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I. The Sociology of LiteratureRobert Escarpit


II. The Psychology of LiteratureHarold G. McCurdy


III. Political FictionJames C. Davies



The sociological approach to literature is by no means an easy one. Like religion, sex, and art, literature is protected by taboos both numerous and powerful. To the cultured mind the study of the writer as a professional man, of the literary work as a means of communication, and of the reader as a consumer of cultural goods is vaguely sacrilegious.

Such a revulsion is all the more surprising, as the concept of literature first appeared to describe a sociocultural fact, not an aesthetic one. In Tertullian’s Latin, as well as in eighteenth-century English or French, the word “literature” meant the distinctive culture of those who belonged to the social stratum of the litterati, “well-read people.” It meant practically nothing else in Dr. Johnson’s time and was still sporadically used in that sense as late as the end of the nineteenth century, notably by Sainte-Beuve and William Dean Howells.

Even when the Germans—particularly Lessing —evolved from their analysis of the written products of the human mind the objective notion of Literatur as the art of expressing one’s thoughts in writing, on the one hand, and as the whole of the works thus produced and published in a definite community, on the other, they never separated the literary phenomenon from its social environment in time or space. For the group which gravitated around the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel and their pupil Madame de Stael, literature was, in fact as in value, strongly linked to, and even determined by, the two factors of Zeitgeist, “the spirit of the time/” and Volksgeist, “the national spirit.” Madame de Stael was among the first to use the French word litterature in the new sense, in her book De la litterature consideree dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800).

Such a clearly stated doctrine, which ultimately elicited Taine’s positivist criticism, also stirred up a romantic reaction whose spokesmen individualized and even divinized what came to be called literary creation, while ignoring or denying the collective aspects of the literary phenomenon. Late romanticism established the still current notion of the divine solitude of the writer in the act of “creating.” Alfred de Vigny was the prototype of the poet, throwing his poems into the anonymous crowd like a shipwrecked sailor entrusting a bottle carrying his message to the shoreless sea, or escaping the bondage of society by self-destruction.

In fact, social consciousness and a sense of solitude often coexisted in the literary attitude of the nineteenth century, but the contradiction between them was not obvious to the romantics, some of the greatest of whom—such as Byron and Hugo—were keenly aware of their moral solitude yet never ignored the strong ties which united them with society. Nevertheless, literary criticism more and more shifted its emphasis from a collective to an individual outlook. Carlyle, in 1840, did stress the effects of literary reputation on a writer, but his representation of the man of letters as a hero can be considered the turning point of the movement from presociological to psychological criticism. Although William Hazlitt, in the 1820s, tried to recapture the “spirit” of the great literary ages, Sainte-Beuve and after him Matthew Arnold, in the second half of the nineteenth century, strove to reconstruct the personality of writers as perceived through their works.

Meanwhile, in Germany the new science of philology had awakened an interest in form and style which eventually opened a new approach to literature through the aesthetic analysis of the work of art. In the early twentieth century, Wilhelm Dilthey concretized this tendency into a doctrine which gave birth to a strong antisociological current which reigned almost unchallenged in many countries under the various shapes of formalism,Stilforschung, and aesthetic structuralism. France, however, remained steadfastly committed to the historical positivism of Taine.

Early attempts

Sociology long avoided the difficult job of analyzing literature. When sociologists—most of them with a philosophical, not a literary turn of mind— touched on the subject, they included it in the wider categories of art, leisure, or communication, thus ignoring the specific characteristics of literature. Even Marx and Engels were extremely prudent in their handling of literary problems. Plekhanov, who was the first to offer a Marxist and a sociological theory of art (1899), did not treat literature satisfactorily.

There was a sociological tradition in Russian literary criticism. It was handed down from Belinski, a contemporary of Carlyle, through Pisarev, a contemporary of Taine, to the antiformalist critics of the Soviet era. But this “civic criticism,” as it was called, merely rested on the assumption that a book must be judged by its revolutionary efficacy and by the degree of fidelity with which it represented historical reality. Most Marxists nowadays think this view much too simplistic to account for the complex nature of the literary phenomenon.

A true sociology of literature appeared only when literary critics and historians, starting from literature as a specific reality, tried to answer sociological questions by using current sociological methods. The difficulty was to formulate the questions. By the time an interest in sociology was awakened among literary specialists the habit had been formed of working on the writer as an individual or on the literary work as an isolated phenomenon but seldom on their relationship to the reading public.

As early as 1931 the German L. L. Schiicking had tried to give an outline of a sociology of literary taste, but his attempt found little response. On the other hand, when the Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs, after his conversion to a rather personal brand of Marxism, tried to base a method of critical analysis on a parallelism between the aesthetic patterns of the work of art and the contemporary economic structures of society, he certainly initiated a new type of sociological investigation in literary criticism (1961). The Lukacsian sociology of literature is widely followed in eastern and western Europe, particularly in France, where Lucien Goldmann may be said to have brought it to a high point of effectiveness (1950; 1964). It opened wide and numerous vistas on the social nature of literature, and no further studies on the subject can ignore it. Yet, although Lukacs and his followers take into account society as the reality behind the appearances of literature, they still consider the work of art as an end in itself and neglect the part of the reader in literary communication. Indeed, they as much as ignore the very notion of literary communication.

Literary communication

Early sociological investigation in literature was stalemated by the antinomy between the ontological and phenomenological conceptions of literary criticism. Only when existentialism threw a new light on things was it possible to achieve a break-through. In that respect Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay What Is Literature? (1948) may be considered a landmark. Sartre’s idea, ostensibly very simple, was that the literary work—that is, the written product of the mind—only exists as such when it is read, since writing without reading is nonsense. An unread book is nothing but a handful of soiled paper. From this premise the inference is that the literary phenomenon cannot be the work of art itself, but rather the meeting and sometimes the clashing of two free acts, one of production and the other of consumption, with all their effects and side effects on moral and social relations. There is always another man in literature: a writer for a reader and a reader for a writer.

In fact, no fully satisfactory result may be obtained in investigating literature with sociological methods if one does not start from a clear idea of what in literary phenomena is fundamentally social.

There is danger in submitting the written product of the mind to purely aesthetic criteria. Although literature is an art, it is an impure one precisely because its main tools are language and writing. Whatever the aesthetic merits of a book may be, the sole fact that it is made up of words and letters—that is, of conventional symbols understood only in a given community, loaded with a semantic content and organized according to syn-tactic rules valid only for a definite body of population—provides it with an intellectual link to its society which far surpasses in strength if not in scope the links created by the purely sensuous, so-called language of art. The very nature of artistic values is thus inseparable from their actual or potential perception by a public. Instead of limiting the literary phenomenon to the isolated literary work, one should view it as an exchange between a writer and a reader through the medium of a book. Here again we find the familiar pattern of communication. But this pattern alone is insufficient for the needed sociological investigation.

As an instrument of communication the book does not work in a linear fashion. It does not go from one individual to another like a letter. The book appeared in the first millennium B.C., when new materials were found which were light enough to be carried about and smooth enough to allow quick and easy copying. However it is manufactured, a book is always defined by its two specific functions: multiplication and spatial dissemination of the written word. Although in some exceptional cases a book may have had only one reader, the mere fact that it was a book gave it an unlimited potential public. The writer may or may not imagine that public, which in turn may or may not be conscious of its own existence. We already know that the original notion of litteratura appeared in ancient Rome as a social characteristic when a highly educated reading public concentrated in a small area formed a community big enough to allow group consciousness. It fell into disuse at the beginning of the nineteenth century when many widely dispersed readers in all strata of society were unable to take stock of themselves as a community.

The literary milieu

Even in mass society the litterati of each ethnic, national, or social community still retain their group consciousness. Whether it is a motley and fast-changing monde litteraire as in France, a bright and sophisticated elite as in the United States, a pauperized intellectual aristocracy as in Spain, or a tight-knit union of writers or academy as in socialist countries, there is always a literary milieu in which ideas are exchanged, judgments passed, and values discussed.

The existence of such a milieu, the breeding ground of literary opinion, is and always has been inseparable from the very fact of literature. Other milieus are, of course, also touched by the literary work, but only the literary milieu has at its disposal the mental and verbal equipment, as well as the means of communication and expression, indispensable for fruitful and articulate intercourse.

In most cases the writer, who is also a reader, belongs to the literary milieu and takes part in the exchange of ideas and judgments. Even in the few cases when he lives apart from the literary world or belongs to an altogether different social set, he cannot escape being aware of the response of the literary milieu to his works and being influenced by it. Few writers are able to refrain from reading the reviews of their books, and those who do cannot ignore the reactions of their publishers, who in their turn are affected by literary opinion.

We are thus led to conceive of literature as a two-way communication in which an original message is broadcast by the writer to a community of readers, whose response to him takes the shape of thoughts, words, acts, and other messages, which react on one another and on the writer himself.

The pattern is made still more complicated by the fact that in normal circumstances many such messages are passed simultaneously to and fro and interfere with one another, while unsuspected readers or communities of readers beyond the social, educational, linguistic, or national borders may catch the message and unexpectedly add their own distortions to the jumble.

Last but not least, the literary milieu being part of a broader society and the writer being also a citizen, the whole network of literary intercourse is subject to all the conditions imposed by social life. In fact the amplitude, the significance, the richness—in short, the human worth—of literature depends to a large extent on the place occupied by the literary milieu and consequently by the writers in the society concerned, on their awareness of their situation, and on the assumption of the responsibilities implied by it. It was such a consideration which led Jean-Paul Sartre to make engagement the basis of all literary values.

Literary recognition and opinion

Since the writer exists as such only in the eyes of a reading community, the first problem to solve is that of recognition—that is, who is considered to be a writer by the reading public. The problem is easily understood from the following figures. If we count the names of all the writers retained by the historical memory of a given nation—that is, the writers mentioned in the histories of literature, the encyclopedias, the school or university curricula, the academic theses, the erudite articles published in specialized reviews, the papers read in symposia and congresses—we find that they represent about 1 per cent of the number who actually wrote and published literary books. (For example, in France between 1500 and 1900 about 1,000 out of 100,000 were remembered).

The severity of this elimination has been confirmed by the American psychologist Harvey C. Lehman, who conducted a poll among educated circles in the United States to find out which were the books of recognized importance. Out of the 733 “best books” by 488 authors named, Lehman found 337 books by 203 deceased authors and 396 books by 285 living authors (Lehman 1937). Many similar experiments have been conducted, and they all point to the fact that the historical image of literature in a given community includes a roughly equal number of contemporary and past writers. This means that the production of the more than 30 years which may be considered contemporary balances what remains of the production of several centuries. Furthermore, according to the findings of the Centre de Sociologie des Faits Litteraires in Bordeaux, France, 90 per cent of the books are eliminated after 1 year and 99 per cent after 20 years. Similar conclusions may be reached through a study of reprints (Schulz [1952] 1960, pp. 104-105).

How, by whom, and according to what criteria is the selection made? A certain amount of contemporary literary recognition is of course necessary. In spite of persistent legends, no book was ever reclaimed after total failure at its first appearance. Yet, immediate success is by no means a guarantee of survival. A best seller may be forgotten within a year and a low-sale book remembered for centuries. The picture of a given literature revealed by the contemporary comments of past critics is quite different from the historical picture later presented at school; all students of literature have been told time and again of the instances of “bad taste” displayed by their forefathers.

Education plays an important part in the selection. For example, a survey of French army recruits (Institut. .. 1966) showed that the type of education determines the choice of “noteworthy” authors. French elementary education, with its republican and rationalistic traditions, strongly stresses the eighteenth century, while high school education, with its more bourgeois and conservative leanings, gives the seventeenth century a predominant position. In all cases the number of contemporary and past writers is fairly equal. However, the choices of the recruits with a low educational level were largely stereotyped: their choice of past authors reflected school memories; their choice of present authors bore the stamp of modern mass media. In contrast the choices of the university students were widely differentiated. Moreover, the higher the level of education, the narrower the chronological gap between past and contemporary authors. While in the case of nearly illiterate recruits there may be a “no man’s land” of fifty years between the last of the deceased and the first of the living authors, in the case of highly educated recruits there is no gap, but rather a continuously increasing number of choices.

The opinion-leading group is not simply defined by education and social status; age is also important. Lehman (1945) showed that 40 is a critical age for the literary survival of a writer: works published after a writer reaches 40 are more easily forgotten than those published before. The reason is that most writers are recognized as such between the ages of 20 and 30 by readers belonging to a similar age group. This is the average recognition age for novelists. It may come earlier for lyric poets, and it always comes later for philosophers, a fact which leads to the delusion that poets are short-lived and philosophers hard to kill. In any case a writer seldom changes the clientele which ensured his initial success. The age group which first recognized him carries him along his career and offers him a support in literary opinion until shortly after the group reaches 40, and its influence is superseded by that of younger and more numerous readers. Therefore, about fifteen years after recognition all writers have an appointment with oblivion unless, as sometimes happens, they are taken up by the new opinion leaders and start a career afresh.

Another element which determines the composition of the opinion-leading group is the existence of social and political structures that limit literary exchange. Social stratification is a permanent structure of this type. A society in which the bulk of production is regulated by the demands of a moneyed minority is characterized by a very narrow opinion-leading group, which imposes its taste in wholesale fashion on the masses. The phenomenon is less perceptible in literature than in haute couture or in gastronomy, for instance, because reading is a more serious occupation than designing clothing or preparing food and the hold of the higher classes on it is less strong. But the moneyed minority delegates its powers to the hybrid stratum of the intellectuals who in fact belong to the working class but live—at least culturally—on the same level as the wealthy.

Class structure and political structure are, of course, strongly linked to one another, and the state imposes even more demanding limits on literary exchange than does the stratification system. A calculation based on the average age of writers in France (Escarpit 1965, pp. 27-29) shows that the rhythm of the literary generations (Peyre 1948) is determined by the succession of the various regimes in that country. Great reigns like that of Louis xiv in France or Elizabeth i or Victoria in Great Britain and new political eras like those which began in 1792 for France, in 1865 for the United States, and in 1871 for Germany are always marked by the establishment of a powerful and comparatively young (25 to 35) team of writers. This team expresses the national literature and blocks the way to fresh recognitions until it in turn is eliminated by age or by a new historical change.

Political influence is also exerted through the existence of national borders, which partition literary life by erecting various obstacles to the free flow of books. However, a customs barrier, although its role must not be minimized, seems nowadays to be one of the least insurmountable obstacles. Furthermore, national markets tend to expand, and some countries like the Netherlands have a foreign book market quite disproportionate to their actual literary production: in 1961 it was equal to that of France or West Germany. Yet even internationally we find an opinion-leading minority based on economic power. The United Kingdom and the United States, with their huge industrial and financial machines and their almost universal language, account for nearly two-thirds of the Western book market. On the other hand, they import few books and translate still fewer, being practically self-sufficient (Escarpit 1965).

For most other countries language is a more effective barrier than customs. The 1,200 million potential readers in the world (probably no more than 200 to 300 million of whom are habitual readers) are distributed in more than a hundred linguistic enclosures. Yet five languages (English, Russian, Spanish, German, and French) account for 75 per cent of the world book production and 40 per cent of the readers. All the other language units suffer either from a scarcity of readers or from a scarcity of writers (the case of Communist China is passed over for want of verified data). Translation in its present form and organization is not adequate to remedy this disparity, since much fewer than 10 per cent of the books published in the world are translated into another language and nearly 75 per cent of these come from English, Russian, French, and German.

In sum, the minority responsible for the literary recognition of writers and for the elaboration of literary opinion can be defined as the university-educated intellectuals belonging to the influential circles (moneyed class, “upper crust,” high political or technical strata) of the five highly developed economic powers with an important mass of population and a widely spread language: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Germany, and France—a bare ten or fifteen million people.

Literature in mass civilization

The above may seem a pessimistic view and a difficult one to reconcile with contemporary mass culture.

The problem is not really new even if its dimensions are. Several times in the history of written culture the book, as well as the literature it spread, went through sudden mutations, under the pressure of fresh masses of readers. With the spread of Christian culture, the book evolved from the connoisseurs’volumen of ancient Rome to the easily handled codex; then to the hand-printed book when a comparatively well-educated urban upper class enjoyed enough leisure to afford the already flourishing bookseller a commercially workable field; then to the machine-printed hardbound volume of the nineteenth century, when the triumph of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the capitalist system allowed the creation of an actual market for cultural productions; and finally, in our own time, to the paperback.

The scale of readership changed from the hundred to the thousand, from the hundred thousand to the million. But the change was qualitative as well as quantitative. At each stage, the form of the book met the specific demand of the leading minority and was conceived for one definite type of literature. All the rest—that is, the actual cultural material consumed by the masses of people— was considered as despicable subliterature until the pressure of social changes brought about a shift in the opinion-leading group. This shift was both cause and effect of each technical mutation of the book and led to total revisions of literary values.

In the eyes of the Latin-reading clerk of the Middle Ages the chivalric tales written in the vulgar Romance language (hence the word “romance”) were frivolous and meaningless subliterature, but those tales were transformed into legitimate, even noble, literature when printing shifted the responsibility of literary opinion to the urban upper class. The same happened to the novel; despised as “female reading” at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it became the absolute sovereign of literature in the nineteenth, when mechanized printing allowed editions of 100,000 copies for the triumphant middle class, as against the average 2,000 or 3,000 copies of the previous century.

Marginal reading material for the consumption of the masses has always existed side by side with official literature. Long made up of broadsheets, almanacs, and chapbooks disseminated by itinerant storytellers and hawkers, it now takes the shape of illustrated magazines, comics, and photonovels. This literature must not be underestimated, since great works originate in it when it is accepted by the officialdom of a new literary milieu, but it lacks the essential of literary communication: the feedback from the reader to the writer through the medium of the literary milieu.

This feedback is normally ensured not only by the diffuse crosscurrents existing in the literary milieu but by a network of specific institutions, among which literary criticism and book selling are predominant.

There is no such thing as literary criticism for popular literature like comics now or chapbooks in past centuries. Even when the popular paperbacks are devoted to the publication of recognized works the professional critics hesitate to review them, a fact often lamented by publishers. The literary critic serves less as a guide than as a voice of the cultured public’s taste. He is, so to speak, a sample of the literary milieu. His judgments may reflect a great variety of aesthetic, political, or religious opinions, but they all bear testimony to a particular culture and way of life.

In the case of the bookseller one must distinguish the real bookshops, characterized by an autonomous commercial policy based principally on the sale of books, from the mere book outlets, exercising little or no responsibility in the choice of literary goods offered for sale. These outlets may range from newspaper stands to specialized departments in general or chain stores or even huge “book cafeterias.”

The part played by the true bookseller in literary communication is an important one. He has to make a responsible choice from the overwhelming literary production. The wrong choices could dangerously burden his stock and clutter up his window, since after one year 90 per cent of what is produced is unsalable. The choices he makes for his stock are influenced by his current sales to all kinds of occasional customers, but those he makes for his window reflect the cultural image that his opinion-leading clientele has of itself. The greater the discrepancy between the composition of the stock and the contents of the window, the higher the efficiency of the bookseller as an intermediary in literary communication, but the narrower his field of influence (Escarpit … Robine 1963).

At ordinary points of sale there is practically no difference between the stock and the window, and the salesman transmits no response from the people who buy reading material in his shop. Such is the case in most places where books are sold. Surveys on the topography of book distribution show that bookshops selling quality books in a responsible way are concentrated in districts of the cities which are rarely visited by working people, at least during business hours.

A commercial policy in the majority of sales points cannot therefore be based on an awareness of the readers’ reactions. Books are sold like any other industrial product. Their contents, as well as their presentations, are elaborated according to proved specifications—some of them age-old— simply enhanced or glamorized by modern techniques. Analysis shows that the difference between the almanacs of past centuries and contemporary magazines lies mainly in language, paper, printing, color, and advertising; the contents—a mixture of horoscopes, amusements, sentimental stories, and recipes—are practically unchanged.

The publisher of mass-circulation books is thus confronted with a difficult problem. “Creative” publishing demands that he make numerous and necessarily hazardous experiments, offering the output of new talents to a responsive public. Yet he must, in view of the substantial capital involved, reduce the risks of his operation either by limiting the experimental field to the cultured elite or by abandoning the idea of “creative” publishing and strictly programming his production ’that is, making it conform to the functional needs of a pre-selected mass market.

The latter solution leads to the exclusive publication either of semitechnical works like cookbooks and “do-it-yourself” manuals or of stereotyped reading matter ranging from the lowest kind of subliterature—comics, photonovels—to mechanically produced biographies and historical novels based on standard popular themes.

The former solution may seem more constructive, but it has a twofold drawback. The stock of time-proved classics to be reprinted is not inexhaustible—a few thousand at most—and the supply of contemporary best sellers that can be successfully tried out in the cultured network is very limited. Furthermore, these best sellers have been recognized as such by a public socially and culturally different from the mass public, and this leads to an imposition of literary values from without; a situation quite contrary to a real literary exchange. Such a “bestowed” literature is doomed either to intellectual sclerosis or to the paralyzing conventionality of officialdom.

The mass-distribution book (paperback,livre de poche, Taschenbuch, etc.) affords the technical means of a fresh mutation of the book as a means of cultural communication. Based on a combination of mass production and industrial design, it makes possible a substantial reduction of price, combined with a convenient size, a pleasant appearance, and quality contents. The principle was first successfully applied by Allen Lane when, in 1935, he founded the British Penguin series. During World War II the need to supply the widely scattered Allied forces with handy and cheap reading material accelerated the diffusion of the paper-back, which by 1950 had spread all over the world, upsetting the traditional patterns of publishing. In the United States the revolution was particularly spectacular. In the 1940s a sale of over 100,000 copies for a single title was considered exceptional, while twenty years later several paperbacks sold well over a million copies a year.

Yet the paperback is nothing but a tool. It cannot solve all problems, and indeed it may raise some fresh ones. As a tool, it is useless and might even become dangerous unless attention is paid to the reactions and needs of the reading public.

The sociology of reading

No sociology of literature is therefore possible without a sociology of reading and of cultural consumption in general. Much has been done in that direction since Schiicking’s pioneer work on the sociology of literary taste. Such men as R. D. Altick (1957) opened the way to a historical field of investigation which is now widely explored. On the other hand, methods for the study of reading, in vivo so to speak, were borrowed from economics by P. Meyer-Dohm (1957) and from the sociology of leisure by J. Dumazedier and J. Hassenforder (1963).

Although the consumption of drama is quite different from that of the book, John Lough’s studies of early theater audiences (1957) and J. Duvignaud’s later and more complete work (1965) are also relevant to the sociology of reading.

The main obstacle to a sociology of reading is that, unlike a theater audience, a reading public is not easily defined. One must not mistake the various social circles concerned about literary work for the mass of actual readers, whose size, composition, coherence, and group consciousness vary with each book.

Any writer, consciously or not, addresses prospective readers when he writes; any publisher directs his publication toward an expected public when he plans the manufacture and distribution of the volume; both the writer and the publisher more or less belong to a milieu of possible readers. Each of those publics plays an essential part in the birth and life of the literary work, although few or none of its members may ever read it. There are, of course, instances of books written for a hundred readers and published in a comparatively narrow milieu of a few thousand persons but ultimately read by millions; however, the opposite case is much more common.

The cases of books reaching unexpected and even unsuspected publics beyond social, national, linguistic, or temporal barriers are becoming more numerous. Of course there must always be an environment of contemporary readers to accept a book at the outset, but even though the existence of such an environment is indispensable, its size and composition may have nothing to do with those of the wider or later groups which will ultimately ensure the success of the book. Indeed, in most cases the later success of a book is due to causes quite foreign to those of the initial success. While the set of readers which was first responsible for the literary recognition of the work shared the historical and cultural experiences of the writer, spoke the same language, and thought according to similar patterns, groups which have no direct contact with the writer’s world have no other recourse than to substitute their own keys for the original ones in order to decode the text which is handed down to them.

In fact, reading any work outside the immediate social or historical vicinity of the writer—and a fortiori reading it in translation—implies a betrayal of the writer’s intentions, since absolute fidelity would imply a complete reconstruction of the writer’s psychological and social environment, a condition which may be partly and painstakingly fulfilled by scholars, but which is in no way compatible with current literary reading.

We must then admit that a literary work, insofar as it survives its time, is permanently reinterpreted and redigested by various groups of readers. Those synchronic or diachronic layers of meaning which are added to it together form its true historical personality. The literary death of a book occurs when no further interpretation or misinterpretation of it can be given. We are thus led to consider “creative treason” as one of the main keys to the literary phenomenon (Escarpit 1961). By “creative treason” we mean an unconscious or de-liberate misconstruction of the author’s actual intentions when he wrote the book. This reinterpretation may bring out a latent significance of the work of which the author himself may not have been aware or add an unsuspected meaning that can even replace the original one. The most typical examples are Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which were originally intended as serious works, with a philosophical message, and are now widely read as children’s books.

Obviously many books which had a tremendous but short-lived and localized success were never “betrayed” and died soon. Others, in contrast, starting from a comparatively narrow acceptance, continued for centuries to call up wider, deeper, and stronger responses. The question may be raised whether the likelihood of being betrayed is due to some specific quality of the work and not the audience. Such a surmise is quite plausible and points to one of the ways in which the sociology of literature might help to found a system of literary values.

Such an objective is still beyond our grasp. We can for the time being only strive toward it along three lines of investigation. The first consists in studying the material conditions of reading so that its place in everyday life is clearly defined. According to the periods considered this may be done by historians or by sociologists. Applied to our time such a study may reveal the relationship of reading to the various forms of mass communication and cultural consumption like cinema, radio, television, records, etc. Another approach, mainly psychological or sociopsychological, tends to identify the various motivations and attitudes of readers according to sex, age, occupation, educational level, social class, IQ, etc. Typical patterns of behavior may thus be traced and linked to the factors that influence them. The third approach is through the study of the language of literary appreciation. A project for an international dictionary of literary terms was begun in 1962 by the International Comparative Literature Association. An effort is also being made—particularly in Bordeaux—to investigate the aesthetic vocabulary used by readers of the working class, in order to grasp the mechanism of literary appreciation among readers whose literary opinion is seldom voiced.

The aims and applications of the sociology of literature thus become clearer. Applied to past periods it may help to evolve a new type of historical criticism more directly linked to economic and social history than traditional formal criticism has been. Sociological criticism will never reveal the intimate nature of literary “creation” or supply a universal and eternal criterion of “beauty,” but in spite of often stated ambitions, no criticism of any kind ever did or ever will.

More important still, the sociology of literature applied to contemporary problems may, on the one hand, help the persons or agencies responsible for book policy in the various regions of the world to take stock of the new problems raised by mass civilization and may, on the other hand, help the hitherto ignored masses of readers to gain aesthetic consciousness and claim their part of mankind’s cultural heritage. It may ruffle a number of connoisseurs, comfortable in their minority culture, who would prefer to ignore what happens beyond their narrow intellectual circle. It may disturb more seriously and even revolt a number of writers who never wondered whence and whither the wind that blows through them. But no true lover of culture— reader, critic, or writer—will suffer, in the long run, from a clear-sighted awareness of social realities.

Robert Escarpit

[see alsoCommunication, Mass; Creativity; Drama; Intellectuals; Interaction,article onDramatism; Social science fiction; and the biography ofLukacs. A guide to other relevant material may be found under ART.]


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Lehman, Harvey C. 1945 “Intellectual” Versus “Physical” Peak Performance: The Age Factor.Scientific Monthly 61:127–137.

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LUKÁCS, GYÖRGY 1961 Schriften zur Literatursoziologie. Edited by Peter Ludz. Berlin: Luchterhand.

Meyer-dohm, Peter 1957 Der westdeutsche Biichermarkt. Stuttgart: Fischer.

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The psychology of literature is an emerging, rather than an established, discipline. We can distinguish three aspects or stages in its development, although these are not sharply defined. First is the insertion of psychological questions and theories into the predominantly aesthetic or historical writing of students of literature. Second is the writing of psychologists who seek to explain and interpret literary works by means of theories and techniques developed in other contexts. Third is the psychological analysis of literature by those who try to adjust their method to the peculiar nature of the subject matter and who hope to make discoveries rather than to impose stock explanations. The present article, inevitably narrow in scope, will be organized loosely around these categories in an effort to sample the writings of the contemporary period.

As one of the most distinctive of human activities, literature would seem to be a natural focus of psychological inquiry. How it is produced, how it affects those who enjoy it, what it reveals concerning the author and his society—these are questions that have occupied major thinkers from early times. Psychology of literature is referred to in standard works on literary criticism, and a recent bibliography of the field lists thousands of relevant titles (Kiell 1963). Yet textbooks of psychology rarely mention either literature or psychology of literature. The paradox is partly explained by the positivistic restrictions of psychology and partly by the elusiveness of literature when approached by science.

Nature of literature

Some conception of literature necessarily precedes scientific study of it. Permanent material documents do exist that can be called repositories of literature, but these docu- ments are simply a modern device for bringing author and reader together in the literary transaction. At an earlier time, essentially the same transaction took place by oral means, aided by gestures and pantomime and often by instrumental music, and nothing was stored in documents. Human memory and capacity for improvisation sufficed. The modern reader is a step removed from the early pantomime, but only a step. He can still turn the written words into spoken ones, and, if he is artistically sensitive, he is likely to do so. He can also, to some extent, experience the various kinds of imagery intended by the words, and, through the sound and imagery and temporal structure of the composition, participate in moods, attitudes, and values that may have acted as initiating and sustaining forces for the author. According to this view, literature is a process of expression by an author which induces a corresponding process of reception in a reader. The process in the reader is not necessarily equivalent to the process in the author, but it is such as to bind him to the author. Literature exists in that union. The author can, of course, be his own reader. This circular transaction, however, is typically not enough; the impulse of authorship moves toward communication.

Imperfect as this characterization of literature is, a scientific approach must be regulated by some such reflections; and since it appears that the literary process requires the scientific observer to be an intimate part of what he observes, it is evident that the methodological problem is grave.

Psychology in general discourse

The bulk of literary criticism falls in the first of the three categories mentioned above. Much of it does not pretend to be psychological. Some of it, however, consciously employs psychological language and theory to dress up, supplement, or govern the critical discussion. Rare are those works that are deeply imbued with psychology and are still, in the main, appreciative. An example is Bodkin–s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934). Exploring literature from a Jungian base, this book seeks to locate the meeting ground of author and reader in the universal symbols of the collective unconscious. The theory is not merely decorative; it controls the analysis throughout, although it is in turn controlled by mature literary taste.

The creative process

Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu (1927), an examination of Coleridge’s vast reading as it contributed to the composition of his poetry, is more concerned with the author’s part. The thesis that Lowes favors is that the poetic imagination is a variant of ordinary imagination, depending on the accumulation of miscellaneous images, the mingling and transformation of these in “the deep well of unconscious cerebration” (Henry James), their recovery in consciousness at the prompting of some stimulus, and their utilization in expression. Lowes’s psychology is mainly British associationism. From Coleridge he draws such psychological phrases as “twilight realms of consciousness,” “state of nascent existence in the twilight of imagination and just on the vestibule of consciousness,” and “the streamy nature of associations, which thinking curbs and rudders.” To this source of insight Lowes adds introspections of his own on dream and fantasy, and he acknowledges from personal experience that literary erudition and subliminal associative activity are not enough to produce a masterpiece of poetry. He does not explain the needed additional factor, but he refers to it under the terms “vision” and “will.”

Lowes is not quite faithful to the author he admires. He reduces Coleridge’s fundamental distinction between imagination and fancy to a mere intensity difference in the imaginative energy and ignores the distinction between primary and secondary imagination. For Coleridge, imagination is creative and esemplastic, making and shaping into organic unity, while fancy can only join together mechanically what imagination supplies. Fancy is thus removed some distance from the living I AM, “of imagination all compact,” which stands at the source of all created things, whether universe (primary imagination) or poem (secondary). By the phrase “I AM” Coleridge designates the ultimate principle of God or the human soul. As the I AM of God creates th^ world, so the I AM of the human soul creates poetry. The poet’s creative activity, “This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist, / This beautiful and beauty-making power,” to use the words of his ode on “Dejection,” is essentially joy, the joy of the soul in its own life. Coleridge’s distinctions and the terms in which he makes them are the reaction of a poet to the inadequacy of Hartleian associationism for explaining poetry. In dwelling on association, Lowes, from Coleridge’s point of view, would be regressing. From our point of view, Lowes may be seen as moving toward the new “associationism” of Freud, who has equally little room for the Coleridgean I AM but must agree with him that association depends more on recurring similar states of feeling than on ideas (Richards 1934, p. 68 in 1960 edition).

Poetry and dream

In agreement with Coleridge and Freud on the importance of feeling is Prescott, whose The Poetic Mind (1922) is an expansion of his earlier essays on the connection between poetry and dream. Prescott’s agreement with Freud must not be over stressed. Like Freud he invokes the unconscious; distinguishes two modes of thought (practical and dreaming); closely identifies poetry with dream; emphasizes unfulfilled desire as the motive for both; makes use of the ideas of condensation, displacement, and projection; and otherwise shows an appreciation of Freudian principles. But, on the other hand, Prescott traces these principles to earlier sources, warns against the sterility of psychological science rigorously applied to literature, and takes particular exception to Freud’s basic assumption that there is a latent dream content behind the manifest dream. For Prescott both literature and dream are direct, not cryptogrammic, expressions of the mind. He specifically compares poetic creation to sexual generation or the divine genesis of the universe.

Especially in his chapter on the formation of imaginary characters Prescott emphasizes the power of the mind to create. Fictional characters are held to be autogenous objectifications of the mind’s tendencies. Although there are also exogenous characters, these exist in the literary composition because of their congruency with the author’s de* sires. Prescott’s emphasis has some relation to Coleridge’s theory of the primacy of the I AM. That is, Prescott regards poetic creation as more than the concatenation and blending of ideas, whether in the Hartleian or the Freudian style— which would be what Coleridge calls “fancy”; it involves the vital participation of a real being, even to the extent of passing on to fictional characters a portion of real life. Thus it can happen that “the author divides himself to form characters” (Prescott 1922, p. 201 in 1959 edition).

Author types

One of Prescott’s examples for the proposition that an author becomes divided into quasi-independent imaginary characters is the French dramatist Frangois de Curel, studied by Binet. Unfortunately, Prescott does not consider Binet’s later study of Paul Hervieu and his further reflections on this problem (Binet 1904).

Binet studied a number of contemporary authors by personal interview, including some formal testing, and by analysis of their lives and works. He attempted to sum up his impressions of the creative process by invoking two opposed mental forces, “imagination” and “critical function,” the former tending to embody itself in more or less autonomous personal beings, the latter tending to inhibit or suppress this process. He put authors in three classes with respect to the relative strength of these tendencies. There are those like de Curel, in whom the critical function is suspended during the period of creative activity and the imagination-produced characters use the writer as an amanuensis or sort of trance medium. There are those like Victorien Sardou, in whom the opposition between the two mental forces continues, but the critical function itself becomes one or more of the autonomous persons, participating in the dramatic dialogue with other persons more charged with the imaginative force. (Perhaps, to use a modern analogy, the case would be like that of a social psychologist serving as a “participant-observer” in some passionate social organization and using the opportunity to undermine the fully engaged members.) Finally, there are those like Hervieu, in whom the critical function remains in control so completely that the imaginary characters never achieve full autonomy, being themselves rather the puppets through which the voice of the master speaks. In all three types, however, according to Binet, the literary work reveals the personality of the producer.

Psychoanalytic explanation

As is evident from the preceding discussion, the psychoanalytic influence has been felt everywhere in the study of literature. A varied collection of essays showing this influence at its best has been edited by Phillips (1957). Yet, as the first shock of Freud’s innovations has worn off, it has become apparent that the general theory of an emotional, orectic, unconscious origin of literature was not new and that the distinctive psychoanalytic explanatory apparatus—the Oedipus complex, polymorphous-perverse infantile sexuality, the devious dream work—as employed in the interpretation of individual literary works and their authors has yielded dubious results. Long before Freud, Dowden was explicitly pursuing the aim of deducing Shakespeare’s personality from his dramas (1875). The psychoanalytic studies in this genre, in comparison, often seem less judicious. Probably the best is the Ernest Jones study, Hamlet and Oedipus (1949), which soberly develops the idea proposed by Freud that Hamlet and his creator could be explained by the Oedipus complex.

The seeming arbitrariness of psychoanalytic explanation stems from Freud’s theory of the dream (1900), and, by extension, of literature. The dream is supposed to be a coded message from the unconscious. The code consists of certain stereotyped, universal symbols, plus many individual symbols produced by very complex dreamwork. These individual symbols cannot be decoded accurately without the aid of the dreamer’s free associations. It is a technical fault that in the application of psycho-analysis to literature this theoretical point has often been overlooked, the author’s literary “dream” being decoded without benefit of the required associations. But there are other reasons for distrust. For one thing, the Freudian approach at times has an uncomfortable resemblance to the cryptographic approach of the Baconians searching through the plays of Shakespeare for hidden evidence that their candidate, Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam), was the real author.

A more general reason is that literature seems in its basic constitution the very opposite of a cryptogram. Authors on the whole strive to express, not to conceal. It is true, no doubt, that a great literary work is thick with meaning, layer upon layer, and that some layers are more sharply articulated than others; but authors are aware of this and welcome the depth of meaning, in exactly the spirit of an orator who is glad for his voice to take on tremors and intonations that do not seem to be called for by the logic of his argument or the matter-of-factness of his vocabulary. The richness and subtlety of a literary work may elude an ordinary reader, but it is doubtful that such deficiency in sensitivity is to be repaired by imputing conscious or unconscious concealment to the author.

These strictures are not meant to disparage the merit of psychoanalysis as a vivifying influence on the study of literature. Recognition of the depth of literature and its relevance to the concerns of the psychiatrist (and vice versa) cannot be regarded as mistaken. Furthermore, the expansion of outlook engendered by psychoanalysis holds much promise for the future. Too huge for consideration here, but an illustration of the promise, is Jung’s study of the Miller fantasies in Symbols of Transformation (1912).

Studies concerned with method

Imagery analysis

To those who value simple and sharable method, the pioneer work of Spurgeon in Shakespeare’s Imagery makes an instant appeal (1935). Definition of an image is difficult, but there can be practical agreement, she thinks, about these “word-pictures” in similes and metaphors, whether contained in a single word (as in “ripeness is all”) or spread over a considerable portion of a dramatic scene. Once collected, the images can be classified and counted for the sake of answering various kinds of questions. Thus, she demonstrates that Shakespeare–s imagery differs from Marlowe–s and Bacon–s; and she attempts to draw conclusions as to Shakespeare–s favorite haunts (for example, gardens), particular experiences (for example, noticing an eddy in the Avon below the eighteenth arch of the Old Clopton Bridge), and general character. Undoubtedly, at times she pushes inference too far. For example, from Shakespeare–s many references to blushing and other quick emotional changes in fair-skinned faces she concludes that his own face was fair-skinned and of a fresh color. It is questionable whether we have, or can have, principles that fully justify such an argument.

Armstrong has extended Spurgeon’s method to the study of image clusters in Shakespeare’s imagination (1946). For example, he finds that the images clustering around the goose symbol in many of the plays commonly refer to disease and penal restraint, and somewhat less commonly to music, bitterness, and seasoning. Several such image clusters are studied in detail. There seems to be no doubt that certain images tended to cohere in groups in the dramatist’s mind, so strongly indeed that the almost inevitable concatenation often results in surprising turns of thought. Armstrong presses his analysis into (1) hidden images and (2) submerged themes. By the first he means the unspoken image latent in a spoken one (as when reference to wax points to the legend of Icarus); by the second, the adumbration of an understory by the images used in telling the obvious one (as when the Hostess in Henry IV, Part II, charges Falstaff with unfaithfulness in terms suggesting the Passion of Christ and the betrayal by Judas). Here he touches on an aspect of method which can hardly be reduced to simple counting and cataloguing. The manifold allusiveness of literature makes for a “thickness” which contrasts with the “thinness” of scientific writing. It is this “thickness” which especially baffles the search for perfectly mechanical procedures. Although Armstrong is convincing at this deeper level of analysis, he does not prescribe the conditions that enable him to be. One condition is obviously possession of the right knowledge, for example, knowledge of the New Testament. Other conditions may be inherently less definable, such as that vague but real thing, literary sensitivity.

Armstrong attempts to state some of the organizing principles of Shakespeare’s thought and advances a general theory of imagination. With regard to Shakespeare, he infers that a primitive dualism of the warring opposites of life and death, love and hatred, governs the associations; that the extremely free, rapid, fluent associative activity leads to extraordinary combinations but without loss of organic unity; and that, although the surface of the dramas is relatively bare of religious reference, the depths are often permeated with imagery that gives religious quality to the whole. With regard to imagination in general, he accepts Freud’s scheme of unconscious energies working up from a primitive level through a preconscious censorship to produce conscious elements, but he wishes to add to this a reverse direction of work to explain literary creation. He argues that the creator, in directing his will toward a certain achievement, focuses consciousness on obscure points and thus induces processes below the threshold to respond with a solution. The mid-region of the Freudian preconscious censorship (a phrase that may suggest to strict Freudians a misunderstanding of Freud) becomes for Armstrong a region of selective subconscious association where liberating as well as restricting functions occur. His theory thus tries to overcome a one-sided emphasis on pathogenic defense, repression, and dis-guise, in order to accommodate the full, open, creative expressiveness of artistic imagination.

Analysis of plot and and character

Among American personality theorists, Murray has shown an unusual degree of interest in literature and has made a vital connection between literature and the clinic through his Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The TAT stimuli (pictures) are used to elicit stories, and these are analyzed as revealing the personality of the storyteller, particularly his unconscious complexes (Explorations. .. 1938, esp. pp. 530-545). In an admirably concise paper Murray has drawn the parallel between TAT stories and literary masterpieces, as he argues from evidence that authors are reflected in their productions (1943).[see PROJECTIVE METHODS,article OnThe Thematic Apperception Test.]

Murray reports that experience with numerous college student subjects in the Harvard psychological Clinic indicates that the personality revealed by analysis of major characters, repeated plots, etc., in TAT stories is consistent with what can be learned in other ways about an individual; for example, judges can successfully match autobiographies against corresponding TAT stories. He finds that TAT authors range from subjective egocentric to objective sociocentric, the former tending to identify consciously with their story heroes. His most definite examples of subjective egocentrism occurred most frequently among students majoring in English, but none of his TAT subjects exhibited the high degree of subjective egocentrism found in the literary geniuses Melville and Wolfe. From these facts it can be inferred that Melville and Wolfe must reveal themselves at least as fully as the students. Murray thinks that literary material can contain infantile complexes and Jungian archetypes but notes that such unconscious patternings have their support and fulfillment in objective realities. For example, he finds that the Ishmael or social outcast theme, prominent in Melville and Wolfe, is rooted simultaneously in an infantile sense of rejection by the mother (a complex), in the low status of the literary artist in our culture (a sociological fact), and in a long, continuous development of the rebel or Satan myth in the West (a historical fact). In his opinion, analysis of literary works has general validity for personality study, since objective sociocentric authors also reveal themselves as much as the others, although with less awareness.

McCurdy is another worker with a similar interest in analysis of literature as a mode of personality research, and in a series of papers on various authors and a book on Shakespeare (1953) he has attempted to refine method and reach theoretical conclusions. A brief summary of these studies may be found in his textbook on personality (1961, pp. 413-427). McCurdy is phenomenological in outlook, and he views personality as a changing structure of relations between a self and its objects, particularly person objects; or, in other words, as a dynamic social system constituting a personal world. He is therefore inclined to regard a literary work of imagination as a description of the author’s world, or at least a significant portion of it, and in analysis to concentrate on such obvious features as the characters and their interactions. To some extent, analysis of plot and character can be quantitative, and McCurdy has explored the possibilities. For example, in his study of the Bronte novels, he quantified the degree of resemblance between the characters by determining the amount of trait overlap in order to be more precise about types of characters and kinship lines between them. In the Shakespeare study, he arrived at weights to represent the relative importance of the characters by counting their speech lines and utilized these weights in several ways. One analysis led to the discovery that the average relative weights of characters within plays follow a simple exponential formula; and this result, which he also obtained for other authors, seems to point to a basic principle of personality organization. In spite of his interest in quantitative procedures, McCurdy would be the last to deny the validity of an impressionistic approach. In fact, he would insist that quantification must be kept subordinate to a nonmetrical understanding capable of grasping wholes, appreciating qualities, and judging values. His persistent hope has been that the study of personality through literature, while leaving room for quantitative and even experimental procedures, might encourage psychologists to recognize important realities that cannot easily be measured.

One can foresee an era of computer research in the psychology of literature, as quantitative methods are clarified and large-scale comparative studies are undertaken. The danger in such a stepping-up of quantification is that it may divert attention even more from the unquantifiable fundamentals of literature. That direction of development is relatively easy. What is harder and more essential is to keep near and draw nearer to the delicate, passionate, living processes of literary creation and exchange. If we could somehow bind our scientific energies to this far more difficult task, we might grow toward a richer form of knowing than hitherto achieved. In the meantime, we may at least take note of the great, apparently unremovable diversity of reader reaction to any given piece of literature (Richards 1929) and consider the problem which that poses for scientific consensus.

Harold G. Mccurdy

[see alsoAesthetics; Creativity; Dreams; Fantasy; Psychoanalysis.]


Armstrong, Edward A. (1946) 1963 Shakespeare’s Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press. Binet, Alfred 1904 La creation litteraire: Portrait psychologique de M. Paul Hervieu. L’annee psychologique 10:1-62.

Bodkin, Maud (1934) 1948 Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Dowden, Edward (1875) 1957 Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art. London: Routledge.

Explorations in Personality: A Clinical and Experimental Study of Fifty Men of College Age. By Henry A. Murray et al. 1938 London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1900) 1953 The Interpretation of Dreams. 2 vols. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Die Traumdeutung. Constitutes Volumes 4 and 5 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Science Editions.

Ghiselin, Brewster (editor) 1952 The Creative Process: A Symposium. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1955 by the New American Library.

Hyman, Stanley E. 1948 The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism. New York: Knopf. → A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Vintage Books.

Jones, Ernest 1949 Hamlet and Oedipus. London: Gollancz. → A paperback edition was published in 1954 by Doubleday.

Jung, Carl G. (1912) 1956 Collected Works. Volume 5: Symbols of Transformation: An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia. New York: Pantheon. → First published in German.

Kiell, Norman 1963 Psychoanalysis, Psychology, and Literature: A Bibliography. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Lowes, John L. 1927 The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. New York: Houghton Mifflin. → A revised paperback edition was published in 1964.

Mccurdy, Harold G. 1953 The Personality of Shakespeare: A Venture in Psychological Method. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Mccurdy, Harold G. 1961 The Personal World: An Introduction to the Study of Personality. New York: Harcourt.

Mauron, Charles (1950) 1963 Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Mallarme. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → First published in French.

Murray, Henry A. 1943 Personality and Creative Imagination. Pages 139–162 in English Institute,Annual: 1942. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. Phillips, William (editor) 1957 Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: Criterion.

Prescott, Frederick C. 1922 The Poetic Mind. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

RICHARDS, IVOR A. 1929 Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt. → A paperback edition was published in 1956.

Richards, I. A. (1934) 1962 Coleridge on Imagination. 3d ed. London: Routledge.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. (1935) 1961 Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What It Tells Us. Cambridge Univ. Press.


Politics has to do with the public exercise of power; political fiction, with the understanding and appraisal of those who are the subjects or objects of this exercise of power. Some writers of political fiction emphasize understanding, others appraisal. In the first case their work, if successful, approaches scientific theory in its insightful understanding of the dynamics of political power. In the second, mere appraisal without systematic understanding produces polemic or diatribe, which may nevertheless contribute expressively to understanding problems of power.

Fiction, political and nonpolitical

As the line between understanding and judging is often indistinct, so also is the line between fiction that is political and fiction that is not. Ever since political leaders first exercised power over the rest of society, writers have had the elite as subject matter–as Sophocles had in Antigone. Ever since ordinary citizens began to exercise overt power, notably during and after the Protestant Reformation and later the industrial revolution, writers have had the additional task of understanding and judging the public exercise of power by both elite and nonelite. This inherent, reciprocal, ancient relationship between the leader and the led, each as the subject and object of power, had not been clearly stated, let alone understood, before the modern activation of ordinary citizens. The infusion of psychological knowledge into culture, notably starting in the twentieth century with Freud, has made it possible to understand and judge political power with a penetration previously rare. Several bold, and a few successful, fictional efforts have been made in this direction. Some of the bolder and more successful ones are discussed below.

Even fiction that is political only by the vaguest of connections, allegorical or otherwise, has had enormous political impact. A very long and rambling Chinese novel, dating from the fifteenth century or before, Shut hu chuan (translated in 1933 by Pearl S. Buck under the title All Men Are Brothers), has among its themes brigandage, corruption of kings and princes, and the unending effort of valiant, lawless men to destroy the rich and powerful so that the poor and impotent might live in decency and justice. Even before the 1949 revolution a leading Chinese communist called this medieval novel the first communist writing, and it became a kind of guiding light for the revolutionary leaders during the decades before they got full power.

“Ward No. 6,” Anton Chekhov’s late-nineteenth-century short story about corruption and inefficiency in a lousy Russian hospital, had profound influence on Lenin, epitomizing for him one of the central justifications for the revolutionary drive for power. Comparable in their influence have been the eighteenth-century satires of Jonathan Swift (the most savage, perhaps, being his Modest Proposal for solving the population problem in Ireland by selling yearling Irish children to be served as a delicacy on the tables of English gentlemen) and the portrayals of social stench by Charles Dickens in his novels of poverty in Victorian England and by Victor Hugo in France. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s polemical novel on early-nineteenth-century slavery in the American South, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was itself a contributing cause of the American Civil War and almost a century later infused some animus into the African drive against colonialism following World War II.

Such polemical social fiction, however strong its influence on the climate of political opinion among elite and nonelite, does not, except by portraying the social context, contribute much to understanding or judging political power. By the same token, some ostensibly political fiction, such as Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn (1869), fimile Zola’s His Excellency (1876), Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (1956), Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent (1959), and Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone (1956), deals with rather peripheral aspects of power. João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1956), a Brazilian novel of back-land banditry, is curiously reminiscent of the Chinese All Men Are Brothers in its preoccupation with primitive moral courage and the search for some justice in a lawless society.

Such fiction indeed involves political issues like corruption, personal integrity, and courage. But it relates these only peripherally to more central issues involved in the exercise of power. Or it only scratches the surface in areas where Dostoevski, Koestler, Orwell, and Mann have excavated deeply. There are books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and politics in everything, but there is also a continuous running babble of political fiction that signifies next to nothing.

The public exercise of power involves man in his relations with the state’that is, his relations with the government and with the citizenry, the public. These relations always include contact between individuals. The contact between one individual and another involves not only appraisal and understanding of the other individual but also appraisal and understanding of oneself.

The protest against unlimited power

The age-old questions of right and wrong, justice, and choice still endure. In recent decades they have been raised anew, in searching analyses of the individual himself, as the agent who chooses between right and wrong, just and unjust. The age-old rote exhortation to exercise power virtuously has in twentieth-century fiction been succeeded by a maturing comprehension of the intimate relations of one individual with others and with himself. Modern writers have boldly explored paths opened by psychologists of both intuitive and empirical orientation and with such modern knowledge have in effect analyzed ancient Greek and Judaic statements of the problem of political power. In the groping exploration of the nineteenth century the Russian Dostoevski had the Grand Inquisitor say in Spanish Seville that mankind wanted bread rather than liberty—wanted to survive but cared not for freedom. In the mid-twentieth century has come the rather antithetical observation that man and society can be enslaved and destroyed only (as Orwell seems to have said) if man, the social animal, is reduced to the point where his survival depends on the grace of an omnipotent Big Brother. To Dostoevski’s assertion that men choose bread rather than liberty Orwell replies that this is so only in a tyranny and only when both are not available and choice is therefore impossible. As will be discussed, this thesis raises questions about the nature of man himelf.

Political fiction typically has been written in protest. It has originated not in abstract considerations of man’s nature but in concrete appraisal of his circumstances. The protest, more often than not, has been against the social and political status quo and has favored some kind of Utopia where the contemporary real and evil society and polity are replaced by the good. But with increasing frequency in the mid-twentieth century, the protest has radically criticized the good society envisioned by Utopians. It has extrapolated from current developments to their logical conclusion in the polity that ends politics, when the exercise of power is unlimited and controls every human act. Orwell in 1984 finds the origin of this trend in the development of techniques of power by corrupt civilization. With a far more devastating analysis (which he seems to have abandoned in later writing), William Golding in Lord of the Flies (1955) finds it in the human soul, released from the restraints of civilization. Orwell says man is socially corrupted; Golding, in this novel, proclaims that man is innately corrupt. Each book is logical; each is equally incredible in its holistic analysis of political action as the product exclusively of either the environment or the organism. Both 1984 and Lord of the Flies have, however, set the focus of attention on the human psyche, the point where determining forces, external and internal, do their work and where choice—if the forces are not altogether determining—is made. And, as will appear later, Golding and others have proffered an explanation that is neither strictly environmental nor strictly organic but both.

The economic class struggle

Most political fiction involves status distinctions between people—differences of superiority and inferiority. In one major tributary of writing the status relation arising from economic inequality dominates the appraisal of political power.

A prototype is Thomas More’s sixteenth-century Utopia (1516), a work of fiction that lacks two of the three classic ingredients of novels, plot and character, but expatiates on a setting that has since become a shibboleth. In Utopia the status distinctions of an England in transition from feudalism to an open society are eliminated in a classless egalitarianism where virtually everyone enjoys the simplest provision of goods. The few who enjoy a little more do so only in consequence of their feudal but acknowledged exercise of political power, which includes authority not only to maintain order and national defense but also to allocate work. To keep the citizens from becoming accustomed to killing, the slaughter of livestock is done by slaves. People are punished as readily for the intent to commit a crime as for its commission. There are few laws and treaties, men being bound together by love, not words.

Deeply troubled as More was by the misery produced when feudally common pasture lands were enclosed and anti-Catholicism was rampant, his future good society looks like a serene early Christian communism. And it employs supposedly popular coercive measures having the gray-brown drabness and uniformity of the totalitarian slave-labor camps that actually came into being in the twentieth century. The election of top princes by high officials, of high officials by lesser ones, and of lower officials by citizens voting in family units seems more like feudalism stood on its head than like representative democracy. Reacting against the atavism of his time (a breakdown of community and law that seems to occur in all societies in transition), More could propose only a reversion to humanized, equalized, coerced feudalism.

In Émile Zola’s Germinal (1885) the exploitation theme of More, deriving from English rural poverty, appears in a French industrial setting. The exploiters are not landowners enclosing once-common lands, thereby causing sheep to devour men (as More put it), but mine operators who work their miners to death. One part of the problem is the class system. The other part is the selfishness of man, whether bourgeois or proletarian. Zola abhorred the state of affairs in which the strong devour the weak, in which the lawless aim of each is to acquire power for himself, and in which the ability to love, sexually or otherwise, becomes a means of exploitation. Without resolving the issues of egoism, power, and love, Zola, in Marxist fashion, trusted the power of the proletariat to lay the basis for Utopia in the next century by an avenging destruction of the bourgeoisie.

Later novelists have likewise reacted to the class crisis after industrialization, and they have similarly described despair and longed for Utopia. The American nineteenth-century Populist Ignatius Donnelly in Caesar’s Column (1890) carried the injustices of class exploitation to a point, a hypothetical century later, when wealth and political power are joined in the same ruling elite. In The Iron Heel (1907), Jack London began the reign of plutocrats soon after the last free election, in 1912, and continued it for three centuries.

Donnelly’s solution, following a crisis that arouses the innocent but beastly urban mob, is for the good people to escape to Africa, where they set up their Utopia built on brotherly love and protected by a high wall that keeps the outside world out. London’s solution arises within man himself, in his reaction against degradation. And it emerges out of the most depressed and ignored class of menial laborers, the “people of the abyss,” who join forces with the kept class of skilled workers and with a few natural geniuses motivated by “sheer love of man.” Both Donnelly and London were Marxist in their critiques and Utopian in their solutions. But London precociously presented a dilemma that has persisted: the relation between unsophisticated, ordinary man and the cosmic superman whom he sees as necessary to salvation from political repression.

London’s striking work, like Zola’s, avoids a sentimental belief in the simple goodness of mankind and probes more deeply into the human psyche. London clarified the problem of power with a pre-science that portended Orwell. In The Iron Heel he envisioned new techniques for controlling the minds of the “masses,” including a bomb plot faked by the government. He asserted: “Power is not God, not Mammon, but Power.” And he had one of his plutocratic “oligarchs” say, “We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces” ([1907] 1958, p. 83). Some forty years later Orwell wrote, in 1984, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever” (1949, p. 268).

In Martin Eden (1908), London came closest to examining the mind and motivation of his idealized leaders, with their “sheer love of man.” In this book the ordinary citizen becomes less an object of sympathy than of pity, and the Nietzschean element in the leader becomes more explicit. London has Martin Eden, torn asunder by his love of both the downtrodden and the distinguished, reflect: “Perhaps Nietzsche had been right. Perhaps there was no truth in anything, no truth in truth—no such thing as truth.” Eden says, “I am a sick man. ... It is my soul, my brain. I seem to have lost all values. I care for nothing. ... It is too late now.” And he drowns himself at sea.

By comparison with his contemporaries London, however lost he was, was not lost in a fog. In The Octopus (1901), by Frank Norris, the destructive aspects of capitalism come into false focus. It is all a battle of the interests against the decent, hard-working, bravely risk-taking farmers. London was caught between Scylla and Charybdis and knew it. For his contemporaries, like Norris and Donnelly, power remained a murky mystery, and they wallowed in it exquisitely.

For Paul Leicester Ford, power was neither a murky sea nor a rocky shore. It was something that one simply seized and used—like an adolescent grasping a gyrocompass but not trigonometry. The hero of his Honorable Peter Stirling (1894) wins both the governorship and a fair young lady, almost simultaneously. Stirling, in his long, stolid, and solid evolution from a boor to the beloved and just champion of the poor, shuns demagogy and observes neither more nor less than a firm respect for the just interests of the rich. Like London’s hero in The Iron Heel, Stirling is animated by a pure love of mankind, but he works in a simple, sweet, manageable world.

Writing in a fictional milieu that took class conflict as a given, Ford and Norris (and Anthony Trollope in Phineas Finn) remained not seriously dismayed by the problem of power. Like a mad mariner, London pointed in anguish toward the twentieth century, which people had entered but were not yet in, and foresaw the techniques and consequences of complete social control.

The racial conflict

Another major tributary of political fiction deals with the kind of status that is not a consequence of property differences but of race. Writers have appraised this political problem in both the colonial and the intranational context. The issue is indeed raised by Shakespeare in Othello (c. 1604), and Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) protests the infra-human status to which Englishmen relegated their Irish subjects. But it was not until the twentieth century, when E. M. Forster wrote his Passage to India ( 1924), that a broad and deep statement was made of the consequences of the conjunction of one race that calls itself master and another that acknowledges and protests its own subordination. Forster analyzed hierarchy by observing the effects of racial status as it was superimposed by conquest on a culture where status was already indigenously and meticulously imposed by caste and religion. He probed intimately into the relations between individuals who try to see others and themselves as individuals but who cannot escape the differences of status and are not much helped by the abstract egalitarianism of Christianity and Islam.

The basic conflict is not oversimplified but is reduced by Forster to that of loyalty and affection between individuals as they are inhibited and restricted by the bonds of religious, social, and national status. In the novel, Forster implicitly argues for the greater value of individual ties of affection, basing this on his supreme valuation of individuality as more important than religion, caste, and nation. Forster also wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Poignant statements of the problem in an African context have been made by Alan Paton, in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and Too Late the Phalarope (1953). In both, individuals try to reach each other across the chasm of racial distinction. In the second, the sexual aspect, clearly present but not dominant in A Passage to India, becomes a central theme—the fascination of forbidden fruit and the spontaneity of physical interpersonal love, which closes its eyes to skin color.

The etiology of the endemic disease of racial tension, as it affects both individuals and politics, is classically stated and explored in these three novels. The dynamics as they operate within a nation have been inevitably stated in America, with its centuries-old dilemma of relations between whites and Negroes. These writings have had little overt political content, from Stowe’s Uncle Toms Cabin to Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944) and Robert Penn Warren’s Band of Angels (1955) and his epic poem Brother to Dragons (1953). The more recent work of Negro authors, written with an intensity that cannot ever be attained by white writers, has also been largely apolitical.

What is remarkable is the enormous political influence such fiction has had. It is not true that any one book (or any other force) has by itself impelled a social or political movement, but these writings have at times helped raise the strong winds of opinion to hurricane force. Literary discussion from the 1850s to the 1950s of race relations, in intranational, colonial, and latterly in foreign-aid contexts—e.g., William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American (1958)—indicates the persistence of this politically explosive issue.[SeeHumanRights.]

Political equality and individual dignity

A common theme of social novels with status preoccupation—whether it be economic or racial in origin—is the equality and dignity of the individual human being. The criticism of discrimination on the basis of class or race rests implicitly or explicitly on the belief in equal dignity or equal worth, regardless of bodily or economic circumstances over which the individual has no control.

Another category of writings reverses this theme and looks at what can happen when the principle of equality as the only end is assumed and any means appropriate to its achievement is morally justified. From Dostoevski in The Possessed (1871) to Henry James in The Princess Casamassima (1886) and Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent (1907) the antianarchic critique of amoral equality has stressed the need for decency, honor, and integrity on the grounds that monistic egalitarianism produces only the destruction of orderly society and ultimately the nihilistic negation of the individual himself.

The egalitarian context in which these three novels were written is socioeconomic. They say in effect: What you people like More, Trollope, Chekhov, Hugo, and Dickens are talking about is all very well, but if you altogether succeed, what then? Are you quite sure your poor, sat-upon, proletarian egg will not be hatched a hawk?

The theme of racial equality has undergone a similar attack more recently, in a pair of novels: Robert Ruark’s Something of Value (1955) and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956). With a querulous, lascivious dwelling on the terrors of extreme brutality, these novels present at most, and only by implication, a ritualistic solution to the dilemma of inequality (return to the decent, humane virtues of the aristocratic race), but they do succeed in presenting the problem in a crude fashion. The recoil by such as Dostoievski, Conrad, and Ruark at some of the consequences of equality poses the question of the exercise of power without stint in a society dedicated solely to the proposition that all men are created equal. These writings are reactionary without being atavistic: indeed they radically criticize the atavism resulting from unconstrained equality.

Opposition to anarchy and tyranny

The dialogue between the proponents and opponents of socioeconomic and racial equality skirts but never directly enters the area of political power exercised for its own sake. It deals with the adjective rather than the noun, with wealthy or racist power in politics rather than power itself.

The moral problem of political power itself was posed as early as the fifth century B.C., in Sophocles’ Antigone. In the more abstract form of a man’s relation to his God the problem was posed in the Biblical story of Job (probably fifth or fourth century B.C.), who achieved no peace until he surrendered to the divine will and recognized the gracious omnipotence of his almighty Lord. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1606) the conscienceless pursuit of power at last pricks the conscience of its pursuer, but his destruction is at the hands of society. In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1891) authority (that is, sanctioned power) and simple human virtue come into conflict, virtue bowing to power. A variation of the Billy Budd theme occurs in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny (1951), the difference being that the story ends well: both authority and humane justice prevail and all’s well. In C. Virgil Gheorghiu’s Twenty-ftfth Hour (1950), law, authority, order, chaos, and the machine combine to destroy the individual.

These direct statements of the power problem do not, however, bore into its origins and its portents. Starting in the 1930s, a brilliant succession of novels has probed man’s soul, with a skill showing the enormous impact of Freudian depth psychology. The proliferation of these remarkable works and their failure to fit into a chronological development makes it necessary to consider them by type rather than time.

In his Brave New World (1932), Aldous Huxley portrays a 26th-century Utopia (or an antiutopia, if More’s Utopia is deemed a good society) where people have become truly contented as a result of the elimination of disunity and disorder through the use of both eugenics and childhood conditioning. Only in a genetic sport, a man who developed in a neglected portion of the earth to which conditioning has not yet made its way, is the serene pattern disturbed. Both frightening and at times hilarious, the novel lacks the somber quality of later penetration into individual and social psychology. Karel Čapek’s War With the Newts (1936) continues the theme of a conformist Utopia, portraying a primordial, slimy horror that Huxley’s happy English background fails to elicit in print.

André Malraux’s Mans Fate (1933) is a poignant portent of intensified horror, as the jungles of psyche and society are more deeply explored. In-stead of setting his story in European “mass” society, Malraux placed his picture of the human condition in an Asian context, the naked power contest in 1927 between Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese communists, a conflict Malraux himself had witnessed. In Mans Hope (1938) he continued the argument, now set in the Spanish Civil War— which he again saw firsthand. Mans Fate is an almost despairing account of cynicism, both individual and governmental, of egocentricity, and of a tiny, nearly extinct spark of human compassion that keeps man’s fate from being quite hopeless. Man’s Hope, in a kaleidoscopic, almost incomprehensible picture of air and land battles, seems to kindle the spark of compassion into a flickering flame that slightly warms both of the warring camps in Spanish society, and in human society in general.

Building at least systematically, if not actually, on the somewhat impersonal social accounts just discussed, the Italian writer Ignazio Silone increasingly personalized the power problem. In Fontamara (1934) and Bread and Wine (1937) the ordinary people are more fully drawn than are Malraux’s. And a new feature—the top political leader, the chief of state—emerges somewhat dimly in the background. This character is absent or distant in the work of Huxley, Capek, and Malraux. The dilemmas of ideology, Utopia, simple affection among human beings (and its savage antithesis: sexual rape) are conjoined with a simple superstition among the peasantry that takes the form of fear of the leader combined with a feeling of his inevitability, his power, and his grace. Both the peasantry and the politically declassed members of the ruling elite are juxtaposed to the leader in passionate ambivalence.

Three later novels move the ruling class farther into the foreground and the ordinary citizenry into the background. Two of these are psychologically distinguished and logically brilliant; the other, with one or two exceptions, is unsurpassed in its psychological penetration. In Animal Farm (1946) and 1984, George Orwell carries to their logical conclusions certain tendencies already well developed in modern industrial society. Animal Farm, the allegorical polity in which all animals are equal but the ruling elite of pigs is more equal than the other creatures, argues that ideology and social justice are trivial matters when they confront the lust for power. In 1984 simple, spontaneous, uncontrived, uninduced love, of course, loses the battle, and Winston Smith, mentally in extremis, betrays his beloved Julia and comes to love Big Brother himself.

The third of these three novels, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), synthesizes the author’s personal experiences in the Spanish Civil War, during which in 1937 he was in solitary confinement in a Seville prison for three months (two months incommunicado), and his earlier experiences as a communist and a newspaperman traveling as an honored guest in the Soviet Union.

The protagonist of the novel, Rubashov, is a composite of several Soviet leaders who were tried and executed during the Soviet purge trials of the late 1930s. He is a composite of ideologism, courage, intellectuality, opportunism, and atrophied compassion. His life deftly poses several fundamental questions of political power: What means justify what ends? What is truth? When may proximate falsehood be used in the interests of ultimate truth? What is the individual’s usefulness, his dignity, and his value?

The book contains several tragedies: the destruction of love between man and woman, to serve party purposes; the exposure of a man’s soul in ludicrous public display, to serve party purposes; and the destruction of a party faithful when his usefulness has passed. These tragedies are conjoined with two politically deeper ones: the growing compassion shown Rubashov by a never-seen fellow prisoner, an adherent of the old regime with whom he has nothing in common save uncultured humanity, and the inability of Rubashov to live outside the quite corrupt church of the Communist party, in which he has spent his life and the only thing to which he is dedicated aside from self. Neither the compassion of others nor fidelity to party saves him from destruction. In the end Rubashov can choose neither to stand with his fellow men nor to stand alone.

The early antiutopias of the 1930s and 1940s were relatively impersonal and dealt mainly with ordinary citizens. The more personal, and more real, accounts of Silone, Malraux, and Koestler move partially or completely from treatment of the ordinary to the extraordinary citizen, to the declassed member of the ruling elite. Two additional novels dealing with the same problems of unconstrained political power are fictionalized biographies of actual chiefs of state. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) follows closely the life of the American Huey P. Long, Louisiana’s hypertrophied ruler without scruple in the 1930s. Peter AbrahamsA Wreath for Udomo (1956) fictionalizes the life of a prominent African chief of state whom Abrahams knew when both were in London as students and radical African nationalists.

Like Koestler’s writing, All the King’s Men juxtaposes a set of tragedies, the personal and political. There is the use and betrayal of people, the abuse of truth and the use of falsehood, the passionate sense of abstract justice combined with the enthusiasm for inducing a lawless personal dependency—revenge and grace without justice. The tragedy lies in the inability of the leader, Willie Stark, to extricate himself from the personal nest he has woven for himself and then befouled.

Though lacking the somber quality of Darkness at Noon, All the King’s Men ends in deeper tragedy, because instead of being entrapped by circumstance—a party and its ideology—Willie Stark, like Macbeth, is unable to escape himself and death at the hands of a close associate.

A Wreath for Udomo similarly conjoins the personal and the political. Udomo is beloved by and loves a mature Englishwoman he meets in London. He betrays her by having an affair with a mutual friend. When he later gets established as leader of his newly liberated African nation, he sacrifices the life of an old friend and devoted follower, as the price for getting technical aid from the hated, white-ruled nation of South Africa. He is at last killed by tribal atavism, the fear-driven reaction to the modern ways Udomo is introducing.

Most of these antianarchie novels (from Dostoevski to Conrad) and antityrannic novels, often mislabeled antiutopias (from Huxley to Abrahams), were written in western Europe. Out of eastern Europe, in the post-Stalin era, has come a series of novels that offer the promise, and no more as yet, of the re-emergence of intensely political writing in the land that produced Dostoevski and Gogol. The new books remain timid, uncrafted products, still too close to tyranny itself to be able to appraise it freely. Among these are Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, more concerned with public administration than with public policy; Abram Tertz’s The Trial Begins (1960), which deals directly if crudely with Stalinist tyranny; and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), which considers the theme of selfishness and the platitude of the endurance of the human spirit, but otherwise is undistinguished. It nevertheless is a milestone in the public recognition it has accorded the author in the Soviet Union, where he was nominated in 1963 for the Lenin Prize.

Nietzschean and anti-Nietzschean themes

There remains still another category of political novels, incongruous among those that oppose either anarchy or tyranny. These are the writings that implicitly or explicitly espouse and justify—or reject and condemn—a Nietzschean, individualist anarchism divorced from any social or socialist commitment. In a sense, these are antipolitical works.

A prototype of this genre is Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830). Its protagonist Julien moves through life and through people’s lives with a moral dedication to self that rises above any less exalted purpose. He pushes into boudoirs and the bureaus of business and government with a purity of heart that beguiles. At the end he faces trial with a moral courage and a refusal to compromise his principle that makes it easy to overlook the principle to which he was dedicated. If the pure in heart ever are to see their God, Julien saw his in himself and was by himself blest.

The Red and the Black is indeed a pure novel, unbesmirched by the dilemma between individual distinction and social service. If the solution for Martin Eden was the escape of private suicide, Julien went to his public execution with the courage of Socrates and Christ, the sole difference being in the diverse principles for which Julien and Socrates and Christ died.

Two more-recent novels echo the Red and Black theme, in one case with several inklings of awareness of the dilemma and in the other with no more than an inkling. Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927) is the story of an individualist who moves from the writing desk to the dance hall, discovers affection for others, but does not swerve dangerously from his self-dedication. For a while, nevertheless, he enjoys warming and being warmed by others.

Not so Dr. Zhivago, in Boris Pasternak’s novel by that name (1957). With a dedication to self that rivals Julien’s, Zhivago moves endlessly across the well-limned Russian landscape during and after the great revolution, sloughing off those whom he has used and who have become attached to him. He does it all with a remarkable sense of high purpose, blaming only the chaos and the Soviet system for his faults, that is, his inability to succeed altogether in his self-service. The critical enthusiasm with which the ook was received after its official Soviet condemnation and the awarding of the Nobel Prize to its author reflected a pharisaical condemnation of Soviet communism and no understanding of the refusal of Pasternak to face the dilemma confronted by London, Koestler, and Orwell. In Dr. Zhivago, Nietzsche is not problematical but axiomatic.

Two individualistic American novels throw this issue into relief: James Gould Cozzens’ The Last Adam (1933) and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Both emphasize individual values and candidly make their protagonists into heroes. Both clearly indicate a commitment of these heroes to their communities. There is a consequent warmth in Cozzens’ and Hemingway’s characters that contrasts with the vibrating chill of Julien and Zhivago.

A brilliantly madcap Italian drama on egocentricity, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922), mixes tragedy and comedy as his protagonists step in and out of character as concupiscent egoists exploiting one another and protesting their altruism. Obviously nonpolitical, this pungent play deeply influenced Gamal Abdel Nasser, who viewed the same prurient egoism on the other side of the Mediterranean as a prime cause of Egyptian political impotence before and after the 1952 revolution.

Two French novelists have written on the theme, in works that replace Pirandello’s mordant laughter with a moan from the wounds of egoism that rises to a cry of mortal despair. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in The Age of Reason (1945) has his characters search for private freedom, after liberty has been publicly betrayed in the Spanish Civil War. They seek it in the paradox of uncommitted love that exploits others for their companionship and passion but ends in solitude. At the last the central character muses that he is “alone but no freer than before.... this life had been given him for nothing, he was nothing and yet he would not change: he was as he was made” ([1945] see 1959, p. 342). In Sartre’s Troubled Sleep (1949), set in France during the Nazi occupation in 1940, the search for freedom is similarly fruitless. To personal egoism is conjoined national egoism: man cares neither for man nor woman nor Vaterland nor patrie —and vice versa. All one can do, Sartre seems to say, is endure, clutching the thin coin of existentialism whose other side is nihilism.

The cry of Albert Camus is even more piercing. In The Plague (1947) he seems to argue with Sartre’s morbid description of man’s isolation. In an allegory of France during the Nazi occupation, he finds individual men who dedicate themselves warmly to a solidary, compassionate succoring of the plague-stricken community. Fear of fatal infection and mistrust of one’s neighbors are over-come by the “craving for human contacts” and the identification with the dying. Society must endure, and with individual compassion for individuals it can endure. “The Stranger” in Camus’s 1942 novel by that name is an emotionally empty man who kills without feeling, without even hatred, an alien in a community whose members remain individually and collectively united against their asocial fellow citizen. But in The Fall (1956), Camus appears to have surrendered to despair. There can be no conjunction of freedom and society. Solitude is unbearable, and man cannot bear freedom, a court sentence imposed on oneself by oneself. Man must be a slave, in a society where all are slaves to their own inescapable egoism. Lacking love, men are dragged through life by their almost impotent hypersexuality. Their common guilt can hold them together, but it only delays the solitude of death.

And in Ingmar Bergman’s screenplays the theme is repeated in Scandinavian settings, with the sharp skill of London, Sartre, and Camus but without their resignation or despair. In Wild Strawberries (1957), a distinguished septuagenarian scientist, about to be honored for his dedicated pursuit of reality, in his dreams sees himself as indifferent, unloving and unloved, living in deadly solitude. “I’m dead, although I live.” In the triad of screenplays Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963), the theme is reinforced: psychoanalytic understanding, piety, and sexual passion without love do become deathly futile and impotent. But, Bergman insists, men are capable of compassion.

The problem of free choice

Political fiction, like political science, has always been a product of the developing stage of culture in which it was written. Both fiction and science have drawn from the same intellectual sources and appraised the dilemmas of the time. When the very idea of limited government was taking shape, Sophocles in Antigone raised the radical issue of civil disobedience. In the twentieth century, when tyranny underwent another revival—perhaps unequaled since the savage sixteenth century of the Reformation and Counter Reformation—the theme of tyranny again became central.

But political fiction now reflects the infusion of new knowledge, notably from psychology and physiology. It has consequently produced an inquiry into the causes and consequences of tyranny that is remarkable in depth and suggestiveness. In so doing, political fiction has articulated analyses of problems that in contemporary writing in political science have had largely disjointed treatment: the relationship between the individual, his fellow men, his fellow citizens, and government; the concept of justice in which government is more than an arbiter between citizens; the problem of moral choice and free choice; and above all, the criteria for choice.

Indeed, to a great extent the new political theory of the twentieth century has been written in fictional form. Some writings already discussed and some not yet discussed show this sharply.

In 1984 Orwell develops his story and his theory by employing an almost classic Freudian thesis. Government, to control individual political loyalty, must sever ties of loyalty between individuals. The basic tie, says Orwell, following Freud, is the erotic one—physical love with its attendant personal affection. To break this tie, government must destroy physical desire. To do this, government must, in turn, reactivate the primordial individual desire for sheer survival and replace love between real people with the childish dependent love for the never-seen omnipotence that graciously or tyrannically permits survival and provides the means for survival. Heterosexual love is replaced with asexual, childish, dependent love, and political autonomy is replaced with political infancy. Justice is controlled by what through “doublethink” is called the Ministry of Love, where men are reduced to impotence.

Koestler in Darkness at Noon offers a more complicated set of hypotheses. Love and loyalty between individuals are indeed deadened by tyranny. But the problem of justice gets a less stark, more subtle and realistic, consideration than Orwell’s brutal statement that power is a boot stamping on a human face forever. Justice now relates to means and ends. As object and subject the individual is considered by Koestler to be a commodity to be valued quite apart from his usefulness to the polity. But can man choose? With a vague, attenuated humanitarianism that becomes entangled with the justification of any efficient means to humane ends, Rubashov chooses only to condemn himself. A socialized, collectivized Nietzschean, he can exercise his will only by conforming to the will of the political party, which has become identical with the will of the leader. Koestler seems to say that men can be aware but not choose.

The problem of free moral choice (a tautology, at least in politics) gets precocious emphasis in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911). With or without the benefit of psychoanalytic theory, Conrad poignantly refines the problem. He indicates that the consequence of choice, when it destroys other people, is to destroy the chooser.

The criteria for choice are considered in two of the first works which deeply explore political behavior. In the theoretical dialogue between sexual and nonsexual love (eros and agape), both these novels employ depth psychology and argue against a simplistic Freudian erotism.

Franz Kafka in The Castle (1926) has his protagonist, K., use sex to get ahead, to try to get the attention of the leader, the unseen chief in the castle. The wretch K. fails because, like Julien and Zhivago, he is concentered all in self and at last can only throw himself on the infinite mercy that accompanies infinite power.

William Golding in Free Fall (1959) evidently rejects his earlier thesis in Lord of the Flies that beneath man’s enculturation crouches only a primordial beast. He now argues that man cannot live alone, that he must live with and for other individuals, and that the dilemma of living for oneself and for others will persist and is the basis for guilt, which also will persist. Man is not altogether formed by either his genes or his environs: he can choose, with inevitable guilt, but without guilt he could never make choices that are right —that is, moral. He can never help establish a free society or free himself without considering the consequences of his choices both for himself and for others.

In so stating the criteria for choice, Golding avoids the surrender to divine will implicit in the Biblical Job and the modern Castle, to the will of the party and leader explicit in Darkness at Noon and 1984, and to individually uncontrollable forces as in Martin Eden. Free Fall thus implies there is choice, that forces within and without the individual are not altogether uncontrollable, and that anxiety and guilt will inevitably accompany the exercise of choice. To this extent Golding indicates a way out of the dilemma so poignantly posed by London.

All these factors have been integrated in unequaled, necessarily epigrammatic form in a political novella of classic proportions, Mario and the Magician (1929) by Thomas Mann. In Mario are fully presented the leader, the citizenry that is led, and the citizen who kills the tyrant. The roots of tyranny are exposed in the leader’s envy, contempt, and hatred for the public and in the public’s moral obtuseness that considers politics a game at which they are irresponsible spectators. And using the need for people to huddle together, the leader isolates potential dissenters. In a brilliantly contrived denouement, Mann has the leader exploit and pervert sexual love and be undone by a young man whose revulsion at the leader seems to stem from the depths of the untutored, natural man. Mann in this rather short story does not explicate other political fiction; he epitomizes it.

If the themes of private and public egoism, tyranny, and free choice had not recurred in Russian, English, Italian, French, German, and Swedish writing, in contexts scattered over centuries and over the globe, one might argue that the condition was not universal but parochial. In Malraux and Golding, the dying despair of Dostoevski, Orwell, Pirandello, Sartre, Camus, Koestler, and Kafka is quickened by hope. Man need not just exist and then cease: he can elicit his own compassion and can redeem himself and his fellow men. Deepened psychological understanding need not just witness or contribute to the destruction of men and society; it can help build both. Man is helpless neither against the tyranny of his own egoism nor against the tyranny of egoism in the general public and its leaders.

Political fiction and political science

One conclusion from a look at political fiction is that the lines between fiction, theory, and fact are very indistinct. Darkness at Noon, a fiction piece about the great Soviet purges of the late 1930s, portended not only the factual account of them in Beck and Godin’s Russian Purge and the Extraction of Confession (1951) but also the profound study of brainwashing in Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961). In a sense fiction here was a decade ahead of published fact and two decades ahead of systematic theory and observation. Koestler in turn was building on fact. Bukharin, one of the most distinguished victims of the 1938 purge, said at his trial: “When you ask yourself: If you must die, what are you dying for?’—an absolute black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepentant” (quoted in Daniels 1960, p. 389).

In raising basic issues of power in its political manifestations and of the ability and responsibility to make choices, political fiction has been working in the same garden as have political theory and political research. The far from accidental consequence is that political fiction has posed problems and stated solutions that are rarely behind, and often ahead of, the statement and resolution of these problems by more prosaic investigators. There is a relationship between Job’s argument with his God, Antigone’s with her king, and Winston Smith’s with his Big Brother. There is a tie between Freudian theory, Marxian socioeconomic theory, and the writings of Koestler, Golding, and Bergman. Each supports and facilitates the understanding of the other. One very notable distinction is that the fiction writer puts the reader on guard, since the reader of fiction realizes that what is being written is not necessarily ultimate truth or exact fact. The nonfiction theorist or researcher in politics seldom so protects the reader. In this sense writers of political fiction are exercising a responsible moral choice as to the canons of scientific method that is too infrequently faced by writers of political science.

James C. Davies

[See alsoAlienation; Ideology; Intellectuals; Social Science Fiction; Utopianism.]


The examples of political fiction cited in the text are not included in the bibliography.

Beck, F.; and Godin, W. [pseudonyms] 1951 Russian Purge and the Extraction of Confession. London and New York: Hurst & Blackett; New York: Viking.

Blotner, Joseph, L. 1955 The Political Novel. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → Contains a comprehensive list of political novels.

Grossman, Richard, H. S. (editor) (1949) 1959 The God That Failed. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Daniels, Robert V. 1960 The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia. Russian Research Center Studies, No. 40. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Donner, Jorn, (1962) 1964 The Personal Vision of Ingmar Bergman. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. → First published as Djavulens ansikte: Ingmar Bergmans filmer.

Howe, Irving, 1957 Politics and the Novel. New York: World.

Lifton, Robert, J. 1961 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. New York: Norton.

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LITERATURE This entry includes 5 subentries: Overview
African American Literature
Children's Literature
Native American Literature
Popular Literature


The first Europeans in America did not encounter a silent world. A chorus of voices had been alive and moving through the air for approximately 25,000 years before. Weaving tales of tricksters, warriors and gods; spinning prayers, creation stories, and spiritual prophesies, the First Nations carved out their oral traditions long before colonial minds were fired and flummoxed by a world loud with language when Leif Ericsson first sighted Newfoundland in a.d. 1000. Gradually the stories that these first communities told about themselves became muffled as the eminences of the European Renaissance began to contemplate the New World. One of them, the French thinker and father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, was not loath to transform the anecdotes of a servant who had visited Antarctic France (modern Brazil) into a report on the lives of virtuous cannibals. According to his "On Cannibals" (1588), despite their predilection for white meat, these noble individuals led lives of goodness and dignity, in shaming contrast to corrupt Europe. Little wonder that on an imaginary New World island in Shakespeare's The Tempest (first performed in 1611), the rude savage Caliban awaits a conquering Prospero in the midst of natural bounty.

Pioneers to Puritans

Whether partially or entirely fanciful, these visions of paradise on Earth were not much different from Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), itself partly inspired by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci's voyages to the New World. Wonders of a new Eden, untainted by European decadence, beckoned

to those who would venture to America, even as others spared no ink to paint accounts of the savagery of this hostile, unknown world. Between these extremes lay something approaching the truth: America as equal parts heaven and hell, its aboriginal inhabitants as human beings capable of both virtue and vice. While wealth, albeit cloaked in Christian missionary zeal, may have been the primary motive for transatlantic journeys, many explorers quickly understood that survival had to be secured before pagan souls or gold. John Smith, himself an escaped slave from the Balkans who led the 1606 expedition to Virginia, wrote of his plunders with a raconteur's flair for embellishment, impatient with those who bemoaned the rigors of earning their colonial daily bread. His twin chronicles, A True Relation of Virginia (1608) and The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), differ in at least one suggestive detail: the Indian maiden Pocahontas appears only in the latter, betraying the freedom with which European imagination worked on some "facts" of this encounter.

Competing accounts of the American experiment multiplied with Thomas Morton, whose Maypole paganism and free trade in arms with the natives raised the ire of his Puritan neighbors, Governor William Bradford, who led Mayflower Pilgrims from religious persecution in England to Plymouth Rock in 1620, and Roger Williams, who sought to understand the language of the natives, earning him expulsion from the "sanctuary" of Massachusetts. More often than not, feverish religiosity cast as potent a spell on these early American authors as their English literary heritage. The terrors of Judgment Day inspired Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom (1662), a poem so sensational that one in twenty homes ended up harboring a copy. Equally electrifying were narratives of captivity and restoration, like that of Mary Rowlandson (1682), often cast as allegories of the soul's journey from a world of torment to heaven. Beset by fragile health and religious doubt, Anne Bradstreet captured in her Several Poems (1678) a moving picture of a Pilgrim mind grappling with the redemptive trials of life with a courage that would later bestir Emily Dickinson.

It seems unlikely that two college roommates at Harvard, Edward Taylor and Samuel Sewall, would both come to define Puritan literary culture—yet they did. Influenced by the English verse of John Donne and George Herbert, Taylor, a New England minister, became as great a poet as the Puritans managed to produce. Sewall's Diary (begun 12 August 1674) made him as much a rival of his British counterpart Samuel Pepys as of the more ribald chronicler of Virginia, William Byrd. While it is easy to caricature the Puritans as models of virtue or else vicious persecutors of real or imagined heresy, the simplicity of myth beggars the complexity of reality. A jurist who presided over the Salem witch trials, Sewall was also the author of The Selling of Joseph (1700), the first antislavery tract in an America that had accepted the practice since 1619.

The Great Awakening, a period in which the Puritan mindset enjoyed a brief revival, is notable for the prolific historian and hagiographer Cotton Mather. The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) afforded a glimpse of his skepticism about the prosecutors of the witch trials, while his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) provided a narrative of settlers' history of America, regularly illuminated with the exemplary "lives of the saints." Moved equally by dogmatic piety and the imperatives of reason and science, Jonathan Edwards delivered arresting sermons that swayed not only his peers, but also centuries later, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). True to form, Edwards's A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) is a celebration not only of spiritual reawakening, but of the empiricism of John Locke as well.

Enlightenment to Autonomy

If anyone embodied the recoil from seventeenth-century Puritan orthodoxy toward the Enlightenment, it was the architect of an independent, modern United States, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Printer, statesman, scientist, and journalist, he first delighted his readers with the annual wit and wisdom of Poor Richard's Almanac (launched in 1733). In 1741, in parallel with Andrew Bradford's The American Magazine, Franklin's General Magazine and Historical Chronicle marked the beginning of New England magazine publishing. But it was his best-selling Autobiography (1791) that revealed the extent to which his personal destiny twined with the turbulent course of the new state. Ostensibly a lesson in life for his son, the book became a compass for generations of Americans as it tracked Citizen Franklin's progress from a humble printer's apprentice, through his glory as a diplomat in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), to the exclusive club of the founding fathers who drafted the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Constitution.

The Revolution that stamped Franklin's life with the destiny of the nation found its most brazen exponent in Thomas Paine. Author of Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (pamphlet series, 1776–1783), Paine was a British expatriate who came to Philadelphia sponsored by Franklin and galvanized the battle for independence. His fervid opposition to the British social order, slavery, and the inferior status of women made him a lightning rod of the Revolution, helping to create an American identity in its wake. America's emergence as a sovereign power became enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. Harking back to Montaigne in Notes on the State of Virginia (1784–1785), this patrician statesman idolized the purity of agrarian society in the fear that the closer the New World edged toward the satanic mills of industrial Europe, the more corrupt it would become. The founder of the University of Virginia, whose library would seed the Library of Congress, Jefferson was elected president in 1800 and again in 1804.

Literature after the Revolution

After the Revolution, American literary culture grew less dependent on British models, and the popular success of poets like the Connecticut Wits, including Timothy Dwight, composer of an American would be epic, The Conquest of Canaan (1785), only confirmed this point. The broad appeal of novels like The Power of Sympathy (1789) by William Hill Brown and Charlotte Temple (1791) by Susanna Haswell Rowson, both tales of seduction that spoke to what future critics would call a pulp fiction sensibility, signaled the growing success of domestic authors (Rowson's novel, the best-seller of the eighteenth century, would do equally well in the nineteenth). Modeled on Don Quixote, the comic writings of Hugh Henry Brackenridge and the gothic sensibilities of Charles Brockden Brown also won a degree of popular and critical laurels, the latter presaging the dark strains of Poe and Hawthorne.

Knickerbockers to Naturalists

The career of Washington Irving marked a categorical break with the past, inasmuch as this mock-historian succeeded where the poet/satirist Philip Freneau and others had failed by becoming the first professional American writer. Affected by the Romantics, Irving created folk literature for the New World: A History of New York (1809), fronted by the pseudonymous Diedrich Knickerbocker, would be synonymous thereafter with American folklore and tall tales, while The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman (1819–1820) introduced the immortal "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Admired on both sides of the Atlantic, Irving's prose did for America's literary prestige what the Romantic poetry of William Cullen Bryant did for its verse, while James Fenimore Cooper worked a similar alchemy on the novel. While critics from Twain to the present have belittled Cooper's cumbersome prose, he gripped the imagination with books of frontier adventure and romance, collectively known as the Leatherstocking Tales (after the recurrent hero). The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Prairie (1827) still captivate as narrative testimonies to American frontier clashes: civilization against savagery, pioneers against natives, apparent goodness versus moral rot.

The flood of creative energy unleashed by these no longer apologetic American authors crested with the birth of transcendentalism, overseen by the sage Ralph Waldo Emerson. This minister, essayist, and philosopher renounced the theological and literary dogma of the past, striving to nurture and encourage new American muses. It is for no other reason that his essays, including "Nature" (1836) and "Representative Men" (1850), and his Harvard address, "The American Scholar" (1837), amount to America's declaration of literary independence. The more reclusive Henry David Thoreau beheld in the tranquility of the pond at Walden (1854) the difference between false liberty and herd consciousness, while his Civil Disobedience (1849) made nonviolent resistance to tyranny a new and powerful weapon in the hands of Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Singing himself and America, Walt Whitman cultivated his Leaves of Grass (1855) over nine evergrander editions, confirming him as the poet that Emerson tried to conjure: a giant clothed in the speech of the people. Emily Dickinson would lift her voice along with Whitman, though her startling hymns were made for the chambers of the solitary mind, minted to miniature perfection.

The same fertile season saw Herman Melville complete Moby-Dick (1851), a multilayered sea epic whose White Whale incarnates the essence of evil and otherness and everything that the human will cannot conquer. Its deranged pursuer, Ahab, may be the doomed part of us all that vainly rejects that "cannot." Exhausted by this beast of a novel, Melville produced nothing to rival its scope and complexity, languishing forgotten until the Hollywood decades. Nathaniel Hawthorne revisited an allegorical world in which vice masqueraded as virtue, staining the Puritan snow with blood from "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) to The Scarlet Letter (1850). The shadows explored by Hawthorne became the abode of Edgar Allan Poe, a legendary editor, poet, and literary critic, as well as a short story giant, inventor of the detective novel, and father of modern horror and science fiction. Tied to "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Purloined Letter" (1845), or "The Raven" (1845), Poe's worldwide influence is bound to endure evermore.

Civil War to World War

The events of the Civil War (1861–1865) made it possible for the literature written by African Americans to receive a measure of attention and acclaim, the torch passing from Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass. With the advent of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans would finally secure basic liberties and a literary voice. Some of the abolitionist zeal, both at home and abroad, may be credited to Harriet Beecher Stowe: no less than 1.5 million pirated copies of her Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) flooded Britain weeks after its publication. Though a powerful storyteller, she was certainly no Joel Chandler Harris, whose acute ear for dialect and fearless sense of humor made his tales of Uncle Remus (1880–1883) as entertaining as morally astute. In some of their writings, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois would continue to offer differing remedies for the gross inequities still imposed on their black countrymen.

The end of the nineteenth century was the playing field for Bret Harte and his regional tales of a harsh, untamed California, for the crackling wit of William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O. Henry (1862–1910), and for the scalding satire of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835–1910). A national masterpiece, Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) has been universally admired since its publication, though it continues to stir controversy in politically correct circles. Just because the author permits his protagonist to speak the mind of his age and call his runaway slave friend, Jim, "a nigger," some readers miss the moral metamorphoses that Huck undergoes, and the salvos Twain launches against ignorance and prejudice. What looks like interpretive "safe water" (Clemens's pseudonym meant "two fathoms of navigable water under the keel"), can prove very turbulent, indeed.

Twain's unflinching representation of "things as they were," whether noble or nasty, shared in the realism that reigned in the novels and stories of Henry James (1843– 1916). Lavish psychological portraits and a keen eye for the petty horrors of bourgeois life allowed James to stir controversy, and occasionally, as in The Turn of the Screw (1898), genuine terror. Edith Wharton (1862–1937), who added the gray agonies of Ethan Frome (1911) to the canon of American realism, garnered a Pulitzer in 1921, and in 1923 she became the first woman to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters from Yale. Stephen Crane (1871–1900) used his short life to produce extraordinary journalism about New York's daily life and a gory close-up of warfare in The Red Badge of Courage (1895).


Fidelity to life along realistic lines, combined with a pessimistic determinism concerning human existence, dominated naturalism, a somewhat later strain in American fiction. Heavily under the influence of Marx and Nietzsche, Jack London was more fascinated by the gutter than the stars—his The People of the Abyss (1903), a study of the city of London's down and out, merits as much attention as The Call of the Wild (1903).Theodore Dreiser (1871– 1945) gave a Zolaesque account of sexual exploitation in the naturalist classic Sister Carrie (1900), and similarly shocking scenes of deranged dentistry in McTeague (1899) allowed Frank Norris to show the mind cracking under the vice of fate, symptoms that would become more familiar as the next anxious century unfolded.

Modernists to Mods

According to Jonathan Schell, antinuclear activist and author of the harrowing Fate of the Earth (1982), the "short" twentieth century extended from the Great War (1914– 1918) to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. World War I forms another historical dam, between the (if only by comparison) placid nineteenth century and the turmoil of modernism that raced to supersede Romantic and/or realist art with a mosaic of manifesto-armed movements. Germinating in fin de siècle Germany and Scandinavia, the modernist period spawned a palette of programmatic "isms" underpinning most of early twentieth-century poetry and painting (the novel formed the secondary wave): impressionism, expressionism, cubism, symbolism, imagism, futurism, unanimism, vorticism, dadaism, and later surrealism.

In the United States, the changing of the guard coincided with the New York Armory Show of 1913, a defiant exhibition of European cubists, from the enfant terrible Marcel Duchamp to the already famous Pablo Picasso. On their geometrically condensed and contorted canvas lay the heart of modernism. Order, linearity, harmony were out. Fragmentation, collage, and miscellany were in. Continuities ceded to multitudes of perspectives; classical unities to clusters of "days in the life"; moral closure to open-ended, controlled chaos. The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway's story of Jake Barnes, a war-emasculated Fisher-King vet, captures not only this literary generation but also its poetics of arbitrary beginnings, episodes bound only by the concreteness of imagery and the irony of detachment, and the endings dissolving with no resolution. The prose is sparse, the narrator limited in time, space, and omniscience, the speech colloquial and "unliterary," in accord with Papa Hemingway's dictum that American literature really began with Huckleberry Finn.

Hard and terse prose was in part a legacy of the muckrakers, a new breed of investigative journalists who scandalized the public with the stench of avarice, corruption, and political "muck." An early classic was Upton Sinclair's (1878–1968) The Jungle (1906), an exposé of economic white slavery in the filth of the Chicago stock-yards. An instant celebrity, its socialist author, who conferred with President Theodore Roosevelt and later came within a heartbeat of winning the governorship of California, forever rued hitting the country in the stomach while aiming for its heart. The same vernacular, mean street–savvy style became the trademark of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, hardboiled founders of the American noir which, together with the western, science fiction, and the romance, began its long ascent out of the literary gutter into the native voice and dominant vehicle of American culture.

Novelistic modernism—less international, more involved with domestic, social themes—flourished in the period of 1919 to 1939. It stretched from the Jazz Age, during which American literature caught up with the world, to the end of the radical, experiment-heavy decade of the Great Depression—from Sinclair Lewis's broadsides against conformism and Babbitry in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), to the controversial breast-feeding finale of John Steinbeck's proletarian The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In between there was Sherwood Anderson's impressionistic Winesburg, Ohio (1919), John Dos Passos's urban etude, Manhattan Transfer (1925), Dreiser's naturalistic An American Tragedy (1925), Thornton Wilder's philosophical The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Hemingway's tragic A Farewell to Arms (1929), Thomas Wolfe's autobiographic Look Homeward, Angel (1929), and the first volumes of William Faulkner's symbolic southern chronicles. There was also F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925) told of a man in search of the elusive bird of happiness, fatally beguiled by America's materialist Dream.

The obscure symbolism of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) was interpreted by the culturati as a rallying cry against a nation that, in accord with the presidential "the business of America is business," lost its soul amid advertisements for toothpastes, laxatives, soft drinks, automobiles, and household gadgets without which families might become un-American. Trying to make sense of these freewheeling times was Van Wyck Brooks's America's Coming of Age (1915), which mythologized the nation's "usable past" while assaulting its puritanism and stagnation. This harsh diagnosis was seconded by a crop of polemical columnists, running the gamut from arch-conservatives like H. L Mencken to the more proletarian Walter Lippmann and Joseph Wood Krutch, and from harangues against the cultural "booboisie" to campaigns against the establishment.

In poetry a pleiad of older and rising stars, many part-time expatriates in London and Paris, burst on the scene: from the CEO of the modernist risorgimento (revolution), Ezra Pound, to H. D. (Hilda Doolitle), Robert Frost, and the typographically untamed e. e. cummings. Despite colossal internal differences, the entire prewar generation—both the expatriates and those who, like Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, never saw Paris—rallied around a modern poetic idiom. Joined by William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, they self-consciously pursued Whitman's legacy in a more concrete, layered, and allusive style.

The era whose dawn coincided with Tender Buttons (1913), an experimental volume by the prose lyricist Gertrude Stein, came to a climax in 1930, when Sinclair Lewis became America's first Nobel winner. Lewis attributed his personal triumph to the renaissance of American fiction in the 1920s, even as Eugene O'Neill, Nobel laureate for 1936, brought the American theater to the world stage, boldly experimenting with dramatic structure and production methods. Maxwell Anderson, Lillian Hellman, Robert E. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, and Sidney Kingsley steered contemporary drama even further away from the vaudeville and music hall of Broadway, as did Clifford Odets in his Marxist Waiting for Lefty (1935).

The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out the nation's savings accounts and its faith in freestyle capitalism. The literary scene may have been titillated by Henry Miller's Tropics, racy enough to be banned in the United States until the 1960s, but away from Gay Paris, the depression spelled poverty so acute that some papers suggested the popular song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" as the new national anthem. Economically and culturally the period could not have been worse for black artists, whose dazzling if brief Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, led by the jazz-inspired Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, gave way to Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), a brutal book about Bigger Thomas's execution for the "almost accidental" murder of a white woman.

The wave of experimentation bore Faulkner's novel-as-multiple-point-of-view, As I Lay Dying (1930), the scandalous Sanctuary (1931)—which in violence and sensationalism vied with William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism of the era—and the James Joyce–influenced Light in August (1932). John O'Hara's shard-edged short stories rose alongside James Thurber's and Erskine Caldwell's. James T. Farrell released his socionaturalistic Studs Lonigan trilogy, while James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936) stunned with brevity and pith equaled only by Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). In that same year Raymond Chandler, one of the foremost stylists of the century, inaugurated his career with The Big Sleep, while Thornton Wilder, having won the highest accolades for his prose, turned to drama in Our Town (1938) and the convention-busting The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).

Robert Penn Warren, poet, New Critic, and self-declared leader of the Southern Agrarian movement against the conservatism and sentimentality of the literary Old South, won the country's highest honors, notably for his panoramic Night Rider (1939) and All the King's Men (1946). But the national epic—majestic in scope, flawless in execution, as eloquent in politics as in aesthetics—came from a writer who made the cover of Time a full year before Hemingway: John Dos Passos. Distributed over three volumes—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and Big Money (1936)—his U.S.A. trilogy spans the twentieth-century United States from coast to coast and from the topmost to the most wretched social lot. Slicing the rapacious American colossus to the bone, Dos Passos's saga displays the symbolic finesse of Herman Melville and the narrative fervor of Jack London combined.

If the United States arose from World War I secure as a superpower, it emerged from World War II (1939– 1945) looking up the Cold War nuclear barrel. Artists recoiled in horror, writing of war with contempt, of nuclear doom with dread, and of consumerist suburbia with contempt mixed with dread. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny (1951), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951)—war novels that were almost all antiwar novels—achieved celebrity even before becoming Hollywood films, just as Joseph Heller's epochal Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) did a decade later. As captured in a cinematic jewel, The Atomic Café (1982), written and directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty, the 1950s were the years of Cold War retrenchment, of Nixon and McCarthy–stoked Communist witch-hunts, of the H-Bomb frenzy and the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) military-political doctrine. The literary response, often in a grotesque/satirical vein, formed an axis stretching from Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Canticle for Leibowitz (1959),Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Fail-Safe (1962), and Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963) to more contemporary postapocalyptic science fiction.

In a more canonical vein, John Updike's decades-spanning series of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the angst-ridden suburban man—Vladimir Nabokov's metaphysically complex novels/riddles—and the diamond-cutter short prose of John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, and J. D. Salinger, all defied the country going ballistic. Ralph Ellison's rumble from America's tenement basement, Invisible Man (1952), together with James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), marked the coming-of-age of the African American, even as between his comedies/caricatures Goodbye Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969), Philip Roth deplored the dwindling powers of fiction to do justice to the world that was fast overtaking writers' imaginations. Little wonder that the 1950s were also a time of social and sociological reckoning. Warning against the closing of the American mind, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) and Malcolm Cowley's The Literary Situation (1954) pinned the mood of the nation: atomized, "other-directed," looking for a fix in the religious existentialism of Paul Tillich, in the social criticism of C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite (1956), or even—anticipating the eclectic 1960s—in Asiatic mysticism.

One of the most distinct regional voices was the New York Jewish elite, congregated around intellectuals from the Partisan Review. Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth are independently famous as novelists, but Delmore Schwartz (subject of Bellow's Nobel-winning Humboldt's Gift, 1975), Lionel and Diana Trilling, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Arthur Miller, Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, E. L. Doctorow, and Isaac Bashevis Singer all gave the East Coast establishment its legendary clout and verve. As the encroaching 1960s would not be complete without the Beatles, so would not the 1950s without the Beats. Their eclectic "howls" (from the title of Allen Ginsberg's linchpin poem) fueled the junk fiction of William S. Burroughs, the social protest of Lawrence Ferlin-ghetti, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), an "easyrider" write-up of his picaresque travels across the United States and still a gospel for circles of modish, black-clad, bearded intellectuals in quest of Emersonian ideals.

Flower Power to Popular Fiction

Starting with the 1960s all labels and historical subdivisions become increasingly haphazard, not to say arbitrary. Styles, influences, and ideologies mix freely as 40,000, and then 50,000 new titles are published annually in multi-million editions, glutting the literary market. Day-Glo colors mask the culture of black humor, forged among the Vietnam genocide, political assassinations, drug and sexual revolutions, and race riots spilling out of inner-city ghettos. Where Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) branded America as an oppressive mental institution in a fit farewell to the 1950s, Malamud's God's Grace (1982) may have contained the key to the two literary decades that followed. In turn ironic and savagely funny, awash in intertextual and intercultural allusions, at once sophisticated and vernacular, this realistic fantasy was a melting pot of genres, techniques, and modes in the service of art that gripped readers with the intensity of the scourge of the 1980s: crack cocaine.

With traditions and conventions falling left and right, fiction writers invaded the domain of history and reportage, creating—after the MO of Truman Capote's sensational real-crime account In Cold Blood (1966)—"nonfiction novels." As the award-winning docufiction of Norman Mailer, William Styron, or Robert Coover made clear, history could be profitably (in both senses) melded with the techniques and best-selling appeal of the novel. In turn, media-hip journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, and the gonzo-prodigy Hunter S. Thompson smashed all records of popularity with their hyped-up, heat-of-the-moment pieces that eroded inherited distinctions between literary and popular culture. A generation of confessional poets, from John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Lowell, to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, stood emotionally naked after casting the innermost aspects of their lives in verse, defying the distinction between art and real life much as today's poetry "slams" and the rhyming art of rap do. Popular fiction and literature worthy of attention by the academic canons began to blur in Edward Albee's drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Ira Levin's Boys from Brazil (1976), or Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (1987).

Even with Faulkner, Hemingway (by now Nobel winners), the dramatist Tennessee Williams, and other heavyweights still at work, with Vonnegut, Heller, and Roth fertile with tragicomedies and satires, with Bellow, Malamud, and Mailer reaping national and international awards, the times—as Bob Dylan forewarned—were a-changin'. A new wave of crime novelists, from Ed McBain to Chester Himes to Joseph Wambaugh, elevated the genre to rightful literary heights. Science fiction enjoyed a meteoric rise on bookstands and university curricula, romances and erotica—though few as stylish as Erica Jong's Fanny (1980)—smashed all readership records, and Stephen King single-handedly revived the horror story. Theory-laden postmodern fiction sought refuge in universities which, funding writers-in-residence, cultivated a new crop of professionally trained "creative writers."

American literary theory was not born with structuralism. As the nineteenth century bled into the twentieth, C. S. Peirce and John Dewey proposed a pragmatic view of reading as an ongoing transaction with the reader, while formalists like Pound and Eliot defended classical standards with an opaqueness that left some readers scratching their heads. By the early 1950s, René Wellek, Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ranson made fashionable the art of "close reading," at the expense of historicism and historical context. Soon thereafter, New Criticism itself was overshadowed by structuralist theories drawn in part from the work on the "deep structure" of language by the politically outspoken MIT professor Noam Chomsky. More recently, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish have turned back to reader response, albeit without the philosophical elegance of the pragmatists. While Susan Sontag argued against too much tedious analysis of hallowed art, deconstruction, neo-Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism began to vie for their fifteen minutes of fame. Today unorthodox, even wildly counterintuitive, readings remain in vogue, proving that the understanding of art—to say nothing of enjoyment—is more often than not compromised by obscure jargon and capricious thinking.

Much affected by these interpretive battles, post-modern authors dug convoluted trenches, cutting "truth" and "reality" loose and getting lost in a maze of fictional and metafictional simulacra. The bewildering "novel" The Recognitions (1955), by William Gaddis, orbited around issues of authenticity and counterfeiting, plotting the trajectory for many works to follow. John Barth launched several of these language-and self-centered voyages, from the early stories of Lost in the Funhouse (1968) to his exhaustive effort at throwing everything—including himself and postmodernist fiction—to the demons of parody and self-reflexivity: Coming Soon!!! (2001). It is equally difficult to get a fix on the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: from Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to Mason & Dixon (1997), whose compulsion for detail and antinarrative paranoia throw conventional techniques and characters out the window. Robert Coover charted hypertext and cyberspace with guru patience, while Don DeLillo gave much of the last century's history the zoom of a fastball in his gargantuan Underworld (1997). Alongside the postmodern pyrotechnics, the 1980s' minimalism—sometimes disparaged as K-mart or "dirty" realism—exerted its populist fascination with social "lowlifes" addicted to alcohol, drugs, welfare, trailer park blues, or intellectual malaise. In a style stripped of excess, with plots in abeyance and moral judgments suspended, Marilyn Robinson, Anne Beattie, and Richard Ford aired the kitchen side of America, though none as successfully as Raymond Carver, exquisitely filmed in 1993 in Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

A splintering mosaic of ethnic and cultural communities gained unprecedented readership and critical applause as Toni Morrison, an African American winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize, summoned in Beloved (1987), a ghost story about the abominable history of slavery. Joining a chorus of black artists such as Alice Walker, the poet Maya Angelou, Imamu Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, Ernest J. Gaines, and John A. Williams, Asian Americans also gained ground, with the best-sellers of Amy Tan, from The Joy Luck Club (1989) to The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), lamenting conformity and the loss of cultural moorings. Shirley Lim's memoir, Among the White Moon Faces (1996) detailed her suffering as a girl in Malaysia, while Frank Chin's gadfly antics in Donald Duk (1991) are sure to shock and delight. Hispanic prose and poetry of Gary Soto, Ana Castillo, Richard Rodriguez, Denise Chavez, and a phalanx of others record the humor, wisdom, and socioeconomic discontents of their communities. From John Okada's scorching treatment of Japanese anguish over World War II internment or military service, No-No Boy (1957), to Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning tale of the limbo between her Bengali heritage and Western upbringing, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), the number of ethnic voices in American literature is legion and growing.

With belles lettres now accounting for only 3 percent of literature disseminated through the United States, popular fiction made substantial gains in prestige and legitimacy, gradually spawning a nobrow culture, indifferent to rhetorical tugs-of-war between aesthetic highs and genre lows. The comic gems of Woody Allen, the literary horror of Thomas M. Disch, the Texan regionalism of Larry McMurtry, the survivalist thrillers of James Dickey, the black neo-noir of Walter Mosley, or the existential best-sellers of Walker Percy (Love in the Ruins, 1971; The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987), and a host of yet unknown but worth knowing genre artists set a fresh course for American literature in the new millennium.


Baym, Nina, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1986. An invaluable resource containing works by most of the eminent authors in American history as well as immaculately researched introductions that serve as models of pithy exegesis.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, et al., eds. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A more thorough historical study, these volumes are part of a projected, complete history and set the standard for scholarly rigor. Volumes 1 (1590–1820) and 2 (1820– 1865) contain histories of prose writing, while Volume 8 covers contemporary poetry and criticism (1940–1995).

Elliott, Emory, ed. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Divided into short, discrete sections on various subjects, this source is not as complete or useful as might have been hoped. Of special interest, however, is the opening piece on Native Literature.

Hart, James D., ed. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Arranged alphabetically by author, this is an extremely useful, well-organized research tool. Given the format, the relative brevity of the entries is understandable, even refreshing.

Jones, Howard Mumford, and Richard M. Ludwig. Guide to American Literature and Its Background since 1890. Rev. and Exp., 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. A carefully researched bibliography of American literature that is easy to use.

Knippling, Alpana S., ed. New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to Our Multicultural Literary Heritage. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Covers an enormous array of material, with sections on everything from Filipino American to Sephardic Jewish American literature.

Ruland, Richard. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Viking, 1991. An eminently readable, lively history of American literature, rich in observations about connections between periods and authors.

Swirski, Peter. From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Irreverent humor and rigorous scholarship (including discussions of topics as diverse as sociology and aesthetics) are combined in this trenchant analysis of the relationship between highbrow and lowbrow literatures.

Tindall, George B. America: A Narrative History. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1988. A lucid history characterized by a wealth of detail: the time lines and indexes are particularly useful.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. Critical Essays on American Postmodernism. New York: G. K. Hall; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan, 1995. For the most part fair-minded and informative, this study neither rhapsodizes about postmodernism nor dismisses its influence among academics.

Walker, Marshall. The Literature of the United States of America. London: Macmillan, 1983. Although not as comprehensive as others, it is written with style and humor and gives a human face to many authors of interest.



See alsovol. 9:Untitled Poem (Anne Bradstreet) .

African American Literature

The struggle to establish African American writing in both the world of popular literature and the more academic world of letters has largely been won. With a remarkably growing black audience and increased interest from white readers, black writers of pop fiction such as E. Lynn Harris and Terry McMillan routinely sell hundreds of thousands of copies. On the other hand, African American literature has become part of the highbrow literary establishment with the Nobel Prize for literature being conferred on Toni Morrison, and with such critically acclaimed writers as Jamaica Kincaid, August Wilson, Carl Phillips, James Alan McPherson, John Edgar Wideman, and Charles Johnson.

Two movements coincided to increase dramatically not only the public's interest in African American literature but also the quantity and dissemination of professional African American literary criticism. The first of these movements was the establishment of black studies programs at white-majority universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an intellectual and ideological offshoot of the civil rights movement. The second was the feminist movement of the early 1970s. At that moment, a number of important black women writers appeared: Nikki Giovanni, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange. Their emergence was accompanied by the rediscovery of an earlier black woman writer, Zora Neale Hurston. With the rise of African American studies—despite the dominance of social science in this field—came increased awareness of black American literature and a growing number of highly trained people who could analyze it. With the sudden visibility of black women authors, came both critical controversy and the core audience of American literature: women. It can safely be said that, as a result of these social and political dynamics, African American literary scholars could achieve two important ends: the recognition of African American literature within the American literary canon and the creation of an African American literary canon. Both goals have been served through the construction of a usable black literary past.

African American Literature during Slavery

Because of the prohibition against teaching slaves to read, the acquisition of literacy among African Americans before the Civil War was something of a subversive act, and certainly the earliest writings by African Americans were meant—explicitly or implicitly—to attack the institution of slavery and to challenge the dehumanized status of black Americans.

The earliest significant African American writers were poets. Phillis Wheatley, a slave girl born in Senegal, was taught by her owners to read and write. Her poetry, published in 1773, was celebrated in various circles, less for its quality than for the fact that a black woman had written it. Jupiter Hammon, a far less polished writer, was a contemporary of Wheatley and, like her, was deeply influenced by Methodism. And in 1829, George Moses Horton published The Hope of Liberty, the first poetry that plainly protested slavery.

Without question, however, the most influential black writing of the period emerged during the antebellum period (1830–1860) and was explicitly political: the slave narrative—accounts of slavery written by fugitive or former slaves—was a popular genre that produced hundreds of books and tracts. Several of these books have become classics of American literature, such as Frederick Doug-lass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), William Wells Brown's Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive slave (1847), and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl (1861). Brown, a full-fledged man of letters, also wrote the first African American travelogue, Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852); the first play published by a black, Experience: Or, How to Give a Northern Man Backbone (1856); and the first black novel, Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). Other important black novels of the period are Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), Frank J. Webb's neglected Garies and their Friends (1857), and the recently discovered Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts (1853/60).

From Reconstruction to World War I

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, Charles Wad-dell Chesnutt, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—who had established her career before the Civil War—were the principal black writers to emerge during the Gilded Age, the nadir of race relations in the United States, when strict racial segregation was established by law and custom, and enforced by violence. It was a time when dialect and regional (local color) writing was in vogue, and the southern plantation romance was being cranked out as slavery suddenly became nostalgic. Watkins wrote both poetry ("Bury Me in a Free Land," 1854) and fiction, most notably Iola Leroy (1892). Hopkins, editor of The Colored American (1893), wrote the novel Contending Forces (1900), now considered an important work. Dunbar and Chesnutt were the two major writers of that period, both of whom used dialect and local color in their writings. Dunbar became the first black poet to achieve real fame and critical notice. He also wrote novels and lyrics for black Broadway shows. Chesnutt was a short story writer and novelist who used black folklore and the trappings of the old plantation to great, often ironic effect. His novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), about the Wilmington, North Carolina riot of 1898 was one of the more uncompromising works by a black author of the time—and uncomfortable for many white readers who had come to enjoy Chesnutt's early, more subtle work. Probably the best selling book of the period was Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (1901).

W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks (1903), a highly unified collection of essays, remains the single most influential book by a black author from this period. James Weldon Johnson's novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), used the theme of racial "passing" in a fresh way. Both books explored the idea of a unique African American "double consciousness."

The Harlem Renaissance

Several occurrences made the Harlem Renaissance possible, including the large migration of African Americans from the south to northern cities during World War I; the creation of interracial, progressive organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) and the National Urban League (1911); the emergence of Marcus Garvey and the mass attraction of Black Nationalism as a political movement; the growing interest among black intellectuals in socialism and communism; and the rise of jazz and a modernist sensibility among black artists. This renaissance largely coincided with the 1920s and was midwived by such eminent figures as Charles S. Johnson; W. E. B. Du Bois; Alain Locke, who, in 1925, edited the seminal anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation; and James Weldon Johnson, who wanted to create an identifiable school of black writing. Poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen came to public attention at this time, as well as poet/novelist Claude McKay, novelists Jessie Fausett, Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, and Rudolph Fisher, and the relatively unknown but brash Zora Neale Hurston. Probably the most artistically accomplished work of the period was Jean Toomer's evocative novel-cum-miscellany, Cane (1923).

The Depression and After

The depression signaled the end of the Harlem Renaissance, as white publishers and readers became less interested in the works of blacks, and as the fad of primitivism faded. Also, Black Nationalism and pan-Africanism lost traction as mass political movements, although they continued to affect black thinking. The impact of communism on black writers became more pronounced, particularly after the role communists played in the Scottsboro trial (1931). But black writers retained their interest in exploring the folk roots of their culture. Zora Neale Hurston, who had already made a name for herself during the Harlem Renaissance, published some of her major works during the depression, including her first novel Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and the anthropological study Mules and Men (1935). Her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is considered her masterpiece, one of the major feminist works by a black woman author. Other noteworthy novels of the 1930s include George Schuyler's Black No More (1931) and Arna Bontemps's God Sends Sunday (1931) and Black Thunder (1936).

A year after Hurston's great novel of black southern folk life, Richard Wright, a communist from Mississippi, published Uncle Tom's Children (1938)—intensely violent and political short stories with a decidedly different take on the black South. He became the first black writer to have his book selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club when, two years later, he published the most celebrated black novel in American literary history at the time, Native Son, with its stark naturalism and unappealing protagonist. Wright became, without question, the first true black literary star. In 1945, he published his autobiography Black Boy: A Recollection of Childhood and Youth, another highly successful book—an uncompromising and unsentimental examination of his family and life in the Deep South. He influenced a cadre of significant black writers including William Attaway (Bloodon the Forge, 1941), Chester Himes (If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945), and Ann Petry (The Street, 1946).

By the end of the 1940s, Wright's influence was waning, and black writers turned to less naturalistic and less politically overt themes. William Demby's Beetlecreek (1950), with its existentialist theme, is a good example of this new approach. Wright went to Europe in 1947, never to live in the United States again, and though he continued to publish a steady, mostly nonfiction stream of books in the 1950s, including the outstanding collection of short fiction Eight Men (1961), he never enjoyed the level of success he had in the late 1930s and 1940s.

By the early 1950s, black writers went much further in their crossover appeal, achieving greater acclaim than even Wright had done. In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first black to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Annie Allen (1949). Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award and has been judged the most impressive and the most literary of all black American novels. Some consider it not only the greatest of all black novels but also arguably the greatest post–World War II American novel. Finally, there is James Baldwin, son of a Harlem preacher, who began writing highly stylistic and penetrating essays in the late 1940s, and whose first novel, the highly autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), was well received. All these writers were trying to show dimensions of black life they felt were lacking in the works of Wright and other black naturalistic writers.

After the 1960s

By the late 1950s, two black women writers gained recognition for their work: Paule Marshall for her coming of-age novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), and Lorraine Hansberry for the play about a working-class black family in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which has become the most famous drama written by a black playwright.

In the 1960s, James Baldwin became a major force in American letters, publishing novels such as Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), as well as his meditation on the Nation of Islam and the state of race relations in America, The Fire Next Time (1963), his most popular book. He also wrote the play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). Propelled by the civil rights movement and the momentous sense of political engagement taking place in America in the 1960s, blacks began to make their presence in a number of genres. Bestsellers of the period include The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), the compelling life story of the Nation of Islam minister; Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965), about growing up in Harlem; and Sammy Davis Jr.'s Yes I Can (1965), about the life of the most famous black entertainer of the day. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) remains one of the best-selling black autobiographies of all time. John A. Williams, a prolific writer during this period, wrote, unquestionably, the major novel of this period, Man Who Cried I Am (1967), a roman à clef about post–World War II black writers. It deeply reflected the feelings of many blacks at the time, who felt they lived in a society on the verge of a "final solution," and was one of the most talked about books of the 1960s.

Probably the most influential writer of this period was LeRoi Jones, who became Imamu Amiri Baraka. He was a poet of considerable significance (Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, 1961, and The Dead Lecturer, 1964); a music critic (Blues People, 1963, is still one of the enduring studies of black music); a dramatist (Dutchman, 1964, was the single most famous play of the period); and an essayist (Home: Social Essays, 1966). As he became more involved in the cultural nationalist politics of the middle and late 1960s, the quality of his writing deteriorated, as he focused more on agitprop. Nevertheless, he helped spawn the black arts movement, which produced poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee (Haki Matabuti), Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, and Etheridge Knight. Much of this work, too, was agitprop, though several of these writers developed their craft with great care.

In the 1970s, more black novelists appeared: the satirist Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo, 1972); Ernest Gaines (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1971); and the highly intense work of Gayl Jones (Corregidora, 1975). With the rise of interest in black women's work, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker appeared, along with writers like Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place, 1982). David Bradley's groundbreaking novel about remembering slavery and the impact of its horror, The Chaneysville Incident (1981), foreshadowed Morrison's highly acclaimed Beloved (1987).

In the realm of children's and young adult literature, the late Virginia Hamilton (M. C. Higgins the Great, 1974) is the only children's author to win the coveted MacArthur Prize. Mildred Taylor (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 1976) and Walter Dean Myers (Fallen Angels, 1988) have also produced major works for young people.


Andrews, William L. To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Baker, Houston A. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis. Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Huggins, Nathan I. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Lewis, David L. When Harlem Was In Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1997.

McDowell, Deborah E. "The Changing Same": Black Women's Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Posnock, Ross. Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.


See alsoAfrican American Studies ; African Americans ; Autobiography of Malcolm X ; Harlem ; Invisible ManM .; Souls of Black Folk .

Children's Literature

The genre of children's literature in the United States was not named as such until the middle of the twentieth century, when libraries and bookstores began placing books they believed to be of special interest to children in separate sections of their establishments. Publishers caught on to this trend and began producing and selling books specifically to the children's market, further dividing the audience by age and reading levels. These groupings include picture books, easy readers, beginning readers, middle grade, and young adult. The categories overlap and disagreement over what books belong in what category are frequent and ongoing among professionals in the field. Late-twentieth-century scholarship questioned the practice of separating this literature from the mainstream and targeting it strictly for children. Interestingly, American children's literature has come full circle from its earliest days, when it taught culture and history through didactic texts. Afterward, it went through several decades of emphasis on entertaining and literary fiction, followed by a renewed interest in nonfiction, and then—to the turn of the twenty-first century—a stress on accounts of historical people and events, with an emphasis on multiculturalism.

Indian and Early American Literature

American children's literature originated with the oral tradition of its Native peoples. When stories and legends were told by Native Americans, children were included in the audience as a means of passing on the society's culture and values to succeeding generations. This oral literature included creation stories and stories of chiefs, battles, intertribal treaties, spirits, and events of long ago. They entertained as they instructed, and were often the most important part of sacred ceremonies.

The Puritans and other British settlers in New England brought with them printed matter for children to be used for advancing literacy, teaching religion, and other didactic purposes. British works were imported and reprinted in the American colonies, beginning a trend of European imports that would continue for some time. A number of the earliest known children's works written in the colonies borrowed heavily from these imports in theme and purpose. These include John Cotton's Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes (1646). Probably the best-known Puritan book that children read at the time was the New England Primer, originally published sometime between 1686 and 1690. It contained lessons in literacy and religious doctrine in verse form with pictures, not for the purpose of entertaining children but because Puritans believed children learned best that way. Other common books in early America included John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and American schoolbooks such as Noah Webster's Webster's American Spelling Book (1783) and George Wilson's American Class Reader (c. 1810).

The Emergence of an American Children's Literature

Imported books for children began losing their appeal after the War of 1812 and American themes expanded from religious doctrine to a more general moral stance that was viewed as important to the establishment of the character of the new nation. Jacob Abbott's "Rollo" stories, about a little boy named Rollo who gets older with succeeding stories, are a good example. The Congregationalist minister published the first Rollo story in 1835 and went on to write more than two hundred moralistic tales for children.

Moralistic teaching carried over into the general education system established by a nation desiring a literate democracy. The most commonly used textbook series from before the Civil War to the 1920s was the McGuffey Reader. It concerned itself as much with right and wrong as it did about reading. An exception to this kind of writing for children in the pre–Civil War period is the poem probably written by Clement Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas"—later known as "The Night before Christmas"—published in 1823 in a New York newspaper. This poem carried a new purpose, that of pure entertainment.

A well-known publisher and writer of the antebellum era was Samuel Goodrich, who founded Parley's Magazine in 1833 after a successful round of books featuring his popular storyteller character, Peter Parley. Goodrich's magazine mixed information about the world, much of which would be questioned today, with enjoyable entertainment for children. Other well-known American children's periodicals of the nineteenth century include The Youth's Companion (1827–1929), Juvenile Miscellany (1826– 1834), and Our Young Folks (1865–1873). Each periodical had its own character and emphasis and dealt with the timely issues of the day such as slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Late-Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Literature

As it was in Britain, the late nineteenth century in the United States was an era rich in book-length fiction for American children, producing some of the best-known classics enjoyed by children and adults. These include Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), along with its subsequent related novels, and Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The turn of the century brought L. Frank Baum's fantasy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900.

The twentieth century saw a shift in American children's literature so that domestic authors and titles finally won preeminence over imported titles. Readers became interested in subjects of American history and series like Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books—beginning with Little House in the Big Woods (1932)—drew dedicated fans. Classic novels involving the American theme of nature also appeared, including E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952).

The mid-twentieth century was marked by advances in printing technology that allowed for high-quality reproductions of artwork, leading to the mass production of thousands of picture books for children each year, a practice that continues. This created an even more important role for illustrators, who now wrote many of the books they illustrated. One of the earlier classics of this form is Goodnight Moon (1947), by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. Probably the best-known author-illustrator is Maurice Sendak, whose Where the Wild Things Are (1963) became an instant classic. Picture books have also provided a new venue where children can enjoy poetry, since many picture books are illustrated poems or prose poems.

In the late twentieth century, American children's literature began to turn toward multicultural themes. Works of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry illustrated and promoted an understanding of the diversity of the population of the United States and the richness and struggles of its people.


Avery, Gillian. Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621–1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Hunt, Peter. Children's Literature: An Illustrated History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kirk, Connie Ann, ed. Encyclopedia of American Children's and Young Adult Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Connie AnnKirk

See alsoChildhood ; Webster's Blue-Backed Speller .

Native American Literature

In the course of their adaptation to a largely Anglo-American presence in North America, Native Americans blended the literary and linguistic forms of the newcomers with their own oral-based traditions. Native American authors who have achieved widespread acclaim since the middle twentieth century have drawn not only on the rich tension between these two traditions but also on several centuries of Native American writing in English. Before the American Revolution, Native American literature followed the history of Euro-American movement across the continent; where explorers and settlers went, missionaries could be found converting and educating indigenous peoples. Samson Occom studied English with missionaries and earned the honor of being the first Native American to publish in English with his A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul (1772) and Collections of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774).

White attitudes toward Native American literature changed at the end of the War of 1812. After the United States defeated the tribes of the trans-Appalachian frontier, the dominant culture began to romanticize Native American culture, celebrating its nobility and mourning its imminent demise. The Indian removal policy of the 1830s only added to this nostalgia, which manifested itself most clearly in the popularity of Native American autobiography. Autobiography writers, working primarily as Christian converts, modeled their books on the popular format of spiritual confession and missionary reminiscence. In 1829, William Apes published the first of these personal accounts, A Son of the Forest. This work reflects the temperance theme of the time, decrying destruction of the Indians at the hand of alcohol. George Copway proved an ideal native model for white society; he illustrated the nobility of his "savage" past as he integrated it with Euro-American religion and education. His The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847) used personal episodes to teach English-speaking audiences about his tribe and culture. He published the first book of Native American poetry, The Qjibway Conquest, in 1850. One year later, with publication of the book by white ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, entitled Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, native poetry garnered a wider audience. In 1854 John Rollin Ridge broke away from autobiography and published the first novel by an American Indian, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta.

The second half of the nineteenth century marked the defeat and humiliation of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River and the solidification of the reservation system. The Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 attempted to force Americanization by abolishing communal landholding and instituting individual property ownership. Many Native Americans feared that their oral traditions would disappear under the reservation system, so they began to write down legends and folktales, as did Zitkala Sa, who published Old Indian Legends (1901). Between 1880 and 1920, other Native American writers were distinctly integrationist, asserting that only through assimilation could their people survive. Publishers hid the racial identity of John M. Oskison, the most popular Indian writer of the 1920s, while the novels of Simon Pokagon, John Joseph Mathews, and Mourning Dove continued to educate readers about tribal ways. D'arcy McNickle, considered by many the first important Native American novelist, published The Surrounded in 1936. He foreshadowed the use of alienation as a theme in post– World War II Native American literature.

The Termination Resolution of 1953 undid John Collier's New Deal policy of Indian cultural reorganization by terminating federal control and responsibility for those tribes under the government's jurisdiction. Termination attempted, again, to Americanize native peoples by breaking up what was left of tribal cultures. With service in World War II, poverty, and termination, many Native Americans were cut loose from their moorings, alienated from both the dominant Euro-American culture and their own tribal roots. It was not until 1970 that the U.S. government officially ended the policy of tribal termination.

Encouraged by civil rights activism, Native American voices appeared in the 1960s, including Duane Niatum and Simon Ortiz. These writers rejected assimilation as the only viable means of survival and asserted a separate native reality. N. Scott Momaday, with his 1968 novel House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 and brought Native American literature newfound respect. The year 1969 proved a turning point, not only because of Momaday's prize but also because Indian activism became more militant. The work of Gerald Vizenor, James Welch, and Leslie Marmon Silko asserted Indian identity. Vizenor wrote two novels, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (1978) and Griever: An American Monkey King in China (1987), and the latter won the American Book Award in 1988. Welch received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1969 and then wrote his first book of poetry. He also wrote many novels, including Winter in the Blood (1974), joining oral traditions and the English language. Silko published her best-known work, Ceremony, in 1977, also combining the mythic past and the English literary tradition.

The best-known Native American writer of the mid-1990s was Louise Erdrich, author of the award-winning Love Medicine (1984). Like most Native American authors who published in English, Erdrich used her talents to decry the toll that white religion, disease, and industrialization took on native cultures. Like Welch and Silko, she weaves tribal mythology with English literary forms. Sherman Alexie also distinguished himself as one of the nation's best new writers. Most widely known for his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)—the basis for the 1998 film Smoke Signals—he has distinguished himself as a poet and novelist who explores the questions of love, poverty, and Native American identity in a sharp but often humorous manner. The English language, used for so long by white society to remove Native Americans from their "uncivilized" ways, was used in the final decades of the twentieth century by Native American writers to assert their distinct cultural heritage.


Fleck, Richard F., ed. Critical Perspectives on Native American Fiction. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1993; Pueblo, Colo.: Passeggiata Press, 1997.

Larson, Charles R. American Indian Fiction. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Wiget, Andrew, ed. Critical Essays on Native American Literature. Boston: Hall, 1985.

KristenFoster/j. h.

See alsoIndian Oral Literature ; Indian Oratory ; Indian Reservations ; Termination Policy .

Popular Literature

While Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) is often called the father of popular literature because of his seminal role in the development of three popular genres (detective fiction, science fiction, and horror fiction), the world of mass-market popular literature did not emerge until toward the end of the nineteenth century. When it did, its themes and preoccupations appeared to owe little to Poe.

The First Literary Boom (1830–1900)

As a result of a variety of socioeconomic factors, the United States experienced its first literary boom in the years between 1830 and 1900. Romances by the likes of Mary Johnston (1870–1936) and Laura Jean Libbey (1862–1925), and westerns by writers such as E. Z. C. Judson ("Ned Buntine," 1821–1886) and Edward S. Ellis (1840–1916) appeared in biweekly or weekly "dime novels," the most famous of which were those published by Erastus Beadle and Robert Adams, whose firm began publication, as Beadle's Dime Novel series, in 1860.

Unapologetically commercial in intent, the dime novels avoided any potentially difficult questions raised by either their subject matter or their literary antecedents. This tendency was most notable, perhaps, in the dime novel western, which, while being derived almost exclusively from the work of James Fenimore Cooper (1789– 1851), managed to ignore completely the conflicts between the American East and the West discernible in Cooper's image of the frontier.

New Genres Appear in the Pulps (1900–1925)

While the next generation of the western did engage itself with the kind of question Cooper had asked, it rarely delved more deeply than nostalgia. In 1902, this added dimension, however slight, helped give the fledgling genre a cornerstone: The Virginian, by Owen Wister (1860– 1938). Zane Grey (1872–1939), whose Riders of the Purple Sage appeared in 1912, was among the most prominent of Wister's many imitators.

Pulps (the term being derived from the cheap paper on which the magazines were printed) appeared as new postal regulations rendered prohibitively expensive the publication and distribution of dime novels. Their appearance was accompanied by that of detective fiction and, in the form of the romantic fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950), the germ of an as-yet unnamed genre, science fiction.

Fantasy Dominates Depression-Era Popular Literature (1925–1938)

As the country entered the Great Depression, popular taste turned to fantasy. The most popular detective fiction, for example, was no longer a dream of order, which is how some critics describe the early form, but rather a fantasy of power accompanied by a pervasive sense of disillusionment. In 1929, Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) published the first such "hard-boiled" detective fiction novel, Red Harvest, which, as it owes much to Wister's The Virginian, is basically a western set in the city. Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), Erle Stanley Gardner (1889–1970), and Rex Stout (1896–1975) were other notable practitioners of this new detective subgenre.

Fantasy of an altogether different kind also entered the pulps of this era in the form of a hyperrealist school of science fiction founded by Hugo Gernsback (1884– 1967). In its own way no less fantastic than the Burroughsian mode, the new form remained distinguishable by its thoroughly unromantic obsession with the scientific and otherwise technical elements it brought to the genre.

An Explosion of New Forms (1938–1965)

During the war and postwar years, aside from some works by the likes of the western's Ernest Haycox (1899–1950) and Jack Schaefer (1907–1999), detective and science fiction remained the dominant popular genres of the day, albeit transformed by the war and a few signal figures.

John W. Campbell (1910–1971), who assumed the editorship of the pulp Astounding in 1937, helped bring about a revolution within the genre. He broke with tradition by publishing original work by Isaac Asimov (1920– 1992) and Robert Heinlein (1907–1988), two writers who helped bring about a synthesis of the Gernsbackian and Burroughsian schools. This helped to make possible science fiction's eventual graduation from the pulps, as is evidenced by the later mainstream success of Ray Bradbury (b. 1920), author of Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Detective fiction fairly exploded in this period, with new subgenres and fresh takes on established forms reflecting not only the impact of the war on the public consciousness, but also wartime advances in technology and the sciences. Espionage and other war-related subjects were incorporated (the "Cold War novel," appearing first in the 1960s and taken up beginning in the 1970s by writers such as James Grady, Ross Thomas, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy, had its roots in the detective fiction of this era), and a more sophisticated reading public embraced a hitherto unimaginably cynical variation: Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury (1947). In this brutish exercise in misogyny, sadism, and gore, the main character, Mike Hammer, metes out his own peculiar form of justice in a lawless urban dystopia that bears little resemblance to either Hammett's Poisonville or Chandler's Los Angeles.

The Romance and the Western Are Reborn (1965–)

Spillane's reinvention of hard-boiled detective fiction anticipated by a full generation the widespread inclusion in popular forms of graphic depictions of sex and violence. The appearance of the adult western is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this trend, but sex also became an almost obligatory element of the modern form of the "category romance," which reappeared in the last third of the century.

In the 1960s, Harlequin, which began publishing romances in 1957, took full advantage of new methods of marketing and distribution to resurrect a genre that had lain largely dormant, with few exceptions, since the turn of the century. Prominent writers of the modern category romance include Elizabeth Lowell, author of Tell Me No Lies (1986), and Jane Anne Krentz, author of Sweet Starfire (1986).

Notable variations on the genre, however, such as Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), an anti-romance, appeared with some consistency prior to Harlequin's ascendance, and the gothic revival of the 1940s and 1950s saw the reappearance of many themes familiar to readers of the romance. (The work of Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, and William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist [1971], lies in the shadow of the gothic tradition.) Novels with historical settings or themes, ranging from James Branch Cabell's The Cream of the Jest (1917) to John Jakes's North and South (1982), also bear strong traces of the romance.

The western experienced a similar rejuvenation in this period, with wide notice of the work of Louis L'Amour (1908–1988) and Larry McMurtry (b. 1936), among others, ensuring the popularity of the later, iconoclastic detective fiction of Tony Hillerman (b. 1925) and Elmore Leonard (b. 1925).


Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Thorough and opinionated.

Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. 2d ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1984.

Ohmann, Richard M. Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century. London: Verso, 1996.

Prince, Gerald. "How New Is New?" In Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Places science fiction in the context of literary history.

Pyrhönen, Heta. Murder from an Academic Angle: An Introduction to the Study of the Detective Narrative. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. With a New Introduction by the author. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Concerned with the socioeconomic origins of the category romance.

Unsworth, John. "The Book Market II." In The Columbia History of the American Novel. Edited by Emory Elliott et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Good introduction to the economics of popular culture production.


See alsoDime Novels ; Magazines ; Publishing Industry .

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François Rabelais in his irreverent and influential sixteenth-century novel Gargantua and Pantagruel writes "[t]he satirist is correct when he says that Messer GasterSir Bellyis the true master of all the arts. . . . To this chivalrous monarch we are all bound to show reverence, swear obedience, and give honour" (pp. 570571). According to twentieth-century literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Gaster is portrayed by Rabelais not as the creator of society, but more as the embodiment of the organized human collective. Because appetite is located in the viscera, "[t]he bowels study the world in order to conquer and subjugate it" (p. 301).

What better place to begin a discussion of food in literature than with Rabelais's novel in which references to food appear on nearly every page. This novel pokes fun at the sanctimoniousness of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the feudal elite by drawing on the humorous and vulgar language of the marketplace and the carnivalesque imagery of clowns, fools, giants, and dwarfs that were an integral part of medieval society. In carnival, the social hierarchy of everyday life is leveled, and individuals become united in a festival in which all participants are actors, and communal laughter mocks everyday society.

It is the belly and its appetites that give rise to the festival, and feasts of course inevitably accompany any festival. Such feasts celebrate the human encounter with and triumph over the world, in which food represents the entire process of cultivation, harvest, storage, trade, and preparation. Humanity devours the products of nature without being devoured by the world. This encounter takes place in "the open, biting, chewing, rending mouth" during carnival festivities (Bakhtin, p. 281).

Because of the excesses characteristic of celebratory feasting, Rabelais portrays his larger-than-life characters as capable of devouring much more than was humanly possible. Listen, for example, as the giant Pantagruel calls forth a feast for his menwith their grotesque bellies and wide-open throatsafter a military victory in which only one opponent survived:

He had refreshment brought and a feast spread for them on the shore with great jollity; and he made them drink too, with their bellies to the ground, and their prisoner as well . . . except that the poor devil was not sure whether Pantagruel was not going to devour him whole; which he might have done, so wide was his throat . . . and the poor fellow, once in his mouth, would not have amounted to more than a grain of millet in an ass's throat. (p. 250)

Food imagery in Gargantua and Pantagruel is just one of the more extreme examples of the feast in literature. The jovial, celebratory feast, the culmination of the process of growing food, in which humankind in social solidarity encounters the world with an open mouth, naturally gives rise to excellence in conversation, to wise speech, and therefore to literature.

In Plato's Symposium, for example, a group of prominent Athenians gather to discuss the nature of love over an elaborate meal, during which Socrates is both lauded for his wisdom and mocked for his homeliness. The feast also is a celebration and validation of a community, and a celebration of victory, such as a successful marriage, military victory, or treaty. Feasts, therefore, bring to a close several of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, such as As You Like It and the Tempest.

In Fielding's eighteenth-century novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, for example, the hero's general lust for life is portrayed through his appetite for food and sex together. In the nineteenth century, when Victorian British society developed ambivalent feelings toward human appetites in general, Charles Dickens portrays one of his best-known characters, Oliver Twist, being thrown out of an orphanage for having more of an appetite than the authorities deem fitting.

Food in Culture and Memory

Feasts and food in literature, however, portray more than the mere physical appetite for food and a human triumph over nature in festivals. Each culture, with its own tradition of literature, also maintains its own distinct cuisine and distinct traditional rules that govern acts of eating. The food traditions of a community are composed not just of recipes, but of the methods and technologies by which foods are grown, gathered, stored, prepared, served, and thrown out. Such traditions include also culturally transmitted rules that govern ideas of health and cleanliness as related to food. Furthermore, each community that gives rise to a distinct literature necessarily also maintains culturally specific rules governing foods that are especially valued and foods that are especially shunned and controlling the contexts in which particular foods may or may not be eaten.

In events that involve the serving of foodfrom snacks to meals to festival feastsnetworks of reciprocity among food preparers, as well as the relationships between those doing the cooking and those being served, become articulated. Food and events in which food is served, therefore, help define the social organization and cultural identity of the very communities that give rise to distinct literary traditions.

Because food customs call forth such a labyrinth of associations on the part of individual writers, and because the inherent sensuality of food involves not only the senses of smell and taste, but also the other senses, food is capable of evoking an avalanche of memories and feelings. Food imagery may appear, therefore, in literature as a source of deeply embedded associations that lead into the depths of individual and cultural memory. Perhaps showing the influence of Freudian thought, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (commonly known as Remembrance of Things Past ) evolves from the narrator's memories brought out of the unconscious and into his conscious mind as he ate crumbs of "squat, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines'," that he had dipped in a cup of tea:

And soon, mechanically, disspirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. . . .

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. . . .

And suddenly the memory reveals itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. (pp. 6063)

The Meal as Communion

Despite the availability of individual associations about food to a writer, it is the sharing of food within distinct food cultures that continues to be the major focus of literature about food. Furthermore, this sharing of food continues to be commonly portrayed in literature as a communion, even though the public festival of the late Middle Ages has, in modern society, become private. The famous Christmas feast that concludes Dickens's sentimental children's story, A Christmas Carol, with its flaming plum pudding and its transformation of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge into a more generous soul, is a prototype.

The family dinner as a private religious festival is perhaps more clearly seen in Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, in which a private dinner of boeuf en daube gives a well-housed coherence to an otherwise dark and fragmented world outside of the home. The cook and main character, Mrs. Ramsay, leads in this communion. In preparation, Mrs. Ramsay lights the candles,

and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily. (p. 108)

Expanding on the idea of the meal as a private festive occasion, Woolf writes that Mrs. Ramsay serves the main course of beef:

And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasiona curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival. (p. 111)

A description of a fruit basket in the center of the tablethe literary equivalent of a painting of a still life, writes Bettina Knapp, author of an essay about this dinner sceneconcludes the description of the whole meal. The still shapes and the rich textures and colors in the basket of fruit represent, in peaceful form, the emotional complexities contained within the character of Mrs. Ramsay herself, and the serenity born of that particular meal.

Meals portrayed in literature as moments of light and warmth in the dark and cold are not uncommon. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg, the Fijian cannibal, share a meal of clam chowder in a jovial inn in cold and wintry Nantucket, Mass., just as they had shared a warm bed together earlier in New Bedford on a bitter New England night. Ishmael comments that to appreciate warmth it is best to feel as if you are "the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal" (p. 48).

In perfect contrast to the social solidarity of the shared meal, Captain Ahab compares the life of isolation that he has led with the life of community that could have been his had he not been obsessed with the white whale. He states this contrast in the language of food as metaphor, and shared foodin this case, the breaking of breadas communion:

When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country withoutoh, weariness! heaviness! . . . and how for forty years, I have fed on dry salted farefit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world's fresh bread to my mouldy crusts . . . aye, aye! What a forty-years' foolfoolold fool has Ahab been! (pp. 47778)

The Feast as a Focal Point of Plot

While plot in literature most often focuses on the vicissitudes of human relationships, on love, conquest, betrayal, and loss, rather than food, the feastas both the culmination of one process and the beginning of anothernaturally appears as a fulcrum on which plots can turn. Meals and feasts, then, often provide the framework for events. Meals that are not portrayed as placid communions, therefore, reveal the contradictions brewing in the plot. In Homer's Odyssey, it is just after a feast of the suitors, which the hero attends disguised as a beggar, that Odysseus announces his return and slaughters his rivals. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the juxtaposition of the wedding of the bereaved queen too soon after the funeral of her husband elicits from Hamlet himself the ominous quip that "the funeral bak'd meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (Act I, scene ii, lines 180181). By juxtaposing two antithetical feasts, Shakespeare warns the reader that foul play, yet to be revealed in full, has taken place.

In Beloved, the 1987 novel by Toni Morrison, the central tragic episode of the storyan escaped slave's murder of her own young daughter to prevent her from being taken back into slaveryis immediately preceded by a feast that celebrates the young mother's freedom. This feast begins innocently enough when the man who ferried the woman across the Ohio River to freedom brings two buckets of blackberries to the family to be made into pies. To the pies, the family incrementally adds turkey, rabbit, fried perch, corn pudding, peas, various breads, and desserts, and invites the whole community to attend. "Ninety people . . . ate so well and laughed so much, it made them angry," Morrison writes (p. 136). They were angered that this family would celebrate so proudly while others still suffered. Yet the reader knows from the beginning that the celebration is premature and therefore doomed: the young woman's husband, the son of the older woman with whom she has come to live, remains in slavery and in danger. The plot turns from victory to tragedy on the fulcrum of the feast.

An excessive meal can betray other excesses latent in the personalities of the characters. In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the characters Levin and Oblonsky share a meal that seems vulgar in its quantity. During this meal of three dozen oysters, soupe printanière, turbot with sauce Beaumarchaise, roast beef, poulard à l'estragon, parmesan cheese, macédoine de fruits, vodka, champagne, and two bottles of Chablisa gustatory metaphor for Tolstoy's opinion of the excesses of nineteenth-century Russian aristocratsLevin speaks of his desire to propose to a woman half his age. Oblonsky, who himself has just been caught being unfaithful to his wife, encourages him. The food and conversation at the table encapsulate the magnitude of human desire that Tolstoy lays out in his novel as a whole, and cautions of the price that all pay for seeking the satiation of their desires.

Meals, Communion, and Counterculture in the American Novel

While in modern Western literature communion and meaning can be found around the dinner table, in the tradition of the American antihero, the bourgeois dinner table has sometimes been portrayed as stuffy and stultifying. Mark Twain perhaps began this tradition in Huckleberry Finn when he describes Huck complaining about having to abide by social manners at the Widow Douglas's house:

When you got to the table, you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them,that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better. (p. 4)

Countercultural characters similar to Huck appear recurrently in American literature. In this tradition, the wild out-of-doors, away from the social conventions of the dinner table, engender their own religious sensibility. In its suspicion of conventional modernity, this countercultural sensibility relates to the conventional the way that the carnivalesque related to feudal culture. Sometimes this suspicion of the conventional can also be symbolized by food, by a countercultural communion of sorts.

Ray Smith in Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums speaks of himself as a religious wanderer, hops a train going north from Los Angeles, and shares a counter-communion in the freight car with an old hobo:

The little bum was sitting crosslegged at his end before a pitiful repast of one can of sardines. I took pity on him and went over and said, "How about a little wine to warm you up? Maybe you'd like some bread and cheese with your sardines?" (p. 4)

The communion on the freight train ends with the little bum "warming up to the wine and talking and finally whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to the earth by showering it with roses from heaven, forever, for all living creatures." (p. 5).

Whether in a public festival, a private bourgeois home, or in a distinctly nonbourgeois boxcar, the sharing of food in harmony is indeed a blessing, as the saintly shower of roses ending this one literary meal indicates.

Food and Social Healing

Finally, another strand of food literature in the United States is represented by Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler and Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham. In Tyler's work, Ezra, the youngest child of a broken home, opens a restaurant called Homesick Restaurant, where he fervently hopes the world's emotionally wounded will find healing in the nurturing environment of a restaurant that serves home-style cooking. In Home at the End of the World, a nontraditional family opens the Home Café in Woodstock, N.Y., hoping to offer the world honest, home-cooked food, when traditional fare has become so processed and standardized that it fails to meet the needs of a materialistic, spiritually bereft American nation.

See also Brillat-Savarin, Anthelme; Etymology of Food; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Folklore, Food in; Herodotus; Language about Food; Luxury; Metaphor, Food as; Petronius; Rabelais, François; Sensation and the Senses; Shrove Tuesday; Symbol, Food as .


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984. Originally published in 1968.

Bevan, David, ed. Literary Gastronomy. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1988.

Cunningham, Michael. Home at the End of the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Penguin, 1990. Originally published in 1843.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Edited by Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton, 1993. Originally published between 1837 and 1839.

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones. Edited by R. P. C. Mutter. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1966. Originally published in 1749.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1963.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking Press, 1958.

Knapp, Bettina. "Virginia Woolf's boeuf en daube." In Literary Gastronomy, edited by David Bevan, pp. 2935. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1988.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1939. Originally published in 1851.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Plato. The Symposium. Translated by Christopher Gill. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Proust, Marcel. Swann's Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terance Kilmartin and revised by D. J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Originally published in 1913 and revised in 1981.

Rabelais, François. The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. The five books originally appeared between 1542 and 1564.

Rouyer, Marie-Clair, ed. Les avatars de la nourriture (Food for thought). Bordeaux: Université de Montagne, 1998.

Schofield, Mary Anne, ed. Cooking by the Book: Food in Literature and Culture. Bowling Green, Oh.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Edited by S. C. Burchell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Tucker Brooke and Jack Randall Crawford. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Edited by David Horne. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.

Shapiro, Anna. A Feast of Words: For Lovers of Food and Fiction. New York: Norton, 1996.

Theophano, Janet. "It's Really Tomato Sauce but We Call It Gravy." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1982.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Translated by Constance Garnett. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1944. Originally published between 1875 and 1876.

Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn. New York: Harper and Row, 1923. Originally published in 1884.

Tyler, Anne. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. Originally published in 1927.

Yoder, Don. "Folk Cookery." In Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard M. Dorson, pp. 325350. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Jonathan C. David

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The word literature can simply mean a body of published texts, as in, Are you familiar with the literature on global warming? In a more restrictive sense, it alludes to creative works of the imagination. Conventionally these are divided into poetry, drama, and fiction. This concept of literature is a relatively recent one, first used in the late eighteenth century.


The English word literature derives from the Latin litteratura, from littera (a letter of the alphabet). Most European languagesRomance, Germanic, and Slavichave direct Latin cognates of similar meaning. Originally, literature in English signified knowledge of books, book learning, and familiarity with letters, that is, written works. Creative writing was termed poesy or poetry in English, irrespective of its form, from the Greek word for to create. The earliest forms of poesy or what we would now call literature were the oral narratives of preliterate culturesmyths and folktaleshanded down in written form. These include the oldest known literary text, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (3000 BCE), ancient Egyptian tales from 2000 BCE, Indian poems in Sanskrit (such as the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata ), and ancient Chinese poetry. Homers epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey (eighth century BCE), and the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides (fifth century BCE) stand at the beginnings of the Western canon, or the body of literature generally accepted as worthy of study. Indeed, ideas of literary excellence were already present in the Dionysia festivals in Athens, when Greek playwrights competed for prizes. In a comedy that won first prize in 405 BCE, The Frogs, Aristophanes (c. 450388 BCE) contrasted two preeminent tragediansAeschylus (525456 BCE) and Euripides (c. 484406 BCE)clearly revealing the Athenians general familiarity with their dramas. Through attending epic or dramatic performances, a largely unschooled populace could be exposed to poesy or literature.

Some of the first Greek libraries were established to gather together accurate copies of the prize-winning dramas. The earliest known librarya collection of Babylonian clay tabletsdates from the twenty-first century BCE. Other ancient examples are the libraries at Nineveh (in modern Iraq), at Egyptian temples, and at the temple at Jerusalem, as well as the Hellenistic libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, established under royal patronage, and Roman libraries, both private and public. The famous Library of Alexandria, estimated at 500,000 scrolls, was joined to a research center (the Museion or Museum), encouraging the systematic study of philology, that is, language and letters. Literary commentary was already practiced in classical Greece; the best-known examples are those of Plato and Aristotle (fourth century BCE), followed in Roman times with Horace (658 BCE), Plutarch (c. 46120 CE), and Pseudo-Longinus (first century CE), as well as the third-century Neoplatonist Plotinus, whose ideas would resound in the romantic era. The work of these ancient Greco-Roman libraries and commentators established crucial ideas of literary evaluation and the literary canon that would influence Renaissance and later scholarship.

Poetic works in verse and prose were produced from antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance without being considered literature. In Europe these included imaginative works in Greek and Latin, as well as later texts in the vernacular languages, such as the Norse, Irish, and Germanic epics (including the Old English poem Beowulf ), courtly love poems of medieval France, the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (12651321), the tales of Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 13131375), the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 13421400), and the plays of William Shakespeare (15641616). The term literature first enters English in the late fourteenth century (according to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary ) in the original sense of literacy or acquaintance with books.


It is not until the late eighteenth century, with such developments as the growth of the modern nation-state; the rise of printing, publishing, and literacy; and the move from aristocratic patronage to commercial support of writing, that literature came to signify a body of literary texts. In this general sense, literature includes creative writing (poetry, fiction, drama, and essays), popular narratives, and works produced by philosophers, historians, religious and social thinkers, travelers, and nature writers, as exemplified in standard literary histories or reference volumes like the Oxford Companion to American Literature. In the more restricted sense of imaginative literature, the definition alludes to what in French is called belles letters or fine writing (a term also sometimes used in English but now tinged with the dismissive meaning of light or artificial dabbling). Imaginative literature can be defined by its fictional and autotelic nature, the dominance of the aesthetic function within it, and its special use of language, which René Wellek (19031995) and Austin Warren (18991986) in Theory of Literature characterized as follows: Poetic language organizes, tightens, the resources of everyday language, and sometimes does even violence to them, in an effort to force us into awareness and attention ([1949] 1978, p. 24). Complexity and appeal to generations of readers are also viable characteristics.


The nineteenth century brought about an increasing emphasis on the aesthetic properties of literature and the rise of the field of literary criticism, independent of philosophy or rhetoric. The romantic poets fostered a sense of literature as the field of unique genius and stressed the aesthetic experience of reading. Literature was also increasingly seen as an important element in constructing a unified national consciousness and providing citizens with a sense of their cultural heritage, both through the training of students and through the accumulation of literary works in research libraries and their interpretation by specialists. Famously defining the critics object of study as the best which has been thought and said in the world in his Culture and Anarchy ([1869] 1993, p. 190), Matthew Arnold (18221888) played an important role in making literature and literary criticism prominent in Anglo-American culture, vying with philosophy and religion as a way to reflect on the world.

In British and American colleges, the core curriculum was already heavily concentrated on the classics, the study of the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome. English literature was introduced in the 1820s at London and other universities, followed much later in the century by Oxford, Cambridge, and American universities, aided by an influx of women entering college. The national literature was seen as offering a valuable unifying cultural tradition, both in Britain after the shock and disruptions of World War I (19141918), and in the United States after the Civil War (18611865) and massive waves of immigration in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Victorians produced a staggering array of novels, short stories, and poetry to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly literate and middle-class reading public. The realistic novel became the dominant literary mode in Western literature, with a growing tendency toward a split between lowbrow or popular fictiondue to a proliferation of new subgenres, such as the romance, the mystery, and science fictionand highbrow literature, made up of critically approved fiction, poetry, and drama.

Modernist literature of the beginning decades of the twentieth century moved away from the realism and naturalism of the nineteenth century, toward experimentation, disruption of chronology and causality, and increasing complexity, a style more suited to developments in the twentieth century. Here T. S. Eliot (18881965) played a crucial role in elevating literature to a high art through his poetry and literary criticism, which helped develop the American formalist New Criticism and The Great Tradition (1948) school of F. R. Leavis (18951978) in Britain. This led to the mid-twentieth-century view, aptly summarized by Peter Widdowson, of high literature as a select(ive) and valuable aesthetic and moral resource to replenish those living in the spiritual desert of a mass civilization (1999, p. 59).


What is deemed of literary significance or high literature is to a large extent the purview of the national educational system, where academic critics establish the canon of works considered worthy of reading and study at the school and college level. The canon in its original meaning refers to the authoritative set of orthodox, established texts of the Christian church. The biblical canon excludes a number of texts deemed heretical, such as gnostic writings. Similar exclusionary policies have been seen in literary canonization, leading to postmodernist disruptions of the canon under the pressures of new authors and literary theories, including feminism, queer theory, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postcolonial studies. From the 1960s onward, the canon, long seemingly the domain of dead white males, was opened up to women, people of color, and other minorities. It was again in flux, with the emergence of these new writings and new genres, such as New Journalism or the nonfiction novel, as well as the self-reflective playfulness of postmodern fiction.

Literature is now increasingly in competition with film, television, and other mass media. Nevertheless, it is sustained by a huge publishing industry, bookselling businesses, the school and university systems, academic and public libraries, and the seemingly infinite resources of the Internet. In his study On Literature, J. Hillis Miller notes the crucial feature of creative writing: A literary work is not, as many people assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality, but on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a meta-world, a hyper-reality. This new world is an irreplaceable addition to the already existing one. A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver (2002, p. 18). Although threatened by the visual culture of the twenty-first century, literature still retains its unique quality of being able to generate alternative realities through the use of words as signs without visible referents.


Arnold, Matthew. [1868] 1993. Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. Ed. Stefan Collini. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Baldick, Chris. 2004. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Guillory, John. 1990. Canon. In Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 233249. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hart, James D., and Phillip W. Leininger, eds. 1995. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, J. Hillis. 2002. On Literature. London: Routledge.

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. [1949] 1978. Theory of Literature. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Widdowson, Peter. 1999. Literature. London: Routledge.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elżbieta Foeller-Pituch

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Long before Sputnik 1 became humankind's first orbiting spacecraft in 1957 and before the first astronauts landed on the Moon in 1969, science fiction and science fact writers provided the theories, formulas, and ideas that gave birth to space travel. Some of these thinkers and storytellers wrote fancifully. Others expressed their ideas in precise mathematical equations with intricate scientific diagrams. All of them succeeded in helping to make space travel a reality by the mid-twentieth century.

Early Works of Science Fiction

Early works of science fiction relied more on whimsical solutions to spaceflight. During the seventeenth century, Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moon employed a flock of swans to transport a voyager to the lunar surface. Frenchman Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) wrote space travel novels that described bottles of morning dew lifting people into the sky.

Far more serious scientific thought went into the works of two nineteenth-century space fiction writers. In 1869 American Edward Everett Hale wrote a novel called The Brick Moon. This book was the first that detailed the features and functions of the modern Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. French science fiction writer Jules Verne penned two space travel works, From the Earth to the Moon, in 1865, and, five years later, Round the Moon. In both books, Verne chronicled the adventures of explorers from post-Civil War America who take a trip to the Moon. Although the form of propulsion was unrealistic (the explorers were shot into space by a gigantic cannon), many other aspects of the stories anticipated the actual lunar missions undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1960s and 1970s. Verne correctly predicted everything from the phenomenon and effects of weightlessness in space to the shape of the capsule used by the Apollo astronauts. He even proved uncannily accurate in anticipating the Florida launch site, Pacific Ocean splashdown, and recovery by U.S. naval forces of the Apollo missions.

Twentieth-Century Rocket Pioneers

Verne's novels had a strong impact on the three most important rocket pioneers of the twentieth century. One of them was American Robert H. Goddard. As a boy, Goddard was so inspired by the Frenchman's tales of lunar trips that he dedicated his life to achieving spaceflight. As a young physics professor in Massachusetts, Goddard designed and constructed solid-propellant-like rockets. In 1917 the Smithsonian Institution agreed to provide funding for his high-altitude rocket tests. Two years later, Goddard wrote a paper for the Smithsonian titled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." This pamphlet discussed the mass required to propel objects beyond Earth's atmosphereeven to the Moon. He also theorized that liquid propellant made for a far more powerful and efficient fuel for rockets than solid propellant. Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. Ten years later, he published the results of this historic event in his second Smithsonian paper, "Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development."

The second father of modern rocketry was Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. His works focused on liquid-propellant rockets, kerosene as a fuel, and space station design. Tsiolkovsky's Investigation of Universal Space by Means of Reactive Devices, published in 1891, proposed the use of multistage rockets for space travel. Through his science fiction and mathematical study, he laid the foundation for the Soviet Union's successes in spaceflight, which began in the 1950s.

The third great pioneer of rocket theory was the Romanian-born Hermann Oberth. Like Goddard and Tsiolkovsky, Oberth espoused the virtues of liquid-fueled rockets for space voyages. In 1923, he wrote a book called The Rocket into Planetary Space. Besides advertising the use of liquid oxygen and alcohol for rocket fuel, he also stressed the importance of using strong yet lightweight alloys for constructing launch vehicles and spacecraft. His Ways to Spaceflight, written in 1929, discussed the possibility of building large orbiting space mirrors that could transmit energy to Earth and illuminate cities at night.

There were several other key spaceflight writers and theoreticians of the early twentieth century. In 1929 Hermann Noordung of Croatia wrote The Problem of Space Travel, which discussed the engineering requirements for a space station. Eugene Sänger of Austria developed basic concepts in rock-etry and aerodynamics in his work Rocket Flight Technology, published in 1933. Sänger almost single-handedly invented the idea of an "aerospaceplane"a direct ancestor of today's space shuttle. Germany's Fritz von Opel also contributed much to the field of rocketry. In 1929, he made the first documented flight of a rocket-powered airplane.

Von Braun, Clarke, and Beyond

In the post-World War II era, two important science fact and science fiction authors stood out. The first was the German-born Wernher von Braun. As a gifted young rocket engineer, von Braun was instrumental in building the V-2 rockets that Germany fired at Britain and Belgium late in the war. After World War II ended in 1945, he moved to the United States where he directed the design and construction of NASA's Saturn rockets, which propelled astronauts into space and to the Moon. In between these two periods in his life, von Braun penned numerous books, essays, and articles about spaceflight. In 1952 he published Prelude to Space Travel, which greatly expanded upon Noordung's research in space station development. Four years earlier, he had written The Mars Project (published in 1962). In this book, von Braun detailed the first fully comprehensive plan for a human mission to Mars. During the early 1950s, he contributed to a popular series of space-related articles in Collier's magazine.

The other key literary figure during this period was Arthur C. Clarke. In 1945 the British-born writer published a paper in Wireless World, titled "Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?" This was the first work to discuss the concept of communications satellites that stay in the same position above Earth. Such satellites made instant worldwide television, telephone, fax, e-mail, and computer services possible. In 1968 the film based upon his science fiction book 2001: A Space Odyssey captured the very mood and spirit of the space age.

Today, science fiction and fact authors continue the efforts begun by Verne, Goddard, Oberth, von Braun, and others. Through their imagination, knowledge, and words, the frontiers of space exploration are pushed forward.

see also Artwork (volume 1); Careers in Writing, Photography, and Filmmaking (volume 1); Clarke, Arthur C. (volume 1); Mars Missions (volume 4); Oberth, Hermann (volume 1); Rockets (volume 1); SÄnger, Eugene (volume 3); Science Fiction (volume 4); Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin (volume 3); von Braun, Wernher (volume 3).

Mark E. Kahn


Clarke, Arthur C. Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

McCurdy, Howard. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

National Geographic Society. Man's Conquest of Space. Washington, DC: Author, 1968.

Noordung, Hermann. The Problem of Space Travel, eds. Ernst Stuhlinger, J. D. Hunley, and Jennifer Garland. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Office, 1995.

Ordway, Frederick I., and Randy Liebermann, eds. Blueprint for Space. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Stuhlinger, Ernst, and Frederick I. Ordway. Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing, 1994.

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1. Artistic creation through LANGUAGE and its products: French literature, literature in English.

2. The texts of a group or subject: scientific and technical literature, the latest literature on computers.

‘Literary’ literature

It is impossible to define the primary sense of literature precisely or to set rigid limits on its use. Literary treatment of a subject requires creative use of the imagination: something is constructed which is related to ‘real’ experience, but is not of the same order. What has been created in language is known only through language, and the text does not give access to a reality other than itself. As a consequence, the texts that make up English literature are a part and a product of the English language and cannot be separated from it, even though there may be distinct university departments of English as ‘language’ and as ‘literature’.

Identifying a literary text

Traditionally, literary texts have been easy to identify: an ode or a play is ‘literary’, but a menu or a telephone directory is not. There is, however, an indeterminate area of essays, biographies, memoirs, history, philosophy, travel books, and other texts which may or may not be deemed literary. Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) is commonly studied as a political text and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678–84) as a literary text, yet they share certain qualities, such as lively personifications; Bunyan creates Giant Despair and Little-faith, while Hobbes writes ‘the Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the Deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof’. As Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) has grown less important as history, it has become more significant as literature. Many texts appear therefore to have literary aspects combined with other qualities and purposes, and ultimately individual or consensual choice must decide which has priority. Private and group judgement is also exercised in evaluative criticism. The word literature tends to be used with approval of works perceived as having artistic merit, the evaluation of which may depend on social and linguistic as well as aesthetic factors. If the criteria of quality become exacting, a canon may emerge, limited in its inclusions and exclusions, and the members of a society or group may be required (with varying degrees of pressure and success) to accept that canon and no other. Academic syllabuses for degrees in English have traditionally covered periods, focused on such well-established writers as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. Courses introduced more recently may include such topics as Women's Writing, with study of recent novelists like Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood as well as Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf, or Black American Literature, with James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

Literature and language

In the formative period of a written language, a successful literature may favour a particular dialect and contribute towards its becoming a national printed standard, in the case of English the East Midlands dialect from the 14c onwards. The prestige of literature can attract favour to an associated ‘high style’ that rejects aspects of common usage as vulgar. This favour prevailed for a time in some Continental European literatures, such as the dolce stil of 12c Italy and 17–18c classical French writing, but apart from the 18c cult of poetic diction has had little influence in the English-speaking world. Literature is an exceptional area of language use, which many people have regarded as the highest service to which language can be put and the surest touchstone of good usage. Its creation is dependent on the resources available to the author in any period, but those resources may be enriched and increased by a literary tradition in which quotations from and allusions to ‘the classics’ abound and many words have literary nuances. Writers have created such enduring neologisms as Spenser's blatant, Milton's pandemonium, and Shaw's superman.

The language of literature

In the 20c, much attention has been given to the language of literature and the question of whether there is in fact distinctively literary language. Many features thought of as literary appear in common usage. Metre and formal rhythm derive from everyday speech, words often rhyme without conscious contrivance, multiple meaning and word associations are part of daily communication, and tropes and figures of speech are used in ordinary discourse. However, literary language shows a greater concentration of such features, deliberately arranged and controlled. It may be said that communication is impossible without artifice, yet there is a difference between the colloquial simile that someone is ‘as bold as brass’ and T. S. Eliot's simile for the young man in The Waste Land (1922): ‘One of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.’ The difference lies not only in the originality and unexpected juxtaposition, but in the appropriateness of image to context, in the austere tone of the whole poem, in the evocation of a snobbish post-1918 attitude to men who had become rich through government contracts during the war.

Language in literature

Literary language may be drawn from any area or register of daily usage. Colloquialism and dialect are used in fictional and dramatic dialogue, as in this passage from Sons and Lovers ( D. H. Lawrence, 1913):‘But how late you are!’
‘Aren't I!’ he cried, turning to his father.
‘Well, dad!’
The two men shook hands.
‘Well, my lad!’
Morel's eyes were wet.
‘We thought tha'd niver be commin',’ he said.
‘Oh, I'd come!’ exclaimed William.
In James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom reads an advertisement in a newspaper:What is home without
Plumtree's Potted Meat?
With it an abode of bliss.
and incorporates the jingle into his stream of consciousness. The pattern of metre and rhyme may transform into poetry a statement which has neither rare words nor unusual syntax:The lad came to the door at night,
When lovers crown their vows,
And whistled soft and out of sight
In shadow of the boughs.
( A. E. Housman, ‘The True Lover’, 1896)
Prevailing literary fashion may make literary language seem artificial without impairing comprehension:If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Thy springs and dying gales.
( William Collins, 1721–59, ‘Ode to Evening’)
Experiment and the personal vision may challenge the reader to make a new response to language and to accept T. S. Eliot's dictum that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’:Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes.
( Dylan Thomas, 1914–53, ‘Fern Hill’)
These extracts are from texts commonly accepted as part of literature, yet, out of context, they seem to present irreconcilable differences. Every literary work must be seen in its totality as a unique creation, often connected by similarities with other texts but dependent on none for its validity.

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249. Literature


the style and theories of the Greek writers of Alexandria, 325-30 B.C., whose style was highly ornamented and obscure and favored such forms as the elegy, epigram, epyllion, and lyric and also ventured into the drama. Alexandrianist , n., adj.
an art form, as a story, painting, or sculpture, in which the components have a symbolic, figurative meaning. allegorist, allegorizer , n. allegorical , adj.
the placing of a scene, character, event, etc., where it clearly does not belong, either for special effect or as an oversight. See also anachronism . anachoristic , adj.
an error in chronology, as the placing of an event or figure in a period or scene in which it did not or could not belong. anachronistic , adj.
a collection of stories, poems, or other literary material. See also 80. CHRISTIANITY . anthologist , n.
the satirical or humorous use of a word or phrase to convey an idea exactly opposite to its real significance, as Shakespeares honorable men for Caesars murderers. antiphrastic , adj.
the act or process of plagiarizing ones own work.
belletrism, belles-lettrism
the view that literature is a fine art, especially as having a purely aesthetic function. belletrist , n. belles lettres , n. belletristic , adj.
an allegorical or moralizing commentary, usually medieval and sometimes illustrated, based upon real or fabled animals.
the condition of having a book on the bestseller list.
the expurgation of a literary work in a highly prudish manner. Also bowdlerization . bowdlerize , v.
the revival in arts and letters in the 16th century in Italy. cinquecentist , n., adj.
1. the act or art of analyzing the quality of something, especially a literary or artistic work, a musical or dramatic performance, etc.
2. a critical comment, article, or essay; critique. critic , n.
a person who is well acquainted with culture, as literature, the arts, etc., and who advocates their worth to society.
the analysis of original texts or documents.
the art and literature of 13th-century Italy. duecentist , n., adj.
the art or practice of writing letters. epistolographic , adj.
an abnormal interest in erotic literature.
1. the habit of writing essays.
2. the quality that allows a composition to be called an essay. essayist , n.
an anthology or select collection of literary pieces.
the writing or compilation of marginal or interlinear notes in a manuscript text. glossographer , n.
a scholar of literature who shows parallels or harmony between passages from different authors. See also 284. MUSIC .
a theory or practice of a group of English and American poets between 1909 and 1917, especially emphasis upon the use of common speech, new rhythms, unrestricted subject matter, and clear and precise images. Imagist , n. Imagistic , adj.
a member of an order of Armenian monks, founded in 1715 by Mekhitar da Pietro, dedicated to literary work, especially the perfecting of the Armenian language and the translation into it of the major works of other languages.
an emphasis in narrative or dramatic literary works on the sensational in situation or action. melodramatist , n. melodramatic , adj.
the art or practice of writing memoirs. memoirist , n.
the excessively optimistic outlook of Wilkins Micawber, a character from Dickenss novel David Copperfield. Micawberish , adj.
paleography, palaeography
1. ancient forms of writing, as in inscriptions, documents, and manuscripts.
2. the study of ancient writings, including decipherment, translation, and determination of age and date. paleographer, palaeographer , n. paleographic, palaeographic , adj.
the theories and practice of a school of French poets in the 19th century, especially an emphasis upon art for arts sake, careful metrics, and the repression of emotive elements. Parnassian , n., adj.
the quality of being hypocritical or selfish like Dickenss character Seth Pecksniff in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Pecksniffery , n. Pecksniffian , adj.
an abnormal interest in pornography.
strict adherence to particular concepts, rules, or ideals of form, style, etc., either as formulated by the artist or as dictated by a school with which the artist is allied, See also 23. ART ; 104. CRITICISM ; 236. LANGUAGE . purist , n., adj.
a quality in literature that is the product of fidelity to the habits, speech, manners, history, folklore, and beliefs of a particular geographical section, as Thomas Hardy and Wessex. regionalist , n. regionalistic , adj.
an ancient commentator on the classics, especially the writing of marginalia (scholia) on grammatical and interpretive cruxes. scholiastic , adj.
the writing of satires. sillographer , n.
the systematic study of folklore and folk literature, especially concerning origin and transmission. storiologist , n.
the actions or characteristics of the imaginary inhabitants of Luggnagg, a country created by Swift in Gullivers Travels.
the principles of a literary movement originated during the latter part of the 19th century in France and highly influential in literature written in English, characterized especially by an emphasis upon the associative character of verbal, often private, symbols and the use of synesthetic devices to suggest color and music. Symbolist , n., adj.
1. a type of mythmaking or storytelling in which monsters and marvels are featured.
2. a collection of such stories. teratologist , n. teratological , adj.
a series of four related works. tetralogist , n. tetralogical , adj.
the introduction of gods or supernatural entities into a dramatic or literary work, especially to resolve situations. theotechnic , adj.
a series of three related works. trilogist , n. trilogical , adj.
the condition of having romantic qualities like Werther, a character from Goethes The Sorrows of Werther. Wertherian , adj.
a variety of academic or literary research attempting to find the sources behind works of the imagination, named after a noted study of this kind, John Livingston Lowes Road to Xanadu (1927), an inquiry into Coleridges poem, Xanadu. Xanaduist , n., adj.

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lit·er·a·ture / ˈlit(ə)rəchər; -ˌchoŏr; -ˌt(y)oŏr/ • n. 1. written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit: a great work of literature. ∎  books and writings published on a particular subject: the literature on environmental epidemiology. ∎  the writings of a country or period: early French literature. ∎  leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice. 2. the production or profession of writing.

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"literature." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 16 Jul. 2018 <>.

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literature Collections of writings, usually grouped according to language, period, and country of origin. Within such groupings, literature may be subdivided into forms, such as poetry and prose, and within these again into categories, such as verse drama, novels, epic poems, tragedies, comedies, satires, and so on. See also literary criticism, tragedy, comedy

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This entry consists of the following articles:

literature: arabic

literature: arabic, north african

literature: hebrew

literature: persian

literature: turkish

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This entry includes two subentries:

African Literature

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literaturecatcher, dacha, focaccia, patcher, scratcher, snatcher, stature, thatcher •facture, fracture, manufacture •capture, enrapture, rapture •flycatcher • oystercatcher •archer, departure, kwacha, marcher, starcher, viscacha •pasture •etcher, fetcher, fletcher, lecher, sketcher, stretcher •conjecture, lecture •sepulture •denture, misadventure, peradventure •divesture, gesture, vesture •texture • architecture • nature •magistrature •bleacher, creature, feature, headteacher, Katowice, Nietzsche, preacher, screecher, teacher •schoolteacher •ditcher, hitcher, pitcher, stitcher, twitcher •Chibcha •picture, stricture •filcher • simcha •cincture, tincture •scripture •admixture, commixture, fixture, intermixture, mixture •expenditure • forfeiture •discomfiture • garniture •primogeniture, progeniture •miniature • furniture • temperature •portraiture • literature •divestiture, vestiture

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