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Joan Didion is an accomplished writer of essays, political journalism, and novels. A distinctive literary voice, she is known for her subjective yet unsentimental essays, her harrowing novels, and her astute political criticism.
Among the most distinctive forms of American writing is the meditative essay, as initiated by the nineteenth-century authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Annie Dillard is a more recent practitioner of this tradition. Often relying on the natural world as a backdrop for her philosophical discourse, Dillard explodes the minutiae of science and environment into broad, spiritual speculation. Dillard was born on 30 April 1945, the eldest of three daughters in a well-off Pittsburgh family. By her own account, her parents were hilarious individualists, as engrossed with the details of life as Dillard would become. They taught her the value of a good joke and the importance of self-reliance. Her father introduced her to On the Road by Jack Kerouac, whose autobiographical style greatly informed Dillard's later methods of writing. Despite their maverick personalities, Dillard's parents were of an affluent, country-club set that disturbed Dillard in her teens. She began to rebel, at one point abandoning her Presbyterian roots and thus beginning a lifelong inquiry into the diversity and relevance of theology.
Patrick A. Smith
E. L. Doctorow was born on 6 January 1931 in the Bronx, New York, the second child of David and Rose Doctorow. His parents, both second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his grandfather, who had settled in New York City from Russia, instilled in him a passion for books, intellectual curiosity, and an appreciation for history—no doubt punctuated by his having lived through the worst years of the Great Depression—that would influence him in his career as a writer.
Monica F. Cohen
When Victorian writers talked about the home, they invoked a range of contested ideas and complex affects about the material and imagined space where self and society meet. Emerging as a fully developed ideology by the middle of the 19th century, domesticity organized beliefs about the family, gender identity, sexuality, subject formation, socioeconomic class, work, civilization, and empire. As an ideology, Victorian domesticity pivots on two figures: the figure of separate spheres and the figure of the domestic woman. The binary logic of separate spheres identifies a private domain where femininity, leisure, feeling, and an ethic of care coalesce in opposition to a public domain where masculinity, work, industry, endurance, and an ethic of achievement preside. Governing the private sphere, the idealized middle-class domestic woman exercises a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit, a socioeconomic authority in managing a labor-intensive household, and a creative authority in using the materials of private life representing the family’s social status as a matter of financial and ethical respectability. In this sense, the home provided a rhetoric and narrative form for mapping an individual’s accommodation of social categories and economic forces. For better or worse, the image of the family hearth’s comfort, coziness and good cheer—its status as a haven in a heartless world—presided over a large swath of the Victorian imagination despite ripped patches that exposed domestic violence, sexual transgression, gender subordination, and socioeconomic coercion. For every sentimental Dickensian Christmas feast displaying a repentant miser breaking bread with a disabled waif, there were equally popular stories in which children are beaten, wives incarcerated, and households blighted by industrial suffering and bureaucratic indifference. Victorian domesticity thus relied on both mythologizing and demythologizing energies.
Robert M. Dowling
John Roderigo Dos Passos was a major twentieth-century American novelist and self-styled “chronicler” of the American scene. He is best known for his contributions to the literary avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the U.S.A. trilogy—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). The most influential American reviewers of the early to mid-twentieth century, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Granville Hicks, all welcomed Dos Passos as a foremost contributor to the modern American tradition. Dos Passos combined the artistic practices of literary naturalism and modernism and, significantly, foresaw many of the literary agendas that dominated postmodern writing in the late twentieth century. Just before the eruption of World War II, Dos Passos effected a notorious shift in his political views from radical to reactionary and subsequently alienated many friends and critics on the Left. By the 1950s—a period in which literary stature depended largely on the extent to which an author challenged, rather than affirmed, the conservative establishment—Dos Passos had fallen so low in the eyes of the literary elite that James T. Farrell ironically remarked, “Dos Passos's liberalism has so decayed that his lifetime of work is not as important as two short stories and a wooden novel by Lionel Trilling.” Trilling's single novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), is no longer widely read, and Dos Passos's work is—but definitely not his lifetime's worth.
Any writer attempting an overview of Frederick Douglass's life and work confronts an embarrassment of riches: Douglass himself undertook the task not once but three times—in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), a volume itself reprinted with additional material in 1892. Each book is rewarding in its own right, each sums up a distinct phase in Douglass's long and astonishingly productive career, and together they give us an indispensable record of the nineteenth century: of the abolition movement; the meteoric rise of the Republican Party; the Civil War, Reconstruction; and beginning in the mid-1870s, the bitter forfeiture of the great emancipating enterprise that the better angels of our nature (as Lincoln might have said) have always held in view.
By most accounts, Theodore Dreiser is considered a modern American writer, which is to say that philosophically and thematically his work belongs to the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth. As a result he is often compared to such writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed, Fitzgerald's most famous work, The Great Gatsby, and Dreiser's most famous work, An American Tragedy, were both published in 1925. Both novels are set in the Roaring Twenties and concern the baneful influence of American materialism. Yet while the set for Fitzgerald's novel includes flappers and bootleg whiskey, Dreiser's work reaches back to the second half of the nineteenth century for some of its cultural artifacts, which he mixes freely with those of the 1920s. Whereas Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as part of the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris during the 1920s, responded to the heady materialism in America, Dreiser was equally concerned about the American malaise as it had existed in the 1880s and 1890s, during the era of the robber barons, whose American fortunes often relied on the exploitation of immigrants such as Dreiser's German-born father.
Half-way between Maine and Florida, in the heart of the Alleghenies,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in John Brown (1909), the year before he helped found the NAACP, “a mighty gateway lifts its head and discloses a scene which, a century and a quarter ago, Thomas Jefferson said was ‘worthy a voyage across the Atlantic.’ ” Whereupon he continues citing Jefferson's words from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):
David L. Dudley
Paul Laurence Dunbar, a son of former slaves, was born on 27 June 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. His father, Joshua Dunbar, had escaped from slavery and fought for the Union Army. Dunbar's mother, Matilda Murphy, taught her son to read and inculcated in him a love of literature. Dunbar's parents separated before he was two and divorced in 1876. His father entered the Soldiers' Home, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Dunbar excelled in high school, where he was elected class president and edited the school paper. More significant was his role as editor and publisher of several editions of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for and about the black community.
Jonathan Edwards is perhaps bestknown for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741). The occasion for it was a Sunday service on 8 July 1741 in a church in Enfield, Connecticut. Edwards reportedly read his message in a level voice, as usual, without gesticulation or outburst. Yet his words had a very powerful effect on the congregation listening to him, members of which were brought to tears, and on a generation of New England readers who received the sermon in published form later that same year. Apparently, the power of his rhetoric was not solely in his delivery, whether spoken or written, but in the strength of his conviction.