Literature as a Past, Present, and Future Activity

This semester, I have worked to expose you to a multitude of examples of American literature published since the Civil War. While doing so, we have considered these works as something more than content to be covered for course passage or as historical examples to be known merely for our general edification. Throughout American history, we have been engaged in a continual process of asking ourselves who we are, what is affecting our pursuit of happiness, and how we can improve our lives. As part of this process, our readings have been more than dead objects for study, more than inert things, more than stationary nouns: they are verbs, they are the hard-fought activities of real people, they are the living synaptic-firing of a continually changing American “hive mind” attempting to work through thorny issues of American identity, quality of life, and progress.

Since the midterm exam, we have seen this process unfold through literature as Americans wrestled with industrialization, race, war, inequality, and traditional versus progressive understandings of identity. In particular, we have discussed how the modernists of the first half of the 20th century attempted to reconcile the feeling of hurtling toward the future with a sense of loss of traditional understandings and values that provided a “center” around which to organize a shared American outlook. That “center” was increasingly challenged, including the extent to which it was ever “shared,” as the 20th century concluded and the 21st century began. As part of our own consideration of the future, you then all reflected upon what the literature of the future should do to address your own concerns. Below, I will append a list of many of the issues you stated that you want the literature of the future to address.

As you review the list, I suggest you consider the important role of the American writer–from 1880 through 1920, through 1960, through 2000, and through to the end of your own life, through to the end of your own important and hard-fought activity of working past the thorny issues impacting your life now. The issues you raise below all involve, in some way, addressing American thought: how we collectively think about ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment. These questions can certainly be addressed in many fields, including psychology, political science, chemistry, and engineering. Yet I hope that our course has made clearer that literature, as a genre of artistic expression, has a unique and vital role to play in addressing how we think through the concerns of human life. And that role is one that you can participate in. You too can use literature as a forum through which you can help us all think through these concerns. In doing so, your work becomes both an expression of your living voice and a part of the continuing process of American society feeling its way forward. Thinking is an activity: your work, too, can be the verb that Whitman’s work, that Williams’ work, that Levertov’s work, that Acevedo’s work is and continues to be.

American II Students on What the American Literature of the Future Ought to Address

The list below is my summary combination of the general points raised by all of you in your final reflection essays, with many of these issues being reported to me by multiple students in this class.

The American literature of the future ought to address the following:

  1. Women’s equality, including by better presenting a diverse representation of feminine identities;
  2. Technology, including social media over-stimulation, escapes from reality like through virtual reality, and loss of jobs due to technology;
  3. The gender expectations placed on men today;
  4. Climate change;
  5. Diversity, including by better presenting the experience of being a person of color, improving inclusivity, and addressing the veil that Du Bois discusses and that people of color continue to experience;
  6. Being able to not just accept but also to reject one’s local community;
  7. Ideals of justice and freedom;
  8. Mental health;
  9. Socioeconomic inequality, including how that inequality affects student debt;
  10. Gender and sexuality issues, including LGBTQ acceptance, being asexual, and normalizing being trans as an experience: a Whitman-like literature of the future would include individuals across the gender/sexuality spectrum;
  11. Community safety;
  12. A return to representation of American industriousness, rather than focusing on expressions of self-alienation and despair, including through presentations of the average, hardworking American;
  13. Challenging capitalism/imperialism;
  14. Being willing to abandon tradition so as to avoid the situation exemplified in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”: “We are no longer bound by outdated information and ideas of humanity, stop sleeping with the corpse of your ideal world and acknowledge the reality you live in”;
  15. Greater blending of genre lines and an increased consideration of poetry: “As in Robert Creeley’s ‘Credo,’ I’d like to see humanity and the writing we create to impact both the bizarre and tangible. I’d like it to reflect the randomness of ‘rain tomorrow’ (line 2-3) as well as the absolute humanness of ‘your hand’ (line 60). I’d like it to embrace humanity, I suppose— I want it to be just as magical as past imagist prose, yet just as gritty as that of the realist.”