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Any discussion of “Asian American literature” must address the inadequacy of the term to describe the array of writings that spring from a multiplicity of cultures and experiences. Ultimately, the phrase has come to encompass writers of Asian heritage living in, writing about, born in, or having sojourned to America. This set of definitions is not limited to written literatures or those originally created in the English language; it can also be extended to transcribed Chinese oral narratives, narratives written in Vietnamese and translated into English, or Chinese characters carved into walls. The term Asian American literature also prompts questions regarding national boundaries. “America” need not be limited to the United States; the fluid concept of nation can spill over geographical boundaries to reach neocolonies where complex constructions of “America”—economic and cultural—significantly affect other countries.
Wystan Hugh Auden was born on 21 February 1907 in the cathedral city of York. He was the youngest of three sons of a physician, George Auden, and his wife, Constance, née Bicknell. His unusual name was a result of his father's archaeological interests, which included the editorship of the Historical and Scientific Survey of York and District (1906). St. Wystan was a Mercian prince whose martyrdom led to the foundation of the church of that name in Derbyshire. In 1908 his father left a lucrative practice to serve as the first-ever school medical officer in Birmingham. The family lived outside that industrial city in the then village of Solihull, which today is a Birmingham suburb. When Auden was eight years old, he went as a boarder to a preparatory school called St. Edmund's in Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, who was to become a close friend and also, in due course, a distinguished writer. In 1920 Auden went to the public school, Gresham's, where his parents had to pay high fees. It had developed under the headmastership of G. W. S. Howson from being a local school to a leading establishment with an interest in science. Although brought up by his mother to be a High Anglican, Auden began to lose his religious beliefs. This may have been coincidental with his recognition that he had homosexual proclivities. Robert Medley, a schoolfellow and later a noted theatrical designer, interested him in writing poetry.
Within the literary connections between Australia and the United States, the more traditional notion of “influence” gained a different kind of intellectual traction after the “transnational turn.” While the question of American influence on Australian literature is a relatively familiar topic, the corresponding question of Australian influence on American literature has been much less widely discussed. This bi-continental interaction can be traced through a variety of canonical writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Brockden Brown, through to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. These transnational formations developed in the changed cultural conditions of the 20th and 21st centuries, with reference to poets such as Lola Ridge, Karl Shapiro, Louis Simpson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with novelists such as Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee.
To adduce alternative genealogies for both American and Australian literature, Australian literature might be seen to function as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of cultural formation it might have become if the American Revolution had never taken place. Similarly, to track Australian literature’s American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational connections have always been integral to its constitution. By re-reading both Australian and American literature as immersed within a variety of historical and geographical matrices, from British colonial politics to transpacific space, it becomes easier to understand how both national literatures emerged in dialogue with a variety of wider influences.
The emergence of the trade paperback in the 1980s crucially transformed the way in which Australian literature was received in North America. The publication history of Patrick White on the one hand and Glenda Adams and Peter Carey on the other shows how younger writers actually made more of a cultural impact, despite White’s Nobel Prize, because the form in which they met the reading public was one freed from the modernist binary between high and low culture. The 1980s saw the emergence of a more globalized and more culturally pluralistic world—though also one much more pervaded by multinational capital—in which Australian writers flourished.
When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets such as Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from the Second World War until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde: representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly, there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period (as there was in Britain and the United States), but in Australia, this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist and so exacerbated a sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged with the questions of their time but also dealt with the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial,” overcoming a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider the poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies, acknowledging that Australian poetic modernism, while it remains contested, may also be distinctive.
Travel writing has been an important form through which Australians learned about their own culture and their place in the world. Indigenous cultures of place and travel, geographic distance from the imperial metropole, and a long history of immigration have each made travel a particularly influential cultural practice. Nonfictional prose narratives, based on actual journeys, have enabled travelers in Australia and from Australia abroad to explore what was distinctive and what was shared with other cultures. These are accessible texts that were widely read, and that sought to educate and entertain their audience. The period from the inauguration of the Australian nation in 1901 to 1960, when distance shrank because of technological innovation and new forms of identity gained ascendance, shows the complex ways in which Australians defined their country and its global contribution. Writing about travel to Britain and other European locations helped authors to refine the Anglophone inheritance and a sense that Britain was Home. Northern-hemisphere travels also made some writers intensely feel their national identity. Participation in global conflicts during this period shifted Australian allegiances, both personal and governmental. At the same time, a new tourist industry encouraged Australians to travel at home, in order to learn more about remote areas and the Asia-Pacific region. Travel writing both abroad and at home reveals how particular forms of emotional allegiance and national identity were forged, reinforced, and maintained. This has been a particularly influential genre for a nation based on colonial migration and indigenous displacement, in which travel and mobility have been crucial.
Women seem barely visible in the lively Australian literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Popular wisdom has it that after the war women were sent home and imprisoned in domesticity, but this was not entirely true. Significant numbers earned a living, and gained popular success, writing historical fiction, children’s stories, feature journalism, and radio and television scripts, but the growing separation of literary from popular writing meant that their work lacked serious critical attention, and still does. Others did not achieve publication for years, while those who did were rarely recognized as significant artists. As a writing generation, these women, in particular the novelists, were eclipsed from view, both at the time and in subsequent histories. One reason for this is that they tended to be detached from prevailing debates about national identity and from traditional Left-Right oppositions. Their sense of the social responsibility of writers led them to explore topics and ideas that were outside the postwar political mainstream, such as conservation, peace, civil liberties, and Indigenous rights. Four case studies offer some illustration of the range of literary activities undertaken by these women writers, and allow a consideration of the ways in which they engaged with their social and cultural milieux: Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), Nancy Cato (1917–2000), Judith Wright (1915–2000), and Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993).
We are living in an autobiographical era, as readers all over America can readily attest. Jay Parini, in his introduction to the Norton Book of American Autobiography (1999), deduces that “the immense interest in this form of writing owes something to a moment when our culture as a whole has turned introspective, interested in (some might say obsessed by) self-definition” (p. 19). According to Paul Gray, writing in an April 1997 issue of Time, memoirs have now replaced novels as the major American publishing product, with hundreds published every year, many by first-time writers. These recent memoirs deal with topics once reserved for fiction—child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, incest—and some critics wish that fiction is where such “taboo” subjects would stay. Those who deplore the upsurge in self-writing note its emphasis on narcissism and self-pity: one such critic even titled his review of the new memoirs “Read about Why I Love Me and How Much I've Suffered.”
Lynn Orilla Scott
Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of the physical and spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. In researching her groundbreaking 1946 dissertation, Marion Wilson Starling located 6,006 slave narratives written between 1703 and 1944. This number includes brief testimonies found in judicial records, broadsides, journals, and newsletters as well as separately published books. It also includes approximately 2,500 oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. The number of separately published slave narratives, however, is much smaller. Although exact numbers are not available, nearly one hundred slave narratives were published as books or pamphlets between 1760 and 1865, and approximately another one hundred following the Civil War. The slave narrative reached the height of its influence and formal development during the antebellum period, from 1836 to 1861. During this time it became a distinct genre of American literature, and achieved immense popularity and influence among a primarily white, northern readership. A few, in particular The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself (1845), displayed a high level of rhetorical sophistication. With the end of slavery, however, interest in the narratives declined sharply. Furthermore, one consequence of the social and political repression of the black population following Reconstruction was the “loss” of the slave narratives for sixty years. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, scholars recovered, republished, and analyzed slave narratives. Both historians and literary critics came to value their importance to the historiography of American slavery and to the development of African-American autobiography and fiction.
In the decades immediately following the Civil War, and even to some extent throughout the years of actual battle, hundreds of Americans published memoirs describing their experiences during this cataclysmic event. Such an outpouring of autobiographical material following the war is not surprising, since otherwise ordinary individuals are often prompted to write their life stories after extraordinary experiences. Because the American Civil War was arguably the most extraordinary event in this nation's history, as attested to by the debate that raged (occasionally even to this day) over its proper title—the Civil War, the War between the States, the War for Southern Independence, the War of Northern Aggression—the personal experiences of Americans who lived through it retain substantial contemporary interest. Many of these autobiographers were men, soldiers who had fought with Grant or Lee or Sherman and who often identified themselves with these heroes in their titles. Yet women also wrote of the war, in diaries and memoirs, describing their experiences as the mothers and sisters who stayed home or became refugees, as nurses in military hospitals, as spies, even as soldiers. This essay discusses several diaries composed during the war itself as well as memoirs published soon after the war's end. While such memoirs continued to be published for decades, the writers' goals shifted—and their memories became less reliable—as Reconstruction ended. (By 1900, for example, very few writers claimed to have supported slavery.) These writers consistently return to similar questions: What exactly is an appropriate role for a patriotic woman during a war? What is the enemy like, and how does one respond when he quite literally steps onto one's front porch? What will or should happen to the thousands of slaves whose very existence is so peculiarly entangled with the war itself?