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.
Ambrose Bierce, an ironist whose choice of genre roved from predatorially sardonic verse to artfully detached war writing, was born Ambrose Gwinett Bierce on 24 June 1842, in the Ohio village of Horse Cave Creek. He was the tenth of thirteen children of Marcus Aurelius Bierce, a struggling Congregationalist farmer; Protestant evangelism helped to dictate the community's calendar. Bierce left his family's faith and their rural penury behind him as soon as he could, beginning work at age fifteen as a printer's devil for the antislavery Northern Indianan newspaper. And yet the barnyard did not forever leave the writer; in it Bierce may have found his origins as a literary mocker. For example, the biliously independent title character in Bierce's short story “Curried Cow” could be readily understood as the writer's alter ego.
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.
In 1960 the poet Donald M. Allen published an anthology titled The New American Poetry. Just three years earlier, the poets Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson had edited New Poets of England and America. Although each purported to be a definitive survey of contemporary poetry, these books could not boast a single poet in common. New Poets of England and America contained academic poets working largely within traditional form, poets influenced by predecessors such as Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. Mainstream poets like Adrienne Rich, John Hollander, and Richard Wilbur were included. Allen's collection, however, provided a forum for the many experimental poets working in the United States. He viewed these poets as inheritors of the innovations set in motion by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The work of this new generation had heretofore reached its growing audience only through publication in small magazines and by independent presses or through readings. The Beats, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, were represented, as well as poets of the New York school and the San Francisco Renaissance. Allen also created a new designation for a group of writers otherwise difficult to categorize: the Black Mountain School. To this school he assigned Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Paul Blackburn, Jonathan Williams, Paul Carroll, Robert Duncan, and Larry Eigner. They were named for the short-lived but much storied Black Mountain College, of which Olson was the rector from 1951 until it dissolved in 1956
Daniel G. Brayton
Anne Bradstreet has long been the best-known English-language woman poet of the seventeenth century and one of the most famous early American literary figures. While numerous women writers of her era have, in the past two decades, gained a wider readership than ever before, largely because of the recuperative efforts of feminist literary scholars, Bradstreet has needed no such resurrection. She has been widely admired since her poems were first published in 1650. Her fame is often attributed to her status as one of the first English poets, male or female, writing in the Americas. Indeed, the title of the first published volume, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, suggests that the novelty of a poet writing in New England was a significant part of her appeal. Yet there can be no doubt that Bradstreet's work stands on its own. Readers appreciate her poetry for its passionate treatment of familial and theological themes and for its simple elegance.
If we accept the well-known distinction that literary fiction is character driven and commercial fiction is plot driven, then the work of Harold Brodkey is the most literary American fiction of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is a critical commonplace to compare Brodkey's work with that of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), the French master of memory and psychological nuance. Born Aaron Roy Weintraub in Staunton (some sources say Alton), Illinois, on 31 October 1930, Harold Brodkey was adopted after the death of his mother by his father's cousins, Joseph and Doris Brodkey (the S.L. and Leila or Lila in his fiction), who lived in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brodkey graduated from Harvard (cum laude) in 1952, the same year he married Joanna Brown (they were divorced in 1962), with whom he had a daughter, Emily Ann. In his early twenties he began to publish stories in The New Yorker magazine, which were collected to form his first book, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957). The title sardonically recalls the melancholic longing of the European romantic movement. The difference is that Brodkey's protagonists—boys, college students, young marrieds—are unheroic, suburban, and American. They reach for levels of passion and sublimity beyond their capacity, Brodkey all the while maintaining a tone of tender pathos. The first story, “The State of Grace,” recounts the failure of an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy to make a connection of redemptive love with Edward, a beautiful seven-year-old. In the last five of the nine stories, Brodkey portrays Laura—sensitive, intelligent, a representative white middle-class female of the 1950s—from adolescence to marriage and young motherhood. Two of these five stories are parodically titled: Piping down the Valleys Wild (a William Blake poem of paradisiacal vision) and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a reference to the powerfully sensual woman in William Shakespeare's sonnets). Laura and her world, Brodkey wants us to know, are poignantly distant from what Blake and Shakespeare evoked. In its depiction of innocence and loss, First Love and Other Sorrows resembles the stories of two other New Yorker writers of the 1950s—J. D. Salinger and John Updike
William R. Nash
Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet, novelist, activist, and teacher, stands out for her social engagement, her professional generosity, and her literary accomplishment. In a career that spanned six decades, Brooks concerned herself with portraying the lives of American blacks, especially people hampered by social and economic circumstances. Throughout her corpus, Brooks demonstrates sensitivity to the particulars of black life in America; when tracking the work chronologically, one sees evolving her sense of the black poet's most appropriate response to a racially charged society.