Science fiction (SF) emerges as a distinct literary and cultural genre out of a familiar set of world-famous texts ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966–) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008–) that have, in aggregate, generated a colossal, communal archive of alternate worlds and possible future histories. SF’s dialectical interplay between utopian optimism and apocalyptic pessimism can be felt across the genre’s now centuries-long history, only intensifying in the 20th century as the clash between humankind’s growing technological capabilities and its ability to use those powers safely or wisely has reached existential-threat propositions, not simply for human beings but for all life on the planet. In the early 21st century, as in earlier cultural moments, the writers and critics of SF use the genre’s articulation of different societies and different possible futures as the occasion to reflect on our own present, in ways that range from full-throated defense of the status quo to the ruthless denunciation of all institutions that currently exist in the name of some other, better world. SF’s global popularity has grown to the point where it now looms quite large over cultural production generally, becoming arguably the most popular narrative genre in existence, particularly in the sorts of SF action spectacles that have dominated the global box office of the first two decades of the 21st century. It has also become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the things we used to think of as SF and the advanced communication, transportation, and entertainment technologies that have become so ubiquitous and familiar that we now take them for granted, as well as the growing prevalence of political, economic, and ecological crises now erupting out of the pages of our science fictions, like our very worst dreams come to life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were fascinated by Asian philosophies and religions. The two American philosophers discovered “Asia” in their own Transcendentalist views of nature and human ethics. Beginning with the works of Frederic Carpenter and Arthur Christy in the 1930s, American scholars have undertaken comprehensive studies of the ways in which Oriental ideas and religions, such as Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Persian poetry, Confucianism, and Daoism, influenced American Transcendentalism. In this global age, Emerson and Thoreau, as transnational figures, have come to be given a great deal of attention.
Few scholars today realize that the works of Emerson and Thoreau were widely read by Japanese intellectuals during the Meiji and Taishō periods (1868–1926). The Japanese highly admired the spirit of independence and freedom advocated by the two Concordians. Although studies of their reception in Japan have been made, and many of their writings have been translated, the strength of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Japanese readers may not yet be fully understood.
Suzuki Daisetsu made a significant contribution to Western philosophical thought by bringing the teachings of Zen Buddhism to the attention of the Western world. He felt deep sympathy with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s views of nature. Influenced by Suzuki, some American and Japanese scholars have remarked on similarities between Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. Until now, scholars in the West have tended to assume that Zen Buddhism was the primary medium of Japanese interest in Emerson and Thoreau, partly because Zen Buddhism was in vogue during the middle decades of the 20th century. While it is true that both Emersonian and Thoreauvian philosophies and Zen Buddhism center on a spirit of seeking the spring of universal spirituality within the inner soul, Suzuki’s emphasis on that similarity may be one reason for the current difficulty in understanding the diversity and complexity of both Eastern and Western philosophies and religions.
Known primarily as the author of On the Road (1957), the novel most closely associated with the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) also wrote extensively about his French-Canadian heritage. A native of the large francophone community of Lowell, Massachusetts, he faced the dilemma of writing in a foreign language, English, while one of his motives to write was to memorialize a community assimilating to U.S. society and speaking French less and less. The recent publication of his two short novels in French from the early 1950s, La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman) and Sur le chemin (Old Bull in the Bowery), provides evidence that the preoccupation with travel informing On the Road is deeply tied to his sense of cultural and linguistic exile. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Quebec to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries practiced survivance, cultural survival, especially through maintaining fluency in French and adhering to Catholicism while living among a Protestant majority. These customs of the Quebecois diaspora had begun in Canada: following the 1763 annexation of Lower Canada to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, francophones resisted immense pressure to assimilate, both official and unofficial. Narratives of displacement from France and subsequently Quebec persisted in folklore and literature on both sides of the border through the 20th century.
In early 1951, Kerouac drafted La nuit est ma femme, telling the story of Michel Bretagne, a French Canadian from New England who wanders around the eastern United States with a sense of homelessness. Narrating in a French that reproduces the southern New England dialect, Michel laments that neither of the languages he speaks really belongs to him. The text develops the theme of cultural and linguistic mixing and its discovery through travel. Shortly after completing La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac brought this theme to On the Road, famously composing the novel on a roll of paper in three weeks in April 1951. Contrary to legend, he did extensive rewriting before his landmark work was published: Sur le chemin, which he drafted in late 1952, offers an “on the road” story about Franco-Americans and was by his own account a key part of the rewriting process. During this time, he elaborated his theory of “spontaneous prose,” writing quickly and in an improvisational manner as a way of conveying geographic, cultural, and linguistic movement. In the wake of On the Road’s depictions of the expanses of the United States, including its geographic place in North America, Kerouac turned to Franco-American New England. His next book, Dr. Sax (1959), takes place in Lowell and features lengthy passages in French; the novel’s central concerns are his community’s relationship to a legacy of displacement and the conflict between clinging to the past and creating something new. If there is a principal thrust in Kerouac’s writing, it is to challenge American literature to recognize its transnational and translingual character.
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.
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.
Heather J. Hicks
From 1950 to the 2010s, the genre known as apocalyptic fiction has grown in prominence, moving from the mass-market domain of science fiction to a more central position in the contemporary literary scene. The term “apocalyptic fiction” can be understood to encompass both depictions of cataclysms that destroy the Earth and texts that portray the aftermath of a disaster that annihilates a nation, civilization, or all but a few survivors of the human population. The term itself finds its roots in the book of Revelation, and while contemporary apocalyptic fiction tends to be largely secular in its worldview, important traces of the Christian tradition linger in these texts. Indeed, while apocalyptic fiction has evolved over the past sixty-five years in response to historical transformations in Western societies, much of it remains wedded to Revelation’s representation of women as the cause of apocalyptic destruction. The material of the 1950s reflects Cold War anxieties about nuclear war while presenting sexually liberated women as implicated in the same modernity that has created the atomic bomb. People of color are also depicted as threats that must be contained. The apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s registers a fascination with genetic, social, and literary mutation, ambivalently treating a variety of “others” as both toxic and potentially useful ambassadors to some new, postmodern condition. The 1970s see the emergence of feminist apocalypses, works that react against the sexist tendency to conflate female power and sexuality with apocalyptic menace. The 1980s introduce the “American apocalypse,” a subgenre that imagines a disaster befalling America in specifically economic terms. The 1990s, meanwhile, find combinations of the feminist and American apocalypse, while also beginning to bring environmental peril into focus. From 2000 forward, there is a renewed interest in broader, more global disasters, in part informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Formally, this is the era of the “metapocalypse”—apocalyptic fictions that are self-reflexive about the conventions of the genre, including those involving gender and race. Nonetheless, several of the novels in this period still unapologetically introduce figures that recall Jezebel and Babylon from Revelation. Finally, the period since 2010 has seen a revived emphasis on economic collapse precipitated by neoliberal capitalism as well as the anthropocene.
Indigeneity is the abstract noun form of “indigenous,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Born or produced naturally in a land or region”; in conventional usage, it refers primarily to “aboriginal inhabitants or natural products.” Indigeneity has a conceptually complex relationship to American literary history before 1830, insofar as, for most of the history of the field, “early American literature” has predominately referred to works written in European languages, scripts, and genres, produced by peoples of European origin and their descendants. Within this framework, until Native Americans began adopting and adapting these languages, scripts, and genres for their own use, there were no literary works that might be simultaneously characterized as “indigenous” and “early American.”
Four conceptualizations of the relationship between indigeneity and early American literature provide a basis for this history and its historiography. Three of these pertain to cultural works produced at least in part by Native Americans: these are (1) written representations of Native American spoken performances, or “oral literature”; (2) writings that register various degrees of participation in literacy practices by Native American converts to Christianity; and (3) cultural works that employ non-alphabetic indigenous sign-systems, or “indigenous literacies.” These formulations variously challenge conventional ideas about literature and related terms such as authorship and writing; in the case of the Christian Indians, they can also challenge notions of indigeneity.
A fourth conceptualization of the relationship between indigeneity and early American literature is premised on narrow definitions of these seemingly antithetical terms: it pertains to the aesthetic project of some settler-colonial authors who hoped to connect their prose and verse works to the domestic landscape, to assert their cultural independence from England, and to enact the replacement of Native American cultural traditions with their own.
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.
The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.
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.