Saturday, September 3, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 6: Populist Writers: the Beat Generation, Women Fiction Writers, and African American Writers

To continue the thread of the last two blogs, which talked about populist writers Walt Whitman and Thornton Wilder, I’m going to discuss other groups of American writers who I’m viewing as gathered under the populist umbrella.

A populist writer is not just one who writes about the United States, but a writer who believes that American life is a source of good, knowledge, and redemption. That’s why I’m not including in this particular post excellent writers such as Jane Smiley or Jane Hamilton, for instance. I think their view of American society is more pessimistic than the populists. I’ll talk about their writing in an upcoming blog.

Among other populist writers, we could add the playwright Arthur Miller, who dealt with ordinary Americans in some of his plays. Miller raised the lives of working people to the level of tragedy, a genre of literature that was formerly the domain of kings. I’m thinking in particular of his plays Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge—the latter play I analyzed in a blog earlier this year.

I’d also include as populists some of the writers of the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac for On the Road, a book about discovering the hidden beauty of freeway America and the heartland.

I’d include many African American writers as populists, since a number of these authors are also champions of everyday Americans. I’m thinking of fiction writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, for example; and poets Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Sekou Sundiata. Ishmael Reed I'm saving for the blog on satirists—I see his sensibility differently.

The explosion of women’s fiction in the U.S. in the last several decades often has a populist impulse, finding extraordinary truths in the lives of people often considered ordinary. Some examples would be the writing of Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Berg, Sandra Cisneros, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, Amy Tan, and Anne Tyler. Those authors focus on the intimate moments of American life that lead to large epiphanies. 

Ann Patchett
There are some male fiction writers who think along similar lines, such as Raymond Carver, definitely a detective searching for the small moments in American households that resonate deeply.

What’s interesting about the literary populism that has come out of the last several decades is that it’s not always an affirmation of all of American life. It’s sometimes an affirmation of a particular slice of American life, a slice often defined by the author’s race, ethnicity, national origin, class, gender, sexuality, etc. It’s a populism with an edge, a populism that overlaps with the critical approaches to American life that I’m going to discuss in the blogs that follow.

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