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The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen
In his novel Miriam Coffin, or The Whale-Fishermen (1834), Joseph C. Hart proclaimed that his characters were “a bold and hardy race of men,” who deserved the “expressive title of American Whale-Fishermen.” Hart was not the only American author to applaud these physical laborers as the embodiment of national manhood. Heroic portraits of whalers first appeared in American literature during the 1780s, and they proliferated across time. Writers as various as Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman celebrated the talents of the seafarers who transformed the New England whale fishery into a globally dominant industry. But these images did not go unchallenged. Alternative visions—some of which undermined the iconic status of the trade and its workers—began to proliferate. Even so, these depictions did very little to dismantle the notion that whaling men were prime exemplars of a proud American work ethic. To explain why this industry had such a widespread and enduring impact on American literature, Jennifer Schell juxtaposes and analyzes a wide array of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century whaling narratives. Drawing on various studies of masculinity, labor history, and transnationalism, Schell shows how this particular type of maritime work, and the traits and values associated with it, helped to shape the American literary, cultural, and historical imagination. In the process, she reveals the diverse, flexible, and often contradictory meanings of gender, class, and nation in nineteenth-century America.
Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel
Abandoning the Black Hero is the first book to examine the postwar African American white-life novel—novels with white protagonists written by African Americans. These fascinating works have been understudied despite having been written by such defining figures in the tradition as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, and Chester Himes, as well as lesser known but formerly best-selling authors Willard Motley and Frank Yerby.
John C. Charles argues that these fictions have been overlooked because they deviate from two critical suppositions: that black literature is always about black life and that when it represents whiteness, it must attack white supremacy. The authors are, however, quite sympathetic in the treatment of their white protagonists, which Charles contends should be read not as a failure of racial pride but instead as a strategy for claiming creative freedom, expansive moral authority, and critical agency.
In an era when “Negro writers” were expected to protest, their sympathetic treatment of white suffering grants these authors a degree of racial privacy previously unavailable to them. White writers, after all, have the privilege of racial privacy because they are never pressured to write only about white life. Charles reveals that the freedom to abandon the “Negro problem” encouraged these authors to explore a range of new genres and themes, generating a strikingly diverse body of novels that significantly revise our understanding of mid-twentieth-century black writing.
Traditional narratives of the period leading up to the Civil War are invariably framed in geographical terms. The sectional descriptors of the North, South, and West, like the wartime categories of Union, Confederacy, and border states, mean little without reference to a map of the United States. In Abolitionist Geographies, Martha Schoolman contends that antislavery writers consistently refused those standard terms.
Through the idiom Schoolman names “abolitionist geography,” these writers instead expressed their dissenting views about the westward extension of slavery, the intensification of the internal slave trade, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law by appealing to other anachronistic, partial, or entirely fictional north–south and east–west axes. Abolitionism’s West, for instance, rarely reached beyond the Mississippi River, but its East looked to Britain for ideological inspiration, its North habitually traversed the Canadian border, and its South often spanned the geopolitical divide between the United States and the British Caribbean.
Schoolman traces this geography of dissent through the work of Martin Delany, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others. Her book explores new relationships between New England transcendentalism and the British West Indies; African-American cosmopolitanism, Britain, and Haiti; sentimental fiction, Ohio, and Liberia; John Brown’s Appalachia and circum-Caribbean marronage. These connections allow us to see clearly for the first time abolitionist literature’s explicit and intentional investment in geography as an idiom of political critique, by turns liberal and radical, practical and utopian.
Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture
Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today
Franklin considers how academic memoirs have engaged with a core of defining concerns in the humanities: identity politics and the development of whiteness studies in the 1990s; the impact of postcolonial studies; feminism and concurrent anxieties about pedagogy; and disability studies and the struggle to bring together discourses on the humanities and human rights. The turn back toward humanism that Franklin finds in some academic memoirs is surreptitious or frankly nostalgic; others, however, posit a wide-ranging humanism that seeks to create space for advocacy in the academic and other institutions in which we are all unequally located. These memoirs are harbingers for the critical turn to explore interrelations among humanism, the humanities, and human rights struggles.
The Hard History of Love
Arguably one of the most important American writers working today, Wendell Berry is the author of more than fifty books, including novels and collections of poems, short stories, and essays. A prominent spokesman for agrarian values, Berry frequently defends such practices and ideas as sustainable agriculture, healthy rural communities, connection to place, the pleasures of work, and the interconnectedness of life. In The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love, Fritz Oehlschlaeger provides a sweeping engagement with Berry’s entire corpus. The book introduces the reader to Berry’s general philosophy and aesthetic through careful consideration of his essays. Oehlschlaeger pays particular attention to Berry as an agrarian, citizen, and patriot, and also examines the influence of Christianity on Berry’s writings. Much of the book is devoted to lively close readings of Berry’s short stories, novels, and poetry. The Achievement of Wendell Berry is a comprehensive introduction to the philosophical and creative world of Wendell Berry, one that offers new critical insights into the writing of this celebrated Kentucky author.
Mark Twain's Fictions
Covering the entire body of Mark Twain's fiction, Clark Griffith in Achilles and the Tortoise answers two questions: How did Mark Twain write? And why is he funny? Griffith defines and demonstrates Mark Twain's poetics and, in doing so, reveals Twain's ability to create and sustain human laughter.
As he attempted to attain the comic resolution and comically transfigured characters he yearned for, Twain forever played, for Griffith, the role of the Achilles of Zeno's Paradox. Like the tortoise that Achilles cannot overtake in Zeno's tale, the richness of comic life forever remained outside Twain's grasp.
The last third of Griffith's study draws parallels between Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Although the two authors never met and seem not to have read each other's works, they labored under the sense of what, in Moby-Dick, Ishmael calls "a vast practical joke . . . at nobody's expense but [one's] own." The laughter occasioned by this cosmic conspiracy shapes the career of Huckleberry Finn fully as much as it does Ishmael's voyage. Out of the laughter are generated the respective obsessions of Captain Ahab and Bartleby, of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Hadleyburg. Reduced at last to a dry mock, the laughter is the prevailing tone of both Billy Budd and The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts.
Jack Kerouac's Wild Form
Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form connects the personal and creative development of the Beat generation's famous icon with cultural changes in postwar America. Michael Hrebeniak asserts that Jack Kerouac's "wild form"—self-organizing narratives free of literary, grammatical, and syntactical conventions—moves within an experimental continuum across the arts to generate a Dionysian sense of writing as raw process. Action Writing highlights how Kerouac made concrete his 1952 intimation of "something beyond the novel" by assembling ideas from Beat America, modernist poetics, action painting, bebop, and subterranean oral traditions.
Geared to scholars and students of American literature, Beat studies, and creative writing, Action Writing places Kerouac's writing within the context of the American art scene at midcentury. Reframing the work of Kerouac and the Beat generation within the experimental modernist and postmodernist literary tradition, this probing inquiry offers a direct engagement with the social and cultural history at the foreground of Kerouac's career from the 1940s to the late 1960s.
Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of Color
Since the 1980s, many activists and writers have turned from identity politics toward ethnic religious traditions to rediscover and reinvigorate their historic role in resistance to colonialism and oppression. In her examination of contemporary fiction by women of color—including Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Toni Cade Bambara, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko—Channette Romero considers the way these novels newly engage with Vodun, Santería, Candomblé, and American Indian traditions. Critical of a widespread disengagement from civic participation and of the contemporary novel’s disconnection from politics, this fiction attempts to transform the novel and the practice of reading into a means of political engagement and an inspiration for social change.