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Don DeLillo’s novelistic imagination has been inspired by and intertwined with film. This chapter discusses the roles of film across many of DeLillo's novels, but also examines DeLillo's filmic approach to literature and narrative.
This chapter examines the two major biographies published on Ralph Ellison since his death in 1994. Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002) and Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison (2007) present vastly different portraits of Ellison’s achievement. Where Jackson’s presentation of Ellison’s life and achievement is largely triumphant, Rampersad sees Ellison’s life as a disappointment. At stake is not simply differing interpretations regarding the life of a major novelist or the merit of his work, but the need to grapple with the still contested meaning of Ellison’s life as a representative black intellectual in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.
The final chapter in the volume confronts Philip Roth's retirement announcement in 2012, and reflects on the final years of his life, during which he spent his time reading – both his work and the work of others – and intermittently re-emerging to weigh in on issues ranging from political issues of the day to the state of his own literary legacy.
When Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history” as the Cold War ended, he suggested that the teleology of historical progression had passed and that Western-style liberal democracy had prevailed. Postmodern American novelists, however, have portrayed not history’s end but its rebirth as a form of interrogation and reinvention. Recognizing that new technologies for instant representation (radio, television, the internet) have altered both our sense of history and the practice of history, postmodern writers treat history as something happening and being created in the present moment. Like currency, history becomes fungible. Consequently, received versions of history no longer have the same power. They are subject to exchange. It is not precisely that history has always been lies but rather fictions in which people may choose to believe. Writers such as Toni Morrison or Joan Didion write alternative versions of history that critique received exceptionalist, racist American ones. On the other hand, in the era of climate change, the “end of history” has taken on an apocalyptic valence as writers such as Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut portray the end of history as the beginning of the Anthropocene era: truly the end of history.
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.
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.