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John Barth is counted among the first generation of American postmodernist writers. Of this group, which includes Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, John Hawkes, and Donald Barthelme, Barth has been identified by turns as the most nihilistic and the most hopeful; indeed, his fiction explores just this sort of irreconcilable dualism.
The Beat movement was America's first major Cold War literary movement. Originally a small circle of unpublished friends, it later became one of the most significant sources of contemporary counterculture, and the most successful free speech movement in American literature. It is at once a reclamation of poetry from the modernist pedestal of the New Critics and an attempt to infiltrate the academy itself; as closely associated with the proliferation of Eastern spirituality in America as it is with the drug culture and jazz rhythms of the street.
Enthralled by literature but disenchanted with graduate school, Ann Beattie began writing short stories and resolutely submitting her unsolicited manuscripts to The New Yorker. She racked up nearly two dozen rejections, but her determination finally bore fruit when the preeminent weekly magazine accepted “A Platonic Relationship” in 1974, thus launching a controversial and significant writing career.
In much the same way that William Faulkner created the necessary conditions for serious literature about the modern South and, in the process, inspired generations of literary followers, Saul Bellow made serious literature about modern urban Jewish Americans possible. His fiction brought the immigrant Jewish sensibility, in all its restless striving and ethnic vividness, to national attention. With novel after impressive novel he slowly emerged as the only contemporary fictionist who could be mentioned in the same breath with Faulkner and Henry James. “As the external social fact grows larger, more powerful and tyrannical,” Bellow wrote in a 1951 application to the Rockefeller Foundation, “man appears in the novel reduced in will, strength, freedom and scope.” The Foundation turned down his request for badly needed funding, but he continued to explore ways in which fiction might celebrate humanity's essential spirit. Humor is an essential ingredient in Bellow's formula because wit (in his case, the Yiddish quip) is a traditional way that oppressed people counter the fists and guns of a majority culture. Moreover, humor is, in Bellow's words, “more manly” than complaint. Thus, Bellow explores the human comedy, as did Shakespeare, Dante, and Joyce before him, but he does so with a distinctively Yiddish flavoring.
Stephen Vincent Benét is remembered primarily for two works: the long narrative poem John Brown's Body and the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. These two works are characterized by qualities that can be found in varying degrees in Benét's less familiar work: formal craftsmanship combined seamlessly with an easy, informal diction; a love of America that is not blind to America's shortcomings; a liberal view of both political and domestic relationships; and a commitment to the progress of humanity.
John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith Jr. on 25 October 1914 in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was named after his father, a bank clerk. His mother was Martha Little Smith, and both parents were Roman Catholics. His father, dismissed from his bank for nonattendance, became a game warden, then bought a restaurant in Tampa, Florida. The family lived in a tenement owned by John Angus Berryman. There is little doubt that Martha Smith began an affair with their landlord. Early on the morning of 26 June 1926, her husband was found shot dead at the rear of the tenement. It is generally held that he committed suicide.
Aaron K. DiFranco
One of the most versatile contemporary authors, Wendell Berry is renowned for his prolific output of poetry, fiction, and essays. The quality of his craft is even more impressive considering his lifelong dedication to the land-based values and practices learned in the rural valleys of Kentucky. Grounded in the realities of running a small farm increasingly under threat from America's urban-centered industrial society, his work recalls that of the southern Agrarians for the way it promotes the traditional values of agricultural communities. Although all his work is infused with a sense of historical continuation, it also shuns the sentimentally nostalgic as well as the unthinkingly “innovative,” preferring instead tested methods of stewardship that help promote an ethical relationship to the land, the community, the family, and the self. His vocal advocacy for the environment from an agricultural standpoint has paralleled Gary Snyder's more wilderness-oriented position. Frequently compared to Henry David Thoreau for his retreat to and promotion of a life lived in effective balance with the land, Berry's firm dedication to place has enabled him to refine his skills as farmer, husband, and writer.
Ambrose Bierce, an ironist whose choice of genre roved from predatorially sardonic verse to artfully detached war writing, was born Ambrose Gwinett Bierce on 24 June 1842, in the Ohio village of Horse Cave Creek. He was the tenth of thirteen children of Marcus Aurelius Bierce, a struggling Congregationalist farmer; Protestant evangelism helped to dictate the community's calendar. Bierce left his family's faith and their rural penury behind him as soon as he could, beginning work at age fifteen as a printer's devil for the antislavery Northern Indianan newspaper. And yet the barnyard did not forever leave the writer; in it Bierce may have found his origins as a literary mocker. For example, the biliously independent title character in Bierce's short story “Curried Cow” could be readily understood as the writer's alter ego.
Bilingualism is an integral element of the lives and experiences of Asian Americans as well as a condition, theme, and style of a large and diverse body of Asian American writings. The history of Asian immigration, U.S. imperialism, and anti-Asian laws and policies all contributed to creating the material conditions for the linguistic environment of Asians in the United States. Whether the strictures of Asian exclusion, which severely limited immigrants’ access to English, or the stigmatization of the Japanese language during the Pacific War, social and cultural hostility to bilingualism was common. Despite such hostility, this literature of exclusion and incarceration reflects vibrant language-worlds in which writings in the language of the immigrant’s origin, as well as transliteration and translation of Asian languages into English, suggest the formal creativeness and psychological resilience of Asian Americans who navigated life in two languages. U.S. imperialism in the Philippines promoted English as the language of colonial bureaucracy and opportunities in the islands while also giving rise to literature in English as part of Filipino literature. Filipino diasporic writers note the power and prestige of English while being cognizant of the colonial origins of English in the Philippines. In a climate where bilingualism is regulated not by exclusionary laws and policies but by social and cultural forces, post-1965 Asian American literature explores the persistence of Asian non-belonging in English, with tropes of the mother tongue and the psychology of language loss recurring in its exploration of citizenship and assimilation. Asian American writers from Hawai‘i provide a distinctive postcolonial outlook, resisting assimilation into English through the use of Pidgin. As a rich and innovative literary language, Pidgin captures the experiences of Hawai‘ians excluded from the privileges of whiteness. The broader literary apparatuses of American literature also significantly conditioned bilingualism. American literary modernism’s Orientalism valorized Asian languages but employed limited and fixed ideas of the Other. The global dominance of English as a literary language has become a backdrop for new experiments with bilingualism in Asian American literature and new models of writing in English by Asian diasporic writers.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the most original lyric voices of the twentieth century, standing with such other American poets as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore, who was Bishop's mentor and shared Bishop's thirst for accuracy. Like these poets, Bishop was not part of any school and so did not align herself with any program or spend time framing manifestos. Instead, she forged her own aesthetic based on close observation of the thing itself, and in the process generated new idioms and rhythms that convey with wit and a keen moral sense her beliefs about the power of the human imagination to build upon and alter our world.
William R. Nash
The term “Black Arts Movement” describes a set of attitudes, influential from 1965 to 1976, about African-American cultural production, which assumed that political activism was a primary responsibility of black artists. It also decreed that the only valid political end of black artists' efforts was liberation from white political and artistic power structures. Just as white people were to be stripped of their right to proscribe or define black identity, white aesthetic standards were to be overthrown and replaced with creative values arising from the black community.
The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.
In 1960 the poet Donald M. Allen published an anthology titled The New American Poetry. Just three years earlier, the poets Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson had edited New Poets of England and America. Although each purported to be a definitive survey of contemporary poetry, these books could not boast a single poet in common. New Poets of England and America contained academic poets working largely within traditional form, poets influenced by predecessors such as Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. Mainstream poets like Adrienne Rich, John Hollander, and Richard Wilbur were included. Allen's collection, however, provided a forum for the many experimental poets working in the United States. He viewed these poets as inheritors of the innovations set in motion by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The work of this new generation had heretofore reached its growing audience only through publication in small magazines and by independent presses or through readings. The Beats, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, were represented, as well as poets of the New York school and the San Francisco Renaissance. Allen also created a new designation for a group of writers otherwise difficult to categorize: the Black Mountain School. To this school he assigned Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Blackburn, Jonathan Williams, Paul Carroll, Robert Duncan, and Larry Eigner. They were named for the short-lived but much storied Black Mountain College, of which Olson was the rector from 1951 until it dissolved in 1956
Popular conceptions of Bollywood imagine it as a recent entry onto the global screen and stage. Although it is not incorrect to think of Bollywood as a recent formation, scholars can point to an early-20th-century coining of the neologism, even while suggesting that the more recent use of the term coincides with the liberalization of the Indian economy and the globalization of cultural forms and industries since the 1980s. Components of the current transnational assemblage that is popularly called Bollywood can be traced to the long-standing international formations of Bombay Hindi-Urdu cinema. Early and mid-20th-century Bombay cinema was mobilized through colonial, diasporic, and international circuits that brought it to London, China, Russia, and the United States. Consequently, Bollywood has been present in the United States and specifically playing to Asian American publics for over seven decades. During the mid-20th century, Bombay films ran in American art-house theaters; their distribution was often assisted by the effort and labor of Indian Americans who were seeking to gain greater exposure for Indian films. But it was post-1965 Asian migration that established the centrality of film and film cultures to Asian American communities, including but not limited to South Asian diasporic publics; this growth coincided with the globalization of Bombay cinema into a transnational Bollywood media ecology. It is important to recognize the significance of Bollywood as an assemblage within the cultural citizenship and racialized socialities of South Asian Americans and its significance to the affect and temporality of other groups, including Hmong American refugees.
Tuija Laine and Kirsti Salmi-Niklander
Vernacular literacy began in Finland with the Reformation. Michael Agricola, the first Finnish reformer, studied in Wittenberg, and, after returning to Finland, translated the first books into Finnish. The books were originally intended for priests, but in the middle of the 17th century a literacy campaign was conducted throughout the Swedish realm, one that was quite effective in expanding the reading audience. A number of bishops in the diocese of Turku were also active in writing basic religious material for the common people, including primers, catechisms, and hymnals. The church also examined its parishioners’ reading skills. People could not acquire the status of godparent, attend the Eucharist, or marry without proper reading skills and a knowledge of basic Christian doctrine. In the first phase of the campaign, reading was only learning by rote, but by the last decades of the 17th century bishops and priests were emphasizing the importance of reading from books and understanding their content. Literacy progressed further in the 18th century, and literature published in Finnish became more varied.
During the 19th century, Finland’s literacy rate continued to rise gradually. For the vast majority of the rural population, however, “literacy” meant only the very basic reading skills required and examined by the Lutheran Church. The statute for primary schools was laid down in 1866, but the law on compulsory primary education was not enacted until 1921. The Russian government began to promote the Finnish language in the 1860s. The consequent growth of Finnish-language literature and the expansion of the press allowed for reading by large segments of the population. The popular movements established during the final decades of the 19th century (the temperance movement, agrarian youth movement, and labor movement, for example) provided further opportunities for literary training. Among the lower classes in rural Finland, many self-educated writers submitted manuscripts to the Finnish Literature Society and sent news of their home parishes to newspapers. Some of them became professional writers or journalists.
In the U.S.-Mexico context, the concepts of the border, borderlands, and la frontera represent their ongoing complex geopolitical, cultural, and historical relations. With the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the Mexican and U.S. governments established the southern border of the United States. The border is the international boundary line between the two countries, and the borderlands are the zones neighboring both sides of that boundary. It is a place where the First and Third Worlds collide daily, creating borderlands that amount to collective spaces of transcultural/transnational encounters. The concept of la frontera represents a counter-narrative of the term “frontier,” which became synonymous with American expansionism, or the westward expansion of the United States as proclaimed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1883. The Spanish term “frontera,” as used in this framework, presupposes a knowledge production ranging from the implications of land annexation to the geopolitical and cultural processes of borderland sites. While the borders mark the place where adjacent jurisdictions, communities, and nation-states meet, it has also been a hotly contested subject—literally and figuratively speaking—inciting extreme emotional reactions that fuel negative stereotypes about immigrants, ethnic discrimination, and xenophobia. Immigration has become one of the most salient sociopolitical issues discussed on the national level. Unfortunately, it is debated mainly outside of the historical context because the histories embedded in its borderlands can contribute enormously to inform current political debates about immigration in the United States. Border crossers coming from south of the border are often portrayed by U.S. politicians as the most unwelcome and undesirable (yet necessary) immigrants. As the national discussion on immigration reform continues and the alleged ills of the U.S.-Mexico border dominate the political discourse and the media, expressive art and print culture must continue to form novel epistemologies of borders and counter unsubstantiated alternative facts propagated by anti-immigrant groups. To that end, it is important to consider the border's literature and imagine the borderlands as the fruitful heterogeneous site of an imagined and creative homeland: Aztlán.
Daniel G. Brayton
Anne Bradstreet has long been the best-known English-language woman poet of the seventeenth century and one of the most famous early American literary figures. While numerous women writers of her era have, in the past two decades, gained a wider readership than ever before, largely because of the recuperative efforts of feminist literary scholars, Bradstreet has needed no such resurrection. She has been widely admired since her poems were first published in 1650. Her fame is often attributed to her status as one of the first English poets, male or female, writing in the Americas. Indeed, the title of the first published volume, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, suggests that the novelty of a poet writing in New England was a significant part of her appeal. Yet there can be no doubt that Bradstreet's work stands on its own. Readers appreciate her poetry for its passionate treatment of familial and theological themes and for its simple elegance.
From ancient Greece on, fictional narratives have entailed deciphering mystery. Sophocles’ Oedipus must solve the mystery of the plague decimating Thebes; the play is a dramatization of how he ultimately “detects” the culprit responsible for the plague, who turns out to be Oedipus himself. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines a successful plot as one that has a conflict (which can include, and often does include, a “mystery”) that rises to a climax, followed by a resolution of the conflict, a plot line that describes not only Oedipus Rex but also every Sherlock Holmes story.
A particular genre of mystery writing is defined by the mystery at the center of the story that is crucially, definitively solved by a particular person known as a detective, either private or police, who by ratiocination (close observation coupled with logical patterns of thought based on material evidence) uncovers and sorts out the relevant facts essential to a determination of who did the crime and how and why. The form of detective fiction throughout most of the 19th century was the short story published in various periodicals of the period. A few longer detective fictions were published as separate books in the 19th century, but book-length detective fiction, such as that by Agatha Christie, was really a product of the 20th century.
Most critics of detective fiction see the beginning of the genre in the three stories of Edgar Allan Poe which feature his amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, and were published in the 1840s. Although Poe’s 1840s stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which first appeared in the 1880s, are probably the most well known of 19th-century detective fictions, a number of other writers of generically recognizable detective fiction published stories in the almost fifty years between Poe and Conan Doyle, including a number that featured female detectives. Finally, from the 1890s into the early 20th century, a plethora of new detective fictions, still in short-story form for the most part, appeared not only in Britain but also in France and the United States.
Detective fiction has always been popular, but serious critical interest in the genre only developed in the 20th century. In the second half of that century, this critical interest expanded into the academic world. The popularity of the genre has only continued to grow. Both detective fictions (now nearly all novel length) and critical interest in the genre from a variety of perspectives are now an international phenomenon, and detective novels dominate many best-seller lists.
If we accept the well-known distinction that literary fiction is character driven and commercial fiction is plot driven, then the work of Harold Brodkey is the most literary American fiction of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is a critical commonplace to compare Brodkey's work with that of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), the French master of memory and psychological nuance. Born Aaron Roy Weintraub in Staunton (some sources say Alton), Illinois, on 31 October 1930, Harold Brodkey was adopted after the death of his mother by his father's cousins, Joseph and Doris Brodkey (the S.L. and Leila or Lila in his fiction), who lived in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brodkey graduated from Harvard (cum laude) in 1952, the same year he married Joanna Brown (they were divorced in 1962), with whom he had a daughter, Emily Ann. In his early twenties he began to publish stories in The New Yorker magazine, which were collected to form his first book, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957). The title sardonically recalls the melancholic longing of the European romantic movement. The difference is that Brodkey's protagonists—boys, college students, young marrieds—are unheroic, suburban, and American. They reach for levels of passion and sublimity beyond their capacity, Brodkey all the while maintaining a tone of tender pathos. The first story, “The State of Grace,” recounts the failure of an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy to make a connection of redemptive love with Edward, a beautiful seven-year-old. In the last five of the nine stories, Brodkey portrays Laura—sensitive, intelligent, a representative white middle-class female of the 1950s—from adolescence to marriage and young motherhood. Two of these five stories are parodically titled: Piping down the Valleys Wild (a William Blake poem of paradisiacal vision) and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a reference to the powerfully sensual woman in William Shakespeare's sonnets). Laura and her world, Brodkey wants us to know, are poignantly distant from what Blake and Shakespeare evoked. In its depiction of innocence and loss, First Love and Other Sorrows resembles the stories of two other New Yorker writers of the 1950s—J. D. Salinger and John Updike
William R. Nash
Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet, novelist, activist, and teacher, stands out for her social engagement, her professional generosity, and her literary accomplishment. In a career that spanned six decades, Brooks concerned herself with portraying the lives of American blacks, especially people hampered by social and economic circumstances. Throughout her corpus, Brooks demonstrates sensitivity to the particulars of black life in America; when tracking the work chronologically, one sees evolving her sense of the black poet's most appropriate response to a racially charged society.