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Article

Huck Gutman

By the time the twenty-first century dawned, there were many—especially among the world's poets—who maintained that William Carlos Williams was the most important American poet of the twentieth century. But such recognition had not always come to Williams.

Article

Josef Raab

August Wilson is the best-known and most performed African-American playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, his drama is centrally concerned with the painful history of blacks in the United States; each of his plays identifies a certain mood or issue of one decade of the twentieth century and illustrates it through the effect it has on individual black characters. It is not historical accuracy or any kind of comprehensive account that Wilson is after; instead, he wants to make the impact of historical events felt. Rather than write agitprop plays, Wilson seeks to represent experiences that, while they are particular to blacks and while they all emanate from his own biography and his own experiences of a racist environment, also have a universal quality. He has described his literary project thus: “I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it.…Put them all together and you have a history” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 292). As in the novels of Toni Morrison, the history of African Americans coping with an unequal society is central to Wilson's work. Both authors are interested in how the present is inextricably linked to the past, and both try to rewrite American history from a black, individualized perspective. The past provides the framework for our ways of thinking and the background for the images and language to which we have become accustomed, the preconceptions we live by. Morrison, Wilson, and other black writers have therefore made it their task to re-create the emotional, psychological, and spiritual history of African Americans in their texts, to identify the ways in which the individual has tried to sustain a sense of self in the face of pressures and oppression. Rewriting African-American history, these authors believe, is especially important because that history has so far been told and distorted by others—usually by whites who have had their own agendas. Rather than voice propaganda or protest, Wilson's drama tends to express pride and admiration, celebrating how the individual—who has been placed under many pressures by a racist, unequal society or by dreams that he or she can hardly make come true—manages to cope and endure. The major historical events of the decade in which a play is set are generally referred to only in passing; they merely provide the background that illustrates problems and issues that the individual characters have to confront and struggle against. As Wilson says, “The plays deal with those people who were continuing to live their lives. I wasn't interested in what you could get from the history books.”

Article

Melissa Knox

Edmund Wilson defined and interpreted Modernism, exploring and using theoretical material from Freud and Marx. Revolution, Americana, literature, sexuality, art, dance, and detective novels all fell under his penetrating, skeptical, and judgmental eye. He lived to write, his most recent biographer, Lewis M. Dabney, declaring that in the case of Edmund Wilson, “biography is literary history.”

Article

Mark Royden Winchell

At one point in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield remarks: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up whenever you felt like it.” Few American novelists of the twentieth century can match Thomas Wolfe in having such an effect on readers. At least since the dawn of modernism, there has been a growing polarization between the sort of writers embraced by a mass audience and those revered by scholars and critics. Wolfe is one of the few who has managed to bridge this gap. Academic studies of his work indicate that he is still one of the most respected American novelists of the twentieth century, while annual meetings of the Thomas Wolfe Society suggest that his work is loved by people who read no other canonical writer. It is one of the ironies of Wolfe's career that a novelist so often criticized for being autobiographical and self-indulgent should continue to attract such a passionate and diverse readership decades after his death.

Article

Pauls Toutonghi

Tobias (Jonathan Ansell) Wolff was born on 19 June 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama. The other facts of Wolff's early life are set down in his notable autobiography, This Boy's Life (1989), which begins with his parents' divorce and chronicles his subsequent move from the age of ten with his mother across the United States to the West Coast. He and his mother settled in Washington State, at first in Seattle and then in the small town of Concrete. The town is remarkably consistent with its name; Wolff paints it as a drizzly landscape, rainy and full of deprivations and the cruelties of an abusive stepfather. This Boy's Life has been widely recognized as one of the most powerful contemporary expressions of the genre of memoir.

Article

As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.

Article

Twenty-first-century anglophone literatures of the Global South are increasingly contending with the waning of the postcolonial welfare state and the rising hegemony of world markets. As a result, contemporary anglophone writing, predominantly from India, Nigeria, and Mexico, offers a re-descriptive matrix for postcolonial studies. Ranging from novels about neocolonial expansion to nonfiction about rising economies of scale, both diasporic and national anglophone literatures use the narrative conceit of entrepreneurship to diagnose the sheer reach of neoliberalism. Whether casting it as a mainly US-backed economic regime, the latest iteration of first-world developmentalism, or a post-1989 fallout of world economies toward a universalized market logic, neoliberalism has had a significant impact on the narrative forms and subjects produced within contemporary anglophone literatures. In the wake of the 2008 collapse, recession economics has precipitated varied reflections on the pernicious effects of hyper-valuation and its effects on the Global South by postcolonial and diasporic novelists like Aravind Adiga, Mohsin Hamid, and Teju Cole. Global Anglophone writing, broadly conceived, insistently calls attention to the material and psychic damage inflicted by the peripheralization of postcolonial nations in the production of a profitably global market imaginary. By tracking the formal centrality of the Bildungsroman, Indian, Nigerian, and Mexican writers demonstrate how they reject the universalism of Bildung as global development and instead gravitate toward a politics of compromise, failure, and refusal. They offer a grim counternarrative to the aspirational and upwardly mobile ethos that characterizes nonfiction from economically ascendant postcolonial nations. In modes of novelistic and nonfiction writing, a variety of figures, from murderous entrepreneurs to discontented psychiatrists to cynical bloggers, complicate the landscape of global neoliberalism. If the framework of the global troublingly obfuscates questions of labor and economic justice, then these diverse subjects self-consciously mediate between marginal cosmopolitanisms and precarious work regimes to reveal the stakes of transnational capital. In doing so, Global Anglophone literatures attest to an urgent need to rethink free market economics by finding new, egalitarian solutions to the problem of uneven development.

Article

World  

Jen Hui Bon Hoa

In recent decades, world has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested concepts in literary studies. The more narrowly defined stakes of the debates over world literature concern the disciplinary mandate of comparative literature. One way of grasping the world as a problematic is in terms of a dispute over the correct unit of literary analysis. Should comparative literature scholars seek to illuminate broad historical patterns in the global circulation of influence as reflected, for example, in the morphology of literary genres or the adoption of tropes across different literary cultures? Or should they seek instead to come to grips with the singularity of the world—the unique systems of thought and meaning—presented in individual texts, using the methodology of close reading that offers a model for the ethical relation to otherness? The issue of scale is equally at play in the multiculturalist imperative to expand the literary canon beyond its traditional emphasis on European and Anglo-American traditions. While the general consensus is that undoing comparative literature’s Eurocentrism is crucial to the discipline’s continued relevance, the practical question of how to go about it has been contentious. If scholars are required to draw from a diversified literary canon, how can they attain the linguistic competence required to treat the enlarged field of inquiry with adequate hermeneutic care? The danger, according to some critics, is that world literature will normalize the study of literary texts in English translation. Another critique of such globalizing initiatives regards the value of diversity itself. Some have argued that conceiving of literary works as representatives of specific cultures or regions is itself a legacy of Orientalist Eurocentrism and that, therefore, a multiculturalist approach inadvertently entrenches the very problem it seeks to rectify. A range of political and ethical concerns are thus at stake in the endeavor to globalize comparative literature. Indeed, the concept of world literature has historically been bound up with an assessment of globalization’s liberatory potential and, increasingly, its oppressive effects. The emergence of world literature as a project or goal is often, though not always, traced back to Goethe at the beginning of the 19th century. Reflecting the Enlightenment value of universalism, Goethe’s evocation of Weltliteratur projects a world united through free literary exchange across borders and intercultural understanding. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels situate Goethe’s cosmopolitan vision in a materialist framework, presenting it as derivative of the economic transformations entailed in the world market. They also radicalize Goethe’s model of cosmopolitanism. Instead of an autonomous sphere of communication among the national literary traditions of the world, for them Weltliteratur stands metonymically for a future in which both the nation and private property—as manifested in the idea of national patrimony—are superseded by an internationalist commonwealth. Fleshing out the tension between Goethe’s and Marx’s visions of the globalized world, recent debates on world literature have generated productive confrontations between liberal humanistic, Marxist, deconstructive, and postcolonial perspectives on the gap between the world one inhabits and the world one wants.

Article

Henry Hart

In an interview published in 1992, Charles Wright told David Young, the editor of Field magazine: “There are three things, basically, that I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God.” Behind much of Wright's poetry is the Emersonian idea, which in turn derives from a long line of Platonic and Christian thinkers, that the universe resembles a text authored by God—a God who inhabits us. When Ralph Waldo Emerson contended in his essay Nature that “words are signs of natural facts” and “Nature is the symbol of spirit,” he was drawing on the old concept of “the book of nature.” In this “book,” language represents nature and nature represents the spirit or mind that created it—in other words, God. Throughout his essay Emerson argued for a poetic use of language that would renounce “rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God.” By employing a “natural” language (a vocabulary that adhered to the principle “no ideas but in things”), the writer could recapitulate the divine act of creation, duplicating, as it were, the book of nature in his or her own book.

Article

Gerry Cambridge

The Flying Eagles of Troop62 is a touching prose poem and reminiscence of one Ralph Neal, a scoutmaster of James Wright's Ohio boyhood. In wondering why Neal never escaped the conditions of the valley in which he was born, but worked with forbearance with his group of acned, unhappy adolescents, the poet recounts a story from the Hindu Vedantas. It is of a saint who, after a thousand lives filled with human folly and suffering, realizing that his scabby mongrel will not be allowed to enter Nirvana with him, refuses it for himself. It is not surprising that this seems to have had a considerable resonance for Wright. He is one of America's poets of the outcast, the socially marginalized, and the sometimes brute realities of an Ohio which, though he left it, never left him. Though Wright did escape, at least physically, his work is one long attempted reconciliation with some of those realities.

Article

Mark Richardson

It all began with a fire: the one Richard Wright himself set when he was four years old. He had wondered, he tells us at the start of his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), “just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.” They looked splendid, terrifying; and it is a wonder no one was killed. As it turned out, the little boy Wright still was at the time came closer to death than anyone, and not from the fire itself, but from the beating his mother gave him in the aftermath. “I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness,” he recalls. For years he was “chastened,” as he dryly puts it, when he remembered that his mother “had come close to killing” him.

Article

Wendy Martin and Sharon Becker

During the Progressive Era, roughly spanning 1890 to 1920, the American woman struggled to change the definition of womanhood in profound ways. At issue was the right to vote, to wear bloomers, to be free from corseting, to work outside the home, and to have a place in the world beyond the domestic sphere. By 1900 the “new woman” had emerged; these modern women were attending college, getting jobs, agitating for the right to vote, rejecting traditional domesticity, proudly asserting themselves in public, and in general, becoming an integral part of American popular culture and invading its literature as well.

Article

In European and North American theater and film, the centuries-old practice of “yellowface”—white actors playing Asian-identified characters—has dominated the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have been presented. Since the 19th century, yellowface representations in American theater portrayed these characters as villainous despots, exotic curiosities, or comic fools. These roles in turn greatly reduced the opportunities for the employment and recognition of Asian and Asian American actors. Yellowface performance does not only misrepresent Asians and Asian Americans by limiting the kinds of visibility and opportunities that they might have, but it also supports the imagined distinctions between those values presumably embodied by white Americans and those associated with oriental others. Late-19th and early-20th-century plays such as George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (1900) not only used yellowface acting but also expressed anxieties about interracial interactions and the potential for racial contamination produced by U.S. imperialism and Chinese immigration. Both yellowface and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian and Asian American characterizations from film and theater in order to benefit white actors) continue to be used in U.S. theater and film. In addition to protesting, Asian American performing artists have responded by creating alternative venues for Asian American performers and writers to make their talents known, such as Los Angeles’s East West Players (established in 1965). Asian Americans have also fully engaged with these issues through writing a host of plays that feature characterizations of actors who suffer the effects of discriminatory casting practices. Two plays in particular, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) not only critique the legacies of yellowface representation but also prompt broader reflection on how contemporary Asian American identities are shaped by both political radicalism and “model minority” conformity. These plays re-appropriate yellowface to comment on the changing and contested nature of racial categories such as “Asian American” as well as the continuing problems of racial typecasting.

Article

In sexualized fiction written for young readers (ages 12–24), common narratives are meant to guide readers through their early sexual life, inform about the dangers and pleasures of sexuality, and validate the sexual lives of those deemed outside of the heterosexual norm. Young Adult (YA) novels comprise most of the canon of literature for readers of this age, but what young people read extends into other genres and formats, such as Adult fiction, graphic novels, and online amateur fiction. Literary scholars have criticized sexualized fiction for young readers for the presence of a sexually repressive ideology embedded within sexual relationships or scenarios. Most notably, didactic narratives meant to guide young persons through their early sexual life have typically associated sex with risk and not necessarily with pleasure or well-being, especially for young women. The argument, therefore, is that these texts are detrimental to the sexual well-being or liberation of young people. Contrary to this argument, sexualized fiction for young readers has also been subject to widespread censorship efforts in North America. Challenges or bans are typically based on concerns that these texts are pornographic, are unsuitable for young readers, or will inspire young people to act on their sexual impulses or engage in non-normative forms of sex. These two counterarguments parallel larger debates about what kinds of information about sexuality young people should have access to or how young people should perform—or not perform—their sexuality. The study of reading in the everyday lives of young people reveals complex relationships between text and reader, beyond those commonly cited as essentially repressive or corruptive. A case study on the reading experiences of young women in Canada shows that young readers engage with a wide variety of sexualized fiction and have nuanced relationships with these texts. This case study shows that as a literature that addresses the complexities of adolescent sexuality, sexualized fiction remains a source for transformative possibilities, where fictional narratives have the possibility to contribute to the sexual well-being of young people.

Article

Gloria Elizabeth Chacón

Zapotec literature is one of the most diverse and vibrant contemporary Indigenous expressions in the kaleidoscope of spoken languages in México. Its wide-ranging articulations stretch from the foundational rich oral tradition to diverse postmodern narratives. Zapotec literature has a long-written history in both Spanish and Zapotec languages. Several works by 21st-century writers and poets have been translated into a number of Indo-European languages. Over the last five centuries, “Zapotec” has assumed the function of an umbrella term encompassing a number of endangered languages. These have evolved into inter-related but autonomous linguistic codes, analogous to Romance languages. The Zapotec people share territory with several other Indigenous nations. The Mixe, Huave, and Tuun Saavi, among many others in Oaxaca—Mexico’s most linguistically heterogenous region—neighbor Zapotec territories. The term Zapotec originates from the Nahuatl language. Around the time the Spanish armada dropped anchor on the Mexican coast, the Nahua people represented the most powerful community of Central México. The Nahua named the Zapotec people after what they perceived was an abundance of the Zapote tree in the latter’s lands. Of great significance are regional distinctions in contemporary literary expressions. Oaxaca’s topography divides into four regions: isthmus, valleys, Northern Sierra, and Southern Sierra. Most renowned contemporary writers like Natalia Toledo, Irma Pineda, and Victor Cata emerge from the City of Juchitán, about 30 minutes from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Provocative novelists like Javier Martínez Castellanos or Mario Molina hail from the Northern Sierra. Binni Za’ or Cloud people are the self-naming terms used by those writers who come from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec or Juchitán, while Benne Xhon or “people from these lands” are the autonomous names used in the Northern Sierra. Zapotec novelist Castellanos Martínez explains that “xhon” literally means that matter or sediments that stay at the bottom of a liquid. He writes that the idea of dregs may reference those Zapotecs who did not migrate to the mythical City of Tula (2018, 96). Self-naming and language specificity vary according to region and sometimes even in relation to their hometowns. Today, some writers continue to use Zapotec to refer to themselves or their language. In the isthmus, since the 1980s, writers have also turned to more autonomous names like Binni Za or People from the Cloud. In describing their language, many poets employ dillaza or dilla xhon too, but there are many other terms that are used depending on the region. Zapotec is considered part of the Oto-mangean language family. While linguists tend to classify Zapotec in 40–60 distinct languages, there is a recognition among writers that Zapotec may have been a unique and distinctive language that evolved over time and space. In contrast to other well-known Indigenous communities like the Nahua or Maya, Zapotecs have inherited few written pre-colonial documents despite the development of a writing system that, with well over 2,500 years of history, is considered one of the oldest in Mesoamerica. Foundational Zapotec writers in the early part of the 20th century weaved narratives in their creations that stem from the oral tradition. Other poets, short story writers, and novelists depart from engaging the oral tradition narratives to innovate their cultural production. Salient strategies employed by writers range from a use of linguistic parallelism, myths, intertextuality with other Indigenous texts, and the use of humor to debunk stereotypes. In addition to a legacy of rich verbal arts, Zapotec stories written in the Latin alphabet can be traced to the 19th century. Unrecognized by many scholars is that 19th-century Zapotec texts parallels the birth of what has traditionally been considered canonical, national literature that has been produced in Spanish mainly by criollo elites. In the 1950s, Zapotecs became the first Indigenous community in Mexico to establish a unified alphabet. The use of conventional literary forms by writers in Zapotec, bilingually, or in Spanish reflects its rich history and plurality.

Article

Sarah Juliet Lauro and Christina Connor

A general discussion of literary living dead might begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, European Gothic tales, some of Edgar Allan Poe’s perturbations, or any number of well-known walking corpses from classic literature. However, zombies are one particular kind of living-dead creature among many others, separate from the fleshy embodied ghosts of diverse cultures, including the Jewish golems, European revenants, and Chinese jiangshi. The zombie is distinct because of its origins in the folkloric myth of the corpse raised by a bokor (a witch doctor, for lack of a better term), a Caribbean belief that has roots in African soul-capture mythologies and that was a direct reflection of the transatlantic slave trade. This folkloric figure migrated into U.S. popular culture via anthropological narratives and thereafter was repurposed in cinema. Any discussion of the zombie in literature is inseparable from its cinematic sibling, but for the creature that developed out of Caribbean mythologies, folklore is its ultimate ur-text. Zombies were first registered in a few scattered colonial accounts documenting the beliefs of the enslaved population of Caribbean isles. These accounts were penned by authors who denigrated the foolishness of the enslaved people’s belief in reanimated corpses (17th–19th century). The first zombie stories to be popularly consumed came out of nonfictional pseudo-anthropological texts reporting on the culture of Haiti during the U.S. occupation (1915–1934), but the zombie quickly moved into the horror genre. Its marketability was recognizable after the 1932 film White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin) depicted the threat that the Vaudou zombie could pose for white protagonists. The zombie’s migration into U.S. fiction occurred first in the pulps of the early 20th century. This would continue throughout the 1950s, as many zombie-like living dead dripped and oozed across the pages of EC horror comics. The Vaudou zombie, a folkloric living dead that was deeply shaped by the Haitian people’s history of slavery and colonialism, remained visible in Caribbean literature but this iteration very rarely cropped up in U.S. fiction after the cinematic transformation of the zombie into a flesh-hungry viral undead. Primarily, the zombie is considered a cinematic monster because it underwent its major transformation on screen with George Romero’s ghouls rising from the dead to devour their victims in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. The zombie’s evolution from a mindless Vaudou slave to a cannibalistic, contagious reanimate can be traced throughout the middle decades of 20th-century horror films and this same transformation occurred in horror literature. During these middle decades, many crossover monsters in science fiction tales incarnated the fears of the period—particularly fears of technological capability and Cold War tensions. Various characters in these works had traits that have come to be associated with zombies, such as mindlessness and cannibalism. One might point to a kind of lull in zombie fiction (both on-screen and in literature) in the 1980s and 1990s, but the zombie experienced a resurgence in the new millennium and a return to prominence in both cinematic and textual narratives. In the era of the new millennial zombie, the living dead could be found everywhere, spawning beyond even the boundaries of genre fiction. The cinematic zombie’s newfound speed (associated with Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later) mirrored the rapidity of the zombie’s production and proliferation: no longer consigned to the pages of horror paperbacks or science fiction dystopias, zombies appear in comedy, romance, historical fiction, literary mash-ups, parodic how-to guides, and even children’s books. In addition, zombie-themed video games and merchandise flooded the market, and one could find a plethora of zombie cultural events, including college courses, art exhibits, and costumed foot races during this zombie renaissance. In a few short centuries, the zombie evolved from a folkloric figure associated with Vaudou cosmology and its reflection of slavery, to a horror and science fiction bogeyman representing a range of social ills, to a perplexing liminal figure that cannot be contained in one genre or medium. But no matter how much the zombie changes—perhaps because of its ancestral origins in the slave trade—zombie narratives continue to have resonance with colonialism, critiquing capitalism’s abuses of humans by their fellows.