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Secret Histories

Reading Twentieth-Century American Literature

David Wyatt

Publication Year: 2010

Secret Histories claims that the history of the nation is hidden—in plain sight—within the pages of twentieth-century American literature. David Wyatt argues that the nation's fiction and nonfiction expose a "secret history" that cuts beneath the "straight histories" of our official accounts. And it does so by revealing personal stories of love, work, family, war, and interracial romance as they were lived out across the decades of the twentieth century. Wyatt reads authors both familiar and neglected, examining "double consciousness" in the post–Civil War era through works by Charles W. Chesnutt, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington. He reveals aspects of the Depression in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anzia Yezierska, and John Steinbeck. Period by period, Wyatt's nuanced readings recover the felt sense of life as it was lived, opening surprising dimensions of the critical issues of a given time. The rise of the women's movement, for example, is revivified in new appraisals of works by Eudora Welty, Ann Petry, and Mary McCarthy. Running through the examination of individual works and times is Wyatt's argument about reading itself. Reading is not a passive activity but an empathetic act of cocreation, what Faulkner calls "overpassing to love." Empathetic reading recognizes and relives the emotional, cultural, and political dimensions of an individual and collective past. And discovering a usable American past, as Wyatt shows, enables us to confront the urgencies of our present moment.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1790

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To the Reader

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pp. ix-xvi | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1791

In the 1950s, reading William Faulkner, Toni Morrison began to detect “a special kind of courage,” the courage demonstrated by any writer who sets out to tell the secret history of his country. Th is was a courage she herself would demonstrate when it came to her great rewriting of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) in Beloved (1987). The Faulkner-Morrison relation is one of the more dramatic examples of American literature as the result of what Faulkner termed “a happy marriage of speaking and hearing,” ...

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pp. xvii-xxii | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1792

First, to Bob Schultz, who read every word and who gently urged me to confront the many occasions on which I had not quite said what I meant to say. In the give-and-take between my versions and his discreet and eloquent revisions, we lived out the experience of call-and-response that is the subject of this book. My friend and office mate Howard Norman offered me the hospitality of his ...

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1. The Body and the Corporation

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pp. 1-11 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1793

The phrase “secret history” is Michael Herr’s and comes from a passage in Dispatches (1977). Herr is writing about the problem of determining when the war in Vietnam began:

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2. Double Consciousness

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pp. 12-29 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1794

A boy discovers, by being told not to stand up with the “white scholars” in his class, that he is “colored.” “Mother, mother,” he cries when he gets home, “tell me, am I a nigger?” “I am not white,” she answers, “but you . . . the best blood of the South is in you.” The boy goes on to take up piano.

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3. Pioneering Women

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pp. 30-52 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1795

Did American women writing in the twentieth century succeed in writing beyond the ending, in Rachel DuPlessis’s phrase, the ending in which a woman’s hopes are curtailed or altogether defeated? In 1899, Kate Chopin’s (1850– 1904) heroine walks into the Gulf of Mexico. Six years later, in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart dies her lonely death. Gertrude Steins’s Anna, Melanctha, Lena—they all suddenly wither and pass.

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4. Performing Maleness

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pp. 53-67 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1796

Whenever I teach a course in twentieth-century American literature, a task I perform at least once a year, I begin with Hemingway (1899–1961). Not with The Sun Also Rises (1926), but with In Our Time, and with its second story, “Indian Camp.” Why not begin with “On the Quai at Smyrna,” the first story in the book? In reading a career so obsessed with beginnings—with the excitement and peril of setting out, and with the difficulty of moving forward with hope—why finesse the whole issue by not starting where Hemingway himself appears to ask us to start?

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5. Colored Me

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pp. 68-85 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1797

If what we call “race” in the United States entails an ongoing crisis of figuration, perhaps it is best to begin with a poem by Jean Toomer (1894–1967), entitled “Portrait in Georgia”...

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6. The Rumor of Race

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pp. 86-104 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1798

In making a comparison between Faulkner (1897–1962) and Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren (1905–89) also raises the issue, in any writer’s work, of the career...

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7. The Depression

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pp. 105-134 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1799

No, I don’t like work,” Marlowe says, near the end of chapter 1 of Heart of Darkness (1902). “I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.” What a fine thought this is, that work is the activity through which we find ourselves.

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8. The Second World War

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pp. 135-162 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1800

The winning of a war can be a defeat for the imagination. In the sixty years since the two unconditional surrenders, narratives of “The Greatest Generation” have crowded out accounts of the pain and alienation and bad behavior that are inevitably the experience of war. Triumph can become a tiresome subject, however, and sensing this, turn-of-the-century movies such as...

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9. Civil Rights

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pp. 163-189 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1801

"And Till was hung yesterday,” Ezra Pound (1885–1972) writes in The Pisan Cantos (1948). Pound wrote the line from a prison camp near Pisa where he had been incarcerated after being arrested for his wartime broadcasts in support of Mussolini. The name “Till” may ring a faint bell. A footnote to canto 74 identifies him as “Louis Till, an African-American trainee at the DTC executed on July 2, 1945 . . . Till was the father of Emmet Till, whose cold-blooded murder at age fourteen by two white men in Mississippi sparked the Civil Rights Movement in the South.”

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10. Love and Separateness

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pp. 190-214 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1802

In the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Eudora Welty (1909–2001) published The Bride of the Innisfallen, a gathering of short stories containing “The Burning,” in which two half-mad sisters hang themselves after their house has been burned by Union soldiers. Left behind is their slave, Delilah. She stirs the feathery ashes and finds in them “Phinney’s bones.”

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11. Revolt and Reaction

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pp. 215-233 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1803

From a postmillennial perspective, the big thing about the sixties is not the good accomplished in that decade but the reaction it appears to have induced. No other decade in the twentieth century carries such symbolic weight. One’s politics can be measured by one’s take on that time. The divide between the red and the blue states has largely to do with this: the sixties gave Americans an unprecedented access of power in relation to the world; or, the sixties opened the gates of excess and misrule.

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12. The Postmodern

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pp. 234-258 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1804

The postmodern structure of feeling can be characterized by a series of refusals:
—the refusal of the old master narratives;
—the refusal of the distinction between high and popular culture;
—the refusal of the pure or the generic for the hybrid;...

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13. Studying War

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pp. 259-279 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1805

Near the end of The Face of Battle (1976), John Keegan speculates on what it takes for a battle to be won. It must involve the “moral collapse” of the enemy, a collapse that becomes final only if the battle has been hard-fought. “Easy victories, between equals, almost never stick.” The battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme were hard-fought, and so could end.

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14. Slavery and Memory

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pp. 280-291 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1806

Beloved (1987), the anchoring text in the “Lincoln to Morrison” course I teach every year, comes late, and when I get to it I ask my students, “Why do this work, when it is so painful?” In focusing so relentlessly on the lived experience of slavery, the novel may seem to promise little but pain. But the novel actually tells a love story, a comedy with a tragedy at its heart.

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15. Pa Not Pa

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pp. 292-311 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1807

You must not tell anyone,” The Woman Warrior (1976) begins. A mother then proceeds to give a daughter a story she is not to pass on. “In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”

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16. After Innocence

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pp. 312-330 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1808

In 1993, Philip Roth’s (b. 1933) novels began winning prizes and continued winning them: the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock, the 1995 National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater, the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral(1997), the Ambassador Book Award...

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A Personal Note

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pp. 331-334 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1809

We take what we need from the books we read, and what we need changes. Our culture continually changes its mind about what counts in—and as—literature as well. This book records the reading experience of a man of sixty who began the formal study of American literature over forty years ago, in the mid- 1960s. I am amazed to see where a career as a student and teacher has brought me, from the all-male lecture halls at Yale where I never heard a word about African- American literature to the more modestly...


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pp. 335-376 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1810

Works Cited

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pp. 377-392 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1811


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pp. 393-400 | DOI: 10.1353/chapter.1812

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899232
E-ISBN-10: 0801899230
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801897122
Print-ISBN-10: 0801897122

Page Count: 424
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Nischik, Reingard M.
  • History in literature.
  • United States -- In literature.
  • Literature and history -- United States -- History.
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