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Robert M. Dowling
John Roderigo Dos Passos was a major twentieth-century American novelist and self-styled “chronicler” of the American scene. He is best known for his contributions to the literary avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the U.S.A. trilogy—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). The most influential American reviewers of the early to mid-twentieth century, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Granville Hicks, all welcomed Dos Passos as a foremost contributor to the modern American tradition. Dos Passos combined the artistic practices of literary naturalism and modernism and, significantly, foresaw many of the literary agendas that dominated postmodern writing in the late twentieth century. Just before the eruption of World War II, Dos Passos effected a notorious shift in his political views from radical to reactionary and subsequently alienated many friends and critics on the Left. By the 1950s—a period in which literary stature depended largely on the extent to which an author challenged, rather than affirmed, the conservative establishment—Dos Passos had fallen so low in the eyes of the literary elite that James T. Farrell ironically remarked, “Dos Passos's liberalism has so decayed that his lifetime of work is not as important as two short stories and a wooden novel by Lionel Trilling.” Trilling's single novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), is no longer widely read, and Dos Passos's work is—but definitely not his lifetime's worth.
Any writer attempting an overview of Frederick Douglass's life and work confronts an embarrassment of riches: Douglass himself undertook the task not once but three times—in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), a volume itself reprinted with additional material in 1892. Each book is rewarding in its own right, each sums up a distinct phase in Douglass's long and astonishingly productive career, and together they give us an indispensable record of the nineteenth century: of the abolition movement; the meteoric rise of the Republican Party; the Civil War, Reconstruction; and beginning in the mid-1870s, the bitter forfeiture of the great emancipating enterprise that the better angels of our nature (as Lincoln might have said) have always held in view.
By most accounts, Theodore Dreiser is considered a modern American writer, which is to say that philosophically and thematically his work belongs to the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth. As a result he is often compared to such writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed, Fitzgerald's most famous work, The Great Gatsby, and Dreiser's most famous work, An American Tragedy, were both published in 1925. Both novels are set in the Roaring Twenties and concern the baneful influence of American materialism. Yet while the set for Fitzgerald's novel includes flappers and bootleg whiskey, Dreiser's work reaches back to the second half of the nineteenth century for some of its cultural artifacts, which he mixes freely with those of the 1920s. Whereas Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as part of the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris during the 1920s, responded to the heady materialism in America, Dreiser was equally concerned about the American malaise as it had existed in the 1880s and 1890s, during the era of the robber barons, whose American fortunes often relied on the exploitation of immigrants such as Dreiser's German-born father.
Half-way between Maine and Florida, in the heart of the Alleghenies,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in John Brown (1909), the year before he helped found the NAACP, “a mighty gateway lifts its head and discloses a scene which, a century and a quarter ago, Thomas Jefferson said was ‘worthy a voyage across the Atlantic.’ ” Whereupon he continues citing Jefferson's words from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):
David L. Dudley
Paul Laurence Dunbar, a son of former slaves, was born on 27 June 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. His father, Joshua Dunbar, had escaped from slavery and fought for the Union Army. Dunbar's mother, Matilda Murphy, taught her son to read and inculcated in him a love of literature. Dunbar's parents separated before he was two and divorced in 1876. His father entered the Soldiers' Home, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Dunbar excelled in high school, where he was elected class president and edited the school paper. More significant was his role as editor and publisher of several editions of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for and about the black community.
Jonathan Edwards is perhaps bestknown for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). The occasion for it was a Sunday service on 8 July 1741 in a church in Enfield, Connecticut. Edwards reportedly read his message in a level voice, as usual, without gesticulation or outburst. Yet his words had a very powerful effect on the congregation listening to him, members of which were brought to tears, and on a generation of New England readers who received the sermon in published form later that same year. Apparently, the power of his rhetoric was not solely in his delivery, whether spoken or written, but in the strength of his conviction.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on 26 September 1888 in St. Louis. The Eliots originally hailed from Somerset in England and settled in America in the late seventeenth century. They began as a Boston family, but Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, settled in Missouri in 1834 to preach as a Unitarian minister, dying the year before Eliot was born. Eliot's father, Henry Ware Eliot, a prosperous manufacturer of bricks, was in his forties by the time his wife, Charlotte, gave birth to their last child, T. S. Eliot, who had four elder sisters and a brother.
The writer Stanley Elkin is perhaps known best for his prodigious ear for comedy, although his work is equally admired for its virtuosic prose: its legato phrasing and staccato rhythms, its unique mixture of high and low idioms, its mastery over extending metaphors, and its singular ability to push language to extremes rarely matched in American literature. Born to Phil Elkin and Zelda Feldman in Brooklyn, New York, on 11 May 1930, he spent most of his childhood in Chicago, Illinois, eventually studying English at the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1952, a master's degree in 1953, and a doctorate in 1961. In 1960 Elkin became an instructor in English at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he would remain for the rest of his life, becoming assistant professor in 1962, associate professor in 1966, and full professor in 1969. In 1983 Elkin was appointed Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at the university. Diagnosed in 1972 with multiple sclerosis, Elkin remained remarkably prolific despite his illness, writing ten novels, two collections of novellas, a collection of essays, and three scripts in his lifetime. He received numerous awards, including the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award in 1980 for his novel The Living End (1979). The Dick Gibson Show (1971), Searches and Seizures (1973), and The MacGuffin (1991) were nominated for the National Book Award in fiction. Searches and Seizures received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1974. The 1976 film Alex and the Gypsy was based on one of the novellas contained in Searches and Seizures. He was awarded two National Book Critics Circle Awards in fiction: the first came in 1982 for his novel George Mills (1982), about a one-thousand-year lineage of cursed losers all named George Mills, and the second in 1995, posthumously, for Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), a novel published that year about a widow at an elderly retirement village who finds herself involved with a drug ring.
William R. Nash
Although he published relatively little (several stories, two collections of essays, some prefaces, and one novel) in his lifetime, Ralph Ellison indisputably ranks among the most important writers of the twentieth century. His National Book Award–winning novel, Invisible Man (1952), is a masterpiece of form and content that set a standard by which all subsequent American philosophical novels have been judged. An African American who believed firmly in integration, Ellison created in Invisible Man a portrait of a black man who resolves his identity crisis by recognizing and embracing his link to American society, even as he acknowledges the injustice that white America has done him and all his fellow blacks. Because of his integrationist views, Ellison often appeared out of step with prevailing currents of the African-American literary canon, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the architects of the Black Aesthetic derided him as an irrelevant Uncle Tom. With the rise of multiculturalism and the reassessment of definitions of identity and race in the 1980s and 1990s, however, Ellison regained an unchallenged position of prominence in American letters. Regardless of whether his popularity was waxing or waning, Ellison never wavered from his intellectual course, always arguing that blacks were integral to any true sense of American identity and that one could not sever the ties that bind black and white culture in America. In many ways a prophet, he was among the clearest observers of life in twentieth-century America, where race was central to virtually all discussions of personal and national identity.
Sheldon W. Liebman
By 1860, the United States hadachieved what few Europeans and even fewer Americans of an earlier generation would have thought possible: a level of literary excellence so surprising that it took more than half a century to acknowledge it. By that year, half a dozen writers—Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman—had written such an astonishing number of important works that the preceding decade or so has come to be called the American Renaissance. However, at that point in the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was the only one of these writers who had attained a degree of popularity commensurate with his later literary reputation. Even after the 1860s, his fame continued to grow, prompting a dozen or so memoirs, biographies, and studies between the time of his death and the revival of attention that was accorded the aforementioned writers shortly after World War I. He was also known widely in Europe, especially in England, where he was lauded by the most important members of the literary establishment: the essayist Thomas Carlyle, the poet-critic Matthew Arnold, and the novelist George Eliot