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In Crocodile Dandy, an essay about the Australian poet Les Murray, which amusingly begins with “the barbarians” approaching “the capital” with their rambunctious and superbly learned bards in tow, Derek Walcott provides a witty shorthand for the surprise of Empire at finding its former colonies' poets more au fait with its civilization's great art than it is itself. Walcott, as a son of the former colony of the British Empire, St. Lucia, is a perfect example—a poet from the margins, greatly learned in English literature, who has been widely feted both in Britain and America.
Stefanie K. Dunning
Alice Walker, perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple (1982), has always been committed to social and political change. This was nowhere clearer than in The Color Purple, which brought to light questions of sexual abuse and violence in the black community, while demonstrating the liberatory possibilities inherent in every life. The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, who is the victim of systematic gender oppression, at the hands of first her stepfather and then her husband. Despite the severe abuse Celie endures, she is a triumphant character who ultimately achieves a free and comfortable life. The principal male character—Celie's husband, Albert—is also redeemed and so transcends his abusive past. Many critics have argued that The Color Purple is Walker's best work, noting its inspired epistolary style (i.e., written in the form of letters) and the dynamic voice of its protagonist.
What text epitomizes the literature of war? A battlefield account by an American soldier? A work of fiction written at the time of a war? Or fiction written after a war, but set in a remembered zone of conflict? The poetry of the battlefield? The poetry of those left out of the battle? What about the literature of the interned? The literature of the violated? The literature of the displaced, of the indigenous peoples of America? The literature of the immigrants who arrived in the United States in the wake of foreign wars? The choices are innumerable.
The breadth of Robert Penn Warren's work over a sixty-year publishing career is matched by no other major American writer of the twentieth century. First poet laureate of the United States, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (twice for poetry, once for fiction), he is the author of eighteen books of poetry and ten novels, including All the King's Men (1946), probably the most important novel of American politics. He also wrote several books and essays about race and segregation that helped the white South to come to terms with racial integration, coauthored Understanding Poetry (1938), a textbook that shaped how literature was taught in the United States for forty years, and was a beloved teacher.
Thousands of writers on the West Coast have made important contributions to arts and letters, and beyond that, to environmental writing, political writing, experimentalism, and performance. Under the rubric “West Coast School,” this essay surveys writers living on the West Coast during the twentieth century. The work of the West Coast School writers is characterized by eroticism, spirituality, nature writing, and autobiography. San Francisco supports more poetry publishing, performance, and education than any U.S. city except New York. Most major West Coast writers have lived near San Francisco at one time.
William R. Handley
The vast and complex region called the American West—large parts of which Europeans and Americans once called Spanish Territory, Louisiana Territory, Mexico, the Great American Desert, and Deseret—has historically seen the clash and confluence of many cultures, ethnic groups, nations, and traditions. Such cultural crosscurrents have been among the distinctive features of the region's literary history since the sixteenth century. Even the American West's most popular genre, the formula Western, and the figure of the often gun-totin' cowboy that it celebrates, show the influence, respectively, of the Scottish borderlands made famous in the Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott and of the figure of the Spanish vaquero. Nothing in this region's collective literary history is quite what it may at first seem. It was a storied landscape centuries before it became American, and it was never “the West” for Spanish explorers, some of whom arrived before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It was later the North for Mexicans and the East for Asians who came there. Depending on what images the two terms call to mind, “the West” can seem older and culturally larger than “America,” and certainly older than the image that the Western has propagated around the world.
The satiric genius Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein and died, aged thirty-seven, before his work met with the kind of critical acclaim it deserved. “Do I love what others love?,” a motto from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is inscribed below the drawing of a man hugging a mule in the bookplate that his friend, the writer S. J. Perelman, designed for West while they were still at college. In fact, West, in his brief life, did not, it seems, love what most others loved.
Carol J. Singley
Edith Wharton, a literary realist, was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction whose work helped to define a major intellectual and aesthetic movement at the turn of the twentieth century. As a chronicler of society manners and mores, Wharton was adept at portraying male and female characters in stifling social situations, variously of their own and others' making. She was especially interested in ways that society's standards shape women's choices, and she boldly articulated characters' longings for roles that give fuller rein to the range of women's emotional and sexual needs. During her literary career, which spanned over fifty years, Wharton published twenty-five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Innocence (1920), eighty-six short stories, and numerous volumes on travel, interior design, and the theory of fiction, earning popular and critical acclaim. Many of her works have been successfully adapted for stage and film. From the 1940s until the 1970s, Wharton's reputation suffered from a persistent comparison of her work with that of Henry James and from the misperception that she was a writer of high society—and therefore “narrow”—fiction. Subsequently, however, she has been uniformly hailed as one of the finest American writers.
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.