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Brave New Words

How Literature Will Save the Planet

Elizabeth Ammons

Publication Year: 2010

The activist tradition in American literature has long testified to the power of words to change people and the power of people to change the world, yet in recent years many professional humanists have chosen to distract themselves with a postmodern fundamentalism of indeterminacy and instability rather than engage with social and political issues. Throughout her bold and provocative call to action, Elizabeth Ammons argues that the responsibility now facing humanists is urgent: inside and outside academic settings, they need to revive the liberal arts as a progressive cultural force that offers workable ideas and inspiration in the real-world struggle to achieve social and environmental justice.
      Brave New Words challenges present and future literary scholars and teachers to look beyond mere literary critique toward the concrete issue of social change and how to achieve it. Calling for a profound realignment of thought and spirit in the service of positive social change, Ammons argues for the continued importance of multiculturalism in the twenty-first century despite attacks on the concept from both right and left. Concentrating on activist U.S. writers—from ecocritics to feminists to those dedicated to exposing race and class biases, from Jim Wallis and Cornel West to Winona LaDuke and Paula Moya and many others—she calls for all humanists to link their work to the progressive literature of the last half century, to insist on activism in the service of positive change as part of their mission, and to teach the power of hope and action to their students.
      As Ammons clearly demonstrates, much of American literature was written to expose injustice and motivate readers to work for social transformation. She challenges today’s academic humanists to address the issues of hope and purpose by creating a practical activist pedagogy that gives students the knowledge to connect their theoretical learning to the outside world. By relying on the transformative power of literature and replacing nihilism and powerlessness with conviction and faith, the liberal arts can offer practical, useful inspiration to everyone seeking to create a better world.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-xiv

Unless I bury it in my backyard, the desktop computer on which I am writing will almost certainly end up in a mountain of toxic trash in Ghana. There, desperately poor children will strip it of tiny amounts of marketable metals and in the process destroy their health and drench the earth in poisons. I can pretend this reality does not exist. I can con-...

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1. Postmodern Fundamentalism

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pp. 1-36

Recently I attended a college graduation ceremony at which three English professors spoke. The first read a long, dark poem about our inability to control life. The second praised the uselessness of studying literature. The third stated that we have the questions, not the answers, and offered an extended interpretation of the final scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s...

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2. What David Walker and Harriet Beecher Stowe Still Have to Teach Us

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pp. 37-76

Not agitate!” African American author and editor Pauline Hopkins exclaims in her piece titled “Monroe Rogers” in the Colored American Magazine in 1902. “Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated” (276). With these words Hopkins ends her biography of a black man unjustly extradited to North Carolina from Massachusetts despite angry,...

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3. The Multicultural Imperative

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pp. 77-101

At an academic lecture on Asian American literature that I recently attended, an audience member asked the speaker why he didn’t place quotation marks around the word race. Didn’t his failure to use quotation marks simply support the erroneous idea that race is real? Was he asking us to fall back into “pre-post-race thinking”? The speaker responded...

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4. Rising Waters

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pp. 103-138

In The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois prophesied that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. It does not take a prophet today to predict that the problem of the twentyfirst century is the problem of ecological disaster. ...

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5. Jesus, Marx, and the Future of the Planet

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pp. 139-174

Women’s studies conferences and panels in the United States have taught me many things about literature, history, societal norms, economic disparities, health issues, reproductive rights, sexuality struggles, political hurdles, and the fight to end racism. But not until I attended the International Women’s Studies Conference in Kampala, Uganda, ...


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p. 175

A Note on Method

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p. 177

Works Cited

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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-197

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299223
E-ISBN-10: 1587299224
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587298615
Print-ISBN-10: 1587298619

Page Count: 214
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: pb

OCLC Number: 649914569
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Brave New Words

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
  • Social change -- Philosophy.
  • Humanism -- Social aspects
  • Social problems in literature.
  • Social justice in literature.
  • Humanism in literature.
  • Literature and morals.
  • Literature and society.
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