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James Grover Thurber (1894–1961), essayist, artist, short-story writer, and playwright, is generally considered the greatest American humorist of the twentieth century. Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio, on 8 December 1894, to Charles and Mary Agnes Fisher Thurber. His mother was a high-strung, theatrical woman who had penchant for practical jokes. His father, a mild-mannered political clerk, was often out of work, and the family frequently depended on handouts from Mrs. Thurber's wealthy parents. Despite financial hardship, Thurber's early boyhood was a happy one, although it was not without challenges. When he was six, Thurber was accidentally shot in the eye with an arrow by his older brother, William. Because his injured eye was not removed promptly, his other eye became inflamed, eventually leading to total blindness when he was at the peak of his career. His injury isolated him from his peers and caused him to withdraw into a fantasy world.
Translation is a social activity that fulfills other functions than mere communication: political, economic and cultural. Thus translation can be used as a political weapon to export or import texts conveying an ideological message, such as socialist realism. As evidenced by the promotion of world bestsellers, translation may in other cases serve economic interests. Literary translations also serve cultural purposes, such as the building of collective (national, social, gendered) identities, the representations of other cultures, or the subversion of the dominant norms in a literary field (as defined by Pierre Bourdieu), which can be illustrated by the reception and uses of William Faulkner’s novels in France in the 1930s (namely by Jean-Paul Sartre).
The study of translation has become a research field called “Translation Studies,” which underwent a “sociological turn” at the beginning of the 21st century, and was also renewed at the same time by the rise of “world literature” studies in comparative literature. While translation studies are interested in norms of translation (as defined by Gideon Toury), which may vary across cultures, especially between domesticating and foreignizing strategies, the sociology of translation and of (world) literature asks how literary texts circulate across cultures: who are the mediators? Why do they select certain texts and not others? What obstacles stand in the way of the transfer process? How are translations used as weapons in cultural struggles?
The circulation of texts in translation can be studied through a quantitative analysis of flows of translation (across languages, countries, publishing houses) and through qualitative methods: interviews with specialized intermediaries and cultural mediators (publishers, translators, state representatives, literary critics), ethnographic observation (of book fairs, literature festivals), documentary sources (critical reception), archives (of publishers), and text analysis. However, internal (text analysis) and external (sociological) approaches still wait to be fully connected.
Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita
Latina/o cultural production has long dealt in different ways with the impact of transnational capital, globalization, and imperialism not only on immigration from Latin America, especially since the 1970s, but also on Latina/o residents (whether citizens or immigrants) in the United States, particularly with respect to social location, positionality, and labor conditions. Of particular importance to contemporary Latina/o writers is noting that transnational capital has led not only to the restructuring of the U.S. economy but also to the creation of free trade zones in the Global South, especially on the Mexican border, where workers, especially female workers, are extremely exploited and subject to feminicide. In view of the continued participation of a number of Chicana/o workers in the agricultural fields of the Southwest and Northwest, Chicana/o writers have also been especially concerned with ecological issues and the health of all workers subject to pollution and contamination of the air, soil, and water. These are all issues reconstructed in Chicana/o—Latina/o literature, past and present.
Although it may not be a truth universally acknowledged, the pages of Asian American literature are nevertheless filled with complex representations of transpacific women. These constructions of Asian femininity counter the more recognizable versions of Asian women that have circulated from the late 19th century to the present: archetypes of the Asian mother as symbolic of a lost homeland, the exotic and submissive Asian butterfly, or the vilified and dangerous dragon lady. These persistent characterizations of Asian femininity are in one sense no surprise, especially given the longstanding Orientalist binary (Edward Said) that imagined the East as the West’s submissive and feminized other and the frequent connection between women and the land in nationalist fiction. As a critical framework and archival methodology, transpacific femininities reconfigures the centrality of gender, sexuality, and transpacific experience to Asian American literature. Transpacific femininities was originally conceived as a mode of analysis for a specific historical context and literary form: the Philippines in the early to mid-20th century and representations of women in prose. But it is ultimately a more capacious model that (a) recovers a long history of the importance of women to transpacific literature, (b) carefully considers how multiple empires and nations influenced the Pacific, and (c) counters the feminization of Asia by revealing how writers were actively involved in redefining the terms of national identities, communities, and transpacific relations. The plural “femininities” underscores instability and contradictions in texts and authorial strategies, for while transpacific femininities is above all a feminist way of reading, the term also recognizes that these authors and texts do not all advocate feminist practices.
(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian literature has consistently been preoccupied with the transpacific: from its lived spaces, its imagined ones, and its hybrid literary constructions. This body of literature includes narratives of arrival, autobiographical texts, historiographic novels, magical realist fiction, and experimental poetry. While these texts have usually been read through historical frameworks, thinking through them spatially enables us to understand and trace the alternate geographies of mobility, belonging, and cultural change beyond the project of the Canadian nation. These texts are predicated on transnational spaces of commerce and labor, trauma and resistance, refuge and liminality, and mobility and materiality. They reflect and produce the complex and overlapping trajectories of communities and individuals from East and Southeast Asia. From fictions of Chinatown to testimonies of racist dispersal and exclusion, refugee narratives to speculative decolonial futures, Asian Canadian literature has shaped both rural and urban Canadian spaces and their transnational and local textures. Thinking through the transpacific spaces in the literature points to the ways in which racist and exclusionary policies have shaped the landscapes and social spaces of the nation whether through immigration laws or forcible dispossession and internment. Yet, it also gives rise to the possibilities of new collectivities and communities within and beyond the nation-state. In the face of unequal globalization and movements of labor and capital, this mode of analysis points to possible indigenous and diasporic solidarities and place-making. Contemporary texts from Asian Canadian writers also evince a consciousness of Canadian bioregions and the confrontation of extraction economics that allows for a discussion of intersectionality in the context of environmental humanities and ecocriticism.
Globalization and global travel have existed for centuries. It is over the past century in particular, however, that travel has become truly global, in the sense that most and not just some travel can in some way or other be said to globalized. Indeed, with the invention and spread of new technologies of mobility (like jet travel), and new technologies of information (like the internet), as with the increasingly invasive impact of human activity on the planet at large (like global warming), it is difficult to conceive of travel in the 21st century that is purely “local.” Travel in the age of globalization, then, is at one and the same time both more widespread yet also more irrelevant than ever. As humans, goods, and information move around in ever-increasing quantities, and at ever-greater speed, it seems that mobility is at an all-time high in human history. On the other hand, as a rising number of people and places are interlinked through ever-faster travel and various forms of communication technologies, the local and the global are becoming harder and harder to distinguish.
In this, travel writing has faced a range of challenges that are both old and new. With contemporary travel writers facing a global reality that is very different from the colonial legacy of a traditionally Eurocentric genre, travel writers in the age of globalization have been forced to radically reconsider the itineraries, the destinations, the purpose, and the identity of the traveling subject. Traditionally defined as a white (European) male, the global traveler of the 21st century can take on many forms in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. At the same time, however, a large number of contemporary travel writers have found it hard to break with the mold of old, desperately continuing to pursue the exotic adventure and the untouched “otherness” of the blank spaces of a map that, in the age of Google Earth, satellite navigation, jet and space travel, global warming, and an explosive growth in human population, are no more.
In an autobiographical lecture originally delivered at Purdue University in 1965 and later published in The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews 1965–75 (1979), Lionel Trilling recalled that the “great word in the College [Columbia] was INTELLIGENCE” and that he had early adopted the motto THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT from his teacher there, John Erskine. For Trilling, moral values coupled with an acute intelligence were at the center of what he did as a literary critic, cultural commentator, and educator. One could see these preoccupations as early as his dissertation on Matthew Arnold, which became a great success when it was published as a book in 1939. Trilling's study revealed much about Arnold's writing, and also about his thoughts as they related to the society in which he lived. As Trilling put it in the volume's preface: “I have undertaken in his book to show the thought of Matthew Arnold in its complex unity and to relate it to the historical and intellectual events of his time.” The result, Trilling concludes, “may be thought of as a biography of Arnold's mind.”
Mark Twain is the fountainhead to the great winding waterway of America's native-born literature, a literature that finds profundity in the personal experience and everyday speaking habits of its people; in their typically wry humor in response to pretense, oppression, and sorrow; and in their founding democratic ideal that rebukes all forms of tainted privilege and power, including the deep American strain of racism. No other single author is as closely identified with shaping a voice that propelled the young nation toward its final break from the rigid dictates of European literary forms. No other nineteenth-century writer remains as readable at the dawn of the twenty-first, nor as strikingly prophetic of contemporary themes and concerns. And no figure ever did more to romanticize the experience of American boyhood.
Realism has a bad reputation in contemporary times. Generally thought to be an outdated mode that had its heyday in Victorian fiction, the French bourgeois novel, and pre-revolutionary Russian literature, literary histories tend to locate realism’s timely end in the ferment of interwar modernism and the rise of the avant-garde. Outside of the West, realism might be said to have met an even worse fate, as it was a mode explicitly presented to colonized societies as a vehicle of modernity, in opposition to what were deemed the poetic excesses, irrational temporalities, and/or oral-storytelling influences of indigenous literature. Yet despite this sense of realism’s outdatedness and political conservatism, the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century has witnessed, across a wide range of literature and cultural production, what might be seen as a return to realism, not simply as a resistance to today’s new culture of heterogeneity and digitization but as a new way of imagining literary and political futures in a world increasingly lacking the clear-cut lines along which politics, history, and capitalism can be imagined. The arc of 21st-century realism can be seen through contemporary debates around the term, suggesting that considering 21st-century realism not as a residual mode or grouping of texts but as a particular perspective on literary futures—as the coming together, for instance, of unresolved and newer conflicts over relations of power and the politics of knowledge—offers a different story of global form making.
West Indian fiction in the 21st century continues a tradition begun in the late 1990s as the fourth generation of Anglophone Caribbean writing. Though West Indian writing dates back to the early 19th century, West Indian literature began coalescing into a discrete field of study in the 1930s, motivated in large part by the political imperatives of anti-colonialism, political independence, and decolonization. Much of the fiction published in the late 90s to the present continues to adhere to the realist mode of representing Caribbean life—both in the region and in diaspora—as well as thematic engagements with decolonization, cultural nationalism, migration, diaspora, race, class, gender, and sexuality. Historical novels, modernist narratives, coming-of-age stories, and neoslave narratives remain significant features of West Indian fiction, in ways that are geared toward negotiating sovereign realties for individuals and communities that share a history of colonial domination, slavery, indentureship, and more recently, depleted cultural nationalisms.
In the last decade, scholars in the field have begun the work of theorizing the recent fictional output as constituting its own discrete moment in literary development. What is distinct about contemporary writing is the way in which some authors have begun to ironically rework now-familiar forms, themes, and politics of West Indian writing. Some recent West Indian fiction produces atypical, often incomprehensible, and ultimately dissonant conclusions designed to complicate the political priorities of previous generations. This ironic approach typifies 21st-century West Indian fiction’s skepticism about the nation building and identity politics developed in previous waves—in particular, the conflation of identity with sovereignty. At the same time, this fiction doesn’t simply reject earlier modes: one of its defining aesthetic features is a re-inhabitation of the central forms and politics of preceding waves, in order to complicate them.
The central feature of the fourth generation of West Indian fiction, then, is a continued engagement with the region’s history of colonization, slavery, and decolonization that is also marked by critical and self-reflexive engagements with the Caribbean literary tradition.
Patricia B. Heaman
John Updike is perhaps America's most versatile, prolific, and distinguished man of letters of the second half of the twentieth century, having created a literary oeuvre that includes fiction, poetry, essays, criticism, a play, children's books, memoirs, and other prose. His first published short story and poem appeared in The New Yorker in 1954; he joined the staff in 1955 and has continued to publish in that magazine throughout his career. Since his first book in 1958, few years have gone by in which he has not published at least one volume, as well as an impressive number of book reviews, short stories, poems, art reviews, and topical and personal essays. His reputation rests largely on his fiction, for which he has won numerous prestigious awards, prizes, and recognitions. His subject matter is closely linked to his personal experience of small-town, middle-class life in America from the time of World War II through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Much of his early work is based on memories of people, places, and events associated with his childhood and youth in southeastern Pennsylvania, and works of his mature period focus largely on the themes of marriage, adultery, religious faith, and family life. Despite occasional forays into non-American settings and past and future time frames, Updike's fiction for the most part reflects the culture, conflicts, and concerns of his readers' American time and place. His recent work often deals with a return to or reflection on the personal, historical, or literary past as it has created the present and is interpreted and transformed by a contemporary consciousness.
The forerunners of modern investigative journalism emerged during the US Progressive Era Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and became known as the muckrakers, a badge of shame they often wore with honor. Finding venues in the popular mass magazines of the early 20th century—such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and McClure’s—and in more overtly populist, socialist publications, such as the Appeal to Reason, that also had considerable readerships, these writers railed against corporate greed, political corruption, and to a lesser degree race discrimination (their race investigations seldom challenged Jim Crow or Mexican- and Chinese-Exclusion). Muckrakers’ value-driven investigations often clashed with the purported professional objectivity of the day’s more politically beholden mainstream journalists. Ironically, Upton Sinclair—who began as a romantic-minded novelist and never quite worked as a journalist, properly speaking—became the most famous among them. Sinclair’s investigation into the meatpacking industry, which brought him to fame as their exemplar, began as an assignment for the Appeal, before it developed into a novel, The Jungle. He had narrated it to move readers to socialism. Instead, it provoked Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. Ignoring the disdain of high literary circles, Sinclair went on to self-publish a staggering number of reform-driven novels, book-length essays, and pamphlets grounded in evidence-based critiques of every conceivable injustice. He sold them directly, democratically, and cheaply to huge and growing audiences throughout his lifetime and became, arguably, the world’s first mass-market author. Sinclair also remains representative of the white, culturally Protestant narrative privilege that historical muckrakers tended to assume. He would rise to world prominence and would carry the muckrakers’ historical moment and movement beyond their own times, into its final connection with the more racially inclusive New Left that arose at the time of his death.
After a long void in scholarship, literature on US/Central American art began to emerge in the decade of the 2010s. As this new body of literature emerges it is important to consider the politics of visuality and visibility as it informs production and reception of contemporary art by US Central Americans. During the years of US intervention that fueled Central American conflicts (1970s–1990s), the United States produced a visual discourse on Central Americans for US audiences, especially evident in photography, political posters, and Hollywood films. This visual discourse relied on a what I call a “solidarity aesthetics” for Central America, in which images and representations of Central Americans were made, selected, disseminated, and framed to produce empathy and encourage action with the region across the globe. Yet, this solidarity aesthetics entailed optical codes—imagery on poverty, violence, and tropical landscapes—that subsequently established a reductive visual trope about Central America still used today. This visual discourse not only objectifies a Central American subject, but further enables the erasure of US/Central American creative practices as it implies the region produces violence and not art. In the context of such visual discourse, art by Alma Leiva, Muriel Hasbun, Beatriz Cortez, Jessica Lagunas, and Óscar Moisés Díaz exemplifies a disruption of dominant visual discourse by US Central Americans artists. They create art and images that counter historical erasure and the visual tropes that propagate violence while offering alternative visual narratives that reflect on the legacies of war, US intervention, and the consequential displacement and mass migration of thousands of Central Americans.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry opened not only the doors of a “double-bolted land” as Herman Melville called Japan in Moby-Dick (1851) but also the possibilities of modern literature. While it is a half-Chinook, half-Scot American called Ranald McDonald who smuggled himself into Japan in 1848 and became the first teacher of English in the country, Gerald Vizenor, a distinguished Native American novelist, completed a postmodern novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57 (2003), remixing Moby-Dick with Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue Narrow Road to the Far North, Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, and Ranald MacDonald’s Japan: Story of Adventure. After the opening of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901), one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, visited Europe and the United States of America, and decided to Westernize his own country. Being the first translator of Thomas Jefferson’s composed “The Declaration of Independence,” Fukuzawa published a million-selling An Encouragement of Learning (a series of seventeen pamphlets published from 1872 to 1876), in which the author emphasized the significance of sciences and the spirit of independence in the way comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1837) and “The American Scholar” (1841).
While Professor Thomas Sergeant Perry, a great nephew of Commodore Perry, started teaching American literature in 1898 at Keio University, which Fukuzawa established, Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejiro, 1875–1947), a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and Matsuo Basho, became famous as a cosmopolitan poet in the United States, receiving good reviews for the first collection of poems all written in English, Seen and Unseen (1896). It is highly plausible that his correspondence with Ezra Pound provided the latter with a key to promoting the poetics of imagism. Following the example of Noguchi, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894–1982), another cosmopolitan poet famous for the translation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, studied English literature and philology at Oxford University and published in 1925 the first volume of poetry Spectrum in London. Thus, Ezra Pound, who once admired Yone Noguchi in the 1910s, came to recommend Nishiwaki as the finalist for the Nobel Literary Prize in 1957.
The year 1955 saw the first postwar climax of transpacific literary history. William Faulkner, a major American modernist and recent laureate of Nobel Prize in Literature, paid his first visit to Japan in the summer of 1955, giving a series of seminars in Nagano. Speculating on Japanese culture, he gave an insight into the literary affinity between Japan and the American South in an open letter entitled “To the Youth of Japan.” American as he is, Faulkner shares the memory of lost war with the postwar Japanese, for he came from Mississippi, part of the Deep South, the very defeated nation in the Civil War. Without this memory of lost war, Faulkner could not have developed his apocryphal imagination. Therefore, it is very natural that Faulkner’s visit to Japan invited quite a few major Japanese authors to develop their own apocryphal imagination, ending up with major works published in 1973, the year of Oil Shock, all inspired by Faulkner’s double novel The Wild Palms (1939): Endo Shusaku’s Catholic novel Upon the Dead Sea, Oe Kenzaburo’s nuclear novel The Flood Invades My Soul, and Komatsu Sakyo’s science fiction novel Japan Sinks. Noting that the year of 1973 also saw the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, we could well locate here the genesis of transpacific postmodern literature in the 21st century.
There is no singular manifestation of Latina/os in the white imagination. Rather, Latina/os occupy various, competing, and interdependent forms of representation. Latina/os are depicted as perpetually foreign and as the future of conservative American values. They are cast as lazy drains on society and as people who outwork Americans and take their jobs. Latinas are rendered as sexy señoritas who desire US white men and as hyper-fertile producers of “anchor babies” in the United States. And these are just a few of the ways in which US whiteness imagines Latina/os. These representations find expression in stereotypes, discursive tropes, and racial scripts—beliefs that explicitly or implicitly take narrative form. As a product of the white imagination, these depictions of Latina/os find expression in a wide array of discursive locations, from film and literature to journalism and political speech, to name a few.
These manifestations of Latinas/os in the white imagination stretch across US history from the late 18th century to the 21st century. These representations have been shaped by and met the exigencies of US whites’ national and racial projects. As such, depictions of Latina/os reveal crucial aspects of US whiteness within a given historical moment and across time. While there are numerous, often contradictory elements of these depictions, they are also interdependent and work together to meet the needs of whiteness. Critically, however, Latinas/os have not been imagined by whiteness without response. Rather, throughout this history, Latinas/os have actively negotiated these dominant racial scripts—from claiming whiteness and citizenship to asserting indigenous heritage or pride in ethnic heritage—in order to meet their own needs.
Jones Very's claim on literary posterity comes mainly from a brief period between September 1838 and the spring of 1840 when, in a burst of unprecedented creativity, he wrote the three hundred poems, mainly sonnets, that constitute that claim. During that period, Very believed, spectacularly so, that he had “seen the light” in religious terms. Whatever else it achieved—which wasn't much—this spell of religious exaltation was good for his poetry. Most of the rest of the roughly eight hundred seventy poems he composed, from the early 1830s, when he was in his early twenties, to 1880, the year of his death, was tepid stuff by comparison, mainly of interest these days to scholars wishing to see what “the proud full sail” of his best work had developed from and would molder into. Very was for a time associated with the transcendentalist movement headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which emphasized personal intuition as a major source of spiritual truth. The Very scholar Helen R. Deese has argued convincingly, however, that the Very of the so-called “ecstatic” period, at least in his best work, was “essentially a mystic” outside classification.
Gore Vidal is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and provocateur whose career has spanned six decades, beginning in the years immediately following World War II and continuing into the early years of the twenty-first century. In addition to a major sequence of seven novels about American history and such satirical novels as Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Duluth (1983), he has written dozens of television plays, film scripts, and even three mystery novels under the pseudonym of Edgar Box. He has also written well over one hundred essays, gathered in numerous volumes published between 1962 and 2001. Taken as a whole, this seemingly varied work has an uncanny unity, exhibiting a tone of easy familiarity with the world of politics and letters, an urbane wit, and a sense of supreme self-confidence on the part of the writer. Vidal's lineage in American literature may be traced back to Henry James, the sophisticated American from the upper echelons of society who mingles with European sophisticates, and Mark Twain, the raw humorist and critic of American empire.
While the Vietnam War looms large in American national culture of the 20th century, Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese American experiences have been little attended to. Vietnamese American literature engages this erasure both in writing about Vietnamese perspectives on that war and by expanding the signification of “Vietnam” beyond being a synonym for a war. Beginning in the 1960s, Vietnamese American literature in English was dominated for the next few decades by memoirs, largely designed to educate American readers about Vietnamese politics and history. Rather than continuing to offer Vietnam as it appears in much other American literature, as a surreal backdrop to a US psychic wound, these writers narrate Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans with autonomous geographical, philosophical, emotional, and intellectual presence and perspective, and often provide direct analysis and critique of both the South Vietnamese regime and its American ally. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Vietnamese American literature has diversified in both form and content, expanding the field beyond direct engagement with the Vietnam War and the refugee experience, in work that rewrites canonical Western characters and genres, that challenges normative literary forms as well as social identities, and that explores US racialization, consumerism, and popular culture. In addition to writing Vietnam and Vietnamese American experiences into the national American imaginary landscape, this literature reconfigures the demonized and threatening tropes of the threatening, untrustworthy “gook,” and the passive, dependent “victim” figure, into the socially necessary and beneficial “critical refugee.” Through the experiences of marginalization, trauma, and survival, the critical refugee possesses insights and knowledge necessary for a 21st century of increasing displaced populations, whether from war, famine, or natural disaster. This critical perspective is also more transnational than nationalistic or exilic, exploring both physical and imaginary transnational connections.
Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are the diverse expressions of how hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants experienced the Vietnam War and its aftermath. They are shaped on the one hand by a history of war in, and forced migration from, Vietnam and on the other by resettlement in multicultural Canada. Significantly, Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced within a distinct context of Canadian “forgetting of complicity” in the Vietnam War. A major shaping force of this aesthetics is the idea that Canada was an innocent bystander or facilitator of peace during the war years, instead of a complicit participant providing arms and supporting a Western bloc victory. This allows, then, for a discourse of Canadian humanitarianism to emerge as Canada resettled refugees in the war’s wake. Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced and received in relation to the enduring narrative of Canadian benevolence. In this way, they celebrate the nation-state and its peoples through gratitude for the gift of refuge. More importantly, however, they illuminate life during and in the wake of war; the personal, political, and historical reasons for migration; the struggles and triumphs of resettlement; and the complexities of diasporic existence. Refugee aesthetics are driven by memory and the desire to commemorate, communicate, and make sense of difficult pasts and the embodied present. They often take the form of literary works such as memoirs, novels, and poetry, but they are also found in community politics and activism such as commemoration events and protests, and other popular media like public service videos. Produced by refugees as well as the state, these aesthetic “texts” index themes and problematics such as the formation of voice; the interplay between memory, history, and identity; the role of autobiography; and the modes of representing war, violence, and refuge-seeking.
The American literature of the Vietnam War, even at so short an historical distance from the end of the war (1975), can seem exotic to the contemporary reader, who might be excused for thinking of it as a species of travel writing, providing an imaginative tour of an exotic place and a turbulent historical period, but depicting a fundamentally different order of reality. This view, paradoxically, represents an important truth even while making it difficult to come to an understanding of this body of writing. Travel writing imposes a double burden on writers: first, to understand for themselves what they have seen so far from home, and, second, to bring at least some of that experience home to their countrymen. That is exactly the burden that many writers who served in Vietnam—as soldiers, journalists or civilian advisers—take up. In her book Travel Writing: The Self and the World (1997), Casey Blanton describes the problem with precision: “Melville's Ishmael, sole survivor of an epic journey…discovers the central dilemma of travel literature when he begins to tell the reader of Moby-Dick about Queequeg's home: ‘It is not down on any map. True places never are.’ Ishmael's attempts to represent the exotic island homeland of his friend are frustrated by the inherent difficulty of rendering the foreign into familiar terms.” Melville's great novel (1851) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), both concerned with venturing into the unknown regions of the world and the self, provide important points of reference for many of the American writers who have taken the American war in Vietnam as a subject. Along with Graham Greene's short novel The Quiet American (1955), these texts provide a stylistic point of departure for many writers going to or coming from Vietnam.