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American Literary Culture: A Personal Perspective

By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Openings: Original Essays by Contemporary Soviet and American Writers. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990

What is the enterprise of literature but the communal flowering of the efforts of individuals, for the most part strangers to one another, as they explore their intensely individual worlds, posit their individual claims, create sequences of linguistic structures to voice their individual propositions concerning the world?—an infinite and seemingly permanent galaxy composed of the finite and perishable? The wellsprings of "creativity" remain inexplicable, but we can consider that their consequences have both a private and a public significance: all art is both personal and autobiographical, and at the same time social, political, historical. The artist is the self-conscious conduit between the world within and the world without, a sort of Gnostic intermediary giving notice and form to symbols of a humanly universal nature. Society is a living organism ceaselessly defining itself, shifting its boundaries, taking shape from the future no less than from the past; art is the formal record of its inchoate struggles, its dreams, nightmares, and visions. Never has our American literature more clearly embodied these propositions than at the present time, in this final quarter of the twentieth century.

From its beginnings in colonial times, imaginative writing in America has been characterized by thematic, aesthetic, and regional diversity; but in the past twenty years the range and depth of this diversity has dramatically increased. Indeed, for most American writers—certainly for women (both feminist and nonfeminists), for blacks, for Jewish Americans, for native Americans, for Hispanics, for Chinese-Americans, and other minority groups, including gays and "young" writers (that is, writers in their early twenties)—the present era is by far the most fertile and supportive in our entire history. It may strike a neutral observer as highly ironic, if not perplexing, that so revolutionary a cultural phenomenon has arisen at approximately the same time that the American political climate has become increasingly conservative, if not, in some respects, reactionary; yet more ironic, and perplexing, to consider that there are more than twenty-three million illiterates in the United States . . . a number said to be increasing at an "alarming" rate.

How to account for such paradoxes? How to account for the fact that, each year, fifty thousand books are published in this country . . . of which some, in mass-market paperback, are allowed a life-span as brief as three weeks on the crowded shelves of bookstores? (The logic of the marketplace makes it more economical to pulp books than to store them in warehouses.) How to explain to visitors from other cultures that, though there is no economic egalitarianism in the field of art, the disparity in income between the best-selling literary novelist and the highly regarded but virtually nonselling literary poetic being considerable, there exists nonetheless a social and cultural egalitarianism?—that, from a certain perspective, American literary culture is a living community, a network of mutual support and fructification?

It might be argued that such plenitude, so blooming and buzzing a confusion (to use William James's description of the pluralistic universe), cannot fail to suggest a Darwinian struggle of extreme rapacity and cruelty; yet the fact is that never before in our history has the "small press" culture been so healthy, so vigorous, so in a way intransigent. Never before have so many magazines (approximately fifteen hundred) and so many books, both hardcover and soft, been published by the nearly three thousand "small" presses in the country. The annual anthology The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson, is now in its thirteenth year and has become in itself an annual literary event, singling out for inclusion fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from presses as disparate and far-flung as Antaeus, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Tri-Quarterly, Pipedream Press, Hard Pressed, Holy Cow!, ZYZZYVA. The familiar complaint that "nobody reads poetry" is surely belied by the fact that a number of prominent poets (John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, Alan Ginsberg) sell very well, year after year; and that, granted the remarkable quantity of poetry titles issued, not only by small presses but by commercial and university presses, the audience for poetry in the aggregate must be considerable. If the days of the best-selling poet of quality, like Robert Frost, are possibly ended, it is still the case that poets of distinction (among them Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Bly, James Dickey, Maxine Kumin, W. S. Merwin, C. K. Williams, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche, Diane Wakoski, Robert Hass, the late Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, Ai) have found audiences that buy their books and attend their poetry readings with gratifying enthusiasm. And it is a common observation of our time that, however infrequently the average American reads poetry, it seems that, judging from the quantity of poetry submissions received by presses and magazines, everyone is writing it.

In contrast to earlier prevailing theories concerning American literature, even relatively conservative literary historians of the United States have suggested in recent years that each generation is obliged to define the past in its own terms. Since World War II, numerous factors have conjoined not only to fragmentize our society but to vitalize it. The prolonged Cold War—that Manichean drama of projections and counterprojections; the Vietnam War—not generally acknowledged as the longest war in American history (1954-73); the protests against the Vietnam War, which forcibly divided the generations; the civil rights movement; the women's movement; gay liberation: all have permanently shaken our society and have forced new evaluations of American character, "national identity," and definitions of the self. Is there any longer the comforting illusion of a homogeneous America? Can there endure a "typical" portrait of the American writer that is not merely a stereotype?

There is a considerable contrast, for instance, between the 1948 edition and the 1988 edition of the prestigious Columbia Literary History of the United States, one of the primary reference books of its sort. (There were no intervening editions between 1948 and 1988, but the new edition is in no way a revising or updating of the old.) Where for Robert E. Spiller and his coeditors forty years ago there was a "unified vision of a national identity"—one that arrogantly or unthinkingly excluded all women and persons of color—for Emory Elliott and his coeditors there is not only no single unifying vision but no desire to discover or invent one. The conscientious literary history of a culture so vast, so complex, so inchoate, so contradictory, indeed so paradoxical as the United States can hope only to present a reasonable compendium of representative viewpoints. Thus, the 1988 edition of the Columbia Literary History contains such essays as "Immigrants and Other Americans, 1865-1910," "Mexican-American Literature, 1910-1945," "Women Writers Between the Wars," "The Avant-Garde and Experimental Writing, 1945-1988"—a diversity that would have bewildered, if not offended, earlier generations of academicians. At the present time the "battle of the books" in America continues with much passion on either side: the liberals favor an extension of the canon; the conservatives are convinced that there is but one indissoluble canon. Each side accuses the other of "politicizing" literature; and surely each side is correct? For literature in its public sense is always political.

If we consider American literary culture in the abstract, imagining it, for all its diversity, as an organic whole, we are bound to see that it is expanding at both ends, and not simply in the present. Not all new books being issued from our presses are by "new" or even living writers. Reprints of famous classics continue at a brisk pace, but reprints of "lost" or "neglected" or "suppressed" books more uniquely characterize our time. Where once survey courses in American literature inevitably focused upon a small and unvarying syllabus of writers, most of them male, most of them New Englanders, now students have the option of reading such newly "discovered" writers as Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937), Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923), Anzia Yezierska (Bread Givers, 1925), H. D. (Collected Poems 1912-1944), Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, 1845), Henry Bibb (Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, 1849), Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, 1861), and numerous others. The sentimental "Indian" fiction of James Fenimore Cooper has been replaced by the fiction of native Americans, prominent among them James Welch, Leslie Silko, Gerald Vizenor (whose Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, 1978, is considered an underground classic by other native Americans), N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Dorris.

Not in opposition to but complementary with the Norton Anthology of American Literature, long the staple of university courses, is the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, publication of which, in 1985, aroused a literary controversy that is still raging. The Gilbert and Gubar anthology is notable for introducing to a wide audience such long forgotten or undervalued writers as Rebecca Harding Davis, whose Life in the Iron-Mills, 1861, was a reformist landmark; the virtually unknown Alice James, the witty, sardonic, sharply perceptive invalid sister of Henry and William, who kept a unique diary through the three final years of her life; and Harriet E. Wilson, the first black woman to publish a novel in English and the first Afro-American to publish a novel in the United States: Our Nig, 1859. (Harriet Wilson's extraordinary novel received no reviews and was forgotten until the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reissued it in a facsimile edition in 1983.) Indeed, it is impossible to estimate the degree to which contemporary American fiction and poetry has been revitalized by this extension of the literary canon, for the discovery of predecessors and models is invaluable for young and emerging writers.

Another way in which the concept of "American literature" has been creatively challenged is in terms of "literature" itself: for what after all is literature? Exclusively novels, poetry, drama, belles-lettres? Or also diaries, journals, memoirs, biographies, journalism, science fiction, fantasy and horror, detective, mystery, humor, and critical works? Collections of essays by such writers as Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell), Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem; The White Album), and Edward Hoagland (Heart's Desire); speculative memoirs like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; polemics like Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation, Illness as Metaphor, and On Photography; fantasy and science fiction by such highly regarded writers as Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed; The Left Hand of Darkness; The Compass Rose) and Samuel Delaney (Dhalgren; Triton; et al.); the prison journal In The Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott; aesthetic-philosophical tracts by the experimental composer John Cage (Empty Words) and William Gass (On Being Blue); collages of the nature of Linda Montano's Art in Everyday Life: all have revolutionized the definition of "canon." Since the mid-1960s too, the formal boundary between "serious" and "popular" art has been challenged, so that it is not uncommon to see in the midst of mainline literary figures on university syllabi such renegade figures as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Stephen King, and Kathy Acker (the author of "punk" novels). Highly influenced by French literary theorists of the past twenty years—primarily Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes— contemporary American literary criticism has undergone a series of convulsive changes in the past decade. In consequence, the concept of "interpretation" has been replaced by other more elastic methodologies. What is "meaning" in the context of literary work? Does it reside in the text, or in the reader? Is the text autonomous, or must it be defined in terms of its sociological matrix?

The underlying principle behind these new and, to some, alarmingly iconoclastic theories is cultural relativism: where in the past a direct correlation was posited between text and meaning, now any number of possible meanings may exist, however implausible or mutually exclusive. The tenets of Structuralism and Deconstruction reduce the author to but one interpreter of "his" text. What has been systematically undercut is the dogma of a positive, realist foundation for understanding literature.

Controversial as such radical theories are, and bitterly opposed as they have been by many academicians, most historians concede that the past per se has no existence . . . except, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, as it has been modified in the guts of the living. The evidence examined by the historian cannot yield a single (or singular) past for, of course, no past is available to us except as it can be deduced from evidence and presented by the historian, who, in turn, cannot avoid cultural prejudice. Thus, the warring interpretations of the same writers and texts, presented by critics as diverse as Structuralists, Deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists (both "humanist" and "radical"), and New Historicists, each of whom may make some claim for being central to the re-imagining of the American literary canon, yet none of whom has anything like the unilateral dominance of the New Critics of the 1950s or the preceding generations of tradition-bound, biographical-historical critics whose seemingly modest and unexamined project was to present what was "best" in literary culture.

Naturally, the practicing writer has little need for theory but continues to write and, ideally, to publish and find an audience, without regard for critical methodologies. It is the very nature of language to provoke dissension, since language, or the concept-forming aspect of language, inevitably sets us apart from the world and from ourselves. There is an "I" that exists sheerly as a verbal construct, a subject in a sentence: this "I" is a kind of luminous optic nerve, a radar of sorts, picking up, refining, defining, all that is given. Verbalizing is surely natural to the human species, yet it is just as surely an act of extreme self-consciousness, in contradistinction to the self-in-society. For the imaginative writer, the very gift of "imagination" guarantees a consciousness of self that may put him or her actively at odds with society; indeed, it might be argued that the artist's imagination is at least in part the focal point of the ineluctable conflict of wills between the individual and organized society . . . by "organized society" I mean anything from a unit of two persons up through the family, the town, the city, the state, the nation-state. Where all is homogeneity, art plays no role, for art arises only out of conflict. This is so simple a truth it can be overlooked.

For fiction writers who began publishing or who came of literary age in the 1960s (a wonderfully variegated generation-and-a-half that includes E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, John Updike, Philip Roth, Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Ishmael Reed, Jerome Charyn, Alice Walker, Charles Johnson, Joy Williams, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Marge Piercy, Paul Theroux, the late John Gardner and Raymond Carver, and many others) the seething richness of American society provided us with irresistibly dramatic "historical" material; and individual dissension within society provided numberless aesthetic strategies for expressing that material.

To live, for example, as I did, in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s—Detroit, a city billed as both "Automotive Capital of the World" and "Murder City, USA," and the setting of the 1968 riots—was to find myself not only provided with but hardly able to ignore the immediacy of drama, social conflict, tragedy, tragi-comedy . . . the opportunity of realizing firsthand a virtual allegory of American experience. The city of Detroit in its myriad aspects became for me a region of symbolic luminosities: it was itself, of course, uniquely and irreducibly so, but it was also far more—an emblem of American ambition, American delusion, American strife, American hopes, American violence, American dreams-gone-wrong.

Though I was writing and publishing before I came to live in Detroit in 1962, it was only in this city that I conceived of a personal body of literature in which the unique and the emblematic might be conjoined; and the private, the domestic, the idiosyncratic yoked to larger social and political concerns (in such Detroit-set novels as them and Do With Me What You Will, and such historically focused novels as Angel of Light, Wonderland, and You Must Remember This). So, too, have such writers as E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Robert Stone, and Russell Banks, among others, realized the complexity of their "political" material by way of individual participatory experience.

For instance, E. L. Doctorow took for his subject the divisive domestic politics of the 1960s, culminating in the persecution and execution of the Rosenbergs, in the novel many readers consider his finest, The Book of Daniel; Robert Coover surrealistically reimagined the moral chaos of that era in The Public Burning—in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are publicly executed, with a narration by Richard Nixon; Don DeLillo in his recent Libra reimagined, by way of the Warren Report, the events leading up to and surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Robert Stone, Joan Didion, Russell Banks, and others, were analyzing American involvement in Central, Latin, and Carribean American politics years before these politics erupted into tragic headlines.

Norman Mailer's subtitle for his 1963 The Armies of the Night: History as Novel, the Novel as History, suggests the relationship between the individual writer and the politics of his time, and, perhaps, the Post-Modernist principle of literary inter-referentiality; Robert Lowell's idiosyncratic sonnet sequence Notebook (1969-73) and his other explicitly autobiographical works continue the poet's determination to push beyond the claustrophobic domesticity of confessional verse to the point at which personal history merges dramatically with the history of an era: "Why not say what happened?" the poet asks.

More than three hundred novels have been written on the subject of the Vietnam War, most of them by former combatants and journalists; among the outstanding are Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green, Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story, John Del Vecchio's The Thirteenth Valley, Richard Currey's Fatal Light, and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Buffalo Afternoon. (Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers is helpfully read as a Vietnam-related novel; Michael Herr's much acclaimed Dispatches is a surreal nonfiction work.) An outstanding dramatist of the war generation is David Rabe, best known for The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel; an outstanding poet, Bruce Wiegel, author of Song of Napalm. All these writers employ surrealist and experimental techniques in their work at least intermittently, but the bedrock of their material is a historical and geographical reality. A concern with history seems to be the foundation of America's strongest and most representative work: in many writers, it is catalyst and antagonist in equal measure.

That poetry has undergone remarkable transformations since the early 1960s is partly the consequence of another sort of political upheaval— the women's movement. In a number of highly influential women poets, the politics of sex and gender merge with the politics of history and become inextricable. Outstanding titles are Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, and The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984; Denise Levertov's Relearning the Alphabet, and Candles in Babylon; Carolyn Kizer's Yin; Sharon Olds's Satan Says, and The Dead and the Living; Carolyn Forche's The Country Between Us; Lucille Clifton's Two-Headed Woman; Maxine Kumin's Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems; Louise Gluck's, The House on Marshland and Descending Figure; Alicia Ostriker's The Imaginary Lover; Josephine Jacobsen's The Sisters: New and Selected Poems; and May Swenson's In Other Words. This is a revolutionary poetry, very much at odds with the poetry prescribed by T. S. Eliot at mid-century, in which the poet is solemnly advised not to attempt the vernacular, still less to celebrate it, but to self-consciously "refine" it in a rejection of the "futility and anarchy" that constitute the history of our time. It is unsurprising that women's poetry is descended by way of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, and not by Way of T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.

It has been remarked that the dominating style of the present is Neo-Realism, and that the self-referential experimental strategies of narration and wordplay of the 1960s and 1970s (as jubilantly practiced by John Barth, William Gass, the late Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Charles Newman, and others) have lost their influence. Partly, this is the result of inevitable change, the necessary conflict of generations; partly, it is the result of concern for social and political issues, which are most effectively explored in that mode of literary narrative called "realistic." (As a writer, I know that all literary modes are conventions, and all are deliberately chosen: whether fabulation, fantasy, allegory, surrealism—or realism. The basic act of writing, the transcribing of words from left to right across a sheet of paper, is a convention.) The political writer who wants not simply to entertain or impress his readers but to instruct, move, inspire, upset, possibly convert them is obliged to appear to represent as faithfully as possible a reality that exists beyond his own invention. Without the illusion—the convention—of authenticity, imaginative literature surrenders a good deal of its power.

Ours is recognized as a violent society; or, at the very least, a society that openly airs, discusses, and analyzes its violence. A number of American writers of the generation I have been discussing have been charged with "excessive" violence in their work and with a presumably un-American pessimism. The woman writer who ventures into the political or social sphere is often a special target, for [women] writers are perceived as doubly intrusive: as writers, and as women. (I choose to bracket [woman] writer because the writer who is a woman, while perceiving herself as a writer, foremost, and not gender-determined in her art, is nonetheless perceived by others as a woman primarily, and a writer secondarily: thus, [woman] writer. An ontological paradox, for of course there are no [men] writers, only writers—who are men.)

Yet to be possessed by what might be called a tragic sense of life does not mean that one is indifferent to other interpretations, even the comic; there are, in life, happy endings—as often as not. But from a historical perspective it seems more realistic to view the manifold strivings of civilization as essentially tragic in outline, because so frequently bellicose, self-serving, and self-defeating. Within this context one is likely to be more impressed with the fortitude, resilience, and occasional nobility of human beings when, as individuals, they are put to the test; when by accident or design they are in a position to grow into what they are in embryo. Consequently, in tragic art the focus is upon moments of crisis, not harmony; it is in the fissures of happiness that strength of character asserts itself. From this perspective, the tragic view of life may in fact be the most idealistic. And, as Flannery O'Connor once observed, no writer is a pessimist. The very act of writing is an act of hope.

Postwar American generations differ from previous generations in that we are constantly aware of—indeed, some of our ranks are obsessed by— the possibility of an end: of The End. A generation of children, of which I was one, was baptized into a collective, thus involuntary, sense of mortality in the early 1950s, when atomic bomb drills were routine schoolday exercises under the aegis of the Civil Defense Bureau in Washington, D.C. How like a child's game, the name of this drill: "duck-and-cover"! Like fires, for which fire drills were logical preparations, atomic bomb attacks on America were perceived as not only likely but highly probable. The question was, when? And, who would survive?

Thus, an entire subcategory of mid- and late twentieth-century American literature can be titled the Literature of Paranoia, some of it immensely ambitious, reticulated, and blackly comic: the foremost example being Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. The fictions of Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and John Hawkes also lend themselves temperamentally to this vision. Less ambitious in writerly terms, though no less "nihilistic," are those fictions to which the generic term Minimalist has been given by literary journalists. In part, of course, Minimalism is simply an inevitable response (or reaction) to the increasingly elaborate and self-conscious fictions of an earlier generation; not so much a strategy of defeat as of aesthetic retrenchment and modesty. One senses a vague, even a vacuous Reaganite world beyond the shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and tract housing of Minimalist fiction, but this world is never explored or even named; it is simply given. The representative Minimalist protagonist is passive, unquestioning, unreflective, and, in some instances, lacking the sort of neurological consciousness one associates with normal human beings. Frequently, the historical present is employed in narration, so that the reader, like the protagonist, moves forward without benefit of retrospection or hindsight. Mary Robison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Frederick Barthelme have focused upon Minimalist concerns for the near-at-hand, the domestic, the unexceptional, the unpretentious. Barthelme has become an apologist of sorts for the genre. Other writers frequently associated with Minimalism—Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel—are surely more various, inventive, and Iyric than the inadequate term Minimalism suggests. Certainly it is possible to see Carver and Ford as descendants of Ernest Hemingway, whose essentially romantic imagination was so brilliantly served by a seemingly "flat" colloquial prose.

Of new and emerging writers whose names are less known, several would appear to be genuinely gifted, and their early accomplishments are more than routinely "promising." These are Pete Dexter, Carolyn Chute, Mary McGarry Morris, and Pinckney Benedict.

Dexter, the author of two previous novels, has written one of the most powerful novels of recent years in Paris Trout, a remarkable portrait of a racist in the context of a largely unexamined racist society: the novel's setting is a small Georgia town after World War II. Carolyn Chute, the author of an acclaimed first novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, has written a considerably more accomplished, subtle second novel, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, set, like the first, in the mythical Egypt, Maine, in and around the homes (many of them house trailers) of people who live somewhere below the poverty line. But what life in them! what lyricism! what indefatigable human will! It is these men, women, and children who are the "used" parts of American society, but Chute's subtlety is such that the reader, and the reader alone, understands the tragedy of these lives; the plight of the disenfranchised in an increasingly developed country.

Mary McGarry Morris's surrealist Vanished, the first novel by this forty-five-year-old writer, is also set somewhere below the poverty line, in rural New England; its plot is both bizarre and strangely plausible, but its great accomplishment is the creation, from within, of the consciousness of a mildly retarded man who is both victim of and participant in a tragic episode of the sort one might find described in a tabloid newspaper. Pinckney Benedict's first book, a collection of short stories titled Town Smokes, published when the author was in his early twenties, attests to this young writer's precocious—but not merely precocious—gift for narrative fiction. Set for the most part in rural West Virginia, the stories are told in a poetically vernacular idiom—a seemingly effortless music of a kind, melodic to the ear, however disturbing its content.

Perhaps it is significant that these four remarkable writers have taken for their subjects the lives of apparently marginal Americans; that they are assuredly not Minimalists in style or vision; that each is skilled in matters of technique—voice, tone, prose texture, dramatic pacing, structure; that each is obliquely akin to, though not in the shadow of, our greatest "regionalist" William Faulkner; that they are, for all the melodrama and sorrow of their fictions, clearly idealistic, in the mainstream of the American literary tradition.

Indeed, for all the pessimism with which many serious contemporary writers have been charged, it seems self-evident that literature as a vocation, as a life's calling, is invariably an idealistic, even an optimistic enterprise. Some of us write with the hope, admittedly quixotic, of changing the world: yet is not the alteration of a single reader's consciousness, however subtly, an act toward changing the world? To work with the ever-shifting and ever-elusive properties of language is infinitely challenging, and infinitely rewarding. But beyond what one might call the artist's exultation in his or her craft, we have faith that writing is a form of sympathy. Being mimetic, thus bodiless, consisting solely of language, writing demands no displacement or intrusion in the world; it is itself— yet so much more.