United States (20th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

United States (20th Century)

Robert Seguin

The history of the novel in the U.S. during the twentieth century can in many ways be charted in terms of a fundamental, interactive tension between, on the one hand, the idea or sense of the national space and, on the other, local or regional specificities or densities that are in some fashion resistant to this idea. The “national” in this context signifies essentially the rapid and expansive unfolding of capitalist modernity in America following the end of the Civil War in 1865, an era that saw the increasing unification of what had hitherto been a more loosely aggregated national realm (see MODERNIS). With the full advent of industrialization, along with the widespread implementation of railroads and the telegraph, a genuinely national commercial marketplace was established for the first time. The rhythms of wage labor and commodity production (and consumption) became increasingly the norm, and people, goods, ideas, and images could now circulate more widely and easily than ever before, all of which fostered a manifold set of overlapping and often contradictory perceptions and experiences and offered up a new social substance for literary reflection. Thus, modernity might be welcomed for its social dynamism and cosmopolitanism, or instead criticized for its rootlessness and cultural depthlessness; the local, meanwhile, might either be favored for its traditional values and sense of connectedness (to people, to the land) or shunned for its backwardness and refusal to embrace innovation. This multivalent, ongoing cultural dialectic of nation and region, intertwined with a tension between modernity and tradition, affords a productive framework for considering the course of the twentieth-century American novel.

One result of this dialectic was an efflorescence of so-called “local-color” writing during the late nineteenth century, to use the contemporary, somewhat condescending term—the condescension rooted in the fact that it was through local color that more and more women were writing themselves into the domain of literary fiction. These stories made of those regional folkways and sensibilities, before their subsumption within some overarching national culture, an object of frequently ambivalent representation. While first appearing before the Civil War (Harriet Beecher Stowe's story “Uncle Lot,” from 1834, is often taken as an inaugural point of the genre), it is really from the 1870s onward that the genre develops fully. Local colorists paid particular attention to regional dialect and forms of speech, broadening the literary scope of American English. While the short story was the preferred form for regionalism, several important novels belong to the genre: Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), and George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes (1880), the last two both set in New Orleans, as intensely liminal a city as one might find in the U.S. A novel like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), while often held up as the national tale par excellence, is deeply indebted to the forms of local color, as is, to a lesser extent, the work of other realists of the period such as Frank Norris (in McTeague, 1899 and The Octopus, 1901) and Harold Frederic, whose remarkable The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), while ostensibly about a crisis of faith, is at a deeper level an acute analysis of the sources of cultural and ideological authority. A common device in local-color writing was the use of an “outsider” narrative perspective—an urban visitor to some rural locale who in effect frames the story and sets up at least the opportunity for a certain bidirectional estrangement or ironizing. This structural pattern has in turn helped fuel the longstanding critical debate about the genre, i.e., whether it represents a genuine effort of preservation and regional advocacy or rather a kind of literary tourism for urbanized readers, one that merely enfolds the local ever more surely within modernity's web.

American Naturalism

Regardless of this question of generic function, regionalism doubtless expanded the reach of realism, if we follow that account of realism which stresses its opening up to literary representation hitherto unrepresented social groups, classes, and spaces. Regionalism thus helped make way for the brief flowering of that variant of realism known as naturalism during the first years of the twentieth century. While some naturalist fiction toyed with Darwinian themes (notably Jack London's work, as in The Call of the Wild, 1903 and White Fang, 1906), naturalism is best grasped as a turning away from the more genteel realisms of William Dean Howells and Henry James (with their comfortable middle-class settings) toward working-class and ethnic subjects—rendered all too often through broad caricature—and a more frank consideration of themes of sexuality, violence, poverty, and prejudice.

With this came a strong emphasis on the determining influence of both the physical and social (chiefly economic) environments on individual behavior and destiny. Norris's work is central here, with its cast of vivid Californians enmeshed by greed and the railroad companies, as is that of the brilliantly unclassifiable Stephen Crane, whose Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is one of the earliest tenement or slum tales. Also important are Abraham Cahan, a Russian-born chronicler of the Jews of New York's Lower East Side and a pioneering figure in the coming wave of immigrant fiction—Yekl (1896), The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)—and the prolific journalist, social critic, and activist Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle dramatized the deplorable conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry. But it is Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) that stands as perhaps the central achievement of naturalism, offering a brilliant anatomy of money, desire, and commodity spectacle which, while rooted in a certain regional experience (in particular Dreiser's flight from the restrictions of small-town Indiana and his German Catholic family), in effect short-circuits the dialectic invoked above and develops an immanent presentation of the social forces of modern capitalism. The work of Edith Wharton, meanwhile, despite its generally more privileged settings, might plausibly be grouped with naturalism for its clear-eyed focus on the inexorable and destructive force of gender and class conventions on individuals—The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920).

The season of naturalism was in some respects short-lived: Sister Carrie sold poorly and Dreiser did not really regain his writerly footing until the seldom-read Cowperwood Trilogy of 1912—15; London became increasingly alcoholic and erratic; and both Crane and Norris died young, leaving the first two decades of the twentieth-century novel in the U.S. with a somewhat patchy record of achievement. One standout emerging in the teens is Willa Cather, a Virginia-born transplant to the Great Plains who brilliantly reenergized the regionalist dialectic with deceptively complex meditations on the passing of tradition, the growth of new wealth, new roles for women, and the fate of immigrant culture in the Plains and Southwest—O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), The Professor's House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather's work presages in part the fiction of the so-called “revolt from the village” movement, a set of mostly Midwestern writers who, far from casting the small town as a bulwark against modernity, see it as all too eager to embrace everything that is corrupting and spiritually deadening about bourgeois society. The novels of Sinclair Lewis—Main Street (1920) and Babbit (1922)—and Sherwood Anderson—Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Poor White (1920)—while popular and critically acclaimed in their day (indeed, Lewis was the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature), have in recent years fallen into disfavor as readers have found their critique to be rather one-note.

The 1920s

Lewis and Anderson were certainly not wrong, however, in training their attention on a rapidly modernizing capitalist system. With innovations such as Henry Ford's “five-dollar day” (the substantial, if conditional, wage increase given his workers starting in 1914), the layaway system and other forms of credit, and the rapid growth of advertising, modern mass consumerism was gradually though unevenly extended to certain sectors of the working- and lower-middle classes. The economy in the 1920s famously boomed (a misleading image, to the extent that inequalities of wealth were also increasingly exacerbated), and President Calvin Coolidge could declare, in a phrase that grates on the sensibilities of cultural workers to this day, that “the business of America is business.”

The writers of the 1920s thus found themselves in a difficult situation: while passionately committed to the aesthetically and culturally New (spurred on, of course, by the twin thunderclaps of 1922, James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and by modernism more generally), the “new” as it manifested itself in other social domains often occasioned a good deal more uncertainty. Hence the choice of expatriation for so many of the central writers of the decade, or the renewed and intensified focus on specific locales for others, as ways of keeping alive a kind of imaginative tension or distance, or perhaps a paradoxically nourishing sense of marginality, in the face of both the increasingly exuberant materialism of American culture together with its still dominant Puritanical ways, as witnessed for example by the (in hindsight, remarkable) prohibition on the sale of alcohol between 1919 and 1933.

The impact of modernism on the novel in the U.S. was in most instances subtle rather than overt, inflecting the main realistic current rather than reshaping its course outright. The time shifts, lyrical density, and cinematic flourishes employed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece of upward mobility and American mythmaking (chiefly the abiding American myth of transcending one's origins), The Great Gatsby (1925), are a good example of the distinctive yet accessible modernist elements writers began to use. Fitzgerald, for many the representative novelist of the decade, was a Midwesterner who went to Princeton and then Paris, and whose sharp (if exaggerated) sense of class and regional marginality fuels much of his best work. Ernest Hemingway, meanwhile, under the influence partly of the journalism trade and partly of modernist doyenne Gertrude Stein, developed a lean, stripped-down (and much imitated) style designed to say little and imply much. The success of books like In Our Time (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1926), and A Farewell to Arms (1929), along with his assiduous cultivation of the Hemingway “brand,” centered on the masculine pursuit of strenuous pastimes, made him for a long time the most famous American author in the world. Even Cather, a writer not generally known for formal innovation, began to speak, as the 1920s wore on, of the novel demeublé (“unfurnished”), a vision of clean, spare prose shorn of what were seen as the weighty encumbrances of older realisms.

The most exuberant modernisms appeared, first, with John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925), whose fragmentary, jump-cutting style attempts to capture the rhythm of a city and which was directly inspired both by Joyce and the cinema (indeed, film and its techniques are an abiding source of fascination and inspiration for many writers during these decades; see ADAPTATION). Dos Passos amplified this approach in his epic U.S.A. trilogy—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—an admixture of glassy, depersonalized prose, news clippings, biographical pastiche, and subjective lyricism. Here Dos Passos attempts to “synthesize” the nation/region dialectic through a great totalization of all regions of the country and offers a grim panoply of political dreams crushed and ambitions of all sorts squelched by the routinized grind of profit making. Djuna Barnes, another expatriate, brought together female sexuality and cultural decay in the dense and harrowing Nightwood (1936). But it is undoubtedly William Faulkner who went furthest and most lastingly with the modernist enterprise in fiction. Faulkner chose to stay in the rural northern Mississippi of his childhood and make of its history and geography, and that of the South more generally, the stuff of an intricate and architectonic fictional world, over which hangs the gothic curse of the South's history of defeat and the baleful aftereffects of slavery, inflected in turn by the belated modernization of the region. The elaborate stream of consciousness of The Sound and the Fury (1929) and the serpentine, multiclausal sentences of Absalom, Absalom! (1936) are only two instances of the many techniques he employed in the construction of his fictional mythos—see also As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Go Down, Moses (1942).

Another key literary movement beginning in the 1920s, one centrally rooted in spatial and demographic processes, is of course the Harlem (or New Negro) Renaissance (ca. 1918—37). The Great Migration, beginning around 1910, brought tens of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the urban, industrial North (see AFRICAN AMERICAN). Places like Harlem fostered strong social and cultural ferment as more settled, middle-class blacks lived cheek by jowl with new working-class arrivals. The Renaissance itself was a rather more loosely knit affair than its name might suggest, comprising writers with strong ties to Harlem as well as many others with more tangential affiliations. Harlem in that sense was less a stable geographic locale than a touchstone for a kind of imagined community, a space of flows serving to organize symbolically a disparate collection of cultural producers. Their striking social positionality, meanwhile—on the liminal cusp of North and South, modernity and tradition, all complicated by the fraught calculus of race—allowed them to ring intricate changes on the many facets of the cultural dialectic we have been foregrounding, and to interrogate the bearing of African American culture with respect to American culture more generally. The outstanding novelists of the movement include Nella Larsen—Quicksand (1928), Passing (1929)—Claude McKay—Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929)—Arna Bontemps—Black Thunder (1936)—and Zora Neale Hurston—Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

The 1930s

The arrival of the Great Depression in 1930 began to change the literary landscape in the U.S. in many ways. The rapid economic deterioration (fully one-quarter of the workforce unemployed by 1932) led to a widespread leftward movement amongst writers and intellectuals and an often contentious reconsideration of the appropriate forms and purposes of literature. While this politicization was by no means consistent—with some joining the Communist movement, others remaining within a more liberal/progressive orbit, with many offshoots in between—nonetheless what Michael Denning has called a broad “cultural front” came into being in the 1930s, marked by a fellow-traveling sensibility at once critical of capitalism and engaged in advocating on behalf of the dispossessed. One early outgrowth of this was the set of novels, all by women, focusing on the textile strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929: Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! (1930), Myra Page's Gathering Storm (1932), Grace Lumpkin's To Make My Bread (1932), and Fielding Burke's Call Home the Heart (1932).

More representative, however, of fiction in the 1930s is what Denning calls the “ghetto pastoral,” portraits of largely ethnic working-class urban neighborhoods and the daily struggles of their inhabitants. Such work differs from earlier naturalistic excursions into this territory in that the later writers frequently shared this plebeian social background with their subjects. The ghetto, of course, was a region unto itself, caught between an ambivalently desired mainstream America on the one hand and the values of the Old Country on the other. Tonally, the ghetto pastoral was often an uncertain blend of tough, even brutal naturalism (conditioned in part by the cynical, often violent hardboiled detective fiction pioneered in the 1920s by writers like Dashiell Hammett), as in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932—35), set in Irish Chicago, and lighter material, often drawing on youthful escapades and comic neighborhood tales and gossip, as in Mike Gold's Jews Without Money (1930) and Daniel Fuchs's Williamsburg trilogy (1934—37), both set in poor Jewish neighborhoods of New York. While versions of realism were the dominant stylistic strain in the ghetto pastoral, more modernist techniques feature in important works like Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), Pietro DiDonato's Christ in Concrete (1938), set amongst immigrant Italian bricklayers, and Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio (wr. 1930s, pub. 1974).

The politicization of the decade energized the feminist movement of the time as well, swelling the ranks of women writing literary fiction (as the above might already suggest). Other important works by women include The Unpossessed (1934) by Tess Slesinger and the Trexler trilogy (1933—39) by Josephine Herbst. The novel of migration, meanwhile, was a recurring form in the 1930s, as the economic crisis forced thousands onto the roads and rails in search of work: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is easily the most famous—indeed, along with Margaret Mitchell's Civil War saga Gone With the Wind (1936), it is probably the most famous novel of the decade (these two texts themselves, of course, using a regional focus to mount a national narrative). Nelson Algren's Somebody in Boots (1935) deserves mention here as well. Finally, while much of this writing is already grim enough, there are those writers who present a uniquely pessimistic portrait of American society, in that the political sensibility that animates so much of the foregoing is with them suppressed. Steeped more in European symbolism and surrealism than, say, the Chicago School sociology of Farrell and Algren, these novelists envision society as a danse macabre of people increasingly in thrall to powerful culture industries that stoke unfulfillable desires, inciting violence and madness, with only a shrinking world of private fantasy remaining with which to resist: Henry Miller—Tropic of Capricorn (1938)—Horace McCoy—They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935)—and, especially, Nathanael West—Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), The Day of the Locust (1939). In works like these we begin to see the emergence of black humor as a device for undermining the conventions of standard realism.

The 1940s and 1950s

The onset of WWII reoriented cultural priorities yet again, and the literary novel, while it did not cease production as did the automobile, nonetheless received less focused attention for a time. If the 1940s were the decade of the noir in cinema, much the same could be said for the novel, with the noir thriller being among the more vital genres of the decade, drawing the efforts of at least a few writers who had been poets and literary novelists in the 1930s. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, Chester Himes, and Cornell Woolrich are key figures in a genre that, thrills aside, offers an often complex set of reflections on the political aftermath of the Depression (the richly atmospheric Los Angeles locales frequently deployed are also of note). Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) occupies an ambivalent and important juncture: between high- and middlebrow fiction (Wright made several choices aimed at broadening his readership, and the novel became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection), and also in terms of genre. A late version of the ghetto pastoral (the story is set in Bronzeville, an African American district in Chicago), it is also something of a noir thriller in its own right, while also presaging the rise of the suburb in postwar fiction. The war itself, meanwhile, furnished the material for at least one major novel, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948); Mailer would later publish one of the more interesting fictional meditations inspired by the disastrous war in Vietnam, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a scabrous dissection of machismo and the emotional investments in violence that never, title aside, mentions Vietnam. Nor does Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), a WWII novel whose satire on the absurdity and moral vacuity of warfare became increasingly resonant as the 1960s wore on and American involvement in Southeast Asia grew deeper. Distinguished work that does mention Vietnam of course exists, such as The Things They Carried (1990), by Tim O'Brien.

The novelists in the years following the war found themselves once more at a difficult aesthetic and political conjuncture. On the one hand, those realisms that had been the predominant novelistic modes for some eighty years, and had been so strenuously championed during the proletarian 1930s, were now, as the country moved into the era of Cold War conservatism, seen as critically suspect, as if encoding a certain Stalinism in their very heart. On the other hand, modernism was by and large felt to be reaching its limit, its dialectic of innovation having exhausted itself (a situation allegorized in John Barth's The Floating Opera, 1956). Apolitical irony was the new order of the day in criticism, and older works were refunctioned to fit the new dispensation: thus Faulkner (whose best work was well behind him) and Henry James (who had been dead for over forty years) emerge as in some ways the most important novelists of the 1950s. Those novelists who wished to craft something lasting in the fifties needed guile and determination beyond the usual. One strategy was to cleave to older modes in defiance of prevailing styles, an approach most often leading to failure but one that worked for Harriette Arnow, whose The Dollmaker (1954) is perhaps the last of the great ghetto pastorals. Or one might revive even older forms, now seen as a breath of fresh air, to great critical acclaim, as with the picaresque fabulism and nineteenth-century pontificating of Saul Bellow—The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959). But achieving the new in this context demanded once more a certain distance from the constricted literary horizon and related critical fashion, a distance provided, for instance, by the experience of exile, as with the Russian-American Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita (1955) stands as one of the few masterpieces of an authentically late modernist style. Another would be Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), which weds an irrepressible narrative drive to a layered, allusive allegory of African American marginality. For the Beats, immersion in the bohemian (for them) world of jazz and drugs afforded a space apart from the felt conformity of the age. Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959), in their freeform composition and often hallucinatory intensity, revivify prose in yet new ways. The road, in both On the Road and Lolita alike, is an ambivalent trope: for Nabokov, a pathway into the seductive realm of American popular culture, for Kerouac the sign of an always- on-the-cusp-of-vanishing freedom. In any case, it testifies yet again to the irreducibly spatial dimension of literary production in the U.S.

The regional dialectic takes another turn in these years by the emergence of the suburb as a fresh site of narrative investment. The economic boom of the postwar era, coupled with measures like the G.I. Bill (1944) for veterans and tax incentives, helped millions become homeowners for the first time, and the suburban areas of American cities underwent a phase of enormous growth. The phenomenon of so-called “white flight” from more racially mixed city centers, beginning around the early 1960s, only amplified this development. Despite the evident public enthusiasm for these new living spaces, the novelistic suburb is mostly a baleful place, a realm of thwarted dreams, cultural deprivation, and (typically male) anxiety and depression: middle-class privilege is here reimagined as a kind of impoverishment. This is the imaginary terrain treated with a certain sentimentality in John Updike's five Rabbit novels (appearing every ten years from 1960 to 2001), with rather more pungency in Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road (1961), through to the important work of Richard Ford—The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995)—and Rick Moody—The Ice Storm (1994).

American Postmodernity

At length we come to the matter of postmodernism and its place in the consideration of U.S. fiction of the last few decades. As with modernism, postmodernism comes in several versions, some more consequent than others. In perhaps its narrowest sense, we have here to do with an aesthetic of the signifier as such, devoted to the cunning free play of language. In an earlier age, such a strategy had more political content, as in the radical maneuvers of Dada, aimed at the repressive conventions of the bourgeois institutions of Art and Literature; under postmodernism this more often issues in elaborate, mazelike metafiction, such as that by Barth and Robert Coover, that displays great inventiveness but can seem rather self-absorbed, arguably possessing little in the way of deeper cultural resonance. When the difficult attempt is made to ground this aesthetic in some wider cultural experience, like the traditions of black signifying as in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Maxine Hong Kingston's meditations on Chinese mythology and the immigrant experience—The Woman Warrior (1976), Tripmaster Monkey (1989)—or Kathy Acker's explorations of alternative sexualities and the bodily sensorium, the results are rather more interesting and valuable (see QUEER). Works such as these typify the blending of genres often observed in post-1960s fiction, as nonfictional materials, poetic passages, elements of fantasy, other subgeneric modes, and so forth come together in an increasingly heterogeneous mixture.

The most consequent deployment of a postmodern strategy within the realm of the novel probably comes through the turn to history, what Linda Hutcheon has called historiographic metafiction. This is paradoxical, in that postmodernity has been characterized as a profoundly unhistorical era, but in a sense therein lies the key. The intention of this fiction is in no way to conjure some convincing representation of the past, or to make some case for its continuing claims upon us, as in older historical thinking. Rather, these narratives in effect refract and estrange the present through the past, using the intricate and unexpected juxtaposition of real and imaginary people and events to prize apart the highly compartmentalized social world of late capitalism. This, as Fredric Jameson has argued, is an essentially spatial exercise, that works by undermining the ideological cell walls between the many cultural and political subzones of our social formation, allowing a more synthetic narrative and conceptual process to take place (see IDEOLOGY). This would then be the latest (now second- or third-order) development in the socio-spatial dialectic with which we began. The central figures here are Thomas Pynchon (1973, Gravity's Rainbow; 1997, Mason and Dixon), Don DeLillo (1988, Libra; 1997, Underworld), and E. L. Doctorow (1975, Ragtime; 1989, Billy Bathgate). These writers also frequently evince themes of conspiracy and paranoia, another response to the increasingly systematic and all-pervasive character of the times (Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, 1966; DeLillo's White Noise, 1986). Toni Morrison's work (1987, Beloved; 1992, Jazz) figures in this context as well, though account must be made of the greater existential density of the historical within the African American context. In addition, the fiction of Richard Powers, such as Gain (1998) and Plowing the Dark (2000), juxtaposes scientific speculation, historical pastiche, and contemporary political events to probe the genesis and structure of the new global order.

Contemporary Novels

The general cultural fragmentation of postmodernity has clearly left its mark on the contemporary novel, making any attempt to survey the territory problematic. In some respects the realm of literary fiction has suffered as creative energies have moved into subgeneric territory: science fiction, for example, has developed remarkably in the last few decades, encompassing now the full range of so-called “soft” sciences and rich in political and anthropological speculation (see ANTHROPOLOGY); detective fiction, too, continues to map social space in ever more inventive ways. Still, staying within our working framework reveals several important recent developments. Thus alongside (often bombastic) calls for a new realism—directed against the perceived narrowness of “creative writing program” fiction—there persists strong work in a (sometimes deceptively) traditional realism, particularly that of Russell Banks, who has explored the conjuncture of America's racial stain and the injuries of class society with unflagging determination, frequently focusing on small-town New England and New York's Adirondack Mountains (1985, Continental Drift; 1995, Rule of the Bone; 1998, Cloudsplitter). Meanwhile, there is also a well-established new regionalism, as novelists once more turn to the byways and forgotten corners of the nation. Sometimes, this local is badly in need of a now global modernity, while at other times the local provides the resources to resist the force field of globalized economic and cultural flows, with the narratives seeking to explore an always troubled balance between value and rootedness on the one hand and drudgery and deprivation on the other. Work by Richard Russo, Carolyn Chute, Annie Proulx, Pat Conroy, Barry Hannah, Dorothy Allison, and Chris Offutt, among others, demonstrates once more the absolute centrality to the narrative imagination in the U.S. of the problems of cultural integrity versus cosmopolitanism, of the simultaneous fostering and curtailment of desire and freedom, all thought through a profoundly spatial frame.

Little by little, it seems, the themes that arose so often during the first half of the nineteenth century, as the nation was coalescing and its concept had yet to stabilize, inexorably return, as the uncertain solvents of the unfolding global dispensation increasingly exert their power, complicating and expanding the spatial dialectic. For example, the examination of both the idea and the reality of the border has drawn much interest from novelists as late capitalism slowly redefines the very notion of the nation state. Novelists such as Cormac McCarthy (1985, Blood Meridian; 1994, The Crossing) and Leslie Marmon Silko (1991, Almanac of the Dead) explore the creation and violation of borders and the violence that spreads forth from this, highlighting imperialism and Manifest Destiny, and underscore the unsettling shifts of identity endemic to the borderlands. Perhaps more crucially, the recent wave of writing by people of color is replete with signs and portents of future metamorphoses of American fiction. Taking initial impetus from the political energies of the 1960s, particularly as these shifted somewhat later into the set of debates and movements identified by the notion of identity politics, this literature frequently sets in motion a set of complex exchanges between an increasingly decentred American national space and ever-widening real and conceptual territories in the global South and Pacific Rim (not to mention the disruptive and unmappable terrain of the native reservation system). While varying widely in style, setting, and tone, work by Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, Amy Tan, Jessica Hagedorn, Junot Diaz, Anita Desai, Ha Jin, Louise Erdrich, and Rolando Hinojosa, among many others, not only reinterrogates amid fresh circumstances the literary dialectic of ethnic and immigrant experience established earlier in the century, but also stays true to the fundamental impulse of realism to bring unexplored social spaces and subjects into the realm of narrative representation. The many ways in which American fiction goes global will continue to surprise.

SEE ALSO: Asian American Novel, Jewish American Novel, Latina/o American Novel.


1. Bercovitch, S., ed. (1999), Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 7.

2. Bercovitch, S., ed. (2002), Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 6.

3. Denning, M. (1997), Cultural Front.

4. Hutcheon, L. (1989), Poetics of Postmodernism.

5. Jameson, F. (1991), Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

6. Jurca, C. (2000), White Diaspora.

7. Kazin, A. (1942), On Native Grounds.

8. Lutz, T. (2003), Cosmopolitan Vistas.

9. McCann, S. (2000), Gumshoe America.

10. Michaels, W.B. (1993), Our America.

11. Seguin, R. (2001), Around Quitting Time.