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David L. Dudley
In July 1761, John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston merchant, purchased an African girl as servant for his wife, Susanna. The child was named Phillis, probably after the vessel that brought her to America, and was surnamed after her owners. Thus, Phillis Wheatley came to a new world where she would achieve fame as a poet. The first African American to write a published book, Wheatley has been hailed by some as the founding mother of the African-American literary tradition but excoriated by others as not sufficiently proud of her blackness or militant enough in the struggle against slavery. The critical response to Wheatley's work has been divided from the beginning, often reflecting the assumptions, prejudices, and agendas of her readers. In the late twentieth century Wheatley began to receive her due as a poet of genuine, if modest, gifts, one whose accomplishment is all the more remarkable given the difficult circumstances of her short life. Scholarship of that time helps us to see that Wheatley's poetry reveals not only her profound faith and trust in God—what some would call otherworldly concerns—but also her commitment to the affairs of this world, centering, as one critic asserts, on the issue of spiritual and political freedom.
Arnold E. Sabatelli
Without E. B. White, there would be no Stuart Little (1945), no Charlotte's Web (1952) (and quite possibly no film Babe). But while the bulk of White's work was not children's literature, everything he wrote—poems, editorials, and especially essays—sustained that exuberance, innocence, and clarity of rhetoric. White's prose is at once concise, gentle, humorous, and forceful. Many consider him to be the master nonfiction prose stylist of the century, and his collaboration on The Elements of Style with William Strunk (1959) has helped generations of writers hone their craft.
In Edmund White's first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), the narrator reflects that ordinary conversation is so constrained by mores and manners that little is expressed. The narrator of The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) describes the novel as a conversation in which one person—the writer—does all the talking. White suggests that whatever a writer's ostensible theme, the ulterior and more basic theme is always the nature of one's own experiences; and the ways those experiences might be shaped into an artistic vision reveal something about the human condition. The protagonist-narrator of the The Farewell Symphony (1997) notes that the old ambition of fiction is to communicate the most private, complex things in the most compellingly public way. He also observes that the writer is involved in an ongoing conversation with other writers in the tradition. In his novels and short stories, Edmund White converses with readers about love, sex, death, friendship, art, and power, among other themes. But his predominant theme is always the self's quest for an integrated identity in a world that is volatile, ambiguous, and difficult. Thus, Gabriel in Caracole (1985) comes to see that sexual desire is a cross one must bear; Austin Smith in The Married Man (2000) discovers the pains of love in the era of AIDS. These and others among White's characters are made to reflect on the mysterious depths of their own selfhood by the ecstatic or traumatic experiences they undergo. Indeed, White most often uses the dramatis personae of the child and the lover because he believes (as he states in The Farewell Symphony) that love and childhood are states wherein the self is intensely aware of its own uncanny existence.
“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told Walt Whitman on 21 July 1855. Emerson had greeted a number of poets at the beginning of their great careers, including Delia Bacon, the crazy Shakespearean who sought to dig up the bard's body to prove that “Shakespeare” was really Francis Bacon. Ellery Channing II was another “poet” Emerson had discovered. But with Whitman it was different—for the next decade at least. Whitman must have seemed the personification of Emerson's Central Man in The Poet, an essay in which the former Unitarian minister defined the qualities of the peculiarly American bard. The poet, Emerson wrote, had first to be a transcendentalist and believe that nature is the last thing of the soul, or the only empirical evidence of God. Whitman called nature, or the grass in his first Leaves of Grass (1855), “the handkerchief of the Lord,” dropped to attract our attention to the daily miracles of life. He—or she, Emerson might have added—had to be representative of all the folk, even the slaves and the “cleaner[s] of privies” as identified in the New York poet's coarse descriptions of the “divine average.” Finally, this poet would have to celebrate America as (in Whitman's translation of Emerson) “essentially the greatest poem.”
Arnold E. Sabatelli
The fiction and nonfiction of John Edgar Wideman moves between worlds of language and experience that are not usually encountered side by side. He was raised in the African-American community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, was a college basketball star for the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His works mix the disparate forces of his life into an artistic form that is both intellectually challenging and experimental in the best sense of the word. A prolific novelist and essayist, Wideman's texts consistently blend voices and genres and challenge the reader. Responding self-consciously to contemporary jazz forms, his later work is filled with free-form ad-libbing, discontinuity, and always a rich integration of voices.
Richard Wilbur is renowned for the finesse, delicacy, and light touch of his poems, which can seem intricate as snow crystals if rather more durable. In his easy and assured use of meter and rhyme, his work has a Marvellian nimbleness; he is undoubtedly one of the foremost poetic craftsmen in American poetry today, a poet whose facility in form has been seen with mistrust in some quarters. In general he eschews personal revelation in the making of his poems and never writes in free verse; he was thus wholly outside the confessional and free-verse movements, which have dominated American poetry in and out of the academy since the 1960s. The rise of the New Formalism in the 1980s, however, has seen him co-opted as a sort of poetic champion, along with poets such as Robinson Jeffers and Robert Frost, by many of the poets associated with that movement.
Thornton Niven Wilder—the author of Our Town (1938), America's most popular “popular play”—was very nearly, though he never quite became, the Grand Old Man of twentieth-century American letters. An authentic intellectual and Europhile and dilettante, very much in the tradition of Henry James and T. S. Eliot, he was saluted and fêted throughout most of his lifetime. Equally admired as novelist and playwright, there were rumors that he was denied a Nobel Prize only because of unfair accusations of plagiarism. This unfairness is easily established. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), a dramatization of the whole span of human history through the varying fortunes and misfortunes of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus of Excelsior, New Jersey, undoubtedly makes use of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, whose Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (“Here Comes Everybody”) is similarly representative; but Wilder, very much an amateur expert on Joyce's work, openly acknowledged his debts. Only a harsh judge interprets a public tribute as evidence of theft.
John A. Bertolini
While the outline of Tennessee Williams's career as a playwright falls into the most conventional pattern conceivable, his plays do not. His career followed the traditional trajectory from parental objection and the confinements of middle-class life and small-town mentality to the struggle for success, the achievement and flourishing of that success, and worldwide fame followed by drug and alcohol abuse, to less favor from his muse and finally to death in a hotel room.
By the time the twenty-first century dawned, there were many—especially among the world's poets—who maintained that William Carlos Williams was the most important American poet of the twentieth century. But such recognition had not always come to Williams.
August Wilson is the best-known and most performed African-American playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, his drama is centrally concerned with the painful history of blacks in the United States; each of his plays identifies a certain mood or issue of one decade of the twentieth century and illustrates it through the effect it has on individual black characters. It is not historical accuracy or any kind of comprehensive account that Wilson is after; instead, he wants to make the impact of historical events felt. Rather than write agitprop plays, Wilson seeks to represent experiences that, while they are particular to blacks and while they all emanate from his own biography and his own experiences of a racist environment, also have a universal quality. He has described his literary project thus: “I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it.…Put them all together and you have a history” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 292). As in the novels of Toni Morrison, the history of African Americans coping with an unequal society is central to Wilson's work. Both authors are interested in how the present is inextricably linked to the past, and both try to rewrite American history from a black, individualized perspective. The past provides the framework for our ways of thinking and the background for the images and language to which we have become accustomed, the preconceptions we live by. Morrison, Wilson, and other black writers have therefore made it their task to re-create the emotional, psychological, and spiritual history of African Americans in their texts, to identify the ways in which the individual has tried to sustain a sense of self in the face of pressures and oppression. Rewriting African-American history, these authors believe, is especially important because that history has so far been told and distorted by others—usually by whites who have had their own agendas. Rather than voice propaganda or protest, Wilson's drama tends to express pride and admiration, celebrating how the individual—who has been placed under many pressures by a racist, unequal society or by dreams that he or she can hardly make come true—manages to cope and endure. The major historical events of the decade in which a play is set are generally referred to only in passing; they merely provide the background that illustrates problems and issues that the individual characters have to confront and struggle against. As Wilson says, “The plays deal with those people who were continuing to live their lives. I wasn't interested in what you could get from the history books.”