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Virtual Identities  

Zara Dinnen

Virtual identities stand in for a user or player in a virtual environment; they are social media profiles; digital subjects—of human and nonhuman agency. Virtual identities are often imagined as something distinct from the “self” of the user of digital media but technically and existentially they determine the ways a user navigates life online. Virtual identities, then, might also be a category that captures the ways identity itself is virtual; a force of existence that determines how subjects can orient themselves in the world. The questions of what virtual identities are, how they operate, and the kinds of material expression of personhood they afford and signify has been taken up in scholarship across the last thirty years from a variety of disciplines including computer sciences, critical race studies, game studies, gender and sexuality studies, literary studies, new media studies, social sciences, science and technology studies, and visual culture studies. As an imminent figure in early 21st-century life, virtual identities might describe subjects who exist in global digital media networks but who do not necessarily profit from their participation and labor, or who are not always visible. Despite the virtuality of virtual identities, their partial and fragmentary status, they exist as a technology by which to fix identity to an embodied subject—via facial recognition, or biometric scanning, or the coaxing and collection of personal data. The study of virtual identities remains an ongoing and significant task.


Figures of/for Voice  

David Nowell Smith

The concept of “voice” has long been highly ambiguous, with the physiological-phonetic process of sound production entangled in a far more extensive cultural and metaphysical imaginary of voice. Neither purely sound nor purely signification, voice can name either a sonorous excess over signification or the point at which sounds start to signify. Neither purely of the body nor ever extricated from its body, it can figure multiple kinds of meaningful embodiment, the breakdown of meaning in brute materiality, or even a strangely disembodied emanation. Voice can be both intentional and involuntary, both singular and plural, both presence and absence, both the possession of a subject and something that possesses subjects or is uncontainable by the subject. Voices may signify immediacy and be experienced as immediate, and yet they are continually mediated—by text, by technology, by art. In literature, the status of voice is particularly fraught. Not only do literary works deploy this imaginary of voice, but voice is crucial to literature’s medium. If this is most evident in the case of works composed or transmitted orally, it also holds for written works that, while destined for silent reading, nevertheless construct a virtual soundworld destined for its reader’s inner ear, to be subvocalized rather than read aloud. Literary works have been crucial in the development and deployment of the cultural-metaphysical imaginary of voice, precisely because “voice” poses such a diverse set of questions and problems for literature. These problems change focus and force with the development of technologies of inscription and prosthesis, from printing to sound recording to automated speech.


Vonnegut, Kurt  

Jerome Klinkowitz

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.


Walcott, Derek  

Gerry Cambridge

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.


Walker, Alice  

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 and Jewish Radical Culture  

Michael Löwy

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.


Wandering Jew  

Lisa Lampert-Weissig

The legend of the Wandering Jew tells of a man who refused Jesus rest as Jesus struggled to Calvary. In response, Jesus bestowed a curse: the man would henceforth be unable to die, doomed to wait until Judgment Day. According to the Christian tradition of the legend, this experience converted the man to Christianity. Immortal, the cursed man now roams the earth, telling all he encounters of the events of the Passion and other historical events that he has experienced firsthand since that time. The legend circulated orally for centuries and artists, writers, and thinkers from around the world have also engaged with the legend through works of literary, visual, musical, and plastic art, as well as polemic, journalism, and philosophy. The Wandering Jew’s curse has often been understood as a metaphor for the Jewish diaspora, interpreted as punishment for alleged Jewish crimes against Christ. This Christian version of the legend has dominated these adaptations, but there is also an important strand of Jewish responses to the legend that center Jewish experience and provide a Jewish perspective on Jewish–Christian relations in the diaspora. From the textual origins of the medieval period through to 21st-century examples, both Jewish and Christian interpretive strands of the legend reveal the contours of “contact zones” between Jews and Christians. They also reflect on the history of these contacts and anticipate this history’s end, frequently by imagining the apocalyptic end of history itself.


War and Its Impact on Central American–American Literature  

Tatiana Argüello

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.


Warfare and Latina/o Social Movements  

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.


War Literature  

Pauls Toutonghi

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 War on Terror and South Asian American Narrative Representation  

Anantha Sudhakar

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.


Warren, Robert Penn  

John Burt

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).


Welty, Eudora  

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.


West Coast School  

Catherine Daly

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.


Western Fiction: Grey, Stegner, McMurtry, McCarthy  

William R. Handley

The vast and complex region called the American West—large parts of which Europeans and Americans once called Spanish Territory, Louisiana Territory, Mexico, the Great American Desert, and Deseret—has historically seen the clash and confluence of many cultures, ethnic groups, nations, and traditions. Such cultural crosscurrents have been among the distinctive features of the region's literary history since the sixteenth century. Even the American West's most popular genre, the formula Western, and the figure of the often gun-totin' cowboy that it celebrates, show the influence, respectively, of the Scottish borderlands made famous in the Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott and of the figure of the Spanish vaquero. Nothing in this region's collective literary history is quite what it may at first seem. It was a storied landscape centuries before it became American, and it was never “the West” for Spanish explorers, some of whom arrived before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It was later the North for Mexicans and the East for Asians who came there. Depending on what images the two terms call to mind, “the West” can seem older and culturally larger than “America,” and certainly older than the image that the Western has propagated around the world.


West, Nathanael  

Jane Goldman

The satiric genius Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein and died, aged thirty-seven, before his work met with the kind of critical acclaim it deserved. “Do I love what others love?,” a motto from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is inscribed below the drawing of a man hugging a mule in the bookplate that his friend, the writer S. J. Perelman, designed for West while they were still at college. In fact, West, in his brief life, did not, it seems, love what most others loved.


Wharton, Edith  

Carol J. Singley

Edith Wharton, a literary realist and naturalist, was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction whose work helped to define a major intellectual and aesthetic movement at the turn of the 20th century. As a chronicler of society’s manners and mores as well as morals, Wharton was adept at portraying male and female characters in stifling social situations, variously of their own and others' making. She was especially interested in ways that society's standards shape women's choices, and she boldly articulated characters' longings for roles that give fuller rein to the range of women's emotional and sexual needs. An avid reader of Darwinian science, philosophy, and religion, she often depicted characters trapped by environment or biology but aspiring—vaguely or inarticulately—toward elusive ideals. During her literary career, which spanned over fifty years, Wharton published twenty-five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence (1920), eighty-eight short stories, three volumes of poetry, and numerous volumes on travel, art and architecture, interior design, and the theory of fiction, earning popular and critical acclaim. Many of her works, which are set in New England and Europe as well as New York City, have been successfully adapted for stage and film. From the 1940s until the 1970s, her reputation suffered from a persistent comparison of her work with that of Henry James and from the misperception that she was a writer only of high society—and therefore “narrow” interests. Subsequently, however, she has been uniformly hailed as one of the finest American writers.


Wheatley, Phillis  

David L. Dudley

In September 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London. Its author, Phillis Wheatley, slave to John Wheatley of Boston, thus became the first African American to publish a book. Brought to America in 1761, Wheatley had soon proved herself astonishingly precocious; she mastered English and, as Hannah Mather Crocker later recalled, “made some progress in the latin [sic].” Wheatley read the classics in translation and began writing poetry. Her book made her internationally famous and won her freedom. Nevertheless, events beyond her control—including the death of many friends and patrons, and the chaos caused by the American Revolution—plunged the young (and now free) poet into poverty. Marriage to John Peters did not provide long-lasting financial security. According to 19th-century sources, Wheatley bore, and lost, three infant children, but no records exist of any births, baptisms, or deaths. In 1784, Wheatley died alone (Peters may have been in prison for debt), and an unmarked grave received her. The poet’s surviving canon consists of about sixty-five poems and about two dozen letters. Many other poems are now lost, yet Wheatley’s importance is enormous. Praised by some as a writer of genius, a worthy Mother of the African American literary tradition, Wheatley has also been excoriated for not demonstrating sufficient racial pride or fighting hard enough for abolition. In the late 20th century, critics began to re-evaluate her work, and in the early 21st century, Wheatley is regarded as worthy of her place in American letters—a woman who detested tyranny; a writer keenly attuned to the political, racial, and spiritual movements of her times; and an influence on the Romantic poets who followed her.


White, E. B.  

Arnold E. Sabatelli

Without E. B. White, there would be no Stuart Little (1945), no Charlotte's Web (1952) (and quite possibly no film Babe). But while the bulk of White's work was not children's literature, everything he wrote—poems, editorials, and especially essays—sustained that exuberance, innocence, and clarity of rhetoric. White's prose is at once concise, gentle, humorous, and forceful. Many consider him to be the master nonfiction prose stylist of the century, and his collaboration on The Elements of Style with William Strunk (1959) has helped generations of writers hone their craft.


White, Edmund  

Jerry Phillips

In Edmund White's first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), the narrator reflects that ordinary conversation is so constrained by mores and manners that little is expressed. The narrator of The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) describes the novel as a conversation in which one person—the writer—does all the talking. White suggests that whatever a writer's ostensible theme, the ulterior and more basic theme is always the nature of one's own experiences; and the ways those experiences might be shaped into an artistic vision reveal something about the human condition. The protagonist-narrator of the The Farewell Symphony (1997) notes that the old ambition of fiction is to communicate the most private, complex things in the most compellingly public way. He also observes that the writer is involved in an ongoing conversation with other writers in the tradition. In his novels and short stories, Edmund White converses with readers about love, sex, death, friendship, art, and power, among other themes. But his predominant theme is always the self's quest for an integrated identity in a world that is volatile, ambiguous, and difficult. Thus, Gabriel in Caracole (1985) comes to see that sexual desire is a cross one must bear; Austin Smith in The Married Man (2000) discovers the pains of love in the era of AIDS. These and others among White's characters are made to reflect on the mysterious depths of their own selfhood by the ecstatic or traumatic experiences they undergo. Indeed, White most often uses the dramatis personae of the child and the lover because he believes (as he states in The Farewell Symphony) that love and childhood are states wherein the self is intensely aware of its own uncanny existence.