David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.
Andrew Way Leong
Early Japanese American literature is not just the sum total of literary works written by the first persons of Japanese descent in the United States. Nor is it just a set of texts where two pre-existing categories of “Japanese” and “American” national literature happened to overlap. Early Japanese American literature is best understood as an ideological terrain, an arena where later, taken-for-granted ideas about the boundaries of identities and literatures known as “Japanese” and “Japanese American” were first constructed.
Due to the enduring legacies of single-nation and monolingual approaches to the study of modern literatures, only a handful of scholars have devoted serious comparative attention to the long history and formal breadth of literary production by persons of Japanese descent who traveled to or resided within the continental United States. In linguistic terms, early Japanese American literary production includes works written in Japanese, English, and other languages, such as classical Chinese, German, and Russian. In historical terms, the emergence of early Japanese American literature extends from travel narratives produced by castaways in the 1820s to the publication of full-fledged literary magazines and newspaper sections in the 1890s. In formal terms, early Japanese American literature includes literary forms that readers more familiar with European contexts might associate with early modernity, such as phrasebooks, essays on education, spiritual autobiographies, and diplomatic guides.
A.J. Yumi Lee
Asian American immigrant communities have been shaped by encounters with state surveillance, policing, detention, and deportation, and contemporary Asian American literature reflects this history. Many foundational Asian American literary texts narrate experiences of policing and incarceration related to immigration, and contemporary Asian American literary works frequently comment and build on these stories. Such works also recall the creative tactics that immigrants have employed to protect each other and elude the state, including adopting or inventing different names, identities, and familial affiliations. Another body of Asian American literature addresses experiences of encampment linked to war, occupation, and militarism that have both preceded and followed Asian American immigration to the United States. In particular, the internment of Japanese Americans in the western United States and Canada during World War II gave rise to numerous creative works, including fiction, poetry, memoir, art, and film by internees and the generations that followed. Asian American literary texts about post–World War II US wars in Asia, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Global War on Terror, depict transnational wartime carceral spaces such as prisoner-of-war camps and refugee camps as sites that have generated Asian diasporic migrations. Post-9/11 Asian American works have responded to the militarized policing and incarceration of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, both domestically and globally. Finally, contemporary narratives of Asian American incarceration in the United States frequently address the connections between the policing of immigrants and the larger prison industrial complex, asking readers to situate Asian Americans comparatively in relation to other vulnerable groups, particularly other communities of color who have been targeted for abuse and incarceration by police and the state historically and in the 21st century.
In 1833 a reforming government seemed to threaten the disestablishment of the Church of England. This provoked a small number of clergy associated with Oxford University to address Tracts for the Times (1833–1841) to fellow Anglican clerics. Reminding them that they derived their spiritual authority not from the state, but by virtue of ordination into a church which traced its direct descent from the body instituted by Christ and his apostles, the tracts ranged from scholarly argument to templates for the renewal of spiritual life. The tract writers included John Henry Newman, John Keble, Richard Hurrell Froude, Isaac Williams, and Edward Bouverie Pusey. Determined to reinterpret the Church of England to itself as the true Catholic church in England, they sought to counteract the perceived Protestant bias of the Book of Common Prayer by appealing to the early Fathers of the undivided church of antiquity, and by emphasizing the via media (middle way) favored by many 17th-century theologians.
The series that gave the movement its alternative name, Tractarianism, came to an abrupt end when in Tract XC (1841), Newman, the influential vicar of the University church, argued that the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all ordained clergy and all Oxford students were then obliged to subscribe, could be interpreted as compatible with Roman Catholic theology. For many, Newman’s founding of a semi-monastic community to which he retreated in 1843, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, where he was followed by a number of other Tractarians, marked the end of the movement. This impression was lent continued currency both by Newman’s own account, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), and by subsequent 19th-century historians. However, the movement’s influence continued to be felt throughout the wider Anglican communion in renewed attention to sacramental worship, in church building, and in the founding of Anglican communities. The movement’s appeal to pre-Reformation theology led to its being associated with the revival of Gothic architecture, while Tractarian sacramental fervor later translated into obsessive observance of Prayer Book rubrics by the so-called Ritualists.
Admiration for the Lake Poets fed into a Tractarian aesthetic which saw poetic language as religion’s natural mode of expression, half revealing, half concealing heavenly truths, and poetic rhythm and structure as devices for controlling thoughts and emotions. As its title indicates, Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) was designed to accompany the liturgy: immensely popular, it carried the movement’s principles well beyond Anglo-Catholic circles. It was supplemented by further collections of Tractarian poetry. Institutionally male in origin, the movement nevertheless legitimated women’s work through sisterhoods, in education and as writers. Charlotte Yonge and Christina Rossetti are the two most notable exemplars of this impulse.
The movement provoked polemical fiction both from its ardent disciples and from disenchanted followers. In the popular press, Anglo-Catholicism quickly translated into Roman Catholicism, thus presenting a potential threat to English values. The revival of confession, sisterhoods, and the notion of celibacy seemed to undermine the Victorian domestic order, while priestly attention to liturgical vestments was attacked as unmanly. If Anglo-Catholicism’s long-term legacy was spiritual, its short-term effect was to politicize Victorian religion.
Southern poetry embraces dichotomous elements: it contains poems lauding the Confederacy, and also poems deeply critical and mournful of the racist violence, oppression, and racist terrorism that characterize the region’s history. Yet a common thread runs through Southern poetry—attention to the land, the rural South as a character in its own right, and with that attention to the land a quality of haunting and being haunted by the history of the South: the violence of colonization, enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Twentieth-century poet Etheridge Knight, born in Mississippi, lyrically describes the earth of Mississippi merging with the graves of his ancestors, calling him home to a place where, as a black man, he is not safe. Nineteenth-century poet Sidney Lanier, born in Georgia and, like Knight, a man who had experienced imprisonment, shapes in his poetry a mythical country where trees and rivers and indigenous crops become forces superseding the human; but Lanier, a soldier for the Confederacy, does not mention enslavement in his poetry. In Southern poetry, this blind spot—the white Southern poet who does not see or reflect upon the racist violence of enslavement, Jim Crow, lynching—is often submerged into a poetry melancholic and obsessed with unnamable violence and loss, even as African American poets of the South often name this loss in terms of personal memory. Myth—of the aristocratic, agrarian South—in white Southern poetry, and memory—of personal risk and suffering—in African American Southern poetry, can be understood together as a common pull to write the land, albeit from different perspectives.