The writer Stanley Elkin is perhaps known best for his prodigious ear for comedy, although his work is equally admired for its virtuosic prose: its legato phrasing and staccato rhythms, its unique mixture of high and low idioms, its mastery over extending metaphors, and its singular ability to push language to extremes rarely matched in American literature. Born to Phil Elkin and Zelda Feldman in Brooklyn, New York, on 11 May 1930, he spent most of his childhood in Chicago, Illinois, eventually studying English at the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1952, a master's degree in 1953, and a doctorate in 1961. In 1960 Elkin became an instructor in English at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he would remain for the rest of his life, becoming assistant professor in 1962, associate professor in 1966, and full professor in 1969. In 1983 Elkin was appointed Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at the university. Diagnosed in 1972 with multiple sclerosis, Elkin remained remarkably prolific despite his illness, writing ten novels, two collections of novellas, a collection of essays, and three scripts in his lifetime. He received numerous awards, including the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award in 1980 for his novel The Living End (1979). The Dick Gibson Show (1971), Searches and Seizures (1973), and The MacGuffin (1991) were nominated for the National Book Award in fiction. Searches and Seizures received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1974. The 1976 film Alex and the Gypsy was based on one of the novellas contained in Searches and Seizures. He was awarded two National Book Critics Circle Awards in fiction: the first came in 1982 for his novel George Mills (1982), about a one-thousand-year lineage of cursed losers all named George Mills, and the second in 1995, posthumously, for Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), a novel published that year about a widow at an elderly retirement village who finds herself involved with a drug ring.
William R. Nash
Although he published relatively little (several stories, two collections of essays, some prefaces, and one novel) in his lifetime, Ralph Ellison indisputably ranks among the most important writers of the twentieth century. His National Book Award–winning novel, Invisible Man (1952), is a masterpiece of form and content that set a standard by which all subsequent American philosophical novels have been judged. An African American who believed firmly in integration, Ellison created in Invisible Man a portrait of a black man who resolves his identity crisis by recognizing and embracing his link to American society, even as he acknowledges the injustice that white America has done him and all his fellow blacks. Because of his integrationist views, Ellison often appeared out of step with prevailing currents of the African-American literary canon, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the architects of the Black Aesthetic derided him as an irrelevant Uncle Tom. With the rise of multiculturalism and the reassessment of definitions of identity and race in the 1980s and 1990s, however, Ellison regained an unchallenged position of prominence in American letters. Regardless of whether his popularity was waxing or waning, Ellison never wavered from his intellectual course, always arguing that blacks were integral to any true sense of American identity and that one could not sever the ties that bind black and white culture in America. In many ways a prophet, he was among the clearest observers of life in twentieth-century America, where race was central to virtually all discussions of personal and national identity.
Sheldon W. Liebman
By 1860, the United States hadachieved what few Europeans and even fewer Americans of an earlier generation would have thought possible: a level of literary excellence so surprising that it took more than half a century to acknowledge it. By that year, half a dozen writers—Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman—had written such an astonishing number of important works that the preceding decade or so has come to be called the American Renaissance. However, at that point in the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was the only one of these writers who had attained a degree of popularity commensurate with his later literary reputation. Even after the 1860s, his fame continued to grow, prompting a dozen or so memoirs, biographies, and studies between the time of his death and the revival of attention that was accorded the aforementioned writers shortly after World War I. He was also known widely in Europe, especially in England, where he was lauded by the most important members of the literary establishment: the essayist Thomas Carlyle, the poet-critic Matthew Arnold, and the novelist George Eliot
Western American literature is a diverse body of writing that documents human responses to the ecological changes that have reshaped the region over the years. The literature includes narratives of contact and encounter, nonfiction nature essays, borderlands literature, popular Westerns, hard-boiled detective narratives, Dust Bowl novels, eco-memoirs, climate change fiction, and other genres. At a time when the West faces a number of environmental crises, a survey of the region provides insights into how we arrived at this point by addressing key moments in the environmental past, including struggles over land use, conflicts over resources, the historical meanings of eco-disaster, and efforts at finding solutions to these problems. In settler colonial imaginaries, the region appears as a space of promise and possibility. It offers a retreat from a hyper-modernizing world and serves as a bulwark against changes taking place elsewhere. In this way, the region is also a shifting terrain associated with the nation’s moving frontiers and contact zones, as Europeans continually pushed beyond the spaces of their previous settlements. Before the West was called the West, however, it was home to hundreds of tribal groups who did not configure the land through this geographical lens. Likewise, for some Hispanics, it was known as Aztlán, the mythic land of the ancient Aztecs, and also el Norte. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants called the area in what is present-day California “gold mountain,” while from 1733 to 1867, parts of the West from Alaska to California were recognized as “Russian America.” As a place that calls forth diverse memories about encounters and conflicts, stories about dispossession and recovery, and dreams of enrichment and tales of going bust, the West remains a contested terrain whose literature carries traces of the economies and ecologies of the people who have made it their home.
Any discussion of the American essay must begin with the problem of definition, rooted in the bifurcate history of the essay and in the nature of the genre itself. Depending on the type of essay in discussion, one of two progenitors is named: the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne, father of the informal essay, or the Englishman Francis Bacon, father of the formal. In the years since 1580 and 1601, when, respectively, Montaigne and Bacon published their first volumes of essays, writers and critics have wrangled over the “true” characteristics of the essay in an attempt to nail down the form. But if anything has remained constant about the essay over the centuries, it is the essay's refusal to remain in one place, its chameleonic adaptability to the changing social, political, and literary climate. Thus, the essay may be labeled familiar, personal, autobiographical, literary, creative nonfiction, or academic; or it may be named for its chief subject: the nature essay, the science essay, the philosophical essay, the review essay. It may take the shape of a letter, a periodical serial, a political tract, a newspaper or magazine column. Whatever the prevailing label or shape, the American essay is as varied as its possibilities.
William Faulkner's life and work were shaped by tension and contradiction. He valued privacy, but he yearned for public validation of his work as a writer. He prized authenticity, but he affected a number of personas, both personal and professional, in presenting himself to his friends and family, to the people of his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and to his readers. For a writer who worked hard to attain his level of success, he was surprisingly shy and awkward around publishers and literary critics. He liked to portray himself as a regional writer and even a small farmer, but his works sounded themes of national significance and universal meaning. He was a realist with firm roots in nineteenth-century romanticism and pastoralism, yet many of his works define American literary modernism and even anticipate the aesthetics of postmodernism.
Then, warmly supplied with books,
While my wood-fire supplies the sun's defect,
Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,
I take my May down from the happy shelf
Where perch the world's rare song-birds in a row.
(James Russell Lowell, “Under the Willows”)
The quick rise to fame in the 1920s and the sad, slow fall into drunkenness have often overshadowed F. Scott Fitzgerald's remarkable literary achievements. By age thirty he had written three novels, three volumes of short stories, and a play to become the leading writer of his generation. Two of these works—This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925)—remain iconic American novels, and the latter is considered by many to be the best novel of the twentieth century. Such sudden success would have been difficult for any writer to sustain. In Fitzgerald's case, however, it was the money his success brought him, not the pressure of his reputation, that proved his undoing: with it he could have everything he ever wanted, and he did, in abundance.
Simon J. Bronner
Folklore in the United States, also known as “American folklore,” consists of traditional knowledge and cultural practices engaged by inhabitants of North America below Canada and above Mexico, states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. Scholarly and public awareness of American folklore primarily in the contiguous United States followed corpuses of myths, folk tales, and epics in Europe during the 18th century. Although European scholars considered much of the American material, especially in ballads and songs, to be derivatives of European traditions brought by settlers, many traditional forms such as tall tales, hero legends, and indigenous native customs in North America appeared distinctive. In Euro-centered folklore theory, the United States purportedly lacked a peasant class and a shared racial and ethnic stock that fostered the production of folklore. Also affecting perceptions of American folklore was the status of the United States as a relatively young nation, compared to the ancient legacies of European, African, and Asian civilizations. Further, geographically the country’s boundaries had moved since its inception to include an assortment of landscapes and peoples.
Primary folkloristic attention in 17th-century colonial North America was the otherness of Native American groups and their various myths, songs, and rituals. A major question was whether these myths, songs, and rituals reflected a unified culture diffused from Asia or a varied indigenous tribal lore. In the 19th century, awareness turned to the persistence and adaptation of expressive songs and stories of European settlers, enslaved Africans, and Southwest Mexicans. Narratives and buildings appeared to show signs of transplantation from the Old World, although as the New Republic emerged in the 19th century, intrepid Americanists presented cultural evidence of ethnic mixing that formed New World hybrids such as folk tales, games, and barns.
Although folklore in the United States was popularly associated with localized rural practices, folklorists in the 20th century pointed out emergent American traditions that suggested urban, regional, and national identities. Notable examples of distinctive expressions in the United States included the cowboy and railroader song, urban legend, and regional food. The rise of industrialism, transportation technology, and digital communication in the United States raised concerns that commercial popular culture had displaced folklore, but folklorists found that residents maintained folklore as a significant expression of various small-group or subcultural identities. Among the contexts that fostered folkloric production are college campuses, summer camps, and slumber parties. In a society like the United States that lacks collective public rites of passage to enter adulthood, folklore in the form of narrative and ritual in these contexts functioned to guide youths to adult responsibilities. The digital culture of the Internet that became widespread in the 21st century also provided frames for folkloric communication through the conduit of the social network. Although often circulating globally, many combined visual-verbal “memes” and “creepypastas” projected national anxieties. In this period, Americans could be heard and viewed using folklore rhetorically to refer to the veracity and significance of cultural knowledge in an uncertain, rapidly changing, individualistic society. Folklore frequently referred to the expressions of this knowledge in story, song, speech, custom, and craft as meaningful for what it conveyed and enacted about tradition in a socially dispersed, mobile, and future-oriented country.
H. W. Brands
Benjamin Franklin once offered a prescription for immortality: