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We are living in an autobiographical era, as readers all over America can readily attest. Jay Parini, in his introduction to the Norton Book of American Autobiography (1999), deduces that “the immense interest in this form of writing owes something to a moment when our culture as a whole has turned introspective, interested in (some might say obsessed by) self-definition” (p. 19). According to Paul Gray, writing in an April 1997 issue of Time, memoirs have now replaced novels as the major American publishing product, with hundreds published every year, many by first-time writers. These recent memoirs deal with topics once reserved for fiction—child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, incest—and some critics wish that fiction is where such “taboo” subjects would stay. Those who deplore the upsurge in self-writing note its emphasis on narcissism and self-pity: one such critic even titled his review of the new memoirs “Read about Why I Love Me and How Much I've Suffered.”
Lynn Orilla Scott
Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of the physical and spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. In researching her groundbreaking 1946 dissertation, Marion Wilson Starling located 6,006 slave narratives written between 1703 and 1944. This number includes brief testimonies found in judicial records, broadsides, journals, and newsletters as well as separately published books. It also includes approximately 2,500 oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. The number of separately published slave narratives, however, is much smaller. Although exact numbers are not available, nearly one hundred slave narratives were published as books or pamphlets between 1760 and 1865, and approximately another one hundred following the Civil War. The slave narrative reached the height of its influence and formal development during the antebellum period, from 1836 to 1861. During this time it became a distinct genre of American literature, and achieved immense popularity and influence among a primarily white, northern readership. A few, in particular The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself (1845), displayed a high level of rhetorical sophistication. With the end of slavery, however, interest in the narratives declined sharply. Furthermore, one consequence of the social and political repression of the black population following Reconstruction was the “loss” of the slave narratives for sixty years. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, scholars recovered, republished, and analyzed slave narratives. Both historians and literary critics came to value their importance to the historiography of American slavery and to the development of African-American autobiography and fiction.
In the decades immediately following the Civil War, and even to some extent throughout the years of actual battle, hundreds of Americans published memoirs describing their experiences during this cataclysmic event. Such an outpouring of autobiographical material following the war is not surprising, since otherwise ordinary individuals are often prompted to write their life stories after extraordinary experiences. Because the American Civil War was arguably the most extraordinary event in this nation's history, as attested to by the debate that raged (occasionally even to this day) over its proper title—the Civil War, the War between the States, the War for Southern Independence, the War of Northern Aggression—the personal experiences of Americans who lived through it retain substantial contemporary interest. Many of these autobiographers were men, soldiers who had fought with Grant or Lee or Sherman and who often identified themselves with these heroes in their titles. Yet women also wrote of the war, in diaries and memoirs, describing their experiences as the mothers and sisters who stayed home or became refugees, as nurses in military hospitals, as spies, even as soldiers. This essay discusses several diaries composed during the war itself as well as memoirs published soon after the war's end. While such memoirs continued to be published for decades, the writers' goals shifted—and their memories became less reliable—as Reconstruction ended. (By 1900, for example, very few writers claimed to have supported slavery.) These writers consistently return to similar questions: What exactly is an appropriate role for a patriotic woman during a war? What is the enemy like, and how does one respond when he quite literally steps onto one's front porch? What will or should happen to the thousands of slaves whose very existence is so peculiarly entangled with the war itself?
As a teenager James Baldwin abandoned the pulpit after a year and a half, but it would be fair to say that he always remained a preacher. For Baldwin, the life of an artist was a higher vocation, and he plunged into that life with inexhaustible, at times desperate, fervor. While he insisted that the writer's primary responsibility is to his or her craft, he was equally adamant that the writer has an obligation to serve as witness for society; in doing so, the writer plays an essential role in the construction of a better future. Baldwin certainly demanded of himself this double purpose, and when the two are in accord—often in his essays, occasionally in his fiction—it is easy to see his work as among the most important in twentieth-century American literature. For many, though, Baldwin's early promise as a novelist was never fully realized; according to this not entirely unsound perspective, the tumult of the 1960s took a heavy toll on the writer and rendered his fiction didactic and disheveled. His reputation sagged, not least among black radicals who considered Baldwin to have been co-opted by the (white) literary establishment. Years after his death, opinion is still divided over the merits of Baldwin's fiction and even his later essays. What Baldwin wrote in his essay, Alas, Poor Richard (1961), published after the death of Richard Wright, could be said of himself: “The fact that [Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult.”
Russell Banks's short stories and novels portray working-class people trapped in mundane lives filled with violence and trauma. His themes include the cycle of violence from father to son and the exploration of the difference between the psyches of women and men and between those of people of varying races and economic classes. In Banks's world, these dichotomies lead to conflict, the outcome of which is most often tragic, and to a crushing sense of personal guilt. Redemption, however, is always hard-bought. In addition, Banks's work offers one of the most severe indictments of the American dream ideology in contemporary literature. His characters reach after what they think will make them happy, striving for self-transformation and “successful” lives. All but a few, however, find themselves thwarted.
Djuna Barnes was a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist, and novelist. She was also an accomplished graphic designer and artist, often illustrating her own work. But Barnes is mostly known for writing the modernist classic Nightwood (1936). Djuna Barnes was born 12 June 1892 near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, to Wald Barnes, an American, and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, a British subject. Barnes was raised in Cornwall-on-Hudson until her father bought a 105-acre farm on then-undeveloped Long Island because he desired a life free from society and its conventional morality. In fact, he built a mostly self-sufficient (some say polygamous) family unit and also wrote a credo, a statement of the beliefs by which he shaped his life. Young Djuna Barnes was educated at home by her paternal grandmother, Zadel Barnes, an early feminist and journalist who lived with the family.
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia on 7 April 1931. He was the oldest of five children, all of them talented writers—including the prominent minimalist Frederick Barthelme (b. 1943). From the late 1960s until his death in 1989, Donald Barthelme produced a body of experimental fiction regarded as central to the postmodernist movement. Along with Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and others, Barthelme tested boundaries of perception and assumptions about fiction in the development of a new style. Although he shared with other postmodernists an ironic tone and a keen imagination for literary structure, Barthelme was in many ways ideologically separate from his peers. Through his father, a renowned architect, he internalized the principles of the Bauhaus—a school of artists, designers, and architects that originated in Germany early in the twentieth century whose proponents firmly believed that excellence of form and design could substantively improve the quality of human existence. Whereas many postmodernists were busy breaking down overused literary structures in order to demonstrate the fundamental flimsiness of them, Barthelme wanted to hatch new forms that could hold up under scrutiny. His short stories, which make up most of his work, almost always engage a distinctive innovation of form. Each of his four novels, too—Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986), and The King (1990)—playfully redirect novelistic conventions.
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.
Each temporal sequence (specifically, in language) has its own structure and dynamics, but the beginning and the ending may be said to be universally important or significant points within such a sequence. They constitute the boundaries, or frame, of the literary text, separating it—and the world it projects—from the world around us, thus playing an important role in determining its basic shape.
Locating the textual point of beginning is often somewhat complex or problematic (typically more so than that of the ending), because, at least since the advent of the print era and the book format, the “main” text is accompanied—or surrounded—by other materials collectively known as paratexts (e.g., titles, epigraphs, various kinds of prefaces) and may be likened to a threshold through which the reader gradually passes from the “outside” to the “inside” of a text. Considered as a threshold, one of the beginning’s most important potential functions is to “draw us in,” or be seductive and help carry us over from the world we inhabit to the world the author has imagined. The beginning is also particularly important in creating a primacy effect, setting off our mind in a certain direction and thereby influencing our entire reception of the work. We may make a broad distinction between “orientational” and “abrupt” textual beginnings—the latter type confronting the reader with an ongoing action—without supplying preliminary information necessary for its understanding. Historically, such beginnings became widespread from the late 19th century, with the transition from realism to modernism. A phenomenon that is particularly intriguing in the context of narrative beginnings is that of the exposition, since by definition it always constitutes the beginning of the mimetic or actional sequence but is not necessarily located at the beginning of the textual sequence. Moreover, the point of transition between the exposition and the primary narrative action (or fictive present) may be considered as another kind of “beginning,” which plays an important role in how the narrative is perceived as a whole.
Delimiting the ending as a textual unit involves a fundamental issue of a different kind than those relevant to beginnings: since the ending follows everything else in the text, it is difficult to consider it without considering through it, so to speak, the text as a whole. The understanding and appreciation of endings depend to a large extent on what has preceded them. But at the same time they tend to play an important role in retrospectively shaping it and often have a lasting impact on its evaluation. The critical study of the ending has paid a good deal of attention to closure, so much so that there is a widespread tendency to conflate the two concepts; it is important, however, to differentiate between them. Whereas ending refers to the text’s termination point, closure refers to the sense of an ending: that is, not to the textual termination point itself but rather to a certain effect, or perceptual quality, produced by the text. The common distinction between “closed” and “open” endings is quite crude in its basic form and should be regarded as a finely gradated and multidimensional continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. Broadly speaking, endings that tend toward the open end of the continuum are typical of modern literature (and heavily valorized by modern criticism), and like “abrupt” beginnings they testify to a desire not to accentuate the boundaries of the work of art.
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.
Biopolitics, unlike other conceptual rubrics such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, or the subaltern, does not contain a singular theoretical origin. While Michel Foucault is often cited as the progenitor of contemporary biopolitical thought, a number of other theorists and philosophers have also been credited with significantly shaping its critical lineage, from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Achille Mbembe. By extension, the relation between biopolitics and Asian America is an open-ended one, insofar as no one set of theoretical terms or axioms grounds this relation. Moreover, insofar as biopolitics in its widest sense encompasses the intersection of politics and life, including the inverse of life, its domain is potentially infinite. The conjunctions between biopolitics and Asian America, then, can be defined tactically through the following questions: what are some prominent motifs and concerns within Asian American history, culture, and scholarship that may be illuminatingly narrated within a biopolitical framework? Conversely, how have Asian American writers and scholars themselves analyzed these nexuses, and in what directions have they developed their inquiries? Finally, what does an Asian Americanist criticism bring to the study of biopolitics?
These questions can be usefully pursued via three thematics that have formed core concerns for Asian American studies: orientalist exoticism and exhibitions of the Asian body, associations of the Asian body with pollution and disease, and structures of US governmental power over Asian bodies and populations. Asian Americanist criticism has often centered on analyses of the body as a site for the production of racial difference, whether or not they explicitly adopt a biopolitical theoretical lexicon. What Asian Americanist engagements with biopolitics bring to biopolitical thought is a spotlighting of intersectional politics—the insight that the politics of life never simply operates in relation to abstract bodies but always occurs within power economies of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other forms of social difference and stratification. Conversely, biopolitical theories allow Asian Americanist criticism to develop in multiple new directions, from medical humanities and disability studies to science and technology studies, from animal studies to post-human feminisms, from diaspora studies to surveillance studies. Ultimately, an ethical impetus and an orientation toward justice continue to animate Asian Americanist critical practices, which hold out the promise of a positive biopolitics within prevailing paradigms of negative biopower.
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.