You are looking at 1-20 of 717 articles
The academic novel answers two questions: What happens on a college campus? and What is college for? To answer the first question, the academic novel takes the form of high-spirited realism or mean-spirited satire. Its source material is the actual condition of living and working on a college campus at a certain time in a certain era. It wears the fashions of the day and is easily dated. The answer to the second question follows the answer to the first. The purpose of a college education varies from era to era, sometimes from year to year. In the academic novel, the college—the institution and the idea of college—is always in crisis. The purpose of college is shown to be warped, compromised, or ill-defined.
Shilpa S. Davé
The study of accent is related to word and language pronunciation that can be linked to a social class, a nationality, a part of the world, or a historic time period. Accent can be characterized as an “identifier” based on sound and sound production rather than visual cues. Accent is thus linked to fields such as linguistics and pronunciation, language education, drama, literature and performance, sound studies, disability studies (communication disorders to hearing to speech), as well as to sociology and global studies (how do people speak and understand each other in different parts of the world and across geographical borders), to nationalism (how does language bring communities and societies together), and to media (how is communication presented and how is language received). Phonetic literacy (as studied by socio-linguists) involves subcategories such as speech and accent (from access to learning English by non-native speakers to the ability to speak English), dialect (variations of English based on geography), and slang. A cultural and interdisciplinary study of accents allow for inquiries about national community that move beyond legal and geographical forms of community and identity. Looking at accents emphasize the linguistic and sonic components of American global cultural values that are present in media representation, performance, and the politics of social relations.
In particular, the study of Asian American accents in popular culture lies at the intersection of interpretations of text and sound where standard American English (the language taught in American schools) is positioned as the normative mode of communication and the criterion that non-native speakers are often judged upon in American culture. An accent is both a phonetic and visual means of interpreting the assimilation of immigrants in general, and Asians, more specifically, in relation to themes of American citizenship. Focusing on accent allows for a linguistic and narrative composition of how racial difference goes beyond a visual physical difference and is embedded in the systemic nature of how race and privilege operate in culture. Asian American and South Asian American vocal accents and other kinds of cultural “accents” offer an alternative approach to discuss American racial and ethnic performances because the notion of an accent is also inherently comparative. Accents appear only in comparison to what is considered normal or accepted universal speech, such as Standard American English. An accent can mark or distinguish someone or something in relation to something else or a prevailing norm. An accent can create contrast by its very difference. For Asian Americans, identifying how speech and communication is represented and produced in media and culture is a primary means of characterizing what is not only considered different but also what is seen to be foreign or outside definitions of American national identity. The media representations of Asian Americans exaggerate physical differences from a white American mainstream identity and dwell on alternative cultural values and behaviors that include accent and language.
Edward Halsey Foster
Henry Adams's paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were, respectively, the second and sixth presidents of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams, was among the distinguished diplomats of his time, serving as American ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War. Henry Adams himself, however, did little public service. He published several books, was a distinguished editor and college professor, and spent most of his life at the center of Washington's social world, living in an elegant mansion almost as close to the White House as he could get without actually living in it. To the general public, however, he was far better known for his name than for who he was.
Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.
Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.
The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.
Patrick Colm Hogan
Most readers probably take it as self-evident that literature is inseparable from emotion. Poems memorialize love and grief; stories elaborate on the rage of battle, the shame of defeat, or the guilt of sin. Readers pass through versions of these feelings while perusing a book or watching a play. They also experience respect and awe, flip pages or inch forward in their seats due to suspense, or relax into a delighted experience of beauty at a phrase or scene.
After long neglect, in recent decades, emotion—or, more generally, affect—has become a major concern in literary study, as well as philosophy, psychology, and elsewhere. It is possible to organize such work into two broad orientations, commonly called “affect theory” (alternatively, “affective poststructuralism”) and “affective science.” Writers in affect theory draw on a range of psychological, social, linguistic, and other theories, most often in the service of political analysis. The psychological principles of affect theory have tended to derive from the tradition of psychoanalysis, often through its radical revision or critique by such theorists as Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. Affect theorists have also drawn extensively, sometimes more centrally, on a range of theorists outside of psychology, principally poststructuralists, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
In contrast, affective science has its roots in cognitive science and to a lesser extent social psychology. It comprises a set of competing theories of emotion, including dimensional versus systemic and appraisal versus perceptual-associative accounts. Dimensional accounts see emotions as specified only by general variables (such as attraction versus aversion). Systemic accounts treat emotions as the result of distinct pre-dedicated, biological systems (e.g., for disgust or fear). Appraisal accounts treat emotion as the result of a person’s assessments of how events or circumstances impact his or her achievement of important goals. Perceptual-associative accounts construe emotion as a more mechanical process that is affected by assessments only indirectly. Whatever its explanatory architecture, an affective science account is likely to include a careful analysis of emotion episodes, breaking them down into eliciting conditions, action readiness, expressive or communicative outcomes, phenomenological tone, and other components.
Beyond treating different theories of emotion, an account of literary affect needs to consider the various possible locations of emotion in literature. These begin with the real people involved—authors and readers. But they extend to implied authors and implied readers as well as wholly fictional persons, such as narrators and characters. Emotion bears also on scenes and sequences—both the sequence of events as they actually occur in the story and the sequence of events as they are presented in the plot (which may, for example, reveal the outcome of events before revealing their causes). Sometimes, a given narrative level has its own characteristic emotions or affective concerns—such as suspense in the case of plot (suspense is in part a function of when story information is provided). At other times, a given level will merely affect the ways the emotions of other levels are modulated (as when some stylistic features, not funny in themselves, contribute to comic effect).
By the usual scientific criteria, affective science is more logically rigorous and empirically better supported. But affect theory has its own value—particularly in challenging the ideological assumptions that often underlie social scientific research, including some of that undertaken in affective science. In short, each group has something to learn from the other.
Carlos Ulises Decena
The term Afro Latina/os references people in Latin America and in the Latino United States who claim African ancestry. Although the use of the prefix Afrocan be traced back to the work of intellectuals in Cuba, Mexico, and Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century, usages were connected with anti-racist and African Diaspora struggles, organizing, and advocacy in the second half of the 20th century. More recently, the appellation Afro Latina/o has become mobilized in US Latina/o communities as a critique of the processes through which racial diversity and black populations in these communities have been rendered invisible. Because it conjures various meanings and foci, several authors engaged in the study of afrolatinidades suggest that hemispheric, transnational, and comparative approaches are necessary to appreciate the nuances of use, categorization, and experience as Afro Latina/os navigate complex histories and politics of race, ethnicity, and belonging in the United States and the Americas. The author argues that the term appellation does not resolve the complexities of racial subordination, racism, and self-making among Latin Americans and US Latina/os. He further suggests that sites of unintelligibility, confusion, and perplexity are valuable in thinking of “Afro-Latina/o” as a term that points to a cluster of urgent intellectual and political problems stemming from the irreducibility of individual experience to any term or concept. The increase in claims of Afro-Latina/o as a marker of identity must be calibrated by a consideration of how institutional sites and think tanks collaborate in the making and sedimentation of existing and emerging grids of legibility. At the same time, claiming Afro-Latina/o needs to be understood as a project related to yet distinct from one’s racial identification and relationship with blackness, and the experience of US Latina/os and other ethnic/racial minorities suggests that the work continues to be not only to understand how individuals and groups categorize themselves and others, but also to better grasp what it is that terms such as Afro-Latino/a do.
From classical antiquity onwards, writing about life after death has consistently served as a situation for questions of literary theory. The locations of the afterlife are hypotheticals and counterfactuals; they are the site of theory itself. Questions about authorship, for instance, have been articulated through the myth of Orpheus (in the forms recorded by Virgil and Ovid). The story of Orpheus tells of a poet who must go into the underworld to find the material for a tale of survivorship and loss, raising questions about the sources of creative inspiration, the art of trauma, and the suffering of the authentic artist. Dante’s imagined structures of an afterlife, in which punishments fit crimes with an apt poetic justice, have similarly been enlisted into one of the most important theoretical debates of the 20th century between formalists and historicists. The afterlife as a supplement to life’s time has also been used as a way of thinking about temporality and the implications for narrative as a literary mode that works with and through the philosophy of time. One of the most influential aspects of the literature of the afterlife to resonate in literary theory has been the ghost story. In its greatest manifestations, from Hamlet to The Turn of the Screw to Beloved, the ghost story forces its readers to acknowledge those elements of the past that refuse to be laid to rest, and it has therefore served as a vehicle for psychoanalytic questions about how processes of individual or collective memory are depicted in literary texts. In poststructuralist theory, the notion of the hauntological has also built its concepts in dialogue with earlier literary ghosts and become a way of thinking about language and its uncanny slippage between presence and absence. Subsequent critical work continued to develop hauntology into a way of understanding temporality and cultural history. Finally, the notion of prosopopoeia, or the voicing of the dead through writing, is perhaps the most far-reaching way of understanding the prevalence of dead voices as a literary trope, which reflects something of the processes of reading and writing themselves. The afterlife has therefore been a crucial source of generative metaphors for literary theory, as well as a topic and setting with an important literary history.
For James Agee, night was the most enchanting and blessed part of the day, and he often wrote about its hushed, starry beauty and the wonder of being awake when nearly everyone else was under the strange and necessary spell of sleep. Agee also loved movies, another form of magic that takes place in the dark, and both of these passions are manifest in the opening pages of his best-known work, the posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family (1957). Although Agee completed few books over the course of his somewhat frenetic, all-too-brief writing life—one volume of poetry, two works of fiction, and the provocative prose lyric Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)—he wrote scores of ardent, impeccable, and far-reaching movie reviews and ultimately left behind a highly concentrated yet remarkably innovative and profoundly influential oeuvre.
Sarah D. Wald
Agriculture is a significant yet understudied theme in Asian American literature. Representations of farming in Asian American literature often respond to and engage with agriculture’s important role in Asian American history. As farmers and as farm laborers, Asian Americans have been pivotal to US agriculture, and this agricultural experience was foundational to the formation of Asian American communities in the period prior to World War II. Additionally, literary representations of agriculture in Asian American literature navigate racialized traditions of American pastoral and Jeffersonian agrarianism. They have often done so in ways that highlight the systems of racial and economic exploitation at work in US society and position US agribusiness in relationship to US colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, Asian American literature’s representations of farming can expose the assumptions around race, property, and citizenship at work in the agrarianism of the 21st-century US alternative food movement. The writings of Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and David Mas Masumoto provide case studies of these trends.
Arnold E. Sabatelli
Conrad Potter Aiken (1889–1973) epitomized the well-educated intellectual, scholar, and writer. Like his contemporary, friend, and fellow Harvard University graduate T. S. Eliot, he was one of the most admired and respected writers of his time. Given that he was so prolific in several genres (poetry, essays, critical analysis, fiction) and so popular during his life, it is surprising that he is not as well known today as he was in his time.
David Vichnar and Louis Armand
Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.
Victoria D. Sullivan
When Edward Albee broke upon the American theater scene in 1960 with The Zoo Story, he was immediately recognized as a brilliant and exciting young voice. Critics, magazine editors, and the public all welcomed this handsome, somewhat morose young man into the world of serious art. In fact he was the first recognized American absurdist, tapping into the post–World War II European tradition of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet. A loud chorus of critical praise met his early works, including The Sandbox (1960) and The American Dream (1961), in addition to The Zoo Story (1959). When Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, his fame was sealed. But that was also, in some rather American sense, the beginning of the end. It was, certainly, the end of the uncritical adulation.
Angela M. Garcia
Long recognized only for her children's books, Louisa May Alcott also wrote adult novels, Civil War hospital sketches, and at least fifty pieces of much-publicized “sensation” fiction, but her most popular legacy remains that curiously modern portrait of family life, Little Women (1868). Although the author mocked herself as providing mere “moral pap for the young,” her audience in America, and later worldwide, responded enthusiastically to its edifying and entertaining truths. Readers have remained absorbed by and even enamored with Alcott's story; by the end of the twentieth century, several million copies had been sold in dozens of translations, and film and television adaptations continue to be produced.
Emerging in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a queer Chicano performance artist, playwright, and writer, Luis Alfaro quickly established himself as an influential contributor to wider cultural debates about the intersections between gender, sexual, ethno-racial, class, religious, and national affiliations in the United States. In his early career Alfaro was a key player in the solo performance movement, in which performance artists used their own bodies and lives as self performance: that is, as primary physical and lived matter for interrogating their identities within a broader political questioning of US multicultural discourses. That questioning coincided with the prominence of Chicana feminist, queer, and AIDS activisms in California, all of which framed Alfaro’s early performances. Much of Alfaro’s work from the 1990s thus survives as historically significant chronicles of Chicana/o queer lives on the US West Coast. Alfaro consolidated his reputation in that decade with such classic solo performances as Downtown and Cuerpo Politizado, in which his body functioned as the prop onto and over which he articulated his queer memory work in relation to the Chicana/o neighborhoods of Central and East Los Angeles in which he grew up. Those neighborhoods anchor Alfaro’s career-long engagements with the US national imaginary as a Chicano queer cultural producer committed to community engagement and service and to telling the stories of Los Angeles’ heterogeneous Chicana/o communities. Since the 1990s Alfaro has refined his creative and critical praxis in solo performance work and plays that raise broader questions about national identity and belonging in the United States. Many of these plays have written back to and adapted works from Western theatrical and literary traditions—for example, Greek tragedies, Aesop, Spanish Golden Age theater, and Strindberg. The process of adaptation allows Alfaro to celebrate Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, and non-Latina/o immigrant communities, as cultural and ethno-racial epicenters of US national identity in the 21st century. Alfaro’s post-2000 interventions into Western theatrical and literary traditions recast those traditions so that they register meaningfully, in audience terms, for Chicana/o and other communities of color grappling inevitably with historical discourses that demean immigrant and minority populations.
Horatio Alger wrote approximately one hundred novels, as well as biographies of public figures, short stories, and poetry. Alger emerged from the same New England cultural milieu that produced major authors and intellectuals from Jonathan Edwards to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William and Henry James, but he came to exemplify the mass-produced popular fiction that such writers generally abhorred. In a related irony, Alger's stories of a virtuous boy or young man ascending into the middle class were widely accepted early in his career as appropriate for children, but by the end of his career many critics lumped them together with more sensationalistic and ambiguously moral books. Alger's reputation—along with the dominant interpretation of his fiction—took yet more turns after his death, as his books went through at least two different twentieth-century revivals. Any understanding of Alger should encompass not only his actual life and works but also the various meanings that “the Horatio Alger story” has accrued.
The Algonquin Round Table refers to a place, a group, a sensibility, and an era. The place was indeed a round table, near the center and toward the back of the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, in New York City. The group was a rotating cast of writers, critics, actors, and hangers-on, most in their twenties and thirties, who for a decade or more met at the table for lunch, sometimes every day. The group's sensibility was witty, urbane, and sophisticated, but also depressive and parochial. The era was the twenties, the decade when America became the center of the world and New York City became the center of America.
Nelson Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham on 28 March 1909 in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Chicago. He died days after his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his fiction out of print and largely forgotten, in Sag Harbor, New York, on 9 May 1981. Profound shifts in American political and literary culture shaped the trajectory of Algren's life and literary career. He was radicalized by the Great Depression and set out, like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Walt Whitman before him, to depict America from the point of view of the outsider. His subjects were the disinherited of Texas jail cells; the wanderers of the New Orleans waterfront; and the petty thieves, strong-arm boys, hookers, and cops of Chicago's Polish-American ghetto. Like the modernist writers he admired, Algren wrote and rewrote and rewrote again, trying to create truth and beauty out of the language of shuttered barrooms and backroom card games, police lineups, and Chicago Avenue streetcars. Uniquely among American novelists, Algren melds the political eye of naturalism with the written craft of modernism and the vernacular voice of realism.
José Alvarez de Toledo y Dubois (1779–1858) was either a freedom-fighter turned traitor to the cause of Mexican independence or a spy for the Spanish empire at a time of intense competition among European powers and the early American Republic for dominance over northern New Spain and what would become Texas. In the course of his assimilation or appropriation of liberal discourse and his inciting rebellions, he became a pioneer in the use of the printing press to generate propaganda to recruit troops and financing in advance of military action. His various proclamations and pamphlets exhorted New Spain and other Spanish colonies in America to separate from the motherland and establish republics; a more lasting contribution, however, may have been his being partially responsible for the introduction of the first printing press and publication of the first newspaper in Texas during the early 19th century,
Julia Alvarez, born in New York City on 27 March 1950, lived in the Dominican Republic until 1960, when her family sought political refuge in the United States. The shock of being transplanted from a tropical paradise amidst an extended and well-respected family to Queens, New York, where she and her family—mother, father, and three sisters—were viewed as outsiders, informs much of her writing. Often her work is autobiographical, but even when not, her characters are caught between worlds: cultural, lingual, economic, national, political, and familial. Equally essential to her work is the experience of what it means to be a writer. The author of eleven books, Alvarez has proved herself a talented and flexible writer and has won many prizes and awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Josephine Miles/PEN award. She was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Alvarez lives in Vermont and the Dominican Republic, where she visits relatives and tends the shade-grown coffee farm she started with her husband, Bill Eichner, a cookbook author and ophthalmologist.
“Self-help literature” was created in America, and its origin can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. In 18th-century American society, where Puritan ethics held sway, Franklin was a rare sort of person, one who did not believe that personal ambition was a sin. Through his writings, in the form of Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757) and The Way to Wealth (1757), Franklin demonstrated the know-how needed for worldly success, and he used himself as an example of the effectiveness of this knowledge. According to Franklin’s philosophy of success, anyone can achieve social success, regardless of their social position, if they only have the will to educate themselves. This was the beginning of the American dream of success, and themes appearing here for the first time became the basic themes of many self-help books that appeared later.
Franklin’s writings were composed in America during the latter half of the 18th century, a period when independence from England increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Similarly, the first self-help book to appear in Japan was published at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after the end of the Edo period. At this time, the traditional feudal class system was abandoned, and it became possible to succeed in life using one’s own resourcefulness and efforts. This book Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning, 1872–1876) was written by the well-known author and educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835–1901). This book holds that to create a modern state it is necessary for its people to first free themselves of apathy and laziness and become independent through practical study. The work was published in seventeen volumes, and 3.4 million copies were sold under this title. Its foundation was the declaration that “All men are created equal.” It is clear that the inspiration for this writing was the American Declaration of Independence. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Franklin’s ideas had the greatest impact on Fukuzawa, and through his self-help book, the Japanese people came into indirect contact with Franklin’s philosophy of success. Additionally, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1790) was widely read throughout the Meiji period. Thus, it is apparent that Franklin’s ideas about self-help had a great impact on Japan around the end of the 19th century.
However, British author Samuel Smiles’s book Self-Help (1859) had an even greater influence on Japan as it underwent modernization. This book, which was also popular in America, sold more than a million copies in the forty-year period after it was translated into Japanese in 1871 by the philosopher of the European Enlightenment Masanao Nakamura (1832–1891). Moreover, this book was used as an ethics textbook in elementary schools from 1872 until 1880, so it played a particularly large role in planting the spirit of self-improvement in the Japanese youth of the time.
The influence of Confucianism was a large part of the context in which these English and American self-help books were accepted in Japan during and after the Meiji period. Confucianism came to Japan from China at the beginning of the 6th century, and by the Edo period, in the 17th century, the religious aspects of Confucianism had faded. It had become a system of education in ethics that emphasized the five virtues of “compassion to others,” “not being caught up in greed,” “being courteous,” “striving to learn,” and “being sincere.” Learning these virtues became a condition for success in life, particularly for the warrior class. We notice that these five virtues are very similar to Franklin’s thirteen virtues; hence, it is easy to understand that familiarity with Confucianism made it easier for the Japanese to accept American and English self-help books. In other words, western European ideas about self-help were not completely novel values to the Japanese; these ideas were compatible with the Confucian ethical values that the Japanese held. Therefore, they were widely accepted very quickly.
Later, after the beginning of the 20th century, Japan would greedily adopt self-help ideas from America. For example, the mind-cure techniques of Christian Science were introduced to Japan during the 1910s. “Reiki,” which is a Japan-specific practice related to mind cure, was developed soon after. Yoga was also introduced to Japan around the same time through the writings of William Walker Atkinson (aka Yogi Ramacharaka). The Japanese religionist Masaharu Taniguchi (1893–1985) created his own religious group, known as Seicho no Ie (The House of Growth), in the 1930s. This group resonated with the religious movement known as New Thought, which gained popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century, and Seicho no Ie is currently the world’s largest New Thought group, with more than seventy thousand believers in Japan.
The 1950s through the 1980s saw the popularity of American self-help books fall in Japan, partly because of World War II. At the beginning of the 1990s, the bubble economy in Japan burst; the “life-long employment system” and the “seniority wage system” that had supported Japan up to that point started to collapse. Thus, hiring fell, and an American-style competitive society was introduced in Japan in the form of models such as the “ability-based wage system.” In a similar fashion, there was a demand for knowledge of how to survive in this new competitive society. This led to a sudden resurgence in the popularity of American self-help books. For this reason, it is currently difficult to find books by major American self-help authors, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prentice Mulford, Orison Swett Marden, Wallace D. Wattles, Charles F. Haanel, Ralph Waldo Trine, Dorothea Brande, Joseph Murphy, Norman Vincent Peale, Neville Goddard, Earl Nightingale, Spencer Johnson, Robert Kiyosaki, and Tony Robbins that have not been translated into Japanese. In particular, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) has been very popular in recent years, and there are even primary schools that use this book as class material. Moreover, because comic culture is highly developed in Japan, there are many American self-help books that have been made into comic books. Of course, Stephen Covey’s book has been made into a comic book, but there are several other authors whose books have a comic-book version in addition to the translation. Such works include Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), and works by the psychologist Alfred Adler and the management consultant Peter Ferdinand Drucker. These works are widely known as self-help books. Self-help literature has taken hold as a literary genre that has maintained a firmly rooted popularity in Japan, much like it has in America. It is frequently read by middle-class, white-collar, middle-aged men.
However, there has been a backlash against the incredibly numerous self-help books that have been put on the market: since 2010, in Japan, stronger criticisms of self-help books have begun to be made. According to these criticisms, the harmfulness of these books comes from the fact that all of the failures in a person’s life are attributed to the personal responsibility of the individual. For example, these critics say, these books state that people who belong to lower social classes are stuck in such positions because they have not been positive enough.
However, at present, these critical voices are being drowned out by the huge waves of numerous new self-help books being published in rapid succession. There is no reason to doubt that self-help books will continue to thrive in America and Japan, as long as the tradition of the “American dream of success” is alive in America and the virtues of the “desire for self-improvement” and “hard work” are part of the Japanese national character.