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Whitman, Walt  

Jerome Loving

“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.


Wilbur, Richard  

Gerry Cambridge

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.


Wilder, Thornton  

Philip Parry

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.


Williams, Tennessee  

John A. Bertolini

Tennessee Williams’s career as a playwright followed the traditional trajectory—from parental objection and the confinements of middle-class life and small-town mentality to the struggle for success, the achievement and flourishing of that success and worldwide fame, followed by drug and alcohol abuse, to less favor from his muse, and finally to death in a hotel room. Williams’s writings sing for the individual soul in torment and isolation. His protagonists hang desperate with loneliness, in frenzied pursuit of the carnal as a stay against aloneness and death. They use language seemingly to decorate reality, but actually they are attempting to protect themselves from it. They border on hysteria, loss of control, loss of self-possession. Violence lurks near them always, or menaces them; it finally destroys possibility for them, when it does not destroy their actual bodies. Much of Williams’s imaginative output, both the dramatic and the fictional, reworks material from his experience of his own family. Indeed, it was not until he dramatized his family in The Glass Menagerie (1944)—so closely based on his own family that he gave the character based on himself his own name, “Tom”—that he had a clear success on stage. It also matters that his family was southern, for everything that the South meant by way of traditions, codes of manners, behavior, dress, conduct, and a way of looking at the world provided for him a whole system with which he could make his individual characters clash. His next hit play, A Streetcar Named Desire, gave American Literature two immortal characters: Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski, two individualized archetypes—refined feminine gentility and masculine animal vitality—who play out a tragic dance that leads to Blanche’s destruction, leaving her dependent “on the kindness of strangers.” With 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams completed the triumvirate of his most highly regarded plays. Williams knew he had created two more memorable characters: Maggie the cat and Big Daddy, whose determination not to accept his own mortality was meant by Williams to signal that he was writing his own version of King Lear. Both Streetcar and Cat were directed by Elia Kazan, a collaboration that resulted in another Broadway success, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). Williams’s last Broadway success, The Night of the Iguana, recapitulated almost all of his major themes: the impoverished poet at odds with his society, now grown into an old and saintly figure who meets his end serenely; the necessity for tolerance and kindness where unconventional sexual needs express themselves; the desire for human connection to overcome the confinement of the self in loneliness; the longing for freedom and transcendence of the earthly prison; the transient status of life’s sojourners. The succession of failed productions of his subsequent plays in New York, the site of his previous theatrical triumphs, could be called “the long parade to the graveyard.” Only one of these plays lasted more than two months, a humiliating indication that this brilliant playwright either had lost his talent or found only unwilling auditors among the younger generation that dominated the culture of the two decades of Williams’s decline.


Williams, Terry Tempest  

Andrea Ross

Born on 8 September 1955 to a fifth-generation Mormon family and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Terry Lynn Tempest was the first child of Diane Dixon Tempest and John Henry Tempest III. Her publications include children's books, essays, stories, and creative nonfiction, all of which focus on human interaction with the environment. A naturalist and a writer, her engagement with the natural world began when she was a child, as she hiked and identified birds with her paternal grandmother, Kathryn “Mimi” Blackett, in the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary near her home by the Great Salt Lake. As a result of her early exposure to ornithology, much of her writing is populated with birds, especially Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Williams's grandmother also sparked her fervor for environmental preservation by introducing her to conservationist Rachel Carson's writing. Growing up Mormon helped shape Williams's sense of ritual and showed her the importance of family, notions that proved germane to her development as a writer celebrating landscape, homeplace, and spirituality. Also significant to her writing is the Mormon tradition valuing storytelling as a way of clarifying values and self-identity. At the University of Utah, Williams pursued her love of both story and of science, majoring in English and minoring in biology. During college she met Brooke Williams, who shared her deep love for nature; they married in June 1975. She also pursued a master's degree in environmental education at the University of Utah, which involved teaching Navajo children at Montezuma Creek, Utah. She was hired in 1979 as the curator of education at the Utah Museum of Natural History, a job she continued to hold when she published her first books in 1984. During her tenure as naturalist-in-residence at the museum from 1986 to 1996, she published eight more books.


Williams, William Carlos  

Huck Gutman

By the time the twenty-first century dawned, there were many—especially among the world's poets—who maintained that William Carlos Williams was the most important American poet of the twentieth century. But such recognition had not always come to Williams.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


Women and Writing in Spanish America from Colonial Times through the 20th Century  

Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio

As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.


Work, Neoliberal Development, and Global Anglophone Literatures  

Kalyan Nadiminti

Twenty-first-century anglophone literatures of the Global South are increasingly contending with the waning of the postcolonial welfare state and the rising hegemony of world markets. As a result, contemporary anglophone writing, predominantly from India, Nigeria, and Mexico, offers a re-descriptive matrix for postcolonial studies. Ranging from novels about neocolonial expansion to nonfiction about rising economies of scale, both diasporic and national anglophone literatures use the narrative conceit of entrepreneurship to diagnose the sheer reach of neoliberalism. Whether casting it as a mainly US-backed economic regime, the latest iteration of first-world developmentalism, or a post-1989 fallout of world economies toward a universalized market logic, neoliberalism has had a significant impact on the narrative forms and subjects produced within contemporary anglophone literatures. In the wake of the 2008 collapse, recession economics has precipitated varied reflections on the pernicious effects of hyper-valuation and its effects on the Global South by postcolonial and diasporic novelists like Aravind Adiga, Mohsin Hamid, and Teju Cole. Global Anglophone writing, broadly conceived, insistently calls attention to the material and psychic damage inflicted by the peripheralization of postcolonial nations in the production of a profitably global market imaginary. By tracking the formal centrality of the Bildungsroman, Indian, Nigerian, and Mexican writers demonstrate how they reject the universalism of Bildung as global development and instead gravitate toward a politics of compromise, failure, and refusal. They offer a grim counternarrative to the aspirational and upwardly mobile ethos that characterizes nonfiction from economically ascendant postcolonial nations. In modes of novelistic and nonfiction writing, a variety of figures, from murderous entrepreneurs to discontented psychiatrists to cynical bloggers, complicate the landscape of global neoliberalism. If the framework of the global troublingly obfuscates questions of labor and economic justice, then these diverse subjects self-consciously mediate between marginal cosmopolitanisms and precarious work regimes to reveal the stakes of transnational capital. In doing so, Global Anglophone literatures attest to an urgent need to rethink free market economics by finding new, egalitarian solutions to the problem of uneven development.



Jen Hui Bon Hoa

In recent decades, world has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested concepts in literary studies. The more narrowly defined stakes of the debates over world literature concern the disciplinary mandate of comparative literature. One way of grasping the world as a problematic is in terms of a dispute over the correct unit of literary analysis. Should comparative literature scholars seek to illuminate broad historical patterns in the global circulation of influence as reflected, for example, in the morphology of literary genres or the adoption of tropes across different literary cultures? Or should they seek instead to come to grips with the singularity of the world—the unique systems of thought and meaning—presented in individual texts, using the methodology of close reading that offers a model for the ethical relation to otherness? The issue of scale is equally at play in the multiculturalist imperative to expand the literary canon beyond its traditional emphasis on European and Anglo-American traditions. While the general consensus is that undoing comparative literature’s Eurocentrism is crucial to the discipline’s continued relevance, the practical question of how to go about it has been contentious. If scholars are required to draw from a diversified literary canon, how can they attain the linguistic competence required to treat the enlarged field of inquiry with adequate hermeneutic care? The danger, according to some critics, is that world literature will normalize the study of literary texts in English translation. Another critique of such globalizing initiatives regards the value of diversity itself. Some have argued that conceiving of literary works as representatives of specific cultures or regions is itself a legacy of Orientalist Eurocentrism and that, therefore, a multiculturalist approach inadvertently entrenches the very problem it seeks to rectify. A range of political and ethical concerns are thus at stake in the endeavor to globalize comparative literature. Indeed, the concept of world literature has historically been bound up with an assessment of globalization’s liberatory potential and, increasingly, its oppressive effects. The emergence of world literature as a project or goal is often, though not always, traced back to Goethe at the beginning of the 19th century. Reflecting the Enlightenment value of universalism, Goethe’s evocation of Weltliteratur projects a world united through free literary exchange across borders and intercultural understanding. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels situate Goethe’s cosmopolitan vision in a materialist framework, presenting it as derivative of the economic transformations entailed in the world market. They also radicalize Goethe’s model of cosmopolitanism. Instead of an autonomous sphere of communication among the national literary traditions of the world, for them Weltliteratur stands metonymically for a future in which both the nation and private property—as manifested in the idea of national patrimony—are superseded by an internationalist commonwealth. Fleshing out the tension between Goethe’s and Marx’s visions of the globalized world, recent debates on world literature have generated productive confrontations between liberal humanistic, Marxist, deconstructive, and postcolonial perspectives on the gap between the world one inhabits and the world one wants.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Yiddish in Interwar Berlin  

Marc Caplan

Berlin in the interwar era of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) was not a center for Yiddish culture so much as a periphery dependent upon more dominant locations of Jewish life such as the United States, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In this respect, the status of Yiddish reflects a greater sense of marginality and dislocation then characterizing German culture, which, at the time, felt unmoored from its imperial coordinates of the 19th century and under the sway of more innovative international cities such as Leningrad, Paris, New York, and especially Hollywood. The draw of Berlin for Yiddish-language writers or community activists was therefore not the allure of Weimar culture or the hopes of attracting large audiences among German Jews. Instead, the economic disorder of the Weimar Republic, paradoxically, offered financial windfalls and business opportunities for migrants with foreign currency—particularly for writers with contacts to the American Yiddish press. Moreover, Germany, unlike Poland, maintained diplomatic and economic relations with the Soviet Union, which allowed writers and activists sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution a safe haven while the home front remained riven by military conflicts, scarcity of basic necessities, and an uncertain political future. The heyday of Yiddish activism in Berlin was relatively short-lived, only dating from about 1921 until about 1926. After that date, the Soviet Union had achieved political stability and began to invest, at least for the next decade, in a wide series of Yiddish-language cultural institutions including publishing houses, newspapers, centers of higher education, and popular entertainment. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Yiddish culture made a deep or lasting impact on the German culture of the Weimar Republic, for Yiddish readers, the literature produced in Germany ranks among the most important and innovative achievements in Yiddish culture of the 1920s. The most significant writers to have resided in Berlin during this era include Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and Moyshe Kulbak.