Heather J. Hicks
From 1950 to the 2010s, the genre known as apocalyptic fiction has grown in prominence, moving from the mass-market domain of science fiction to a more central position in the contemporary literary scene. The term “apocalyptic fiction” can be understood to encompass both depictions of cataclysms that destroy the Earth and texts that portray the aftermath of a disaster that annihilates a nation, civilization, or all but a few survivors of the human population. The term itself finds its roots in the book of Revelation, and while contemporary apocalyptic fiction tends to be largely secular in its worldview, important traces of the Christian tradition linger in these texts. Indeed, while apocalyptic fiction has evolved over the past sixty-five years in response to historical transformations in Western societies, much of it remains wedded to Revelation’s representation of women as the cause of apocalyptic destruction. The material of the 1950s reflects Cold War anxieties about nuclear war while presenting sexually liberated women as implicated in the same modernity that has created the atomic bomb. People of color are also depicted as threats that must be contained. The apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s registers a fascination with genetic, social, and literary mutation, ambivalently treating a variety of “others” as both toxic and potentially useful ambassadors to some new, postmodern condition. The 1970s see the emergence of feminist apocalypses, works that react against the sexist tendency to conflate female power and sexuality with apocalyptic menace. The 1980s introduce the “American apocalypse,” a subgenre that imagines a disaster befalling America in specifically economic terms. The 1990s, meanwhile, find combinations of the feminist and American apocalypse, while also beginning to bring environmental peril into focus. From 2000 forward, there is a renewed interest in broader, more global disasters, in part informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Formally, this is the era of the “metapocalypse”—apocalyptic fictions that are self-reflexive about the conventions of the genre, including those involving gender and race. Nonetheless, several of the novels in this period still unapologetically introduce figures that recall Jezebel and Babylon from Revelation. Finally, the period since 2010 has seen a revived emphasis on economic collapse precipitated by neoliberal capitalism as well as the anthropocene.
Known primarily as the author of On the Road (1957), the novel most closely associated with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) also wrote extensively about his French-Canadian heritage. A native of the large francophone community of Lowell, Massachusetts, he faced the dilemma of writing in a foreign language, English, while one of his motives to write was to memorialize a community assimilating to U.S. society and speaking French less and less. The recent publication of his two short novels in French from the early 1950s, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (Old Bull in the Bowery), provides evidence that the preoccupation with travel informing On the Road is deeply tied to his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Quebec to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries practiced survivance, cultural survival, especially through maintaining fluency in French and adhering to Catholicism while living among a Protestant majority. These customs of the Quebecois diaspora had begun in Canada: following the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, francophones resisted immense pressure to assimilate, both official and unofficial. Narratives of displacement from France and subsequently Quebec persisted in folklore and literature on both sides of the border through the 20th century.
In early 1951, Kerouac drafted La nuit est ma femme, telling the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian from New England who wanders around the eastern United States with a sense of homelessness. Narrating in a French that reproduces the southern New England dialect, Michel laments that neither of the languages he speaks really belongs to him. The text develops the theme of cultural and linguistic mixing and its discovery through travel. Shortly after completing La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac brought this theme to On the Road, famously composing the novel on a roll of paper in three weeks in April 1951. Contrary to legend, he did extensive rewriting before his landmark work was published: Sur le chemin, which he drafted in late 1952, offers an “on the road” story about Franco-Americans and was by his own account a key part of the rewriting process. During this time, he elaborated his theory of “spontaneous prose,” writing quickly and in an improvisational manner as a way of conveying geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement. In the wake of On the Road’s depictions of the expanses of the United States, including its geographic place in North America, Kerouac turned to Franco-American New England. His next book, Dr. Sax (1959), takes place in Lowell and features lengthy passages in French; the novel’s central concerns are his community’s relationship to a legacy of displacement and the conflict between clinging to the past and creating something new. If there is a principal thrust in Kerouac’s writing, it is to challenge American literature to recognize its transnational and translingual character.
Alan M. Wald
At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships.
With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions.
As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.
Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers.
The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem.
When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”