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Carol J. Singley
Edith Wharton, a literary realist and naturalist, was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction whose work helped to define a major intellectual and aesthetic movement at the turn of the 20th century. As a chronicler of society’s manners and mores as well as morals, Wharton was adept at portraying male and female characters in stifling social situations, variously of their own and others' making. She was especially interested in ways that society's standards shape women's choices, and she boldly articulated characters' longings for roles that give fuller rein to the range of women's emotional and sexual needs. An avid reader of Darwinian science, philosophy, and religion, she often depicted characters trapped by environment or biology but aspiring—vaguely or inarticulately—toward elusive ideals. During her literary career, which spanned over fifty years, Wharton published twenty-five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence (1920), eighty-eight short stories, three volumes of poetry, and numerous volumes on travel, art and architecture, interior design, and the theory of fiction, earning popular and critical acclaim. Many of her works, which are set in New England and Europe as well as New York City, have been successfully adapted for stage and film. From the 1940s until the 1970s, her reputation suffered from a persistent comparison of her work with that of Henry James and from the misperception that she was a writer only of high society—and therefore “narrow” interests. Subsequently, however, she has been uniformly hailed as one of the finest American writers.
David L. Dudley
In September 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London. Its author, Phillis Wheatley, slave to John Wheatley of Boston, thus became the first African American to publish a book. Brought to America in 1761, Wheatley had soon proved herself astonishingly precocious; she mastered English and, as Hannah Mather Crocker later recalled, “made some progress in the latin [sic].” Wheatley read the classics in translation and began writing poetry. Her book made her internationally famous and won her freedom. Nevertheless, events beyond her control—including the death of many friends and patrons, and the chaos caused by the American Revolution—plunged the young (and now free) poet into poverty. Marriage to John Peters did not provide long-lasting financial security. According to 19th-century sources, Wheatley bore, and lost, three infant children, but no records exist of any births, baptisms, or deaths. In 1784, Wheatley died alone (Peters may have been in prison for debt), and an unmarked grave received her.
The poet’s surviving canon consists of about sixty-five poems and about two dozen letters. Many other poems are now lost, yet Wheatley’s importance is enormous. Praised by some as a writer of genius, a worthy Mother of the African American literary tradition, Wheatley has also been excoriated for not demonstrating sufficient racial pride or fighting hard enough for abolition. In the late 20th century, critics began to re-evaluate her work, and in the early 21st century, Wheatley is regarded as worthy of her place in American letters—a woman who detested tyranny; a writer keenly attuned to the political, racial, and spiritual movements of her times; and an influence on the Romantic poets who followed her.
Arnold E. Sabatelli
Without E. B. White, there would be no Stuart Little (1945), no Charlotte's Web (1952) (and quite possibly no film Babe). But while the bulk of White's work was not children's literature, everything he wrote—poems, editorials, and especially essays—sustained that exuberance, innocence, and clarity of rhetoric. White's prose is at once concise, gentle, humorous, and forceful. Many consider him to be the master nonfiction prose stylist of the century, and his collaboration on The Elements of Style with William Strunk (1959) has helped generations of writers hone their craft.
In Edmund White's first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), the narrator reflects that ordinary conversation is so constrained by mores and manners that little is expressed. The narrator of The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) describes the novel as a conversation in which one person—the writer—does all the talking. White suggests that whatever a writer's ostensible theme, the ulterior and more basic theme is always the nature of one's own experiences; and the ways those experiences might be shaped into an artistic vision reveal something about the human condition. The protagonist-narrator of the The Farewell Symphony (1997) notes that the old ambition of fiction is to communicate the most private, complex things in the most compellingly public way. He also observes that the writer is involved in an ongoing conversation with other writers in the tradition. In his novels and short stories, Edmund White converses with readers about love, sex, death, friendship, art, and power, among other themes. But his predominant theme is always the self's quest for an integrated identity in a world that is volatile, ambiguous, and difficult. Thus, Gabriel in Caracole (1985) comes to see that sexual desire is a cross one must bear; Austin Smith in The Married Man (2000) discovers the pains of love in the era of AIDS. These and others among White's characters are made to reflect on the mysterious depths of their own selfhood by the ecstatic or traumatic experiences they undergo. Indeed, White most often uses the dramatis personae of the child and the lover because he believes (as he states in The Farewell Symphony) that love and childhood are states wherein the self is intensely aware of its own uncanny existence.
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told Walt Whitman on 21 July 1855. Emerson had greeted a number of poets at the beginning of their great careers, including Delia Bacon, the crazy Shakespearean who sought to dig up the bard's body to prove that “Shakespeare” was really Francis Bacon. Ellery Channing II was another “poet” Emerson had discovered. But with Whitman it was different—for the next decade at least. Whitman must have seemed the personification of Emerson's Central Man in The Poet, an essay in which the former Unitarian minister defined the qualities of the peculiarly American bard. The poet, Emerson wrote, had first to be a transcendentalist and believe that nature is the last thing of the soul, or the only empirical evidence of God. Whitman called nature, or the grass in his first Leaves of Grass (1855), “the handkerchief of the Lord,” dropped to attract our attention to the daily miracles of life. He—or she, Emerson might have added—had to be representative of all the folk, even the slaves and the “cleaner[s] of privies” as identified in the New York poet's coarse descriptions of the “divine average.” Finally, this poet would have to celebrate America as (in Whitman's translation of Emerson) “essentially the greatest poem.”
Arnold E. Sabatelli
The fiction and nonfiction of John Edgar Wideman moves between worlds of language and experience that are not usually encountered side by side. He was raised in the African-American community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, was a college basketball star for the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His works mix the disparate forces of his life into an artistic form that is both intellectually challenging and experimental in the best sense of the word. A prolific novelist and essayist, Wideman's texts consistently blend voices and genres and challenge the reader. Responding self-consciously to contemporary jazz forms, his later work is filled with free-form ad-libbing, discontinuity, and always a rich integration of voices.
Richard Wilbur is renowned for the finesse, delicacy, and light touch of his poems, which can seem intricate as snow crystals if rather more durable. In his easy and assured use of meter and rhyme, his work has a Marvellian nimbleness; he is undoubtedly one of the foremost poetic craftsmen in American poetry today, a poet whose facility in form has been seen with mistrust in some quarters. In general he eschews personal revelation in the making of his poems and never writes in free verse; he was thus wholly outside the confessional and free-verse movements, which have dominated American poetry in and out of the academy since the 1960s. The rise of the New Formalism in the 1980s, however, has seen him co-opted as a sort of poetic champion, along with poets such as Robinson Jeffers and Robert Frost, by many of the poets associated with that movement.
Thornton Niven Wilder—the author of Our Town (1938), America's most popular “popular play”—was very nearly, though he never quite became, the Grand Old Man of twentieth-century American letters. An authentic intellectual and Europhile and dilettante, very much in the tradition of Henry James and T. S. Eliot, he was saluted and fêted throughout most of his lifetime. Equally admired as novelist and playwright, there were rumors that he was denied a Nobel Prize only because of unfair accusations of plagiarism. This unfairness is easily established. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a dramatization of the whole span of human history through the varying fortunes and misfortunes of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus of Excelsior, New Jersey, undoubtedly makes use of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, whose Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (“Here Comes Everybody”) is similarly representative; but Wilder, very much an amateur expert on Joyce's work, openly acknowledged his debts. Only a harsh judge interprets a public tribute as evidence of theft.
John A. Bertolini
Tennessee Williams’s career as a playwright followed the traditional trajectory—from parental objection and the confinements of middle-class life and small-town mentality to the struggle for success, the achievement and flourishing of that success and worldwide fame, followed by drug and alcohol abuse, to less favor from his muse, and finally to death in a hotel room. Williams’s writings sing for the individual soul in torment and isolation. His protagonists hang desperate with loneliness, in frenzied pursuit of the carnal as a stay against aloneness and death. They use language seemingly to decorate reality, but actually they are attempting to protect themselves from it. They border on hysteria, loss of control, loss of self-possession. Violence lurks near them always, or menaces them; it finally destroys possibility for them, when it does not destroy their actual bodies.
Much of Williams’s imaginative output, both the dramatic and the fictional, reworks material from his experience of his own family. Indeed, it was not until he dramatized his family in The Glass Menagerie (1944)—so closely based on his own family that he gave the character based on himself his own name, “Tom”—that he had a clear success on stage. It also matters that his family was southern, for everything that the South meant by way of traditions, codes of manners, behavior, dress, conduct, and a way of looking at the world provided for him a whole system with which he could make his individual characters clash. His next hit play, A Streetcar Named Desire, gave American Literature two immortal characters: Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski, two individualized archetypes—refined feminine gentility and masculine animal vitality—who play out a tragic dance that leads to Blanche’s destruction, leaving her dependent “on the kindness of strangers.” With 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams completed the triumvirate of his most highly regarded plays. Williams knew he had created two more memorable characters: Maggie the cat and Big Daddy, whose determination not to accept his own mortality was meant by Williams to signal that he was writing his own version of King Lear. Both Streetcar and Cat were directed by Elia Kazan, a collaboration that resulted in another Broadway success, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Williams’s last Broadway success, The Night of the Iguana, recapitulated almost all of his major themes: the impoverished poet at odds with his society, now grown into an old and saintly figure who meets his end serenely; the necessity for tolerance and kindness where unconventional sexual needs express themselves; the desire for human connection to overcome the confinement of the self in loneliness; the longing for freedom and transcendence of the earthly prison; the transient status of life’s sojourners.
The succession of failed productions of his subsequent plays in New York, the site of his previous theatrical triumphs, could be called “the long parade to the graveyard.” Only one of these plays lasted more than two months, a humiliating indication that this brilliant playwright either had lost his talent or found only unwilling auditors among the younger generation that dominated the culture of the two decades of Williams’s decline.
Born on 8 September 1955 to a fifth-generation Mormon family and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Terry Lynn Tempest was the first child of Diane Dixon Tempest and John Henry Tempest III. Her publications include children's books, essays, stories, and creative nonfiction, all of which focus on human interaction with the environment. A naturalist and a writer, her engagement with the natural world began when she was a child, as she hiked and identified birds with her paternal grandmother, Kathryn “Mimi” Blackett, in the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary near her home by the Great Salt Lake. As a result of her early exposure to ornithology, much of her writing is populated with birds, especially Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Williams's grandmother also sparked her fervor for environmental preservation by introducing her to conservationist Rachel Carson's writing. Growing up Mormon helped shape Williams's sense of ritual and showed her the importance of family, notions that proved germane to her development as a writer celebrating landscape, homeplace, and spirituality. Also significant to her writing is the Mormon tradition valuing storytelling as a way of clarifying values and self-identity. At the University of Utah, Williams pursued her love of both story and of science, majoring in English and minoring in biology. During college she met Brooke Williams, who shared her deep love for nature; they married in June 1975. She also pursued a master's degree in environmental education at the University of Utah, which involved teaching Navajo children at Montezuma Creek, Utah. She was hired in 1979 as the curator of education at the Utah Museum of Natural History, a job she continued to hold when she published her first books in 1984. During her tenure as naturalist-in-residence at the museum from 1986 to 1996, she published eight more books.
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.
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.”
Edmund Wilson was one of a small number of American men of letters who dominated the literary scene from the 1920s, when his first volume of journals appeared, until his death in 1972. He was, first and foremost, a master of the plain style. His essays and personal memoirs reveal much about his life, complicated by four marriages, one ending in the premature death of his wife, two in divorce. His literary and cultural studies examine relationships between writers and their societies. He devoted much of his life to observing interactions between society and the individual creative mind. The virile sharpness of his writings is enriched by his occasionally cruel self-analytic streak, which reveals him often in a light to be pitied, as a man frequently finding himself in unrewarding relationships. In a university setting—one which, unlike other writers of his stature, he studiously avoided, preferring to make his mark entirely on his own terms—he might be called a generalist, a term that would not do him justice. A polymath, a Renaissance man, Wilson had an enormous range of literary, intellectual interests that included literary movements, notably symbolism, and the effects of developments in psychology and history on writers; he was engaged in the psychoanalytic study of literature among other things. Pursuing various scholarly aspirations, such as learning Hebrew in order to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls, he had plenty of energy left over for a book-length study of his own experience with the Internal Revenue Service. He made his living mainly as a book reviewer and journalist.
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.
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.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.