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.”


The Ideal and the Reality of Race and Sex

In the first half of our semester, the class has made a number of important observations.

  • Whitman and Dickinson both suggest the transcendent: that which surpasses the raw, concrete particulars of the world that is nonetheless necessary for understanding our human experience of the world.
    • Whitman presents particular examples of individuals performing specific acts, but he is doing so in order to suggest something that transcends all those details: the idea of America.
    • Dickinson takes details, sometimes as surprisingly mundane as a ray of light or a buzzing fly, and then probes their spiritual significance.
    • Together, they suggest one way to address questions of America’s identity: by considering what the particular reveals about the ideal.
  • Twain, in comparison, seems more intent on presenting a realistic account of American life, warts and all (although he does this with a fair amount of humor too). However, Huck’s ethical quandaries reveal him as a pragmatist: Huck is attempting to balance reality with the ideal–with ultimately the ideal that matters for him being those relationship-driven values that he can put into action in reality.
  • Our semester therefore suggests two ways to address what America is: by looking at the ideals of America or by looking at the reality of America.
    • Between ideals and reality works a third approach: considering what ideals can pragmatically be made reality through a problem-solving approach to addressing the difficulties affecting the quality of American lives.

After this opening, we considered two topics of special importance in addressing the mismatch between America’s ideals and America’s reality: race and “the woman question.” Through in-class writings, I have been collecting data from you on what you think the readings are revealing to us. For each of these topics, I asked you to write about what our readings revealed about our class’s three “essential questions,” and below is a summary of what you have together told me:

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?
    • Race:
      • Economic disparities not only restrict who has the power to buy what, but they also limit who can have the opportunity to improve their position in the future and who has the ability to be self-sustaining in the present.
      • The “race line” limits our ability the socialize with others, which also negatively affects our ability to be happy in our lives.
      • Access to education is a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • Political equality is also a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • The consequence of racial inequality and the belittlement of African Americans through negative stereotypes is that African Americans have felt shut out of society, affecting them psychologically, fostering depression and an unfair feeling of inadequacy, and forcing them to constantly have to fight for control over their identity.
      • Racism creates a tension between Americans that yields a toxic, hostile environment.
      • Geographical boundaries (such as the area around the town where you grow up) have had significant impacts on what individuals have believed is true or possible, causing surprise when individuals leave their home town. For example, some African Americans only really discovered racism when they left their predominately black home town.
      • The quality of work available for African Americans has often been harsher and more physical, leading to more work-related injuries and degrading the quality of their lives.
      • Racism makes African Americans see themselves negatively through the eyes of others and that America has not “had their back.”
      • Racism makes African Americans manipulate their own behavior to fit the expectations that society places on them.
    • Sex:
      • Negative social pressures interfere with the ability of women to have positive mental health, including the opportunities she has and her ability to connect with others (both alike and not like her).
      • Professions with expertise, such as medicine, have negatively affected women’s mental health (as seen in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”). Women’s input is not received, and the experts simply tell women what’s best for them, without their feedback. Even when their feedback was received, that feedback was discounted as wrong whenever it conflicted with what the male experts believed. This has caused women to experience being shut out of the decisions being made about their own well-being. Even worse, this has led to “gas lighting,” in which women themselves question their own understanding of their reality. Society never listens to people it oppresses.
      • Not being treated as an equal has negatively affected the mental health of women or has caused them to compete needlessly between each other.
      • Putting women on a pedestal as the “angel in the house” traps them: they are not given a chance to better themselves, are actually treated as the weaker sex, and are forced into servitude to men because they have no independent source of income.
      • Women are bound to performing according to the expectations of men, constricting the ability of women to live and achieve according to their own expectations. The expectations also cause a constant pressure to meet the ideals of men without instead being accepted for how women really are.
      • Women have been treated as weak-minded and therefore prevented from having any real impact on society or to be respected professionals coequal with men. Some women have even internalized this belief, such that their own thought processes are affected by the unconscious belief of their own inferiority.
  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?
    • Race:
      • One normative value is the claim that progress is equal to increased wealth.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent that individuals all feel as belonging within the whole of America, without being limited in their contact and interaction with others.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent to which all individuals are supported in seeing themselves in a positive light rather than being pushed toward self-hate.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the achievement of equality, whether educationally, socially, politically, or economically.
      • While today difference is more appreciated, in the past progress had been measured by how close to “white, wealthy, and male” you are.
      • Progress would be granting African Americans the right to their own personhood by being able to express their identity, including as a black artist, without having to conform to white standards.
      • For some, the prospect of “progress” has actually led to continued enslavement in a new form.
    • Sex:
      • Progress can be made when women can realize their own strength and value.
      • One way of measuring progress is wealth, and for women that has traditionally meant the wealth of their husbands.
      • For women, progress has historically meant trying to succeed somehow in a “man’s world,” which has undermined the mental health of women and pushed women toward jealously competing with each other.
      • Progress would be for women to have opportunities equal to men, equal rights, and equal respect as human beings.
      • Progress requires a society-wide shift in thinking away from an unfair characterization of femininity as lesser.
      • Progress requires women to have independence from men.
      • Progress requires society actually listening to women.
      • Progress requires re-conceiving marriage to allow for the equal personhood of women.
      • Progress has historically been measured by particular “traditional” values that have measured women through the framework of an “ideal” marriage in which the wife stays in the house and takes care of her husband’s every need.
      • In comparison to the stories read in class, there is progress in women obtaining higher education or pursuing careers in the workforce.
      • Progress for women would be freedom from confinement, whether socially through the role that our cultures forces on women or physically through confinement to the domestic home (or to just a particular room in that home).
      • Progress can occur when women work together as a group.
  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?
    • Race:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be an African American, including by showing instances of individuals being deprived of opportunity, or being persecuted, or of being treated as an “other.” Also, by focusing on a subgroup, such as what it means to be a black woman.
        • What it means for their to be an African American community, with the strength of that community being important for supporting the strength of the individuals of that community.
        • What it means to be from the American South and, more particularly, what it means to be black in the American South.
        • What it means to be an American, including whether it is possible to be both black and American.
        • What it means to be a person and not property.
        • How social pressures construct individuals.
      • “Art mirrors truth, and explains it too. It gives an outsider a perspective on a group’s identity.”
      • Literature can be a way for individuals to insist on their own self-worth.
    • Sex:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be a woman in a society that holds women back by impeding their ability to pursue opportunities, grow, change, or heal.
        • How being a woman is controlled by particular roles, such as “mother” or “wife,” that are used as a basis to judge them.
        • What it means for women to be a class in which women can sympathize with each other, talk about their shared experience, form a sense of connection between each other, and further their own interests as a class.
        • What it means to be a white woman versus what it means to be a woman of color.
        • How literature can be an important way for women to share their voices, with hearing those voices being important because women know what the experience of being a woman is like better than men.
        • What it means to be a woman without a husband.
        • What it means to be an independent woman.
      • Literature can help readers experience what the lives of women are like.
      • Literature can show how women are hampered by various unfair “ideals” that they can then break free of.

For our next class, we will start by discussing anything that you found surprising about the above, and we will consider again what value literature has in addressing these issues.

Quality of Life, Progress, and Identity

Our semester is now in full swing, and we have read three crucial starting points for the study of American literature since the civil war: Walt Whitman’s poetry, including “Song of Myself”; Emily Dickinson’s poetry; and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It is now time to focus more specifically on the three “essential questions” for this course, which are on the syllabus and restated below. For next class, we will start by trying to answer these questions in relation to Whitman, Dickinson, and Twain. Then, we will expand the conversation to the focus of next class’s readings: race. Please think about these questions in preparation for next class.

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?


  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?


  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?