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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.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sylvia Shin Huey Chong
As a war that was not supposed to be a war—the United States never formally declared it as such—and yet was already the second in a series of wars—the first being the anticolonial war against the French that won Vietnam its independence—the Vietnam War is just as hard to pin down cinematically as it is historically. Although it is now recognized as a major film genre in US cinema, the category of the Vietnam War film can also include representations of Southeast Asia during French colonialism, the brief decades of independence before the entrance of US troops, and the long legacy of the war in terms of refugee crisis, political unrest, genocide, PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), and protest. Not only Vietnamese but all of the peoples formerly grouped under the banner of French Indochina—including Cambodians and Laotians—were dragged into the war as willing or unwitting participants, and their experiences of combat and its aftermath are as integral to the Vietnam War film as those of the American soldiers that typically dominate the genre. The region of Southeast Asia beyond French Indochina—Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong—is also significant, both to the history of the war (as political allies, or hosts of military bases or refugee camps) and to the history of the film genre (as locations for filming, or sources for extras or actors or technical support). Outside of Southeast Asia, other nations such as the former USSR, Canada, Australia, France, and South Korea also played a part in the war, sending soldiers to the war or taking in Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian refugees after the war, and these links also yielded further contributions to the Vietnam War film genre from these national cinema industries. The Vietnam War fueled many protest movements and forms of activism, becoming part of a larger, global post-1968 debate about imperialism, racism, capitalism, and militarism in many countries, and so the vigorous protests against the war also became a visible part of the film genre, especially in documentary filmmaking. As the direct survivors of the Vietnam War era begin to be supplanted by a second and even third generation for whom the war is a historical footnote, the legacy of the Vietnam War genre becomes dispersed into the larger genealogies of national cinemas and cultural memory industries, as the children of war veterans and refugees and protestors return to Southeast Asia armed with cameras and capital. Their attention is directed not only backward in time—excavating family or national histories—but also forward, forging new Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, French, Australian, and American cinemas that are indelibly marked by the Vietnam War but no longer obsessed with representing it as such.
Pedro Henríquez Ureña is arguably the most influential Dominican thinker of the 20th century and one of the most esteemed Latin American and Caribbean intellectuals. He spent almost ten years in the United States where he engaged in literary and intellectual activities and has been deemed by many critics as one of the precursors of the Caribbean intellectual diaspora. Yet, since his legacy predates the consolidation of Latina/o studies in the late 1960s, his vast body of work has been regarded as valuable contribution exclusive to the Latin American and Caribbean intellectual archive rather than as testimony of the long-standing presence of Latina/o writings in the United States. The seminal works of scholars such as Alfredo Roggiano, Silvio Torres-Saillant, Victoria Nuñez, and Danny Méndez have shifted the dialogues on Pedro Henríquez Ureña’s trajectory considering his life in the United States and his experience in the New York metropolis. Situating him in a “Latino continuum,” to borrow Carmen Lamas’s term, within United States latinidad, engages with early 21st century scholarship on Latina/o studies that challenge the limitations of nationalist US literary and intellectual history and regionalist Latin American studies. The case of Pedro Henríquez Ureña sheds light on the important contributions of Spanish-speaking Caribbean-Latina/o writings in the early 20th century and highlights the intellectual activity of Dominicans, an ethnic group within the Latina/o umbrella that has remained obliterated in general discussions on latinidad. Thus, Pedro Henríquez Ureña’s trajectory in the United States, and most specifically New York, underscores the cultural dynamism of Latinas/os in early-20th-century New York with a special focus on pre-diasporic Dominican latinidad.
Kurt Vonnegut is a novelist who came to prominence during the cultural turmoil of the American 1960s, but whose work dates back to the 1950s, addressing popular concerns of that era as well. In subsequent decades he has remained at the forefront of both narrative innovation and social concern, making his more than half-century career in letters a valuable index to artistic and more broadly cultural issues.
In Crocodile Dandy, an essay about the Australian poet Les Murray, which amusingly begins with “the barbarians” approaching “the capital” with their rambunctious and superbly learned bards in tow, Derek Walcott provides a witty shorthand for the surprise of Empire at finding its former colonies' poets more au fait with its civilization's great art than it is itself. Walcott, as a son of the former colony of the British Empire, St. Lucia, is a perfect example—a poet from the margins, greatly learned in English literature, who has been widely feted both in Britain and America.
Stefanie K. Dunning
Alice Walker, perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple (1982), has always been committed to social and political change. This was nowhere clearer than in The Color Purple, which brought to light questions of sexual abuse and violence in the black community, while demonstrating the liberatory possibilities inherent in every life. The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, who is the victim of systematic gender oppression, at the hands of first her stepfather and then her husband. Despite the severe abuse Celie endures, she is a triumphant character who ultimately achieves a free and comfortable life. The principal male character—Celie's husband, Albert—is also redeemed and so transcends his abusive past. Many critics have argued that The Color Purple is Walker's best work, noting its inspired epistolary style (i.e., written in the form of letters) and the dynamic voice of its protagonist.
The literature of Central American–Americans is a diverse and emerging corpus of writing that testifies to the different phases and evolutions of warfare, locally and globally. This literature includes narratives about exiles and immigrants who left war zones, interdisciplinary poetry against U.S. militarized violence in different geographies, narratives about global wars and their aftermath, detective writings, and soldiers’ memoirs. War and violence have taken new shapes, and the inhumanity of war is expanded beyond the battlefield. A survey of the most representative Central American–American writers depicting these catastrophic events provides insights into the trauma of war individually and collectively and denounces its violence and causes. There are writers that propose a process of healing this history of violence and engagement with new struggles. Some of the authors in this survey make rational arguments, refuting Western-centric perspectives that justify war as a necessary and logical event. Other writers present a strong pacifist agenda as the result of having participated directly in this traumatic experience. Writers often reflect on ameliorative justice and the exile experience. Through history, they change their representation of war in Central America; later authors connect these catastrophes with violence in the United States and elsewhere. War becomes imbricated with gender violence, policing, urban policing, racism, and class discrimination. Immigrants become the main characters in many contemporary writings, and the search for identity, connected with the past of war, is common in the poetic discourse of the younger generation.
What text epitomizes the literature of war? A battlefield account by an American soldier? A work of fiction written at the time of a war? Or fiction written after a war, but set in a remembered zone of conflict? The poetry of the battlefield? The poetry of those left out of the battle? What about the literature of the interned? The literature of the violated? The literature of the displaced, of the indigenous peoples of America? The literature of the immigrants who arrived in the United States in the wake of foreign wars? The choices are innumerable.
The social and political conditions actuated by 9/11 have been a major catalyst for new literature, television and film about South Asians and Muslims in America. Stemming from a 2001 speech by then president George W. Bush, the concept of the “War on Terror” has served to rationalize the domestic regulation of Muslims, while also validating the need for US imperialist and capitalist expansion. Where US government discourse highlights first-person narratives that figure America as a benevolent global protector of freedom and democracy, South Asian American fictional and non-fictional narratives posit critiques of Islamophobia and the US security state. Spanning a breadth of genres and styles, including the paradigmatic 9/11 novel, the bildungsroman, comedic satire, dramatic monologue, magic realism, documentary film, and urban fiction, South Asian American literature and media highlight narratives of interfaith and cross-racial solidarity. The imaginary worlds of these texts confront the injustices of US imperialism and the global War on Terror for Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad. At the same, South Asian American representation engaged with the impacts of post-9/11 politics and society has enriched understanding of the complex lived experiences of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans, as well as those of Indian Americans who are Muslim or trace their ancestry to the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. By centering the perspectives of those communities most affected by detention, xenophobia, and surveillance, post-9/11 South Asian American literature and media reveal how the exigencies of history produce new forms of narrative and cultural practice.
Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) was a prolific and distinguished poet, novelist, and critic. His novel All the King’s Men (1946), a fictionalized treatment of the Huey Long regime of 1930s Louisiana, is the finest novel of politics in the American tradition. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times, once for All the King’s Men, and twice for poetry, for Promises in 1957, and for Now and Then in 1978. With Cleanth Brooks he wrote a number of textbooks, most important among them Understanding Poetry (1938), which revolutionized the teaching of literature in the United States and shaped literary pedagogy for forty years. As a social critic, Warren played a role in persuading the white South to accept racial integration in such books as Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965).
Wendy Martin and Sharon Becker
In her autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings (1984), Eudora Welty reflects on the complicated relationship between literature, literary criticism, and authorial intention: “The story and its analyses are not mirror-opposites of each other. They are not reflections, either one. Criticism indeed is an art, as a story is, but only the story is to some degree a vision; there is no explanation outside fiction for what the writer is learning to do.” This observation goes to the heart of the difficulty regarding the categorization of Welty's writing. Though a proud daughter of the South, Welty resisted the label of “regionalist,” observing that everyone was from someplace, so that every writer was, essentially, a regionalist. Similarly, she wrote compelling portraits of women, and forged a path for other women writers, but she refused to wear the mantle of “woman writer” or “feminist.” For Welty, the most important accomplishment was to create compelling characters and a well-crafted narrative rather than a public persona as a famous author. Details outside of that process, such as finding the meaning of, or the symbolism, in her stories were not as important to Welty as the writing itself.
Thousands of writers on the West Coast have made important contributions to arts and letters, and beyond that, to environmental writing, political writing, experimentalism, and performance. Under the rubric “West Coast School,” this essay surveys writers living on the West Coast during the twentieth century. The work of the West Coast School writers is characterized by eroticism, spirituality, nature writing, and autobiography. San Francisco supports more poetry publishing, performance, and education than any U.S. city except New York. Most major West Coast writers have lived near San Francisco at one time.
William R. Handley
The vast and complex region called the American West—large parts of which Europeans and Americans once called Spanish Territory, Louisiana Territory, Mexico, the Great American Desert, and Deseret—has historically seen the clash and confluence of many cultures, ethnic groups, nations, and traditions. Such cultural crosscurrents have been among the distinctive features of the region's literary history since the sixteenth century. Even the American West's most popular genre, the formula Western, and the figure of the often gun-totin' cowboy that it celebrates, show the influence, respectively, of the Scottish borderlands made famous in the Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott and of the figure of the Spanish vaquero. Nothing in this region's collective literary history is quite what it may at first seem. It was a storied landscape centuries before it became American, and it was never “the West” for Spanish explorers, some of whom arrived before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It was later the North for Mexicans and the East for Asians who came there. Depending on what images the two terms call to mind, “the West” can seem older and culturally larger than “America,” and certainly older than the image that the Western has propagated around the world.
The satiric genius Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein and died, aged thirty-seven, before his work met with the kind of critical acclaim it deserved. “Do I love what others love?,” a motto from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is inscribed below the drawing of a man hugging a mule in the bookplate that his friend, the writer S. J. Perelman, designed for West while they were still at college. In fact, West, in his brief life, did not, it seems, love what most others loved.
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.