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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.”
Russell Banks's short stories and novels portray working-class people trapped in mundane lives filled with violence and trauma. His themes include the cycle of violence from father to son and the exploration of the difference between the psyches of women and men and between those of people of varying races and economic classes. In Banks's world, these dichotomies lead to conflict, the outcome of which is most often tragic, and to a crushing sense of personal guilt. Redemption, however, is always hard-bought. In addition, Banks's work offers one of the most severe indictments of the American dream ideology in contemporary literature. His characters reach after what they think will make them happy, striving for self-transformation and “successful” lives. All but a few, however, find themselves thwarted.
Djuna Barnes was a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist, and novelist. She was also an accomplished graphic designer and artist, often illustrating her own work. But Barnes is mostly known for writing the modernist classic Nightwood (1936). Djuna Barnes was born 12 June 1892 near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, to Wald Barnes, an American, and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, a British subject. Barnes was raised in Cornwall-on-Hudson until her father bought a 105-acre farm on then-undeveloped Long Island because he desired a life free from society and its conventional morality. In fact, he built a mostly self-sufficient (some say polygamous) family unit and also wrote a credo, a statement of the beliefs by which he shaped his life. Young Djuna Barnes was educated at home by her paternal grandmother, Zadel Barnes, an early feminist and journalist who lived with the family.
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia on 7 April 1931. He was the oldest of five children, all of them talented writers—including the prominent minimalist Frederick Barthelme (b. 1943). From the late 1960s until his death in 1989, Donald Barthelme produced a body of experimental fiction regarded as central to the postmodernist movement. Along with Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and others, Barthelme tested boundaries of perception and assumptions about fiction in the development of a new style. Although he shared with other postmodernists an ironic tone and a keen imagination for literary structure, Barthelme was in many ways ideologically separate from his peers. Through his father, a renowned architect, he internalized the principles of the Bauhaus—a school of artists, designers, and architects that originated in Germany early in the twentieth century whose proponents firmly believed that excellence of form and design could substantively improve the quality of human existence. Whereas many postmodernists were busy breaking down overused literary structures in order to demonstrate the fundamental flimsiness of them, Barthelme wanted to hatch new forms that could hold up under scrutiny. His short stories, which make up most of his work, almost always engage a distinctive innovation of form. Each of his four novels, too—Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986), and The King (1990)—playfully redirect novelistic conventions.
John Barth is counted among the first generation of American postmodernist writers. Of this group, which includes Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, John Hawkes, and Donald Barthelme, Barth has been identified by turns as the most nihilistic and the most hopeful; indeed, his fiction explores just this sort of irreconcilable dualism.
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.
Enthralled by literature but disenchanted with graduate school, Ann Beattie began writing short stories and resolutely submitting her unsolicited manuscripts to The New Yorker. She racked up nearly two dozen rejections, but her determination finally bore fruit when the preeminent weekly magazine accepted “A Platonic Relationship” in 1974, thus launching a controversial and significant writing career.
In much the same way that William Faulkner created the necessary conditions for serious literature about the modern South and, in the process, inspired generations of literary followers, Saul Bellow made serious literature about modern urban Jewish Americans possible. His fiction brought the immigrant Jewish sensibility, in all its restless striving and ethnic vividness, to national attention. With novel after impressive novel he slowly emerged as the only contemporary fictionist who could be mentioned in the same breath with Faulkner and Henry James. “As the external social fact grows larger, more powerful and tyrannical,” Bellow wrote in a 1951 application to the Rockefeller Foundation, “man appears in the novel reduced in will, strength, freedom and scope.” The Foundation turned down his request for badly needed funding, but he continued to explore ways in which fiction might celebrate humanity's essential spirit. Humor is an essential ingredient in Bellow's formula because wit (in his case, the Yiddish quip) is a traditional way that oppressed people counter the fists and guns of a majority culture. Moreover, humor is, in Bellow's words, “more manly” than complaint. Thus, Bellow explores the human comedy, as did Shakespeare, Dante, and Joyce before him, but he does so with a distinctively Yiddish flavoring.
Stephen Vincent Benét is remembered primarily for two works: the long narrative poem John Brown's Body and the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. These two works are characterized by qualities that can be found in varying degrees in Benét's less familiar work: formal craftsmanship combined seamlessly with an easy, informal diction; a love of America that is not blind to America's shortcomings; a liberal view of both political and domestic relationships; and a commitment to the progress of humanity.
John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith Jr. on 25 October 1914 in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was named after his father, a bank clerk. His mother was Martha Little Smith, and both parents were Roman Catholics. His father, dismissed from his bank for nonattendance, became a game warden, then bought a restaurant in Tampa, Florida. The family lived in a tenement owned by John Angus Berryman. There is little doubt that Martha Smith began an affair with their landlord. Early on the morning of 26 June 1926, her husband was found shot dead at the rear of the tenement. It is generally held that he committed suicide.