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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.
Josephine Nock-Hee Park
The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war.
The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.
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.
Scholarship surrounding literature from Hawai‘i has often been beset by battles over representation. In particular, controversies over how outsiders depict Hawaiian life and culture have been raised with texts such as James Michener’s 1959 bestseller Hawaii, and arguments about local and settler literary authority emerged as part of academic literary criticism back in the 1990s. Current scholarship on literature from Hawai‘i emphasizes ethnic and racial conflict, and in so doing tends to obscure other kinds of significant differences—between urban and rural, academic and non-academic, large- and small-scale production—that exist in literary practices in Hawai‘i. In contrast, there is a plentiful, heterogenous, and multifaceted body of writing that has been and continues to be produced on the Island of Hawai‘i (the Big Island). These literary practices include publishing houses that promote literature in multiple languages including English and Native Hawaiian, groups that actively seek to preserve Big Island culture and history (such as the memory of plantation life), and collaborative community and student efforts. Newer forms of expression such as bilingual manga, documentary film, musical theater, and Native Hawaiian and English rap music have added to long-standing traditions of storytelling, theater and performance, and life writing. Detailing these many voices and different kinds of writing and working directly with writers allows for a much more nuanced understanding of what “literature from Hawai‘i” encompasses and how it should be read. This interpretive model reconnects a large present-day and historical body of work to a specific place (as opposed to a vague notion of the islands) and to the Big Island communities who serve as the primary audiences and critical readers of this work.
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.
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.
Belinda Linn Rincón
Despite receiving little to no attention in mainstream academic scholarship about US antiwar movements, Latina/o communities have a long history of protesting wars and military interventions throughout the second half of the 20th century. The wide-scale mobilization of Latina/o protestors against the US war in Vietnam marks an important development in Latina/o social movement history. Another important moment of Latina/o mobilization came in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the mass influx of refugees fleeing war in Central America that resulted in large part from US interventions in Central American civil wars. The historical context, political struggles, and modes of activism of the Central American solidarity movement distinguish it from the Vietnam antiwar movements. Yet, like earlier Chicana/o and Puerto Rican antiwar movements, there remained a concerted focus on transnational solidarity. Notably, each movement accompanied a literary and cultural renaissance in which authors and activists—and, in many cases, author-activists—joined forces to protest the political, economic, and social consequences of warfare. Some even joined revolutionary movements as internationalist volunteers. Latina/o activists and authors have drawn on rich oral, musical, and folkloric traditions and tropes to create new modes of expression and political speech. To fully account for the multiple forms of Latina/o antiwar expression, it is necessary to look beyond traditional literary genres and include protest speeches, agit-prop theater, movement manifestos and newspapers, conference resolutions, handbills, political pamphlets, corridos (ballads), oral histories, induction refusals, and testimonios, among other documents. Through alternative print cultures, Latina/o antiwar activists and authors created a space to summon and address a Latina/o readership whose concerns over war were largely ignored in mainstream publics. Latina/o authors also insisted on creative autonomy and aesthetic sophistication while remaining resolutely committed to producing socially relevant literature whose resonance extended far beyond the page. Such characteristics define a diverse body of Latina/o writing that helped galvanize Latina/o antiwar movements.
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.