Posted December 2006 Early American and Colonial Period to 1776

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Asian-American Poetry
Like poetry by Chicano and Latino writers, Asian-American poetry is exceedingly varied. Americans of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino descent may often have lived in the United States for eight generations, while Americans of Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese heritage are likely to be fairly recent immigrants. Each group has grown out of a distinctive linguistic, historical, and cultural tradition.

Developments in Asian-American literature have included an emphasis on the Pacific Rim and women's writing. Asian Americans generally have resisted the common stereotypes as the "exotic" or "good" minority. Aestheticians have compared Asian and Western literary traditions -- for example, comparing the concepts of Tao and Logos.

Asian-American poets have drawn on many sources, from Chinese opera to Zen Buddhism, and Asian literary traditions, particularly Zen, have inspired numerous non-Asian poets, as can be seen in the 1991 anthology Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Asian-American poets span a spectrum, from the iconoclastic posture taken by Frank Chin (1940- ), co-editor of Aiiieeeee! (an early anthology of Asian-American literature), to the generous use of tradition by writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston (1940- ). Janice Mirikitani (1942- ), a sansei (third-generation Japanese American), evokes Japanese-American history and has edited several anthologies, such as Third World Women (1973); Time To Greez! Incantations From the Third World (1975); and Ayumi: A Japanese American Anthology (1980).

The lyrical Picture Bride (1983) of Chinese-American Cathy Song (1955- ) also dramatizes history through the lives of her family. Many Asian-American poets explore cultural diversity. In Song's "The Vegetable Air" (1988), a shabby town with cows in the plaza, a Chinese restaurant, and a Coca-Cola sign hung askew becomes an emblem of rootless multicultural contemporary life made bearable by art, in this case an opera on cassette:

then the familiar aria,
rising like the moon,
lifts you out of yourself,
transporting you to another country
where, for a moment, you travel light.

The Language School, Experimentation, and New Formalism

At the end of the 20th century, directions in American poetry included the Language Poets loosely associated with Temblor magazine and Douglas Messerli, editor of "Language" Poetries: An Anthology (1987). Among them: Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten, author of Total Syntax (1985), a collection of essays. These poets stretch language to reveal its potential for ambiguity, fragmentation, and self-assertion within chaos. Ironic and postmodern, they reject "meta-narratives" -- ideologies, dogmas, conventions -- and doubt the existence of transcendent reality. Michael Palmer writes:

This is Paradise, a mildewed book
Left too long in the house

Bob Perelman's "Chronic Meanings" (1993) begins:

The single fact is matter.
Five words can say only.
Black sky at night, reasonably.
I am, the irrational residue...

Viewing art and literary criticism as inherently ideological, they oppose modernism's closed forms, hierarchies, ideas of epiphany and transcendence, categories of genre and canonical texts or accepted literary works. Instead they propose open forms and multicultural texts. They appropriate images from popular culture and the media, and refashion them. Like performance poetry, language poems often resist interpretation and invite participation.

Performance-oriented poetry -- sets of chance operations such as those of composer John Cage, jazz improvisation, mixed media work, and European surrealism -- have influenced many U.S. poets. Well-known figures include Laurie Anderson (1947- ), author of the international hit United States (1984), which uses film, video, acoustics and music, choreography, and space-age technology. Sound poetry, emphasizing the voice and instruments, has been practiced by poets David Antin (who extemporizes his performances) and New Yorkers George Quasha (publisher of Station Hill Press), the late Armand Schwerner, and Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low has also written visual or concrete poetry, which makes a visual statement using placement and typography.

Ethnic performance poetry entered the mainstream with rap music, while across the United States over the last decade, poetry slams -- open poetry reading contests that are held in alternative art galleries and literary bookstores -- have become inexpensive, high-spirited, participatory entertainments.

At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum are the self-styled New Formalists, who champion a return to form, rhyme, and meter. All groups are responding to the same problem -- a perceived middle-brow complacency with the status quo, a careful and overly polished sound, often the product of poetry workshops, and an overemphasis on the personal lyric as opposed to the public gesture.

The Formal School is associated with Story Line Press; Dana Gioia, the poet who became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003; Philip Dacey and David Jauss, poets and editors of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986); Brad Leithauser; and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language Since 1975 is a 1988 anthology. Though these poets have been accused of retreating to 19th-century themes, they often draw on contemporary stances and images, along with musical languages and traditional, closed forms.

American Prose, 1945-1990: Realism and Experimentation

Robert Penn Warren (© AP Images)

Tennessee Williams (© AP Images)

Eudora Welty (© AP Images)

James Baldwin (© AP Images)

Ralph Ellison (© AP Images)

John Cheever (© AP Images)

John Updike (© AP Images)

Norman Mailer (© AP Images)

Philip Roth (© AP Images)

Toni Morrison (© AP Images)

Amiri Baraka (© AP Images)

David Mamet (© AP Images)
Narrative in the decades following World War II resists generalization: It was extremely various and multifaceted. It was vitalized by international currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism, while the electronic era brought the global village. The spoken word on television gave new life to oral tradition. Oral genres, media, and popular culture increasingly influenced narrative.

In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status and example; the reverse seems true in the United States in the postwar years. Serious novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alice Walker, and E.L. Doctorow borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and oral history.

To say this is not to trivialize this literature: Writers in the United States were asking serious questions, many of them of a metaphysical nature. Writers became highly innovative and self-aware, or reflexive. Often they found traditional modes ineffective and sought vitality in more widely popular material. To put it another way, American writers in the postwar decades developed a postmodern sensibility. Modernist restructurings of point of view no longer sufficed for them; rather, the context of vision had to be made new.

The Realist Legacy and the Late 1940s

As in the first half of the 20th century, fiction in the second half reflected the character of each decade. The late 1940s saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.

World War II offered prime material: Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity, 1951) were two writers who used it best. Both of them employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify combat. The same was true for Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948). Herman Wouk, in The Caine Mutiny (1951), also showed that human foibles were as evident in wartime as in civilian life.

Later, Joseph Heller cast World War II in satirical and absurdist terms (Catch-22, 1961), arguing that war is laced with insanity. Thomas Pynchon presented an involuted, brilliant case parodying and displacing different versions of reality (Gravity's Rainbow, 1973). Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., became one of the shining lights of the counterculture during the early 1970s following publication of Slaughterhouse-Five: or, The Children's Crusade (1969), his antiwar novel about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces during World War II (which Vonnegut witnessed on the ground as a prisoner of war).

The 1940s saw the flourishing of a new contingent of writers, including poet-novelist-essayist Robert Penn Warren, dramatists Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams, and short story writers Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. All but Miller were from the South. All explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Robert Penn Warren, one of the southern Fugitives, enjoyed a fruitful career running through most of the 20th century. He showed a lifelong concern with democratic values as they appeared within historical context. The most enduring of his novels is All the King's Men (1946), focusing on the darker implications of the American dream as revealed in this thinly veiled account of the career of a flamboyant and sinister southern politician, Huey Long.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
New York-born dramatist Arthur Miller reached his personal pinnacle in 1949 with Death of a Salesman, a study of man's search for merit and worth in his life and the realization that failure invariably looms. Set within the family of the title character, Willy Loman, the play hinges on the uneven relationships of father and sons, husband and wife. It is a mirror of the literary attitudes of the 1940s, with its rich combination of realism tinged with naturalism; carefully drawn, rounded characters; and insistence on the value of the individual, despite failure and error. Death of a Salesman is a moving paean to the common man -- to whom, as Willy Loman's widow eulogizes, "attention must be paid." Poignant and somber, it is also a story of dreams. As one character notes ironically, "a salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."

Death of a Salesman, a landmark work, still is only one of a number of dramas Miller wrote over several decades, including All My Sons (1947) and The Crucible (1953). Both are political -- one contemporary and the other set in colonial times. The first deals with a manufacturer who knowingly allows defective parts to be shipped to airplane firms during World War II, resulting in the death of several American airmen. The Crucible depicts the Salem (Massachusetts) witchcraft trials of the 17th century in which Puritan settlers were wrongfully executed as supposed witches. Its message, though -- that "witch hunts" directed at innocent people are anathema in a democracy -- was relevant to the era in which the play was staged, the early 1950s, when an anti-Communist crusade led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others ruined the lives of innocent people. Partly in response to The Crucible, Miller was called before the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and asked to provide the names of persons who might have Communist sympathies. Because of his refusal to do so, Miller was charged with contempt of Congress, a charge that was overturned on appeal.

A later Miller play, Incident at Vichy (1964), dealt with the Holocaust -- the destruction of much of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. In The Price (1968), two brothers struggle to free themselves from the burdens of the past. Other of Miller's dramas include two one-act plays, Fame (1970) and The Reason Why (1970). His essays are collected in Echoes Down the Corridor (2000); his autobiography, Timebends: A Life, appeared in 1987.

Lillian Hellman (1906-1984)
Like Robert Penn Warren, Lillian Hellman's moral vision was shaped by the South. Her childhood was largely spent in New Orleans. Her compelling plays explore power's many guises and abuses. In The Children's Hour (l934), a manipulative girl destroys the lives of two women teachers by telling people they are lesbians. In The Little Foxes (1939), a rich old southern family fights over an inheritance. Hellman's anti-fascist Watch on the Rhine (1941) grew out of her trips to Europe in the l930s. Her memoirs include An Unfinished Woman (l969) and Pentimento (1973).

For many years, Hellman had a close personal relationship with the remarkable scriptwriter Dashiell Hammett, whose streetwise detective character, Sam Spade, fascinated Depression-era Americans. Hammett invented the quintessentially American hard-boiled detective novel: The Maltese Falcon (l930); The Thin Man (1934).

Hellman, like Arthur Miller, had refused to "name names" for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she and Hammett were blacklisted (refused employment in the American entertainment industry) for a time. These events are recounted in Hellman's memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976).

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Tennessee Williams, a native of Mississippi, was one of the more complex individuals on the American literary scene of the mid-20th century. His work focused on disturbed emotions within families -- most of them southern. He was known for incantatory repetitions, a poetic southern diction, weird gothic settings, and Freudian exploration of human emotion. One of the first American writers to live openly as a homosexual, Williams explained that the longings of his tormented characters expressed their loneliness. His characters live and suffer intensely.

Williams wrote more than 20 full-length dramas, many of them autobiographical. He reached his peak relatively early in his career -- in the 1940s -- with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1949). None of the works that followed over the next two decades and more reached the level of success and richness of those two pieces.

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Katherine Anne Porter's long life and career encompassed several eras. Her first success, the short story "Flowering Judas" (1929), was set in Mexico during the revolution. The beautifully crafted short stories that gained her renown subtly unveil personal lives. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" (1930), for example, conveys large emotions with precision. Often she reveals women's inner experiences and their dependence on men.

Porter's nuances owe much to the stories of the New Zealand-born story writer Katherine Mansfield. Porter's story collections include Flowering Judas (1930), Noon Wine (1937), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower (1944), and Collected Stories (1965). In the early 1960s, she produced a long, allegorical novel with a timeless theme -- the responsibility of humans for each other. Titled Ship of Fools (1962), it was set in the late 1930s aboard a passenger liner carrying members of the German upper class and German refugees alike from the Nazi nation.

Not a prolific writer, Porter nonetheless influenced generations of authors, among them her southern colleagues Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001)
Born in Mississippi to a well-to-do family of transplanted northerners, Eudora Welty was guided by Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Anne Porter. Porter, in fact, wrote an introduction to Welty's first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green (1941). Welty modeled her nuanced work on Porter, but the younger woman was more interested in the comic and grotesque. Like fellow southerner Flannery O'Connor, Welty often took subnormal, eccentric, or exceptional characters for subjects.

Despite violence in her work, Welty's wit was essentially humane and affirmative, as, for example, in her frequently anthologized story "Why I Live at the P.O." (1941), in which a stubborn and independent daughter moves out of her house to live in a tiny post office. Her collections of stories include The Wide Net (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), and Moon Lake (1980). Welty also wrote novels such as Delta Wedding (1946), which is focused on a plantation family in modern times, and The Optimist's Daughter (1972).

The 1950s

The 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life. Not only did World War II defeat fascism, it brought the United States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. Business, especially in the corporate world, seemed to offer the good life (usually in the suburbs), with its real and symbolic marks of success -- house, car, television, and home appliances.

Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme for many writers; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Generalized American alienation came under the scrutiny of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950).

Other popular, more or less scientific studies followed, ranging from Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) to William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) and C. Wright Mills's more intellectual formulations -- White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Economist and academician John Kenneth Galbraith contributed The Affluent Society (1958).

Most of these works supported the 1950s assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. The studies spoke in general terms, criticizing citizens for losing frontier individualism and becoming too conformist (for example, Riesman and Mills) or advising people to become members of the "New Class" that technology and leisure time created (as seen in Galbraith's works).

The 1950s in literary terms actually was a decade of subtle and pervasive unease. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day. African-American Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) revealed racism as a continuing undercurrent in her moving 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, in which a black family encounters a threatening "welcome committee" when it tries to move into a white neighborhood.

Some writers went further by focusing on characters who dropped out of mainstream society, as did J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, and Jack Kerouac in On the Road. And in the waning days of the decade, Philip Roth arrived with a series of short stories reflecting a certain alienation from his Jewish heritage (Goodbye, Columbus). His psychological ruminations provided fodder for fiction, and later autobiography, into the new millennium.

The fiction of American-Jewish writers Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- among others prominent in the 1950s and the years following -- are also worthy, compelling additions to the compendium of American literature. The output of these three authors is most noted for its humor, ethical concern, and portraits of Jewish communities in the Old and New Worlds.

John O'Hara (1905-1970)
Trained as a journalist, John O'Hara was a prolific writer of plays, stories, and novels. He was a master of careful, telling detail and is best remembered for several realistic novels, mostly written in the 1950s, about outwardly successful people whose inner faults and dissatisfaction leave them vulnerable. These titles include Appointment in Samarra (1934), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1959).

James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison mirror the African-American experience of the 1950s. Their characters suffer from a lack of identity, rather than from over-ambition.

Baldwin, the oldest of nine children born to a Harlem, New York, family, was the foster son of a minister. As a youth, Baldwin occasionally preached in the church. This experience helped shape the compelling, oral quality of his prose, most clearly seen in his excellent essays such as "Letter From a Region of My Mind," from the collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In this work, he argued movingly for an end to separation between the races.

Baldwin's first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), is probably his best known. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy who seeks self-knowledge and religious faith as he wrestles with issues of Christian conversion in a storefront church. Other important Baldwin works include Another Country (1962) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), a collection of passionate personal essays about racism, the role of the artist, and literature.

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
Ralph Ellison was a Midwesterner, born in Oklahoma, who studied at Tuskegee Institute in the southern United States. He had one of the strangest careers in American letters -- consisting of one highly acclaimed book and little more.

The novel is Invisible Man (1952), the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a cellar brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences. When he wins a scholarship to an all-black college, he is humiliated by whites; when he gets to the college, he witnesses the school's president spurning black American concerns. Life is corrupt outside college, too. For example, even religion is no consolation: A preacher turns out to be a criminal. The novel indicts society for failing to provide its citizens -- black and white -- with viable ideals and institutions for realizing them. It embodies a powerful racial theme because the "invisible man" is invisible not in himself but because others, blinded by prejudice, cannot see him for who he is.

Juneteenth (1999), Ellison's sprawling, unfinished novel, edited posthumously, reveals his continuing concern with race and identity.

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