The reception of American literature in Japan was radically altered after the Second World War. Before the war, only a handful of works on American literature were published, and the status of American literature was secondary to that of British literature. Unlike in Germany, whose occupation at the end of the war was divided among the Allies, the military occupation of Japan was conducted unilaterally by the United States. Under the U.S. occupation, American literature was introduced as part of a cultural policy aimed at the reorientation and re-education of Japanese society under the umbrella concept of demilitarization and democratization of postwar Japan. Such cultural politics was the product of a 1930s U.S. State Department program carried out at first in South American countries and then through the Office of War Information in war-torn European countries.
American literature was introduced through the program of the Culture, Information and Education (CIE) section of General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ/SCAP). In accordance with the transformation of the U.S. literary canon as the cultural Cold War regime developed, the book selections of the CIE changed from reflecting the multicultural, New Deal ideal (including books under the Federal Writers Project) to incorporating the modernist canon. American books were distributed to CIE libraries established in major cities in Japan, and in 1948, the CIE launched a new program to promote translations into Japanese. Beside the official distribution, there was also a trade in American books—including Armed Services Editions, which were not meant for sale—on the Japanese used book market. What was really pivotal for instituting American literary studies and its modernist canon were the summer seminars sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The Rockefeller report submitted to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1951 was also instrumental in providing a blueprint for the continued cultural program after the peace treaty of 1951 and the end of military occupation the following year.
The introduction of American literature and its newly reformed canon tuned for modernism occurred within the continuum of the political, the military, and the economic. As such, the cultural program was enmeshed with refashioning Japanese subjectivity, and in this sense, American literature and American studies were part of a general cultural politics that was intertwined with the ways of government.
The Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), William Burroughs (1914–1997), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–), have been well known in Japan. Though Snyder’s differences from the other three, such as his West Coast background and a reformist and edifying stance, are obvious, here we choose not to be fussy about the application of a name, and simply follow his inclusion as in Ann Charter’s The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992). The Beat writers have been eagerly translated and read in Japan, though they are not a common focus of academic literary study. They exerted influence on writers and artists, in particular in terms of a rebellious attitude toward the conformist society and formalized artistic conventions prevailing in Japan. One conspicuous aspect of their impact is that it is part of the influx of American popular, mainly youth, culture since the 1950s, involving jazz, folk, and rock music, as well as numerous films depicting antiheroes on the road. Some Japanese poets, most notably Shiraishi Kazuko (1931–) and Yoshimasu Gōzō (1939–) were directly inspired by the Beats, and others unwittingly formed parallel developments. Assessing their specific achievements requires considering the historical context of modern Japanese poetry. The Beats, in turn, were attracted by Eastern cultures and religions, especially Buddhism; Snyder through his stay in Japan for the practice and study of Zen Buddhism had direct contact with Japanese poets, academics, and activists. Generally speaking, Japanese today, though they usually have some inkling of what Zen is, are not necessarily aware of the Buddhist heritage informing their basic worldview. Still, literary manifestations of what Alan Watts termed “Beat Zen,” in particular Kerouac’s, are not dissimilar to the religious attitude of many Japanese toward the world, which tends to seek to intuit a sense of enlightenment or salvation here and now, beyond humanly delimited distinctions and preconceptions.
Wendy Martin and Sharon Becker
During the Progressive Era, roughly spanning 1890 to 1920, the American woman struggled to change the definition of womanhood in profound ways. At issue was the right to vote, to wear bloomers, to be free from corseting, to work outside the home, and to have a place in the world beyond the domestic sphere. By 1900 the “new woman” had emerged; these modern women were attending college, getting jobs, agitating for the right to vote, rejecting traditional domesticity, proudly asserting themselves in public, and in general, becoming an integral part of American popular culture and invading its literature as well.
It all began with a fire: the one Richard Wright himself set when he was four years old. He had wondered, he tells us at the start of his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), “just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.” They looked splendid, terrifying; and it is a wonder no one was killed. As it turned out, the little boy Wright still was at the time came closer to death than anyone, and not from the fire itself, but from the beating his mother gave him in the aftermath. “I was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness,” he recalls. For years he was “chastened,” as he dryly puts it, when he remembered that his mother “had come close to killing” him.
The Flying Eagles of Troop62 is a touching prose poem and reminiscence of one Ralph Neal, a scoutmaster of James Wright's Ohio boyhood. In wondering why Neal never escaped the conditions of the valley in which he was born, but worked with forbearance with his group of acned, unhappy adolescents, the poet recounts a story from the Hindu Vedantas. It is of a saint who, after a thousand lives filled with human folly and suffering, realizing that his scabby mongrel will not be allowed to enter Nirvana with him, refuses it for himself. It is not surprising that this seems to have had a considerable resonance for Wright. He is one of America's poets of the outcast, the socially marginalized, and the sometimes brute realities of an Ohio which, though he left it, never left him. Though Wright did escape, at least physically, his work is one long attempted reconciliation with some of those realities.
In an interview published in 1992, Charles Wright told David Young, the editor of Field magazine: “There are three things, basically, that I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God.” Behind much of Wright's poetry is the Emersonian idea, which in turn derives from a long line of Platonic and Christian thinkers, that the universe resembles a text authored by God—a God who inhabits us. When Ralph Waldo Emerson contended in his essay Nature that “words are signs of natural facts” and “Nature is the symbol of spirit,” he was drawing on the old concept of “the book of nature.” In this “book,” language represents nature and nature represents the spirit or mind that created it—in other words, God. Throughout his essay Emerson argued for a poetic use of language that would renounce “rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God.” By employing a “natural” language (a vocabulary that adhered to the principle “no ideas but in things”), the writer could recapitulate the divine act of creation, duplicating, as it were, the book of nature in his or her own book.
Tobias (Jonathan Ansell) Wolff was born on 19 June 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama. The other facts of Wolff's early life are set down in his notable autobiography, This Boy's Life (1989), which begins with his parents' divorce and chronicles his subsequent move from the age of ten with his mother across the United States to the West Coast. He and his mother settled in Washington State, at first in Seattle and then in the small town of Concrete. The town is remarkably consistent with its name; Wolff paints it as a drizzly landscape, rainy and full of deprivations and the cruelties of an abusive stepfather. This Boy's Life has been widely recognized as one of the most powerful contemporary expressions of the genre of memoir.
Mark Royden Winchell
At one point in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield remarks: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up whenever you felt like it.” Few American novelists of the twentieth century can match Thomas Wolfe in having such an effect on readers. At least since the dawn of modernism, there has been a growing polarization between the sort of writers embraced by a mass audience and those revered by scholars and critics. Wolfe is one of the few who has managed to bridge this gap. Academic studies of his work indicate that he is still one of the most respected American novelists of the twentieth century, while annual meetings of the Thomas Wolfe Society suggest that his work is loved by people who read no other canonical writer. It is one of the ironies of Wolfe's career that a novelist so often criticized for being autobiographical and self-indulgent should continue to attract such a passionate and diverse readership decades after his death.
Edmund Wilson was one of a small number of American men of letters who dominated the literary scene from the 1920s, when his first volume of journals appeared, until his death in 1972. He was, first and foremost, a master of the plain style. His essays and personal memoirs reveal much about his life, complicated by four marriages, one ending in the premature death of his wife, two in divorce. His literary and cultural studies examine relationships between writers and their societies. He devoted much of his life to observing interactions between society and the individual creative mind. The virile sharpness of his writings is enriched by his occasionally cruel self-analytic streak, which reveals him often in a light to be pitied, as a man frequently finding himself in unrewarding relationships. In a university setting—one which, unlike other writers of his stature, he studiously avoided, preferring to make his mark entirely on his own terms—he might be called a generalist, a term that would not do him justice. A polymath, a Renaissance man, Wilson had an enormous range of literary, intellectual interests that included literary movements, notably symbolism, and the effects of developments in psychology and history on writers; he was engaged in the psychoanalytic study of literature among other things. Pursuing various scholarly aspirations, such as learning Hebrew in order to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls, he had plenty of energy left over for a book-length study of his own experience with the Internal Revenue Service. He made his living mainly as a book reviewer and journalist.
August Wilson is the best-known and most performed African-American playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, his drama is centrally concerned with the painful history of blacks in the United States; each of his plays identifies a certain mood or issue of one decade of the twentieth century and illustrates it through the effect it has on individual black characters. It is not historical accuracy or any kind of comprehensive account that Wilson is after; instead, he wants to make the impact of historical events felt. Rather than write agitprop plays, Wilson seeks to represent experiences that, while they are particular to blacks and while they all emanate from his own biography and his own experiences of a racist environment, also have a universal quality. He has described his literary project thus: “I'm taking each decade and looking back at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it.…Put them all together and you have a history” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 292). As in the novels of Toni Morrison, the history of African Americans coping with an unequal society is central to Wilson's work. Both authors are interested in how the present is inextricably linked to the past, and both try to rewrite American history from a black, individualized perspective. The past provides the framework for our ways of thinking and the background for the images and language to which we have become accustomed, the preconceptions we live by. Morrison, Wilson, and other black writers have therefore made it their task to re-create the emotional, psychological, and spiritual history of African Americans in their texts, to identify the ways in which the individual has tried to sustain a sense of self in the face of pressures and oppression. Rewriting African-American history, these authors believe, is especially important because that history has so far been told and distorted by others—usually by whites who have had their own agendas. Rather than voice propaganda or protest, Wilson's drama tends to express pride and admiration, celebrating how the individual—who has been placed under many pressures by a racist, unequal society or by dreams that he or she can hardly make come true—manages to cope and endure. The major historical events of the decade in which a play is set are generally referred to only in passing; they merely provide the background that illustrates problems and issues that the individual characters have to confront and struggle against. As Wilson says, “The plays deal with those people who were continuing to live their lives. I wasn't interested in what you could get from the history books.”