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Myths and legends are the way in which human beings try to understand the divine or supernatural and their relationship to it. Created by humans, myths are reflections of the values and beliefs of the people, time, and place from which they emerge. Once they are in circulation and affirmed by religious doctrine or official historiography, myths are used as an explanation and then a legitimation of why things are the way they are. They become instruments of vigilance and control of human behavior, which in patriarchal cultures means principally of female behavior. Patriarchal cultures produce myths that justify and reproduce the principles of male supremacy. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Virgin Mary supplanted and absorbed the rituals and feast days of some of the pagan goddesses, but she was not endowed with their powers. Christianity reinforced an insistence on the one, true, male God. The mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, is the lone female figure in Christianity. The Catholic Church has sought to limit the Virgin Mary’s role to that of vessel bringing the son of God into the world, but she has resonated in the hearts of some believers to an equal or even greater degree than Jesus. The Church has responded to the popular religious zeal for Mary by making every effort to rein it in. The Church has officially recognized Mary, but with each proclamation it has put a nail in the proverbial coffin of women’s equal representation in the Church. Mary has been described as a Trojan horse for the perpetuation of male hierarchical control and supreme power in the Catholic Church. The principle way in which the Church’s construction of the Virgin Mary is detrimental to Catholic women is through the virgin–whore dichotomy embodied by the Virgin Mary and Eve. As the “great exception to women,” the Virgin Mary is held forth as an unattainable ideal against which to find fault with real women. In particular, any woman who does not remain a virgin until marriage and a chaste wife is automatically cast as sinner, as whore. There is no middle ground. The Virgin Mary and Eve follow a parallel trajectory in Catholic history by which each one is increasingly sexualized, one hypo- and one hyper-. The virgin–whore polarity has been handed down in Mexican Catholicism through the Virgen de Guadalupe and the woman who has been called the Mexican Eve, La Malinche, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’s interpreter and the mother of his son, who has been considered the first mestizo (historically, he was not). In México, the process of usurping and replacing pagan goddesses with the Virgen de Guadalupe replicated almost exactly that seen with the Virgin Mary in the early centuries of Christianity. The popular legend cluster of La Llorona, the archetypal Weeping Woman, also dates to the colonial era in New Spain, a territory that comprises what is now México and the southwestern United States. The real woman who kills her children out of revenge for her lover’s abandonment and becomes the phantasmagorical La Llorona falls squarely on the whore end of the dichotomy. She is meant to serve as a negative role model that girls should do everything in their power to avoid following. But a funny thing happens on the way to the moralistic legend about female blamewothiness and untrustworthiness. Legends are notoriously recounted by women to their children, and in women’s narrations the legend of La Llorona takes on other contours. Girded in a cultural nationalism with the traditional Mexican family as its foundation, the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s invoked Malinche and Malinchista as epithets against women who pursued leadership roles or feminist principles. In response to these efforts to reaffirm and justify the virgin–whore dichotomy—personified in the figures of La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche—Chicana writers, artists, and scholars produced work in the late 20th century that exposes the patriarchal values that undergird all three figures and offers empowering feminist reinterpretations and positive affirmations for female sexuality.

Article

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the fall of 2016. News of this drew predictable reactions from fans and naysayers who, each in their own way, either praised or lamented the judgment of the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor a songwriter and performer for a prize traditionally reserved for novelists, poets, and playwrights. Despite arguments about whether or not Dylan’s work is or is not sufficiently literary, his award confirmed something that, at least for Americans, has always been true: that popular music is as important a part of American literature as anything written in between the covers of a book. The folk and blues traditions from which Dylan emerges as a musical artist are also major sources of mythopoetic cultural production operating at the heart of American culture. These are first and foremost oral traditions, offered up in the form of songs and tales (and everything in between) and passed down from person to person, across regions, and through time. A folk and blues approach to American literature is one that understands there are no originary, primary folk and blues texts. It is also one that necessarily envisions a tradition as belonging to the future rather than the past. The American folk and blues method is, in other words, one of invention and adaptation, and its embedded notion of a tradition is something that is always shifting according to practice. Instead of only searching out primary textual examples of form, a folk and blues–influenced literary critical approach is drawn to figures—like Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan—who are practitioners of folk and blues traditions. These performers are also experts in and vectors of folk and blues cultures. A prescriptive notion of an artistic tradition is determined based on what it was. In folk and blues, a tradition is what it does. There are also conventionally literary figures who seem to benefit from and understand the musical roots of American literature. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Toni Morrison incorporate musical elements into their plays, novels, stories, and poems in such a way as to make these otherwise written forms sound American. Folk and blues idioms and aesthetics encircle these authors’ literary works and enhance their meanings. A critical approach to such artists is in search of these meanings. This involves listening and developing a feeling for folk and blues traces in song and prose. The historical echoes of the many folk and blues myths, figures, and refrains that float around the nation’s culture are resurrected, from generation to generation, in its art. In the end, a folk and blues method seeks out these originators and reproducers of folk and blues traditions, insisting on an interpretive practice that is closer to hearing than reading.

Article

Law and literature both involve storytelling theory and practice. The study of law and literature takes legal and literary narrative acts to be complex, interrelated, and formative for institutional and political systems. While this interdisciplinary project at times has presumed a national frame, it also has questioned the relationship between nationalism and the global scale, highlighting links between the formation and circulation of literature, the transnational political order, and the contestations of international law. That the modern state itself is a legal form of political sovereignty that arose within an imperial international order serves to remind us that any national literature and any legal system has been shaped from the beginning through encounters across political geographies and epistemologies. Contemporary fiction—whether categorized as global, postcolonial, world, or transnational literature within a national tradition—uses narrative form in fashioning characters and storyworlds that contend, even implicitly, with the world we inhabit; one organized through legal decisions about which entities shall hold what set of rights, how movement and emplacement get practiced, who shall be excluded from which forms of legal recognition, and under what conditions shall exploitation and criminality be defined. Law and contemporary global fiction, then, raise basic questions about how we read and what reading does in the world. They also pose new questions about the relations of law, jurisprudence, and imaginative fiction to some of the most pressing challenges for humanity and the planet in the 21st century.

Article

Sarah Ehlers and Niki Herd

The terms documentary poetry and documentary poetics have been used to describe a diverse range of poetic projects that either make use of historical materials or narrate historical events. In the Anglophone context, the documentary poetry tradition emerged in the late 1920s and coalesced in the 1930s in conjunction with advancements in documentary film and the heightened cultural relevance of documentary photography. The term documentary was first used in an arts context by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in his 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and Grierson’s subsequent theorizations of documentary filmmaking depended on ideas about poetry and the poetic. While, as several critics have pointed out, documentary poetry constitutes a long tradition that goes as far back as the poems of Lucretius, Ovid, and Virgil, documentary poetry is largely a 20th-century construction, one that has shifted in relation to major technological changes that transformed the landscape of poetic composition and circulation, ongoing debates over the status of the poetic lyric, and developing ideas about the relationship of poetry writing to capitalist crisis and left political activism. The long-standing critical concern with defining documentary poetry and poetics indexes changing ideas about the relationship between poetry and other historical and political registers. Such critical concerns, however, have often treated documentary poems as if they lack generic distinction or unique formal qualities outside of the incorporation of historical documents or materials. Across the 20th and 21st centuries, documentary poets have innovated in specific modes (e.g., as Jill Magi points out using Bill Nichols’s film theory, the expository, observational, interactive, and reflexive) and forms (especially the paratactical, collage, curatorial, and restricted). Engaging with the terrains of labor precarity, ecological collapse, and widening racial inequities and violence, such forms work in tandem with socially engaged content to address historical and political realities. In the contemporary moment, major contributions to documentary poetic traditions have been from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) writers who innovate with documentary practices and forms to imagine new spheres of social engagement and world-building in lieu of a singular focus on institutional critique. Contemporary poets addressing the exigencies of the 21st century have also emphasized the long-standing relationship between documentary poetry and social engagement, pointing to social activism and radical pedagogy as defining features of documentary poetry and poetics.

Article

In the particular and peculiar case of the Booker Prize, regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom (as measured by economic value to the author and publisher, and total audience for the awards announcement), the cultural and economic valences of literary prizes collide with the imperial history of Britain, and its after-empire relationships to its former colonies. From its beginnings, the Booker prize has never been simply a British prize for writers in the United Kingdom. The Booker’s reach into the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose cultural and economic alliance of the United Kingdom and former British colonies, challenges the very constitution of the category of post-imperial British literature. With a history of winners from India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Nigeria, among many other former British colonies, the Booker presents itself as a value arbitrating mechanism for a majority of the English-speaking world. Indeed, the Booker has maintained a reputation for bringing writers from postcolonial nations to the attention of a British audience increasingly hungry for a global, cosmopolitan literature, especially one easily available via the lingua franca of English. Whether and how the prize winners avoid the twin colonial pitfalls of ownership by and debt to an English patron is the subject of a great deal of criticism on the Booker, and to understand the prize as a gatekeeper and tastemaker for the loose, baggy canon of British or even global Anglophone literature, there must be a reckoning with the history of the prize, its multiplication into several prizes under one umbrella category, and the form and substance of the novels that have taken the prize since 1969.

Article

Aubrey Jean Hanson and Sam McKegney

Indigenous literary studies, as a field, is as diverse as Indigenous Peoples. Comprising study of texts by Indigenous authors, as well as literary study using Indigenous interpretive methods, Indigenous literary studies is centered on the significance of stories within Indigenous communities. Embodying continuity with traditional oral stories, expanding rapidly with growth in publishing, and traversing a wild range of generic innovation, Indigenous voices ring out powerfully across the literary landscape. Having always had a central place within Indigenous communities, where they are interwoven with the significance of people’s lives, Indigenous stories also gained more attention among non-Indigenous readers in the United States and Canada as the 20th century rolled into the 21st. As relationships between Indigenous Peoples (Native American, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) and non-Indigenous people continue to be a social, political, and cultural focus in these two nation-states, and as Indigenous Peoples continue to work for self-determination amid colonial systems and structures, literary art plays an important role in representing Indigenous realities and inspiring continuity and change. An educational dimension also exists for Indigenous literatures, in that they offer opportunities for non-Indigenous readerships—and, indeed, for readers from within Indigenous nations—to learn about Indigenous people and perspectives. Texts are crucially tied to contexts; therefore, engaging with Indigenous literatures requires readers to pursue and step into that beauty and complexity. Indigenous literatures are also impressive in their artistry; in conveying the brilliance of Indigenous Peoples; in expressing Indigenous voices and stories; in connecting pasts, presents, and futures; and in imagining better ways to enact relationality with other people and with other-than-human relatives. Indigenous literatures span diverse nations across vast territories and materialize in every genre. While critics new to the field may find it an adjustment to step into the responsibility—for instance, to land, community, and Peoplehood—that these literatures call for, the returns are great, as engaging with Indigenous literatures opens up space for relationship, self-reflexivity, and appreciation for exceptional literary artistry. Indigenous literatures invite readers and critics to center in Indigeneity, to build good relations, to engage beyond the text, and to attend to Indigenous storyways—ways of knowing, being, and doing through story.

Article

While obscenity is notoriously difficult to define and the test for determining obscenity has shifted over time, typically the term has referred to the crime of publishing prohibited, sexually explicit material. Obscenity has always been a criminal offense in the United States. Citing English common law, judges in the early republic and antebellum periods maintained that obscenity threatened to degrade the nation’s character. Nevertheless, obscenity law was not strongly or consistently enforced throughout the United States until the Comstock Act in 1873. Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, targeted Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass along with publications by advocates for feminism, free love, and birth control. American courts adopted the test put forth by Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn in Regina v. Hicklin (1868), which held that obscenity was defined by “the tendency . . . to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Obscenity became a battleground not only for debates about gender and sexual politics but also about the nature of the public sphere. During the 20th century, American literary presses and magazines became increasingly willing to challenge bans on sexually explicit speech, publishing controversial works including The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and Ulysses by James Joyce. Modernist authors transgressed the legal bounds of propriety to explore the unconscious, fight for erotic pleasure free from heteronormative restraints, or claim aesthetic autonomy from moral and legal restrictions. United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” (1933) struck a blow against the Hicklin test. Affirming Judge John M. Woolsey’s not guilty verdict, Judge Augustus Hand proposed a new test for obscenity that anticipated many of the themes that would emerge when the Supreme Court took up this question with Roth v. United States (1957), which defined obscenity as “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient [i.e., sexual] interest.” The Court liberalized obscenity law even as it maintained restrictions on pornographic literature, setting off a wave of censorship cases including trials on Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. After Roth, lawyers defending borderline obscene publishers pushed for courts to hold that a work could not be obscene if it possessed any redeeming literary or social value. Free speech libertarians succeeded with Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966) and Redrup v. New York (1967). Although Miller v. California (1973) clawed back this ruling by stipulating that a work must possess “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” to be cleared of obscenity, in the 21st century obscenity convictions for publishing textual media have been limited to a handful of cases concerning pornographic depictions of child sexual abuse. Obscenity remains on the books but largely unenforced for literature.

Article

American utopia in literary and documentary texts by American writers had an impact on Leo Tolstoy’s ideas and writings, which can be seen in the marginalia and annotations he left in his extensive personal library. The concept of utopia was deeply ingrained in Tolstoy, beginning with the childish legend of “the green stick” engraved with the magic words of universal happiness. As a child Tolstoy was fascinated with the potential of the “green stick” and its secret that could make all men happy, and he tried many times to find it. Tolstoy examined and developed this concept of universal happiness throughout different periods of his life. From the mid-1880s to his departure from Yasnaya Polyana in 1910, Tolstoy stayed in close contact with American religious writers. During this period, he received many books and periodicals from America and thus got to know the works of numerous American writers, philosophers, and public figures who were close to him in spirit. Tolstoy had a keen interest in American history, culture, art, traditions, and especially in the religious movements of America. Some of these ideas found expression in Tolstoy’s fiction and other writings.

Article

Amritjit Singh and Aaron Babcock

Racial patterns at any given time have been intertwined with local contexts, economic and political conditions, technological change, and a growing awareness of the socially constructed nature of race and gender. Race in the modern sense of the term emerged first in the 18th century amid the transformative changes of the industrial revolution, a growing slave trade, and the spread of European settler colonialism and imperialism in Asia, Africa, and the Western hemisphere. As a means of categorizing populations, race was a useful tool in justifying both slavery and imperialism. A further solidification of racial taxonomy developed over the course of the 19th century in which peoples and nations were grouped as genetically distinct. Race was thus essentialized and difference became widely accepted as biological and measurable. In the early decades of the 20th century, the view of race as biologically determined and immutable gradually gave way to sociological and anthropological reconsiderations of previously held assumptions. Contemporaneous to this reorientation of thinking on race was the growth of ethnicity as a related but distinct form of grouping populations that reframed identity as rooted in a shared national and sociopolitical history. In the 20th century, race across scholarly disciplines began to be divested gradually of its biological and genetic aspects and a recognition of race as a legal and social construction had emerged, especially in Postcolonial Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). In fact, what was viewed as “race” around 1900 (e.g., the Irish race, the Jewish race) came to be defined as “ethnicity” in the 20th century. For centuries, however, race has been used as a means for exercising power and control and as a defense of a racial caste system that privileges select groups. Through their many creative uses of memory and history, writers and artists in the United States and elsewhere have long responded in multiple genres by offering their own versions and visions of individual and community, complicating in the process our understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, nation, majoritarianism, and citizenship—the tangled issues that continue to haunt Americans and many others around the globe. Historians, literary scholars, and theorists have also played an active role in challenging old orthodoxies on race and ethnicity through multiple overlapping approaches, including African American Studies, Ethnic American Studies, Black Feminism, Postcolonial Studies, and Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Article

Michael H. Whitworth

Though “literature and science” has denoted many distinct cultural debates and critical practices, the historicist investigation of literary-scientific relations is of particular interest because of its ambivalence toward theorization. Some accounts have suggested that the work of Bruno Latour supplies a necessary theoretical framework. An examination of the history of critical practice demonstrates that many concepts presently attributed to or associated with Latour have been longer established in the field. Early critical work, exemplified by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, tended to focus one-sidedly on the impact of science on literature. Later work, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts, and on Mary Hesse’s and Max Black’s work on metaphor and analogy in science, identified the scope for a cultural influence on science. It was further bolstered by the “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, especially the work of Barry Barnes and David Bloor. It found ways of reading scientific texts for the traces of the cultural, and literary texts for traces of science; the method is implicitly modeled on psychoanalysis. Bruno Latour’s accounts of literary inscription, black boxing, and the problem of explanation have precedents in the critical practices of critics in the field of literature and science from the 1980s onward.