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American Literature: Down for the Count?

Is there an American literature?

Anis Shivani, writer and frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and other periodicals, says there is, and that increasingly, it stinks. He did not use the word stinks—his language was stronger, and the theme is oft repeated in his numerous published critiques— but you get the picture. Though I do not agree with all of Shivani’s assessments, I applaud that he stopped bashing Phillip Roth long enough to take up the question.

We all know the giants of American literature, whether we revel in their works or not: Bradstreet, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, Whitman, James, Dubois, Hemingway, Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hurston, Hughes and dozens of others come to mind. Blessedly, American authors often “pick up the torch” of their cultural predecessors. We see Hemingway’s influence in the works of Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver; we see all three in Richard Ford. There are smatterings of William Carlos Williams in Elizabeth Bishop, and there’s a bit of James and a lot of Hawthorne in Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy.

But what now? In the past decade, a generation of greats has passed: Vonnegut, Miller, Mailer, Salinger, Updike. Quo Vadis, American literature?

We are carried into the twenty-first century’s early decades by Henry Louis Gates, by Danzy Senna,  and Gish Jen who (like all good authors) know their history, their sociology, their stuff. Sadly, American literature in the hands of American critics is still too often “hyphenated” and pigeonholed. Reviewers speak of “Korean- American” writers, or “gay writers” or “Black novelists” instead of simply stating that they are Ours, as the writers criticize, describe, ponder, and search.

Is American literature perfect? Surely not, and thank heavens. The craft is still fledgling here, and as typically occurs among youth, we have prodigies, navel-gazers, the disaffected, superstars, and everyone in between. Is there an American literature? Yes. And ask me again in 100 years.

About The Author: Andrea DeFusco-Sullivan is the Assistant Dean and Director of the Writing Program at The American College of History and Legal Studies.

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