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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.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.
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.
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.