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On 14 August 1834, a nineteen-year-old Harvard student walked down a Boston wharf to board the brig Pilgrim. He was wearing the loose duck trousers and tarpaulin hat of a sailor, for which he had exchanged his usual silk cap, kid gloves, and tight dress coat. Richard Henry Dana was about to embark on the adventure of his life—a two-year working voyage to California and back. He had decided to sail “before the mast” as an ordinary seaman, living forward in the ship for over two years with men who could hardly be more different from him. This breech of the boundary surrounding educated society shocked his friends. It was an audacious decision.
There is something coolly inaccessible about the fiction—and the person—of Don DeLillo. By any measure—productivity, longevity, influence, scope—a dominant novelist of his era, DeLillo nevertheless resists the expectations of celebrity: public appearances, promotional Web sites, prestigious university appointments, conference readings, talk-show blitzes; even his interviews can be dense and forbidding. In an era of tell-all glamour, what little DeLillo, born on 20 November 1936, has offered of his autobiography rarely figures in his fiction—his Italian immigrant family; his love of the street life of his native Bronx; his fascination with the ritual theater of his Catholicism; his indifference toward his own formal education (he “slept through” high school and “didn't study much of anything” while earning a 1958 communication arts degree from Fordham); his initial experience of serious literature—Faulkner and then gloriously Joyce—while, at age eighteen, killing time as a summer playground attendant; his five-year stint as copywriter for the Manhattan advertising firm of Ogilvie and Mather; his 1964 decision to quit, not to write (although he had published two stories) but rather to abandon work he found unfulfilling; his long struggle to write his first novel, which would not be published until his mid-thirties. Since then he has maintained a spectacularly low-key lifestyle. Since his marriage in 1975 to designer Barbara Bennett, DeLillo has lived in the suburbs of New York City and traveled some, but mostly he has written, a dozen novels as well as a scattering of essays, stories, and experimental plays.
Kathryn W. Kemp
The two-volume work Democracy in America (1835, 1840) grew out of a nine-month trip to the United States early in the career of a distinguished French statesman and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville. Convinced that democracy in some form would soon replace the old authoritarian systems of administration, he saw the United States as a case study of this new form of government. He wrote for a French audience, which he hoped would draw useful lessons from his observations of Jacksonian America. Tocqueville's book has become a standard resource for students of American history and government and has inspired many other works, including a documentary television series.
The poet known to readers as H.D. is a kind of constellation that has not yet really been brought into focus. There is the H.D. of imagism, the short-lived movement of the mid-1910s that cast a long shadow over American poetry; this H.D. is chiefly a poet of craft and technique. There is the H.D. who belongs to the history of women's writing, and in whom feminist literary scholars have taken an interest quite distinct from the interest that attaches to her imagist phase. There is the H.D. whom contemporary literary critics—in particular, the “queer theorists”—might regard as a kind of pioneer in the struggle against hetero-normative sexuality. There is H.D., the author of experimental fictions in the high modernist mode. There is H.D., the disciple and analysand of, and also commentator on, Sigmund Freud. There is, too, an H.D. who properly belongs to the history of film: she edited the influential journal of film criticism in which Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's famous essays on montage first appeared; she wrote essays on film theory; and she acted alongside Paul Robeson in an experimental silent film, Borderlands (1930). And there is H.D., author of an unprecedented kind of epic poem, Helen in Egypt (1961), into which passed her imagist sense of concision and craft, her lifelong fascination with the classical world, and her many experiments with narrative. She is the sort of writer often described as a “poet's poet,” which is to say—among other things—a poet with relatively few readers. And yet her place in the history of twentieth-century American literature has never been in doubt, nor is it ever likely to be.
James Dickey liked to conceive of his life as a series of cyclical journeys in which he departed from the securities and prohibitions of home, struggled through trials in order to penetrate to a source of power, and then returned home to deliver the fruits of his quest to others. The main catalyst for this conception was his journey to the Philippines and Japan during World War II. He once observed: “I remember almost every day that I was in the war, and I think almost everything that I've done is influenced, at least to some degree, either directly or indirectly, most probably directly, by the fact that I was in the war” (Hart, p. 65). Before his service in the Army Air Corps, Dickey had been a mediocre student whose main interests were dating southern girls, running the high hurdles on the track team, and playing football. The war shook him out of his intellectual torpor, dispelled many of the traditional values he had acquired from his affluent parents in Atlanta, and convinced him to pursue the vocation of a writer. When he returned to the United States from the Pacific, he transferred from Clemson Agriculture and Military College, where he had been an engineering cadet for a semester, and enrolled in Vanderbilt University, a center of the Southern Literary Renaissance, where he soon earned a reputation as the best poet and one of the best literature students on campus. The metamorphosis caused by the war became the seed narrative in most of Dickey's major works.
A clear sign of literary malady: The experienced reader begins to take Emily Dickinson for granted, failing to feel the insoluble, salutary shock of her poetry. And the cure for this malady: try paraphrasing any poem by Dickinson. If you do, you'll quickly learn that you will probably never be able to satisfactorily summarize—or maybe even fully understand—Dickinson's recondite, elated originality. The writing will faithfully resist any effort to possess it completely; her poetry belongs to Dickinson only. Marvelously, though, many readers have been able to borrow it, admire it, and glean wisdom from the lapidary brio of the author. Although writing in literary seclusion in western Massachusetts during the mid to late nineteenth century, Dickinson invented a poetry both unprecedented in form and long-lasting in impact. She wrote as if to bid farewell to the Victorians and to urge on the modernists.
Joan Didion is an accomplished writer of essays, political journalism, and novels. A distinctive literary voice, she is known for her subjective yet unsentimental essays, her harrowing novels, and her astute political criticism.
Among the most distinctive forms of American writing is the meditative essay, as initiated by the nineteenth-century authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Annie Dillard is a more recent practitioner of this tradition. Often relying on the natural world as a backdrop for her philosophical discourse, Dillard explodes the minutiae of science and environment into broad, spiritual speculation. Dillard was born on 30 April 1945, the eldest of three daughters in a well-off Pittsburgh family. By her own account, her parents were hilarious individualists, as engrossed with the details of life as Dillard would become. They taught her the value of a good joke and the importance of self-reliance. Her father introduced her to On the Road by Jack Kerouac, whose autobiographical style greatly informed Dillard's later methods of writing. Despite their maverick personalities, Dillard's parents were of an affluent, country-club set that disturbed Dillard in her teens. She began to rebel, at one point abandoning her Presbyterian roots and thus beginning a lifelong inquiry into the diversity and relevance of theology.
Patrick A. Smith
E. L. Doctorow was born on 6 January 1931 in the Bronx, New York, the second child of David and Rose Doctorow. His parents, both second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his grandfather, who had settled in New York City from Russia, instilled in him a passion for books, intellectual curiosity, and an appreciation for history—no doubt punctuated by his having lived through the worst years of the Great Depression—that would influence him in his career as a writer.
Monica F. Cohen
When Victorian writers talked about the home, they invoked a range of contested ideas and complex affects about the material and imagined space where self and society meet. Emerging as a fully developed ideology by the middle of the 19th century, domesticity organized beliefs about the family, gender identity, sexuality, subject formation, socioeconomic class, work, civilization, and empire. As an ideology, Victorian domesticity pivots on two figures: the figure of separate spheres and the figure of the domestic woman. The binary logic of separate spheres identifies a private domain where femininity, leisure, feeling, and an ethic of care coalesce in opposition to a public domain where masculinity, work, industry, endurance, and an ethic of achievement preside. Governing the private sphere, the idealized middle-class domestic woman exercises a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit, a socioeconomic authority in managing a labor-intensive household, and a creative authority in using the materials of private life representing the family’s social status as a matter of financial and ethical respectability. In this sense, the home provided a rhetoric and narrative form for mapping an individual’s accommodation of social categories and economic forces. For better or worse, the image of the family hearth’s comfort, coziness and good cheer—its status as a haven in a heartless world—presided over a large swath of the Victorian imagination despite ripped patches that exposed domestic violence, sexual transgression, gender subordination, and socioeconomic coercion. For every sentimental Dickensian Christmas feast displaying a repentant miser breaking bread with a disabled waif, there were equally popular stories in which children are beaten, wives incarcerated, and households blighted by industrial suffering and bureaucratic indifference. Victorian domesticity thus relied on both mythologizing and demythologizing energies.