Susan J. Rosowski
Willa Cather is remarkable for the excellence, productivity, longevity, consistency, and experimentation of her writing, and also for the absence in her life of the angst familiar in other authors' biographies: alienation, madness, scandal, alcoholism. Instead, she was faithful to her home, her family, and her friends. Her experience encompassed rural Virginia, frontier Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Park Avenue in New York City, with side trips to Europe, the American Southwest, and Canada; she was a Nebraska cosmopolite. Unlike writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived their lives as extensions of the stories they told, Cather was known for the privacy of her life as well as for the openness of her writing. She once said, in a letter to The Commonweal describing her own methods, that a novelist should present “the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own…whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ ” (On Writing, p. 13). Cather was a writer whose works were exceptionally infused with her own experiences, but at the same time she had the rare capacity for detachment and could make those experiences and emotions part of her characters' stories, not just her own.
In his memoir Writing Was Everything (1995), Alfred Kazin describes meeting John Cheever for the first time. The occasion was a 1937 party hosted by the New Republic magazine for contributors under the age of twenty-five. Kazin was impressed by the ease with which Cheever maneuvered around the room. They were both struggling young writers but very different in personality. As Kazin stammered around the periphery, the short and slight Cheever took over the party, as lithe in movement as Fred Astaire and bubbling with pleasure as he charmed everyone with his wit and cleverness. He seemed to possess an inborn social confidence.
Robert M. Dowling
America's first great black novelist, Charles W. Chesnutt, was a mixed-race, middle-class political moderate. He spent much of his life, both as a child and an adult, in northern cities and southern towns, particularly in Ohio and North Carolina. He was a product of the industrial Gilded Age and of agrarian Reconstruction, an author who fused tradition with new forms, realism with romance, ancient mythology with African-American folklore, and love stories with the law. “I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl,” Chesnutt confessed in 1881, “neither ‘nigger,’ white, nor ‘buckrah.’ Too ‘stuck-up’ for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites.” Chesnutt, who wrote during the period that in 1931 he called “Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem,” falls in between most American group identities. That station simultaneously equipped him as a realist, hobbled his ability to achieve an authentic social affiliation, and made him one of the most intriguing representatives of his period. As William Dean Howells wrote of Chesnutt's work in the context of the American race-writing tradition:
The “Chicago Renaissance,” as it is called, can be regarded as a cheerfully inexact moniker for the simple reason that a city like nineteenth-century Chicago, with no literary past to speak of, would have had none to revive in a “renaissance” either. Yet Chicago did compel a surge of new and unprecedented literary activity from a varied corps of writers beginning in the 1890s and lasting through the 1920s. These writers wrote in Chicago, they wrote of Chicago, and whatever they wrote was shaped somehow by the city. In their turn, the poets and novelists of the Chicago Renaissance gradually worked a change on the local and national literary landscape. Their city, described in 1914 by Theodore Dreiser as “a maundering yokel with an epic in its mouth,” led them all to scribble toward an epic that would fit their own sense of style, scale, and literary destiny. From Dreiser the monumental realist to Edgar Lee Masters the free-verse elegist, from L. Frank Baum the pop American allegorist to Harriet Monroe the poetry magnate, the protagonists of the “renaissance” relied on Chicago to twist their pens and turn their pages.
“Language,” Loren Eiseley wrote, “implies boundaries. A word spoken creates a dog, a rabbit, a man. It fixes their nature before our eyes.” What does well for a rabbit or a man, however, is inadequate for literature. The phrase “children's book” resembles a tent, baggy and capacious, containing all kinds of writing and drawing. For some critics, any book a child reads or plays with is a children's book. A Golden Touch and Feel book, Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny, is for preschoolers. The “reader” imitates the characters Judy and Tom as they touch things. While Judy pats an illustrated bunny, the child touches a piece of cotton. After Paul smells flowers in an illustration, the reader sniffs a scented page. For children slightly more advanced are “Board Books,” small books whose pages are thick as cardboard to resist rough handling; Sandra Boynton's books are an example. At the other intellectual extreme are books read by precocious children. If a child reads John Steinbeck's East of Eden in the fifth grade, can the book be classified as a children's book? Or should it simply be labeled “extraordinary reading”?
Katherine O'Flaherty Chopin is best remembered for her novel The Awakening, which was greeted by popular critics as scandalous when it appeared in 1899. The controversy centered around the main female character's dissatisfaction with married life and her romantic attraction to a younger man. Chopin, however, was never one to be bound by convention and had been raised and educated by a series of headstrong women. Her outlook granted her a freedom to write without an internalized social censor; however, society was not yet ready for her work.
In 1898, U.S. imperialism spread beyond the continent’s borders and took possession of Puerto Rico during the Spanish–American War. This began the repeated waves of migration from the island to the mainland. In New York City (the main destination, along with Chicago), Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem and the South Bronx, while the Lower East Side became the immigrant neighborhood par excellence. Adaptation strategies, common to previous immigrant communities, ensued, especially regarding the urban context and the reinvention of spaces. During the 1960s, authors such as Piri Thomas or Pedro Juan Soto began to narrate this complex experience, always in an unsteady balance between Puerto Rico and the United States. This first phase of literary output culminated the following decade (a period of deep economic and social crisis) in the so-called Nuyorican Experience, where “nuyorican” stands for “New York Puerto Rican”—a neologism that sums up the community's condition of “divided self” and defines the social and cultural horizon of a new generation of artists. In their works, poet-performer Pedro Pietri and writer Nicholasa Mohr expressed their peculiar view and sense of the city, both surreal and realistic, ironic and passionate.
The South has generated a unique set of myths, which are often at odds with the dominant Puritan-bred tales of American exceptionalism. If the North had to downplay vertical visions of the social, class stratifications have always been recognized more readily in the Southern regions. Rather than disentangling race from class, however, these categories were seen as closely connected in the antebellum slave-holding South. Even after the end of slavery, class was never solely an economic category; surprisingly close to notions of caste, class dynamics came fully entrenched with cultural distinctions, which more often than not were cast in the language of blood ties—the rhetoric of race. As a result, strong values were attributed to these distinctions. And although the North, too, assessed the rich and the poor in the stern moral vocabulary, the influence of pseudo-scientific Eugenics studies and other factors added a new dimension to this moralizing of the hierarchic order in the South. This had repercussions on the way the poor were perceived. The allegedly chivalrous planter aristocracy at the top found their counterpart at the low end of the stratum in a form of abject poverty. Some poor whites were located just a notch above the black citizenry whose exclusion dramatically exceeded went beyond economic hardship. It proved to be a proximity structuring the cultural imaginary to come. Intricately linked to the logic of racism, a slur such as “white trash” introduced a categorical difference into whiteness—the good, reformable poor were pitted against the hopeless “dirty” poor—thriving on stereotypes similar to the dehumanizing depictions of African Americans and begging the question of reciprocity between “them” and “us.”
From the Old South to the New South, literature has fulfilled a variety of functions in this regard. Often, it was complicit in maintaining the biases of this peculiar culture of poverty, by revitalizing the stock of stereotypes of poor whites, or by downplaying the terror of the plantations and naturalizing the hierarchies between the classes. At times, it also subverted the household representations and created ambiguous tales of class and life in poverty; at others, writers aimed at a more truthful account, or tried to tell tales of solidarity. The literary history of white poverty is only the most consistent tale to be told when it comes to Southern writing. While not unrelated, another tradition has come to the fore when African American writers were able to create and publish their own accounts of black life. Ever since Jim Crow laws created a black underclass in the Reconstruction period, depictions of their life experiences included economic hardships as well. Tied to different genres and poetological interests, black writers engaged in a reflection of the twin exclusions of race and class. Finally, in the so-called Postsouth era, the literature of poverty has been rejuvenated by a more self-reflexive aesthetics that moves beyond the earlier concerns of Southern literature.
In the 21st century, a new genre of Anglophone fiction has emerged—the climate change novel, often abbreviated as “cli-fi.” Many successful authors of literary fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, T. C. Boyle, Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, Amitav Ghosh, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Lydia Millet, David Mitchell, Ruth Ozeki, Nathaniel Rich, Kim Stanley Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Marcel Theroux, have contributed to this new genre’s efforts to imagine the causes, effects, and feeling of global warming. Together, their work pulls the issue-oriented and didactic approach of activist fiction into contact with the intensive description and site specificity of Romantic nature writing. Cli-fi knits these tendencies together into a description of the effects of a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate on a particular location and a vision of the options available to a population seeking to adapt to or mitigate those effects.
Although cli-fi is resolutely contemporary and dedicated to creating new narratives adequate to current conditions, criticism devoted to the genre has carefully documented the persistence of national, masculinist, and anthropocentric tendencies in some of its major works. The dependence of cli-fi (and the environmental activism that inspires it) on capitalist visions of social progress has also received scrutiny. Some of these habits of representation have been inherited from literary predecessors such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Ernest Callenbach, and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s Drowned World has proved an especially complicated source of inspiration for this new genre of the novel. In their efforts to update the motifs of these predecessors to the needs of the present, 21st-century cli-fi writers have experimented with the temporality, central figures, and mood of their fiction. These efforts have brought distinctive types of speculative and science fiction, as well as satires of climate change activism and new hybrid realisms, under the cli-fi umbrella. Although the genre still wrestles with inherited limitations, in every permutation, cli-fi novelists have prized innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Finally, all of their varied efforts involving cli-fi unite around an expectation that humanity and the planet can survive the changes associated with the Anthropocene.
Billy Collins is the most popular poet in America, according to a 1999 article in the New York Times. Named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001–2003, Collins appears often on public radio and his readings are packed with enthusiastic fans. Collins's work—funny, accessible, and wry—receives high marks from many corners of mainstream criticism, and he sells more books of poetry than anyone since Robert Frost. However, it is these very qualities that cause others to question Collins's achievement. Despite, or perhaps because of, the broad appeal of these poems, some think Collins's work is too clever or, because it is often funny, classify the work as light verse. Collins does not have much patience for the division that pits his poetry against “serious” work. “Poetry,” he says, “isn't supposed to make you feel dumb, it's supposed to enhance your life.”