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From ancient Greece on, fictional narratives have entailed deciphering mystery. Sophocles’ Oedipus must solve the mystery of the plague decimating Thebes; the play is a dramatization of how he ultimately “detects” the culprit responsible for the plague, who turns out to be Oedipus himself. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines a successful plot as one that has a conflict (which can include, and often does include, a “mystery”) that rises to a climax, followed by a resolution of the conflict, a plot line that describes not only Oedipus Rex but also every Sherlock Holmes story.
A particular genre of mystery writing is defined by the mystery at the center of the story that is crucially, definitively solved by a particular person known as a detective, either private or police, who by ratiocination (close observation coupled with logical patterns of thought based on material evidence) uncovers and sorts out the relevant facts essential to a determination of who did the crime and how and why. The form of detective fiction throughout most of the 19th century was the short story published in various periodicals of the period. A few longer detective fictions were published as separate books in the 19th century, but book-length detective fiction, such as that by Agatha Christie, was really a product of the 20th century.
Most critics of detective fiction see the beginning of the genre in the three stories of Edgar Allan Poe which feature his amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, and were published in the 1840s. Although Poe’s 1840s stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which first appeared in the 1880s, are probably the most well known of 19th-century detective fictions, a number of other writers of generically recognizable detective fiction published stories in the almost fifty years between Poe and Conan Doyle, including a number that featured female detectives. Finally, from the 1890s into the early 20th century, a plethora of new detective fictions, still in short-story form for the most part, appeared not only in Britain but also in France and the United States.
Detective fiction has always been popular, but serious critical interest in the genre only developed in the 20th century. In the second half of that century, this critical interest expanded into the academic world. The popularity of the genre has only continued to grow. Both detective fictions (now nearly all novel length) and critical interest in the genre from a variety of perspectives are now an international phenomenon, and detective novels dominate many best-seller lists.
If we accept the well-known distinction that literary fiction is character driven and commercial fiction is plot driven, then the work of Harold Brodkey is the most literary American fiction of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is a critical commonplace to compare Brodkey's work with that of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), the French master of memory and psychological nuance. Born Aaron Roy Weintraub in Staunton (some sources say Alton), Illinois, on 31 October 1930, Harold Brodkey was adopted after the death of his mother by his father's cousins, Joseph and Doris Brodkey (the S.L. and Leila or Lila in his fiction), who lived in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brodkey graduated from Harvard (cum laude) in 1952, the same year he married Joanna Brown (they were divorced in 1962), with whom he had a daughter, Emily Ann. In his early twenties he began to publish stories in The New Yorker magazine, which were collected to form his first book, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957). The title sardonically recalls the melancholic longing of the European romantic movement. The difference is that Brodkey's protagonists—boys, college students, young marrieds—are unheroic, suburban, and American. They reach for levels of passion and sublimity beyond their capacity, Brodkey all the while maintaining a tone of tender pathos. The first story, “The State of Grace,” recounts the failure of an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy to make a connection of redemptive love with Edward, a beautiful seven-year-old. In the last five of the nine stories, Brodkey portrays Laura—sensitive, intelligent, a representative white middle-class female of the 1950s—from adolescence to marriage and young motherhood. Two of these five stories are parodically titled: Piping down the Valleys Wild (a William Blake poem of paradisiacal vision) and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a reference to the powerfully sensual woman in William Shakespeare's sonnets). Laura and her world, Brodkey wants us to know, are poignantly distant from what Blake and Shakespeare evoked. In its depiction of innocence and loss, First Love and Other Sorrows resembles the stories of two other New Yorker writers of the 1950s—J. D. Salinger and John Updike
William R. Nash
Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet, novelist, activist, and teacher, stands out for her social engagement, her professional generosity, and her literary accomplishment. In a career that spanned six decades, Brooks concerned herself with portraying the lives of American blacks, especially people hampered by social and economic circumstances. Throughout her corpus, Brooks demonstrates sensitivity to the particulars of black life in America; when tracking the work chronologically, one sees evolving her sense of the black poet's most appropriate response to a racially charged society.
A best-selling writer who was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature (1938) and the Pulitzer Prize (1935), Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck published more than seventy books, including novels, short-story collections, nonfiction, poetry, drama, children's literature, and English translations from the Chinese. In addition to enlightening Westerners about various Asian countries and traditions, Buck was active in the political sphere, advocating civil and women's rights, children's rights, and peace.
Asian Canadian Literary Studies is a relatively new field of study which began in the mid to late 1990s. Even though literature written by Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian Canadians had been published in literary magazines and anthologies since the 1970s, the identification of a distinct body of works called “Asian Canadian literature,” as Donald Goellnicht has noted (in “A Long Labour”), began only when there was a sociopolitical movement focused on identity politics. The literature includes early experiences of Chinese in Gum San or “gold mountain”; Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War; South Asian Canadians diasporic writing from former British colonies like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Trinidad, Guyana, Tanzania, and Kenya; feminist experimental and genre writing; and writing from the post-1975 wave of first- and 1.5-generation immigrants and refugees. Early 21st-century works have moved from mainly autoethnographic stories to those that include larger sociocultural concerns, such as poverty, domestic violence, the environment, lesbian, queer, and transgender issues, and other intersectional systems of oppression that face Asian Canadians and other marginalized groups. Genres include memoirs, films, short stories, autobiographies, realist novels, science fiction, graphic novels, poetry, plays, and historical novels.
In the past, without naming the field “Asian Canadians,” many critics have engaged with Asian Canadian literary texts. For example, articles and chapters about Joy Kogawa’s Obasan can be found in journals and books on Canadian, postcolonial, ethnic, and Asian American literature. South Asian Canadian literature also has strong links with postcolonial studies and institutions, such as the book publisher TSAR Publications, which began as the literary journal, The Toronto South Asian Review. In Canadian English usage, Asian usually refers to people from East and Southeast Asian while the term South Asian Canadian is a subgroup of Asian Canadian, according to Statistics Canada. In literary studies, it has only been in the past ten or fifteen years that the term “Asian Canadian” is used as a pan-ethnic term for all peoples who are originally from or have roots in Asia.
Charles Bukowski fought, drank, and tirelessly wrote his way to international renown by defining a new American outsider poetry. A self-mythologizing and ingenious promoter, Bukowski was also an extremely prolific novelist, columnist, short-story writer, and poet best known for his hard-bitten, minimalist portrayals of Los Angeles's underbelly. Bukowski provokes extreme reactions to his work. On the one hand he is a cult hero, a writer who sees through the pretensions of life and literature to depict the world in all its brutality and beauty. On the other hand he is dismissed as a primitive writer who spewed out a facile mixture of juvenile bile, self-absorbed rant, and clever posturing designed to get a rise from his audience and raise sales of his books. Bukowski published over sixty volumes of poetry and prose, and his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Though he lived hard and drank determinedly for most of his life, he died on 9 March 1994 from leukemia. At the time of his death, he had become wealthy from his many writings and lived in the comfortable suburb of San Pedro.
Beat pioneer, heroin addict, expatriate, anarchist, gay rights advocate, gentleman, punk icon, free speech trailblazer, and member of the Academy of Arts and Letters, William Seward Burroughs was not only one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century but also one of the most fascinating.
The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.
Charles Robert Baker
The author known as Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on 30 September 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, Archulus Persons, was a charming dreamer who believed that his big break was just around the corner; that his next get-rich-quick scheme would be the one that would establish him as a financially independent southern gentleman. One of the many people who fell for his charm and his dreams was a seventeen-year-old former Miss Alabama, Lillie Mae Faulk. Lillie Mae had dreams of her own and saw the twenty-five-year-old entrepreneur as her ticket to a better life. The two were married in Lillie Mae's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, on 23 August 1923. Their honeymoon along the Gulf Coast was cut short when Persons ran out of money and Lillie Mae was sent home to the relatives who had raised her since her mother's death. Persons stayed in New Orleans, trying to raise some funds, and four weeks later returned to Monroeville with the expectation that the Faulks would take him in and care for him as a member of the family. He was mistaken.
John Wharton Lowe
Transnationalism and Global Studies have exploded old notions of artificial cultural boundaries, opening to view the myriad cross currents between the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Thus, the literature produced by the wider region of the circumCaribbean can be considered to reflect this interplay and as an alternative history to chronicles bounded by nationalism. While the age of contact and contest, the Haitian Revolution, and the U.S.–Mexican War were early focal points for interchange, the mutual influences of cultures have been dynamic, ongoing, and intricately connected to immigration, diaspora, racial conflict and mixing, and the creation of new forms of cultural expression. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the literature of the circumCaribbean, especially in the new forms it has taken over the past fifty years.
Peter Uwe Hohendahl
As early as 1916, Carl Schmitt underscored the centrality of myth and religion in his analysis of the expressionist Theodor Däubler. He celebrated Däubler as a Christian poet and radical critic of modernity. This critique of modernity was then articulated in more systematic terms his 1919 essay Political Romanticism, which opposed the Romantic approach to life and art as ironic escapism and relativism. During the 1920s and 1930s, a personal search for new ground led Schmitt to the Catholic author Konrad Weiss, and subsequently to Herman Melville’s story Benito Cereno as a private allegory of Carl Schmitt as persecuted intellectual. His late literary criticism focused on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His interpretation emphasizes the tragic nature of the play, explicitly taking issue with Walter Benjamin’s reading of Hamlet as a Christian Trauerspiel (mourning play). For Schmitt, the central issue is the presence of contemporary history as a force that deeply impacts the drama. This argument is directed against the notion of play and the idea of aesthetic autonomy. Instead, for Schmitt, the older concept of representation defines the place and relevance of art and the aesthetic within a broader cultural and religious configuration.
James P. Austin
Few writers have succeeded over hardship to become an indelible literary figure of their era quite like Raymond Carver. Born in 1938 in Clatskanie, Oregon, Carver was the son of a sawmill worker and he spent his formative years, and even much of his own adulthood, as a member of the working class. It is the men and women of the working class who populate the world of Carver's award-winning short stories. But the road from Clatskanie to the distinguished awards and respect Carver had earned by the end of his life was a long and winding one.
Susan J. Rosowski
Willa Cather is remarkable for the excellence, productivity, longevity, consistency, and experimentation of her writing, and also for the absence in her life of the angst familiar in other authors' biographies: alienation, madness, scandal, alcoholism. Instead, she was faithful to her home, her family, and her friends. Her experience encompassed rural Virginia, frontier Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Park Avenue in New York City, with side trips to Europe, the American Southwest, and Canada; she was a Nebraska cosmopolite. Unlike writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived their lives as extensions of the stories they told, Cather was known for the privacy of her life as well as for the openness of her writing. She once said, in a letter to The Commonweal describing her own methods, that a novelist should present “the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own…whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ ” (On Writing, p. 13). Cather was a writer whose works were exceptionally infused with her own experiences, but at the same time she had the rare capacity for detachment and could make those experiences and emotions part of her characters' stories, not just her own.
Insofar as literature is defined negatively, by what it is not, censorship has had a determining role in its historical constitution. Contemporary scholarship emphasizes the dynamic interplay between literary expression and forms of cultural regulation, recognizing its paradoxically productive capacity to generate as well as suppress meaning. At the same time, accounting for censorship’s role in the history of the world’s literature means coming to grips with the often brutal repression, prohibition, and persecution of writing, writers, performance, and cultural producers by sovereign power underwritten by violence. Tracing the genealogies of literary censorship, from its formulations in ancient Rome, through medieval religious persecution, sedition and heresy charges, theatre controls, early modern print and copyright licensing, to the seeming breakthroughs of the Enlightenment, details the interdependence of modernity and cultural regulation. At stake in this history are defining relations between culture and society, knowledge and power, not least in the manner in which literature traverses the boundary between public and private, and censorship polices that divide. The art-for-art’s-sake defense, which separates the literary from what is offensive—nominally from obscenity, pornography, libel, blasphemy, and sedition and effectively from politics, intimacy, and the real—stumbles and fails in the face of culture’s variant aims and readers’ differing pleasures. And the state’s use of the law to enforce its role as a custosmorum has placed not only art in opposition to the law, as Gustave Flaubert saw, but also culture in opposition to morality, when the state becomes the modern arbiter of culture’s social and political roles. The available frames for understanding censorship, from liberal, materialist, psychoanalytic, linguistic, and poststructuralist positions, face challenges from diversifying and yet synthesizing situations for literature in a global world.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century
Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.
In his memoir Writing Was Everything (1995), Alfred Kazin describes meeting John Cheever for the first time. The occasion was a 1937 party hosted by the New Republic magazine for contributors under the age of twenty-five. Kazin was impressed by the ease with which Cheever maneuvered around the room. They were both struggling young writers but very different in personality. As Kazin stammered around the periphery, the short and slight Cheever took over the party, as lithe in movement as Fred Astaire and bubbling with pleasure as he charmed everyone with his wit and cleverness. He seemed to possess an inborn social confidence.
Robert M. Dowling
America's first great black novelist, Charles W. Chesnutt, was a mixed-race, middle-class political moderate. He spent much of his life, both as a child and an adult, in northern cities and southern towns, particularly in Ohio and North Carolina. He was a product of the industrial Gilded Age and of agrarian Reconstruction, an author who fused tradition with new forms, realism with romance, ancient mythology with African-American folklore, and love stories with the law. “I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl,” Chesnutt confessed in 1881, “neither ‘nigger,’ white, nor ‘buckrah.’ Too ‘stuck-up’ for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites.” Chesnutt, who wrote during the period that in 1931 he called “Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem,” falls in between most American group identities. That station simultaneously equipped him as a realist, hobbled his ability to achieve an authentic social affiliation, and made him one of the most intriguing representatives of his period. As William Dean Howells wrote of Chesnutt's work in the context of the American race-writing tradition:
The “Chicago Renaissance,” as it is called, can be regarded as a cheerfully inexact moniker for the simple reason that a city like nineteenth-century Chicago, with no literary past to speak of, would have had none to revive in a “renaissance” either. Yet Chicago did compel a surge of new and unprecedented literary activity from a varied corps of writers beginning in the 1890s and lasting through the 1920s. These writers wrote in Chicago, they wrote of Chicago, and whatever they wrote was shaped somehow by the city. In their turn, the poets and novelists of the Chicago Renaissance gradually worked a change on the local and national literary landscape. Their city, described in 1914 by Theodore Dreiser as “a maundering yokel with an epic in its mouth,” led them all to scribble toward an epic that would fit their own sense of style, scale, and literary destiny. From Dreiser the monumental realist to Edgar Lee Masters the free-verse elegist, from L. Frank Baum the pop American allegorist to Harriet Monroe the poetry magnate, the protagonists of the “renaissance” relied on Chicago to twist their pens and turn their pages.
“Language,” Loren Eiseley wrote, “implies boundaries. A word spoken creates a dog, a rabbit, a man. It fixes their nature before our eyes.” What does well for a rabbit or a man, however, is inadequate for literature. The phrase “children's book” resembles a tent, baggy and capacious, containing all kinds of writing and drawing. For some critics, any book a child reads or plays with is a children's book. A Golden Touch and Feel book, Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny, is for preschoolers. The “reader” imitates the characters Judy and Tom as they touch things. While Judy pats an illustrated bunny, the child touches a piece of cotton. After Paul smells flowers in an illustration, the reader sniffs a scented page. For children slightly more advanced are “Board Books,” small books whose pages are thick as cardboard to resist rough handling; Sandra Boynton's books are an example. At the other intellectual extreme are books read by precocious children. If a child reads John Steinbeck's East of Eden in the fifth grade, can the book be classified as a children's book? Or should it simply be labeled “extraordinary reading”?