Angela M. Garcia
Long recognized only for her children's books, Louisa May Alcott also wrote adult novels, Civil War hospital sketches, and at least fifty pieces of much-publicized “sensation” fiction, but her most popular legacy remains that curiously modern portrait of family life, Little Women (1868). Although the author mocked herself as providing mere “moral pap for the young,” her audience in America, and later worldwide, responded enthusiastically to its edifying and entertaining truths. Readers have remained absorbed by and even enamored with Alcott's story; by the end of the twentieth century, several million copies had been sold in dozens of translations, and film and television adaptations continue to be produced.
The Algonquin Round Table refers to a place, a group, a sensibility, and an era. The place was indeed a round table, near the center and toward the back of the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, in New York City. The group was a rotating cast of writers, critics, actors, and hangers-on, most in their twenties and thirties, who for a decade or more met at the table for lunch, sometimes every day. The group's sensibility was witty, urbane, and sophisticated, but also depressive and parochial. The era was the twenties, the decade when America became the center of the world and New York City became the center of America.
It is hard to imagine a time when Britain and France did not have a police force and detectives whose job it was to solve crimes. But until the growth of criminal investigation in the form of Scotland Yard in London, and the Sûreté in Paris, there was no formal detection. The Sûreté (the French crime bureau) was created in the 1820s, followed in Britain in 1842 by a detective branch that was part of the Metropolitan Police of London. Detectives as part of the police forces in New York and other American cities came later still. Therefore, it is not surprising that the detective novel did not arise until 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Since the United States lagged behind Europe in its policing, Poe set his three detective stories not in New York but in Paris, a city he admired. He based his detective, C. Auguste Dupin, on Francois-Eugene Vidocq, a criminal turned private detective, whose memoirs were published in 1832
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
Lynn Orilla Scott
Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of the physical and spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. In researching her groundbreaking 1946 dissertation, Marion Wilson Starling located 6,006 slave narratives written between 1703 and 1944. This number includes brief testimonies found in judicial records, broadsides, journals, and newsletters as well as separately published books. It also includes approximately 2,500 oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. The number of separately published slave narratives, however, is much smaller. Although exact numbers are not available, nearly one hundred slave narratives were published as books or pamphlets between 1760 and 1865, and approximately another one hundred following the Civil War. The slave narrative reached the height of its influence and formal development during the antebellum period, from 1836 to 1861. During this time it became a distinct genre of American literature, and achieved immense popularity and influence among a primarily white, northern readership. A few, in particular The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself (1845), displayed a high level of rhetorical sophistication. With the end of slavery, however, interest in the narratives declined sharply. Furthermore, one consequence of the social and political repression of the black population following Reconstruction was the “loss” of the slave narratives for sixty years. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, scholars recovered, republished, and analyzed slave narratives. Both historians and literary critics came to value their importance to the historiography of American slavery and to the development of African-American autobiography and fiction.
As a teenager James Baldwin abandoned the pulpit after a year and a half, but it would be fair to say that he always remained a preacher. For Baldwin, the life of an artist was a higher vocation, and he plunged into that life with inexhaustible, at times desperate, fervor. While he insisted that the writer's primary responsibility is to his or her craft, he was equally adamant that the writer has an obligation to serve as witness for society; in doing so, the writer plays an essential role in the construction of a better future. Baldwin certainly demanded of himself this double purpose, and when the two are in accord—often in his essays, occasionally in his fiction—it is easy to see his work as among the most important in twentieth-century American literature. For many, though, Baldwin's early promise as a novelist was never fully realized; according to this not entirely unsound perspective, the tumult of the 1960s took a heavy toll on the writer and rendered his fiction didactic and disheveled. His reputation sagged, not least among black radicals who considered Baldwin to have been co-opted by the (white) literary establishment. Years after his death, opinion is still divided over the merits of Baldwin's fiction and even his later essays. What Baldwin wrote in his essay, Alas, Poor Richard (1961), published after the death of Richard Wright, could be said of himself: “The fact that [Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult.”
The Beat movement was America's first major Cold War literary movement. Originally a small circle of unpublished friends, it later became one of the most significant sources of contemporary counterculture, and the most successful free speech movement in American literature. It is at once a reclamation of poetry from the modernist pedestal of the New Critics and an attempt to infiltrate the academy itself; as closely associated with the proliferation of Eastern spirituality in America as it is with the drug culture and jazz rhythms of the street.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of the most original lyric voices of the twentieth century, standing with such other American poets as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore, who was Bishop's mentor and shared Bishop's thirst for accuracy. Like these poets, Bishop was not part of any school and so did not align herself with any program or spend time framing manifestos. Instead, she forged her own aesthetic based on close observation of the thing itself, and in the process generated new idioms and rhythms that convey with wit and a keen moral sense her beliefs about the power of the human imagination to build upon and alter our world.
William R. Nash
The term “Black Arts Movement” describes a set of attitudes, influential from 1965 to 1976, about African-American cultural production, which assumed that political activism was a primary responsibility of black artists. It also decreed that the only valid political end of black artists' efforts was liberation from white political and artistic power structures. Just as white people were to be stripped of their right to proscribe or define black identity, white aesthetic standards were to be overthrown and replaced with creative values arising from the black community.
Susan J. Rosowski
Willa Cather is remarkable for the excellence, productivity, longevity, consistency, and experimentation of her writing, and also for the absence in her life of the angst familiar in other authors' biographies: alienation, madness, scandal, alcoholism. Instead, she was faithful to her home, her family, and her friends. Her experience encompassed rural Virginia, frontier Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Park Avenue in New York City, with side trips to Europe, the American Southwest, and Canada; she was a Nebraska cosmopolite. Unlike writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived their lives as extensions of the stories they told, Cather was known for the privacy of her life as well as for the openness of her writing. She once said, in a letter to The Commonweal describing her own methods, that a novelist should present “the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own…whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ ” (On Writing, p. 13). Cather was a writer whose works were exceptionally infused with her own experiences, but at the same time she had the rare capacity for detachment and could make those experiences and emotions part of her characters' stories, not just her own.