This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Proletarian literature in the United States resulted from three developments: industrialization and the emergence of the first U.S. working class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the rise of trade unions, anarcho-syndicalism, and Socialism; aesthetic and philosophical realism and naturalism inherited from the European novel of the 19th century, and to a lesser extent, from journalism, photography, film, and documentary. These aspects merged in proletarian literature’s endeavor to represent working-class life in positivist, materialist terms mainly from an anti-capitalist and Socialist point of view. The Russian Revolution of 1917 catalyzed and named the genre by attaching to writing by the working class Marx and Engels’s term for their lives: proletarians (from Latin, for the lowest order of Roman citizens). After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Soviet endorsement of “proletkult,” an acronym for “proletarian cultural-educational organizations” (proletarskie kul’turno-prosvetitel’nye organizatsii) led to critical essays and manifestos seeking to define the politics and aesthetics of proletarian literature.
In the United States, Mike Gold’s 1921 essay “Towards Proletarian Art” was a bellwether, and the beginning of this tradition. From 1920 to 1945, writers as diverse as Gold, Claude McKay, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Tillie Olsen, Agnes Smedley, and Richard Wright demonstrated allegiance to the task of advancing literature by and for the working-class. Yet the genre of proletarian literature has roots in disparate places—literature of slavery, industrial writing, radical journalism, and books like Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills. In 1905, well before Gold’s manifesto, Upton Sinclair declared hope that his exposé of conditions for packinghouse workers in Chicago in The Jungle would do for wage laborers what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Children did for slaves, namely lead to their emancipation. Sinclair’s term for the working class, “white slaves,” also shows how race is a constant modality, to use Stuart Hall’s term, for class experience in American proletarian literature. While the genre of U.S. proletarian literature is generally held by scholars to expire with the end of the Great Depression, its influence and modeling of commitment to working-class, anti-capitalist themes extends well into the contemporary period, as evident in writing by Russell Banks, Dorothy Allison, Simon Ortiz, Etheridge Knight, Leslie Feinberg, Jim Daniels, Sandra Cisneros, and others. Proletarian literature in the United States, broadly considered, has been one of the most hospitable genres for positive representation of the lives of women, non-white people, immigrants, and migrants, who have historically constituted a disproportionately large segment of the U.S. working class.
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.
In the 21st century, a new genre of Anglophone fiction has emerged—the climate change novel, often abbreviated as “cli-fi.” Many successful authors of literary fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, T. C. Boyle, Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, Amitav Ghosh, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Lydia Millet, David Mitchell, Ruth Ozeki, Nathaniel Rich, Kim Stanley Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Marcel Theroux, have contributed to this new genre’s efforts to imagine the causes, effects, and feeling of global warming. Together, their work pulls the issue-oriented and didactic approach of activist fiction into contact with the intensive description and site specificity of Romantic nature writing. Cli-fi knits these tendencies together into a description of the effects of a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate on a particular location and a vision of the options available to a population seeking to adapt to or mitigate those effects.
Although cli-fi is resolutely contemporary and dedicated to creating new narratives adequate to current conditions, criticism devoted to the genre has carefully documented the persistence of national, masculinist, and anthropocentric tendencies in some of its major works. The dependence of cli-fi (and the environmental activism that inspires it) on capitalist visions of social progress has also received scrutiny. Some of these habits of representation have been inherited from literary predecessors such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Ernest Callenbach, and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s Drowned World has proved an especially complicated source of inspiration for this new genre of the novel. In their efforts to update the motifs of these predecessors to the needs of the present, 21st-century cli-fi writers have experimented with the temporality, central figures, and mood of their fiction. These efforts have brought distinctive types of speculative and science fiction, as well as satires of climate change activism and new hybrid realisms, under the cli-fi umbrella. Although the genre still wrestles with inherited limitations, in every permutation, cli-fi novelists have prized innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Finally, all of their varied efforts involving cli-fi unite around an expectation that humanity and the planet can survive the changes associated with the Anthropocene.
Western American literature is a diverse body of writing that documents human responses to the ecological changes that have reshaped the region over the years. The literature includes narratives of contact and encounter, nonfiction nature essays, borderlands literature, popular Westerns, hard-boiled detective narratives, Dust Bowl novels, eco-memoirs, climate change fiction, and other genres. At a time when the West faces a number of environmental crises, a survey of the region provides insights into how we arrived at this point by addressing key moments in the environmental past, including struggles over land use, conflicts over resources, the historical meanings of eco-disaster, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. In settler colonial imaginaries, the region appears as a space of promise and possibility. It offers a retreat from a hyper-modernizing world and serves as a bulwark against changes taking place elsewhere. In this way, the region is also a shifting terrain associated with the nation’s moving frontiers and contact zones, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements. Before the West was called the West, however, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure the land through this geographical lens. Likewise, for some Hispanics, it was known as Aztlán, the mythic land of the ancient Aztecs, and also el Norte. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California “gold mountain,” while from 1733 to 1867, parts of the West from Alaska to California were recognized as “Russian America.” As a place that calls forth diverse memories about encounters and conflicts, stories about dispossession and recovery, and dreams of enrichment and tales of going bust, the West remains a contested terrain whose literature carries traces of the economies and ecologies of the people who have made it their home.
The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Examining the production and reception of fiction and nonfiction written explicitly by and for members of right-wing movements provides a deeper understanding of points of affinity as well as the contention among apparently increasingly partisan groups in the United States. Primary materials include fiction penned by conservative politicians and pundits, fiction written by right-wing agitators, and nonfiction movement literature such as periodicals, advice books, and tactical instruction guides. Since the middle of the 20th century, right-wing literature has sustained and motivated an increasingly formidable political force that undermines democratic ideals and encourages reformatory or revolutionary action.
Comparing and contrasting fiction with movement nonfiction written by conservatives of the Cold War era illuminates how right-wing politics has shifted away from pessimistic accounts of the supposed decline of Western civilization. In the 1960s, conservative book clubs advertised fiction in which heroes typically were ordinary white businessmen whose love of country led them to fight “un-American” foes, often depicted as sexual deviants, racialized immigrants, or a combination of the two. The fiction, then, presented a means of transcending abstract, erudite discussions of the presumed “suicide of the West” that preoccupied conservative intellectuals. Likewise, more radical nonfiction offered a hopeful, less fatalistic sense of right-wing plight. While an urgent tone characterized both fiction and nonfiction in the Cold War era, the fiction and some smaller political publications illuminated a difference between using doomsday rhetoric and deploying an apocalyptic narrative, in which readers could see themselves taking action in social dramas and political conflicts. This rejection of fatalistic passivity corresponded with the rise of the New Right, which de-emphasized economic imperatives to thwart the supposed anticommunist evil that plagued America.
Instead of economic concerns, the New Right began politicizing social issues to inaugurate a cultural conservatism that went beyond conserving and defending a right-wing version of the American way of life and went on the offensive in the 1970s and 1980s. Right-wing fiction of the Culture Wars not only reflected this shift but also ushered it in. In the midst of and after the Reagan Revolution, male protagonists in right-wing fiction were more socially outcast and persecuted than their Cold War counterparts and therefore were more action-oriented from the start. Macho serial fiction and novels penned by right-wing agitators in the antiabortion and white supremacist movements fomented militant insurgency and revolution.
Meanwhile, mainstream publishers created imprints specifically designed to cater to conservative readership, especially women. An industry boom in conservative Christian fiction emerged, with orchestrated efforts to challenge educational curricula and with increased popularity in homeschooling. The trajectory of influential conservative women’s writing went from atheistic free-market novels, and prim advice books on how to negotiate assertiveness and subservience in holy matrimony, to political conspiracy books, and increasingly vicious attacks on particular liberals presumed to be agents (not just dupes) of the antichrist. In recent years, women and right-wing pundits have published commercially successful young adult and children’s literature expressly with conservative themes.