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.
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Stefanie K. Dunning
Walter Benjamin and Jewish Radical Culture
War and Its Impact on Central American–American Literature
Warfare and Latina/o Social Movements
Belinda Linn Rincón
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
Warren, Robert Penn
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
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.
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.
Carol J. Singley
David L. Dudley
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.
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.
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told Walt Whitman on 21 July 1855. Emerson had greeted a number of poets at the beginning of their great careers, including Delia Bacon, the crazy Shakespearean who sought to dig up the bard's body to prove that “Shakespeare” was really Francis Bacon. Ellery Channing II was another “poet” Emerson had discovered. But with Whitman it was different—for the next decade at least. Whitman must have seemed the personification of Emerson's Central Man in The Poet, an essay in which the former Unitarian minister defined the qualities of the peculiarly American bard. The poet, Emerson wrote, had first to be a transcendentalist and believe that nature is the last thing of the soul, or the only empirical evidence of God. Whitman called nature, or the grass in his first Leaves of Grass (1855), “the handkerchief of the Lord,” dropped to attract our attention to the daily miracles of life. He—or she, Emerson might have added—had to be representative of all the folk, even the slaves and the “cleaner[s] of privies” as identified in the New York poet's coarse descriptions of the “divine average.” Finally, this poet would have to celebrate America as (in Whitman's translation of Emerson) “essentially the greatest poem.”
Wideman, John Edgar
Arnold E. Sabatelli
The fiction and nonfiction of John Edgar Wideman moves between worlds of language and experience that are not usually encountered side by side. He was raised in the African-American community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, was a college basketball star for the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His works mix the disparate forces of his life into an artistic form that is both intellectually challenging and experimental in the best sense of the word. A prolific novelist and essayist, Wideman's texts consistently blend voices and genres and challenge the reader. Responding self-consciously to contemporary jazz forms, his later work is filled with free-form ad-libbing, discontinuity, and always a rich integration of voices.
Richard Wilbur is renowned for the finesse, delicacy, and light touch of his poems, which can seem intricate as snow crystals if rather more durable. In his easy and assured use of meter and rhyme, his work has a Marvellian nimbleness; he is undoubtedly one of the foremost poetic craftsmen in American poetry today, a poet whose facility in form has been seen with mistrust in some quarters. In general he eschews personal revelation in the making of his poems and never writes in free verse; he was thus wholly outside the confessional and free-verse movements, which have dominated American poetry in and out of the academy since the 1960s. The rise of the New Formalism in the 1980s, however, has seen him co-opted as a sort of poetic champion, along with poets such as Robinson Jeffers and Robert Frost, by many of the poets associated with that movement.
Thornton Niven Wilder—the author of Our Town (1938), America's most popular “popular play”—was very nearly, though he never quite became, the Grand Old Man of twentieth-century American letters. An authentic intellectual and Europhile and dilettante, very much in the tradition of Henry James and T. S. Eliot, he was saluted and fêted throughout most of his lifetime. Equally admired as novelist and playwright, there were rumors that he was denied a Nobel Prize only because of unfair accusations of plagiarism. This unfairness is easily established. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a dramatization of the whole span of human history through the varying fortunes and misfortunes of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus of Excelsior, New Jersey, undoubtedly makes use of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, whose Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (“Here Comes Everybody”) is similarly representative; but Wilder, very much an amateur expert on Joyce's work, openly acknowledged his debts. Only a harsh judge interprets a public tribute as evidence of theft.