views updated Jun 11 2018


Linda M. Carter
Genevieve Slomski

African American Literature of Colonial America

African American Literature during the Antebellum Period

African American Literature from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance

African American Literature of the Mid-Twentieth Century

The Black Arts Movement

African American Literature of the Late Twentieth Century and Early Twenty-First Century

African American Authors and Literary Critics

Award Winners

African American literature in the United States reached an artistic pinnacle in the period between World War I and World War II with the Harlem Renaissance. Since then, African American writing has embraced themes that range from the highly charged and sociopolitical to private and introspective. The Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought acclaim and prominence to many African American writers, and fostered the growth of African American studies at numerous universities around the country. In the 1980s and 1990s, African American writers were working in every genre—from scriptwriting to poetry—as they signed more contracts with major publishing companies, and their works consistently appeared on bestseller lists. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, African American literature maintained the high level of visibility established in the 1980s and 1990s. Black writers continued to explore a diversity of genres, as well as themes, and to create critically acclaimed works.


The African American literary tradition began in 1746 when Lucy Terry, at age 16, created Bars Fight and was sustained during the colonial era by individuals such as Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Briton Hammon, James Gronniosaw, and Olaudah Equiano. Although Terry’s poem was composed in 1746, it was preserved in song only until its publication in 1855. Thus, Jupiter Hammon’s An Evening Thought, Salvation, by Christ, with Penitential Cries, published as a broadside in 1760, was the first poem published by an African American. Thirteen years later, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American—and the second woman—to publish a book in the colonies. Published in 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England made a tremendous impact on white colonial America, since many felt that African Americans were not capable of the depth of feeling required to write poetry. Soon after its publication, Wheatley gained such international recognition that she was granted her freedom.

While Terry, Hammon, and Wheatley composed poetry, Briton Hammon, Gronniosaw, and Equiano created autobiographies. In 1760 The Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man was published. Hammon’s Narrative only contains 14 pages; however, it is considered the first African American autobiography. A more developed autobiography, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable

Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw was printed in 1770 and reprinted in later editions. Gronniosaw is mentioned in Equiano’s two-volume work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). Gronniosaw and Equiano’s autobiographies provided a dual perspective that subsequent slave narratives lacked: life in Africa and life in America. Equiano’s autobiography became a bestseller within his lifetime, with nine English editions and one American edition including translations in Dutch, German, and Russian. Equiano died in 1797, yet his autobiography influenced many nineteenth century black autobiographers.

Therefore, these African Americans authors clearly demonstrated that that they could eloquently express themselves in English—a second language for most blacks during the colonial era—and represent themselves effectively in a variety of literary genres.


Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for African American writers during the period prior to the Civil War was having the freedom to write. Actually, knowing how to read and write was a tremendous accomplishment for many African Americans. This was due to the fact that only sporadic attempts at systematic instruction of Africans in colonial America had been made, and stringent laws were later passed in the nineteenth century that prohibited whites from teaching African Americans to read and write.


Slave narratives are literary milestones. Briton Hammon, James Gronnisaw, and Olaudah Equiano’s eighteenth-century autobiographies, along with their nineteenth-century counterparts, are the progenitors of full-length African American prose. These first-person narratives represented more than their individual authors; they provided a literary voice for the silent, enslaved masses that never had opportunities to document their life stories. In doing so, the autobiographers utilized the language of their captors as a method of rebellion.

During the nineteenth century, slave narratives established themes and structural considerations that had been previously overlooked. Noted literary critic Frances Smith Foster, in Witnessing Slavery: The Development of the Ante-Bellum Slave Narrative (1979), has identified four chronological phases prevalent in slave narratives: the loss of freedom, cognizance of options to slavery and a determination to gain freedom, escape, and freedom realized. Although many readers may consider the narratives by such persons as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, or Harriet Jacobs more political than artistic, the ability to adapt and utilize language in a manner that showed the glaring inconsistencies and inhumanity of slavery must be recognized as an accomplishment of letters. The full extent of these writers’ revolutionary thoughts was channeled through these traditional subjects of the Bible and neoclassicism. However, the restructuring and inclusion of the African American perspective created a viable means of resistance and expression.

The three most prominent authors of slave narratives were Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs. Douglass wrote three autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), which is considered the preeminent slave narrative; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Douglass’s fellow abolitionist William Wells Brown also authored three autobiographies: Narrative of William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847), his most popular autobiography; Three Years in Europe: Or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852); and My Southern Home (1880).

Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is an important work in that it is the most comprehensive slave narrative by a woman. Douglass, Brown, and Jacobs’s autobiographies are currently in print, and they, along with other slave narratives, are available in various collections such as Yusef Taylor’s two-volume I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (1999) and The Library of America’s Slave Narratives (2000). The nineteenth-century slave narratives continued the tradition of black self-definition and self-assertion that was established by the eighteenth-century slave narratives. The slave narratives of both centuries served as a preface and a foundation for subsequent expression through fiction, poetry, autobiography, essays, and other genres.


During the antebellum period, the majority of published African American works were slave narratives; nevertheless, African Americans made significant contributions to other literary genres. Antebellum African American writers, following in the footsteps of their colonial predecessors, continued to create poetry. George Moses Horton, for example, published three volumes of verse: The Hope of Liberty (1829); The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845); and Naked Genius (1865).

Poetry and slave narratives were genres that African Americans began writing during the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, African Americans demonstrated their ability to create fiction. Victor Sejour’s short story The Mulatto (1837) is the earliest extant work of African American fiction. In 1859, Frances E. W. Harper’s The Two Offers, the earliest known short story by an African American woman, was published.

The first African American novels were published during the antebellum period. The most well-known are William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Or, the President’s Daughter (1853), the first African American novel; Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857); Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North, Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There (1859), the first published novel by an African American woman; and Martin Delany’s Blake, or, the Huts of America (1859). In 2002, Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative was published. Crafts’s handwritten manuscript, dating from the 1850s, was recovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and authenticated in 2001. Crafts’s work appears to be the first novel written by a female fugitive slave, and it may be the first novel by an African American woman.

The first African American drama, The Escape, or, a Leap for Freedom, was published in 1858. Its author is William Wells Brown, the same individual who wrote one of the most influential slave narratives and the first African American novel. He is considered the first African American author of belles lettres.


With the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the era of Reconstruction, African American writers were eager to address subjects of personal and individual freedom. However, prevalent attitudes forced black writers to continue to address issues of “the master mentality” and “plantation politics.” Few writers could support themselves by their writing, and many went unknown.

As the United States moved into the close of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, other African American writers, such as Frances E.W. Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt, found an audience that appreciated their works. Among their works published during this period are Harper’s novel Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892); Dunbar’s volume of verse, Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896), which was his third of 11 volumes; Hopkins’s novel Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900); and Chesnutt’s short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899), and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), as well as his three novels: The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). The most widely known work of this period, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901), was the bestselling slave narrative of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

White society, however, still controlled much of publishing in America; African American work was often filtered and distorted through this lens. As a result, much of the work published by African Americans attempted to prove that they could fit into America’s middle class society. In fact, much of the literature of this era portrayed African Americans as being happy with their assigned lot. Yet some writers—Harper, Dunbar, Hopkins, and Chesnutt, for example—tried to break the chains of this imposed expression. They presented a view of African American life as it really was, not as white America wanted it to be.

The accomplishments of African American writers during the time prior to the Harlem Renaissance attest to both the use of literary forms and the purpose in finding their own voices. Although themes were often muted and subjected to continuous scrutiny, the use of imagery, language, and a new perspective opened the way for African American writers to focus more on the wealth of their culture and the African American experience in a truthful and honest fashion.


The Harlem Renaissance was the era of prolific African American creativity in literature, art, and music. Resistant to the easy categorization of a timeline, the Harlem Renaissance began around the onset of World War I in 1914 and extended into the early 1930s. It began with the movement of African American artists and writers into Harlem from practically every state in the country.

By the 1920s, Harlem was the largest community of black individuals in the world, encompassing Africans, people from the West Indies, the Caribbean, and the Americas. This community, similar to many urban communities in the North, saw the collective energies of persons joining together to celebrate the artistic talents of African Americans. While Harlem served as the hub of artistic activity, Washington, D.C. was also a place where many artists congregated to explore the new perspectives and ideas of the time. The largest group of women who were participants in the Harlem Renaissance found their literary identities not so much in Harlem, but in Washington in the company of host poet Georgia Douglas Johnson and other artists.

As African American journals such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis and Opportunity, edited by Charles S. Johnson, began to flourish, it became possible for African American writers to publish in a style that suited their tastes. Du Bois and Johnson were among the older, established authors, critics, and editors who encouraged younger writers. Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was an author of four novels and editor of Crisis magazine, did much to support the work of younger authors as well as women writers. In fact, Langston Hughes and others contend that the Renaissance came about because of the nurturing of older writers including Fauset and Alain Locke, a Howard University professor and literary critic. Also, African American writers discovered that some white patrons in the publishing field were, in fact, interested in promoting their works, and as a result, books by black authors were published with an unprecedented frequency.

In addition to Du Bois and Fauset, important writers of this era include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Eric Walrond, Rudolph Fisher, Jean Toomer, and Arna Bontemps. Among the most significant works of the era are Locke’s The New Negro (1925), an anthology of Harlem Renaissance works; Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932), a novel that satirizes the Harlem Renaissance; and Hughes’s The Big Sea (1940), his first autobiography that provides the best account of the Harlem Renaissance by one of its participants. Although free expression was essential to artists of the Harlem Renaissance, stereotypes that permeated the American culture made their writings appear rebellious. The conscious agenda of these mostly young, African American artists concerned the definition and celebration of African American art and culture and a desire to change the preconceived and erroneous notions most Americans had of African American life. Such views are eloquently expressed best in Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). Hughes’s essay, which was a manifesto for his contemporaries and has served as inspiration for subsequent generations of African Americans, ends with his bold declaration:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

The Harlem Renaissance shifted away from the moralizing work that had been characteristic of much of post-Reconstruction writing that decried racism. W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke realized that, as did many of the emerging young writers, literary efforts that catered to changing the conscience of the United States were no longer useful nor should such efforts be a primary consideration for artists. These writers felt communicating the African American experience through every facet of artistic mediums would, of itself, expound upon ills of a racist world. Issues then could be expressed through the lives of working-class and middle-class characters as the text sought to paint a realistic picture.

In this time of discovery for African Americans of the view from within, many also saw the changing relationships between blacks and whites. Literature reintroduced white America to a people who needed, wanted, and would eventually demand full participation in the society for which they had lived, labored, and died. This perspective would end the goal of convincing white America of African American entitlement and, instead, focus on self-education and exploration of the quality of the African American experience. It paved the way for power through art to inspire the masses and the writers of the 1960s.


As the Great Depression of the 1930s deepened, the Harlem Renaissance slowly faded. Richard Wright’s publication in 1940 of Native Son marked the beginning of a transition period in African American literature that would last until 1955. Writers during this time bridged the richly creative period of the Renaissance with the more intense creativity and sociopolitical activity that was to define the work produced during the civil rights movement.

With the publication of his classic novel Native Son, Wright maintained that the era of the Harlem Renaissance—with its motto of “art for art’s sake”—must end and be replaced with works directly intended to stop racism. He also believed that African Americans were an essential part of American society. These tenets became the foundation for the ideology of the civil rights movement.

During this time, other African American writers, notably poets, were taking a different road in their quest to be heard. Such poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin B. Tolson, Margaret Walker, and Robert Hayden employed classical and mythical themes. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her book Annie Allen (1949) and was the first African American to receive the award. These poets used a blend of extreme eclecticism with realistic, African American issues. The blend was successful, as their writing was met with acceptance in the university community.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street (1946); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), arguably one of the best novels published in the United States during the twentieth century; James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), as well as his essays such as Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963), were other books that brought serious African American issues to mainstream culture. In addition, many African American works were gaining acceptance with the mainstream literary establishment.

In 1959, on the “eve” of the Black Arts movement, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened in New York. Hansberry was the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and the first African American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Hansberry received inspiration for the drama’s title from lines in a Langston Hughes poem, Dream Deferred. Her play centers around the Younger family’s desire to move from Chicago’s South Side to a white neighborhood. Thus, art imitated reality as A Raisin in the Sun mirrored the many efforts to integrate neighborhoods across America during the 1950s.


The Black Arts movement, sometimes called the Black Aesthetics movement, was the first major African American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the early 1960s and lasting through the mid-1970s, this movement was fueled by the anger of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry, and other notable African American writers.

The artistic movement flourished alongside the civil rights marches and the call for the independence of the African American community. As phrases such as “black is beautiful” were popularized, African American writers of the Black Arts movement consciously set out to define what it meant to be a black writer in a white culture. While writers of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to investigate their identity within, writers of the Black Arts movement desired to define themselves and their era before being defined by others.

For the most part, participants in the Black Arts movement were supportive of separatist politics and a black nationalist ideology. Larry Neal wrote in an essay “The Black Arts Movement” (1968) that the movement was the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Rebelling against the mainstream society by being essentially anti-white, anti-American, and anti-middle class, these artists moved from the Renaissance view of art for art’s sake into a philosophy of art for politics’ sake.

The Black Arts movement attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the African American masses. Towards this end, popular African American music of the day, including John Coltrane’s jazz and James Brown’s soul, as well as street talk, were some of the inspirational forces for the movement. In fact, much of the language used in these works was aggressive, profane, and shocking—this was often a conscious attempt to show the vitality and power of African American activists. These writers tended to be revolutionaries, supporting both radical and peaceful protests for change as promoted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, they believed that artists were required to do more than create: artists also had to be political activists in order to achieve nationalist goals.

Leading writers in this movement included Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), whose poetry and plays were as well known as his political prowess, and Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), a poet and essayist who sold more than 100,000 copies of his books without a national distributor. On the other hand, Ishmael Reed—an early organizer of the Black Arts movement—later dissented with some of the movement’s doctrines and became inspired more by the black magic and spiritual practices of the West Indies (in what he called the “HooDoo Aesthetic”). Other organizers and essayists include Larry Neal, Ethridge Knight, Addison Gale Jr., and Maulana Karenga.

Nikki Giovanni was one of the first poets of the Black Arts movement to receive recognition. In her works, she advocated militant replies to white oppression and demonstrated through her performances that music is an inextricable part of the African American tradition in all aspects of life. Poet Sonia Sanchez was another leading voice of the movement. She managed to combine feminism with her commitment to nurturing children and men in the fight for black nationalism. Sanchez was a member of the Nation of Islam from 1972 to 1975, and through her association with the Black Arts movement, she managed to instill stronger support for the role of women in that religion.

Two major Black Arts presses were run by poets: Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit and Haki Madhubuti’s Third World Press in Chicago. From 1961 to 1976, the most important African American magazine was Negro Digest (renamed Black World in 1970); its editor, Hoyt Fuller, published the works of the Black Arts poets and prose writers. Landmark publications of the movement include Black Fire (1968), an anthology of Black Arts writing edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal; The New Black Poetry (1969), edited by Clarence Major; The Black Woman (1970), the first major African American feminist anthology, edited by Toni Cade Bambara; The Black Poets (1971), edited by Dudley Randall; and Understanding the New Black Poetry (1972), an anthology edited by Stephen Henderson.


Before the Black Arts movement ended in the mid-1970s, Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On (1971) was released. On the album’s title track, Gaye sings about the social problems of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the Vietnam War, protest demonstrations, and subsequent police brutality. The title of his classic album was not only a popular greeting but also testimony to the African American literary tradition. Since the end of the Black Arts movement, African Americans have written about “what’s going on” in greater numbers and to greater recognition than at any other time in literary history.

Important developments in African American literature during the last three decades of the twentieth century include the overwhelming success of many African American women writers, as well as a growth in the number of authors who have found that they can straddle more than one genre. The works of black writers appear more frequently as bestsellers, and at times, works of several African American authors appear concurrently on the lists. African American writing has become more legitimized in the United States, and African American studies departments have emerged in many universities around the country.

One of the first books of the contemporary renaissance of African American literature was Alex Haley’s Roots (1976). It was perhaps one of the greatest African American writing coups of the late twentieth century. With Haley’s book, as well as the highly popular television miniseries that followed, many black Americans have been encouraged to discover their own African roots. Since then, other books that explore the history of African Americans in the American West, the South, and the North have been published and eagerly received by African Americans.

As a result of the large number of African American literary works that have been published since the 1980s, a multitude of themes are present. Many African American writers have shifted their attention away from writing about the lack of equality between blacks and whites and toward themes of self-reflection, self-definition, and healing. Numerous African American women write in response to the Black Arts movement, protesting the role that they feel women played in the male-oriented black nationalist movement.

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and her other works have been resurrected and used as inspiration. The women’s liberation movement also supports these women by allowing their works to reach a wider audience. In this way, the somewhat female-repressive politics of the Black Arts movement has provoked women writers to express their own unique voices. Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, and Gloria Naylor are examples of successful women novelists who have become prominent figures in the publishing world. Autobiographer and poet Maya Angelou is another major literary figure.

Since the 1980s, African American women writers have been at the leading edge of the publishing industry—in quality as well as quantity of work. In addition to Walker, Jones, Morrison, McMillan, and Naylor, other prominent women working primarily as novelists include Edwidge Danticat, Gwendolyn Parker, Jamaica Kincaid, Lucinda Roy, Marita Golden, Bernice McFadden, Toni Cade Bambara, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Helen Lee, Yolanda Joe, Dawn Turner Trice, Pearl Cleage, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. While African American male writers are outnumbered by black women writers, among the contemporary African American male novelists are Ernest Gaines, Ishmael Reed, Walter Mosley, John Edgar Wideman, Albert French, E. Lynn Harris, Colson White-head, Darryl Pinckney, Brian Keith Jackson, Trey Ellis, Brent Wade, and Clarence Major. African American novelists often confront issues of identity, offering interpretations of womanhood and manhood. Challenged by W.E.B. Du Bois’s statement about dual identity as an American and as a black person, they collectively provide panoramic insight into African American life.

The decade of the 1990s as well as the first decade of the twenty-first century benefited from a broad spectrum of African American works that explored “breath of life” experiences. Themes centered on slavery are prevalent in the works of writers who focus on the African American past. Relationships are of thematic interest to many modern day African American writers. Other important themes in contemporary African American literature relate to family and coming-of-age issues. A number of the coming-of-age novels by African Americans portray their protagonists maturing during the civil rights era.

Barriers have been dismantled in various genres. Rivaling their white contemporaries, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany create works of science fiction; Tananarive Due crafts supernatural novels; Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Eleanor Taylor Bland write detective fiction; and August Wilson and Susan-Lori Parks take their plays to Broadway. Clearly, variety exists in contemporary African American novels. Novels of folk history, such as Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days (2001), and novels of the urban experience, such as Richard Wright’s posthumous novella, Rite of Passage (1994), are equally well received. Many artists find that they can straddle more than one genre—Walter Mosley, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, J. California Cooper, and Andrea Lee are good examples.

With the exception of the novel, the most prolific form of African American writing during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is autobiography. Memoirs and autobiographies have become a popular mode of expression, especially for non-professional writers, entertainers, athletes, educators, ministers, civil rights leaders, politicians, physicians, attorneys, motivational speakers, and relatives of celebrities have written their life stories.

A memoir worthy of distinction is Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace (1993), a work he co-authored with professor and literary critic Arnold Rampersad. In it, the tennis legend reveals that living with AIDS was not his life’s greatest burden; living as a black person in America was.

One of the most popular autobiographies at the end of the twentieth century was Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993), by Sarah (Sadie) L. Delany and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany (with Amy Hill Hearth). Their autobiography was published when Sadie, a former educator, was 104 years old, and Bessie, a former dentist and civil rights activist, was 102. Philanthropist, entrepreneur, and foundation executive Camille Cosby acquired the stage, film, and television rights to the autobiography. Consequently, Having Our Say opened on Broadway in 1995, and was later transformed into a made-for-television film. During the summer of 2002, Having Our Say was recommended reading as the District of Columbia began a program designed to encourage individuals to read.

“Amateur” writers are not the only individuals publishing their memoirs, however. Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), is greatly responsible for the revitalization of African American autobiography. Angelou has written five additional autobiographies, including A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). In 1977, 17 years after Richard Wright’s death, his second autobiography, American Hunger, was published. Its pages are comprised of the section that Wright’s publisher deleted from Black Boy (1945).

Poetry, the first genre that African Americans produced, remains a popular vehicle for black expression. A number of poets who began publishing their works in the 1960s, such as Mari Evans, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Haki Madhubuti, and Nikki Giovanni, along with poets who were first published in the 1970s, such as Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Ai, Toi Derricotte, and Yusef Komunyakaa, have continued to publish in the 1990s and beyond. Joining them are poets who began publishing in the 1980s—Rita Dove and Cornelius Eady—as well as poets who began publishing in the 1990s, including Kevin Powell, Elizabeth Alexander, and Kevin Young.

Important anthologies that include verse or collections of poetry published since the 1990s include On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists (1993), edited by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Joseph Lease; The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry (1999), edited by Joanne Gabbin; and Words With Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art (2000), edited by Belinda Rochelle. In 1994, James Madison University hosted the Furious Flower Conference, dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks. The conference featured three generations of poets, and was acknowledged as the “largest gathering of poets and critics” in more than two decades. A second Furious Flower Conference was held in Harrisburg, Virginia, in 2004, with more than 60 distinguished poets and scholars in attendance.

Whether writing in traditional styles such as the sonnet or being influenced by rap or hip-hop, African American creators of verse tackle the same issues as their prose counterparts: identity, racism, sexism, classism, relationships, politics, and urban life. Since the 1980s, poetry has become more popular and more accessible in the United States. Bookstores, universities, and literary groups continue to host established poets who read their verse before audiences. In addition, bookstores and cafés hold poetry slams and open mike nights where amateur poets can present their works. There are a variety of Internet sites that encourage novices to submit their verse.

African American writers and their works continue to be heralded on the national and international levels. Multiple National Book Award winners have been African Americans since the 1980s, including Alice Walker, Charles Johnson, Ai, and Lucille Clifton. Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to Alex Haley, August Wilson, and Rita Dove, among others. And two African American women writers recorded landmark achievements in 1993: Rita Dove was named U.S. poet laureate and Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

With the arrival of the twenty-first century, African American writers continue to look into their own world for answers rather than letting others define their past, present, or future. Contemporary black authors are the beneficiaries of the vast legacy established by writers of the colonial period, the antebellum period, reconstruction era, Harlem Renaissance, the mid-twentieth century, and the Black Arts movement. Twenty-first century writers, empowered by their talents and their literary ancestors, are expanding and enhancing the African American literary tradition.


(To locate biographical profiles more readily, please consult the index at the back of the book.)

RAYMOND ANDREWS (1934–1991) Novelist

Born in 1934 in Madison, Georgia, Raymond Andrews left his sharecropper home for Atlanta at 15 years of age. Once establishing himself, he attended high school at night and went on to the U.S. Air Force (1952–1956) and attended Michigan State University before moving to New York City. While working in New York in a variety of jobs—airline reservations clerk, hamburger cook, photo librarian, proofreader, inventory taker, mail room clerk, messenger, air courier dispatcher, and bookkeeper—he also perfected his literary skills.

Andrews’ Muskhogean County trilogy, which describes the life of African Americans in the deep South from World War I to the beginnings of the civil rights’ era in the 1960s, includes three novels. The first novel, Appalachee Red (1978), set in the African American neighborhood of a northern Georgia town called Appalachee, was widely acclaimed. In the opinion of the reviewer for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, his work marked the literary debut of a significant modern American novelist comparable in stature to a Richard Wright or James Baldwin. The following year, Raymond Andrews was the first recipient of the annual James Baldwin Prize presented by Dial Press at a ceremony attended by Baldwin.

Andrews’s second work, Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee: A Novel (1980), chronicled the 40-year reign—which began in 1906—of the spiritual and temporal leader of the African American community of Appalachee. Baby Sweets (1983), Andrews’s third novel, is named after the brothel operated by the eccentric son of Appalachee’s leading citizen. The brothel provides African American prostitutes to the town’s white population. The novel was published by Dial Press and illustrated by Andrew’s brother, Benny, who illustrated all of Andrew’s novels. This novel examines how the intermingling of the races affects an entire community, both black and white.

On November 25, 1991, Andrews died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Athens, Georgia.

MAYA ANGELOU (1928– ) Novelist, Poet, Actress

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, is a writer, journalist, poet, actress, singer, dancer, playwright, director, and producer. Angelou spent her formative years shuttling between her native St. Louis, a tiny, totally segregated town in Arkansas, and San Francisco, where she realized her ambition of becoming that city’s first African American streetcar conductor. But her true mark came later in life as her words became a symbol of hope that touched the soul of the people of the United States. Perhaps the ultimate recognition of her talent came when President-elect Bill Clinton asked the poet to compose and recite an inaugural poem for his swearing-in ceremony in 1993. Before reaching that point, however, Angelou experienced a great variety of life’s offerings, as inspired by her mother, grandmother, and other female role models in her life.

During the 1950s, Angelou studied dance with Pearl Primus in New York City, and later appeared as a nightclub singer there, as well as in San Francisco and Hawaii. She toured with the U.S. State Department’s production of Porgy and Bess in the mid-1950s. She began the following decade in the position of northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou went abroad working as an editor for The Arab Observer, an English-language weekly published in Cairo. While living in Accra, Ghana, under the black nationalist regime of Kwame Nkrumah, she taught music, drama, and wrote for the Ghanian Times. Angelou later went to Sweden to study cinematography.

Angelou became a national celebrity in 1970 with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, which detailed her encounters with Southern racism and a pre-pubescent rape by her mother’s lover. The work was nominated for that year’s National Book Award. Four additional volumes of Angelou’s autobiography were published: Gather Together in My Name (1974); Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); The Heart of a Woman (1981); and A Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002).

Angelou’s published works also include: Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Die: The Poetry of Maya Angelou (1971); Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); And Still I Rise (1978); Shaker Why Don’t You Sing? (1983); All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986); and Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993). In addition, Angelou’s works include: Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship; Now Sheba Sings the Song; and Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women.

Not limited to writing, Angelou dabbled both in front of and behind the camera. In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy award for her portrayal of Nyo Boto in the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s bestselling novel Roots. She also starred in the 1993 made-for-television movie There Are No Children Here, which co-starred Oprah Winfrey. That same year, Angelou wrote poetry for John Singleton’s Poetic Justice and played a small role in the film. The following year, Angelou appeared in a television commercial, reading a version of her poem “Still I Rise” for the United Negro College Fund’s Fiftieth Anniversary. She co-starred with Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, and Ellen Burstyn in How to Make an American Quilt (1995). Also active behind the scenes, she became the first African American woman to have a movie produced with Georgia, Georgia (1972), based on one of her books; and directed the films All Day Long in 1974 and Down in the Delta in 1998. In 2004, she published Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.

The 1990s held many highlights for the sought-after poet, who remained as active as she had been earlier in her career. On January 20, 1993, Angelou read her newly-created “On the Pulse of Morning” during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. This event occurred just a few days after her play And Still I Rise was performed in Washington, D.C. In 1994, Angelou narrated a World Choir ’94 concert held at the Georgia Dome, where the festival featured 10,000 singers from ten different countries. She also gave a reading at the National Black Arts Festival that year. In 1995, Angelou delivered “A Brave and Startling Truth” at a United Nation’s fiftieth anniversary ceremony held in San Francisco, read Sterling Brown’s “Strong Men” at the inauguration of Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, and was a keynote speaker, along with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the 25th anniversary of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Angelou has been the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards that include a Golden Eagle Award for the 1977 documentary Afro-American in the Arts, a Matrix Award from Women in Communications, Inc. in 1983, a North Carolina award in literature in 1987, a “best-mannered” citation from the National League of Junior Cotillions in 1993, a Medal of Distinction from the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents in 1994, and a Spingarn Medal from the NAACP that year. In 1981, Wake Forest University gave Angelou a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies. In 2000, Angelou was awarded the national medal of art by President Bill Clinton. A year later, she was honored with the Aaron Davis Hall Harlem Renaissance Award. In 2006, she received the Mother Teresa Award for her devotion and service to humanity.

HOUSTON A. BAKER JR. (1943– ) Writer, Literary Critic, Scholar, Educator

Houston A. Baker was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 22, 1943. In spite of the racist attitudes that permeated his environment, he went on to see himself as more than a victim. He attended Howard University and received a bachelor’s degree in English and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles. Out of his youthful experiences, he became an advocate for the Black Power movement, which advocated black nationalism in the period of the late 1960s and 1970s.

As a young scholar, Baker shifted his critical perspective toward an African American aesthetic in African American literature. In other words, he considered art an instrument of cultural expression in the liberation of black people—an instrument that should be recognized in the study of African American works.

As editor of the book Black Literature in America (1971), an anthology of African American writers, he began to produce books that gave voice to artistic and literary experiences found in the study of African American literature. Among others, his books include: Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Native Son (1972); A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen (1974); No Matter Where You Travel, You Still Be Black (1979); The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism (1980); Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave /emphasis> (1982); Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984); Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987); Afro-American Poetics: Revision of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (1988); Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory (1988); Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990’s (1989); Black Studies, Rap and the Academy (1993); Passing Over (2000); Critical Memory: Public Spheres, African American Writing, and Black Fathers and Sons in America (2001); and Turning South Again (2001). Baker has also written I Don’t Hate the South: Reflections on Faulkner, Family, and the South (2007); and The Betrayal of Black Intellectuals (forthcoming).

A prolific contributor to numerous scholarly journals and publications as well as president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1992, Baker is considered one of the leading African American intellectuals of his time. As a visiting professor to Duke University and professor and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, Baker continues to pursue a more active approach to literary studies. Among his many honors and awards, Baker was awarded the Hubbell Medal in 2003 for lifetime achievement in American Literary Studies.

JAMES BALDWIN (1924–1987) Novelist, Essayist, Playwright

James Baldwin is best known for his themes of personal and sexual identity and for his vivid depictions of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Born out of wedlock in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was raised in poverty. He never knew his biological father; his mother, a domestic worker, married a factory worker who was also a storefront preacher and a violent and cruel man. Baldwin assumed the surname of his stepfather, who died in a mental institution in 1943.

A voracious reader as a child, Baldwin turned to writing after an early career as a boy preacher in Harlem’s storefront Pentecostal churches. Baldwin’s first story appeared in a church newspaper when he was about 12 years old. He attended Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem and later graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was editor of the school magazine. Three years later, he won a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, which enabled him to write full-time. Baldwin’s issues with his stepfather, his own sexual identity, the suicide of a friend, and with racism, drove him away from the United States in 1948. Baldwin resided in Paris and London, as well as in Istanbul.

Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953 and received critical acclaim. Two years later, his first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, again won favorable critical acclaim. This work was followed in 1956 by the publication of his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. His second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, established him as a major voice in American literature.

In 1962, Another Country, Baldwin’s third novel, was a critical and commercial success. A year later, he wrote The Fire Next Time, an immediate bestseller and regarded as one of the most brilliant essays written in the history of African American protest. Since then, two of Baldwin’s plays—Blues for Mister Charlie and The Amen Corner—have been produced on the New York stage, where they achieved modest success. His novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, was published in 1968. Baldwin himself regarded it as his first “grown-up novel,” but it generated little enthusiasm among critics.

After a silence of several years, the question of whether Baldwin had stopped writing was widely debated. He published the 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. In this work, the problems besetting a ghetto family are portrayed with great sensitivity and humor. Baldwin’s skill as a novelist is evident as he conveyed his own sophisticated analyses through the mind of his protagonist, a young woman. To many critics, however, the novel lacked the undeniable relevance and fiery power of Baldwin’s early polemical essays.

Baldwin’s other works during this time include: Going to Meet the Man (short stories); No Name in the Street; One Day When I Was Lost, a scenario based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X; A Rap on Race with Margaret Mead; and A Dialogue with Nikki Giovanni. He was one of the rare authors who worked well alone or in collaboration. Other books by Baldwin include: Nothing Personal (1964) with photographs by Richard Avedon; The Devil Finds Work (1976), about the movies; his sixth novel Just Above My Head (1979); and Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1977), a book for children. He wrote 16 books in all.

In 1979, Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head, which dealt with the intertwined lives from childhood to adulthood of a gospel singer, his brother, and a young girl who is a child preacher, was published. The next year, Baldwin’s publisher released Remember This House, described as Baldwin’s “memoirs, history and biography of the civil rights movement” interwoven with the biographies of three assassinated leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Meanwhile, in his lectures, Baldwin remained pessimistic about the future of race relations.

His last three books were The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) about the killing of 28 African American youths in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early 1980s; The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction 1948–1985 (1985); and Harlem Quartet (1987).

Baldwin spent most of the remainder of his life in France. In 1986, the French government made him a commander of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award. He died of stomach cancer at his home in France, on November 30, 1987, at the age of 63.

TONI CADE BAMBARA (1939–1995) Writer

Toni Cade Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade in New York City in 1939. She took the name “Toni” about the time she was in kindergarten and later took on the name “Bambara,” after finding the signature Bambara on a sketchbook located among the materials in her great-grandmother’s trunk. Bambara’s mother, who was profoundly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and who profoundly influenced her daughter, strongly encouraged her daughter to explore her creative side and the influences of culture.

Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s allowed Bambara to participate in both the nationalist and the women’s liberation movements. In 1970, Bambara edited The Black Woman: An Anthology, which, being the first of its kind, was recognized as beginning the renaissance of African American women’s literature. Throughout her career, much of Bambara’s writings have explored the experiences of the African American community and, in particular, the experiences of African American women.

While working in community-focused positions and pursuing her writing, Bambara received her B.A. from Queens College in New York in 1959 and her M.A. from City College of New York in 1964. Bambara’s active career in academia and her numerous awards have exemplified her desire to use art to promote the social and political welfare of the African American community—but not at the expense of the African American woman. Her works, which are infused with both laughter and rage, include: Gorilla, My Love (1972); The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977); The Salt Eaters (1980), which received the American Book Award; and If Blessing Comes (1987).

On December 9, 1995, Bambara died of colon cancer in Philadelphia. Her last novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child, was published posthumously in 1999.

AMIRI BARAKA (LEROI JONES) (1934– ) Poet, Playwright, Essayist

Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. He attended Rutgers University in Newark and Howard University in Washington, D.C., and lived in Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950s. In 1958, Baraka founded Yugen magazine, which he co-edited with his wife, Hattie Cohen, and Totem Press. From 1961 to 1964, Baraka worked as an instructor at New York’s New School for Social Research. In 1964, he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, which dissolved in only a few months. He later taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, University of Buffalo, Columbia University, George Washington University, and San Francisco State University, and has served as director of the community theater, Spirit House, in Newark.

In 1961, Baraka published his first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. His second book, The Dead Lecturer, was published in 1964. Fame eluded him, however, until the publication of his play Dutchman in 1964, which received the Obie award for the best Off-Broadway play of the season. The shocking honesty of Baraka’s treatment of racial conflict in this and later plays became the hallmark of his work.

When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and following the close of his theater school, Baraka moved to Harlem, divorced his white, Jewish wife, Hattie Cohen, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and became an advocate for the black nationalist movement.

In 1967, Baraka married African American poet, Sylvia Robinson, who changed her name to Amina Baraka. In 1968, Baraka became a black Muslim and added the title Imamu (spiritual leader) to his name and led his own black Muslim organization, called the Temple of Kawaida. Baraka described this organization as an “African religious institution—to increase black consciousness.” The Temple and Baraka soon became a focal point of African American political activism in the racially polarized city of Newark. In 1972, Baraka achieved prominence in his role as chairman of the National Black Political Convention.

After he began to espouse Marxist-Leninist philosophy and dedicated himself to the working class, Baraka dropped the title Imamu in 1974. In 1966, Baraka’s play, The Slave, won second prize in the drama category at the First World Festival of Dramatic Arts in Dakar, Senegal. Baraka’s other published plays include: The Toilet (1964); The Baptism (1966); The System of Dante’s Hell (1965); Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969); J-E-L-L-O (1970); and The Motion of History and Other Plays (1978). He has edited, with Larry Neal, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (1968) and African Congress: A Documentary of the First Modern Pan-African Congress (1972).

His works of fiction include The System of Dante’s Hell (novel, 1965) and Tales (short stories, 1967). Baraka has also published the following titles: Black Music; Blues People: Negro Music in White America; Home: Social Essays; In Our Terribleness: Some Elements and Meanings in Black Style with Billy Abernathy; Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965; It’s Nation Time; Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism, A Black Value System and Strategy and Tactics of a Pan African Nationalist Party; and Funk Lore: New Poems (1984–1995); Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems (2003); and Tales of the Out and the Gone (2006).

In addition to the Obie Award, Baraka’s many literary prizes and honors include Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

ARNA W. BONTEMPS (1902–1973) Poet, Novelist, Dramatist

Arna Wendell Bontemps was one of the most productive African American writers of the twentieth century and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902, and raised in California, Bontemps received his B.A. degree from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923 and his M.A. degree from the University of Chicago in 1943. In 1924, his poetry first appeared in Crisis magazine, the NAACP periodical edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. Two years later, Golgotha Is a Mountain won the Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize and, in 1927, Nocturne at Bethesda achieved first honors in the Crisis poetry contest. Personals, Bontemps’s collected poems, was published in 1963.

In the late 1920s, Bontemps decided to try his hand at prose, and over the next decade produced such novels as God Sends Sunday (1931), Black Thunder (1936), and Drums at Dusk (1939). His books for young people include We Have Tomorrow (1945) and Story of the Negro (1948). Likewise of literary merit are such children’s books as Sad-Faced Boy (1937) and Slappy Hooper (1946). He edited American Negro Poetry and two anthologies with Langston Hughes, among others.

In 1968, Bontemps completed the editing of a volume of children’s poetry. Other publications included: One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom (1961); Anyplace But Here (published in 1966 in collaboration with Jack Conroy); Black Thunder (1968 reprint); Great Slave Narratives (1969); The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays (1972, 1984); and The Old South. He also edited several anthologies. In 1997, his book The Pasteboard Bandit was published posthumously. Bontemps died in Nashville on June 4, 1973, of a heart attack.

GWENDOLYN BROOKS (1917–2000) Poet

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks received this prestigious award in 1950 for Annie Allen, a volume of her poetry that had been published one year earlier. Brooks has been associated with the “black aesthetic” and the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Long a trailblazer, in 1985 she became the first African American woman to be appointed poetry consultant by the Library of Congress.

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, but moved to Chicago at an early age. She graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936 and identified herself with the South Side of Chicago throughout her lifetime. In 1945, she completed a book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, and was selected by Mademoiselle magazine as one of the year’s 10 most outstanding American women. She became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1946, and received Guggenheim Fellowships for 1946 and 1947. In 1949, she won the Eunice Tietjen Prize for Poetry in the annual competition sponsored by Poetry magazine for the same work that won her that year’s Pulitzer. She was named Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois in 1968.

Brooks’ insights into the potential alienation of African American life have been represented in the body of her work, which includes a collection of children’s poems, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956); a novel, Maud Martha (1953); and two books of poetry, The Bean Eaters (1960) and Selected Poems (1963). She has also written In the Mecca, winner of the 1968 Anisfield-Wolf Award; Riot; The World of Gwendolyn Brooks; Report from Part One: The Autobiography of Gwendolyn Brooks; Family Pictures; Beckonings; Aloneness; Primer for Blacks; To Disembark; Report from Part Two; and In Montgomery: New and Other Poems. Her poems and stories have also been published in magazines and two anthologies, Soon, One Morning and Beyond the Angry Black. The publication of Selected Poems in 1964 earned her the Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award. She has edited A Broadside Treasury and Jump Bad, A New Chicago Anthology.

Among the other honors Brooks has received, Western Illinois University established The Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African American Literature in 1985. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She won an Essence Award that year and a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1990. In 1994, Brooks was named the year’s Jefferson lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the highest honor for intellectual achievement bestowed by the U.S. government. The same year, Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center unveiled a bronze bust of Brooks prominently located in the facility, and the National Book Foundation awarded her the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and $10,000 for her lifetime of achievement. In 1995, Brooks received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In 2000, Brooks passed away due to complications from cancer. Survivors include her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely; son, Henry Blakely III; and a grandson. Her husband, poet and writer Henry Blakely Jr., died in 1996.

CLAUDE BROWN (1937–2002) Novelist

Claude Brown was born on February 23, 1937, in New York City. His claim to literary fame rests largely on his bestselling autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, which was published in 1965 when he was 28 years of age. The book is the story of Brown’s life in Harlem and, in the process, becomes a highly realistic documentary of life in the ghetto. It tells of Brown’s escapades with the Harlem Buccaneers, a “bopping gang,” and of his later involvement with the Forty Thieves, an elite stealing division of this same gang.

After attending the Wiltwyck School for emotionally disturbed and deprived boys, Brown returned to New York, was later sent to Warwick Reform School three times, and eventually made his way downtown to a small loft apartment near Greenwich Village. Changing his lifestyle, Brown finished high school and went on to graduate from Howard University in 1965.

Brown began work on his autobiography in 1963, submitting a manuscript of some 1,500 pages that was eventually cut and reworked into the finished product over a two-year period. Brown completed law school in the late 1960s and began practicing in California. In 1976, he published The Children of Ham, a story about a group of young African Americans living as a family in a condemned Harlem tenement, begging, stealing, and doing whatever was necessary to survive.

Brown died on February 2, 2002, in New York City, of a lung condition. He was 64.

WILLIAM W. BROWN (1815–1884) Novelist, Playwright

William Wells Brown was the first African American to publish a novel, the first to publish a drama, and the first to publish a travel book. Born a slave in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 15, 1815, and taken to St. Louis as a young boy, Brown worked for a time in the offices of the St. Louis Times and then took a job on a riverboat on the Mississippi. In 1834, Brown fled to Canada, taking his name from a friendly Quaker who he met there. While working as a steward on Lake Erie ships, he educated himself and became well known as a public speaker. In 1849, he went to England and Paris to attend the Peace Congress, remaining abroad for five years.

Brown’s first published work, The Narrative of William W. Brown (1847), went into three editions within eight months. A year later, a collection of his poems was published—The Anti-Slavery Harp—and in 1852, his travel book, Three Years in Europe, appeared in London. Brown’s Clotel, or, the President’s Daughter, a melodramatic novel about miscegenation, was first published in London in 1853. As the first novel by an African American (it subsequently went through two revisions), its historical importance transcends its aesthetic shortcomings.

Brown’s other books include: the first African American drama, The Escape, or a Leap for Freedom (1858);

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863); The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and Fidelity (1867); and The Rising Son (1874).

ED BULLINS (1935– ) Playwright, Essayist, Poet

Ed Bullins was born in Philadelphia on July 2, 1935, and grew up in Los Angeles. Bullins is a writer of drama, and one of the founders of Black Arts/West in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. He patterned this experiment after the Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem, which was founded and directed by Amiri Baraka. In 1977, when Daddy, the sixth play in his “Twentieth-Century Cycle,” opened at the New Federal Theatre in New York’s Henry Street Settlement, Bullins, in an interview with the New York Times, foresaw African American theatrical producers taking plays to cities with large African American populations. A leader of the African American theater movement and creator of more than 50 plays, he has yet to have a play produced on Broadway.

Bullins’ main themes are the violence and tragedy of drug abuse and the oppressive lifestyle of the ghetto. He presents his material in a realistic and natural style. Between 1965 and 1968, he wrote The Rally; How Do You Do; Goin’ a Buffalo; Clara’s Old Man; The Electronic Nigger; and In the Wine Time. He has also produced The Fabulous Miss Marie.

He has been a creative member of Black Arts Alliance, working with Baraka in producing films on the West Coast. Bullins has been connected with the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, where he was a resident playwright. His books include: Five Plays; New Plays from the Black Theatre (editor); The Reluctant Rapist; The New Lafayette Theatre Presents; The Theme Is Blackness; Four Dynamite Plays; The Duplex; The Hungered One: Early Writings; and How Do You Do: A Nonsense Drama.

In 1995, Bullins took up the position of professor of theater, and distinguished artist in residence at Northeastern University. He held this position until 2000. He is Artistic Director of the Roxbury Crossroads Theatre in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Bullins is the recipient of a number of honors, awards, and fellowships, including three Obie awards for distinguished playwriting.

OCTAVIA E. BUTLER (1947–2006) Novelist

Born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, Octavia Butler was a graduate of Pasadena City College. She attended science fiction workshops, including the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, and was a member of Science Fiction Writers of America. Her writing focused on the impact of race and gender on future society. In 1985, Butler won three of science fiction’s highest honors for her novella, Bloodchild: and Other Stories: the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards. She also won a Hugo in 1984 for her short story “Speech Sounds.” The 1987 novella, The Evening and the Morning and the Night, was nominated for a Nebula Award. In 1995, Butler won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

Butler’s other works include the Patternmaster series, consisting of the novels Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984); the historical fantasy Kindred (1979); the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Dawn: Xenogenesis (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989); the dystopian Parable of the Sower (1993); and a sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998). She has also served as a contributor to such science fiction publications as Clarion, Future Life, and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Butler died after striking her head during a fall at her home in Lake Forest Park, Seattle, in 2006.


CHARLES W. CHESNUTT (1858–1932) Novelist

Called the first major African American fiction writer and the first of his race to balance African American and white characters in an African American novel, Charles Waddell Chesnutt holds a prominent place in American literary history. His best fiction dealt with the themes of prejudice, social injustice, and segregation. He handled satire entertainingly, and he was direct and insightful in his nonfiction works and speeches.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 20, 1858, Chesnutt moved to North Carolina with his family at the age of eight. Largely self-educated, he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1887, the same year in which his first story “The Goophered Grapevine” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. This was followed in 1899 by two collections of his stories: The Conjure Woman, and The Wife of His Youth.

Chesnutt’s first novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), dealt with a young girl’s attempt to “pass” for white. A year later, The Marrow of Tradition examined the violence of the post-Reconstruction period. His final novel, The Colonel’s Dream, was published in 1905 and typified Chesnutt’s ingratiating approach to his art—an approach that the writers of the Harlem School were later to reject. Chesnutt also wrote a biography Frederick Douglass (1899). He died on November 15, 1932.

ALICE CHILDRESS (1920–1994) Playwright, Novelist

Born to a working-class family in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1920, but moved to and attended public school in Harlem. Actress and author Alice Childress studied acting at the American Negro Theatre and attended Radcliffe Institute from 1966 to 1968, through a Harvard University appointment as a scholar-writer. During this time, she became involved in a number of social causes. Her plays are Florence (one-act play); Gold Through the Trees; Just a Little Simple (based on Langston Hughes’s Simple Speaks His Mind); Trouble in Mind; Wedding Band; Wine in the Wilderness; and When the Rattlesnake Sounds: A Play About Harriet Tubman.

Childress also edited Black Scenes (1971), excerpts from plays in the Zenith series for children. Her other books include: Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life (1956); A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich (novel, 1973)—one of her most influential and controversial works; A Short Walk (1979); Rainbow Jordan (1981); and Many Closets (1987). Childress’s play Trouble in Mind won the Obie Award in 1956, as the best original off-Broadway production. In the 1980s, she wrote a play based on the life of African American comedienne Jackie (Moms) Mabley. The play was produced in New York City. Childress was the first woman to win an Obie Award, and the first black woman to have a play professionally produced on Broadway. Childress’s work was noted for its frank treatment of racial issues, its compassionate yet discerning characterizations, and its universal appeal. Her books and plays often dealt with such controversial subjects as miscegenation and teenage drug addiction. Childress died of cancer complications on August 14, 1994.

J. CALIFORNIA COOPER (19??– ) Short Story Writer, Novelist, Playwright

Joan California Cooper was born to Joseph and Maxine Cooper in Berkeley, California. She attended a technical high school and studied at San Francisco State College and the University of California. Cooper has also lived in Texas and Alaska; she currently resides in Northern California. Cooper decided to keep her first name silent; thus, she uses the initial of her first name. Cooper adopted the name “California” after an individual compared her writing to that of Tennessee Williams, who added the name of a state to his nomenclature. Cooper, who believes that age is unimportant, refuses to reveal the year of her birth. Although the public knows little about Cooper’s private life, her writing talent has brought her to the attention of the literary world.

Cooper once stated that she could tell stories before she could write. During her childhood, she created plays and performed them for family and friends. To date, she is the author of at least 17 plays, including Everytime It Rains; System, Suckers, and Success; How Now; The Unintended; The Mother; Ahhh; Strangers, for which Cooper was named San Francisco’s Best Black Playwright in 1978; and Loners, which is included in Eileen J. Ostrow’s Center Stage (1981). Her plays have been performed in such theaters as the Berkeley Black Repertory Theatre and the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts; Cooper’s plays have also been performed on college campuses, public television, and radio. After Alice Walker read Cooper’s plays, she encouraged Cooper to write short stories. Cooper once commented that her stories could still be in a drawer had it not been for Walker.

Walker’s publishing company, Wild Trees Press, published Cooper’s first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine (1984). In Walker’s forward to A Piece of Mine, she wrote that “in its strong folk flavor, Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Like theirs, her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person’s foolishness cannot be heard.” Cooper’s second collection, Homemade Love (1986), won the 1989 American Book Award. Her subsequent short story collections are Some Soul to Keep (1987), The Matter Is Life (1991), Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime (1995), and The Future Has a Past (2000). Collectively, these six volumes contain 52 stories. She has also published a collection of stories entitled Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns (2006). Her short stories have been reprinted in various publications such as Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present (1992), edited by Margaret Busby; and Cornerstones: An Anthology of African American Literature (1996), edited by Melvin Donaldson. Cooper has published four novels: Family (1991), In Search of Satisfaction (1994), The Wake of the Wind (1998), and Some People, Some Other Place (2004).

Cooper’s additional awards include the Literary Lion Award and James Baldwin Award, both from the American Library Association, and she was named Woman of the Year by the University of Massachusetts and Best Female Writer in Texas. J. California Cooper is one of today’s most popular African American authors.

COUNTEE CULLEN (1903–1946) Poet

Born Countee LeRoy Porter on May 30, 1903, in Baltimore, the details of Cullen’s early life are sketchy. He was orphaned at an early age and adopted at age 15 by Rev. Frederick Cullen, pastor of New York’s Salem Methodist Church. At New York University, Cullen won Phi Beta Kappa honors and was awarded the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize. In 1925, while still a student at New York University, Cullen completed Color, a volume of poetry that received the Harmon Foundation’s first gold medal for literature two years later.

In 1926, Cullen earned his M.A. at Harvard, and a year later finished both The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun. This was followed in 1929 by The Black Christ, written during a two-year sojourn in France on a Guggenheim fellowship. In 1927, he edited Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. The book was reprinted in 1972.

Upon his return to New York City, Cullen began a teaching career in the public school system. During this period, he also produced a novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), The Medea and Other Poems (1935), The Lost Zoo (1940), and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942, 1971). Throughout his life, Cullen promoted the works of other African American writers and was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1947, a year after his death, Cullen’s own selections of his best work were collected in a volume published under the title On TheseI Stand. Cullen died of uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946, in New York City.

SAMUEL R. DELANY (1942– ) Novelist, Literary Critic

Born in Harlem on April 1, 1942, and a published writer at the age of 19, Samuel Ray Delany is an award-winning and prolific writer of science fiction, novelettes, and novels. His first book was The Jewels of Aptor (1962), followed by Captives of the Flame (1963), The Towers of Toron (1964), City of a Thousand Suns (1965), The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), Babel-17 (1966), Empire Star (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), Out of the Dead City (1968), and Nova (1968). Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection both won Nebula awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America, as did his short stories “Aye, and Gomorrah” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” which also won a Hugo Award at the World Science Fiction Convention in Heidelberg. Delany co-edited the speculative fiction quarterly Quark, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 with his former wife, award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker. He also wrote, directed, and edited the half-hour film, The Orchid. In 1975, Delany was Visiting Butler Chair professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 2001, he was named professor of English and creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Delany’s other books include: Distant Stars (1981); Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984); Flight from Neveryon (1985); Neveryona (1986); The Bridge of Lost Desire (1988); the controversial Hogg (1996); the novella, Phallos (2004); and the novel, Dark Reflections (scheduled for 2007). His non-fiction works include: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; The American Shore; Starboard Wine; The Straits of Messina; The Motion of Light in Water (autobiography, 1988); The Mad Man (1994); They Fly at Ciron (1995); Atlantis: Three Tales (1995); Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999); and Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (1999).

RITA DOVE (1952– ) Poet, Educator

Rita Dove was born on August 28, 1952, in Akron, Ohio. She received a B.A. from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1973, and an M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa in 1977. Dove also attended the University of Tubingen in Germany in 1974 and 1975.

Dove began her teaching career at Arizona State University in 1981 as an assistant professor. She spent 1982 as a writer-in-residence at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). By 1984, she was an associate professor and by 1987, a full professor. Dove, who has served on the editorial boards of the literary journals Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, and TriQuarterly, joined

the University of Virginia’s English Department in 1989. She teaches creative writing.

Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for a collection titled Thomas and Beulah. Her themes are universal, encompassing much of the human condition and occasionally commenting on racial issues. She also published Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Fifth Sunday (short stories, 1985), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), Through the Ivory Gate (novel, 1993), Mother Love (1995), The Darker Face of the Earth: A Verse Play in Fourteen Scenes (1995); and On the Bus With Rosa Parks (1999); and American Smooth (poems, 2004).

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Dove won many honors including Presidential scholar (1970); Fulbright scholar (1974, 1975); a literary grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1978, 1989); Guggenheim fellow (1983, 1984); General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Poets (1987); Ohio Governor’s Award (1988); Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (1988, 1989); University of Virginia Center for Advanced Studies fellow (1989–1992); the Walt Whitman Award (1990); and the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award for The Darker Face of the Earth (1995).

Dove was named U.S. Poet Laureate, a one-year Library of Congress post, in 1993. She was the first African American and the youngest person ever to earn the appointment. On April 22, 1994, PBS aired a piece entitled “Poet Laureate Rita Dove” on Bill Moyer’s Journal. She hoped to use the position to revive public interest in serious literature.

PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR (1872–1906) Poet, Novelist, Short Story Writer, Essayist

The first African American poet to gain a national reputation in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar was also the first to use African American dialect within the formal structure of his work. He was a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance. Born of former slaves in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator after graduating from high school. His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was privately printed in 1893 and was followed by Majors and Minors, which appeared two years later. Neither book was an immediate sensation, but there were enough favorable reviews in such magazines as Harper’s to encourage Dunbar in the pursuit of a full-fledged literary career. In 1896, Dunbar completed Lyrics of a Lowly Life, the single work upon which his subsequent reputation was irrevocably established.

Before his untimely death of tuberculosis in 1906, Dunbar had become the dominant presence in the world of African American poetry. His later works included: Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905); Li’l Gal (1904); Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905); A Plantation Portrait (1905); Joggin’ Erlong (1906); and Complete Poems, published posthumously in 1913. This last work contains not only the dialect poems that were his trademark, but many poems in conventional English as well. The book enjoyed such enormous popularity that it has, to this day, never gone out of print. He also published four novels, including The Sport of Gods (1902)—considered his best, The Love of Landry (1900), and The Uncalled (1898), and four volumes of short stories.

Dunbar, whose work was rediscovered in the second half of the twentieth century, is sometimes referred to as the African American Alexander Pushkin or Alexander Dumas, fils.

RALPH ELLISON (1914–1994) Novelist, Essayist

Ralph Ellison’s critical and artistic reputation rests largely on a single masterpiece, his first and only novel, Invisible Man, a story about an unnamed black man’s search for identity in 1940s New York. An instant classic, the novel was given the National Book Award for fiction in 1952 and the Russwurm Award in 1953. Years in the making, the novel’s success heralded the emergence of a major writing talent. Ellison worked at a second novel for more than 40 years, but at the time of his death, the untitled work was still incomplete.

Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914, and came to New York City in the late 1930s, after having studied music at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) for three years. Initially interested in sculpture, he turned to writing after coming under the influence of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and as a direct consequence of his friendship with novelist Richard Wright. He worked for the Federal Writer’s Project and wrote for a variety of publications during the late 1930s to early 1940s. In 1942, he became the managing editor of the Negro Quarterly. He began writing Invisible Man in 1945. During World War II, Ellison worked as a cook in the U.S. Merchant Marines.

In addition to the National Book Award, Ellison won a Rockefeller Foundation Award in 1954; was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; received a Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1969; was named chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by France in 1969; and was given a National Medal of Arts in 1985. Ellison was the recipient of more than one dozen honorary degrees including doctor of letters degrees from Harvard University (1974) and Wesleyan University (1980). Three years after the publication of Invisible Man, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Ellison the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to live and write in Italy until 1957.

Back in the United States, Ellison began an academic career. He taught Russian and American literature courses at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, for three years and spent the early 1960s as a visiting professor at University of Chicago, Yale, and Rutgers, where he was a writer-in-residence. From 1970 to 1980, Ellison was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University.

Ellison’s second work was a book of essays entitled Shadow and Act. Published in 1964, excerpts from the book have been printed in several literary journals. Ellison began writing his second novel Juneteenth in 1954 and continued to revise it until he died. A 1967 fire destroyed 350 pages of his unfinished second novel’s manuscript. In 1982, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Invisible Man, with a new introduction by Ellison, was published. In 1986, a second collection of essays and talks was published as Going to the Territory. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan, was published posthumously in 1995.

Ellison died of pancreatic cancer in New York City on April 16, 1994. On May 26, 1994, a memorial tribute to him was held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.

MARI EVANS (1923– ) Poet

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923, Evans studied at the University of Toledo. Evans is best known as a poet and social critic but also published plays, songs, and children’s books. In 1963, her poetry was published in Phylon, Negro Digest, and Dialog. Two years later, she was awarded a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. One of her better known works is The Alarm Clock, which deals with the rude awakening of the African American to the white “establishment.” This work captures and summarizes the civil rights scene of the 1960s in the United States.

Evans’ books include: I Am a Black Woman; Where Is All the Music?; Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984), edited by Evans, covering 15 African American women poets, novelists, and playwrights; Nightstar: Poems from 1973–1978 (1980); J. D.; I Look at Me; Singing Black; The Day They Made Benani; Jim Flying High; (co-author) Mis Taken Brilliance (1993); (co-author) Singing Black: Alternative Nursery Rhymes for Children (1998); Dear Corinne, Tell Somebody! Love, Annie: A Book about Secrets (1999); and Clarity as Concept: A Poet’s Perspective (critical essays, 2005).

Evans has taught at Cornell University and Indiana University.

JESSIE REDMON FAUSET (1882–1961) Writer, Editor, Educator

Jessie Redmon Fauset, born April 27, 1882, was a central figure during the Harlem Renaissance—and sometimes called “the Mother of the Harlem Renaissance”—not only for encouraging the careers of many of the major writers of the time, but also through her own literary contributions to the movement. In 1919, Fauset became literary editor of Crisis magazine, founded by W. E. B. Du Bois. She held that position until 1927. As an editor, Fauset excelled; under her leadership, Crisis magazine outsold its rival magazine, Opportunity, started by Charles S. Johnson. She also realized Du Bois’s plan for a periodical focusing on children six to 16 called The Brownies Book and was its functional editor.

Fauset’s editorial experiences and travel heightened her own sensibilities about the images of African Americans. Her writings professed an awareness of the racism and sexism that existed during the 1920s and 1930s. She contributed numerous short stories, essays, critiques, poetry, and reviews to the magazine and published her first novel There is Confusion in 1924. The book was her response to an unrealistic portrayal of African Americans by white novelist T. S. Stribling. After Fauset’s break from Crisis in 1927, she established her place as an author and published Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933).

Fauset, who had received her B.A. from Cornell University in 1905 (Phi Beta Kappa)—the first black woman to matriculate at Cornell—and her M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1919, taught at both Fisk University in the summer and in high school and college settings. In he later years, she returned to teaching, partially because the publishing world was still not ready for an African American, let alone a woman.

Fauset died in Philadelphia on April 30, 1961, of hypertensive heart disease. Recently, Fauset’s contribution to the dialogue about race, class, and gender have been more fully recognized in her work. She not only challenged the world of publishing with her own work but also by assisting other artists, made it possible for unrealistic and negative perceptions of African Americans to be confronted.

RUDOLPH FISHER (1897–1934) Writer, Physician, Community Leader

Although he was a radiologist, Rudolph Fisher was best known as a leading writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Fisher wrote short stories and novels that depicted real life in the Harlem community and was also the first African American to write detective fiction.

Fisher was born on May 9, 1897, in Washington, D.C. He grew up in a middle-class family who saw that he was rigorously educated at primary and secondary schools in Providence, Rhode Island, and New York City. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University with B.A. and M.A. degrees. In 1924, Fisher

graduated summa cum laude from Howard University Medical School in Washington. During his medical internship at Freedmen’s Hospital in the same city, he published his first short story, “The City of Refuge,” in the Atlantic Monthly.

Continuing his medical education, from 1925 to 1927 Fisher trained at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He entered private practice and continued his writing as well, publishing five short stories in Atlantic Monthly and McClure’s, an essay in American Mercury, and an article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Fisher published his first novel, The Walls of Jericho, in 1928. In the novel, Fisher blends all of Harlem life into one story and bridges the gap between the classes. The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932) was his second novel and the first full-length detective novel with all-African American characters published by an African American author. Fisher published two children’s stories in 1932 and 1933, Ezekiel and Ezekiel Learns, and in 1933, he published two short stories “Guardians of the Law” and “Miss Cynthie.” The latter work also appeared in Best Short Stories of 1934.

In addition to his writing career, Fisher was superintendent of the International Hospital in Manhattan from 1929 to 1932 and was also a gifted musician. Between 1930 and 1934, he was a roentgenologist for the New York City Health Department and served in the 369th Infantry. He died of cancer on December 16, 1934, in New York City.

CHARLES FULLER (1939– ) Playwright

Charles Fuller was born on March 5, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He became stage struck in his high school days when he went to the Old Walnut Street Theater in his native Philadelphia and saw a Yiddish play starring Molly Picon and Menasha Skulnik. He did not understand a word of it, saying “but it was live theater, and I felt myself responding to it.”

In 1959, Fuller entered the army and served in Japan and South Korea, after which he attended Villanova University and La Salle College. While Fuller was working as a housing inspector in Philadelphia, the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey produced his first play, The Village: A Party (1968), also known as The Perfect Party. The theme concerned interracial marriage, and its creator later tagged it “one of the world’s worst interracial plays.” However, during this time he met members of The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and, in 1974, he wrote his first play, In the Deepest Part of Sleep, for them. For NEC’s tenth anniversary, Fuller wrote The Brownsville Raid about the African American soldiers who were dishonorably discharged on President Teddy Roosevelt’s orders in 1906 after a shootout in Brownsville, Texas. The play was a hit, and Fuller followed it a few seasons later with Zooman and the Sign, a melodrama that won two Obie awards.

A Soldier’s Play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982, was his fourth play for The Negro Ensemble Company. This drama dealing with a murder set in a backwater New Orleans army camp in 1944, opened NEC’s 15th anniversary season in 1981 with a long run and was hailed by the New York Times as “tough, taut and fully realized.” A Soldier’s Play became A Soldier’s Story when it was produced as a film in 1984 by Columbia Pictures. Fuller wrote the screenplay, and African American actor Howard E. Rollins Jr. was the film’s star. In 1999, Fuller wrote and produced a three-part interlocking script called Love Songs for Showtime. The three different sections featured Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Townsend, and Andre Braugher.

The recipient of the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and CAPS fellowships in playwriting, Fuller describes himself as a playwright who happens to be African American, rather than an African American playwright.

ERNEST J. GAINES (1933– ) Novelist, Short Story Writer

Ernest J. Gaines was born on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, on January 15, 1933. The rural folk culture of this area has always played an important role in his fiction. He moved to California in 1949, where he did his undergraduate study at San Francisco State College. In 1959, he received the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. The following year, he was awarded the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award.

Gaines’ first novel was Catherine Carmier (1964). Others followed, including Of Love and Dust (1967), Barren Summer (completed in 1963, but never published), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Warm Day in November (for young people), and In My Father’s House (1978). Ironically, the book, The Autobiography of Jane Pittman, was banned in a Conroe, Texas, seventh-grade racial tolerance course in 1995; the school censored the work, citing the liberal use of racial slurs. The 1974 television production of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson, boosted Gaines’ reputation. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, published in 1983, was made into a movie as well. In 1994, Gaines’ 1993 work, A Lesson Before Dying, won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. A Lesson Before Dying was also adapted for the small screen by HBO in 1999 and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie. Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays was published in 2005.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. (1950– ) Literary critic, Scholar, Educator

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was born in Keyser, West Virginia, on September 16, 1950. His father, Henry Louis Sr., who was a gifted storyteller, worked at the local paper mill; his mother cleaned houses in addition to raising her two children and was actively involved in her children’s education.

Initially enrolling in Potomac State College, Gates later transferred to Yale, where he graduated with a B.A. in History. At Yale, Gates volunteered at a mission hospital in Tanzania and traveled throughout Africa in fulfillment of the non-academic portion of his degree requirement.

Gates then traveled to Cambridge University, where he studied English literature and, with the aid of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, worked toward his M.A. and Ph.D. in English. At Cambridge, he met the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, who was denied an appointment because, at the time, African literature was not considered “real literature.” Soyinka, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, became Gates’ mentor.

After dropping out of the Yale Law School and working as a secretary in the Afro-American Studies department, in 1976 Gates became a lecturer, then an Assistant Professor in the department. Denied tenure at Yale, Gates went on to teach at Cornell University, Duke University, then Harvard, where he was appointed Professor of the Humanities and English. He is also Chair of the African and African American Studies department and directs the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. In 2006, Gates was named Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor at Harvard.

In addition to Gates’ many honors and awards, Gates was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1981. Gates, a literary theorist, cultural critic, and historian dedicated preserving the texts of African and African American writers and artists, published The Signifying Monkey in 1988. This seminal work, which attempted to define a black cultural aesthetic, won the 1989 American Book Award. Gates’ position between separatist and traditionalist perspectives in his approach to integrating African American literature into the canon of Western literature has stirred controversy on both sides of the cultural spectrum. Gates works also include Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992); A Memoir (1994); Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997); Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African Experience (1999); and The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (2000). He has also edited numerous books and has been involved in a number of educational projects for public television.

Gates married Sharon Lynn Adams in 1979 and has two daughters.

NIKKI GIOVANNI (1943– ) Poet, Educator, Activist

Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943, but she was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. She studied at the University of Cincinnati from 1961 to 1963 and received her B.A. from Fisk University in 1967. She also attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work for one year and Columbia University School of the Arts for one year in the late 1960s.

In 1969, Giovanni taught at Queens College (CUNY) and Rutgers University before founding a communications and publishing company called NikTom, Ltd. In the midto late-1980s, she resumed teaching, spending the year of 1984 as a visiting professor at Ohio State University and the subsequent three years at Mount Joseph on the Ohio as a creative writing professor. Since 1987, Giovanni has taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, first as a visiting professor and then as a full professor of English beginning in 1989. That year, she also directed the Warm Hearth Writer’s Workshop. From 1990 to

1993, Giovanni served on the board of directors for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.

Giovanni’s first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, published in the mid-1960s, was followed by Black Judgment in 1968. These two works were combined as Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgment in 1970. By 1974, Giovanni’s poems could be found in many African American literature anthologies, and she also became a media personality through her television appearances, during which she read her poetry. Many of her poems were put to soul or gospel music accompaniment. Such recordings include: Truth Is on Its Way, winner of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers Award in 1972; and Spirit to Spirit, a videocassette produced by PBS, winner of the Oakland Museum Film Festival Silver Apple Award in 1988.

Giovanni’s first poetry collections were considered revolutionary and filtered experience through a black perspective. Later in her career, her experience as a mother was a major driving force in her poetry.

A prolific author, Giovanni’s books include: Re: Creation (poetry); Spin a Soft Black Song: Poems for Children; Night Comes Softly: Anthology of Black Female Voices (non-fiction); My House (poetry); Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement (nonfiction); Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young People; A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (nonfiction); and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walke (nonfiction). Her other works include: The Women and the Men: Poems (1975); Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (poetry, 1978); Vacation Time: Poems for Children (1980), dedicated to her son, Tommy, and winner of the Children’s Reading Roundtable of Chicago Award; Those Who Ride the Night Winds (poetry, 1984); Sacred Cows . . . and Other Edibles (nonfiction, 1988), winner of the Ohioana Library Award in 1988; Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions (1994); Racism 101 (nonfiction); Knoxville, Tennessee (coauthored with Larry Johnson, 1994); The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (1995); Blues for all the Changes (collection of poems, 1999); Grand Fathers: Reminiscences, Poems, Recipes, and Photos of the Keepers of Our Traditions (1999); and Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (poems, 2002).

Giovanni won several awards throughout her career including the Highest Achievement Award in 1971 from Mademoiselle; life membership to the National Council of Negro Women in 1973; the Outstanding Woman of Tennessee in 1985; the Cincinnati Post Post-Corbett Award in 1986; the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contribution to Arts and Letters in 1996; the NAACP Image Award for Literature in 1998; and a Governor’s Award in the Arts from the Tennessee Arts Commission in 1999. In addition, Giovanni received honorary degrees from numerous institutions. She was appointed Professor of English and Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech.

ELOISE GREENFIELD (1929– ) Children’s Author

Born Eloise Little on May 17, 1929, in Parmele, North Carolina, Greenfield moved to Washington, D.C., as a baby and grew up happily in a close-knit, public housing development in an urban neighborhood. After attending Minor Teachers College, she worked in various clerical and secretarial positions. By 1950, she had begun experimenting with creative writing. After years of studying and persevering, Greenfield met fellow writers and made valuable contacts when she joined the District of Columbia Black Writers Workshop in the early 1970s. Soon thereafter, her picture book Bubbles was published.

With that initial success, Greenfield established her own niche within the arena of children’s books and has published, on average, one book each year. Having a goal of encouraging children to develop positive attitudes about themselves, Greenfield’s stories capture both the unique and universal experiences of growing up as an African American. Much of her fiction, as in the novel Sister, is concerned with bonding within African American families. Greenfield’s biographies of distinguished African Americans and poetic picture books have appeared on notable book lists and have placed the author in demand as a speaker at writers’ conferences and in classrooms of her young fans.

Greenfield has also published William and the Good Old Days (1993); Sweet Baby Coming (1994); Honey, I Love (1995); On My Horse (1995); For the Love of the Game: Michael Jordan and Me (1996); Angels (1998); Water, Water (1999); I can Draw a Weeposaur (2001); How They Got Over (2002); and In the Land of Words (2003).

Her many honors and awards include the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award, the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given by the National Council of Teachers of English, and in 1999 she became a member of the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.

ALEX HALEY (1921–1992) Journalist, Novelist

The author of the widely acclaimed novel, Roots, was born Alexander Palmer Haley in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921, and reared in Henning, Tennessee. The oldest of three sons of a college professor father and a mother who taught grade school, Haley graduated from high school at 15 and attended college for two years before enlisting in the United States Coast Guard as a messboy in 1939.

A voracious reader, Haley began writing short stories while at sea, but it took eight years before small magazines began accepting his stories. By 1952, the Coast Guard had created a new rating for Haley—chief journalist—and he began handling United States Coast Guard public relations. In 1959, after 20 years of military service, he retired from the Coast Guard and launched a new career as a freelance writer. He eventually became an assignment writer for Reader’s Digest and moved on to Playboy, where he initiated the “Playboy Interviews” feature.

One of the personalities Haley interviewed was Malcolm X—an interview that inspired Haley’s first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Translated into eight languages, the book has sold more than six million copies. Pursuing the few slender clues of oral family history told to him by his maternal grandmother in Tennessee, Haley spent the next 12 years traveling three continents tracking his maternal family back to a Man-dingo youth named Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped into slavery from the small village of Juffure in Gambia, West Africa. During this period, Haley lectured extensively in the United States and in Great Britain on his discoveries about his family in Africa and wrote many magazine articles on his research in the 1960s and the

1970s. He received several honorary doctor of letters degrees for his work.

The book Roots, excerpted in Reader’s Digest in 1974 and heralded for several years, was finally published in the fall of 1976 with very wide publicity and reviews. In January 1977, ABC-TV produced a 12-hour series based on the book, which set records for the number of viewers. With cover stories, book reviews, and interviews with Haley in scores of magazines and many newspaper articles, the book became the number one national bestseller, sold in the millions, and was published as a paperback in 1977. Roots truly became a phenomenon. It was serialized in the New York Post and the Long Island Press. Instructional packages, lesson plans based on Roots, and other books about Roots for schools were published, along with records and tapes by Haley.

Haley’s book stimulated interest in Africa and in African American genealogy. The United States Senate passed a resolution paying tribute to Haley and comparing Roots to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s. The book received many awards including the National Book Award for 1976 special citation of merit in history and a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for making an important contribution to the literature of slavery.

Roots was not without its critics, however. A 1977 lawsuit brought by Margaret Walker charged that Roots plagiarized her novel Jubilee. Another author, Harold Courlander, also filed a suit charging that Roots plagiarized his novel, The African. Courlander received a settlement after several passages in Roots were found to be almost verbatim from The African. Haley claimed that researchers helping him had given him this material without citing the source.

Haley received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1977. Four thousand deans and department heads of colleges and universities throughout the country in a survey conducted by Scholastic Magazine selected Haley as America’s foremost achiever in the literature category. The ABC-TV network presented another series Roots: The Next Generation in February 1979 (also written by Haley). Roots had sold almost 5 million copies by December 1978, and had been reprinted in 23 languages.

In 1988, Haley conducted a promotional tour for a novella titled A Different Kind of Christmas about slave escapes in the 1850s. He also promoted a drama Roots: The Gift, a two-hour television program shown in December 1988. This story revolved around two principal characters from Roots who are involved in a slave break for freedom on Christmas Eve. Haley’s drama, Queen, which he had begun writing before his death, and was completed by David Stevens, was aired on television in 1998 and starred Halle Berry. Stevens also completed Haley’s novel, Mama Flora’s Family, in 1998, and this novel was also made into a film.

Haley died February 10, 1992, of a heart attack.

VIRGINIA HAMILTON (1936–2002) Children’s and Young Adult Author

Virginia Hamilton was born on March 12, 1936, into a large extended family in rural Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her career as an author was directly influenced by her parents, who were avid storytellers themselves. She attended nearby Antioch College from 1952 to 1955, ultimately graduating from Ohio State University in 1958. Determined to be a writer, Hamilton settled in New York City and studied the craft at the New School for Social Research. She worked at a variety of jobs and moved back to Yellow Springs before publishing her first book Zeely in 1967. Issued during an era of racial strife, Zeely was one of the first books for young readers in which African American characters were portrayed as people living with average, universal circumstances as opposed to constantly dealing with politically and racially related problems, such as integration.

After her second novel, The House of Dies Dreary, received the 1968 Edgar Allen Poe Award for best juvenile mystery of the year, Hamilton went on to write and edit more than 30 children’s and young adult books within various genres. Her canon includes well-researched historical fiction, contemporary urban novels about teenagers, science fiction and supernatural tales, biographies of the historical figures Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, and collections of African American folklore and slavery era “liberation” stories.

Hamilton has been repeatedly honored for her work. Her awards include the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, Newbery Honor Book Award, National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, and the MacArthur Foundation Prize in 1995. Many of her works have appeared on notable best books lists, and she has inspired an Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference. Hamilton stands as one of the predominant creative forces behind multicultural works for young readers.

On February 19, 2002, Hamilton died in Dayton, Ohio, of breast cancer. She was 65.

JUPITER HAMMON (1711–?) Poet, Tract Writer

Jupiter Hammon was born October 17, 1711, probably near Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York. He was one of the first African American poets to have his work published in the United States. An Evening Thought, Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries appeared in 1761, when Hammon was a slave belonging to a Mr. Lloyd of Long Island, New York.

Due to his fondness for preaching, the major portion of Hammon’s poetry is religious in tone and is usually dismissed by critics as being of little aesthetic value because of its pious platitudes, faulty syntax, and forced rhymes. Hammon’s best-known work is a prose piece, “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” which he delivered before the African Society of New York City on September 24, 1786. This famous speech, which draws on Christian themes to promote gradual emancipation, was published the following year, went into three editions, and appears in anthologies to the present day.

Hammon died between 1790 and 1806.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1930–1965) Playwright

Born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, Hansberry studied art at Chicago’s Art Institute, the University of Wisconsin, and, finally, in Guadalajara, Mexico. Hansberry wrote the award-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun, while living in New York’s Greenwich Village, having conceived the play after reacting negatively to what she called “a whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or hip-swinging musicals from exotic scores.” The play opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959, at a time when it was generally held that all plays dealing with African Americans were “death” at the box office. Produced, directed, and performed by African Americans, it was later made into a successful movie starring Sidney Poitier. It was then adapted into Raisin,a musical that won a Tony Award in 1974.

Hansberry’s second Broadway play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, dealt with “the western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement.” Shortly after its Broadway opening, Hansberry succumbed to cancer on January 12, 1965, in New York City.

Hansberry’s books, in addition to the two published plays, include: To Be Young, Gifted and Black; The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality; and Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry.

FRANCES E. W. HARPER (1825–1911) Writer, Poet, Activist

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the first African American woman to publish a short story, was one of the most prolific African American women writers of the nineteenth century. She was known also for essays, poetry, and for her single novel, Iola Leroy. Beyond her writings, Harper was an effective traveling lecturer and a supporter of emancipation, the temperance movement, and of the African American women’s movement.

Harper was born to free parents in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 24, 1825. She was never able to reconcile the death of her mother, a traumatic experience that occurred when Harper was only three years old. She was raised by relatives and attended William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth—a prestigious school in Baltimore that her uncle founded. Uncomfortable in the slave city of Baltimore, Harper moved to Ohio in 1850 and became the first woman teacher at the newly founded Union Seminary, later a part of Wilberforce University. In 1854, she became a permanent lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and spoke throughout New England, Ohio, New York, and elsewhere. “The bronze muse,” as she became known, gave fiery speeches and often incorporated her poetry into her lectures. So successful and stirring were her presentations that the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society hired her as a lecturer as well. She held her audiences spellbound and spoke with dignity and composure. Although she wrote and lectured on other topics, her attention to anti-slavery caused scholars to refer to her as an abolitionist poet.

Harper’s first volume of poems and prose was published in 1851 as Forest Leaves,alsoprintedas Autumn Leaves. Her literary career was actually launched in 1854 when she published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects; the work was printed in Boston and Philadelphia and reissued in 1857, 1858, 1864, and 1871. Included in the work were several anti-slavery poems such as “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction,” yet most of the poems dealt with women’s rights, temperance, religion, and other current issues.

Her writings in the Christian Recorder promoted her work as a journalist. Harper’s writings in the journal

included the serialized novel Minnie’s Sacrifice, the dramatic poem “Moses: A Story of the Nile,” a series of poems by “Aunt Chloe,” and the fictionalized essays “Fancy Etchings.” She wrote other serials, but it was not until 1892 that she published in book form her first and best-known work, Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted. The novel aims to present a true picture of slavery and the Reconstruction, to promote humanity, and to foster a sense of racial pride in African Americans. Her collections of poems that followed included works previously issued but supplemented with other examples of her writings: The Sparrow’s Fall and Other Poems (c.1894); Light Beyond Darkness, The Martyr of Alabama (c.1895); and Atlanta Offering: Poems (1895). In 1900, she published Poems and, the following year, Idylls of the Bible.

Harper’s activities also included work with the YMCA, for which she helped develop Sunday schools; the Colored Section of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and the American Women’s Suffrage Association. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women. Harper died in Philadelphia on February 20, 1911.

ROBERT E. HAYDEN (1913–1980) Poet

Robert E. Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to a poor family. His parents left him to be raised by foster parents. Extremely nearsighted, he turned to books rather than sports activities in his childhood.

A graduate of Detroit City College, now Wayne State University, Hayden was chief researcher on African American history and folklore for the Federal Writers Project in 1936. He went on to do advanced work in English, play production, and creative writing at the University of Michigan. While there, he twice won the Jule and Avery Hopwood Prize for poetry. Hayden also completed radio scripts and a finished version of a play about the Underground Railroad, Go Down Moses.

Hayden’s first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published in 1940 shortly before he assumed the music and drama critic function for the Michigan Chronicle. He taught at Fisk University from 1946 to the early 1970s and later at the University of Michigan.

His works include: The Lion and the Archer (with Myron O’Higgins); A Ballad of Remembrance; Selected Poems; Words in the Mourning Time; and The Night-Blooming Cereus. He edited Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets and Afro American Literature: An Introduction (with David J. Burrows and Frederick R. Lapsides). His other books include: Figure of Time; Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems; and American Journal (poems).

In 1975, the Academy of American Poets elected him its fellow of the year, and in 1976, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. From 1976 to 1978, he was appointed Consultant in Poetry—later known as Poet Laureate—at the Library of Congress. He was the first African American named to receive this appointment. Hayden was a professor of English at the University of Michigan at the time of his death on February 25, 1980.

ESSEX HEMPHILL (1957–1995) Poet, Essayist, Editor, Gay Rights Activist

Essex Hemphill was born in 1957 in Chicago, but spent parts of his childhood in Indiana, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., and began writing at the age of 14. After attending the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia, Hemphill began to explore the inner conflicts—loneliness, isolation, denial—as well as the homophobia he experienced as a gay African American male by writing poetry. For several years, Hemphill was a contributor of verse to such journals as Essence, Black Scholar, and Obsidian. In the late 1980s, he became involved with a project begun by Joseph Beam, an anthology of gay African American poetry called In the Life. Hemphill was a contributor to the 1986 volume and took the editorship of its sequel after Beam died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1988. The work was published as Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men in 1991.

Hemphill became involved in several film projects around this time as well, nearly all of them controversial in some way, which coincided with his aim to make the two communities, the African American and the gay American, enter into a new, more contemporary dialogue with one another. He wrote verse for Looking for Lang-ston, a British film that addressed the sexuality of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and brought down the ire of the executor of the Hughes estate, and also contributed to and appeared in Tongues Untied. This last project, Marlon Riggs’s celebratory look at gay African American male culture, was deemed too spicy even for public television at one point.

In 1992, Hemphill saw another book of his own verse published, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. During the early part of the decade, he became involved in a project interviewing elderly members of the African American gay community in order to provide a glimpse into a period before either gay or civil rights were mentioned. He also contributed to the book Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS. Hemphill died of AIDS complications on November 4, 1995, at the age of 38.

CHESTER HIMES (1909–1984) Novelist

Born to a middle-class family in Jefferson City, Missouri, on June 29, 1909, Chester Himes was educated at Ohio State University and later lived in France and Spain. In 1945, he completed his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, the story of an African American working in a defense plant. His second book, The Lonely Crusade (1947), was set in similar surroundings. His other books included: The Third Generation; Cotton Comes to Harlem; Pinktoes; The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes; and Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings.

Although his talent went relatively unnoticed in the United States, Himes’ series of detective novels were later compared with those of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and the African American writer, Walter Mosley. Following a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair, Himes and his wife lived in Alicante, Spain. In 1977, they returned to New York City for the publication of the concluding volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity. Himes died of Parkinson’s disease in Spain on November 12, 1984, at the age of 75. Himes was a prolific author of almost 20 books, and several of his popular novels have been reprinted posthumously in hardcover and paperback editions.

PAULINE E. HOPKINS (1859–1930) Writer, Editor, Playwright, Singer, Actress

Although her contemporaries gave her less recognition than modern scholars, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins became known for promoting racial issues in her short stories, novels, and in her work as editor of the journal, The Colored American. She is sometimes referred to as the “Dean of African American women writers.”

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1859, Hopkins moved to Boston when she was still a child and graduated from Girls High School. At age 15, she entered a writing contest supported by writer William Wells Brown and sponsored by the Congregational Publishing Society in Boston and won a 10-dollar prize for her essay “The Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedies.”

Hopkins established the theater troupe, the Colored Troubadours, and performed with the group for 12 years. On July 5, 1880, in Boston, the Troubadours performed her first play, Slaves’ Escape: or the Underground Railroad, also known as Peculiar Sam, which Hopkins had completed a year earlier. During her tenure with the group, she also wrote the play, One Scene from the Drama of Early Days.

Hopkins helped to establish The Colored American; its first issue in May, 1900, published her short story “The Mystery Within Us.” Later, the magazine published Hopkins’s series of biographical sketches “Famous Women of the Negro Race” and “Famous Men of the Negro Race.” About this time the magazine published serialized versions of three of her novels: Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (1901–1902); Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902); and Of One Blood: or The Hidden Self (1902– 1903). Her first novel, however, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, was published by a Boston firm in 1900. She resigned from The Colored American in 1904.

In 1905, Hopkins wrote briefly for Voice of the Negro; after that, her literary career began to decline. She founded her own publishing company, the P. E. Hopkins and Company, and in February and March, 1916, contributed two articles to New Era Magazine. She lived in obscurity after 1916 and died on August 13, 1930, as a result of severe burns.

GEORGE MOSES HORTON (1797?–1883?) Poet

George Moses Horton was the first African American professional man of letters in the United States and one of the first professional writers of any race in the South. He was the first African American southerner to have a volume of poetry published.

Horton was born into slavery in North Carolina around 1797. While growing up on a farm, he cultivated a love of learning. With the aid of his mother and her Wesley hymnal, Horton learned to read, although he did not learn to write until years later. While working as a janitor at the University of North Carolina, Horton wrote light verse for some students in exchange for spending money.

Some of Horton’s early poems were printed in the newspapers of Raleigh and Boston. When Horton published his first book of poems in 1829, he entitled it The Hope of Liberty, in the belief that profits from its sales would be sufficient to pay for his freedom. His hopes did not materialize, however, and he remained a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation (this book was reprinted in 1837 under the title Poems by a Slave). In 1865, he published “Naked Genius,” a poem containing many bitter lines about his former condition that were in sharp contrast to the conformist verse of earlier African American poets. Although he lived in Philadelphia for a while, it appears that he returned to the South, where he died around 1883. Richard Walser’s, The Black Poet, was written about Horton and published in 1967.

LANGSTON HUGHES (1902–1967) Poet, Novelist, Playwright

Born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, James Mercer Langston Hughes moved to Cleveland at the age of 14, and graduated from Central High School. His love of books developed at young age. After his parents separated, then divorced, he was raised primarily by his grandmother, Mary Langston, who inspired in him a feeling of racial pride. Langston’s unstable childhood was to have a major impact on the poetry he later wrote.

Hughes spent a year in Mexico before studying engineering—at his father’s request—at Columbia University. After roaming the world as a seaman and writing some poetry as well, Hughes returned to the United States. While attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he won the Witter Bynner Prize for undergraduate poetry. In 1930, he received the Harmon Award, and in 1935, with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, traveled to Russia and Spain.

The long and distinguished list of Hughes’s prose works includes: Not Without Laughter (1930); The Big Sea (1940); and I Wonder as I Wander (1956), his autobiography. To this must be added such collections of poetry as The Weary Blues (1926); The Dream Keeper (1932); Shakespeare in Harlem (1942); Fields of Wonder (1947); One Way Ticket (1949); Selected Poems (1959); and the posthumously published The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1969).

Although Hughes had a great influence on the Harlem Renaissance, he criticized those writers who embraced eurocentric values and culture.

Hughes was also an accomplished song lyricist, librettist, and newspaper columnist. Through his newspaper columns, he created Jesse B. Semple, a Harlem character known as Simple. Simple is the quintessential “wise fool” whose experiences and insights capture the frustrations felt by African Americans. Hughes’s Simple sketches have been collected in several volumes and were adapted for the musical stage in Simply Heavenly.

Through much of the 1960s, Hughes edited several anthologies in an attempt to popularize African American authors and their works. Some of these works are An African Treasury (1960), Poems from Black Africa (1963), New Negro Poets: U.S.A. (1964), and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967). Published posthumously was Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest. Hughes wrote many plays, including Emperor of Haiti and Mulatto, which was produced on Broadway in the 1930s. He also wrote gospel music plays, such as Tambourines to Glory Black Nativity and Jericho—Jim Crow. Hughes gained an international reputation in the 1950s and 1960s. He died of complications related to abdominal surgery for prostate cancer on May 22, 1967.

ZORA NEALE HURSTON (1903–1960) Novelist, Folklorist

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1903, in Eatonville, Florida. After traveling north as a maid with a Gilbert and Sullivan company, Hurston acquired her education at Morgan State College, Howard University, and Columbia University. While at Howard under Alain Locke’s influence, she became a figure in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories in Opportunity and serving with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman on the editorial board of the magazine Fire!

In 1934, Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published after her return to Florida. Her most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was adapted into a film by Oprah Winfrey in 2005, appeared three years later. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) was followed in 1948 by Seraph on the Suwanee. Her other three works are two books of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), and Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

Toward the end of her life, Hurston was a drama instructor at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (now North Carolina Central University). She died in obscurity and poverty on January 28, 1960. In 1973, Alice Walker, African American novelist and scholar, found and marked Hurston’s grave and rekindled interest in her life and work. Since then, six of her works, including her autobiography with several chapters were restored, have been reprinted with new introductions. Hurston is celebrated each year in Eatonville, Florida, where the Zora Neale Hurston Festival is held.

CHARLES R. JOHNSON (1948– ) Novelist, Essayist, Cartoonist

Charles Johnson, only the second African American man to win the National Book Award (Ralph Ellison was the first), was born on April 23, 1948, in Evanston, Illinois. He began his career as a political cartoonist in the early 1970s; his work led to a television series on cartooning on PBS. During the same time period, he was heavily involved in organizations that supported the formation of African American studies as a discipline.

Johnson’s development as a novelist took shape while receiving his B.A. in 1971 from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and subsequently, his M.A. in philosophy in 1973. Out of these experiences, Johnson developed situations in his books that dealt with philosophical discussions about race, identity, and culture.

Johnson’s literary works include both novels and short stories, beginning with Faith and the Good Thing (1974); Oxherding Tale (1982); The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (short stories 1986); Middle Passage (1990), which received the National Book Award that year; and Dreamer (1998). He has also ventured into non-fiction with Africans in America (1998) and its companion, Soulcatcher and Other Stories. In 2003, he published a collection of essays on his experiences as an African American Buddhist in Turning the Wheel.

Johnson is the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington and has been the recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.

GEORGIA DOUGLAS JOHNSON (1886–1966) Poet, Playwright

As one of the first modern African American women poets to gain recognition, and sometimes referred to as the most famous woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Georgia Douglas Johnson, whose collections of verse were published between 1918 and 1930, is an important link in the chain of African American women lyric poets. Johnson’s life spanned most of the literary movements of this century, and her Washington, D.C., home was the popular gathering place for early Harlem Renaissance writers. After her husband’s death in 1925, she supported herself and her two sons with a series of temporary jobs and created her own supportive environment by hosting Saturday night open houses that became one of the greatest literary salons of the period. Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 10, 1886. She was educated in the public schools of the city and at Atlanta University, and she went on to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

Initially, she was interested in musical composition, but gradually Johnson turned to lyric poetry. After teaching school in Alabama, she moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband, who had been appointed as recorder of deeds by President William Howard Taft. While in the nation’s capital, she too engaged in government work while completing such books as The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World, published in 1962. Johnson was a prolific writer; over 200 of her poems were published in her four literary works; other poems and several dramas have appeared in journals and books, primarily edited by African Americans. She also wrote many plays in the 1920s, but most of the manuscripts did not survive. She died of a stroke on May 14, 1966.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (1871–1938) Poet, Lyricist, Civil Rights Leader

Similar to W.E.B. Du Bois, African American intellectual James Weldon Johnson played a vital role in the civil rights movement of the twentieth century as poet, teacher, critic, diplomat, and NAACP official. He was also an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson is perhaps most often remembered as the lyricist for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song that is often referred to as the African American national anthem.

Born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was educated at Atlanta and Columbia Universities. His career included service as a school principal, a lawyer, and a diplomat (U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and later in Nicaragua). From 1916 to 1930, he was a key policymaker of the NAACP, eventually serving as the organization’s executive secretary. From 1932 until his death, he was professor of creative writing at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

In his early days, Johnson’s fame rested largely on his lyrics for popular songs, but in 1917 he completed his first book of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems. Five years later, he followed this work with The Book of American Negro Poetry, and in 1927, he established his literary reputation with God’s Trombones, a collection of seven folk sermons in verse. Over the years, this work has been performed countless times on stage and television.

In 1930, Johnson finished St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection, and three years later, his lengthy autobiography, Along This Way appeared. Johnson died on June 26, 1938, following an automobile accident in Maine.

GAYL JONES (1949– ) Novelist, Poet, Short Story Writer, Educator

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1949, Gayl Jones received a bachelor’s degree in English from Connecticut College in 1971, a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1973, and a doctorate in creative writing in 1975. From 1975 to 1981, she was professor of English at the University of Michigan. Jones’s work includes four novels: Corregidora (1975); Eva’s Man (1976); Healing (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Mosquito (1999); short stories; and several collections of poetry, including Song for Anninho (1981); The Hermit Woman (1983); Xarque and Other Poems (1985); and Liberating Voices (1991), her first book of literary criticism. Although sometimes considered controversial in its subject matter—particularly Eva’s Man, which deals with the sexual molestation and violence done to African American girls by African American men—Jones’ work is both multilayered and complex.

After the release of Healing in 1998, Jones’s husband Bob Jones had an encounter with the police in Kentucky that resulted in his suicide. This traumatic event caused Jones to step out of the limelight of the literary world and to seek professional therapy for depression.

JUNE JORDAN (1936–2002) Poet, Novelist

Born in Harlem, New York, on July 9, 1936, poet, novelist, essayist, educator, and activist June Jordan attended Barnard College and the University of Chicago. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she taught Afro-American literature, English, and writing at several colleges and universities including CUNY, Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, and State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she spent most of her career as director of the poetry center and creative writing program. She left State University in 1989 to teach Afro-American studies and women’s studies at the University of California at Berkley. Jordan co-founded and co-directed The Voice of the Children, Inc., a creative workshop.

A prolific writer, Jordan’s poems have been published in many magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, and she received a Rockefeller Grant in creative writing in 1969. Her poetry includes: Who Look at Me (1969); Some Changes (1971); New Days: Poems of Exile and Return (1974); Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980 (1980); Living Room: New Poems (1985); Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems (1989); and Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems (1989). Jordan’s books for children and young people include: His Own Where (1971), nominated for the National Book Award; Fannie Lou Hamer (1972); DryVictories (1972); and Kimako’s Story (1981). Basic Books published her memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood,in 2000.

Author of two plays, Jordan also published essays, including: “Civil Wars” (1981); “On Call: Political Essays” (1985); “Moving Towards Home: Political Essays” (1989); and “Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union” (1992). In addition, she edited several anthologies, such as Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry (1970).

In 2001, Jordan received a Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from the Poets & Writers organization. The award recognized Jordan’s Poetry for the People project, which offers poetry workshops to underserved communities. Jordon passed away, on June 14, 2002, at her home in Berkeley, California, of breast cancer. She was 65.

ADRIENNE KENNEDY (1931– ) Writer, Playwright

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 13, 1931, Adrienne Lita Hawkins grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She received a B.A. in education from Ohio State in 1953, and married Joseph C. Kennedy one month later. In 1955, they moved to New York, and she studied writing at the American Theatre Wing and at Columbia University, completing her first play, Pale Blue Flowers, which was never produced or published.

In 1960, Kennedy and her husband traveled to Europe and then Ghana on a grant from the Africa Research Foundation. Her writing became more focused, and she published a story in Black Orpheus magazine. At the age of 29, Kennedy wrote Funnyhouse of a Negro, a one-act play. Edward Albee selected and co-directed the play for production in New York’s Circle in the Square. It ran from January 14 to February 9, 1964 at the East End Theatre in New York.

Kennedy’s next play, The Owl Answers, produced in 1965, won her a second Stanley Award from Wagner College of Staten Island, New York. Since the mid-1960s, she has written many full-length and one-act plays, including Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder (1968), A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), Black Children’s Day (1980), and Diary of Lights (1987). Later, the University of Minnesota Press published collections of her work, including The Alexander Plays (1992). In 1996, her latest plays, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, and June and Jean in Concert, were produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, respectively. Kennedy wrote an autobiography that was published in 1987 and titled People Who Led to My Plays.

Kennedy’s plays are hallmarks of the American experimental theater, avant-garde and non-traditional in the extreme. She has won many awards for her bold and clear vision, including several Obie Awards and a Pierre Lecomte du Novy Award from the Lincoln Center in 1994. In addition to winning many fellowships and grants, Kennedy has been a lecturer at several universities including Yale, Princeton, Brown, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley. She also served as an International Theatre Institute representative in Budapest in 1978.

Recently, Kennedy adapted the Greek tragedy Oedipus for the acting troop the Hartford Footlights. She has also published a collection of all of work appropriately called The Adrienne Kennedy Reader in 2001.

JOHN O.KILLENS (1916–1987) Novelist, Essayist, Screenwriter

John Oliver Killens was born in Macon, Georgia, on January 14, 1916; he was the son of Charles Myles Sr. and Willie Lee Killens. He attended Edward Waters College, Morris Brown College, Atlanta University, Howard University, Robert H. Terrell Law School, Columbia University, and New York University, and he was a member of the United States Army’s South Pacific Amphibian Forces from 1942 to 1945.

Killens attributed his writing career to his paternal great-grandmother who was seven years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. During his childhood, the elderly woman told Killens stories about the past. Sometimes when she finished talking about days gone by, she would tell him, “The half ain’t never been told!” Although his original career plans to become a doctor were abandoned when he decided to study law, Killens ultimately accepted his ancestor’s challenge to tell parts of the untold half and became a writer.

He was a co-founder and first chairperson of the Harlem Writers Guild, which provided a forum for writers to read their works. Youngblood (1954), the first book published by a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and Killens’s first novel, is about an African American family’s struggle to survive in the South. Four more novels followed: And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962), which is based on Killens’s encounters with racism in the military during World War II; ’Sippi (1967), which focuses on struggles over voting rights in the 1960s; The Cotillion or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971), which is a satirical interpretation of the black bourgeoisie; and Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin (1989), which is the result of Killens’s more than 12 years of research on the life of the poet. In 1968 and 1970, Killens traveled to the Soviet Union where he participated in the Pushkin festivals, conversed with other Pushkin scholars, visited Pushkin’s home, and visited the Pushkin museum. While researching and writing Great Black Russian, Killens lectured to students and literary groups throughout the United States on Pushkin. Killens’s novel was one of the first to consider Pushkin’s African ancestry. Great Black Russian was completed shortly before Killens’s death. Two of the aforementioned novels were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: And Then We Heard the Thunder, and The Cotillion.

Among Killens’s additional works are Black Man’s Burden (1965), a collection of essays; Great Gittin’ Up Morning: Biography of Denmark Vesey (juvenile literature, 1972); A Man Ain’t Nothin’ But a Man: The Adventures of John Henry (juvenile literature, 1975); and Black Southern Voices: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, and Critical Essays (1992), a work that was co-edited with Jerry W. Ward Jr. and published after Killens’s death. He also wrote screenplays.

Killens, the recipient of many honors and awards, taught at various institutions including Fisk University, Columbia University, Howard University, Bronx Community College, and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. On October 27, 1987, Killens died of cancer in Brooklyn, New York.

JAMAICA KINCAID (1949– ) Writer

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in St. Johns, Antigua. After leaving Antigua at 16 years of age, she entered the United States as Jamaica Kincaid and moved to New York. Kincaid held several positions while seeking her niche in the United States. Her writing career began as a contributor to the New Yorker magazine. Once a staff member, Kincaid had her collection of stories and other short pieces, which mainly ran in the magazine from 1974 to 1976, published under the title At the Bottom of the River (1983), which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

It was four years before Kincaid published her first work of fiction, Annie John (1985). This work was later followed by A Small Place (1988), Annie Gwenn Lilly Pam & Tulip (1989), Lucy (1990), My Brother (1997), Talk Stories (2000), My Garden (2001), and Mr. Potter (2002).

With her lyrical style and semi-autobiographical focus, Kincaid addresses themes about lasting scars from childhood experiences, ambivalence toward parents, the mother-daughter relationship, and the search for identity.

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA (1947– ) Poet, Educator

Yusef Komunyakaa was born James Willie Brown Jr. in 1947, in the segregated, culturally desolate mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. He came to love reading and poetry as a child, and at age 16 years of age began pursuing his own talents. After high school graduation, Komunyakaa joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Vietnam to act as a reporter and editor for a military newspaper in 1969.

Although he felt estranged from American society upon his return from Vietnam, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado and later graduate school at Colorado State University. He received a second master’s degree from the University of California at Irvine. A creative writing workshop proved inspirational, and his first book of poetry, Dedication and Other Darkhorses, was published in 1977. With the release of his second volume two years later, Komunyakaa accepted a series of fellowships and teaching positions, enabling him to pursue a career as a poet.

While working in New Orleans in 1983, Komunyakaa began to come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam through his writing. This challenge resulted in several sophisticated books filled with cultural influences that portray basic elements of humanity. In 1985, the poet left New Orleans to accept a position as a visiting professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. By 1987, having published two more books of poetry, Komunyakaa became an associate professor in the Afro-American and English studies departments at the university. For personal and religious reasons, the poet changed his name from James Willie Brown Jr. to Yusef Komunyakaa.

With the publication of Neon Vernacular, he was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry along with the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award given by the Claremont Graduate School. Komunyakaa’s themes of memory and self-definition—as an African American man and a veteran of Vietnam—lend his works a sense of strength and spiritual tenacity.

Komunyakaa’s collections of poetry include Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000), Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (2001), and Taboo (2004). He also published Gilgamesh (2006), a verse play and first dramatic adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In 2001, Komunyakaa was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. This award, which includes a cash prize of $100,000, is for lifetime achievement by a United States poet.

NELLA LARSEN (1891–1964) Novelist, Librarian, Nurse

Nella Larsen was born in 1891 in Chicago, Illinois, of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. She attended Fisk University’s Normal (High) School in Nashville, Tennessee, and from 1909 to 1912, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Three years later, she graduated from the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York City. In addition to her writing, she worked alternately as a nurse and librarian, having attended the New York Public Library training school from 1921 to 1923. After one year as head nurse at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), she became supervising nurse at the Lincoln Hospital in New York City until 1918, when she joined the city’s department of health. During the next 40 years, she worked as a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library (1924–1926), Gouverneur Hospital (1944–1961), and the Metropolitan Hospital (1961– 1964), all in New York City. Writing, however, is what made her famous.

In the 1920s, Larsen began contributing to children’s magazines. At the same time, she found herself immersed in the literary and political activities of the ongoing Harlem Renaissance. Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928), received a bronze medal from the Harmon Foundation. The groundbreaking novel developed themes around African American women’s sexuality and about mixed racial identity. Her second major work, Passing (1929), led to her becoming the first African American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing (1930). More than 30 years after her death on March 20, 1964, Larsen’s novels were reissued, and she finally achieved recognition as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

JULIUS LESTER (1939– ) Writer, Educator

Julius Lester was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1939. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and Nashville, Tennessee, where his father led congregations as a Methodist minister. Lester spent the summers of his youth in rural Arkansas, experiencing racism and segregation firsthand. A gifted student, he was an avid musician and aspired to become a writer.

Lester obtained a B.A. in English from Fisk University. He became politically active in the civil rights struggle as a folksinger and photographer of Southern rallies. As a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-1960s, Lester became head of its photo department and visited North Vietnam to document the effects of U.S. bombing missions. He began publishing ideological books that defended African American militancy including The Angry Children of Malcolm X and Revolutionary Notes. From 1966 to 1968, Lester served as director of the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and released two record albums himself.

Having achieved fame for his artistic pursuits, Lester was hired to host live radio shows at the public broadcasting station WBAI-FM in New York City. Around the same time, he published two books for children that saw immediate success. Black Folktales compiled African legends and slave narratives, and To Be a Slave, a collection of stories based on oral history accounts, received a Newbery Honor Book citation. In 1971, Lester began hosting the New York public television program “Free Time.” His career as an award-winning academician began that same year, when he was hired as professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He settled there in 1975 and became a full-time professor and author.

Lester flourished as an author by releasing novels and storybooks (with illustrator Jerry Pinkney) that reflected his interests in African American history, folklore, and politics. Long Journey Home, a finalist for the National Book Award, explores the everyday lives of African Americans during the Reconstruction period. Lester’s Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, traditional stories retold in a contemporary southern African American voice, were well-received by teachers and librarians who granted it the Coretta Scott King Award. His 1994 adult novel, And All Our Wounds Forgiven, tracks dramatic events in the 1960s. Lester’s individualism and resistance to racial and religious categorization is evident in two autobiographies: All Is Well, and Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.

In the second half of the 1990s, Lester flipped back and forth between tales for children and more adult works. His younger audience enjoyed titles such as Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: a True Story (1998); Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream (2000); and Ackmarackus: Julius Lester’s Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables (2001). More mature audiences were treated to a more historical view of slavery with From Slave Ship to Freedom Road (1997) and a dark trip into the psychosis of two young children in When Dad Killed Mom (2001). Lester published a racially repositioned novelization of Othello for young adults in 1995 called Othello: A Novel.

Lester subsequently published The Autobiography of God (novel, 2004); Day of Tears (novel, 2005); On Writers for Children and Other People (literary memoir, 2005); Time’s Memory (2006); and Cupid (2007). In 2006, he won the Coretta Scott King Award for his novel, Day of Tears.

When he converted to Judaism in mid-life, Lester was ousted from Amherst’s renamed African American Studies Department in 1988. Persevering through yet another career change, he moved to the university’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department and also taught in the history and English departments; he retired from the University of Massachusetts in 2003.

AUDRE LORDE (1934–1992) Poet, Novelist, Essayist

Audre Lorde was born in New York City’s Harlem on February 18, 1924. Her parents were immigrants from Granada. Lorde began writing poetry at the age of 12. She received a bachelor’s degree in literature and philosophy from Hunter College in 1959 and a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1960. In 1962, she married Edward Rollins, an attorney, and had two children. The couple divorced in 1970. She was poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College; taught at Lehman College, Bronx; and taught at John Jay College and CCNY. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Cultural Council Foundation grant for poetry. She attempted to join the Harlem Writers Guild, but was disappointed by what she felt perceived as the group’s overt homophobia and left.

Her books of poetry included: Cables to Rage (1970); The First Cities (1968); From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), which was nominated for a National Book Award; Coal (1968); The New York Head Shop and Museum (1974); Between Ourselves (1976); The Black Unicorn (1978); Chosen Poems—Old and New (1982); Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982); Sister/Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984); Lesbian Poetry: An Anthology (1982); and Woman Poet—The East (1984). Lorde’s poetry has been published in many anthologies, magazines, and lesbian books and periodicals.

Six months after her mastectomy in 1978 for breast cancer, Lorde began documenting her battle with the disease in journal entries that later became The Cancer Journal (1980). Lorde gained critical and popular acclaim for her moving and honest portrayal of life with the disease. Lorde lived for 14 years after her diagnosis, but eventually succumbed to cancer on November 17, 1992.

CLAUDE MCKAY (1890–1948) Poet, Novelist

Born the son of a farmer in Jamaica (then British West Indies) on September 15, 1890, Festus Claudius McKay was the youngest of 11 children. He began writing early in life. Two books of his poems, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, were published just after he turned 20 years of age. In both, he made extensive use of Jamaican dialect.

In 1913, Claude McKay came to the United States to study agriculture at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and at Kansas State University, but his interest in poetry induced him to move to New York City, where he published his work in small literary magazines. McKay then made a trip to England. While there, he completed a collection of lyrics entitled Spring in New Hampshire. When he returned to the United States, he became associate editor of The Liberator under Max Eastman. In 1922, he completed Harlem Shadows, a landmark work of the Harlem Renaissance period.

McKay then turned to the writing of such novels as Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and four other books, including an autobiography and a study of Harlem. The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Prose and Poetry 1912–1948, edited by Wayne Cooper, was published in 1973. McKay traveled abroad before returning to the United States, where he died on May 22, 1948. His final work, Selected Poems, was published posthumously in 1953.

During World War II, when Winston Churchill addressed a joint session of the United States Congress in

an effort to enlist American aid in the battle against Nazism, the climax of his oration was his reading of the famous poem “If We Must Die,” originally written by McKay to assail lynchings and mob violence in the South. McKay’s Trial by Lynching (1967), edited and translated stories, and his The Negroes in America (1979 or 1980), edited and translated from the Russian language, have also been published. Many of his works have been reprinted since his death, including: Home to Harlem; Banana Bottom; Banjo (1970); A Long Way From Home (1970); Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1972); and Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1971). Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads have been bound together as The Dialect Poems of Claude McKay. Wayne F. Cooper’s Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (1987) is an important book detailing McKay’s life and work.

NELLIE Y. MCKAY (c.1940s–2006) Literary Critic

Nellie Yvonne McKay, the daughter of West Jamaican parents Harry and Nellie McKay, was born in Harlem in the 1940s. She received three degrees in English and American Literature: a B.A. (cum laude with honors) from Queens College, CUNY in 1969; a M.A. from Harvard University in 1971; and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1977.

McKay knew how to read before she began her formal education. During her childhood, she decided she wanted to teach. Until two college professors encouraged McKay to teach on the college level, she had planned to become a kindergarten teacher. McKay taught at Simmons College in the 1970s before joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1978. Her joint appointment to teach in the African American Studies and English Department was expanded to allow McKay to teach in the Women’s Studies Department as well. The departments of African American Studies and Women’s Studies were floundering until McKay’s arrival. Since then, McKay, who was one of the most preeminent scholars and literary critics in the United States, made significant contributions to the departments. Consequently, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has enjoyed national attention in both areas. McKay declined numerous offers to leave UW-M, including an offer from Harvard, her alma mater.

McKay specialized in nineteenth and twentieth-century African American literature with an emphasis on fiction, autobiography, and black women’s writings. Her first book was her doctoral thesis, Jean Toomer-the Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894–1936 (1984). McKay’s other books include Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (1988); The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997), co-edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison (1997); co-edited with Kathryn Earl; Beloved: A Casebook (1998), co-edited with William L. Andrews; and the Norton Critical Edition of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (2000), co-edited with Frances Smith Foster. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature is McKay’s most prominent publication; McKay and Gates were the general editors, and along with nine other African American literary scholars, they created the definitive anthology of African American literature. It presents the works of 120 authors, including 52 women, from 1746 to the present, and 13 major works are reprinted in their entirety. Cornel West hailed The Norton Anthology of African American Literature as “a classic of splendid proportions” while Letty Cottin Pogrebin pointed out, “With the publication of this extraordinary collection, no one can ever again claim ignorance of the rich, rewarding legacy of the African-American literary tradition—and especially of Black women’s pre-eminent contribution to this heritage.” In addition to her full-length publications, McKay wrote essays for literary journals and other books. She also wrote various introductions and afterwards to new and recently reprinted books in African American and women’s writings.

McKay received a variety of honors and awards during her career, including the Vilas Associate Award,

UW-M, 1987–1989; Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, UW-M, 1992; MELUS Award for Contributions to Multi-Ethnic Literatures, 1996; and Honorary Membership in UW-Madison Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, 1999. McKay died of colon cancer on January 22, 2006, and was thought to be in her mid-70s.

TERRY MCMILLAN (1951– ) Novelist

Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, and raised in Port Huron, Michigan. She attended Los Angeles City College, but later transferred to Berkeley and then to Columbia University to study film. She later enrolled in a writing workshop at the Harlem Writers Guild and was accepted at the MacDowell Colony in 1983. She has taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Arizona.

McMillan published her first short story when she was 25 years old. Her subsequent novels include Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and Waiting to Exhale (1992). She also edited the anthology of contemporary African American fiction entitled Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (1992). In 1997, she published How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and in 2000, A Day Late and a Dollar Short hit the stands. In 2005, she published the novel, The Interruption of Everything.

Waiting to Exhale hit the New York Times’ bestseller list within one week of being in print and remained there for several months. Hardcover publisher Viking printed 700,000 copies and Pocket Books, which published the paperback version, paid $2.64 million for the rights to the work. In 1995, the novel was adapted into one of the most highly touted films of the year. Directed by Forest Whitaker, the film version starred Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon, and Loretta Devine. Wesley Snipes and Gregory Hines had smaller roles. How Stella Got Her Groove Back was also made into a popular film, and Disappearing Acts was brought to the small screen.

In 1993, New York Women in Communication gave McMillan a Matrix Award. In 1994, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund honored McMillan at a luncheon.

McMillan received much publicity in 2005 during her acrimonious divorce from Jonathan Plummer, a Jamaican man 24 years her junior—and the subject of her fictionalized bestseller, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. McMillan claimed she was defrauded by Plummer when he lied about his sexual orientation.

JAMES ALAN MCPHERSON (1943– ) Short Story Writer

James McPherson, born in Savannah, Georgia, on October 16, 1943, received his B.A. degree in 1965 from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, a law degree from Harvard University in 1968, and an M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa in 1969.

He has taught writing at several universities, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he taught fiction writing. At the present time, he teaches writing at the University of Iowa and is a contributing editor of Atlantic Monthly.

His short stories have appeared in several magazines. Hue and Cry, a collection of short stories published in 1969, was highly praised by Ralph Ellison. Named a Guggenheim fellow in 1972 and 1973, McPherson’s second book of short stories, Elbow Room, was published in 1977 and received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the following year. McPherson was one of the three African American writers who were awarded five-year grants by the McArthur Foundation of Chicago for exceptional talent in 1981. For 20 years, McPherson taught and put no new literature on the market. Then in 1997, he published the memoir, Crabcakes. He followed this up in 2000 with a collection of personal essays and reviews in A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile.

HAKI MADHUBUTI (DON L. LEE) (1942– ) Poet, Essayist, Publisher

Haki Madhubuti exemplifies the attempt of a person to create a unified self and live a holistic life—not one that is fragmented by the poet, educator, and journalist that Madhubuti has become.

Born Don L. Lee on February 23, 1942, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Madhubuti and his family moved to Detroit a year later. After his father left home and his mother died, he moved to Chicago at age 16 to live with an aunt. He graduated from Chicago City College with an A.A. degree and later received an M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa.

From 1961 to 1966, Madhubuti prepared to become a writer: he read a book daily and wrote a 200-word review of each book. He published his first volume of poetry, Think Black, in 1966. In 1967, he joined Johari Amini (Jewel Latimore) and Carolyn Rogers in launching the Third World Press; it became the longest continuously operated African American press in the United States. His other works of poetry published in the 1960s were Black Pride (1968) and Don’t Cry, Scream (1969). Later, he taught and served as a writer-in-residence at numerous universities including Chicago State, Cornell, Howard, Morgan State, and the University of Illinois.

In the 1970s, he published Directionscore: Selected and New Poems and To Gwen with Love. His Dynamic Voices: Black Poets of the 1960s, published in 1971 by Broadside Press, provided a critical context for writers of the Black Arts movement from one who participated in it. Here the writer defined the role of the African American literary critic and set standards for the critic to follow. The next year he founded Black Books Bulletin.

In 1973, Madhubuti changed his name from Don L. Lee to Haki Madhubuti, which, in Swahili, means “justice,” “awakening,” and “strong.” He moved to Howard University that year where he was poet-in-residence. During the 1980s, he began teaching at Chicago State, where he remains as professor of English. His works from the 1970s into the 1990s include: The Clash of Faces (1978); Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks (1987); Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors (1987); and Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?; and African American Families in Transition: Essays in Discovery, Solution, and Hope (1990). He also edited Why L.A. Happened: Implications of the ’92 Los Angeles Rebellion (1993) and Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption: Blacks Seeking a Cultural Enlightened Empowerment (1994). Although still a poet, in the 1990s he strengthened his skills as an essayist.

Among his honors, Madhubuti has received the DuSable Museum Award for Excellence in Poetry, National Council of Teachers of English Award, the Sidney R. Yates Advocate Award, and the African Heritage Studies Association citation. Later, he was also honored with the Distinguished Writers Award from the Middle Atlantic Writers Association in 1984 and the American Book Award in 1991. In 1984, he was the only poet selected to represent the United States at the International Valmiki World Poetry Festival held in New Delhi, India.

In addition to his teaching duties, Madhubuti is a director of the National Black Holistic Retreat, which he co-founded in 1984. He also remains as publisher and editor of Third World Press. Third World Press also published Madhubuti’s Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems in 1998, Tough Notes: Letters to Young Black Men in 2001, and Yellow Black: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life in 2005.

PAULE MARSHALL (1929– ) Writer

Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke on April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. Marshall’s parents were emigrants from Barbados, and she grew up in a community with strong West Indian influences. She grew to love poetry from an early age and was inspired by the women’s conversations that often took place around her kitchen table. Although Marshall did some writing in her childhood years, her serious devotion to writing began in 1954 as exercise at the end of her work day. The result was her first short story “The Valley Between.”

Marshall’s work, which centers on people of African descent, sets out to create images that celebrate the human spirit and put asunder all forms of political and social oppression. Her major themes include the search for identity—both personal and cultural—, alienation, and cultural conflict.

Marshall has received numerous awards and fellowships—including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960—and her novels include: Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959); Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961); The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969); Praisesong for the Widow (1983); Daughters (1991); and The Fisher King (2000). Short stories and essays are also a part of Marshall’s contributions to an African-centered literary experience.

LOFTEN MITCHELL (1919–2001) Playwright

Born on April 15, 1919, in Columbus, North Carolina, and raised in Harlem in the 1920s, Loften Mitchell began to write as a child, creating scripts for backyard shows that he and his brother performed. After completing junior high school, he decided to enroll at New York Textile High because he had been promised a job on the school newspaper. But Mitchell soon realized that he needed the training of an academic high school and, with the help of one of his teachers, transferred to DeWitt Clinton.

Graduating with honors, Mitchell found a job as an elevator operator and a delivery boy to support himself while he studied playwriting at night at the City College of New York. However, he met a professor from Talladega College in Alabama who helped him win a scholarship to study there. He graduated with honors in 1943, having won an award for the best play written by a student.

After two years of service in the U.S. Navy, Mitchell enrolled as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York. A year later, he accepted a job with the city’s department of welfare as a social investigator and continued to attend school at night. During this time, he wrote one of his first successful plays, Blood in the Night, and in 1957 he wrote A Land Beyond the River, which had a long run at an off-Broadway theater and was also published as a book.

The following year Mitchell won a Guggenheim award, which enabled him to return to Columbia University and write for a year. Later, he wrote a play called Star of the Morning, the story of Bert Williams, famous African American entertainer.

Mitchell was an early leader of the Black Theatre movement, and in 1967, Mitchell published a study of African American theater entitled Black Drama. His other books include: Tell Pharaoh, a play; The Stubborn Old Lady Who Resisted Change (1973), a novel; and Voices of the Black Theatre (1976). Mitchell also wrote the books for various Broadway musicals, including Ballads for Bimshire (1963), Bubbling Brown Sugar (1975), Cartoons for a Lunch Hour (1978), A Gypsy Girl (1982), and Miss Ethel Waters (1983).

Mitchell died on May 14, 2001, in Queens, New York. He was 82.

TONI MORRISON (1931– ) Novelist, Editor

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, Toni Morrison received a B.A. degree from Howard University in 1953, and an M.A. from Cornell in 1955. After working as an instructor in English and the humanities at Texas Southern University and Howard University, Morrison eventually became a senior editor at Random House in New York City, where, for more than 20 years, she was responsible for the publication of many books by African Americans including Middleton Harris’s The Black Book (edited by Toni Morrison), and books by Toni Cade Bambara, among others. From 1971 to 1972, Morrison was also an associate professor at the State University of New York at Purchase. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, she wrote and published her novels, in addition to holding visiting professorships at Yale University and Bard College. From 1984 to 1989, she served as Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany. In 1989, Morrison became the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University.

Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1969, followed by Sula, which won the 1975 Ohioana Book Award and also gained the honor in 2002 of being the final book in Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) received the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1978 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Tar Baby was published in 1981, followed by the play, Dreaming Emmett, first produced in Albany, New York, in 1986. Beloved, published in 1987, is regarded by some as her most significant work. The historical novel won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. Beloved was also a finalist for the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award and was one of the three contenders for the Ritz Hemingway Prize in Paris, from which no winner emerged. In addition, Beloved was a National Book Award finalist. Beloved was also adapted for the silver screen by television talk-show host and actress Oprah Winfrey. In the 1990s, Morrison has written a collection of essays and two novels—Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). She published another novel, Love, in 2003 and a nonfiction work entitled Remember: The Journey to School Integration in 2004.

Morrison was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981 and gave the keynote address at the American Writers’ Congress in New York City in the fall of that year. She won the New York State Governor’s Art Award in 1986. In 1993, the American Literature Association’s Coalition of Author Societies founded The Toni Morrison Society, an education group, in Atlanta. Later in the year, Morrison received her highest honor and made history when she became the first African American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that included an $825,000 prize. In 1995, her alma mater, Howard University, bestowed her with an honorary doctorate.

In 2001, Morrison was honored by Alfred A. Knopf and the Toni Morrison Society at a 70th birthday celebration. She is currently working on a set of six illustrated modernized Aesop’s fables with her son Slade Morrison; the first three volumes were published in 2003 and 2004.

In 2006, Morrison announced that she was retiring from her post at Princeton, and in that same year, the New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best novel of the past 25 years.

WALTER MOSLEY (1952– ) Novelist

Walter Mosley achieved national publicity when, during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Bill Clinton credited him as his favorite mystery writer. Born on January 12, 1952, and raised in the Watts and Pico-Fairfax districts of Los Angeles, Mosely’s unique heritage is attributed to an African American father from the Deep South and a white, Jewish mother whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe.

After drifting among a variety of jobs, including potter, caterer, and computer programmer, he settled in New York City and attended the writing program at City College. By 1987, he had become a full-time writer. Although Mosley’s first book, a short psychological novel entitled Gone Fishin’ (later released in 1997) was turned down by numerous agents, he achieved rapid success in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress. In the next several years, A Red Death, White Butterfly, and Black Betty were also greeted with critical acclaim.

Mosley incorporates social and racial issues into gripping novels that authentically portray inner city life in the African American neighborhoods of post-World War II Los Angeles. His creation of the recurring multidimensional character, private investigator and World War II veteran, Ezekiel (“Easy”) Rawlins, was heavily influenced by the experiences of Mosley’s own father as an African American soldier in World War II and later a southern immigrant in California. With his African American viewpoint and confrontation of shifting societal and moral issues, Mosley has been praised for breaking new ground within the mystery and detective genre and inspiring a new brand of African American fiction. Mosley published six books in the Rawlins series from 2002 to 2006; several more volumes in the Fearless Jones series; and The Wave, a science fiction work, in 2005.

Mosley received several honors including the John Creasey Memorial Award and Shamus Award for outstanding mystery writing. In 1990, the Mystery Writers of America nominated Devil in a Blue Dress for an Edgar Award. The film version of Devil in a Blue Dress, with a screenplay penned by the author, was released in 1996. Directed by Carl Franklin, the film starred Denzel Washington as Rawlins. In 1995, Mosely published R. L.’s Dream, a fictional meditation on the blues. In the following year, he released A Little Yellow Dog. In 1997, he published the book Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, introducing his most compelling new character since the debut of Easy Rawlins: Socrates Fortlow, a tough, brooding ex-convict determined to challenge and understand the violence and anarchy in his world—and in himself. He continued on with the character of Socrates Fortlow in his 1998 offering Walkin’ the Dog.

Tackling the e-market, Mosley put out Whispers in the Dark and The Greatest in 2000, available solely on the Internet. In 2001, Mosley shifted gears once again, this time introducing narrator and used bookseller Paris Minton in Fearless Jones. Mosley went back to the short story

format for his 2002 book, Futureland: Nine stories of an Imminent World about a grim cyber-filled future. He also won a Grammy award in 2002 for best album liner notes for Richard Pryor . . . And It’s Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968–1992).

WALTER DEAN MYERS (1937– ) Young Adult Writer

Walter Milton Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1937. Upon the death of his mother when he was three years old, Myers was raised by a foster couple, Herbert and Florence Dean, in Harlem. Myers began writing as a child and was praised in grade school for his academic achievements. Determined to further his education, he joined the U.S. Army at 17 years of age, enabling him to pay part of his college tuition with money from the G.I. Bill. In 1969, upon the publication of his first picture book for children, Myers was determined to become a professional writer. Where Does the Day Go? was honored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children and established Myers as an author who addressed the needs of minority children.

Myers worked as a senior editor for the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house, released more picture books, and began writing young adult stories in the 1970s. Since then, he has published more than two dozen novels in which he tackles urban social issues, such as teen pregnancy, crime, drug abuse, and gang violence. Myers’s authentic dialogue and ability to capture the universal ties and strengthening powers of family and friendship within African American communities prompted great response from teenage readers.

Committed to producing quality literature for African American children, he branched into fairy tales, ghost stories, science fiction, adventure sagas, and a popular biography entitled Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. Myers has won a variety of awards including the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery “honor book” citation for Scorpions. Myers’s novels, particularly Hoops, Fallen Angels, and Motown and Didi: A Love Story, are an enduring presence on both high school and young adult recommended reading lists. In 2004, Myers published Antarctica: Journeys to the South Pole, Poems, and Shooter (teen fiction), and in 2005, he published Autobiography of My Dead Brother.

GLORIA NAYLOR (1950– ) Novelist

Gloria Naylor was born in New York City on January 25, 1950, and still lives there. She received a B.A. in English from Brooklyn College in 1981 and an M.A. in Afro-American Studies from Yale University in 1983. She has taught writing and literature at George Washington University, New York University, Brandeis University, Cornell University, and Boston University. In 1983, she won the American Book Award for first fiction for her novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which was produced for television in 1988. Her second novel was Linden Hills, published in 1985. Her third novel, Mama Day (1988) was written with the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1988, Naylor was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1993, she published a new novel, Bailey’s Café.

In 1998, Naylor returned to familiar ground with her novel, The Men of Brewster Place. This was a different spin on the gritty but secure community that had brought Naylor into the public spotlight, and, much like The Women of Brewster Place, this book was hailed by critics for its characterization and positive messages.

Naylor, who is currently working on a sequel to her novel, Mama Day—called Sapphira Wade—heads her own production company. One of the goals of the company is to present positive images of the African American community in its projects.

ANN LANE PETRY (c.1912–1997) Novelist, Short Story Writer

Ann Petry was born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on October 12, 1912, where her father was a druggist. After graduating from the College of Pharmacy at the

University of Connecticut, she went to New York where she found employment as a social worker and newspaper reporter, studying creative writing at night.

Her early short stories appeared in Crisis and Phylon. In 1946, after having received a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship, she completed and published her first novel, The Street. The Street focuses on the lives of African American women in a crowded tenement. Through her exploration of this subject, Petry became the first African American woman writer to address the problems African American women face as they live in the slums.

Petry also wrote Country Place (1947), The Narrows (1953), and Miss Munel and Other Stories (1971). Her works for children and young people include The Drugstore Cat, Harriet Tubman, Tituba of Salem Village, and Legends of Saints. Many of her earlier novels are being reprinted. Petry died on April 28, 1997.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD (1941– ) Literary Critic

Arnold Rampersad was born on November 13, 1941, in Trinidad. He received a B.A. and M.A. from Bowling Green State University, as well as a M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Rampersad, who was appointed a MacArthur Foundation fellow from 1991 to 1996, has taught at Stanford University (1974–1983), Rutgers University (1983–1988), Columbia University (1988–1990), and Princeton University (1990–1998). In 1998, Rampersad returned to Stanford University, where he is the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities.

Rampersad’s first book is Melville’s Israel Potter: A Pilgrimage and Progress (1969). Starting with Rampersad’s next book, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois (1976), he began chronicling the lives and/or works of the most prominent African American men of the twentieth century. Rampersad is the co-author of tennis player, Arthur Ashe’s Days of Grace: A Memoir (1993), and author of Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997). Rampersad has edited three books about Richard Wright’s writings: Richard Wright: Early Works: Lawd Today!/Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son (1991); Richard Wright’s Later Works: Black Boy [American Hunger], The Outsider (1991); and Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (1994). Rampersad has edited four books on the works of one of Wright’s most famous contemporaries, Langston Hughes. These books are The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994) as well as The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Volume 1: The Poems: 1921–1940 (2001); Volume 2: The Poems: 1941–1950 (2001); and Volume 3: The Poems: 1951–1967 (2001). These last three books are the beginning trio of the University of Missouri Press’s 18-volume compilation of the poems, novels, plays, short stories, essays, and other works by Hughes, the dean of African American letters. Rampersad is the chair of the four-member editorial board for The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Heisalsoworkingona biography of the novelist Ralph Ellison.

Rampersad is best known for his two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes: 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America (1986), which won the 1987 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations, Cleveland Foundation, as well as the 1988 Clarence L. Holte Prize; and Volume 2: 1941–1967: I Dream a World (1988), which was a 1989 Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography and winner of a 1990 American Book Award. Rampersad’s work is considered the definitive biography of Hughes. Rita Dove, in a New York Times Book Review, wrote, “In his superlative study of . . . the most prominent Afro-American poet of our century, Arnold Rampersad has performed that most difficult of feats: illuminating a man who, despite all his public visibility, was quite elusive.” John A. Williams commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “No other biography of Hughes can match the grace and richness of Rampersad’s writing, or his investigative and interpretive abilities.” David Nicholson opined in the Washington Post Book World, “This may be the best biography of a black writer we have had.”

Rampersad has co-edited Slavery and the Literary Imagination (with Deborah McDowell, 1989) and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997), which is the benchmark compilation of the African American literary tradition by which all subsequent anthologies of black literature will be judged. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay were the general editors of The Norton Anthology, and Rampersad was one of the nine additional editors. He is also a co-editor of the Race and American Culture book series published by Oxford University Press.

Rampersad’s impressive publications place him in the forefront as a literary historian/critic.

ISHMAEL REED (1938– ) Novelist, Poet

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on February 22, 1938, Ishmael Reed grew up in Buffalo, New York. He attended State University of New York at Buffalo from 1956 to 1960. He worked as a reporter and later as an editor for the Newark Advance in New Jersey before co-founding the East Village Other in 1965. Reed spent the next few years teaching prose and guest lecturing at different institutions including the University of California at Berkeley. In 1971, he co-founded Yardbird Publishing Co., Inc. After four years as the editorial director, he co-founded Reed, Cannon & Johnson Communications Co., a publisher and producer of videos, and in 1976, the Before Columbus Foundation, which produced and distributed works by ethnic writers not yet established.

One of the most controversial figure in African American letters, Reed has published poetry, novels, plays, and prose satirizing American political, religious, and literary repression. Considered by some to be misogynistic and cynical, others find his work innovative. He is committed to creating an alternative African American aesthetic, which he calls “Neo-HooDooism.” One hallmark of the movement is the reliance on satire and social criticism.

Reed’s works of poetry include: catechism of d neo-american hoodoo church (1971); Conjure (1972), which was nominated for the National Book Award; Chattanooga (1973); A Secretary to the Spirits (1978); and New and Collected Poetry (1988). His poetry has also appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines including The Poetry of the Negro, The New Black Poetry, The Norton Anthology, Cricket, and Scholastic magazine.

Reed’s novels include: The Free-lance Pallbearers (1967); Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969); Mumbo Jumbo, which also received a National Book Award nomination; The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974); Flight to Canada (1976); The Terrible Twos (1982); Reckless Eyeballing; The Terrible Threes (1989); and Japanese by Spring (1992). He also wrote three plays: The Lost State of Franklin (1976); Savage Wilds; and its sequel Savage Wilds II.

Prose works by Reed include: Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978); God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982); Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988); and Airing Dirty Laundry (1993). He was also the editor of Multi-America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace in 1997.

Reed’s career has been rich in recognition. In 1974, he won the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award for fiction. The next year he received a Rosenthal Foundation Award and an honor from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1978, Reed earned the Lewis Michaux and American CivilLiberties awards. The following year he was given the Pushcart Prize. He has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Board and Yale University’s Calhoun College in 1982; grants have come from New York State, the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Arts Council.

SONIA SANCHEZ (1934– ) Poet, Playwright

Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died in Sanchez’ infancy, and Sanchez moved to Harlem with her father and siblings at the age of nine. She studied at New York University and Hunter College in New York City. She married and divorced Albert Sanchez and later married Etheridge Knight, an African American writer of poetry and fiction. She has taught at San Francisco State College and is now teaching in the Black Studies Department of Temple University in Philadelphia. Her plays were published in The Drama Review (Summer 1968) and in New Plays from the Black Theatre (1969), edited by Ed Bullins. Her poems also have been published in many other magazines and anthologies. Books written or edited by her include ten volumes of poetry: Homecoming (1969); We a Bad People (1970); It’s a New Day (1971); A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1973); Love Poems (1975); I’ve Been a Woman (1978); Under a Soprano Sky (1987); Wounded in the House of a Friend (1994); Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums (1997); and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (1999). Sanchez has edited two anthologies: Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Coming at You, An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem (1971); and We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans (1973). She has also written A Sound Investment (1979), a collection of short stories; homegirls and handgrenades (1984), which won an American Book Award; and Shake Loose My Skin (poems, 2000).

NTOZAKE SHANGE (1948– ) Playwright, Poet, Novelist

A playwright and poet, Paulette Linda Williams was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948; she changed her name to Ntozake Shange in 1971. She graduated from Barnard College and received her master’s degree from the University of Southern California, where she did other graduate work. She studied Afro-American dance in California and actually performed with the Third World Collective, Raymond Sawyer’s Afro-American Dance Company, Sounds in Motion, and West Coast Dance Works.

Shange taught at Sonoma Mills College in California from 1972 to 1975. She went on to teach at CUNY and Douglas College to finish out the 1970s, before becoming the Mellon Distinguished Professor of Literature at Rice University in 1983. For three years she worked as an associate professor of drama at the University of Houston.

Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a choreopoem (poetry and dance), was first produced in California, after her dance-drama Sassafrass was presented in 1976. Later, For Colored Girls was produced in New York City, where it had a long run before going on to other cities. It earned Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award nominations in 1977. Among the other works by Shange that have been produced on the stage are Spell #7, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion (1979), and Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1979). For Colored Girls has been published as a book, and Shange’s collection Three Pieces (1981) contains Spell #7, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, and Boogie Woogie Landscapes.

Other books by Shange include: Nappy Edges (poetry, 1978); Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (novel, 1982); A Daughter’s Geography (poetry, 1983); From Okra to Greens (a play, 1984); See No Evil: Prefaces & Accounts, 1976–1983 (1984); Betsey Brown (novel, 1985); Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (novel, 1994); I Live in Music (poetry, 1994); Whitewash (children’s novel, 1997); a history of food called If I Can Cook You Know God Can Cook (1998); Daddy Says (children’s novel, 2002); and Floodlight and Butterfly (children’s novel, 2002).

A version of Betsey Brown for the stage, with music by the jazz trumpeter and composer Baikida Carroll, opened the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, March 25, 1989. Shange directed Ina Cesaire’s Fire’s Daughters in 1993. The Broadway version of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf was revived in 1995.

Shange received an Obie Award in 1981 for Mother Courage and Her Children, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry that year for Three Pieces. A Guggenheim fellow, Shange has been given awards by the Outer Critics Circle and the National Black Theater Festival (1993). She also won the Pushcart Prize.

LUCY TERRY (c.1730–1821) Poet

Lucy Terry is generally considered one of the first African American poets in the United States. In a ballad that she called “Bars Fight,” she recreated an Indian massacre that occurred in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1746 during King George’s War. “Bars Fight” has been hailed by some historians as the most authentic account of the massacre.

Terry was a semiliterate slave who was sold in Rhode Island and purchased, it is believed, by the Terry family in Enfield, CT. At the age of five, she was sold again and lived in the household of Ensign Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts. She learned to read and may have been taught while in the Wells household, where she remained until 1756, when she married a freed African American slave named Abijah Prince. Terry won her freedom with the assistance of either her husband or Wells. The Prince house served as a center for young people who gathered to listen to their hostess’ storytelling in the oral tradition of the period. Only “Bars Fight” was ever published because Harriet Hitchcock, a Deerfield resident, wrote it down from memory after Terry’s death. Lucy Terry was a strong woman who argued eloquently for her family’s rights in several cases.

WALLACE H. THURMAN (1902–1934) Novelist, Playwright, Ghostwriter, Journalist

A caustic critic of African American writing, Wallace Thurman was a member of the New Negro movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Wallace Henry Thurman, called Wally by his friends, was born on August 16, 1902, in Salt Lake City. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1922, having studied pre-medicine. He did postgraduate work in 1923 at the University of Southern California. He read widely and knew about the Harlem Renaissance then taking place in New York. He attempted a West Coast counterpart of the Harlem Renaissance and established his own short-lived literary magazine, The Outlet. He moved to New York City the following year.

Thurman was managing editor of the Messenger from spring to fall 1926, then moved to The World Tomorrow, a white-owned monthly. By now, Thurman and Lang-ston Hughes had become good friends and were a part of a new school known as Harlem Renaissance writers. The group included Arna Bontemps (whom he had known in Los Angeles), Nella Larsen, Dorothy West, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gwendolyn Bennett. In the summer of 1926, Thurman and the group established Fire!, a short-lived literary magazine that was both obscene and revolutionary. The magazine was to provide another outlet beyond Crisis and Opportunity magazines for young African American writers to have their works published. He had financed the magazine himself and spent four years paying its debt.

In 1927, many of Thurman’s articles were published in prestigious magazines, such as New Republic and Dance Magazine, further helping to establish him as a critic. The next year, McFadden Publications added Thurman to its editorial staff, and he continued to write. In 1929, he published the work for which he is best known, The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice, an autobiographical novel that embraced intra-race color prejudice and self-hatred. Thurman was also the ghostwriter for several magazines and books. He wrote several plays as well; one of them, Cordelia the Crude, premiered on Broadway, where it received mixed reviews. It went on to Chicago and Los Angeles.

In 1932, Thurman published two other novels: Infants of the Spring, and The Interne. An alcoholic homosexual, Thurman was often depressed and suicidal. He became ill with tuberculosis and died in New York on December 22, 1934.

JEAN TOOMER (1894–1967) Novelist, Poet

Jean Toomer’s Cane, published in 1923, has been called one of the three best novels ever written by an African American—the others being Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. According to Columbia University critic Robert Bone, “Cane is by far the most impressive product of the Negro Renaissance.”

A mixture of poems and sketches, Cane was written during that period in which most African American writers were reacting against earlier “polite” forms by creating works marked by literary realism. Toomer even went beyond this realm to the threshold of symbol and myth, using a “mystical” approach, which is much more akin to the contemporary mood than it was to the prevailing spirit of his own day. Cane sold only 500 copies on publication, and it was still little known until reprinted recently with new introductions. Much has been written about Toomer and Cane in recent years, including a Cane casebook.

Nathan Pinchback Toomer was born in Washington, D.C., in December of 1894. He was one of eight children of sharecroppers. His father left shortly after his son’s birth, and his mother, Nina Toomer, named the boy Nathan Eugene, a name he later shorted to Jean. Toomer was educated in law at the University of Wisconsin and City College of New York before he turned to writing. The transcendental nature of his writings is said to have stemmed in part from his early study under Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic.

Toomer had a reputation for having scandalous affairs with married women. In 1931, Toomer married Margery Latimer, daughter of a wealthy New York Stock Exchange member, friend of his former lover, Georgia O’Keefe, and a well-known author. Like Toomer, she was a follower of Gurdjieff.

Toomer published quite a bit of poetry in his lifetime. Darwin T. Turner edited The Wayward and The Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer (1980), a book of his poetry, short stories, dramas, and autobiography. Other books about Toomer and his writings include: Therman O’Daniel’s Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation (1985); over 40 essays of the most thorough, up-to-date scholarship on Toomer; Robert B. Jones and Margery Toomer Latimer’s The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer (1988); 55 poems; and Nellie Y. McKay’s Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894–1936 (1984, 1987). Toomer died of cancer on March 10, 1967.

ALICE WALKER (1944– ) Poet, Novelist

Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, on February 9, 1944. She was educated at Spelman College (1961–1963) and Sarah Lawrence College, from which she received her B.A. in 1965. That year, she worked as a voter registrar in Georgia and worked for the welfare department in New York City. In 1967, she moved to Mississippi, where she was an African American literature consultant for Friends of the Children of Mississippi. From 1968 to 1971, she was a writer-in-residence at Jackson State and Tougaloo Colleges. Moving to Boston, she then lectured at Wellesley and the University of Massachusetts until 1973. While teaching in the early 1970s, she was a Radcliffe Institute fellow.

Walker’s work began to be published in the late 1960s, starting with Once: Poems in 1968. Two years later, she published the novel, The Third Life Grange Copeland. These two works were quickly followed by a succession of works, including Revolutionary Peturnias and Other Poems (1973), which earned a National Book Award nomination and the Lillian Smith Award; In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, recipient of a Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; and Langston Hughes: American Biography (for children).

The novel, Meridian (1976), was followed in 1979 by a book of poetry entitled Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning and an edited work by Walker titled I Love Myself When I’m Laughing. . .and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. The book was particularly important because it brought about a resurgence of interest in a Harlem Renaissance writer who had been overshadowed by other, better known authors.

In the 1980s, Walker more formally resumed her teaching career, spending the year of 1982 as the Fannie Hurst Professor of Literature at Brandeis University, while also serving as a distinguished writer as the University of California at Berkeley. In 1984, she co-founded Wild Trees Press. That decade’s works include the short story collection You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981); two collections of essays and journal entries, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983) and Living by the Word: Selected Writings, (1973–1987); a book of poetry entitled Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984); To Hell With Dying (juvenile story, 1988); and the novel, The Temple of My Familiar (1989). In 1986, she received the O. Henry Award for her short story, “Kindred Spirits.”

Walker’s most well-received work, however, was the 1983 novel, The Color Purple. Written in the form of a series of letters, the novel was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won an American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Walker was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. The bestselling book was adapted into an award-winning film featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery in 1985, and became a successful Broadway musical in 2005.

In the 1990s, Walker continued writing. Possessing the Secret of Joy, loosely a sequel to The Color Purple, was released in 1992. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult came out four years later. By the Light of My Father’s Smile was published in 1998, and Walker also published a book of short stories in 2000 entitled The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart. In 2006, Walker published a book for children entitled There is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me.

Holder of numerous honorary degrees, Walker has received a Merrill Fellowship for writing, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, and other honors.

MARGARET A. WALKER (1915–1998) Poet, Novelist

Born Margaret Abigail Walker on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama, she received her early education in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Walker earned her B.A. from Northwestern University and her M.A. (1940) and Ph.D. (1966), both from the University of Iowa.

In 1942, Walker published For My People and, two years later, was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing. She has taught English and literature at Livingston College in North Carolina, West Virginia State College, and Jackson State College in Mississippi. Her novel Jubilee appeared in 1965. For My People was reprinted in 1969. Her other works are Prophets for a New Day, How I Wrote Jubilee, October Journey, and A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. The date of June 17, 1976, was proclaimed Margaret Walker Alexander Day by the mayor of her native Birmingham.

Walker’s other works include Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988). A second edition of A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker was published in 1983. Walker’s poetry, which became increasingly political, had a major impact on African American poets of the 1960s and 1970s. She died of breast cancer on November 30, 1998, in Chicago.

DOROTHY WEST (1907–1998) Novelist, Short Story Writer, Journalist

Dorothy West was the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, the period of the late 1920s and early 1930s when an outpouring of writing and poetry exuded from the pens and typewriters of African American writers based in Harlem. West was known as “The Kid” by such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. West wrote short stories for the New York Daily News in the 1930s, and twice, during the Great Depression, founded African American literary journals, most notably the New Challenge.

West was born on June 2, 1907, in Boston. She later moved to New York City, but eventually returned home, moving into her family’s summer home in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in 1943. Five years later, she wrote her first novel, The Living Is Easy, the novel for which she is best known, based on the affluent world of African American achievers. West continued to write short stories for the Daily News from her Oak Bluffs home for the next 25 years.

In the 1950s, West began a second novel, The Wedding, but could not find a publisher interested in handling it. With its theme of interracial marriage, it may have been too hot a topic for the times and was put aside by West in an unfinished state. Instead, West started contributing short pieces to the Vineyard’s daily newspaper in the 1970s.

West again enjoyed fame in the 1990s. In 1992, West’s stories caught the eye of former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis, an editor at Doubleday and a summer resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Onassis encouraged West to finish The Wedding, and the two of them began meeting weekly. With Onassis acting as West’s editor, the novel finally was published in 1995. West dedicated the novel to Onassis. The story was made into a television

movie, produced by Oprah Winfrey, and aired in 1998. West died on August 16, 1998.

PHILLIS WHEATLEY (c.1753–1784) Poet

Born in Senegal in 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to the United States as a slave and received her name from Susannah Wheatley, the wife of the Boston tailor who had bought Phillis. Wheatley received her early education in the household of her master. Her interest in writing stemmed from her reading of the Bible and the classics under the guidance of the Wheatleys’ daughter, Mary.

In 1770, her first poem was printed under the title “A Poem by Phillis, A Negro Girl on the Death of Reverend George Whitefield.” Her book, Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773, the first book of poetry published by an African American. She took a trip to England for health reasons, but later returned to the United States and was married. She published the poem “Liberty and Peace” in 1784, shortly before her death. Most of the old books of her poems, letters, and memories about her life were reprinted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two books about Wheatley are Julian D. Mason Jr.’s The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1966) and William H. Robinson’s Phillis Wheatley, A Biography (1981). Robinson also compiled and published Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography (1981).

Although George Washington was among her admirers (she had once sent him a tributary poem, which he graciously acknowledged), her poetry is considered important today largely because of its historical role in the growth of African American literature. Wheatley’s poetry reflects Anglo-Saxon models rather than her African heritage. It is, nevertheless, a typical example of the verse manufactured in a territory—the British colonies—not yet divorced from its maternal origins. Wheatley died on December 5, 1784.

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN (1941– ) Writer, Educator

Wideman has been one of the leading chroniclers of life in urban black America, depicting the widening chasm between the urban poor and the white power structure in the United States. He is known for intertwining ghetto experiences with experimental fiction techniques, personal history, and social events to highlight deep cultural conflicts. A prolific writer, Wideman is the only two-time winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for literature, one for Sent for You Yesterday (1983), and one for Philadelphia Fire (1990). He published The Cattle Killing (1996) and Two Cities (1998), both novels.

In addition to novels, he has written short stories and nonfiction, including Brothers and Keepers (1984), a juxtaposition of his life and that of his younger brother, incarcerated for taking part in a larceny/murder. The examination of the two brothers’ different lives was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005, he published a collection of short stories entitled God’s Gym.

Born on June 14, 1941, in Washington, D.C., Wideman was the first of five children. Growing up in Pittsburgh, where the family moved, Wideman attended highly regarded Peabody High School. A top student, he was also class president and captain of the basketball team. Enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship, he earned a B.A. in 1963. During his undergraduate career, Wideman made the Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame, won the university’s creative writing prize, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received a Rhodes Scholarship to England’s Oxford University, becoming the first African American to receive such recognition in more than 50 years. With a B.A. in philosophy obtained from Oxford’s New College in 1966, Wideman began writing and teaching at such institutions as the Universities of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and, since 1986, Massachusetts at Amherst.

AUGUST WILSON (1945–2005) Playwright

One of the most important voices in the American theater, playwright August Wilson became a spokesperson for the black experience in America. Since his first stage success, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, he celebrated people of color in several plays, all set in a different decade in the twentieth century. In 1997, he elicited a public debate involving many prominent theater critics on the use of theater as a vehicle for cultural nationalism.

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1945 and was the oldest of six children. His mother was a house cleaner; his absent father was a baker. He left school at 15 due to the racist abuse he endured there. But he continued his education in the local library, reading all the literature by African American writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and others. He published a few poems in Black World and Black Lines in the early 1970s after absorbing the works of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Amiri Baraka.

It was when Wilson discovered the writings of Malcolm X that he decided to use cultural nationalism, African American people working toward cultural self-

determination, as a basis for playwriting. In 1969, he helped found the African American activist theater company, Black Horizons on the Hill, which focused on politicizing the community and raising African American consciousness. He staged some early plays through this association, but moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 where he says he gained some clarity and became less radicalized. He immediately wrote Jitney for the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and won a fellowship prize.

Wilson moved the location of Jitney and his next work, Fullerton Street, back to Pittsburgh and produced them at the Allegheny Repertory Theater. After two years of work at the National Playwright Conference, his first major work, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, caught the eye of Yale Repertory Theater’s artistic director Lloyd Richards. Together, they staged almost all of Wilson’s works, Richards directing them himself.

Each of Wilson’s plays tells the story of a different segment of the African American experience. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells how African American entertainers were exploited by whites in the 1920s. His next play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, discusses the migration of African Americans from rural Southern areas to the industrial cities of the North. Fences became an immediate hit when it opened on Broadway in 1987. Actor James Earl Jones played the main character, Troy Maxson, who dreams of playing professional baseball in the 1950s, only to be victimized by white racism. This play won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for Wilson.

In 1990, August Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson, a play that focuses on a family conflict over selling an heirloom piano once traded for slave ancestors whose portraits are carved into it. Then he produced Two Trains Running in 1992, a play about the late 1960s when racial strife and the Vietnam War divided the nation.

Wilson moved to Seattle in the early 1990s. His next play, Seven Guitars, opened in 1996. Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, the unseen main character’s death is being mourned at a wake. The seven characters reminisce with music and dream the future. This is another successful production by Wilson and director Lloyd Richards.

The 1997 debate began when Wilson gave a keynote speech to the Theater Communications Group Conference. Entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” it celebrated the achievements of African American theater and insisted that African American theater was understood and appreciated only by those living the African American experience. He castigated the New York mainstream theater and its critics for lack of support for African American theater. In turn, many New York critics, including Robert Brustein, Frank Rich, and John Simon, published editorial columns analyzing Wilson’s speech. Ultimately, a face-to-face debate was held by Wilson and Brustein in January 1998 to discuss the cultural intentions of theater: Wilson/politicization vs. Brustein/universal truth. At the end of the evening, the issue remained alive and well. Wilson had revisited his earlier black nationalist beliefs and continued to evoke questions about the African American experience.

In 2001, Wilson was presented with the prestigious Washington Literary Award, and in 2002, he was the only American to be honored with an award at the 26th annual Laurence Olivier Awards. Wilson died of liver cancer in Seattle on October 2, 2005, and 14 days after his death, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theatre in his honor. Wilson’s greatest legacy is not only his cycle of 10 plays depicting the effects of racism on the African American community during each decade of the twentieth century, but also his impact on a new generation of African American writers.

RICHARD WRIGHT (1908–1960) Novelist

Born on September 4, 1908, on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, Wright drew on his personal experience to dramatize racial injustice and its brutalizing effects. In 1938, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration Illinois Writers Project, Wright published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of four novellas based on his Mississippi boyhood memories. The book won an award for the best work of fiction by a WPA writer, and Wright received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Two years later, Native Son, a novel of Chicago’s African American ghetto, further enhanced Wright’s reputation. A Book-of-the-Month Club choice, it was later a successful Broadway production under Orson Welles’ direction and was filmed in South America with Wright himself in the role of Bigger Thomas. He published Twelve Million Black Voices in 1941.

In 1945, Wright’s largely autobiographical Black Boy was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and went on to become his second bestseller. Wright later moved to Paris where he continued to write fiction and nonfiction including: The Outsider (1953); Black Power (1954); Savage Holiday (1954, 1965); The Color Curtain (1956); White Man Listen (1957); The Long Dream (1958); Lawd Today (1963); Eight Men (1961); and American Hunger (1977), a continuation of Wright’s autobiographical work, Black Boy.

Wright died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960. There are over a dozen books written about him, two casebooks on Native Son, a children’s book, and a critical pamphlet in a writer’s series.



1946: Gwendolyn Brooks; Langston Hughes

1956: James Baldwin

1962: John A. Williams

1970: James A. McPherson

1971: Charles Gordone

1972: Michael S. Harper

1974: Henry Van Dyke

1978: Lerone Bennett Jr.; Toni Morrison

1985: John Williams

1987: Ernest J. Gaines

1992: August Wilson

1994: Adrienne Kennedy

2001: Carl Phillips

2002: Charles Johnson


Co-sponsored by the Phelps-Stokes Fund and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library

1979: Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.

1981: Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America

1983: Vincent Harding, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America

1986: John Hope Franklin, George Washington Williams: A Biography

1988: Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America


1953: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, Fiction

1969: Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812, History and Biography

1983: Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place, First Novel; Joyce Carol Thomas, Marked By Fire, Children’s Fiction (Paperback); Alice Walker, The Color Purple, Fiction (Hardcover)

1990: Charles Johnson, Middle Passage, Fiction

2000: Lucille Clifton, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988–2000, Poetry


1993: Toni Morrison


1982: David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident

1984: John Edgar Wideman, Sent for you Yesterday

1991: John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire


Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Biography or Autobiography

1994: W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919, David Levering Lewis

2001: W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963, David Levering Lewis

Letters: Fiction

1978: Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson

1983: The Color Purple, Alice Walker

1988: Beloved, Toni Morrison

Letters: Poetry

1950: Annie Allen, Gwendolyn Brooks

1987: Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove

1994: Neon Vernacular, Yusef Komunyakaa

Letters: Drama

1982: A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller

1987: Fences, August Wilson

1990: The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

2002: Topdog/Underdog, Susan-Lori Parks

Letters: Special Awards and Citations

1977: Alex Haley, Roots

Journalism: Commentary

1989: Clarence Page

1994: William Raspberry

1996: E. R. Shipp

Journalism: Feature Writing

1999: Angelo B. Henderson


views updated May 09 2018


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.]


Altick, richard D. 1957 The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Dumazedier, Joffre; and Hassenforder, Jean 1963 Elements pour une sociologie comparee de la production, de la diffusion et de I’utilisation du livre. Paris: Bibliographic de la France.

Duvignaud, Jean 1965 Sociologie du the éâ tre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Escarpit,Robert C. E. G. (1958) 1965 Sociology of Literature. Painesville, Ohio: Lake Erie College Press. → First published in French.

Escarpit,Robert C. E. G. 1961 “Creative Treason” as a Key to Literature.Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 10:16-21.

Escarpit, Robert C. E. G. 1963 L’acte littéraire est-il un acte de communication?Filoloski pregled (Belgrade) 1/2:17-21.

Escarpit, Robert C. E. G. (1965) 1966 The Book Revolution. Rev. ed. Paris: UNESCO; London: Harrap. -* First published in French.

Escarpit, Robert C. E. G.; and ROBINE, NICOLE 1963 Atlas de la lecture â Bordeaux Universit> de Bordeaux, Faculte des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, Centre de Sociologie des Faits Littéraires, Publications. Bordeaux: La Faculté.

Goldmann, Lucien 1950 Materialisme dialectique et histoire de la litterature.Revue de metaphysique et de morale 55:283–301.

Goldmann, Lucien 1964 Pour une sociologie du roman. Paris: Gallimard.

Hoggart, Richard 1966 Literature and Society.American Scholar 35:277–289.

Institut DE Litterature ET DE Techniques Artistiques DeMasse, Universite De Bordeaux 1966 Le livre et le conscrit: Les jeunes recrues devant la lecture. → A survey of the reading habits of the recruits conducted by R. Escarpit and N. Robine at the Army Induction Center at Limoges.

Lehman, Harvey C. 1937 The Creative Years: “Best Books.”Scientific Monthly 45:65-75.

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

Lough, John 1957 Paris Theatre Audiences in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Oxford Univ. Press.

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

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

Peyre, Henri 1948 Les générations litteraires. Paris: Boivin.

Pichois, Claude 1961 En marge de 1’histoire litteraire: Vers une sociologie historique des faits litteraires. Revue d—histoire litteraire de la France 61:48-57.

Plekhanov, Georgii V. (1899) 1953 Art and Social Life. London: Lawrence … Wishart. → A collection of Plekhanov’s principal writings on art and society. First published in Russian.

Sartre, Jean-paul (1948) 1949 What Is Literature? New York: Philosophical Library. → First published in French.

Schucking, Levin L. (1931) 1950 The Sociology of Literary Taste. London: Routledge. → First published in German.

Schulz, Hans Ferdinand (1952) 1960 Das Schicksal der Biicher und der Buchhandel: System einer Vertriebskunde des Buches. 2d ed., rev. … enl. Berlin: Gruyter.

Stael-holstein, Germaine de (1800) 1959 De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales. Edited by Paul van Tieghem. Geneva: Droz.


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.


views updated May 23 2018


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 .


views updated May 21 2018


this is a composite entry; it is composed of the following three parts:

literature: eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
adam sonstegard

literature: 1890–1969
karla jay

literature: 1969–present
julie abraham


The only term that is easy to define in a brief survey of American LGBT literatures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the time span. Between 1700 and 1899, what it meant for women to express love and passion for one another, for men to write of mutual affection and desire, and for writers to represent these and other emotions in something called literature varied greatly by person, place, period, and document.

A review of LGBT literary works should not imply that each writer under discussion conceived of his or her sexuality and gender in the same way, nor that we who read these works a century or two later see their sexuality and gender in the same light. Even the words in these documents that appear to imply sexual intimacy might originally have denoted exclusively spiritual, platonic friendships, and references to the latter might have served as coded references to erotic relationships. Carefully interpreting pre-twentieth-century queer literary works requires knowledge concerning individual writers' histories, hidden connotations of words, definitions of "romantic friendship," authors' motives for writing texts, and our motives for reading them.

Early Writings, Religious and Otherwise

Condemnation. Much early American literature on LGBT issues takes the form of prohibitions voiced by theologians in sermons, warnings issued by moralists, and significant silences in other texts. Many early American authorities likened England to the biblical Sodom for its supposed degeneracy and imagined America as a refuge from Old World "sodomy." The term applied to sexual relations between members of the same sex, between unmarried members of different sexes, and between humans and animals. Without differentiating between these acts, authorities harshly condemned them all. In one sermon, "The Cry of Sodom Enquired Into" (1674), Samuel Danforth sought to justify the state's recent execution of a youth accused of sodomy, invoking the biblical language of "abomination" and describing both sodomy and bestiality as "going after strange flesh."

"A Christian in His Personal Calling," Cotton Mather's sermon of 1701, has as its concluding lines, "The sin of Sodom was abundance of idleness. All the Sins of Sodom will abound Where Idleness is Countenanced." Sinful sexuality, as far as Mather was concerned, inevitably began with idleness and sloth. An anonymous work, Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (1720), went further, insisting that "wasting seed" not only encouraged sodomy but also caused physical harm. These prohibitions and dire warnings, which Jonathan Ned Katz has gathered in the Gay and Lesbian Almanac, often applied only to men, neglecting women's desires, let alone conceptions of lesbian identity then evolving.

Affirmation. Though this climate offered scant incentive for people to write potentially self-incriminating accounts of unorthodox lives, colonial literature does include some affirmative LGBT images. Women and men alike, thought the Puritans, were "brides of Christ"; women and men alike, by the same logic, possessed an immortal soul that abided in the afterlife without a conventional gender designation.

Some spiritual autobiographers described a deity who male writers wished would "ravish" them. They invoked the language of fleshly desires to symbolize spirituality. An example is the poet Edward Taylor's exhortation in his "Preparatory Meditations" to "Bring forth a birth of keys t' unlock love's chest." Taylor begs, "Lord, ope the door: rub off my rust, remove /My sin, and oil my lock." "Enlivened" and lubricated, the speaker would then be united with the Lord. In a second symbol of such a union, Taylor places himself within traditionally feminine domesticity, writing in the famous poem "Huswifery," "Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete." Transforming spools of thread into glorious holy robes, the speaker becomes a household instrument God would lovingly, sternly manipulate.

Similar homoerotic desires, felt by Michael Wiggles-worth, evidently led to various self-castigating diary entries and to the cathartic, millennial poem "The Day of Doom." The poet—who had, as he put it, lusted after his male parishioners—attempted to banish his desires in his prolonged epic of brimstone.

Three men who lived decades later and dubbed one another "Lorenzo," "Leander," and "Castillo" seem not to have banished desires but instead found allusive means of expressing them. In the journals of two of the men, John Fishbourne Mifflin and James Gibson—journals that Caleb Crain has unearthed—the men preserve locks of one another's hair and conspire to spend their nights together. We do not know if they expressed their love sexually on the nights in question, but we do know that their contemporaries struggled to find the right words and actions for fulfilling their own desires. As Alexander Hamilton wrote to John Laurens, a fellow aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, "I wish, my dear Laurens … it might be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you."

Romantic Friendships and Boston Marriages

Expressions of love and desire from the nineteenth century cover a wider range of representations while posing interpretive challenges to readers. The cross-dressing in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827) and Theodore Winthrop's Cecil Dreeme (1861) initiates a transgender tradition in American letters. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1851) hints at bisexuality in the relationship between Hester Prynne and her husband, Roger Chillingsworth; between Prynne and her erstwhile lover Arthur Dimmesdale; and between the two men, whose pursuit of one another's secrets becomes oddly erotic.

Arrangements that strike us as amorous but unusual might be better understood in light of what Lillian Faderman terms "romantic friendships" and what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has called "The Female World of Love and Ritual." The persistence of single-sex educational and vocational institutions through the century, the loss of many marriageable men in the Civil War, and the strict limitations placed upon women's spheres meant that many deemed by the outside world to be spinsters, old wives, or widows formed romantic and passionate attachments with one another. These arrangements, which Henry James parodied in another early narrative of bisexuality, The Bostonians (1886), came to be known late in the century as "Boston marriages." Twenty-first-century readers can find it difficult to determine whether or not these relationships were sexual and whether or not they should be labeled as lesbian.

Readers of Emily Dickinson's poetry engage many of these interpretive complications in reviewing her rich, often ambiguous sexual imagery, and in studying the sexually charged letters she wrote to clergyman Charles Wadsworth, Judge Otis Lord, and, most notoriously, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her neighbor and sister-in-law. Her professions of love to Sue in letters and poems—later collected and edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith in Open Me Carefully—suggest that the poet's willingness to express her affections went unrequited. Readers once grouped her poems into tidy categories and conventionalized her verse, but a more innovative Dickinson, who placed her writings in enigmatic manuscript collections called fascicles and who wrote verses that defy categorization, keeps modern readers at work. Readers conventionally picture the poet as retiring and reclusive, but a more engaged and social Emily Dickinson, who actively participated in the social circle of her family and in the sexual politics of her world, emerges from later studies.

Studies of Sarah Orne Jewett, conventionally viewed as a local-color writer and remembered for "Deephaven"(1894) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1910), show that she lived in a romantic friendship for more than twenty years with Annie A. Fields, widow of an important editor who had once published Jewett's work. Jewett lent encouragement to the aspiring young writer Willa Cather, who depicted LGBT relationships in settings that ranged from the East Coast to Nebraska and who brought Boston marriages into the next century.

Interracial and Interclass Same-Sex Relations

Admiration and exploitation. Nineteenth-century gay male literary images embrace domestic, exotic, frontier, and cosmopolitan settings. Herman Melville's novels of the 1840s and 1850s openly depict the exotic sexuality of Polynesian men and women, and suggest that sailors' camaraderie included mutual or even group masturbation. Though interpretations of Melville's sexuality become complicated by questions about his family relationships, his marriage, his iconoclasm, and the varying social codes of life at home and at sea, readers tend to agree that Melville was not alone in locating queer sexuality in maritime and distant settings.

Writing before Melville and influencing his work, particularly Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), Richard Henry Dana set his novel Two Years before the Mast (1841) in the same locales and depicted the same ambiguous friendships between comrades. Writing after Melville and following in this Polynesian tradition, Charles Warren Stoddard depicted a kind of sensual, same-sex utopia in works with telling titles, South-Sea Idylls (1874) and The Island of Tranquil Delights (1904).

In domestic settings, accounts of interracial same-sex relations include those by Anglo-American diarists who admired the physiques of Indian warriors or squaws, as well as slave-owners who carefully noted slaves' muscles and supposedly sculpted physiques. In one mid-century memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Thomas Wentworth Higginson leads a battalion of African American soldiers fighting for the Union cause but frequently pauses, as Christopher Looby has shown, to describe his delight at watching his men bathing, resting, and preparing for battle.

In another memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs mentions a cruel slave master, who, Jacobs tells us, "took into his head the strangest freaks of despotism." A slave named Luke was at the despot's mercy, and, Jacobs observes, "some of these freaks were of a nature too filthy to be repeated." In a narrative that supplies graphic details of the sexual and physical abuse of other slaves, her reluctance to detail these "filthy" acts suggests their homosexual, forced, and sadistic character. Desire in these instances did not always correspond with egalitarian relationships so much as it reveals tendencies to objectify, idealize, and manipulate those who held less power.

A loving but manly interracial fraternity. The country's classic literary canon, as Leslie Fiedler was the first to point out, seems indeed to include a great many fraternal but socially unequal relationships that cross racial and ethnic lines. James Fenimore Cooper's frontier hero Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans (1826); the Anglo-American and Christian Ishmael and Queequeg, his exotic, "pagan" companion aboard ship—and in bed—in Melville's Moby Dick (1851); and the conscience-stricken rascal and the fugitive slave in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), show the prevalence in nineteenth-century American letters of masculine interracial bonds. Even Henry David Thoreau interrupts his critique of New England economics in Walden (1854) to remark admiringly on the graceful, self-sufficient woodchopper Alek Therien, "A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find."

To read Walt Whitman's most famous poem, "Song of Myself" (1855), without noticing how much of its eroticism falls outside of the sphere of conventional, heterosexual matrimony, is to miss much of the work's startling erotic imagery. Celebrating masculine and feminine bodies alike, the poem's inclusive voice expresses wide varieties of longing and loving, encouraging readers to act upon the poem's words by touching the lives and bodies of others. Whitman depicted same-sex love in the erotic, corporeal, and phallic imagery of the "Calamus" poems, and added songs celebrating heterosexual coupling in the "Children of Adam"sequence. Whitman himself, we now know, enjoyed either romantic partnerships or extremely close, physically affectionate friendships with younger, working-class intimates Fred Vaughan and Peter Doyle, and played a nurturing role in Civil War hospitals, where, as a nurse, he would treat, embrace, and kiss the wounded.

If nineteenth-century Americans were preoccupied with the taboo subject of interracial cross-sex sexuality, which by mid-century they began to call "miscegenation," interracial bonds between men began to offer an imagined literary and mythic alternative. While heterosexual unions, to this way of thinking, could lead to children of mixed racial backgrounds, homosocial bonds allowed for platonic relationships and recast nationhood as a loving but manly interracial fraternity.

Increasing Ambiguity

If manly brothers helped shape the nation at the frontiers, socialite dandies helped shape it in the parlor rooms. The tales and novels of Henry James show how the dandy figure grew increasingly sexually ambiguous, until writers and fans, as in "The Author of Beltraffio" (1884), and teachers and students, as in "The Pupil" (1891), express amorous, mutual admiration. Fellow portrait artists work in a kind of erotic camaraderie and competition in The Tragic Muse (1890), James's counterpart to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and aging observers admire the talents and ambitions of younger men in James's Roderick Hudson (1875) and The Ambassadors (1904).

An aging Horatio Alger admired the ambitions of the young men who appear so repeatedly in Alger's classic "rags to riches" novels. The novelist Bayard Taylor fictionalized the life of Fitz-Greene Halleck, known as the "American Byron," in a subtle story of bisexuality and marriage, Joseph and His Friend (1870); and Alfred J. Cohen, who wrote as Alan Dale, penned another bisexual narrative in A Marriage below Zero (1899), a melodramatic account of a gay male affair, told from an abandoned wife's point of view.

Subtle codes for conveying rarer passions. By this time, however, clinical definitions of homosexuality had begun to take hold in Europe, Wilde had endured his public trial, and Edward Carpenter had begun writing pamphlets that spoke positively of "homogenic love." For many, literary depictions of same-sex relationships began to look more like potential perversity than benign brotherhood.

The British essayist and memoirist John Addington Symonds even asked Whitman if his poems actually depicted sexual contact between men, and if he enacted in life what he represented in verse. Whitman's famous denial (that in a kind of brawling, reckless heterosexuality he had fathered six illegitimate children), his revisions of the more explicit passages in some of his poems, and his written reminiscences prompted readers to ask how literally and biographically they should read his poems.

Women's amorous relationships also seemed more suspicious to Willa Cather's readers than they had to previous generations; their representation in literature seemed increasingly taboo. Cather and her contemporaries, from pioneering autobiographers Claude Hartland and Earl Lind to the novelist Henry Blake Fuller to the early feminist theorist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, made literary careers out of pushing the limits of such taboos ever further.

The stories that queer literature has to tell from before the twentieth century flirt with these subtly shifting taboos. This literature finds subtle codes for conveying rarer passions, works with or against the negative attitudes that words like "sodomy" and "deviancy" implicitly convey, and awaits the conscientious sympathy readers of a latter day, such as ourselves, can supply.


Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Crain, Caleb. American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper, 1988.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1955.

——. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958.

——. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1998.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Man: Romantic Friendships and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Farr, Judith. The Passions of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion Books, 1960.

Godbeer, Richard. The Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Edited by Christopher Looby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: Norton, 2001.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay and Lesbian Almanac. New York: Harper, 1983.

——. Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Leavitt, David, and Mark Mitchell, eds. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English, 1748–1914. London; Vintage, 1999.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton, 1997.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth Century America." In Feminism and History. Edited by Joan Wallach Scott. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Authoritative Texts, Prefaces, Whitman on His Art, Criticism. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.

Adam Sonstegard

see alsoalger, horatio; colonial america; dickinson, emily; gilman, charlotte perkins; interracial and interethnic sex and relationships; jewett, sarah orne; romantic friendship and boston marriage; slavery and emancipation; stoddard, charles warren; whitman, walt; wigglesworth, michael.

LITERATURE: 1890–1969

Scholarship since the Stonewall Riots (1969) has continually pushed and expanded the understanding of homosocial identity and its genealogical ancestors. Many nineteenth-century literary figures have been put under new lenses, while new visions of familiar texts by innovative scholars and ever-curious readers have augmented the list of cultural ancestors. As novelist Richard Hall pointed out in a New Republic article (1979) about Henry James: "Lives, like carpets, have many strands. They may be perceived in many designs. What the biographer picks out depends not only on the keenness of his vision but on what he is empowered to see." Twenty-first-century scholars, students, and literary aficionados know that nineteenth-century writers such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson are only the beginning of a rich American heritage.

Turn-of-the-Century Literature

The fiction of Henry James (1843–1916) is a prime example of how post-Stonewall literary criticism explored the canon and reconfigured readings of turn-of-the-century literature. The traditional scholarship of Leon Edel (written between 1950 and 1972) and the work of other Jamesians posited that James's grief over the death of his beloved cousin Minny Temple in 1870 had left the author a confirmed bachelor. But starting with Richard Hall's perceptive questioning in the New Republic of James's "life unlived, the beast forever crouched," queer theorists soon uncovered a different set of readings.

Even the most traditional of male critics such as Leon Edel, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling could not ignore the lesbian overtones in James's The Bostonians (1886). Other critics, including Michael Moon and Eve Sedgwick, ventured beyond the more obvious homo-erotic connections. In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Tendencies (1993), Sedgwick explored more subtle and coded homo-erotic references in Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904).

None of the scholars who have reread James suggest that he consciously saw himself as a homosexual. James was horrified by the 1895 conviction and imprisonment on sodomy charges of Oscar Wilde in England, but refused to sign an 1896 petition supporting a pardon. In fact, like a good many other writers, James may have taken Wilde's downfall as a dire warning against writing that could be deemed too provocative. He therefore relied on exploring friendship between older and younger men, which still had benign connotations at the turn of the century.

American Expatriates in Europe

James moved to England permanently in the 1870s after traveling around Europe and living in Paris. Like many other American writers and painters, he viewed Europe as a place to learn his craft, to earn a living, and to view his native land at a distance with some dispassion and clarity.

The subsequent generation of literary expatriates who followed James to England, France, and Italy was much more cognizant of their homosexuality or "inversion." Their sexual difference became a significant factor in their decision to emigrate. By the turn of the century, for example, Natalie Clifford Barney was calling herself "naturally unnatural." Far ahead of her contemporaries, she rejected the "third sex" theories of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis and tried to claim her place as a beautiful woman in search of others. Barney looked to lesbian prototypes—however negative—in the French literature of Théophile de Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, and Émile Zola that were lacking in her own literary heritage. For Barney as well as for other lesbian expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Janet Flanner, the cultural reality was that the native French paid little attention to the morality of foreigners as long as it did not affect their own daughters. Americans were less liberal-minded. Barney's first book, Quelquesportraits-sonnets de Femmes (Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women, 1900), a collection of French poetry praising the beauty of women, was savaged in the American press. Her distraught father, Alfred Barney, purchased all the copies of the book that he could find and destroyed the plates. In contrast, the French critics were more appalled by her lapses in rhyme and meter.

With the harsh criticism of her work in America, Barney developed several strategies for expressing lesbian subject matter with impunity. The first was to create a series of plays, poems, and pseudo-Socratic dialogues about the life of Sappho, a figure from ancient Greece who was simultaneously still popular yet removed and exempt from contemporary values. Nineteenth-century poets and historians generally portrayed Sappho as a heterosexual mother who had leapt over the Leucadian cliffs after she had been spurned by the sailor Phaon. Barney and her lover, British-born poet Renée Vivien (born Pauline Mary Tarn) recast the Greek poet as a lover of women. By recreating Sappho in their own likeness, Barney and Vivien established a literary foremother who validated both their writing and lifestyle; for Barney, these two elements were inseparable.

Literary Amnesia

Barney was Gertrude Stein's friend and neighbor on the Left Bank of Paris, but their philosophical differences were many. Unlike Barney, Stein was reticent about her private life. Stein's first novel, Q.E.D., written as early as 1903, was published posthumously and privately in 1950. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein claims that she placed the work in a desk drawer and forgot about it—a rather unlikely explanation for the "genius" she has Toklas label her in the same work.

Compared to Stein's major works, however, Q.E.D. is best forgotten. The lesbian triangle in the novel is largely of interest for what it reveals about Stein's early life and her unfortunate involvements. In Q.E.D. a character named Adele (Stein) becomes passionately attached to Helen (in real life, May Bookstaver), only to discover that she is financially and romantically controlled by Mabel (in real life, Mabel Haynes).

This bitter triangle of Stein's college days haunted her for many years, and the breakup played some part in her expatriation. Stein eventually found a way to voice this story by heterosexualizing it, first in Fernhurst (written c. 1904–1905) and later in "Melanctha" in Three Lives (1909). References to lesbianism were retained, but they were intricately coded, such as the repeated refrain of Melanctha biblically "knowing" Jane Harden.

The Gay Grotesque

The 1920s and 1930s ushered in a golden age of LGB writers, artists, and filmmakers. Their talents spanned the Atlantic and embraced the black as well as the white communities, as the Harlem Renaissance blossomed in New York and beyond.

One common trope of LGB writing is the "carnivalesque." Although the roots of the grotesque may be traced back to writers of all sexual persuasions and nationalities, including Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, and James Joyce, the carnivalesque has a special place for deviant writers who perhaps instinctively identify with its rebellious traditions. In the twentieth century, "monstrosity" in its many forms was often analyzed according to moral, medical, and psychological models, but some writers and artists refused to be cowed or defined by modern systems of labeling and limitation as they rebelliously explored and reclaimed the carnivalesque.

Two salient examples of this form are Strange Brother (1931) by Blair Niles (born Mary Blair Rice Beebie), and The Young and Evil (1933), coauthored by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler. Little is known of Niles, except that she was a white author who was interested in not only writing but also personal exploration. Ford, born in Mississippi, and Tyler, born in New Orleans, migrated to Greenwich Village in New York City.

Both novels use Greenwich Village and Harlem as the setting for the gay grotesque. The rich, creative spirit of black LGB writers, artists, and musicians who populated Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s was in and of itself an inversion and subversion of the social order as the ruling class of the United States envisioned it. Harlem, like Greenwich Village, was a place to flee to, a fertile city of the imagination where African Americans gathered, leaving their native towns for a place where their artistic aspirations would not be considered abnormal.

In both novels, the protagonists wander the nocturnal landscape of New York City in search of sex, cigarettes, and illegal alcohol. They sample many of the seamy offerings of the thriving homosexual world: the characters cruise bars, pick up strange men in the streets or public bathrooms, and attend a drag ball in Harlem.

Lesbian Carnivalesque

The literary expatriates continued to flourish in Paris, which remained another primary site for American authors. Salons run by Natalie Clifford Barney, Gertrude Stein, and Mina Loy reopened at the close of World War I. These salons and a Left Bank Anglo bookstore run by lesbian Sylvia Beach embraced those members of the "Lost Generation" who remained in Europe, as well as new arrivals, such as Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay.

One of the new émigrés was Djuna Barnes. As someone who had to earn a living, Barnes realized that lesbian content was literary suicide, especially in the wake of the obscenity trials regarding The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, whom Barnes knew and even satirized in Ladies Almanack (1928). Barnes resorted to several strategies to protect her name from the legal dangers of censorship and the threat of public condemnation. First, she did not identify herself as a lesbian. Although she is generally considered bisexual, she doggedly refused to label herself as either lesbian or bisexual. She imagined herself as a heterosexual writing on a controversial subject with a long literary history. Furthermore, the hermetic quality of her work, especially her modernistic riffs and mock historical narratives such as Ladies Almanack, kept her works out of the hands of the general nonliterary public (those most likely to find her work offensive).

Influenced by her friend Charles Henri Ford, Barnes embraced the grotesque. In Nightwood (1936), Nora Flood meets Robin Vote at the circus. Nora's passion for Robin seems relatively palatable when set against an inverted twilight world of "monstrous" freaks, including tattooed circus performers and the eccentric and verbose transvestite Matthew O'Connor. As Carolyn Allen points out in Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss (1996), Barnes, like Stein and Barney, discouraged attempts to read her lesbian characters (Robin and Nora) as a couple in which one is the "congenital invert" while the other is more traditionally feminine—that is, a couple that would be more like Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellen in The Well of Loneliness.

Encoded Longings

Few accounts of the Harlem scene by black writers were as open as Strange Brother, with the noteworthy exception of Richard Bruce Nugent's infamous story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," which was printed in the first and only issue of the magazine Fire!! (1926). In this impressionistic story, punctuated only by ellipses (which often mark the space for something that cannot be said), the character Alex longs for Beauty, "because his body was beautiful … and white and warm." Nugent daringly celebrates both interracial relationships and bisexuality: "one can love two at the same time."

Nevertheless, although many of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance were homosexual or bisexual, their works were deeply encoded. Gloria Hull (1993) has demonstrated, for instance, that some of the love poems of Angelina Weld Grimké contained a feminine pronoun in the manuscript that was altered to the masculine form for publication purposes. A few poems have been published, such as "Brown Girl" and "Naughty Nan," that extol feminine beauty. Grimké's scant literary production was due, Hull posits, to the restraints resulting from widespread homophobia.

Post-Stonewall critics such as Hull and Barbara Smith have begun to explore the intersections of sexuality and race in order to reevaluate the texts of acknowledged bisexual poets such as Countee Cullen and the possibly bisexual Langston Hughes. The latter's work exhibited very little homosexual content and whose sexual tastes seemed a mystery even to those closest to him. In the context of new scholarship, Hughes's "dream deferred" (in "Harlem") and Cullen's lack of "peace/Night or day, no slight release/… Walking through my body's street" (in "Heritage") take on a new resonance, though for some, a homosocial interpretation of these poems might seem strained.

The same conundrum applies to Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, a novel that has received much attention due to the implicit similarities in the ways femme lesbians, masculine homosexual men, and light-skinned blacks have passed in the dominant culture. Just as many lesbians married men who virulently hated homosexuals, Larsen's passing protagonist Clare Kendry married a malicious racist. Whether Larsen intended this dual reading is not entirely clear, although Deborah E. McDowell, in introducing the 1986 edition of Passing, makes a strong argument for reading lesbianism into the text. McDowell points to Irene's (the narrator's) erotic descriptions of Clare as a "lovely creature" with a "tempting mouth," as well as the repeated images of heat and fire that Clare's presence conjures up.

Reflections in Southern Eyes

By the 1940s, southerners were the most influential writers in the United States. Many of them, including Carson McCullers, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams were also homosexual or bisexual.

The presentation of what has often been called a "homosexual sensibility" is often subtle. Though there is no blatant homosexuality or lesbianism in the works of Capote or McCullers, homosexuality is often hinted at through role reversal. The two authors employed the southern Gothic tradition (as envisaged by William Faulkner) and transformed it to investigate the "freakish" quality of their own existence. Role reversals include the girl who is a tomboy and the boy who is too feminine. Both Capote and McCullers successfully employ this strategy. In Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Joel does not look like a "real boy.""He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned." His playmate, Idabel, calls him "sissy-britches," and she is so filthy and rough that Miss Roberta, the proprietor of the café in Noon City, tells Idabel not to come into her store. McCullers uses tomboys as the protagonists of two important novels—Mick in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Frankie Adams in Member of the Wedding (1946).

Both Capote and McCullers see their characters as outsiders. In Other Voices, Other Rooms, the paralyzed father, the eccentric Randolph with his effeminate ways, the bird-killing Amy, the centenarian Jesus Fever, and the mutilated Zoo form a household of outcasts. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, all the characters are "freaks" of sorts, including the deaf mute John Singer, the dwarflike Jake Blount, and the awkward and tomboyish Mick Kelly. Although homosexuality is not mentioned amid all this Faulkner-inspired Gothic grotesqueness (something pointed out by Tennessee Williams), the most tender relationship in the novel exists between Singer and his mute friend Antonapoulos, who is confined to a mental institution for most of the story.

World War II

The major catalyst of the 1940s was World War II, which transformed the way homosexuals were portrayed in literature, a change best represented by Gore Vidal in The City and the Pillar (1948). Vidal's protagonist, Jim Willard, is the epitome of a southern gentleman: a tall, blond, polite tennis player from Virginia. He, too, turns out to be an outcast. He falls in love with the boy next door, Bob Shaw, and one sultry idyllic night while camping out together in an old slave cabin by the river, they wrestle and make love.

Despite their individual quirks, the central male figures are doggedly "normal" men who pass effortlessly in the heterosexual world. Their masculinity is underscored by their participation in World War II: Jim enters the army, Shaw serves in the navy. Homosexual servicemen in uniform are in the background of every bar and party, perhaps suggesting the impact that World War II had on the development of homosexual consciousness.

The novel was a breakthrough in presenting Jim's obsession with Bob, not his homosexuality per se, as the problem. Nevertheless, in his work Vidal replicates the homophobic Freudian wisdom of the day: Jim's father "represent[s] bleakness and punishment," while his mother is overly doting and protective. One could interpret Jim's fixation on Bob as his failure to develop beyond adolescent fantasies.

The McCarthy Era

The political backlash of the 1950s that often lumped "commies" and "queers" into a single category created frightening times for many writers and artists. Material that could be construed as leaning to the Left might be banned or earn its creator an unwelcome subpoena to be questioned by a congressional committee. As anticommunism, as promulgated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his political allies, spread across the United States and as far away as New Zealand, many writers found it safest to disguise their material or, at the very least, to distance themselves from it in some way so that they could claim it was truly a "fiction" in every sense of the word. When the political climate of the era is considered, it is amazing to see how much overt gay and lesbian material was nonetheless published during this period.

McCarthyism's emphasis on the holiness of the nuclear family unit as the antidote to "pinko commie queers" affected most literary output, all the way down to dime store novels such as lesbian pulp fiction. After wartime restrictions on paper were lifted, Gold Medal began to publish heterosexual thrillers and lesbian pulp novels with tawdry, suggestive covers. Many of the lesbian pulps were actually written by men or homophobic women, and they portrayed lesbian life as desperate and unhappy, but others by Paula Christian, Vin Packer, Valerie Taylor, and Ann Bannon presented more positive images and won an abiding place in lesbian culture, so much so that some of these authors are still in print.

One of the most famous pulps was Women's Barracks by Tereska Torrès, translated from the French by her husband, Meyer Levin; it had sold millions of copies by the 1960s. The novel focuses on the lives of a half dozen women in the Free French forces living in London during World War II. In "Making the World Safe for the Missionary Position" (1990), Kate Adams aptly summed up the plot of the novel as "the sexual revelations of four or five young women soldiers who, if the novel's word is taken literally, did nothing during their army years except have affairs with men, have affairs with women, talk to each other about the affairs they were having, and try to get over the affairs they had already had." Although the novel seemed to support post–World War II ideology that the best and safest place for women was in the home, not the armed forces, Women's Barracks was singled out by the Gathings Committee of the U.S. Congress in 1952 as one of sixty paperback novels that included "obscenity, violence, lust, use of narcotics, blasphemy, vulgarity, pornography, juvenile delinquency, sadism, masochism, perversion, homosexuality, lesbianism" and descriptions of a host of other sins.

Although the government worried that cheap paperbacks were spreading perversion, lesbians became concerned with the negative tilt of many of these works. For example, one nonfiction book, Ann Aldrich's We Walk Alone (1955), provoked a debate at the May 1957 meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in San Francisco. Helen Sanders, then DOB president, attacked the book for its "undue stress on the obvious and bizarre 'types' of Lesbians" and suggested the author "seek the 'cure' she believes possible since she so obviously hates and resents her lot" (Ladder, vol. 1, no. 9, June 1957). The titles of other pulp novels—for example, Warped Women by Janet Pritchard (1956)—made their prejudices clear. With negative paperbacks available in every drugstore while Jeannette H. Foster had to contract with a vanity press to publish her groundbreaking Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), lesbian readers must have felt extremely frustrated indeed.

Nevertheless, some lesbian pulp novels were more positive in their characterizations and images, and served a useful social function. Laura, Ann Bannon's central character in Odd Girl Out (1957), I Am a Woman (1959), and Women in the Shadows (1959), runs away to New York City, where she dates Jack, a homosexual man, to cover up her "deviance." He, in turn, takes her to the homosexual haunts of Greenwich Village, where Laura meets up with Bannon's most memorable lesbian, Beebo Brinker. Although Bannon's Village was not geographically accurate, it provided readers with a travel guide of sorts, along with tips on what to wear, how to stand, how to cruise, and how not to make a sexual pass at a heterosexual roommate.

Lesbians Write Gay Men

Although pulp novels far outnumbered more serious endeavors, a few classics emerged in the 1950s. In order to be taken seriously, the authors of these novels took great pains to distance themselves from their subject matter, a strategy that gave their works the cache of objective and dispassionate interest. It was no accident, therefore, that at mid-century two lesbian novelists—Mary Renault (born Mary Challans) and Marguerite Yourcenar (born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Brayencourt)—became two of the most important voices on male homosexuality. Yourcenar, who was born in Belgium, lived in Maine with her lifelong companion and translator Grace Frick. Her Memoires d'Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954) became her most successful novel. In Yourcenar's book, Hadrian evokes the glory of ancient Greece, in particular the emperor's passion for the young and handsome Antinous, and this couple often compare themselves to Achilles and his beloved friend Patrocles. Thus, the novel establishes what appears to be a historical timeline tracing homosexuality back to ancient Greece and beyond that, to the mythological times before Homer. Although Hadrian drives Antinous to suicide by his affairs with other men and women, homosexuality was presented as an accepted form of love, even for those in power. Obviously, such a work had enormous appeal for male homosexuals, who could escape through fiction into a better reality and forget for a moment the malodorous politics of the present.

Even Mary Renault's The Charioteer (1953), set during World War II in bomb-ravaged London, was replete with images drawn from antiquity. Though Renault was not an American, the novel—a rare and serious look at homosexuality—was one of the most enduring and popular books in the United States in the 1950s.

Baldwin's Homosexual Masterpieces

James Baldwin's distancing strategy in Giovanni's Room (1956) is to make David, the American narrator, and Giovanni, his Italian lover, both white and to set the novel in gay Paris, where, many Americans assumed, anything goes for "five dirty minutes in the dark." While several critics have posited that Baldwin's choices of setting and race are geared to elude homophobic critics, the transposition may also be a sensible way to keep the focus on homosexuality and American values rather than race. It would be unfair, however, to suggest that Baldwin created only white homosexuals. During the same decade he addressed the desires of black protagonists for other black males in "The Outing," (1951), Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), and Another Country (1962).

Whereas Baldwin's works about his upbringing are often laced with biblical references, Giovanni's Room is a trove of allusions to a hidden canon of homosexual texts. They are symbolically held in Giovanni's room, a "maid's room"(thus not intended for someone of Giovanni's gender) that is not centrally located, but is in fact "far out. It is almost not Paris." The room becomes the site of David's physical initiation into adult homosexuality, but it also holds Giovanni's "regurgitated life," "boxes of cardboard and leather," out of which peep "sheets of violin music," a hint of the artistic contents hidden within. The novel is a catalog of quotes and allusions, deftly referred to throughout the book starting with the names of the central characters and their reference to the biblical David and Jonathan. The purpose of so many allusions is to bestow a long homosexual literary heritage on Giovanni's Room and to claim in an oblique way that imaginative ground was actually broken long before Baldwin's novel.

A Woman on Women

Not all novelists felt the need to displace race or gender, but for Patricia Highsmith, a daring lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (1952), caused her to adopt a nom de plume. Author of the successful novel Strangers on a Train (1950), which she then adapted for a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Highsmith claimed to have used the pseudonym Claire Morgan so she would not be pigeonholed as a lesbian writer; the disguise protected her true identity. Like Baldwin, Highsmith alludes to other texts and incorporates theories from other fields, most particularly psychology. But instead of using them to buttress her characters or her theme, Highsmith satirizes them in order to move beyond their limitations. For instance, Highsmith embeds and then deconstructs a number of references to popular psychology of the day. She has one of her protagonists, Therese, work in the toy department of a store, selling dolls, and as if that were not enough to suggest infantilism, Therese is a quasi-orphan abandoned at an institutional home, where she becomes fixated on Sister Alicia. Carol, older and richer with a child of her own, more or less "adopts" Therese by inviting the young woman to her home, where Therese winds up tucked in bed and fed hot milk while Carol smokes a cigarette.

As the novel develops, however, Carol and Therese take off on a cross-country journey that leads Carol away from her marriage and Therese into adulthood; it is not just a picaresque road story in which neither character grows. At the end, Carol loses her child to her ex-husband. Although these may seem dire consequences to contemporary lesbians, they actually represented an improvement over the usual fictional denouement in which the runaway mother—whatever her sexual proclivities—was killed by a speeding train like Anna Karenina or driven to suicide like Emma Bovary. Even more amazing, Therese and Carol are reunited at the end of the novel. While the ending is indeterminate—and not the happy conclusion some lesbians have read into it—the possibility exists, perhaps for the first time in a serious lesbian novel, of at least a fulfilling and equal relationship, one that may be worth more than the modest "price of salt" of the book's title.

The Beat of a Different Drummer

In the 1950s the Beat generation rebelled against everything post–World War II America tried to represent. Mostly products of an Ivy League education, they embraced poetry, poverty, and, in some cases, crime and insanity in a capitalist society that valued financial success, hard work, and conventional careers. They were rootless travelers at a time when most Americans wanted to migrate no further than the suburbs. And in a predominantly Christian society, they embraced Eastern religions and exalted mysticism over ritual, meditation over prayer. In a culture where "real men" drank beer, they smoked pot and used other mind-altering drugs. And more than was evident during their heyday, they rebelled against sexual normativity by engaging in "free sex" with multiple female sexual partners, other men, and each other.

The Beatniks were spawned by an eclectic set of ancestral inheritances, including Arthur Rimbaud's synesthesia, Baudelaire's mal du siècle, Walt Whitman's emotional intensity, and the language and drug culture of jazz musicians. According to Steven Watson in The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters (1995), Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) defined their "new vision" of writing as early as 1944. This "new consciousness" had three main premises: "1) Uncensored self-expression is the seed of creativity. 2) The artist's consciousness is expanded through nonrational means: derangement of the senses, via drugs, dreams, hallucinatory states, and visions. 3) Art supersedes the dictates of conventional morality" (p. 40).

By the 1950s, the Beat generation (a term coined by Kerouac) had become a major force in American literature. Seminal works included William S. Burroughs's Junky: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953), Naked Lunch (1959), The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971), and Queer (1985); Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), The Subterraneans (1958), The Dharma Bums (1958), Big Sur (1962) and Visions of Cody (1971); and the poetry of Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and Robert Duncan. The Beat circle also included Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon, Diane di Prima, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). West Coast poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Books in San Francisco, which was the first U.S. bookstore to sell only paperbacks and which published Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1956. Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, the manager of his store, were arrested on obscenity charges for selling Howl, but on 3 October 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn found them not guilty despite the poem's raw language and obvious homosexuality. The acquittal was a major stepping stone for the publication of works with homoerotic content. Although Ginsberg lived quite openly with his partner and fellow poet Peter Orlovsky, some of the other Beat writers typically downplayed their homosexual acts by transposing them into heterosexual couplings within their novels.

The Beats left behind a body of spontaneous, raw, introspective poetry and prose that revolutionized American writing and turned the Beats into cult figures.

Places for Us

Despite the contention of the gay liberationists of the following decade, the 1960s were a relatively rich time for LGB culture. Several prominent authors wrote books with major gay or lesbian characters.

In her nonfiction work Lesbian Images (1975), Jane Rule recounts—with some dismay—the publication saga of Alma Routsong's "gentle" novel A Place for Us (1969). Unable to find a publisher for her new novel, despite the fact that she had previously published two others, Routsong privately printed the work at the Bleecker Street Press and sold it at DOB meetings and similar venues. Despite such careful control of her audience, Routsong still felt compelled to employ a pseudonym, Isabel Miller, which combined an anagram of "lesbia" with her mother's surname, Miller.

Routsong dared to place lesbians in new landscapes and plots where the conflict was something other than a woman-loving identity. Her A Place for Us is an interesting case in point. According to Routsong, her novel "was suggested by the life of the painter Mary Ann Wilson and her companion Miss Brundidge, who lived and farmed together for many years … [in] Greene County, New York State, in the early part of the nineteenth century" (Miller, 1972). Having found evidence of their "romantic attachment" to one another, Routsong researched the period and imagined the circumstances that brought the two women together. A Place for Us transforms the real-life women into Patience White, a painter, who falls in love with her neighbor, Sarah Dowling, a woman raised in a family of daughters to fulfill the role of the son on her father's farm. Out of scant historical material, Routsong was able to spin a convincing tale of two lesbians from very different social and economic classes, who knew no other women like them and thus had to proceed with absolutely no role models.

Rule's Desert of the Heart (1964) focused not on history, but on contemporary psychological conventions about lesbians. In her opening lines, Rule warns the reader that "conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness." Rule then proceeds to turn those very clichés on their heads, first presenting Evelyn Hall, an English professor in Reno awaiting a divorce, and Ann Childs, a casino employee, as tempting doubles. "Ann was almost young enough to be her own child. But only a parent could be allowed to feel tenderness for his own likeness. In a childless woman such tenderness was at best narcissistic." Rule dares the readers to measure the couple against contemporary psychological profiles of homosexuals as "narcissistic," and then she presents a warm and thoroughly normal romance, beset with differences in social class and lifestyle that many heterosexual couples face as well. Still, some critics, blinded by their prejudices, were not convinced and judged the novel by the characters' unhappiness, which they thought was the lesbians' due. Thus, in the end, when Rule declines to kill off her protagonists in a sandstorm or to have Evelyn return to her wimpish husband, George, the critics viewed Ann and Evelyn's attempt to build a life together in Reno (if only "for the while then …for an indefinite period of time") as a borrowed heterosexual plot.

At the time, there were few gay and lesbian publications to counteract mainstream homophobia, yet groups such as the DOB and its publication the Ladder, along with word of mouth, ensured that these all-too-rare novels got into the hands of grateful lesbian readers who developed an enduring affection for them. Other lesbians read against the grain of mainstream reviews and rushed to buy any book that hinted, however negatively, at lesbian content.

The Changing Tide

While Rule expatriated herself to Canada, by World War II many European writers began to immigrate to the United States. Among the most prominent was Christopher Isherwood, who moved to southern California in 1939 and became a citizen in 1946. Beginning with The World in the Evening (1954) and continuing with Down There on a Visit (1962), Isherwood set much of his work in the United States, whereas the bulk of his earlier work takes place in Berlin. One of his American novels, A Single Man (1964), is perhaps his finest work. The almost Aristotelian structure of the novel, which takes place in Los Angeles in one day, presents George's homosexuality as a state of being rather than as a premise for development. George's day in various milieus around Los Angeles—from the university to a friend's hospital bed to a gay bar to his midnight dip in the surf—bears an implicit comparison with James Joyce's Ulysses, although Leopold Bloom's journey through Dublin on foot is replaced by a car trip on the Los Angeles freeway, just as George's homosexuality stands in for Bloom's outsider status as a Jew. As Claude Summers points out in Gay Fictions (1990), "rather than being subject to overt persecution, George most commonly experiences attitudes of condescending tolerance or studied indifference to his sexuality." As an aging gay man, he feels alienation from the denizens of the bars and to a degree from his own students. George mostly suffers in his "singleness": his past relationship with Jim has been so private and discreet that after Jim's death, he cannot mourn publicly. Though his grief should (through its very commonality) tie him to the rest of humanity, it separates him all the more.

Not Your Average Man

Not all writers, however, presented homosexuality as simply another facet of a normal life. Indeed, some reveled in the seamier sides of gay existence, as did Samuel M. Steward, writing pornography under the name of Phil Andros (his most notable work being Stud, 1966), and Latino writer John Rechy. Published in 1963 by Grove Press—the same year as the American publication of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers—Rechy's City of Night follows the adventures of the unnamed narrator, who, as Rechy himself did, migrates from El Paso, Texas, to New York City's Times Square and eventually to the gay haunts of New Orleans and Los Angeles as well. As much an Everyman as Isherwood's George, the narrator lives not for relationships but for paid sex that proves his worth as well as his heterosexuality. The narrator, like an inverted saint subjecting himself to temptations, allows dozens of men he spurns to pay for sexual acts with him—only to avoid the dreadful temptation each time to recognize that he is gay too, thus uniting with them. Unlike the novels of Rule, Routsong, and Isherwood, Rechy revels in presenting the grimiest details of a hustler's life. The most outlandish customers, including one man who rents an apartment to house his leather collection and another who invites the narrator home only to mother him, are the ones who catch the narrator's eye. Normality is not of interest here.

Rechy's next novel, Numbers (1967), follows the adventures of Johnny Rio (whose name perhaps pays homage to Tennessee Williams's "Joy Rio"), a former hustler, who now obsessively cruises in Griffith Park and other areas of Los Angeles as he tries to have sex with enough gay men to somehow extract his own identity from them. Here the reader is presented with another outsider, someone who moves closer to accepting his gay identity through anonymous sexuality. Thus, Rechy (as did Steward) embraces in a rather revolutionary way the very promiscuity that was downplayed and whispered about by political groups of the era. His unapologetic passion for the seamiest and most secretive sides of homosexual life almost presages the "anything goes" sexuality of the gay liberationists of the next decade.

Rechy's and Steward's works remind us that the literary road to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 was both long and well-paved. The richness of the LGB literary heritage of the first seven decades of the twentieth century is particularly astonishing when one takes into account the lack of public acceptance for the thematic material that inspired its authors. When the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay and lesbian bookstore in the country, opened its doors in Greenwich Village in 1967, such works found themselves, for the first time (with the exception of private collections), side by side on bookshelves, joined in what would later be deemed a queer literary canon.


Abelove, Henry, et al. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Abraham, Julie. Are Girls Necessary?: Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Adams, Kate. "Making the World Safe for the Missionary Position: Images of the Lesbian in Post–World War II America." In Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

——. Pulp Fiction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martins Press, 2003.

Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Daughters of Bilitis. Ladder. Vols. 1–16 (1956–1972). Reprinted New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Farwell, Marilyn R. Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Ferguson, Blanche E. Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Foster, Jeannette H. Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Survey. Reprint. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad, 1985.

Haggerty, George E., and Bonnie Zimmerman, eds. Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995.

Hall, Richard. "An Obscure Hurt: The Sexuality of Henry James, Part I." New Republic, 28 April 1979: 25–29.

Hoogland, Renée C. Lesbian Configurations. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1997.

Hull, Gloria T. "'Lines She Did Not Dare': Angelina Weld Grimke, Harlem Renaissance Poet."In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Edited by Henry Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Jay, Karla, ed. Lesbian Erotics. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, eds. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Lilly, Mark. Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1993.

Mattachine Society. Mattachine Review. Vols. 1–13 (1955–1966). Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Miller, Isabel. Afterword in Patience and Sarah. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Pollack, Sandra, and Denise D. Knight, eds. Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Roof, Judith. Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

——. Tendencies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Summers, Claude J., ed. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader's Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Holt, 1995.

Vicinus, Martha, ed. Lesbian Subjects: A Feminist Studies Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

——. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920–1930. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969–1989. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Karla Jay

see alsoanderson, margaret, and jane heap; auden, w.h.; baldwin, james; bannon, ann; barnes, djuna; barney, natalie; beats; bowles, paul and jane bowles; burroughs, william s.; capote, truman; cather, willa; cheever, john; cullen, countee; delaney, samuel; dunbar-nelson, alice; ford, charles henri; foster, jeanette; fugate, james barr; ginsberg, allen; grimkÉ, angelina weld; goodman, paul; gunn, thom; harlem renaissance; highsmith, patricia; hughes, langston; isherwood, christopher; mccullers, carson; mckay, claude; niles, blair; nugent, richard bruce; prime-stevenson, edward i.; pulp fiction: gay; pulp fiction: lesbian; sarton, may; smith, lillian; stein, gertrude, and alice b. toklas; thurman, wallace; vidal, gore; wilhelm, gale; williams, tennessee; yourcenar, marguerite.


From the last decades of the nineteenth century onward, literary works—and their writers—have been key to the development of both mainstream understandings of homosexuality and transgenderism, and of modern LGBT cultures themselves. However, the development of the gay liberation and lesbian feminist movements in the years immediately following the late 1960s upheaval that is signaled with the shorthand "Stonewall" produced in the United States a particularly intensified focus on literary works. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 also marked fundamental changes in both the content of the literature produced and the places in which it was published; the new publishing venues that appeared were inseparable from the new ideas. At the same time, there were significant continuities across the cultural divide represented by Stonewall—within the careers of individual writers and in terms of reader expectations—in the ways in which homosexuality and transgenderism might be represented in literature.

In the decades after Stonewall, LGBT literature continued to be shaped by developments in LGBT politics, as well as by changes in the economic and social options available to white women and women and men of color and by changes in public discussions of gender and racial difference. The development of LGBT literature, like the development of LGBT politics, was also profoundly affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic that, beginning in the early 1980s, took away a host of writers and readers, became the subject of a trove of extraordinary artistic work, and irreversibly heightened the cultural visibility of LGBT people in the United States. Consequently, by the end of the twentieth century, literature—in the form of novels, poetry, plays, and memoirs—had become part of a broader array of forms for cultural work available to a very diverse group of LGBT-identified artists, including many different combinations of class, racial, gender, and sexual identifications.

New Ideas, New Forms of Publication

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, gay liberationists and lesbian feminists challenged mainstream views that regarded homosexuality as either an illness or a moral failing and of heterosexuality as the norm and ideal. They challenged conventional understandings of gender (masculine and feminine) and conventional understandings of lesbians and gay men as confused about their gender, as illustrated by masculine women and effeminate men. Alongside activists in other social movements, including the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the women's liberation movement, gay liberationists and lesbian feminists rejected the authorities who had traditionally controlled public opinion; in the case of homosexuality these were, in particular, doctors, legislators, and religious leaders. Instead, they advocated listening to ordinary people speaking about their own experiences. This shifting of authority was especially crucial for lesbians and gay men because, as they had faced significant penalties for making themselves visible by speaking on their own behalf, the public discussion of homosexuality had been almost exclusively the province of hostile social authorities. Gay liberationists and lesbian feminists argued that gays and lesbians, whenever possible, should come out, and come out with things to say.

They should, moreover, create new records. Multiple social movements promoted the idea that everyone—even those who for reasons of education, gender, race, ethnicity, and so on did not fit the conventional cultural model of the "writer"—could write meaningfully about their lives. People were encouraged to take up poetry, drama, and fiction. But autobiographical writing, and coming out stories in particular, became particularly important forms of lesbian and gay writing in the 1970s.

Independent journals, magazines, and newspapers (Aphra Sinister Wisdom, Conditions, Christopher Street, Gay Community News, and others), independent small presses (Daughters Inc., Alyson Press, Naiad Press, Firebrand Books, and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, for example), a network of lesbian and gay and women's bookstores, and reading series and conferences for LGBT writers sprang up across the country, accompanying the spread of gay liberation, women's liberation, and lesbian feminist groups and providing contexts, publishers, and distributors for all of this new writing. Such work was also often anthologized in collections of stories, poems, and plays; collections of particular types of writing, such as coming out stories; or combinations of political and literary writings. While some of these newspapers, journals, magazines, presses, and bookstores lasted for years and others for decades, and while some of the anthologies stayed in print, new newspapers, journals, and (often glossier) magazines appeared and new bookstores opened as older ones faded. New anthologies also appeared, offering new ways of thinking about LGBT literature and experience. By the 1990s mainstream newspapers, journals, magazines, and bookstores also began to publish or stock LGBT writing.

LGBT writers' networks have been maintained over the years by conferences and literary awards, such as the now annual Outwrite conferences and the Lambda Literary Awards. Increasingly, the lesbian and gay writers of the 1990s—Paul Monette, Tony Kushner, Dorothy Allison, and Michael Cunningham, for example—were nominated for, and sometimes won, national literary awards.

New Writers

By the time of Stonewall, there were already many lesbian and gay writers—mostly white, many from elite backgrounds—with established careers, including novelists such as Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, and James Baldwin; poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and May Swenson; and playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. In many cases their homosexuality had become an open secret. Many of them had written—though sometimes briefly, grimly, or without anyone noticing—about homosexuality. But as it became possible, after Stonewall, to come out in a newly public fashion, new types of gay or lesbian writers could emerge—those for whom same-sex desire might be an ongoing subject and for whom LGBT cultures explicitly provide a perspective for their work. Some of these were writers who had already begun their careers, such as the poets Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich; influenced and taken up by gay liberation and lesbian feminism, they developed broad new audiences. Others were writers who emerged out of the flux of the civil rights movement and women's liberation movements, as well as gay liberation and lesbian feminism, including Judy Grahn, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Kate Millett, Jill Johnston, June Arnold, Bertha Harris, or in the next generation Jewelle Gomez, Dorothy Allison, Essex Hemphill, and Melvin Dixon.

Place/Space: Class, Race, and Gender

While literary works are most often focused on, directed toward, and accessible to middle-class and elite persons, the novels dealing with homosexuality available before Stonewall were sought out by a wide range of people, whether from neighborhood lending libraries in urban centers in the 1920s and 1930s or as pulp paperbacks available in gas stations and drugstores across the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Such novels most often focused on either elite individuals—often living abroad—or persons who, by virtue of their homosexuality,

were downwardly mobile. Homosexuality could thus be distanced from the everyday reality of the middle class—located in a shadowy social underworld, for example, or a foreign capital, or both—as in the Parisian bars of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) or among the hustlers and queens of John Rechy's City of Night (1963).

After Stonewall, poets and novelists wrote more attentively about working-class life, from Judy Grahn's The Common Woman (1969) and A Woman Is Talking to Death (1973) and Maureen Brady's Folly (1982) to Dorothy Allison in Trash (1988) and Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). It likewise became possible for both literary authors such as Jane Rule and Edmund White and popular writers such as Armistead Maupin and E. Lynn Harris to represent complex middle-class LGBT lives. Everyone could represent social worlds in which LGBT and heterosexual stories and lives were integrated.

The city was a central setting and subject in LGBT literature before and after Stonewall. That gay men and lesbians needed to leave the rural, small-town, or suburban places in which they had grown up for urban centers where they could comfortably be lesbian or gay was the common message. Frequent locations were Paris and, in the United States, New York City and San Francisco—as in Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance (1978) and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1978). This pattern was especially important in the work of male writers, though there were such notable exceptions as George Whitmore's Nebraska (1987). But LGBT life outside of northern urban centers and away from the East and West coasts gradually became more visible, beginning with women's work and work published by small presses, such as the writings of June Arnold in the 1970s and Mab Segrest and Minnie Bruce Pratt in the 1980s. In the 1990s a range of African American and white, working- and middle-class LGBT novelists, story writers, playwrights, and essayists focusing on the South—such as Dorothy Allison, Randall Kenan, and Jim Grimsley—began to be published by mainstream presses.

During the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians and gay men developed distinct public cultures and distinct literary worlds. This was especially the case among whites. These divisions broke down socially, politically, and in literary terms over the course of the 1980s in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when women and men began working together to a greater extent. Lesbians began appearing more frequently in the writings of white gay men, such as Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982) and David Leavitt's Lost Language of Cranes (1986), and gay men in white women's fiction, often at first in fiction about the epidemic, such as Sarah Schulman's People in Trouble (1990) and Rebecca Brown's The Gifts of the Body (1994).

Mainstream publication opportunities appeared earliest—beginning in the late 1970s—for white gay male writers, such as the members of the Violet Quill Club, including most notably Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. White gay male writers have consequently developed the broadest array of literary voices among LGBT writers, from the middlebrow comedy of Stephen McCauley to the shock tactics of Dennis Cooper to the literary experiments of Dale Peck. Nevertheless, as literature, especially the novel, has historically been the most accessible cultural form for those with the least economic as well as cultural capital, literary works remained culturally central longer for white lesbians and lesbians and gay men of color than for white gay men, for whom a wider range of opportunities for cultural representation—in theater, film, television, and so on—also became available soonest.

Despite exceptions—for example, African American women writing about lesbianism in the late 1970s and 1980s, including Ann Allen Shockley, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde—the development of a large body of LGBT writing by women of color began largely in the small press arena, where the work of Native American writers such as Paula Gunn Allen and Asian American writers like Kitty Tsui first appeared. That development was significantly shaped by expanded discussions of race within feminism by lesbians of color in the 1980s, which was a consequence of the groundbreaking work of African American writer and activist Barbara Smith and Latina writers and activists Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. African American gay men working to develop a literature through small press publication—including Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill, who created anthologies and collections of poems—were very much influenced by their female peers. African American gay male novelists who emerged into mainstream publications, including Melvin Dixon in the 1980s and Randall Kenan in the 1990s, invariably had to contend with being compared to Baldwin. Popular African American writers published by mainstream presses, such as E. Lynn Harris, only emerged in the 1990s. Like their white counterparts, the newest generation of LGBT writers of color, such as Alexander Chee and Achy Obejas, appear both in small press and mainstream contexts, and those who are politically self-conscious most likely have been influenced by the queer politics of the 1990s.


The novel, the literary form from which most readers expect a chronicle of social, sexual, and emotional experience and the one accessible to the widest audience, has been the central source of literary representations of LGBT lives. At the same time, the form of the novel has been a central problem in LGBT literature. Most readers expect a narrative, a story, from a novel and, in addition, a more-or-less familiar story. Certainly before Stonewall, and to a large degree since, that familiar story has most often been a story of heterosexual lovers, in which LGBT persons have appeared as deviant, whether the deviation is presented as tragic or benign.

For LGBT writers the form of the novel as a story of growing up meshed most easily with the form of the coming out story, as demonstrated first and most effectively by the great success of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Consequently, the story of growing up gay or lesbian has been a persistent subject of LGBT literature. The drawback of this pattern is that it still allows for, even requires, the persistent representation of homosexuality as a problem that must be dealt with.

In pursuit of alternative patterns, some LGBT writers chose to bypass the need for a story, a narrative, altogether. In the 1970s, for example, Bertha Harris and June Arnold, and in the 1980s and 1990s, Rebecca Brown, Carole Maso, and Randall Kenan, drew on the modernist tradition of experimental work by such early twentieth-century LGBT writers as Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. Many other LGBT fiction writers have instead chosen to focus their work in a particular genre, such as detective fiction (Joseph Hansen, Mary Wings) or science fiction (Samuel Delaney, Joanna Russ). In detective fiction, homosexuality—or homophobia—can be the key to the mystery, or the writer can treat the detective's homosexuality quite neutrally, because the plot of the novel is determined by the unfolding of the mystery rather than the details of the detective's life. Science fiction offered to LGBT as to feminist writers opportunities for playing with sex, gender, and sexuality and for drawing on the social possibilities of new worlds or commenting on this one, but doing all of this free of assuming homosexuality as a problem. Historical fiction has also been a significant genre in LGBT writing, allowing the exploration of LGBT history in such novels as David Leavitt's While England Sleeps (1993) and Mark Merlis's American Studies (1994).

Autobiography has been a form of special importance in post-Stonewall LGBT literature, from the work of Kate Millett and Audre Lorde to the responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by writers such as Paul Monette and Mark Doty, even as a broader interest in memoir developed across the culture. Autobiography provides a form capacious enough to capture kinds of experience not usually the focus of literature. Homosexuality can be a given rather than a problem; that is, it need not be at the center of the writer's attention.

Poetry, while a less popular literary form than the novel in the United States in the twentieth century, has been a significant medium for LGBT writers after Stonewall. LGBT poets from Ginsberg, Rich, and Lorde to Marilyn Hacker, Essex Hemphill, and Mark Doty have had an unusually broad public audience. Poets are free from the conventions of narrative—of having to "tell a story" that anyone can understand—that constrain writers of fiction. Like memoirists, they can attempt to convey a wider range of experience and feeling than fiction often allows. Some LGBT poets, especially those influenced by the social movements of the 1960s, have seen themselves in the role of witnesses testifying to their own experience as LGBT persons and that of others in their communities, as in Pat Parker's Movement in Black (1978), Judy Grahn's Work of a Common Woman (1978), and Cheryl Clarke's Narratives: Poems in the Tradition ofBlack Women (1982). There is, however, no thematic unity among LGBT poets, nor is there any formal consistency. This is a group whose practices range from the formalism of Marilyn Hacker to the open forms and prosy colloquialism of Edward Field.

Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968), explicitly focused on a group of New York City gay men, was a theatrical breakthrough for gay playwrights. Following Crowley's work, more plays explicitly identified as lesbian or gay began to appear in the 1970s. Particularly significant, however, in terms of the theater being produced during the 1970s and 1980s, was the development of the camp tradition by men such as Charles Ludlam with his Ridiculous Theater Company and by the women's experimental theater associated with the WOW Cafe in New York City, where Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw were central figures. Plays addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, from Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985) to Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1993), contributed significantly to shaping public discourse about the epidemic and establishing explicitly gay theater in the cultural mainstream. Individual lesbian and gay playwrights who have by now developed substantial careers include Terence McNally and Paula Vogel. Also during the 1980s and 1990s, LGBT writers and performers such as Holly Hughes, Danitra Vance, Luis Alfaro, Tim Miller, and the Pomo Afro Homos theater troupe had very visible roles in the development of the new field of performance art.

Cultural Politics: Art, Community, Expectations, Boundaries

Some post-Stonewall LGBT writers have had explicit political agendas and have seen it as their responsibility to represent their group, while others have not. Reviewers seeking to validate LGBT work that impresses them are prone to praise the literature in question for addressing "universal" subjects rather than "merely" LGBT concerns—implying that LGBT concerns are not a sufficient subject for truly impressive writing. At the same time, all openly LGBT writers have had to contend, as all "minority" writers have in the American context, with the tendency of reviewers to see each LGBT writer as representative of the group rather than as an individual with particular skills and goals. LGBT writers have also had to contend, again like all so-called minority writers, with the expectation on the part of some readers that they will present only positive images of, in this case, LGBT life. The demand for positive images can be intensely felt—born out of frustration at mainstream distortions of LGBT life and the belief that fully realized images would dispel homophobia and transphobia. But no one writer or work can be expected to represent all LGBT people. And in practice, realistic images will not always be positive.

The organizing principles of LGBT social worlds are, moreover, continually being revised. In response to the work of bisexual and transgender activists, there has been growing recognition of bisexual and transgender identities within and in relation to lesbian and gay communities. LGBT literature has long contained stories of women and men choosing between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, as well as portraits of masculine women and feminine men. But certainly before and, still, after Stonewall there was in the literature an emphasis on deciding between heterosexual and homosexual desires. Accepting both was rarely presented as an option. Moreover, masculinity in women and femininity in men were historically understood to be evidence of homosexuality rather than expressions of gender identifications that might be understood as separable from sexual orientation. In the past two decades, however, numerous anthologies of writings about bisexuality have been published, as well as explorations of the subject by established writers such as novelist and essayist Jan Clausen. Transgender literature now includes memoirs of changing gender and cross-gender identifications such as Jan Morris's Conundrum (1974); fiction like Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues (1993); and writing for the theater, most notably the work of performance artist Kate Bornstein. There has also been a great deal of theoretical writing on bisexuality and transgender identities.

One underlying question that has taken different forms over the decades has been definitional, namely, what is LGBT literature? Is it work by LGBT persons, about LGBT subjects, or including LGBT characters? Such questions, of course, lead immediately to questions about who or what constitutes an LGBT person, subject, or character. At base, the significant question is, probably, why do we care?

That question has two dimensions. Why do we care about the sexual and gender identifications of the authors or the characters in the works we read? (Literary works themselves are not usually understood to have sexual or gender identifications, though sometimes that is not apparent when we discuss gay or lesbian or transgender novels, for example.) And why do we care about policing the borders of sexual and gender identity categories and, by extension, the literature identified with those categories?

On the one hand, there is a legitimate desire for cultural visibility—an aspiration for an identifiable LGBT literature—that has been fulfilled in the decades since Stonewall broached the possibility of coming out, and then of living LGBT lives in public, in ways not previously imaginable. On the other hand, there is often the concern about misidentifying an author or work, perhaps because after decades of social stigma, identifying someone or something as LGBT, when they or it might not be, still seems like an insult—or liable to produce insults. It does seem to be the case that, once the possibility of establishing a group or culture emerges, some people become deeply invested in the nature of that group, and their investment takes the form of a desire to control the meaning of group identification.

There is also real anxiety among writers and readers about being shut off from the universal, being ghettoized. There has long been in the United States a broad cultural proscription against identification with any group that is understood as socially, culturally, or politically marginal—women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, lesbians and gay men—much less any combination of marginal positions. Writers are subtly encouraged to see themselves as marginalizing themselves by such identifications, even when they might in fact belong to one of those groups. That proscription was somewhat weakened in the 1970s and 1980s, but came back with increasing force in the 1990s—just as LGBT writers were gaining more mainstream recognition.

If, however, accepting the idea that to identify oneself as an LGBT writer is to establish oneself as marginal, claiming a somehow less valuable perspective from which to view the world than the perspectives of those who are heterosexual, means not only agreeing to second-class status, but propping up the cultural assumption that gender-normative heterosexuals do not have their own, equally specific, perspectives. Perhaps there is no universal literature after all.

Julie Abraham

see alsoalbee, edward; allen, paula gunn; anzaldÚa, gloria; arenas, reinaldo; beam, joseph; bishop, elizabeth; bookstores; brant, beth; brown, rita mae; censorship, obscenity, and pornography law and policy; chrystos; cornwell, anita; crisp, quentin; daly, mary; delaney, samuel; dÍaz-cotto, juanita; fierstein, harvey; gidlow, elsa; grahn, judy; islas, arturo; johnston, jill; kenny, maurice; kim, willyce; kramer, larry; le guin, ursula k.; lorde, audre; millett, kate; monette, paul; moraga, cherrÍe; morgan, robin; newspapers and magazines; noda, barbara; parker, pat; poma, edgar; preston, john; publishers; rechy, john; reyes, rodrigo; rich, adrienne; rule, jane; shockley, ann allen; smith, barbara; taylor, valerie; tsui, kitty; white, edmund; woo, merle.


views updated Jun 11 2018


This entry contains the following:

Judith Roof

Judith Roof

Judith Roof

Gregory Woods

renée c. hoogland


All cultures have literature, which consists of the various genres through which stories might be told. Although many cultures consider oral traditions and less formal genres of written storytelling (such as pulp or popular fiction, pornography, and comic books) as "low" literature and more formal, complex, and challenging written genres as "high" literature, all literature reflects the practices, mores, and aesthetic values of the culture within which it is produced and read.

Literature treats the most central and important patterns of life and death, including heroism, courtship and marriage, and the rites of passage of growing up. For this reason, literature, whether prose fiction, plays, or poetry, reproduces, reflects, and meditates upon the events, emotions, and elements that make up human lives. As basic elements of life, sex and gender play a crucial role in all literature in so far as literature considers what it means to be human—to be a good woman or man or to have families. Many plays, poems, and stories valorize ideal men and women, showing what it means to be masculine or feminine in a particular culture at a particular time.


Oral literature includes the stories, poems, and songs that preserve and perpetuate the important myths and history of a society. These stories describe the creation of the world and its people, the rhythms of the seasons, the meaning of life and death, and the place of the individual in the order of things. They may also preserve tales of the feats of gods and famous heroes, celebrate famous love stories, and impart wisdom and traditions. Because these stories are repeated from generation to generation, they tend to be formulaic and preserved as poems or as ritual performances linked to specific contexts. They are also closely linked to the myths and rituals of religion.

Written literatures began partly as attempts to preserve oral traditions in cultures that had developed writing technologies and the ability to preserve texts. Although not all writing was devoted to storytelling, tales about gods and heroes began to be preserved, often as epic poems, but also as parts of religious traditions. The Greeks, for example, recorded tales about their gods and such heroes as Achilles and Odysseus. Tales about heroes not only preserved a sense of cultural history and identity, but also illustrated the qualities of ideal men, what their roles were in culture and history as well as the often less important and active roles of women. Myths about gods often linked gender roles both to the actions of gods and to the rituals of seasons and fertility. The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, for example, linked seasonal changes to a story about how the cereal goddess Demeter lost her daughter Persephone for four months of each year to the jealousy of Hades, god of the underworld, a myth that accounted for winter. Chinese mythology understood creation as a war of emperors.


Early cultures with forms of writing such as the various peoples of the Middle East, Greece, and later Rome began to record the feats of gods and heroes. In Greece, this emerged in the eighth century bce as two epic poems, the Iliad, about the feats of Achilles in the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, about the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War. Attributed to Homer, these poems demonstrate a sophisticated set of rhythms (metrics) and a formal style, aspects that would come to distinguish written from oral literature. At approximately the same time, the Chinese were also inscribing the sayings of Confucius as well as the love poems of Shi jing (1200 to 600 bce). The lyrical parts of the Hebrew Bible were also inscribed during this time. Later cultures such as Rome inherited the idea of a written literary culture from those who preceded them. Roman literature began around 300 bce and continued even after the disintegration of the Roman Empire between 200 and 500 ce as literature written throughout Europe in Latin. Like Greek literature after which it was modeled, Latin literature often recounted the feats of heroes as the poet Virgil does in Aeneid, a poem detailing how Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan war, founded Rome. As did the Greeks, the Romans composed love poetry and produced philosophical writings.

During and after the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 bce–14 ce), the poet Ovid composed his poetical rendition of the history of the world in Metamorphoses and was banished from Rome for writing Ars amatoria, a sophisticated and cynical poem about the arts of love and courtship. Ovid's work was influential throughout the Middle Ages in Europe where Latin was still a major language for literary composition. Gradually from 500 to 1000, various European peoples began to evolve their own languages, derived from Latin, but developing independently. These so-called Romance languages—including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian—also began to develop their own literatures. These literatures still followed the style of Rome in that they consisted of poetry describing religious or heroic accom-plishments—or like Ovid, concerned themselves with romance, a word that derives from the Romance language group in which they were composed.

In France, the first written literature was religious—plays and saints' lives derived from church ceremonies beginning in the tenth century. Epic poems about heroes quickly followed in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Beginning with the Song of Roland (c. 1100), which extolled the tragic virtues of Roland as he fought the Saracens threatening invasion from Spain, French chansons de geste, or songs about heroic deeds, became elaborate stories about the virtues and flaws of heroes, their kings, and their ladies, and the social order of feudalism in general. The chansons de geste were joined by sets of sophisticated love poems written and performed by traveling poets called troubadours. Nourished in the royal courts of the south of France, such poetry, which expounded a set of romantic relations called "courtly love," moved throughout France as Eleanor of Aquitaine, a prime patron of courtly poetry, married the future king of France in 1137.

Courtly love was perhaps more of a formal convention than a description of actual relationships between a highborn lady and a poet (often a nobleman) who could never hope to do more than court the object of his affections. The suitor owed the lady homage, self-sacrificing duty, and tokens of love. Her response was minimal, but even her glance could keep the lover's hopes alive. The rules of courtly relations were described in detail by Andreas Capellanus (also known as André le Chapelain) in The Art of Courtly Love (c. 1185), and combined with tales of heroic accomplishment, made up the subject of many tales of chivalry, including Arthurian legend. The chivalric ideal of courtly love spread throughout western Europe in such tales as Tristram and Isolt, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1370), and Dante's famous The Divine Comedy (completed 1321). It became more allegorical in the Romance of the Rose (c. 1237–1280) composed by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.

Stories of courtly love and heroism depended upon a strict gender code in which heroic lovers acknowledged their duties both to their lord and to their beloved lady. Other stories existed, however, which travestied these relations and made fun in general of those with excess pride, gluttony, and wealth. These fabliaux, as they were called, represented the other side of literary culture. Bawdy, fun, and irreverent, these tales of tricksters make their way into such later collections of tales as Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1348–1353) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400), alongside more serious renditions of courtly heroics.

That difficult and often ill-fated love relations became the stuff of poets was true not only in Europe but also in China's Ming dynasty (1368–1644), where the opera had developed as the vehicle for telling such stories. In the Middle East, an Arabic collection of stories called Arabian Nights also treated issues of love, sex, murder, and adventure. Composed from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries, Arabian Nights consists of the stories a newly married queen Scheherazade tells her husband, a cruel sultan who has vowed to kill every woman he marries after one night because his first wife was unfaithful to him. Entertaining the king with stories keeps Scheherazade alive until the sultan relents and allows her to live.

Throughout the later Middle Ages to the present, poets have continued to write about the difficulties of love. Most of these writers have been male writers writing about beloved women, though there were women writers even in the late Middle Ages. Christine de Pisan (1364–c. 1430), for example, wrote lyrical love poetry in France. Until the nineteenth century, however, women were not generally prominent as writers.

From the Renaissance to the modern era, literature continually expanded its genres and subject matter, though love and its difficulties have always been a staple literary topic. The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) treated history, but almost always love as well. Though courtly relations are still present in Shakespeare's work, his plays often combine the attitudes represented by both chivalric poetry and the more earthy aesthetic of folktales about the trickster. His plays also accomplish a certain social satire or commentary that identifies and pokes fun at the pride and presumptions of certain kinds of people such as the conceited Malvolio in Twelfth Night (c. 1600). In France other dramatists were refinding inspiration in classical stories of love, sacrifice, and heroism; Jean Racine (1639–1699) and Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) wrote about the tragic effects of love, while Moliére (1622–1673) satirized the foibles of the bourgeoisie.

Love and heroism continued to dominate the literary landscape until the development of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Novels such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767) satirized the heroic, the idea of a hero, and the conventions of writing itself, while novels written by women increasingly introduced hearth, home, and the loves of ordinary people as a subject for literature. The wry tales of bourgeois manners and courtship of Jane Austen (1775–1817) established the novel as a highly successful form for a rapidly enlarging reading public. Until the nineteenth century, literacy was restricted primarily to the upper classes. With the invention of cheaper printing technologies and ideals of universal education, more people began to read. The novel replaced lyric poetry as the major genre of literature, and because of its length, range, and audience, the novel began to shift the focus of literature from events of public importance such as heroism or the poetical difficulties of love and existence to the more commonplace happenings of individuals and families. The characters of novels were no longer noble or larger than life, but instead were interesting, often quirky members of bourgeois or even poor families.

In the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, the novel became the primary means by which gender relations, proper social conduct, and heroic ideals were examined and disseminated. For the first time, women writers such as Austen, Charlotte (1816–1855) and Emily Brontë (1818–1848), George Eliot (1819–1880), and George Sand (1804–1876) joined such male writers as Charles Dickens (1812–1870), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Thomas Mann (1875–1955), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) as prose fiction explored individual conscience and social issues, class difficulties, and the tragedies of poverty.

Dramatic literature gained renewed vigor in the late nineteenth century as playwrights as well began focusing on the social problems of contemporary society, focusing often on the inequities of gender relations. Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) wrote plays that explored the irrational excesses of gender assumptions.

By the twentieth century, literature had become less a recorder of social conventions and cultural myths and more a means of individual expression, especially as conventions and myths were reworked by such writers as Marcel Proust (1871–1922), T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), James Joyce (1882–1941), William Faulkner (1897–1962), Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), and Toni Morrison (b. 1931). Often experimental, twentieth-century literature focused on aesthetics, as did the modernist writers of the first half of the century, or on the problems of expression and the meaning of existence itself, as did the postmodern writers of the second half. By the twentieth century writing had become a profession shared by women and men. Sexuality had become much more openly described, and the conventions of gender themselves had come into question.


Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. 1994–2006. The Cambridge History of American Literature. 8 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bowman, John S., ed. 2000. Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Doody, Margaret Anne. 1996. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker, eds. 1996. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lawall, Sarah, ed. 2001–2002. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. 7 vols. New York: Norton.

Rogers, Pat, ed. 2001. The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

                                                      Judith Roof


Since the late 1960s the relations between gender and literature have produced a rich, new perspective in literary studies. Recognizing that Western cultures were biased toward the masculine and patriarchal, literary critics influenced by feminist insights devised modes of criticism that focused on images of women, critiques of patriarchy, the rediscovery of women authors and their works, examinations of the differences between masculine and feminine writing, and an acknowledgment of women's particular perspective on the world. Following feminist insights, lesbian, gay male, and more recently queer theorists have deployed similar critical questions and methods to examine images of lesbians and gays in literature, critiques of homophobia, the rediscovery and identification of lesbian and gay male writers, and an acknowledgment of specifically lesbian and gay literary aesthetics.

The various women's movements of the twentieth century—the women's suffrage movement that occurred between 1890 and 1920 in the United States and from 1903 to 1928 in Britain and the feminist movement that began in the 1960s—invited a critical focus on the relations between gender and literature. The analysis of these relations commenced with Virginia Woolf's 1929 essay A Room of One's Own, which answered the question of why there were few women authors with an investigation of the material conditions within which women lived, and the received ideas about female capabilities that limited women to only a few roles. Woolf followed this first essay with Three Guineas (1938) in which she continued her analysis of the ideological and material disadvantages of women. Woolf's work was joined by Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 treatise Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex, 1953) to provide the critical basis for the emergence of feminist criticism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feminist criticism paved the way for gender studies, which considers the ways literature reflects and critiques the male/female system as a whole; and sexuality studies, which focuses on the ways concepts about sexual orientations and sexuality have influenced and are reflected in literature.


Feminist literary criticism began with an investigation of how various literatures have portrayed female characters. Work about images of women in literature occupied the first decade of feminist critical endeavor, from 1968 until approximately 1978. Critics such as Kate Millett examined the ways patriarchal assumptions in literature demeaned women. Other literary critics, noting that many female authors had been hidden and/or ignored by male literary critics, began to "rediscover" and analyze literary works by such modern women authors as Woolf, Gertrude Stein, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Elizabeth Bowen, and Djuna Barnes, as well as make more prominent female authors from the past such as Christine de Pisan, Aphra Behn, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and Rachilde. This process, called "gynocriticism" by critic Elaine Showalter (1998), revealed the large number of women authors and their works that had been omitted from critical consideration by an academy that believed that women writers had little worth. The rediscovery of these female authors and their works contributed to a revision of the literary "canon," or set of works deemed worthy of critical study, which now includes many literary texts by women.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, feminist critics also began to consider much more seriously literary works by women of color, including the narratives of female slaves, the poetry of colonial black women authors such as Phillis Wheatley, and the writing of more contemporary black and Hispanic women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldúa. During this time as well, feminist critics began to pay more attention to the work of lesbian authors, such as Stein, whose descriptions of their experiences flew in the face of mainstream expectations about and images of women.


By the late 1980s, feminist criticism had developed a sophisticated set of methods for understanding and elucidating the relations between gender and literature. Some feminist critics and theorists, particularly such French writers as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Marguerite Duras, believed that because males and females occupy different places in the social order and thus have different perspectives on the world, women's use of language and style reflects both that different positioning and female bodily differences. Women's writing is an écriture feminine, a feminine writing that picks up and conveys different rhythms, images, economies, and values than writing premised on a more phallocentric worldview.

Other feminist critics such as Jane Gallop, Jacqueline Rose, and Barbara Johnson took up models of gender and identity from psychoanalysis, using Sigmund Freud's and Jacques Lacan's understandings of sexual difference as a way to understand how gender is inscribed in literary texts as well as how, if ever, the relative empowerment of masculine and feminine can be altered. Yet other feminist critics such as Lillian Robinson and Judith Newton took up issues of how women's material existence affected both what they wrote and how they wrote it. Many feminist critics, including Shari Benstock and Jane Marcus, continued to examine the relations between the sociocultural conditions within which specific female writers lived and wrote and the writing they produced.

Since the early 1990s, feminist criticism has focused increasingly on issues of race and transnationalism, trying to understand the interrelationships of gender, race, and national location as those different frameworks define the literatures women produce. This work has been stimulated by the critical writings of Gayatri Spivak and others and has been instrumental in making the writings of such Anglophone writers as Bharati Mukherjee and Anita Desai more visible.


Feminist engagements with issues of sexuality also provided a model for understanding the ways sexual orientation operates as both a theme and a set of styles in literature. Thinking about the relation between femininity and literary production invited a reconsideration of the relations between masculinity and literature as well as questions about how the sexual orientation of authors inflects what they write and how issues of sexual orientation themselves are conveyed in literature. Although issues of masculinity and literature have formed an important but less innovative area of study, primarily because literary practice itself was always understood as a masculine endeavor, issues of sexual orientation stimulated a much larger new critical project.

Issues of sexuality in literary study employ two broad strategies. The first is to understand the relation between a hidden identity such as homosexuality and the ways such a hidden identity is conveyed in literature through codes, allusions, and other indirect means. These encodements produce their own dynamic and literary aesthetic, defined by critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) as an "epistemology of the closet." The other critical tack is to analyze the configurations through which homosexualities and lesbian dynamics appear in literary and popular cultural texts, from the apparitional or invisible figuration of the lesbian identified by Terry Castle and Bonnie Zimmerman to the camp, burlesque, and hypermasculinization identified in gay male texts by such critics as Michael Warner and Robert K. Martin.

Issues of sexuality also inaugurated the more political category of "queer" studies, which examines literary and textual phenomena that play against the heterosexual and heteronormative impetus of mainstream culture. Inspired by homosexualities, the category of the queer positions itself less as literally gay or lesbian identity, and more as a position defined by its play on and perversion of sexual, patriarchal, capitalist, and other economies aligned with normative cultural practices.


Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. 2000. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rooney, Ellen, ed. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Showalter, Elaine. 1998. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Rev. edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Warner, Michael. 1999. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free Press.

Woolf, Virginia. 1929. A Room of One's Own. London: Hogarth Press.

                                               Judith Roof


Popular literature refers to fiction intended to please large audiences. Consisting primarily of novels, serialized novels, and short stories, popular literature is a market commodity aimed at specific target audiences defined often by gender, class, race, and age, such as housewives, teenage boys or girls, men, urban black populations, or gay or lesbian readers. The main purpose of popular literature is to entertain by providing predictable and formulaic stories often about extraordinary occurrences that happen to ordinary people. Such stories feed the fantasies, hopes, and frustrations of the groups who read them. Although some literature intended to be merely entertaining may also be innovative and have artistic value, most popular literature is unremarkable as art even if enjoyable as a pastime.

Popular literature appears in such genres as romance novels, westerns, detective fiction and urban crime tales, thrillers, science fiction, children's literature, and gothic horror novels. Each of these genres has a set recipe of plots and character types, which is repeated with variations in each successive publication. Each genre also has subgenres that also appeal to specific audiences, defined mainly by the gender and the age of the reader. There are heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian romance novels, for example. Detective and urban crime novels may involve white or black protagonists. Science fiction stories may appeal to those interested in hard science or in fantasy. There are adventure stories for children with girl heroines for girls and boy heroes for boys.

Literature in the form of oral stories for group entertainment has been present throughout history as epic poems about heroes' adventures and love affairs or folk stories about tricksters such as Renard the Fox or William Shakespeare's Falstaff. Still familiar are such Greek heroes as Achilles and Odysseus as well as the knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend. And variations on jokes in which various categories of dupes (people from other states, women with certain colors of hair) are tricked continue to be told and enjoyed. These traditions of oral literature are the foundations for the romance, horror, action, and detective genres that nineteenth- and twentieth-century publishers gradually developed for sale to a reading public.

The phenomenon of popular literature as printed books to be purchased by individuals arose mainly in the nineteenth century as literacy became more widespread in the middle and lower classes, and especially as more women learned to read. Popular books and serials were also enabled by technological innovations in the paper and printing industries as well as the evolution of strategies for marketing and distribution. The invention of mechanical typesetting, the availability of cheaper, machine-made paper, and the development of faster printing presses helped make printed material cheaper and more affordable to greater numbers of people. Printed material was distributed through the mail as newspapers, and later as serialized stories and penny novels. Serialized stories had first appeared in England in 1698 as a way to avoid the extra tax on paper. Although popular, serials appeared less often as the British government imposed a tax on newspapers in 1712. The serial reappeared as a popular phenomenon in 1836 with the serial publication of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers. The first serial novel appeared in the United States in 1839, according to Radway, and serials became popular as a supplement pamphlet sent with newspapers at reduced rates through the mail. Although the U.S. Post Office Department determined in 1843 that these newspapers and their serialized supplements could no longer be sent at newspaper rates, the market for cheap books had been established.


By the twentieth century the establishment of a large middle class with stay-at-home wives and mothers in the United States offered a large market of readers to whom romance novels might be sold. The practice of identifying specific groups of readers, such as middle-class housewives, and finding both products to please them and marketing and distribution strategies aimed at their habits and convenience, became a large part of paperback book publishing. Despite, however, the tendency to link popular literature in the form of romance novels to women as the primary consumers of such literature, the first scheme for distributing popular literature paperbacks as magazine supplements involved mystery stories sold with magazines at book and newspaper stands. Mercury Books' mysteries were joined in 1939 by Pocket Books' romances. The monthly publication of new volumes required that new books conform to the set formulas and characteristics of the genre that had been calculated to appeal to specific kinds of reading audiences—mysteries and horror thrillers to both men and women, westerns and science fiction to males, children's adventure stories to children, and romances, the largest category, to women. Paperback books began to be distributed through drug and grocery stores as well as magazine stands where people regularly shopped.

The formulaic character of popular mystery fiction helped refine the development of formulaic genres to targeted readerships. From the late 1930s to the 1950s the mystery genre spawned many popular protagonists regularly featured in entertaining but predictable narratives. Such characters as Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, Mike Hammer, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot figured in paperback novels purchased regularly by both male and female readers. The formulas of most of these novels involved an ingenious solution by a very sympathetic but somewhat idiosyncratic, often amateur, sleuth. Many mystery novels involved the kinds of courtly behavior practiced by Arthurian knights. Ladies in distress were rescued by unlikely and often cynical heroes. Although the mass market for mystery paperbacks seems to have died out somewhat in the 1950s, these characters spread from the pages of books to films, television series, and later reprintings of their series.

In the 1960s and 1970s, urban crime, thriller, and horror novels became widely popular. Like mystery stories, these novels appealed to both men and women and included some of the best-selling novels of all time. Iceberg Slim's and Donald Goines's novels about black urban existence were best-sellers targeted toward a black audience. William Blatty's The Exorcist (1971) and Peter Benchley's Jaws (1974) are still near the top of the all-time best-seller list, while Ian Fleming's James Bond series has been widely influential. Thrillers by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and more recently Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003), sell to huge audiences. These cliff-hanger novels extol the virtues of the clever, brave hero against the odds presented by international espionage, financial wrongdoing, and extensive, conspiratorial criminality. On their actions lies the fate of the Western world.

Like mystery, science fiction developed its pulp formulas and audience in the 1930s, more often in magazine and story collections than in novels. Although the genre was always linked to real or speculative science and often took place in the future, its renditions of culture and society, particularly of gender relations, tended to be conservative or anachronistic, preserving the secondary role of women in relation to the intrepid and heroic roles of men. Its primary audience was male.

Children's serial novels such as The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and The Motor Boys presented attractive children and teens from well-parented families who had extraordinary adventures and resolved all dilemmas ethically and generously. The mystery-adventure format of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Motor Boys combined daring and virtue in formulaic encounters with greedy but nonpedophilic villains. The Bobbsey Twins provided tame adventures for both boys and girls that modeled bravery mixed with common sense. Unlike the deliciously dangerous dilemmas of gothic heroines, the child heroes of children's popular literature were models of behavior and virtue, teaching proper, but not constrained gender roles, the virtues of curiosity and work, and the attractiveness of gumption. More recently the huge best-selling Harry Potter series has captivated boys and girls as well as adult readers with issues of power and ethics in the fantastical, yet grounded world of a wizard's academy.

While mystery novels appealed to both men and women, science fiction to males of all ages, and children's books to boys and girls depending on the gender of their protagonists, romance novels were aimed primarily at women. Initially romance novels were modeled after Daphne du Maurier's best-selling gothic romance, Rebecca (1938). Looking for similarly exciting mixes of mystery, heroines in peril, and cross-class romantic involvement, other paperback publishers sought their own versions of the story. In 1960 Ace Books published Phyllis Whitney's Thunder Heights and Doubleday published Victoria Holt's Mistress of Mellyn. These gothic romance tales created worlds of glamour, darkness, and mystery in which a heroine, whose qualities and upbringing are more like those of her readers, encounters a mysterious set of circumstances and conquers an enigmatic upper-class suitor.

Gothic romances were romantic, thrilling, and immensely popular, accounting for 24 percent of Dell's sales of paperbacks in 1971 (Radway 1984). Overall at that time, paperback publishers were churning out more than thirty-five gothic romance titles per month, but the genre soon saturated the market. There was renewed interest in romance novels in the early 1970s as they began to appear in more sexually explicit subgenres such as "erotic historicals," "Sweet savage romances," and "Bodice-rippers" (Radway 1984, p. 34). The increased explicitness of the romance sex scenes followed the taste for more scandalous material incited by the publication of two best-selling books in the two previous decades: Grace Metalious's Peyton Place (1956), a novel about small-town scandal, adultery, and sex, and Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (1966), depicting a group of pill-popping women, reported to be the best-selling novel of all time.

In the 1970s as well, the gothic romance was joined by the historical romances of Barbara Cartland and the more modern romances involving wealthy powerful people, written by such best-selling authors as Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, Harold Robbins, Colleen McCullough, and Sidney Sheldon. Scholars and critics have given many possible reasons for the popularity of the romance novel. Some suggest that romance fantasies enable women to escape their humdrum existence by offering a more exciting world in which ordinary women become the paramours of rich, enigmatic men. Others, such as Ann Douglas (1980), suggest that the popularity of romance novels reflects women's unhappy rebellion against feminist challenges to traditional female roles in the 1970s era of rising feminist activism. Certainly their popularity is due to a number of factors, including the availability of leisure time in which to read, the pleasures of repetition, the reassuring possibility that daily lives might still be exciting, and the availability of cheap books.

Most recently, popular fiction has developed a new genre, aimed at young women and teenage girls, involving sexually active, hip, urban career girls whose encounters with employers and family members result in absurd and humorous situations. Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada (2003) and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's The Nanny Diaries (2002) are examples of this genre.


While the typical gothic romance novel did not include anything more than suggestions of torrid sexuality, the explicit character of these best-sellers made the public hunger for more graphic depictions of sex. Romance novels in their various genres supplied titillation short of pornography, which could not be distributed as openly as lurid romances. More graphic depictions of sexuality such as Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's Candy became scandalous best-sellers in the youth rebellions of the late 1960s as sexual mores became less repressive. At the same time the relaxation of the film production codes by which sexually explicit material in films had been repressed made film a more attractive medium for openly sexual material. By the 1970s, sexually explicit popular novels had to compete with the growing availability of films featuring nudity and explicit sexual situations and behavior, as well as with sexually explicit pornographic videotapes.

The overwhelming majority of popular books assume the heterosexuality of their characters and present a world grounded in male-female romance. The emergence of gay male and lesbian populations beginning in the late 1960s offered a new set of markets to popular literature publishers, though not markets with a large enough audience to justify mass publication and marketing of gay-themed books. Popular literature aimed at gay male and lesbian audiences tends to be published, at least initially, by smaller niche presses such as Alyson, Plume, and Naiad. In the 1970s and 1980s books treating gay male protagonists by such authors as S. E. Hinton, James Kirkwood, and Larry Kramer became more mainstream. Kirkwood's novel Some Kind of Hero (1975) was made into a film, and Kirkwood also cowrote the Broadway play A Chorus Line. Rita Mae Brown produced more mainstream lesbian novels, the most famous of which, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) has continued to sell large numbers of copies. Lesbian mystery writers such as Katherine V. Forrest have become widely popular among lesbian audiences.

Although electronic media may eventually replace books, reading continues on the World Wide Web. Some writers now post serialized novels on their web sites, and the formulas for popular fiction continue to evolve.


Bloom, Clive. 1996. Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Douglas, Ann. 1980. "Soft-Porn Culture." New Republic 183(9): 25-29.

Jakubowski, Maxim, ed. 1996. The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction. New York: Carroll and Graf.

Jordan, John O., and Robert L. Patten, eds. 1995. Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Radway, Janice A. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Stryker, Susan. 2001. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

                                                  Judith Roof


In its widest sense gay literature is writing that expresses, describes, or otherwise represents a spectrum of intense friendship, love, erotic desire, and sexual contact or relationship between male individuals as well as engaging with the social context of the ways in which those matters are received by the broader society. Such literature may be produced in any literate culture at any point in human history. More narrowly, some commentators argue that the concept of gay literature should be confined to a specific period since the late-nineteenth-century conceptualization of sexual "identities"—in this context homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality—are regarded as psychological states or conditions that affect the whole nature of the self and its social circumstances. In its narrowest definition gay literature dates from the mid-1960s in the West and is written only by gay authors, especially openly gay authors who subscribe to the aims and ethos of the gay liberation movement, which, following the models of the American civil rights and feminist movements, has demanded equality of rights and treatment for gay people across the spectrum of social institutions.

Throughout the history of literacies, the predominant mode of male homoerotic writing has been determined not by a universal essence of homosexual love but by broadly common social and cultural conditions that center on sexual segregation and male privilege. Wherever female virginity was prized above the education of girls, men made deeper alliances with one another than with women. Honored as a bearer of sons and strengthener of the bloodstock more often than as a soul mate, the highborn woman was protected against the acquisition of knowledge as much as she was protected against the eyes of the wrong men. Relationships between men were built on common interests stemming from shared levels of education, and relationships between men and boys were pedagogical, educating the boy up to the level of the man. Ideally, therefore, a meeting of bodies eventually would develop into a meeting of minds.


The Greek Anthology, the medieval collection of more than 6,000 Ancient Greek and Byzantine poems, is a repository of such celebrations of boy love in its different moods. Most fully theorized in Plato's Symposium, Greek pederasty was governed by strict conventions that protected the reputations of male citizens and the boys—future citizens—they loved. Although not arguing against sexual relationships, or at least those tempered by rational self-control, Plato's dialogue recommends the refinement of love that transcends bodily need. Similar affirmations of institutionalized pederasty can be found in the literatures of China, Japan, India, Persia, Turkey, and the Arabian diaspora.

Much Greek poetry cites the precedence of the febrile passions of the gods in justifying the self-evident frailty of humankind in matters of the heart and the lower organs. Where Zeus and Ganymede or Apollo and Hyacinth went before, mortal men and boys were apt to follow. Indeed, men's taste for boys was traced meticulously back to its origins in a moment of divine inspiration on the part of an individual man. This candidate for the honor of being the first mortal man to desire those of his own sex sometimes was identified as Orpheus, sometimes as Thamyris, and sometimes as Laius. Significantly, the first two of those men were poets.

Many Roman poets wrote erotic verse about boys—with Virgil, Martial, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and Catullus being prominent examples—but they also wrote about women. The love of boys never was regarded as being incompatible with that of women. Correspondingly, Roman literature often is insulting about men with an exclusive interest in the same sex and even more insulting if any adult man showed signs of sexual passivity. Juvenal's satires are exemplary in their contempt for such abdications of the manly duties of citizenship.


In the classical literature of male love Plato's Symposium, Theocritus's Idylls, Virgil's Eclogues, and Ovid's Metamorphoses had the most radical impact on man-loving and many more generally humanist poets of the Renaissance period. In England, Christopher Marlowe's passionate shepherd and Richard Barnfield's Ganymede were produced by writers obviously steeped in the homoerotic classics. Shakespeare's sonnets, though relatively sparing in classical references, clearly are derived from an ethos the poet had taken from his extensive reading of southern European literature and adapted to his northern emotional life. The controversy of the sonnets is not a recent one, as is often claimed, imposed on them by the irrelevant obsessions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century homosexuals. As early as 1640 John Benson reissued the poems, cutting some of them altogether (19, 56, 75, 76, 96, 126), changing the gender of the pronouns in others (101 and 108), and toning down phrases such as "sweet boy" (108) and "fair friend" (14) to "sweet love" and "fair love," respectively. The publisher wanted to avoid any impression of sinful practices.

In Christian Europe the condemnation of all sex except a narrow range of acts in the marital bed gave forbidden love a new status among the upper classes. In literature diverse figures such as Pietro Aretino, Théophile de Viau, John Wilmot (the Earl of Rochester), and the Marquis de Sade made a virtue of vice, boastfully expatiating on the ambisexuality of the libertine. This tradition helped shape a particular kind of fictional character. The Byronic hero and the antihero of the Gothic novel, perhaps derived from darkly seductive figures such as Milton's Satan, evolved, by way of major characters such as Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie humaine and the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, into the gay villain of mid-twentieth-century fiction. The demonization of Oscar Wilde in 1895 added a fresh resonance to this stereotype of the sodomite as criminally seductive and subversive.

Across cultures and eras one of the most acceptable and therefore common ways of celebrating passionate friendships between adult men has been in circumstances or through representations of mourning. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh extravagantly mourns the death of Enkidu. In the Bible, David laments the loss of Jonathan: "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). In the Iliad, Achilles laments the loss of Patroclus. In the Chanson de Roland, Roland laments the loss of Olivier.

The English pastoral elegy celebrated male love, usually in its most conventional guise as temperate friendship, through literary history from Edmund Spenser to A. E. Housman and Wilfred Owen. Again, the circumstance of mourning released writers from some of the restraints on intensity of expression where male love was concerned. Spenser's "Astrophel" commemorated Sir Philip Sidney, who had died in 1586. John Milton's "Lycidas" commemorated Edward King (died 1637); Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" commemorated Richard West (died 1742); Percy Shelley's "Adonais" commemorated John Keats (died 1821) (Shelley's heart would be wrapped in a manuscript of the poem during his cremation on the beach at La Spezia); Alfred Tennyson's "In Memoriam" commemorated Arthur Hallam (died 1833); Matthew Arnold's "Thyrsis" commemorated Arthur Clough (died 1861); and Walt Whitman's poems from the American Civil War, culminating in the great elegy on Abraham Lincoln, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd," resonated with echoes of the same sources.

Although it often was received by man-loving male readers in England as being "Greek" in spirit, Whitman's quintessentially American poetry was far more inclined to celebrate the adult male—and the working-class male at that—as something new and particular to the physical geography and social structures of the United States. In Whitman spiritual refinement is derived not from education and class but from bodily health and liberty.


Heterosexuality and homosexuality, the new definitions of sexual identity that emerged through the popularization of sexology and psychoanalysis in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, coincided with other major technological, aesthetic, and social developments that have come to be seen as having the characteristics of modernism. In literature the modernist experiment was especially concerned with tempering the objective focus of high realism with more subjectivist approaches to a reality that increasingly was assumed to be pluralist and fragmented. The objective, omniscient narrator of the realist novel gave way to a stream of individual consciousnesses.

Under those new conditions writers seemed especially capable of scrutinizing the voluntary and involuntary bases of sexual desire in its protean manifestations. Many of the great modernist writers were homosexual or bisexual and took same-sex desire as one of their major topics. In France, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Jean Cocteau combined major technical innovations with penetrative explorations of the nature of desire. In Germany, the novels of Thomas Mann and the poetry of Stefan George wrestled with the relationship between physical desire and spiritual desire as embodied in ethereal boys. In Greece, Constantine Cavafy elaborated a comparison between classical pederasty and modern homosexuality in poems that gave modern urban cruising its finest early expression. At opposite extremes of seriousness and frivolity Henry James and Ronald Firbank approached the matter of love from an oblique angle that is identifiably "queer" or even camp, subjecting hetero-sexuality to the distanced scrutiny of a discriminating aestheticism. Indeed, there is so much gay writing in modernism that one might go so far as to describe that movement as being intrinsically queer.

The antihomophobic novel of the twentieth century almost invariably suffered the consequences of its inherent flaw. Needing to argue politically the ordinariness of homosexuality and the moral neutrality of homosexual love, those novels were burdened with the necessity of a dull central character. This explains the unremarkable suburbanism of the eponymous central character of E. M. Forster's Maurice (written in 1913). Setting himself the task of countering prejudicial assumptions that homosexual men must be decadent, effeminate, and untrustworthy—a stereotype largely based on the version of Oscar Wilde that had been constructed in newspaper accounts of his trials—Forster had to contrast the dullness of the middle-class Maurice with the far more interesting figure of Risley, an aristocratic aesthete who is witty and seedy and ends up in jail.

This also can be said of the protagonists of some of the best-known gay novels published in the middle of the twentieth century. Many of those men are tediously self-absorbed. In Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard is given a strong backhand at tennis so that he will not be assumed to be effeminate by homophobic readers, but that is his only talent. The literature informed by the postwar homosexual and gay movements was concerned principally with conveying what came to be called "positive images" by which the author was expected to counter negative public representations of homosexuals as untrustworthy, unpatriotic, unmanly, neurotic, immature, and generally unlikable. Positive gay literature had to convey the possibility of homosexual happiness within the requirements of social convention. The central characters of those novels would overcome the adversities of having to endure homophobia, would experience true love, and would settle down eventually to a solidly happy ending. Subsequent literature by and large has been released from these restrictive imperatives.

In light of the restrictive tendencies of politically influenced literary texts, it is not surprising that much of the most striking fiction about male-male relationships was the most transgressive, often elaborating on the interplay between eroticism and violence. In this respect the major figure of the mid-twentieth century was Jean Genet, whose work depended for one of its main effects not on the idea that men who love men can be as decent and unobtrusive as one's next-door neighbor and that books about them can be similarly unexceptional but on the idea that all love involves personal betrayal and that male bodies are the weapons with which both love and betrayal are effected.


In Japan, Yukio Mishima superimposed the Samurai and ancient Greek traditions of homoeroticism on the everyday details of modern life, enlivening a realist perspective with his personal sadomasochistic interests. In the United States, encouraged by younger beat writers such as Brion Gysin and Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs combined an aggressive social critique with the celebration of a taste for adolescent boys in heroin-fed fantasies of a womanless universe. The technique of randomly cutting up his prose denies his characters any sentimental identification on the part of sympathetic readers. In the Netherlands, Gerard Reve based his radical aesthetic on an obsessive regard for the corporal punishment of socially deviant boys. In France, Tony Duvert wrote as if the nouveau roman had been hijacked for the purposes of a militant pederasty.

The changing possibilities for more assimilationist gay writers may be exemplified best in the career of the postwar British poet Thom Gunn. Gunn began as a poet of restraint, guarded and edgily ironic; his poems were virtuosic in their application of seventeenth-century techniques and forms to decidedly modern topics (Elvis Presley, leather-clad bikers). His tone of voice combined Cambridge refinement and erudition with a held-in masculinity derived from American movies. However, as the 1950s and 1960s progressed and Gunn moved to San Francisco to live with his American lover, he discovered a more flexible technique to accompany his newly relaxed California lifestyle. Gunn adopted a syllabic line that owed much to the American models of William Carlos Williams and Yvor Winters and associated the consequent lightening of tone with his own coming out as a gay man. The later collections were all openly and relaxedly gay.

The elegiac tradition of earlier centuries offered a ready template for consolatory lamentation when the AIDS epidemic affected gay men in Western cities in the 1980s. In the face of intense hostility from the political classes and the mainstream media, gay men sought understanding voices within their own suffering communities and were answered in the United States by poets such as Thom Gunn and more recently Mark Doty and Rafael Campo. What was distinctive about such writers was their ability to turn personal involvement in the epidemic and personal grief into a reaffirmation of the highest principles of gay liberation, akin to the amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) of the ancients.

One of the most common themes in contemporary gay fiction is the family, that is, the families from which young gay individuals emerge, the families that closeted individuals construct by marrying and having children, and the alternative families that "liberated" individuals develop out of new social circumstances. Informed by the feminist critique of the coercive nuclear family as well as by conservative retrenchments claiming the nuclear family as the only socially and morally responsible mode of living, gay novelists have tried to show how oppressive and harmful the heterosexual family structure can become and how protective and nurturing different structures, imaginatively constructed according to the needs of individuals, can be if the concept of the family is allowed to expand and develop flexibly, encompassing fresh sexual and affectional arrangements. Major late-twentieth-century gay novelists included Alan Hollinghurst and Patrick Gale in Great Britain, Edmund White and Andrew Holleran in the United States, and Yves Navarre and Dominique Fernandez in France.


Bredbeck, Gregory W. 1991. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Frantzen, Allen J. 1998. Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hammond, Paul. 1996. Love between Men in English Literature. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lilly, Mark. 1993. Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press.

Martin, Robert K. 1979. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Robinson, Christopher. 1995. Scandal in the Ink: Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century French Literature. London and New York: Cassell.

Smith, Bruce R. 1991. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Summers, Claude J. 1990. Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum.

Summers, Claude J., ed. 1995. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader's Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present. New York: H. Holt.

Woods, Gregory. 1987. Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Woods, Gregory. 1998. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                              Gregory Woods


Since the emergence of lesbian and gay studies in the Euro-American academy, literary scholars have struggled with the question of definition, trying to answer the question of what counts as a lesbian text. Should the author be a self-defined lesbian, or is it enough that a number of readers have taken a text to be a lesbian one? Can male authors writing about female same-sex desire be legitimately included in the domain of lesbian literature? And what if self-proclaimed lesbian authors choose not to write about lesbian themes—should such texts still be included in a lesbian literary history? These questions have been answered in different ways, leading to different demarcations of the field and different processes of canonization.


Female same-sex desire has figured in Western literary history since the ancient Greek poet Sappho of the isle of Lesbos (fl. c. 610–c. 580 bce) penned the passionate lines that would associate her name and place of origin with women's love for women to this very day. The increasing availability of literary texts with explicitly lesbian characters and themes, written by openly lesbian novelists and poets, in the final decades of the twentieth century, issued, somewhat paradoxically, in a narrower critical scope than would appear to be warranted by the continuing significance of this mythical predecessor. As a result, a dominant approach in late twentieth-century literary historiography has been to see the process of lesbian canonization as one of excavation, of rediscovering a tradition of creative writing that has been obscured or repressed by and within an overwhelmingly heterosexist and lesbophobic mainstream culture. Obviously, there have been periods in which moral and social codes have prevented writers, male and female, from explicitly naming the object of their fascination and literary imagination. This is not to say, however, that there have not been more covert ways of giving expression to the love that reputedly dare not speak its name, or to represent characters and develop narrative strategies that render lesbianism textually present.

The first pioneering attempts at mapping out a history of lesbian literature in the second half of the twentieth century—most notably the classic bibliography Sex Variant Women in Literature, first published by Jeannette Howard Foster (1895–1981) in 1956 at her own expense—as well as later literary historiographers, such as Lillian Faderman, in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981), and Terry Castle, in her monumental The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall (2003), adopt a much more inclusive perspective on what counts as lesbian literature than the hidden from history approach that, mainly for sound political reasons, prevailed in the latter decades of the twentieth century. If, however, the need for social recognition is provisionally left aside, so that the notion of lesbian literature is allowed to encompass a much wider range of writings than those authored by self-declared lesbians, the putatively forbidden topic turns out to have had a much richer and much more varied existence in the world of Euro-American letters than the idea of lesbian invisibility might suggest.

Crossing both generic and national boundaries, literary expressions, representations, and configurations of female same-sex desire appear in various guises in Euro-American literature from the mid-sixteenth century onward. Recurring patterns of imagery and a number of persistently returning telltale scenes jointly combine into landscape in which lesbianism as a theme—as a site of the cultural imagination—could grow into a full-fledged literary topos. Rather than merely reflecting changing social perceptions of female same-sex desire, such elaborations have, as Castle points out, played a considerable role in furthering the development of the lesbian idea, that is to say, in making the possibility of female same-sex eroticism not only thinkable but also practically available to a general audience.

There is little evidence to suggest that, before the recovery of Sappho's poetry in the late Renaissance, there was much cultural awareness that women might desire women. Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman times, inspiring such authors of antiquity as Ovid, Martial, Lucian, and—famously—Gaius Valerius Catullus, the near obliteration of her work during the reign of the Roman Christian and Byzantine churches rendered the notion of what later would be called sapphism culturally unavailable for almost ten centuries. The rediscovery of ancient texts and learning, and their incorporation into European art and science at the end of the Middle Ages, also (re)introduced the conceptual possibility of female same-sex desire into the Euro-Western cultural imagination. Because Renaissance poets, from Petrarch (1304–1374) and Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), through Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1584) and Louise Labé (c. 1524–1566), to Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) and John Donne (1572–1631), found a source of inspiration in the gradually rediscovered lyrics of the muse of Lesbos, Sappho and the form of love to which her legendary reputation has subsequently given its name was firmly planted in the Euro-Western collective consciousness by the end of the sixteenth century. Whether maligned or revered, dismissed or embraced, the Sappho legend continued to be explored by poets and novelists well into the twentieth century. She figures directly, for instance, in Alexander Pope's Sappho to Phaon (1712), Madame de Staël's Corinne (1807), Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1857), A. C. Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon (posthumously published after the author's death in 1909) Paul Verlaine's Scènes d'amour saphique (1870; first published as Les Amies [1867]), the pseudonymous Pierre Louÿs's Les chansons de Bilitis (1894; real name, Pierre Louis), Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women (1928), Colette's The Pure and the Impure (1933), and Marguerite Yourcenar's Sappho; ou, Le suicide (1937). Sappho also frequently surfaces in the poems of Natalie Barney (1876–1972), the pseudonymous Renée Vivien (1877–1909; real name, Pauline Tarn), Amy Lowell (1874–1925), H. D. (Hilda Doolittle; 1886–1961), and numerous others.


Generating one of the more enduring literary topoi in which lesbian desire is likely to prosper, the significance of Sappho's native island Lesbos, where she was assumed to have initiated young girls into much more than what later ages would consider proper female accomplishments, reverberates in the secluded setting of an all-female environment in which a great many stories and novels of lesbian desire from the sixteenth century onward evolve. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, such a space is usually a convent or a nunnery—there were, at that time, very few other places where women could live in complete separation from men. Male writers of the period tended to satirize such spaces, presenting them as morally unhealthy and corrupting, such as Andrew Marvell in "Upon Appleton House" (1650). Others, while whetting their pornographic appetites, presented them in lurid terms as the breeding grounds of perverse female desires, as suggested by Denis Diderot's lewd novel The Nun (written 1760, published 1796).

The fascination with the erotic possibilities opened up by an all-female environment extends into nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, especially in stories and novels written by women, in which, reflecting the changing social contexts, the convent or nunnery is usually replaced by a girls' school or women's college. Starting with Sarah Scott's A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) and Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), and through Colette's Claudine à l'école (1900), the pseudonymous Clemence Dane's A Regiment of Women (1917; real name, Winifred Ashton), Christa Winsloe's The Child Manuela (1933), a novel based on the more famous film, Mädchen in Uniform (1931), for which Winsloe also wrote the script, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934), Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), Brigid Brophy's The Finishing Touch (1963), and Violette Leduc's Thérèse et Isabelle (1966), the secluded, safe space of the girls' school has continued to offer imaginative possibilities for literary lesbianism.

Such possibilities, however, primarily arise from the fundamental restrictions this literary topos implies: not only is the all-female environment quite literally cut off from the "real" world of heterosexual relations, the same-sex passions and desires—whether for admired teachers or for fellow pupils—flaring up within its seclusion, also remain confined to the protagonists' pre-adulthood, and can thus be conveniently reduced to adolescent crushes. What is more, these passionate affairs must necessarily end when the girls finish their education and leave school. Still, as an enabling space, the all-female environment—whether in its earlier form of a girls' school or women's college, or in one of its later permutations, such as a hotel, a female prison, a summer camp, a sport's team, or commune, has also given rise to another recurring configuration, that is, the combination of an older woman and a young girl entertaining—usually quite explosive, or destructive—amorous relations, as in Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel (1927), Naomi Royde-Smith's The Tortoiseshell Cat (1925), Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927), Dorothy Strachey's Olivia (1949; married name, Bussy), and Harriett Gilbert's The Riding Mistress (1983).


Another figuration in which female same-sex desire has traditionally found expression is that of mistaken (gender) identity or cross-dressing. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) may well lay claim to the most delightful early renderings of the erotic possibilities generated by such (deliberate) gender confusion, as, for instance, in Twelfth Night (1601), while later male authors have often taken up this theme to expose the monstrous or degenerative aspects of women who impersonate men, or appropriate male (nuptial) privileges. Examples here include Henry Fielding's The Female Husband (1746) through Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God (1930). Female authors of the early twentieth century, largely under the influence of the new sexological accounts of homosexuality that explained women's desire for women as the result of gender inversion, tended to explore the more tragic aspects of the lesbian's terrible fate, most notoriously represented by Radclyffe Hall's tormented heroine Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness (1928). Butch/femme culture of the 1950s and early 1960s can be argued to extend both the erotically titillating possibilities of cross-dressing, and to have absorbed the pathologizing aspects of sexological and psychological discourses. The self-torture and psychic confusion of many butch protagonists, as, for instance, in Ann Bannon's Beebo Brinker series (1962) and Maureen Duffy's The Microcosm (1966), show that, by the mid-twentieth century, the latter appears to have won out over the former in the cultural imagination. In contrast, a series of novels featuring the figure of the tomboy (Carson McCuller's Frankie, for instance, in The Member of the Wedding [1946] or Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird [1960]) can be placed in the more lighthearted, Shakespearean tradition, even if these works also partake in the (Freudian) idea of female same-sex desire as an adolescent, hence passing phenomenon.

The pathological notion of female same-sex desire prevailing in the first half of the twentieth century, and the literary depiction of lesbians as freaks of nature, can be linked to the earlier association of love between women with the monstrous or the supernatural, or to that nineteenth-century invention, the lesbian vampire. From its inception, the vampire in art and literature, falling outside the bounds of nature as much as it is excluded from polite society, has consistently been linked with homosexuality. With predecessors in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel" (1816) and in Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic story Carmilla (1872), contemporary authors have, however, succeeded at once in exploiting and perverting this tradition by presenting lesbian vampires as enabling female figures whose unnatural powers are often wielded in attempts to overthrow patriarchal society. Whereas Zoë Fairbairns, in Benefits (1979), and Sally Gearheart, in The Wanderground (1978), primarily use the transgressive sexual and gender potential of their bloodsucking heroines, Ellen Galford additionally oversteps religious boundaries by making her undead heroine in The Dyke and the Dybbuk (1994) Jewish, while Jewelle Gomez, in The Gilda Stories (1991), takes the transgressive aspect another step further by presenting her readers with a black lesbian vampire.


Although the appearance of a black lesbian is no longer so remarkable in late-twentieth-century literature, there are relatively few literary texts predating the civil rights movement and the Stonewall riots (1969) that focus on the intersection of racial difference and female same-sex desire. This is all the more remarkable, because, from the emergence of modern science in the eighteenth century onward, all forms of sexual degeneration, including lesbianism, have been associated with racial difference, savagery, and primitivism. Still, even during 1920s and 1930s, when African-American culture generally flourished—a period known as the Harlem Renaissance—lesbian self-expression occurred only in highly coded fashion. Exemplary are the writings of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, the love poems of Angelina Weld Grimké (suppressed by the author herself, and rediscovered only in the 1980s), Nella Larsen's novel Passing (1929), and the lyrics of the bisexual blues singers Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters. Jane Bowles's novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) offers one of the first explorations of a white woman's desire for a brown prostitute. It is only in the 1970s, with writers such as Audre Lorde (From a Land Where Other People Live [1973]), Ann Allen Shockley (Loving Her [1974]), and Pat Parker (Movement in Black [1978]), that a tradition of African-American lesbian writing begins to take off. While increasingly politically motivated, most of such literary representations emphasize the strength and endurance of friendship and love among black lesbians faced with the overall racism of white society as well as the homophobia in black communities, as, for instance, in Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982).

Lesbian writers on both sides of the Atlantic began to use a variety of traditional literary genres, as well as develop new ones, to give overt expression to their feelings, preoccupations, and outlooks on life and society. Earlier in the twentieth century, few had followed Radclyffe Hall in thematizing their sexual love for women, preferring to couch such concerns in modernist experimenting or behind sociocultural critiques, as in the works of Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and Djuna Barnes (1892–1982), or to enfold it in a fantasy figure such as Virginia Woolf's ageless, intermediately sexed Orlando, the eponymous hero/ine of her comic romp of 1928, believed to be a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf was having an affair at the time. Stein's openly lesbian text Lifting Belly (1953) was not published until after her death, the same fate as was suffered by H.D.'s novel Paint It Today, which did not appear in print until 1992. What the novels, poems, and short stories of the early decades of the twentieth century often quite liberally do depict, however, are strong bonds between women, often tinged with eroticism, echoing what in earlier centuries had been called romantic friendships.

Dorothy Miller Richardson's Dawn's Left Hand (1931) explores the close interrelations between intense female friendship and homoerotic passion. Sylvia Town-send Warner's novel Summer Will Show (1936) equally concentrates on the erotic bond between its two female protagonists, albeit in a story displaced into the nineteenth century. Most of the early novels of Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1972), and quite a number of her short stories, feature women developing passionate relationships with each other. Though not offering a particularly pleasant portrait, Mary McCarthy's inclusion of a lesbian character in her best-selling novel The Group (1963) suggests that, in the early 1960s, lesbianism was becoming an acceptable topic in North American literary writing. The British novelist Brigid Brophy's In Transit(1969) therefore quite literally marks a moment of transition, not only because its protagonist has no determinate gender, and the text offers its readers a distinctly eroticized bi-textuality, but also because it represents a moment of transition between the occluded, indirect, or ambivalent representation of female same-sex desire in literature before Stonewall, and the outspoken, sometimes defiant, and often celebratory expressions of lesbianism in the literature since then.


The genre of the picaresque, with its lone hero fighting against the world, proved particularly fruitful in the politicized early days of gay and lesbian liberation. In sharp contrast to the rather quiet, reflective novels of the early 1960s, such as May Sarton's The Small Room (1961), Jane Rule's The Desert of the Heart (1964), and Isabel Miller's A Place for Us (1969; reissued as Patience and Sarah, 1973), the quintessential lesbian hero of the early 1970s was Rita Mae Brown's feisty and outrageous Molly Bolt, protagonist of her semi-autobiographical coming-out story Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Whereas Elana Nachman's Riverfinger Women (1974) similarly revolves around a picaresque lesbian hero, Monique Wittig, on a rather grim note, presents the main characters of her Les guérillères (1969) as social warriors, expressing the elation and rage of many lesbians fighting at the barricades against the oppressions of the heteropatriarchal system. Some Stonewall writers took up the Sapphic tradition by imaginatively exploring the possibilities—and problems—of all-female societies, including June Arnold in The Cook and the Carpenter (1973), Gearheart in The Wanderground, or, in a more utopian vein, Joanna Russ in The Female Man (1975).

Where older lesbian poets, such as May Swenson (1919–1989), Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), and Sarton (1912–1995), still tended to avoid overtly lesbian subjects, the new generation of poets showed no such qualms. With Audre Lorde (1934–1992) and Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) as two of the most articulate voices of the period, the 1970s gave rise to an astonishingly rich tradition of explicitly lesbian poetry, especially in the United States. Much lesbian poetry first appeared in such newly founded women's journals as Heresies, Conditions, Sinister Wisdom, and off our backs, but many also succeeded in getting their work published as books, including Olga Broumas's Beginning with O (1977), Judy Grahn's Edward the Dyke (1971), Lorde's From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), Pat Parker's Child of Myself (1971), June Jordan's Pit Stop (1973), and Rich's The Dream of a Common Language (1978).

As suggested, few African-American writers, with Shockley's novel Loving Her a rare and important exception, explored lesbian issues before the 1980s. Lorde published her autobiographical novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name in 1982. The landmark publication, one that opened up the literary field to lesbians from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, was This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Inspired by the then prevailing emphasis on the politics of difference, this anthology of essays, fiction, and poetry gave eloquent voice to the frustrations and anger experienced by all lesbians of color within the overwhelmingly white (lesbian) feminist movement. Anzaldúa later published the influential prose poem Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Paula Gunn Allen is one of few lesbians writing from a Native American perspective (The Woman Who Owned the Shadows [1983]), while Willyce Kim is probably the best-known Asian-American lesbian novelist, and Michelle Cliff explores the racism of Jamaican society in her novels Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987).

Prose genres that proved particularly amenable to lesbian appropriation include such forms of formula fiction as romance, mystery, and detective novels. Growing out of the 1970s coming-out stories, the lesbian romance became one of the most popular genres of the 1980s, with representatives such as Doris Grumbach's Chamber Music (1979), Nancy Toder's Choices (1980), and Katherine V. Forrest's Curious Wine (1983). Among the spate of lesbian detective novels by, among others, Camarin Grae, Claire McNab, Barbara Wilson (later known as Barbara Sjoholm), and Vicki McConnell, those by Sarah Schulman (The Sophie Horowitz Story [1984]) and Mary Wings (She Came Too Late [1987]) stand out by being less formulaic, and, stylistically as well as thematically, more inventive than many of their contemporaries.

Schulman's later prose style shows the influence of postmodernism, but her stories also move beyond the strict political and cultural constraints of mere lesbian expectancy, complicating the sexual lives of her protagonists with issues of ethnicity and social economics. Another lesbian writer who presents a wider vision of contemporary society than even her best-selling debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)—adapted for BBC television in 1990—might have suggested, is the British author Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959). Like some of her North American counterparts, such as Bertha Harris (Lover (1976) and Carole Maso (Ghost Dance [1986]), Winterson has succeeded in reaching mainstream audiences, by developing what might be called the postmodern lesbian novel of ideas, especially through her later works, The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry(1989), The PowerBook (2000), and Lighthousekeeping (2004). Other important novelists of the 1990s include Jenifer Levin (The Sea of Light [1993]), Paula Martinac (Home Movies [1993]), and Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina [1992]), whose novels engage lesbian characters, but whose main focus is on social issues such as death, AIDS, and poverty.

One of the most successful genres that continues to thrive, and one equally finding its origins in the 1980s, is what might loosely be called lesbian erotica, especially in its S/M variety. Pat Califia (Macho Sluts [1988]), Robbi Sommers (Kiss and Tell [1991]), and Tee Corinne (Dreams of the Woman Who Loved Sex [1987]) were the forerunners in a tradition that as of 2006 makes up most of the titles produced by a quick search for lesbian literature at the online bookseller If this suggests that lesbian literature has, since the early sixteenth century, developed from a relatively obscure, often submerged, and frequently maligned form of cultural expression, into a fully commercially viable enterprise, there are also quite a number of lesbian authors who have made it into the mainstream through somewhat different channels. Especially in the United Kingdom, there are highly respected and successful novelists whose focus on lesbian subject matter has in no way prevented them from gaining widespread general recognition. With prize-winning novels such as Hotel World (2001) and The Accidental (2004)—the latter short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award—the novelist Ali Smith finds her match not only in Winterson, who has continued to keep up her reputation as one of Britain's most successful lesbian novelists with Weight (2005) and Tanglewreck (2006), but also in the best-selling Sarah Waters, whose debut Tipping the Velvet (1999) and Fingersmith (2002)—short-listed for the Man Booker Prize—were both adapted for television by the BBC, in 2002 and 2005, respectively. Waters's next novel, The Night Watch (2006), again features lesbian characters, this time against the setting of World War II. The increasingly widespread cultural resonance of such writings only goes to show that the lesbian novel continues to be redefined—the ultimate results of which are as yet unknown, but can definitely be awaited with great anticipation.


Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Castle, Terry, ed. 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press.

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow.

Foster, Jeannette H. 1985 (1956). Sex Variant Women in Literature. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press.

Grier, Barbara. 1981. The Lesbian in Literature. 3rd edition. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press.

Hobby, Elaine, and Chris White, eds. 1991. What Lesbians Do in Books. London: Women's Press.

Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, ed. 1990. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York: New York University Press.

Stimpson, Catharine R. 1981. "Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English." Critical Inquiry 8(2): 363-379.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. 1990. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969–1989. Boston: Beacon Press.

                                         renée c. hoogland


views updated May 29 2018


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


views updated Jun 08 2018







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


views updated May 11 2018



The Scribal Tradition. The oldest surviving literature in the world is written in the Sumerian language. Although these works may preserve parts of an ancient oral tradition, it is also possible that what was written was as fundamentally new as writing itself. Literacy was highly restricted in the ancient Near East. Only an elite could read and write. Most of the Sumerian literature that survives was written after about 2000 b.c.e., at a time when that language was no longer spoken by the general population but was maintained in schools and temples. Most people at that time spoke various Semitic languages, primarily Akkadian, which has its own literature. The creative process took place in a temple or palace, and it is possible that few ordinary people understood the meaning or imagery of the literature. Little is known about the poets. Few authors are named, and few works are attributed. A rare exception is the earliest known poet, the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon, Enheduana, who wrote in about 2300 b.c.e.

The Earliest Sumerian and Akkadian Literature. The earliest writing, from the late fourth millennium b.c.e., is mostly economic and administrative in nature. There are also lexical lists—words arranged by theme such as kinds of animals, plants, or professions. Presumably learning exercises for the administrators, these lists continued to be copied for more than three thousand years as part of the scribal literary tradition. Some of these texts have been interpreted as early forms of literature, but the first real Sumerian narrative and poetic texts date from around 2500 b.c.e. and have been found in excavations at two main cities, Fara (ancient Shuruppak) and Tell Abu Salabikh (possibly ancient Eresh). These texts are extremely difficult to understand because the scribes supplied only some of the meaning, expecting the reader to understand and fill in the missing elements. In other words, the writing was a guide to meaning, not a representation of the actual spoken language. Some tablets include magical charms against diseases. One text describes the adventures of a legendary king of Uruk named Lugalbanda. Another text, known as the Instructions of Shuruppak, is proverbial advice given by a king to his son. Most texts, however, deal with mythological subjects. Some of these describe how the cosmos was created and ordered by the gods. These early texts were written in Sumerian, with one exception: a hymn to the sun god, written in a dialect of Akkadian and found in two versions, one at Fara and the other at Ebla in Syria. Its existence suggests that more early texts in Akkadian are yet to be discovered.

The Sumerian Revival. There is little evidence of a new literature during the Akkadian Empire (circa 2340 - circa 2200 b.c.e.), a dynamic imperial period whose vitality is clear in its art. Any literature (possibly written in Akkadian) of this period may have been expunged by the next dynasty. With the fall of the Akkadian Empire and the rise of the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2112 -circa 2004 b.c.e.), kings were celebrated in Sumerian poetry. The songs and poems of this dynasty were copied and adapted by later generations of scribes, and it is generally these later versions that survive. Among the most elaborate literary creations of this period are the Gudea Cylinders, A and B. These large clay drums, nearly two feet high, represent the longest and most-complex surviving Sumerian texts. They describe how the god Ningursu, patron deity of the state of Lagash, appeared to Gudea in a dream and instructed the ruler to build his temple E-ninnu in the capital city of Girsu (modern Tello). Although they are literary masterpieces, these works never entered the Mesopotamian scribal curriculum and would have been lost had they not been recovered by modern archaeologists.

Sumerian Literature in the Old Babylonian Period. The largest numbers of Sumerian compositions survive from the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.). By this time Sumerian was no longer spoken, but it was preserved as a written language for the scribal elite and used for monumental and religious texts. These texts include compositions that described a trainee scribe’s schooldays, but they may be idealized representations of school life. Many texts were selections from older works, and a large number concern earlier rulers of Mesopotamia, who date back to the Ur III period (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.), particularly king Shulgi (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e.), who seems to have restructured much of the school curriculum to reflect the concerns of his dynasty. He was one of the few Mesopotamian kings who claimed to be able to read and write. It is likely that the heroic tales of legendary kings of Uruk, such as Enmerkar and Gilgamesh, were composed at this time because the Ur III kings traced their ancestry to the city of Uruk. Other texts were copied and expanded or adapted by Old Babylonian scribes. Tales of kings were shaped to convey specific ideas about kingship and human destiny. Hymns, such as the Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur, were popular, and more than 120 hymns honoring most of the major deities are known. Some of the more interesting texts focus on the goddess Inana and the betrayal and death of her lover Dumuzi. Royal letters, which may or may not be authentic writings of the Ur III period and the succeeding Isin period (circa 2017 - circa 1794 b.c.e.), were also included in the curriculum. Also popular were debate poems in which opposites or complementary characters such as Summer and Winter, Silver and Copper, or Cattle and Grain, attempt to demonstrate verbally which is more important. From cities north of Nippur, such as Sippar and Kish, come specific cultic compositions written in Sumerian, but the use of a literary dialect known as Emesal is characteristic of that region. Differing in pronunciation from the main Sumerian literary tongue, the word Emesal may mean “thin tongue” and seems to have been reserved for a special group of priests and for the direct speech among women or goddesses in literary texts.

Akkadian Literature in the Second Millennium B.C.E. Although the Akkadian language had been written using cuneiform since the middle of the third mil


Before the advent of modern dams and water management on the flat plains of southern Mesopotamia, a rise of as little as a foot in the rivers or the sea covered miles of land with water. Cataclysmic floods were frequent and violent enough to become subjects for ancient Mesopotamian poets. Near Eastern archaeology does not confirm the historical occurrence of one major flood, and it is clear that for ancient Mesopotamians the stories about floods or storms represent no one actual event; rather the Flood is a metaphor for inescapable destruction.

The Epic ofAtra-basis

This story from the first half of the second millennium b.c.e. is concerned with the early history of mankind, in which the Flood is only one element. The tale begins with the minor gods complaining about their hard work. Enki, god of wisdom, provides the answer, advising that humans be created as servants for the gods. Seven men and seven women are formed by mixing clay with the blood of a god slain for the purpose. From the initial seven pairs, humanity quickly multiplies across the earth. Their noise, representing the breakdown of order, disturbs the sleep of the supreme god, Enlil, who tries to silence humanity by sending plagues, droughts, and famine against them. However, he is always frustrated by Enki, who instructs his servant, the mortal Atra-hasis (which means “Exceedingly Wise”), how to survive. Eventually Enlil sends a flood. Having sworn not to communicate directly with humans again, Enki gives advice to a reed wall, through which Atra-hasis listens. Atra-hasis builds a boat and fills it with his family and animals. For seven days and seven nights the flood destroys the world. Eventually the flood subsides, and Atra-hasis makes a burnt offering to the gods, who swarm “like flies” around the offering and realize that they need human servants. They decide, however, to limit the human population by making some women sterile, creating stillbirths, and introducing chastity. The story thus explains why life has been so harsh “since the flood.”

The Sumerian Deluge Myth

Written in the Sumerian language during the mid-second millennium b.c.e., this text describes the creation of humanity but also includes the foundation of kingship and cities and their re-establishment after the Flood. The tablet on which the text was inscribed is damaged, and the beginning and end are missing. The hero of the flood is Ziusudra (“Life of Long Days”), a king of the city of Shuruppak (modern Fara). The surviving text starts with Enki suggesting that humans, who have already been created, should come together to build cities. The new cities are inspected by Enki, and kingship is established in five of them—Eridu, Badtibira, Larak, Sippar, and Shuruppak—each dedicated to a particular deity. There is a break in the tablet, and then the story continues with the decision of the gods to bring about a great flood. One of the gods (probably Enki) warns Ziusudra, who finds a boat. After seven days and nights of flood, Ziusudra steps onto dry land and makes an offering to Utu (or Shamash), god of the sun and justice. Enlil relents, deciding not to destroy humanity. Ziusudra is rewarded with immortality and taken to the land of Dilmun, the place where the sun rises (a mythical paradise equated with the real island of Bahrain).

The Epic of Gilgamesh

In the late second millennium b.c.e.Epic of Gilgamesh, the account of the Flood represents only one element of the hero’s attempt to understand his mortality. Gilgamesh finds Uta-napishti (“He/I found life”), whom the gods made immortal after he survived the great Flood. Uta-napishti explains how Ea (Sumerian Enki) warned him of the coming catastrophe by speaking through a reed hut and brick wall. Uta-napishti then built a boat, telling his neighbors that he had to leave the city because Ellil (Sumerian Enlil) had rejected him. The boat was loaded with precious metals and all forms of life, including his family and artisans. The flood lasted six days and seven nights until all humanity—except the people on the boat—was destroyed, or returned to clay. Afterward Uta-napishti sent out a dove and then a swallow, both of which came back because they could find no place to perch. A raven, however, did not return, indicating that it had found land. Uta-napishti then made sacrifices to the gods, and they swarmed around like flies. However, Ellil was furious. Ea chastised Ellil, suggesting that if humans need control in the future, Ellil could send out the plague god Erra. In response Ellil makes Uta-napishti and his wife “like the gods” (that is, immortal). Uta-napishti brings his account to an end by advising Gilgamesh that mortality is the fate of humans.

Sources: Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (London: Allen Lane, 1999).

Brian B. Schmidt, “Flood Narratives of Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York’Scribners, 1995), IV: 2337-2351.

lennium b.c.e., the real beginning of Akkadian literature was in the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.). Some of these texts were based on Sumerian myths and legends such as the Descent of lshtar into the Netherworld, adapted from the Sumerian Inana’s Descent to the Netherworld. Other Sumerian forms and themes, such as the Temple Hymns and the idea of divine kings, do not appear in Akkadian literature. As southern Mesopotamia was united under Semitic Amorite dynasties, new literary models began to appear in written Akkadian; many—such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Atra-basis, and the creation epic Enuma elish—were much broader in scope than the Sumerian works. Akkadian writings of this period also include theological speculations, such as the Dialogue of a Man with his God. Archaeologists have found hardly any Mesopotamian literary texts dating from some two hundred or three hundred years after the end of the Old Babylonian period (circa 1595 b.c.e.). However, by the fourteenth century b.c.e. the cuneiform script and Akkadian language were in use throughout the Near East, and some literary texts from this period have survived from the Hittite city of Hattusa in central Anatolia, Ugarit on the Syrian coast, and even Egypt.

Enuma elish: A National Epic. The poem known as Enuma elish (“When above”) explains the rise of Marduk to the position of supreme god in the Mesopotamian pantheon. It is often described as “The Babylonian Epic of Creation,” but creation is a small element in the poem. It was under Nebuchadnezzar I (circa 1125 - circa 1104 b.c.e.) that Marduk was first called “king of the gods,” suggesting that Enuma elish was probably composed at about this time. Surviving copies are all later in date. During the Late Babylonian period (610-539 b.c.e.) the text was recited, perhaps even enacted, as part of the New Year festival at Babylon. As in later Greek mythology the poem tells of an older generation of gods who attempt to destroy their offspring but who are defeated in battle.

Creation of Gods. The poem begins with the creation of generations of gods by mixing saltwater (Tiamat) and freshwater (Apsu):

When skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them. (Dalley)

Noise and disorder among the new gods frustrates Apsu, who decides to destroy his offspring:

Apsu made his voice heard
And spoke to Tiamat in a loud voice,
“Their ways have become very grievous to me,
“By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep.
“I shall abolish their ways and disperse them!” (Dalley)

Ea, the god of wisdom, knows of Apsu’s plans:

He (Ea) poured sleep upon him (Apsu) so that he was sleeping soundly,
Put Apsu to sleep, drenched with sleep.
Vizier Mummu the counselor (was in) a sleepless daze.
He (Ea) unfastened his belt, took off his crown,
Took away his mantle of radiance and put it on himself. He held Apsu down and slew him. (Dalley)

Making his home inside the waters of Apsu, Ea and his wife, Damkina, conceive Marduk, cleverest of the clever, sage of the gods. Marduk is so powerful that he causes flood waves that disturb Tiamat and the elder gods:

They (the elder gods) were fierce, scheming restlessly night and day.
They were working up to war, growling and raging.
They convened a council and created conflict.
Mother Hubur, who fashions all things,
Contributed an unfaceable weapon: she bore giant snakes,
Sharp of tooth and unsparing of fang(?).
She filled their bodies with venom instead of blood.
She cloaked ferocious dragons with fearsome rays
And made them bear mantles of radiance, made them godlike. (Dalley)

The goddess Tiamat’s army of gods and monsters marches against the younger gods, who are all afraid to join the battle, except Marduk. On condition that he is appointed king of the gods, Marduk offers to fight Tiamat. The young gods agree to his terms, and Marduk fashions his weapons: a bow and arrow, a mace, lightning, a battle net, and seven winds. He mounts his storm chariot, which is drawn by a team of four horses: Slayer, Pitiless, Racer, and Flyer:

Face to face they came, Tiamat and Marduk, sage of the gods.
They engaged in combat, they closed for battle. The Lord spread his net and made it encircle her, To her face he dispatched the imhullu-wind, which had been behind:
Tiamat opened her mouth to swallow it,
And he forced in the imhullu-wind so that she could not close her lips.
Fierce winds distended her belly,
Her insides were constipated and she stretched her mouth wide.
He shot an arrow which pieced her belly,
Split her down the middle and split her heart,
Vanquished her and extinguished her life.
He threw down her corpse and stood on top of her. (Dalley)

Tiamat’s army flees before Marduk, who catches them in his net. Next Marduk slices Tiamat in two and forms the roof of the sky from one half and the earth from the other. From Tiamat’s spittle he makes wind and rain and from her eyes pour the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The gods crown Marduk as their king, and to relieve them of hard work Marduk creates humans as their servants, using blood from a slain monster. In gratitude the gods offer to build a home for Marduk. After two years his temple of E-sangila in Babylon has been created. The epic ends with a list of fifty honorific names of Marduk.

Gilgamesh. One of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, literary masterpiece from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh. According to Sumerian tradition, Gilgamesh (or as he is known in the earliest texts, Bilgames) was a ruler of the city of Uruk. His name is included on the Sumerian King List, composed around 2000 b.c.e., and, if the text is accurate, his position on that list places him around 2750 b.c.e. Nothing is known of this man, but later tradition describes him as a great warrior and builder of the walls of Uruk, which may have some basis in truth. Not long after 2700 b.c.e., Gilgamesh appeared in a list of gods. At the end of the third millennium b.c.e. memories of Gilgamesh were committed to writing in a series of short poems about his heroic achievements. Five of these Sumerian tales have survived and, as often with stories and epics, were known in antiquity by their incipit, that is, the first few words of their opening line: The Envoys of Akka; The Lord to the Living One’s Mountain; Hero in battle; In those days, in those far-off days; and The great wild bull is lying down.

The Envoys of Akka. Akka, the king of the city of Kish, demands that Uruk submit to him. Bilgames gathers an assembly of elders and argues that Uruk should go to war with Kish. After the elders reject his advice, Bilgames turns to the assembly of young men, who agree with their king. Akka and the forces of Kish lay siege to Uruk, whose army defeats the attackers. Bilgames recalls how Akka had once given him refuge and returns the favor by letting Akka go free.

The Lord to the Living One’s Mountain. Bilgames, in search of deeds of glory, journeys with his servant Enkidu and the young men of Uruk to the fabled Cedar Mountain in the east. On arrival Bilgames fells a cedar, waking Huwawa, the semi-divine guardian of the forest. After Bilgames tricks Huwawa into giving up his divine protection by promising him luxuries of the city, Enkidu cuts off the creature’s head.

Hero in battle. As Bilgames is sitting in judgment in Uruk, he is approached by Inana, the goddess of sexual love. The king rejects her, and Inana seeks vengeance by asking her father, the heaven god An, to send the Bull of Heaven (the constellation Taurus) to destroy Bilgames. An hesitates but eventually leads the Bull of Heaven to Uruk, where it eats all the vegetation and drinks the river dry. Inana watches as Bilgames and Enkidu kill the monster. The horns of the giant beast are dedicated to Inana in her temple.

In those days, in those far-off days. In her garden the goddess Inana has planted a willow tree from which she hopes one day to make furniture. Unfortunately, the tree becomes infested with evil creatures. Bilgames fells the tree and presents the wood to Inana. With some of the wood he makes two toys, which fall through a hole into the Netherworld, and Enkidu volunteers to fetch them. He is warned about the ruler of the Netherworld, the goddess Ereshkigal, who should be treated with respect, but he ignores the warning and is taken captive. The sun god Utu lifts the spirit of Enkidu from the Netherworld, and the spirit describes to Bilgames the gloomy conditions there, particularly for the dead who have no sons to provide offerings of water.

The great wild bull is lying down. Bilgames lies dying. Reviewing his heroic achievements, the gods question whether he should be made immortal. They decide Bilgames should die but on entering the Netherworld sit in judgment on the dead. He will, therefore, be commemorated among the living. Bilgames builds himself a tomb in the bed of the Euphrates River, and his household joins him there.

The Old Babylonian Version: Surpassing all other kings. Sometime early in the second millennium b.c.e. some of the various Gilgamesh traditions, Sumerian and perhaps Akkadian, oral or written, were probably transformed into a single composition. This Epic of Gilgamesh is known today as the Old Babylonian Version, but in ancient Mesopotamia it was called Surpassing all other kings. Written in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, it is not a translation of the Sumerian compositions but, instead, a unified poem focusing on the hero’s quest for immortality. The poem begins with a hymn of praise of Gilgamesh, who is presented as a superhuman, powerful oppressor of his people. In answer to the people’s prayers for help, the gods create Enkidu as a match for Gilgamesh in strength. This Enkidu is different from the earlier character in the Sumerian tales, where he is Bilgames’s servant. Initially, he is a wild man, hairy and animal-like. However, after seven days of making love with a temple prostitute, being bathed and clothed and consuming human food—bread and beer—he is transformed into a man worthy of meeting Gilgamesh. The two become friends and set out together to achieve fame by journeying to the Cedar Forest to do battle with Huwawa, whom they kill after initial hesitation. Enkidu dies, perhaps because he has helped in the killing of Huwawa or because he has completed the task of divert-

ing Gilgamesh to heroic activities befitting a king. Another innovation in the story line is that Gilgamesh is consumed with grief for his friend. Faced with the reality of death, he seeks not the sort of immortality achieved through fame but everlasting life itself. After a long journey Gilgamesh finds Uta-napishti, who has received immortality from the gods after he and his family survived the Flood. At this point in the story the tablets containing the Old Babylonian Version are fragmentary.

He who saw the deep. In the centuries following the Old Babylonian period, knowledge of the Epic of Gilgamesh spread into Anatolia, Syria, and the Levant. Fragments of the epic in Akkadian, Hittite, and Hurrian adaptations have been found. Dating to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries b.c.e., they incorporate material not included in the Old Babylonian Version and are part of the later, so-called Standard Version. Late in the second millennium b.c.e. the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to have become stabilized in form. Tradition credits this edition to a scribe called Sin-leqe-unnini, who lived around 1200 b.c.e. The text of this version is known mainly from seventh century b.c.e. copies in the library of the Assyrian king Ashur-banipal (668 - circa 627 b.c.e.) at Nineveh, but parts have been found at other sites, such as Nimrud, Assur, Babylon, and Uruk. In total the epic runs to eleven tablets with an appendix on a twelfth.

The Standard Version. This version starts with a summary of Gilgamesh’s achievements. He has both strength and wisdom—the essential attributes of a king. The prologue addresses the reader (not a listener) and says to inspect Gilgamesh’s building works, especially the great wall around Uruk, and then to find the chest containing a tablet of lapis lazuli inscribed with the tale of Gilgamesh and read it. The poet emphasizes at every opportunity the hardships that Gilgamesh had to face to complete his journey.

Journey to the Cedar Forest. The story proper starts as in the Old Babylonian Version. Gilgamesh is oppressing his people, and they pray to the gods, who answer with the creation of Enkidu as a rival to Gilgamesh. The story of the adventure to the Cedar Forest appears to locate it in the mountains of Lebanon, while in the Sumerian story it seems to be in the closer Zagros range, to the east of Mesopotamia. The purpose of the journey is expanded; the battle with the giant, now called Humbaba, is described as an attempt to destroy evil. It also appears that Enkidu knows killing Humbaba will bring down upon his slayer the wrath of the gods, but, nonetheless, he urges on the hesitant Gilgamesh. As an attempt to appease the gods, Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut some of the great cedars to make a door for the temple in Nippur and then head back to Uruk.

Defeating the Bull of Heaven. Back in Uruk, Gilgamesh washes and dresses in his finery, attracting the attention of the goddess Ishtar, who offers him marriage. Gilgamesh, however, rejects her and lists her various lovers, all of whom died. The furious Ishtar rushes to her father, the heaven god Anu and demands that he send the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh. Anu hesitates because the Bull would bring famine and destroy the world, but after Ishtar offers to feed the people from the stores in her temple, Anu allows the Bull of Heaven to attack Uruk, and the creature’s snorting opens up chasms into which the people of Uruk fall. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull. As a final insult to the goddess, Enkidu tears off the Bull’s haunch and hurls it at Ishtar, who is standing on the city wall.

The Death of Enkidu. After a great celebratory banquet, Enkidu (according to the Hittite version) learns in a dream that the gods have decided he must die. After a twelve-day sickness, he dies. Gilgamesh buries his friend and erects a statue in his honor. Devastated by his friend’s death and his own inevitable end, he begins a journey to find the secret of immortality. He meets a scorpion man and his wife, who try to dissuade him, but he journeys deeper into the darkness at the edge of the world before emerging into a garden with trees covered in jewels. Here, Gilgamesh meets a divine tavern keeper called Siduri who also tries to persuade him not to go on. Eventually, however, she tells him how to reach the immortal Uta-napishti. By using a boatman, the hero crosses the Waters of Death and is greeted by Uta-napishti who explains why men have to die by recounting the story of the Flood.

The Flood. It is recognized that the Flood story was not part of the original epic and is drawn from an independent story, the myth of Atra-hasis. Having explained that the gods made men mortal to prevent them from becoming noisy and disturbing the natural order, which caused the gods to send the flood originally, Uta-napishti tests Gilgamesh: if Gilgamesh can stay awake for seven nights, he will prove he is worthy of immortality. But Gilgamesh falls asleep, and Uta-napishti’s wife bakes a loaf of bread each night and places it under the sleeping hero’s cheek. When he wakes, Gilgamesh sees seven loaves bearing his cheek impression and realizes that his goal of immortality is unreachable. However, Uta-napishti feels sorry for him and tells Gilgamesh about a plant that causes rejuvenation. The hero picks the plant from the bottom of the sea, but, while bathing in a pool, he loses it to a snake that immediately sloughs its skin as it is renewed. By recognizing that he cannot cheat death, Gilgamesh has achieved wisdom. He journeys back to Uruk, and the poet brings the story full circle with the same description of Uruk that began the epic— a description of the ordered world of a city and its king.

The twelfth tablet, which is a later addition to the Standard Version, is a translation of part of the Sumerian composition In those days, in those far-off days, in which Gilgamesh meets the spirit of Enkidu.

The First Millennium b.c.e.. The literary creations of the first millennium b.c.e. are generally revisions of those created in the second millennium, or they deal with the role and image of the king. One exception, however, is the Poem of Erra, esteemed in antiquity, a masterpiece of Akkadian epic literature. Although the last known dated cuneiform tablet is an astronomical text from Babylon in 75 C.E., a small number of Sumerian texts of the sort used in scribal training continued to be copied until the early centuries C.E.


Jean Bottro, “Akkadian Literature: An Overview,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), IV: 2293-2303.

Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1989),

Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (London: Allen Lane, 1999).

Piotr Michalowski, “The Earliest Scholastic Tradition,” Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B. C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 451-456.

Michalowski, “Sumerian Literature: An Overview,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, IV: 2279-2291.

Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).


views updated May 18 2018




Palace Literati and the Regulated Poem. Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626-649) had an excellent understanding of literature and was tolerant and supportive of the literati. Therefore, several groups of palace literati emerged, competing with each other to extol the great successes of the Tang dynasty (618-907). The result was the so-called palace style, which emphasized antithesis and rhetoric. Palace literati wrote in an ornate style and contributed a great deal to the poetic form known as lushi, a “regulated,” eight-line poem written in couplets. Each of its eight lines has five or seven characters. In a couplet each character in the odd-numbered line should be antithetical to the character in the same position in the even-numbered line, both in tone and meaning. The last characters in each couplet should rhyme in a soft tone, and there are also rules governing the rhyming of the other characters. Du Shenyan (circa 645 - 708), Song Zhiwen (circa 656 - circa 713), and Shen Quanqi (circa 656 - 673) are representative of the palace literati. Du’s poems are well knit and vigorous. One of his regulated poems, “He jinling lucheng zaochun wangyou” (Sightseeing in Early Spring: Echoing Official Lu of Jinling), has been called the best regulated five-character poem of the time. Song Zhiwen and Shen Quanqi expressed their true feelings in their poetry, avoided the awkward expression of the regulated five-character poem, and perfected the regulated seven-character poem. Before Song and Shen, regulated poems were not accepted by the public.

The “Four Talents” of the Early Tang. Four young and handsome geniuses of the early Tang era became known as the “Four Talents”: Lu Zhaolin (630-680), author of Youyou ziji (The Collection of Deep Sorrow); Luo Bin-wang (circa 640 - circa 684), author of Luo Binwang wenji (The Collection of Luo Binwang); Wang Bo (650-676), author of Wang Zian wenji (The Collection of Wang Zian); and Yang Jiong (650-693), author of Yingchuanji (The Collection of the Full River). Luo began writing poems at the age of seven. When he was only ten Yang passed the civil examination for teenagers, and the following year he entered the Hongwenguan (Grand Literary Academy). The “Four Talents” were confident, ambitious, and unre-strained by convention, but none was able to secure a high position in the government. These career failures affected their writing. They expressed the feelings of lower-class people who have been suppressed and anticipate changes. They explored broad social themes and wrote about their goals of contributing to society. They attacked court literature

for its devotion to rhetoric and decorative perfection, calling it lifeless, without passion and vitality. Two long poems, Lu’s Changan guyi (The Ancient Implication of Chang’an) and Luo’s Jingdipian (The Imperial Capital), deny the values of noble society. Luo and Yang, both of whom served in the army, wrote many poems depicting the western frontier and wilderness. They were the pioneers of Tang frontier poetry. Luo and Wang wrote many regulated five-character poems, fully demonstrating their individualism in works such as “Zaiyu yongchan” (On the Cicada: In Prison) by Luo and “Song Dushaofu zhiren Shuzhou” (See Junior Du to the Appointment at Shuzhou) by Wang. The “Four Talents” also absorbed the elements of ancient verse (fu) mixed with rhythmical prose (pian) to create a new form that allowed them to express their emotions and that was embraced by the later poets. They thus initiated poetic reform though they did not make any theoretical contribution to the movement.

Chen Ziang. Chen Ziang (659-700) truly initiated a new tide in Chinese literature. He criticized flowery poetic style and correctly pointed out that the problem of the cur-rent style resulted from its overemphasis on form. His remedy was to revive the vigorous and heroic literary style of the Han (206 B.C.E-220 C.E.) and Wei (386-535) dynas-ties. Chen’s poems are notable for his pursuit of integrity and the romantic dream. The thirty-eight poems titled Ganyu (Empathetic Experiences) are his most widely acclaimed work. His “Deng Youzhoutai ge” (Upon the Yuzhou Terrace) is known by nearly all educated Chinese.

Great Tang Poets. The Tang era is known as the golden age of Chinese classical poetry. The Complete Tang Poetry in its present version includes almost fifty thousand poems written by more than 2,200 poets. In addition to the famous poets Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770), the Tang period produced many other great poets, including Zhang Shui (667-731), Zhang Jiuling (678-740), Wang Zhihuan (688-742), Meng Haoran (689-740), Wang Changling (690P-756?), Li Jin (690-753?), Cui Hao (?-754), Wang Wei (700P-761), Gao Shi (704-765), Cen Can (715-769), Yuan Jie (719-772), Liu Changqing (? - circa 790), Wei Yingwu (circa 737 - circa 791), Gu Kuang (?-806), Meng Jiao (751-814), Zhang Ji (circa 766 - circa 830), Han Yu (768-824), Wang Jian (768-833), Bai Juyi (772-846), Liu Yuxi (772-842), Liu Zhongyuan (773-819), Yao He (circa 775 - circa 846), Yuan Zhen (779-831), Jia Dao (779-843), Li He (790-816), Du Mu (803-853), Li Shangyin (813-858), Wei Zhuang (836-910), and Wen Tingyun (circa 813 - 870). They produced many poems that enjoyed great popularity and are still recited. Zhang Jiuling was a great prime minister during the early Tang era, as well as an important poet. He also patronized several great poets, including Wang Wei, Meng Haoran, and Du Fu. Zhang’s poems, which express his feelings metaphorically by transplanting his emotions to objects and natural scenes, paved the way for the poetic styles of Wang and Meng. The reclusive Meng was the first Tang poet to write a great many landscape poems, developing Zhang Jiuling’s style and melding his feelings with nature. His best-known verse is “Spring Dawn.” Wang had many talents. He was an accomplished musician, an innovative painter, a great calligrapher, and a master of poetry in all its forms. Called the “Great Master of the Five-Character Quatrain,” he wrote more poems in that form than any other Chinese poet. Wang’s idylls were especially influential on later poets. One of his idylls, “Deer Enclosure,” depicts a quiet, secluded, peaceful valley. Cui Hao was a friend of Wang Wei and is often ranked with him. His poems are also heroic and lofty. Li Bai admired Cui’s “Yellow Crane Tower,” which has been called the “best seven-character quatrain of the Tang.” Wang Zhihuan and Wang Changling were well known for their frontier poems. Wang Zhihuan, who quit his official positions at the county level, left only six poems—all strikingly impressive regulated quatrains, of which the best known is “Climbing the Stork Pavilion.” Wang Changling was regarded by his contemporaries as “the supreme poet of the empire” and was friends with almost all the well-known poets of his time. His poems address three themes: the frontier, parting, and unhappy palace women. One of his poems is “Reproach in the Women’s Chamber.” Du Mu liked to comment on his-tory and wrote many oft-quoted lines in poems such as “Passing by the Huaqing Palace,” “Red Cliff,” “Anchor at Qinhuai,” and “A Mountain Walk.” The extremely sensitive Li Shangyin wrote deep, sad, lonely poems such as “Without Title.”


The five-character quatrain has been popular since the early years of the Tang dynasty (618-907), and many well-known poems in this form have been memorized by generation after generation of Chinese people. Children are able to recite many ancient five-character quatrains, often without understanding them. The following poems are among the most popular:

Wang Zhihuan (688-742), “Climbing the Stork Pavilion”

The white sun leaning on the mountain disappears,

The Yellow River flows on into the sea;

To stretch your gaze a thousand leagues,

Climb up still another story.

Meng Haoran (689-740), “Spring Dawn”

Asleep in spring unaware of dawn,

And everywhere hear the birds in song.

At night the sound of wind and rain,

Youll know how much from the flowers gone.

Li Bai (701-762), “Quiet Night Thought”

Before my bed the moonlight glitters

Like frost upon the ground.

I look up to the mountain moon,

Look down and think of home.

Li Shen (772-846), “Sympathy for the Peasants”

When crops are worked at noon,

It is sweat that moistens the soil.

Who stops to think, before a bowl of food,

That every grain comes only through long toil?

Sources: Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Zhang Tingchen and Wei Bosi, trans., 100 Tang Poems (Beijing: Chinese Translation Company / Hong Kong: Business Press, 1994).

The New Music Bureau Ballads. Around 755, when Mongol general An Lushan revolted against the Tang dynasty, Du Fu adopted the Music Bureau style, an old ballad tradition associated with social protest, to expose the problems of the day, in effect initiating what became known as the New Music Bureau movement. Later, the realistic poets Zhang Ji, Wang Jian, Yuan Zhen, and Bai Juyi, who were all government officials, explicitly raised the concept of New Music Bureau poetry and initiated a movement to promote it through theory as well as practice. Purposely

using poetry as a tool to advocate their political ideas, they chose simple and plain words to describe serious social issues and made their poems natural, smooth, and readable. The four poets echoed each other’s work. Their movement reached its peak around 809 when Bai Juyi created what he termed the Xinyuefu (New Music Bureau Bal-lads), narrative poems dramatizing what he saw and felt.

The Prose Movement. Toward the end of the Tang dynasty the master essayist Han Yu initiated a prose movement to exalt Confucianism over Daoism and Buddhism, which was totally accepted in the Song era (960-1279). Han believed that scholars should learn the way (Dad) and the writing style from ancient prose. He urged writers to replace cliches, dead words, and overworked metaphors with the purity and vividness exhibited in the classics of the Han dynasties and the period before the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.). Han, who paid great attention to sentence structure and organization, wrote many pieces of theoretical prose with strict structure and logic but no great literary value, including “On the Origin of the Way,” “On the Origin of Destruction,” and “A Talk on Instruction.” Yet, his short critical essays are compelling and touching. Also a master essayist, Liu Zongyuan (773-819) did not belong to Han’s circle and was much less influential than Han, but he made an important contribution to the prose movement. His prose theory was similar to Han’s, but Liu accepted Buddhism. He stressed the need for depth of ideas and implicit, but subtle, expression and invented a kind of prose that is more literary and more lyrical. His nature essays, such as “Eight Sketches of Yongzhou,” are beautiful and broke with the tradition that the themes of essays should be limited to politics and philosophy. His best-known essays include “The Snake Catcher,” “Song Qing,” “Camel-Back Guo,” “The Nurseryman,” and “The Carpenter.”

The Rise of the Marvel and Colloquial Tales. The term chuanqi (marvel tales) was coined by Yuan Zhen, whose “Story of Yingying [Little Oriole]” was originally titled “A Marvel Tale.” Marvel tales evolved from zhiguai (mysterious records), accounts of unexplained, supernatural events, and were influenced by the writing style of history books, which often used fictional methods to attract readers. While mysterious records are religious and superstitious rather than literary, the marvel tale is a kind of short story with plot, character development, and psychological analysis. The appearance of marvel tales during the Tang dynasty marked the beginning of the Chinese novel. Many popular marvel tales— such as “The Ancient Mirror,” “The Story of Li Yi,” “The Story of a Pillow,” “The Story of a Sing-song Girl,” “The Story of Liu Yi,” and “The Story of Huo Xiaoyu”—emerged during this period and later became source materials for novelists and dramatists in the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644).

The Development of Lyrics. Ci (lyrics) are a kind of folk song, or poetry in a broad sense. Ancient poems were closely associated with music, but with the decline of old music they gradually became known as a literary form. During the Tang dynasty the music imported from Central Asia, combined with that of ancient China, became known as yanyue (feast music). The words to these songs were written in lines of unequal length to fit the rhythms and structure offcast music. During the late Tang, Five Dynasties (907-960), and Ten Kingdoms (902-979) periods, these lyrics became an independent poetic form. The works of Wen Tingyun, Wei Zhuang, and Li Yu (937-978) marked the maturity of the lyric form. The first group of five lyrics set to “Pusaman” (Bodhisattva Barbarian) is Wen’s best-known work, while Wei is known for a second group of five lyrics for the same tune. Li, the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975), wrote several well-known poems, including lyrics for the tunes “Yumeiren” (The Beautiful Lady Yu), “Pozhenzi” (Dance of the Cavalry), and “Langtaosha” (Ripples Sifting Sand).

The Song Neoclassical Movement. During the early years of the Song dynasty, most poets followed the styles of Tang poets Bai Juyi, Jia Dao, and Li Shangyin. Writers of lyrics followed the Tang style as well. Many progressive literati were not happy about this literary situation. Poetry-prose writers Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) and Su Shi (1037-1101) started a neoclassical movement for literary reform that launched not only their careers but also those of important poets such as Mei Yaochen (1002— 1060), Su Shunqin (1008-1048), and Wang Anshi (1021-1086). Ouyang had developed a great admiration for Tang essayist Han Yu, echoed Han’s call for a return to the ancient style, and emphasized the importance of simplicity, vigor, rationality, and tolerance. Su Shi represented the greatest achievement of the neoclassical movement in Song literature.

Lyrics of the Song Era. During the Song dynasty there emerged many great lyric writers, including not only Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi but also Yan Shu (991-1055), Liu Yong (flourished 1034), Qin Guan (1049-1100), He Zhu (1052-1125), Zhou Bangyan (1056-1121), Li Qingzhao (1084 -circa 1151), Lu You (1125-1210), Xin Qiji (1140-1207), Chen Liang (1143-1194), Jiang Kui (1155-1221), and Wu Wenying (circa 1200 - circa 1260). Lyrics of the Song period may be divided into two groups, one characterized by its grace and tenderness and the other by its vigor. The first group includes lyrics by Liu Yong, Qin Guan, Zhou Bangyan, and Li Qingzhao. Their lyrics are mostly devoted to love and sorrow at parting; Li is the best poet of this school. The second group includes the works of the “Three Sus”—Su Xun (1009-1106) and his sons Su Shi and Su Che (1039-1112)—and nationalist poets Lu You and Xin Qiji. Lu was a prolific writer who destroyed virtually all the poems he wrote before his middle age. He excelled in several verse forms, and more than ten thousand poems are included in his eighty-five volumes of Jiannan shigao (Poetic Manuscripts of Jiannan) and fifty volumes of Weman wenji (Collection from Weihan). The style of his poems was first influenced by the scholarly School of Jiangxi, then became expansive and vigorous, and eventually developed a tranquil tone. Patriotic sentiments permeated his lyrics. Some critics consider Lu’s seven-character regulated poems as good as Du Fu’s. Among Lu’s best works are “For My Sons” and “Expressing Indignation.” Xin’s literary style and life experience were similar to Lu’s. Xin was determined to recapture North China from the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), and his six hundred lyrics express his longing for national unity and his frustration at the Song dynasty’s failure to achieve this goal. Xin also wrote fresh and romantic landscape lyrics, significantly contributing to the divorce of lyrics from their musical background. His best poem is probably “Written on a Wall En Route to Poshan.” After the Southern Song dynasty fell to the Mongols in 1279, patriotic literati such as Wen Tianxiang, who remained loyal to the Song while a prisoner of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, used their poems to express their sadness and concern about their nation.

The School of Jiangxi and Its Detractors. The “Four Scholars of the Su School” followed in the style of Su Shi. One of them, Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), went on to develop his own poetic style and founded the Jiangxi School, which stressed the importance of book knowledge as the foundation of poetic writing. Attempting to develop a method of composition that would allow the creative transmutation of ancient literature into contemporary poetry, Huang advocated the techniques of “changing the bones” and “snatching the embryo”—that is, borrowing images and phrases from past writers but altering the meaning or expressing the ideas of other writers but changing their words. He also tried to avoid politics and social issues and believed in detaching emotion from the artistic process. The Jiangxi School prevailed until the new Chengzhaiti (Style of Honest Study) was developed by Yang Wanli (1127-1206). This style is characterized by natural and humorous language and a philosophical view of life and nature. Yang, Fan Chengda (1126-1193), Lu You (1125-1210), and You Mao (flourished 1170) were called the “Four Masters of Restoration.” In his Changlang Shihua (Poetry Talks from Changlang) Yan Yu (flourished 1200) praised Tang poetry and criticized the Jiangxi School, calling on poets to reinstate the magic quality of spirituality in poetry. His work had profound influence on later poets. Reacting against the Jiangxi School, many lower-class literati—including Yan Yu and the other poets called the “Four Souls of Yongjia”—divorced themselves from politics and became itinerant poets sponsored by a rich merchant, Chen Qi. They became a dominant force in Chinese poetry.

The Poetry of the Yuan Dynasty. The few surviving poems from the Liao dynasty, which ruled an empire on the northern border of China in 916-1115, create a poetic transition from the rationality of the Song poets to the emotion that characterizes the poems written during the Yuan era. The best-known Liao poems are ten works in Huixinyuan (The Court for the Returning Heart), written by Empress Yide (1040-1075). The most important legacy of the Jin dynasty is the literary criticism and poetry of Yuan Haowen (1190-1257). He compiled Zhongzhouji (The Collection of the Central Plains), an anthology of works by 240 Jin poets. During the Yuan dynasty, poets of the North such as Yelii Chucai (1190-1244), Hao Jing (1223-1275), and Liu Yin (1249-1293) followed in the Liao and Jin traditions, writing bold, unconstrained, and artistically rough works. Poets of the South included the “Four Masters of the Yuan”: Deng Mu (1247-1306), Qiu Yuan (1247-1326), Dai Biaoyuan (1244-1310), and Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Among them, Zhao was the most influential. His poems were written in the styles of the Han, Wei (386-535), and Six Dynasties (220-589) periods and were as subtle and beautiful as his calligraphy.

Song and Yuan Fiction. The short and medium-length novels of the Song and the Yuan dynasties can be divided into two types: vernacular and classic. The vernacular novel is closely related to the folk art of storytelling and developed alongside the growth of cities. Such fiction portrayed the lives, taste, and ideas of the urban lower class and was more popular than the classic novel, which appealed mainly to the upper class. Only twenty to thirty storytellers’ scripts of the Song and the Yuan periods have survived. Among the most popular of these vernacular stories are “The Jade Worker” and “Fifteen Strings of Cash.” Such stories have complex plots and realistic narratives and employ popular language that is lively, simple, and witty. Unlike the “marvel tales” of the Tang dynasty, most Song classic novels, especially the early ones, were neither imaginative nor skillfully written. Influenced by neo-Confucianism, the authors of these works were more concerned with morality and justice than with character development and psychological analysis. Notable exceptions include Song classic novels such as Jiaohongji (The Story of Charming Red) by an unknown author and Yijianzhi (The Records of Eliminating the Toughest), a work of 420 volumes by Hong Mai (1123-1202).

Literary Restoration. The despotism and political-cultural suppression of the early Ming era resulted in the executions or suicides of well-known literati and led to a change in poetic style, as represented by the pessimistic poems of Gao Qi (1336-1374), who was executed by the Ming government. Song Lian (1310-1381) and other poets supported by the imperial court promoted orthodox literature that placed ideology over aesthetics. They were followed by the so-called Three Yangs, who developed the Taigeti (Style of Platform and Pavilion) in court poetry and prose, which voiced the official ideology of neo-Confucianism and focused on the lives and social activities of bureaucrats and the nobility. By the middle of the Ming era, economic development and a relative relaxation of political and cultural suppression provided the conditions for literary change. The “Former Seven Youths,” including Li Mengyang (1473-1530) and He Jingming (1483-1521), and the “Four Geniuses of the Middle Wu,” including Tang Yan (1470-1524) and Zhu Yunming (1460-1526), launched a revival in poetry. They criticized the “Style of Platform and Pavilion” and neo-Confucianism and tried to liberate literature from ideological and political control, advocating the role of literature in expressing individual feelings and desires. Their efforts were attacked by the orthodox Tang-Song School, including Gui Youguang (1507-1571),

whose influence was soon challenged by the “Latter Seven Youths,” including Li Panlong (1514-1570) and Wang Shizhen (1526-1590).

Great Ming Novels. Writers of the Ming era produced many important long novels. Typically episodic in nature, they relate the adventures of a large number of characters in a string of loosely connected events. The thematic range of Ming novels is broad, including historical romances, chivalric tales, ghost stories, social satires, and love stories. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, originally attributed to Luo Guanzhong (circa 1330 - circa 1400) and extensively revised by later hands, chronicles in great detail the fall of the Han Empire and the rise and decline of the three competing kingdoms that followed it. Written in a combination of vernacular and classic language, the novel holds its characters to a clear-cut moral standard. The Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Chengen (circa 1506 - 1582), is a mythological, comic fantasy based on the seventeen-year-long journey of the Tang monk Xuanzang (596-664) to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. Four disciples with superhuman abilities accompany and protect the monk from all sorts of demons and monsters that threatened his life at various points of his pilgrimage. The true protagonist of the novel is the most capable, intelligent, and faithful disciple, the “Monkey King,” who—assisted by other disciples and various deities—invariably rescues the monk. Among the various versions of the anonymous Water Margins,the best is the one made by Shi Naian during the late Yuan and early Ming periods. The novel tells the story of a band of 108 colorful, daredevil bandit-heroes—men and women—who have been forced by unjust officials to rebel against the government. Celebrating loyalty and the code of brotherhood, the novel is written in northern colloquial language—fresh, lively, and humorous. Gold Vase Plum, by the pseudonymous “Scoffing Scholar of Lanling,” is considered the greatest pornographic novel of imperial China. (The Chinese title, Jinpingmei, is made up of the name of the three main female characters.) Through skillfully bor-rowed plots, materials, and several characters from Water Margins, Gold Vase Plum tells the story of a wealthy merchant and his sexual adventures and exploits. With brutal realism and satiric style, it also depicts the corrupt life and customs of Chinese society. Sanyan (Three Words), a collection of short novels compiled by Feng Menglong (1574-1646), comprises Yushi mingy an (Instructive Words to Enlighten the World), Jingshi tongyan (Popular Words to Admonish the World), and Xingshi hengyan (Lasting Words to Awaken the World). These works are derived from storytellers’ scripts of the Song and the Yuan dynas-ties. Focusing on friendship, love, passion, fidelity, and corruption, the novels are fraught with moral lessons and admonitions. Ling Mengchu (1580-1644) followed the style of Three Words when he wrote books 1 and 2 of Paian jingqi (Striking the Table in Amazement at the Wonders)—known collectively as Erpai (Two Strikes). Two Strikes depicts more vividly than Three Words the urban social consciousness and resentment of tradition and corruption. Other notable fiction of the Ming era includes Fengshen yanyi (The History of Granting God Titles) and Xingshiyinyuanzhuan (Shocking Love Legends).

Li Zhi and the Schools of Gongan and Jingling. In his Fenshu (Books to Be Burned) Li Zhi (1527-1602) became the first Chinese scholar to criticize feudal and traditional values, challenging orthodox ideology and the authorities. His most influential literary theory is “the heart of a child,” in which he argues that the best and most genuine essays come from an innate, original self. Anything that is not genuine should be avoided, and the genuine should not be corrupted by learning and society. Li Zhi was greatly admired by the three Yuan brothers of Gongan, most notably Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610), who developed the School of Gongan, which advocated the free expression of “natural spirit.” The School of Jingling, which included Zhong Xing (1574-1624), continued to promote creativity and “exclusively express natural spirit.” These two schools and Li Zhi developed the prose style that began to trans-form conventional Chinese writing into modern writing. The last great Ming essayist was Zhang Dai (1597-1679), whose many talents also included music and dance.


Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century (New York: Grove, 1965).

Jonathan Chaves, ed. and trans., The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yuan, Ming, and Ch’ing Dynasties (1279-1911) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, eds., Sunflower Splendor: Three Thou-sand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).

Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Mair, ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

Stephen Owen, ed. and trans., An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Beginning to 1911 (New York: Norton, 1996).

Burton Watson, ed. and trans., The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

Zhang Peiheng and Luo Yuming, eds., Zhongguo wenxueshi (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 1996).


views updated May 17 2018


Few events have had a more immediate impact on the cultural life of the United States than the Great Depression. When the stock market crashed in October 1929, American literature was in the closing days of a now legendary renaissance, a period in which some of the most significant writers of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost, to name but a few—first came to prominence. Yet, despite the fact that many of these figures expressed sincere hostility toward the commercial values prevalent in the culture of their day, the writers of the 1920s were deeply dependent on the booming economy of the decade, often for their subject matter as well as for material support. The economic upheaval of the thirties changed that situation fundamentally. Not only did the stagnant economy shake up the publishing industry, leading to important, long-term changes in the literary profession, widespread and persistent suffering forced American writers to question their basic assumptions about the United States and its cultural and political values and brought new ideas and voices to the fore. In the words of the prominent critic Edmund Wilson, "the economic crisis" had been "accompanied by a literary one." As a result, the Great Depression gave rise to a new cohort of important American writers. John Dos Passos, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Richard Wright all did their most important writing in the thirties. Oftentimes their work spoke directly to the social and political conflicts that had been created by the era's economic catastrophe.


Perhaps the most evident and controversial feature of Depression-era writing was the self-conscious politicization of literature. For many American writers, as Alfred Kazin explained at the time, the Depression was "an education in shock." Struggling to come to grips with the stagnation and confusion they saw throughout American society, many assumed that capitalism and liberal democracy had not merely suffered setbacks, but had been proven conclusive failures. Many looked to communism or socialism for the promise of a better world, and, hoping to make art more than a diversion or a refuge, many writers sought to make their work a useful tool for improving society. In the words of the radical writer Joseph Freeman, they strove to overcome "the dichotomy between poetry and politics," so that "art and life" might be "fused."

One consequence of that politicization was that throughout the thirties the American literary world was divided by fierce battles between contending factions on the left and by antagonistic theories of literature. At the extreme end of the spectrum stood writers associated with the Communist Party who, advocating a controversial program of "proletarian literature," demanded that art become "a class weapon." Looking to the Soviet Union for the model of a rationally planned society, these writers celebrated the resilience of the working class and extolled the solidarity, enlightenment, and "revolutionary élan" promised by communism. In novels such as Michael Gold's Jews without Money and Clara Weatherwax's Marching! Marching!, or in plays like Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty, they described a capitalist world that was exploitative, unjust, and corrupt, and told stories of how their long-suffering protagonists came to see the truth and join the struggle. Their underlying vision was always revolutionary, and their stories typically ended with the promise of cataclysm and violent transformation. "O workers' Revolution," Gold's novel concludes, "You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit."

Despite the fervor of its proponents, however, the movement for "proletarian" literature never took deep hold in American letters. It was most successful in the field of drama, where the revolutionary demand for immediacy and action revitalized the theater and nurtured such writers as Odets and directors as Harold Clurman, whose influence would be felt long after the 1930s ended. Proletarian poetry, on the other hand, and, in particular, proletarian fiction, where the movement staked its greatest hopes, were far less successful. With the exception of Jews without Money, which went through eleven printings when it was published in 1930, very few proletarian novels found a wide readership, and most lacked the genuine power and eloquence of Gold's often nostalgic account of growing up in the tenements of New York's Lower East Side. The best-selling novels of the thirties—historical romances like Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with The Wind—dealt with the Depression in a different way, by allowing readers to escape into another time, where spunky individuals triumphed over great adversity. Proletarian writers, who preferred to stress the significance of class struggle, never reached a popular audience. Nor were they successful with sophisticated readers, who were often offended by the dogmatic simplicity of novels that tended to see workers as inherently good and the bourgeoisie as evil. After 1935, proletarian literature died a quick death, the victim of both Communist Party policy (which, following the directives of the Soviet Comintern, turned away from advocating revolutionary struggle and toward supporting a "Popular Front" of communists, socialists, and liberals against fascism) and the success of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Radical writers now spoke not of proletarian, but of "people's literature," and claimed that the central issue of the day was not class struggle, but the contest between fascism and democracy.

Yet, though a small and short-lived phenomenon, the proletarian movement exercised disproportionate influence over the literature of the 1930s because radical writers spoke with energy and conviction when so many of their peers were confused. For many writers, the misery of the Depression made literature seem a useless luxury. Defenders of "proletarian" literature like Gold—who was a harshly polemical critic as well as a novelist—provided an emphatic answer to this anxiety. They repudiated the subtlety and literary sophistication that characterized much of American writing in the 1920s and demanded instead that literature deal "with the real conflicts of men and women." Almost regardless of their political allegiance, American writers tended to share that conviction and to be impressed by the commitment of the era's radicals. Many worried that in the pursuit of technical excellence, American literature had become too preoccupied with aesthetic problems and too narrowly focused on the concerns of a small and highly privileged segment of society. Indeed, shaken by the Depression and increasingly troubled over the course of the decade by the growing threat of fascism in Europe, many writers who had achieved renown during the 1920s adopted left-leaning political views and shifted their work to follow suit. In Tender is the Night, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to write about characters who longed for glamour and wealth, but he now saw their world less as the romantic vision he described in The Great Gatsby and more as a crumbling edifice built atop a structure of economic exploitation. Similarly, in his novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway turned from the individual alienation he had portrayed in such "lost generation" novels as The Sun Also Rises and now celebrated his hero's commitment to "absolute brotherhood" in the struggle against fascism. Many of their contemporaries followed a similar path. Even Wallace Stevens, perhaps the most aristocratic and purely aesthetic writer of his generation, declared in 1935 that he hoped his poetry was "heading left."

The proletarian movement also helped inspire a widespread interest in the literature of social protest by writers who were less radical or less doctrinaire than the artists associated with the Communist Party. Among the most impressive literary achievements of the decade, for example, was John Dos Passos's trilogy of novels, U.S.A. Dos Passos's massive effort to depict the whole of American civilization was far more complex and politically ambiguous than any example of proletarian literature, but it shared the proletarian writers' sense that American society had been profoundly damaged by capitalism and harshly divided along class lines. "They have the dollars the guns the armed forces the power plants," Dos Passos charged with grim satisfaction, "all right we are two nations." Something similar was true of the most explosive work of the decade, Richard Wright's bestselling novel Native Son, which sold 215,000 copies in the first three weeks after it was published and went on to become an extraordinary best seller. Wright's portrait of the simmering Black anger exemplified by his protagonist Bigger Thomas deliberately rejected Communist Party orthodoxy in favor of Bigger's dreams of "personal" freedom and self-assertion. But Wright's career had been nurtured invaluably by the proletarian movement, and his work reflected genuine sympathy for the Marxian vision of interracial, working-class solidarity. In his most utopian moments, Bigger imagines himself "standing in the midst of a crowd of men, white men and black men and all men" as "the sun's rays melted away the many differences, the colors, the clothes, and drew what was common and good upward toward the sun."


Other prominent writers sought to address "the real conflicts of men and women" in still more direct ways, embracing a documentary realist style of writing that aimed to transmit true reports of Depression conditions. The atmosphere of crisis had created a great demand for reliable information about the suffering and the political attitudes of ordinary Americans, and throughout the decade a new genre of non-fictional literature flourished in which writers sought to answer that need by searching out representatives of the figure Franklin Delano Roosevelt had famously called "the forgotten man." In such works as Sherwood Anderson's Puzzled America, Louis Adamic's My America, and James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writers traveled the nation's back roads and hinterlands and reported to their readers about the neglected, real people they had found there.

Over the course of the 1930s, the desire to search out, to celebrate, and sometimes to sentimentalize ordinary people became an ever more prevalent feature of American literature. It was encouraged by the Popular Front and, more importantly, by the New Deal, which not only celebrated the common man, but which, through the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), paid writers to chronicle the nation's local cultures and regional differences. But the widespread literary yearning to connect with ordinary people and, as Michael Gold put it, plant "roots in something real," also reflected a more deep-seated reaction to the Depression. Believing that economic collapse had revealed the destructiveness of America's competitive society and the failure—or, still worse, the parasitism—of the nation's elite, many writers looked to plebian Americans for the vitality and good will that seemed otherwise absent from the national culture. Carl Sandburg brought this trend to its apotheosis when he published his much-loved book of poems The People, Yes in 1936. Likewise, believing that the Depression had revealed the emptiness and disorganization of urban civilization, many other writers searched for visions of deep-rooted, meaningful ways of life and found them in the nation's folkways and rural communities.

That search was evident in many places during the thirties, as writers eagerly sought out diverse folk cultures across the various regions of the nation. It was apparent, for example, in a new interest in stories by and about ethnic Americans, as such writers as James T. Farrell, Pietro DiDonato, Henry Roth, and William Saroyan chronicled the distinctive cultures of the nation's immigrant communities and their struggles to enter the American mainstream. It was still more evident in the new vogue for Southern literature. In his great novels of the 1930s—As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, and Light in AugustWilliam Faulkner created the era's most complex and tragically divided portrait of the South's unique cultural inheritance. But many other writers of the moment offered less ambivalent accounts. Among them was the movement of "Agrarian" writers led by Allan Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. Echoing the decade's left-wing writers, the Agrarians denounced America's industrial civilization, but against it they advocated a highly conservative vision of an "organic" society that they believed survived in Southern culture. Zora Neale Hurston's fiction focused on the exuberant vitality that Hurston perceived in the region's Black peasantry, but especially in her great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston also praised the distinctive folkways and communal life that persisted in the rural South. So, too, in varying degrees did a whole crop of new Southern writers, including James Agee, Carson McCullers, Erskine Caldwell, and, not least significantly, Margaret Mitchell.

The celebration of folk culture and of popular resilience took on its most emphatic form, however, in John Steinbeck's hugely successful novel The Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways the most representative of American literary works from the 1930s. Telling the epic tale of the "Okie" migration from the dust bowl of the southwest to southern California, The Grapes of Wrath is a protest novel like Dos Passos's U.S.A. and Wright's Native Son. It indicts the callousness of a social system that rendered millions homeless and that left hungry people to starve while farmers who could not sell their crops were forced to destroy them. And, at its ideological center, in a portrait of a government camp that offers Steinbeck's protagonists a brief respite in their hopeless search for home and work, it provided a defense of the New Deal programs that sought to address the nation's farm crisis. But the true heart of the novel lies in its stirring vision of the goodness and brotherhood among ordinary people struggling to survive. As Steinbeck's Ma Joad says in one of the novel's most celebrated lines, "We're the people—we go on."


In the long run, the most important achievement of American literature during the Great Depression may have been the way works by Steinbeck and Wright, Faulkner and Hurston, Gold and Dos Passos combined to create what the New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins called, in his praise of the Writers Project, a new "portrait of America." Over the course of the twentieth century, the United States had become an increasingly complex and culturally diverse society. But it was not until the 1930s that American literature began to reflect and, indeed, to glory in that diversity. In fact, one of the most significant literary consequences of the Great Depression was the way the atmosphere of crisis and, more importantly, the federal funding for the arts first provided by the New Deal, brought to prominence many new authors, from previously neglected segments of the population. During the 1930s, those writers contributed to the creation of a new, populist vision of America as, at its best, a multiethnic and fraternal society. But even after the Depression had passed and that populist vision had disappeared along with it, American literature would remain the broad based and diverse field that it had only first become in the thirties.



Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. 1961.

Bloom, James D. Left Letters: The Culture Wars of Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman. 1992.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. 1996.

Filreis, Alan. Modernism from Left to Right: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, and Literary Radicalism. 1994.

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U. S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941. 1993.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. 1942.

Klein, Marcus. Foreigners: The Making of American Literature, 1900–1940. 1982.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945. 1989.

Pells, Richard. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1973.

Rideout, Walter B. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society. 1956.

Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. 1973.

Szalay, Michael. New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State. 2000.

Sean McCann

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic