era.” In this way, the author puts the cowboy into context by comparing him to other classic—and disappearing—figures of the American West.

Example Question #2 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from “How I Conquered Stage Fright” by Mark Twain (1906)

My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter, and I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theater. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theater forty-five minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn't know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage-fright--and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage-fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too. It was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I--was--sick. I was so sick that there wasn't any left for those other two hundred passengers.

It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive. I had got a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves through the audience armed with big clubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor. Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.

At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down--I was young in those days and needed the exercise--and talked and talked. Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them. Then I happened to glance up at the box where the Governor's wife was--you know what happened.

Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I know if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for her for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

The anecdote about the governor’s wife is meant to __________.

Possible Answers:

demonstrate the author’s capabilities

manage the audience’s expectations

inject some humor

reference a figure of authority

refute an earlier claim

Correct answer:

inject some humor


The overall tone of this passage is meant to be humorous and appreciative. The author tells the anecdote about the governor’s wife to keep the audience amused and entertained.

Example Question #3 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Narrative Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883)

The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down to "look at the river." What is called the "upper river" (the two hundred miles between St. Louis and Cairo, where the Ohio comes in) was low; and the Mississippi changes its channel so constantly that the pilots used to always find it necessary to run down to Cairo to take a fresh look, when their boats were to lie in port a week; that is, when the water was at a low stage. A deal of this "looking at the river" was done by poor fellows who seldom had a berth, and whose only hope of getting one lay in their being always freshly posted and therefore ready to drop into the shoes of some reputable pilot, for a single trip, on account of such pilot's sudden illness, or some other necessity. And a good many of them constantly ran up and down inspecting the river, not because they ever really hoped to got a berth, but because (they being guests of the boat) it was cheaper to "look at the river" than stay ashore and pay board. In time these fellows grew dainty in their tastes, and only infested boats that had an established reputation for setting good tables.

All visiting pilots were useful, for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat's pilots in any way they could. They were likewise welcome because all pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river they are always understood and are always interesting. Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.

We had a fine company of these river-inspectors along, this trip. There were eight or ten; and there was abundance of room for them in our great pilot-house. Two or three of them wore polished silk hats, elaborate shirt-fronts, diamond breastpins, kid gloves, and patent-leather boots. They were choice in their English, and bore themselves with a dignity proper to men of solid means and prodigious reputation as pilots. The others were more or less loosely clad, and wore upon their heads tall felt cones that were suggestive of the days of the Commonwealth.

I was a cipher in this august company, and felt subdued, not to say torpid. I was not even of sufficient consequence to assist at the wheel when it was necessary to put the tiller hard down in a hurry; the guest that stood nearest did that when occasion required--and this was pretty much all the time, because of the crookedness of the channel and the scant water. I stood in a corner; and the talk I listened to took the hope all out of me.

The point of view from which the passage is told can best be described as that of __________________.

Possible Answers:

an experienced riverboat captain describing his crew members

a tourist traveling along the Mississippi River on one of the riverboats

a man looking back at his early days working on riverboats along the Mississippi River

one of the river-inspectors describing what he saw when he inspected the narrator's riverboat

a writer who has only imagined what it would be like to sail on a riverboat

Correct answer:

a man looking back at his early days working on riverboats along the Mississippi River


In the last paragraph, the writer describes himself as "a cipher" who was not important enough to "assist at the wheel," thus establishing that he was working on the boat, but not in a position of importance.

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