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.
Carol J. Singley
From classical antiquity onwards, writing about life after death has consistently served as a situation for questions of literary theory. The locations of the afterlife are hypotheticals and counterfactuals; they are the site of theory itself. Questions about authorship, for instance, have been articulated through the myth of Orpheus (in the forms recorded by Virgil and Ovid). The story of Orpheus tells of a poet who must go into the underworld to find the material for a tale of survivorship and loss, raising questions about the sources of creative inspiration, the art of trauma, and the suffering of the authentic artist. Dante’s imagined structures of an afterlife, in which punishments fit crimes with an apt poetic justice, have similarly been enlisted into one of the most important theoretical debates of the 20th century between formalists and historicists. The afterlife as a supplement to life’s time has also been used as a way of thinking about temporality and the implications for narrative as a literary mode that works with and through the philosophy of time. One of the most influential aspects of the literature of the afterlife to resonate in literary theory has been the ghost story. In its greatest manifestations, from Hamlet to The Turn of the Screw to Beloved, the ghost story forces its readers to acknowledge those elements of the past that refuse to be laid to rest, and it has therefore served as a vehicle for psychoanalytic questions about how processes of individual or collective memory are depicted in literary texts. In poststructuralist theory, the notion of the hauntological has also built its concepts in dialogue with earlier literary ghosts and become a way of thinking about language and its uncanny slippage between presence and absence. Subsequent critical work continued to develop hauntology into a way of understanding temporality and cultural history. Finally, the notion of prosopopoeia, or the voicing of the dead through writing, is perhaps the most far-reaching way of understanding the prevalence of dead voices as a literary trope, which reflects something of the processes of reading and writing themselves. The afterlife has therefore been a crucial source of generative metaphors for literary theory, as well as a topic and setting with an important literary history.
Stephen Hong Sohn
Asian American speculative fiction is an admittedly unwieldy literary category. This body of literature includes such diverse works as Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager, and S.P. Somtow’s Darker Angels. Central to analyzing such works is identifying their key genre conventions, which primarily involve reality-defying elements or tropes employed in fictional worlds. Chu’s Time Salvager, for instance, envisions a future temporality in which individuals can use time travel technologies. Three generic figures common in Asian American speculative fiction—the ghost, the vampire, and the cyborg, respectively—are depicted in Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger, Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules, and Ken Liu’s “The Regular.” Crucial to understanding Asian American speculative fiction is the need to scrutinize the manner by which the protagonists of these fictions attain incredible power through supernatural abilities. The influence these characters hold also comes with the burden of responsibility, leaving them to wrestle with ambivalence and moral choices to protect or to harm, to recognize or to dismiss. In this sense, Asian American speculative fiction can be fruitfully analyzed through the social justice paradigms that have long dominated critical and scholarly conversations.
Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi). The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.