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Wilson, August  

Josef Raab

August Wilson is the best-known and most performed African-American playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, his drama is centrally concerned with the painful history of blacks in the United States; each of his plays identifies a certain mood or issue of one decade of the twentieth century and illustrates it through the effect it has on individual black characters. It is not historical accuracy or any kind of comprehensive account that Wilson is after; instead, he wants to make the impact of historical events felt. Rather than write agitprop plays, Wilson seeks to represent experiences that, while they are particular to blacks and while they all emanate from his own biography and his own experiences of a racist environment, also have a universal quality. He has described his literary project thus: “I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it.…Put them all together and you have a history” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 292). As in the novels of Toni Morrison, the history of African Americans coping with an unequal society is central to Wilson's work. Both authors are interested in how the present is inextricably linked to the past, and both try to rewrite American history from a black, individualized perspective. The past provides the framework for our ways of thinking and the background for the images and language to which we have become accustomed, the preconceptions we live by. Morrison, Wilson, and other black writers have therefore made it their task to re-create the emotional, psychological, and spiritual history of African Americans in their texts, to identify the ways in which the individual has tried to sustain a sense of self in the face of pressures and oppression. Rewriting African-American history, these authors believe, is especially important because that history has so far been told and distorted by others—usually by whites who have had their own agendas. Rather than voice propaganda or protest, Wilson's drama tends to express pride and admiration, celebrating how the individual—who has been placed under many pressures by a racist, unequal society or by dreams that he or she can hardly make come true—manages to cope and endure. The major historical events of the decade in which a play is set are generally referred to only in passing; they merely provide the background that illustrates problems and issues that the individual characters have to confront and struggle against. As Wilson says, “The plays deal with those people who were continuing to live their lives. I wasn't interested in what you could get from the history books.”

Article

Wilson, Edmund  

Melissa Knox

Edmund Wilson defined and interpreted Modernism, exploring and using theoretical material from Freud and Marx. Revolution, Americana, literature, sexuality, art, dance, and detective novels all fell under his penetrating, skeptical, and judgmental eye. He lived to write, his most recent biographer, Lewis M. Dabney, declaring that in the case of Edmund Wilson, “biography is literary history.”

Article

Wolfe, Thomas  

Mark Royden Winchell

At one point in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield remarks: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up whenever you felt like it.” Few American novelists of the twentieth century can match Thomas Wolfe in having such an effect on readers. At least since the dawn of modernism, there has been a growing polarization between the sort of writers embraced by a mass audience and those revered by scholars and critics. Wolfe is one of the few who has managed to bridge this gap. Academic studies of his work indicate that he is still one of the most respected American novelists of the twentieth century, while annual meetings of the Thomas Wolfe Society suggest that his work is loved by people who read no other canonical writer. It is one of the ironies of Wolfe's career that a novelist so often criticized for being autobiographical and self-indulgent should continue to attract such a passionate and diverse readership decades after his death.

Article

Wolff, Tobias  

Pauls Toutonghi

Tobias (Jonathan Ansell) Wolff was born on 19 June 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama. The other facts of Wolff's early life are set down in his notable autobiography, This Boy's Life (1989), which begins with his parents' divorce and chronicles his subsequent move from the age of ten with his mother across the United States to the West Coast. He and his mother settled in Washington State, at first in Seattle and then in the small town of Concrete. The town is remarkably consistent with its name; Wolff paints it as a drizzly landscape, rainy and full of deprivations and the cruelties of an abusive stepfather. This Boy's Life has been widely recognized as one of the most powerful contemporary expressions of the genre of memoir.

Article

Wright, Charles  

Henry Hart

In an interview published in 1992, Charles Wright told David Young, the editor of Field magazine: “There are three things, basically, that I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God.” Behind much of Wright's poetry is the Emersonian idea, which in turn derives from a long line of Platonic and Christian thinkers, that the universe resembles a text authored by God—a God who inhabits us. When Ralph Waldo Emerson contended in his essay Nature that “words are signs of natural facts” and “Nature is the symbol of spirit,” he was drawing on the old concept of “the book of nature.” In this “book,” language represents nature and nature represents the spirit or mind that created it—in other words, God. Throughout his essay Emerson argued for a poetic use of language that would renounce “rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God.” By employing a “natural” language (a vocabulary that adhered to the principle “no ideas but in things”), the writer could recapitulate the divine act of creation, duplicating, as it were, the book of nature in his or her own book.

Article

Wright, James  

Gerry Cambridge

The Flying Eagles of Troop62 is a touching prose poem and reminiscence of one Ralph Neal, a scoutmaster of James Wright's Ohio boyhood. In wondering why Neal never escaped the conditions of the valley in which he was born, but worked with forbearance with his group of acned, unhappy adolescents, the poet recounts a story from the Hindu Vedantas. It is of a saint who, after a thousand lives filled with human folly and suffering, realizing that his scabby mongrel will not be allowed to enter Nirvana with him, refuses it for himself. It is not surprising that this seems to have had a considerable resonance for Wright. He is one of America's poets of the outcast, the socially marginalized, and the sometimes brute realities of an Ohio which, though he left it, never left him. Though Wright did escape, at least physically, his work is one long attempted reconciliation with some of those realities.

Article

Wright, Richard  

Mark Richardson

It all began with a fire: the one Richard Wright himself set when he was four years old. He had wondered, he tells us at the start of his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), “just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.” They looked splendid, terrifying; and it is a wonder no one was killed. As it turned out, the little boy Wright still was at the time came closer to death than anyone, and not from the fire itself, but from the beating his mother gave him in the aftermath. “I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness,” he recalls. For years he was “chastened,” as he dryly puts it, when he remembered that his mother “had come close to killing” him.

Article

Writing as a Woman in the Twentieth Century  

Wendy Martin and Sharon Becker

During the Progressive Era, roughly spanning 1890 to 1920, the American woman struggled to change the definition of womanhood in profound ways. At issue was the right to vote, to wear bloomers, to be free from corseting, to work outside the home, and to have a place in the world beyond the domestic sphere. By 1900 the “new woman” had emerged; these modern women were attending college, getting jobs, agitating for the right to vote, rejecting traditional domesticity, proudly asserting themselves in public, and in general, becoming an integral part of American popular culture and invading its literature as well.

Article

Yellowface Performance: Historical and Contemporary Contexts  

Josephine Lee

In European and North American theater and film, the centuries-old practice of “yellowface”—white actors playing Asian-identified characters—has dominated the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have been presented. Since the 19th century, yellowface representations in American theater portrayed these characters as villainous despots, exotic curiosities, or comic fools. These roles in turn greatly reduced the opportunities for the employment and recognition of Asian and Asian American actors. Yellowface performance does not only misrepresent Asians and Asian Americans by limiting the kinds of visibility and opportunities that they might have, but it also supports the imagined distinctions between those values presumably embodied by white Americans and those associated with oriental others. Late-19th and early-20th-century plays such as George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (1900) not only used yellowface acting but also expressed anxieties about interracial interactions and the potential for racial contamination produced by U.S. imperialism and Chinese immigration. Both yellowface and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian and Asian American characterizations from film and theater in order to benefit white actors) continue to be used in U.S. theater and film. In addition to protesting, Asian American performing artists have responded by creating alternative venues for Asian American performers and writers to make their talents known, such as Los Angeles’s East West Players (established in 1965). Asian Americans have also fully engaged with these issues through writing a host of plays that feature characterizations of actors who suffer the effects of discriminatory casting practices. Two plays in particular, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) not only critique the legacies of yellowface representation but also prompt broader reflection on how contemporary Asian American identities are shaped by both political radicalism and “model minority” conformity. These plays re-appropriate yellowface to comment on the changing and contested nature of racial categories such as “Asian American” as well as the continuing problems of racial typecasting.