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Willa Cather (1873–1947) is one of a handful of undeniably “classic” American authors. Where many of the most cherished American novelists are known primarily for having written one novel that is read again and again, Cather wrote several. The Prairie Trilogy of O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), along with A Lost Lady (1923), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) compose a list of works that would be the envy of virtually any other twentieth-century novelist. Among American novelists, only Henry James and William Faulkner can be said to have written a greater number of novels of enduring value than Cather. My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop stand beside The Scarlet Letter (1850), Moby-Dick (1851), Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Invisible Man (1952) as essential literary works that seem to ask and definitely answer the question of what it has meant to try to be American. Cather may be the most truly “national” writer in the American literary tradition, though as a literary artist her work was uncompromisingly original. Were we to imagine that all of American literature had been bound and contained within a single library and that by some terrible misfortune that library had been set ablaze, the survival of Cather’s works perhaps more than those of any other American writer would speak to future readers and allow them to imagine the challenges and disappointments faced by strangers come together from foreign lands to wrest from nature and each other a civilization that was itself the pursuit of an ideal. She was America’s elegist and, as a novelist, its epic poet.
Cather is known as the writer of Nebraska, a master of the native tongue that became the language of the American plains. Equally important, Cather was profoundly writing within the larger tradition of the novel of James and Hawthorne as well as Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Balzac.
The novel existed before the United States of America, but American history has been peculiarly conducive to the novel’s formal possibilities. When Miguel de Cervantes wrote arguably the first novel, the globe was still terra incognita. The story of Don Quixote (1605, 1615) was largely the story of antiquated assumptions about culture, history, and identity being subjected to and in a sense destroyed by new ways of perceiving, knowing, and imagining that ever since that period have persistently been called “modern.” Even as the form of the novel spread throughout Europe and on to America and elsewhere, its persistent preoccupation has been the question of individual identity. The novel has charted the relationship between an individual consciousness and the world around it. To Cervantes, Quixote’s quest to assert the will of his self, though, was unsettling and fundamentally comic. Previous heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus, or Aeneas fulfilled their destiny; they did not create it. The prospect that an individual could fashion himself as a protagonist, a hero, without the consent or even the interest of the gods and despite the prevailing wisdom of social institutions such as the church was the beginning of a new conception of identity. “In the absence of a Supreme Judge,” Milan Kundera suggests, the world of Don Quixote “suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity” as the “single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parceled out by men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image of and model of that world” (6).
This Companion examines the full range and vigor of the American novel. From the American exceptionalism of James Fenimore Cooper to the apocalyptic post-Americanism of Cormac McCarthy, these newly commissioned essays from leading scholars and critics chronicle the major aesthetic innovations that have shaped the American novel over the past two centuries. The essays evaluate the work, life and legacy of influential American novelists including Melville, Twain, James, Wharton, Cather, Faulkner, Ellison, Pynchon and Morrison, while situating them within the context of their literary predecessors and successors. The volume also highlights less familiar, though equally significant writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Djuna Barnes, providing a balanced and wide-ranging survey of use to students, teachers and general readers of American literature.
From the moment that his debut book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), won him the National Book Award, Philip Roth has been among the most influential and controversial writers of our age. Now the author of more than twenty novels, numerous stories, two memoirs, and two books of literary criticism, Roth has used his writing to continually reinvent himself and in doing so to remake the American literary landscape. This Companion provides the most comprehensive introduction to his works and thought in a collection of newly commissioned essays from distinguished scholars. Beginning with the urgency of Roth's early fiction and extending to the vitality of his most recent novels, these essays trace Roth's artistic engagement with questions about ethnic identity, postmodernism, Israel, the Holocaust, sexuality, and the human psyche itself. With its chronology and guide to further reading, this Companion will be essential for new and returning Roth readers, students and scholars.
Addressing an audience in Israel, Philip Roth once defined himself as an American writer who happens to write about Jews. With this simple statement Roth perfectly captures the complicated blending of cultural identities that marks his work. The irony one may perceive from noticing that one of Roth's most quoted statements about his cultural identity as a writer occurs before an Israeli audience should not prevent one from recognizing that it is impossible to talk about Roth's Americanness without also addressing his Jewishness. Perhaps more powerfully than any other writer, Roth exemplifies a cultural pattern endemic to post-World War II American writing: the more ethnic his work seems, the more American it becomes. Thus, Roth has always insisted that he is primarily an American writer, yet his work cannot be fully understood without addressing how Roth engages a sense of Jewish history that cannot be understood to be equivalent with his perspective as an American writer. From this perspective, Roth's work has been part of a large turning point by which contemporary American writers have been reinventing diverse literary and cultural heritages through fictive reconstructions of ethnic pasts. Many contemporary African-American, Native-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American writers look to, or invent, pre-American pasts in order to define their present American identities. Roth's work has as its premise the knowledge that his historical situation as an American is known to him through the eyes of being a Jew and the descendant of Jews.