Works in Progress - Winter 2010

Literature in the Time of Katrina

By Werner Sollors | July 1, 2013


Werner Sollors, professor of English literature and African and African-American studies at Harvard, is coeditor, with Greil Marcus, of A New Literary History of America, which brings together more than 200 new and old essays about crucial moments in American history. These include Toby Lester on the first occurrence (1507) of the word America on a map; Christoph Irmscher on the day, November 27, 1820, when Audubon painted a bald eagle at Little Prairie, Mississippi; David Thomson on the time in 1923 when Hart Crane talked all night to Charlie Chaplin; George Hutchinson on Martin Luther King Jr. writing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963; and Marcus and Sollors on William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, George W. Bush, and Hurricane Katrina. Sollors poses 11 questions on the future of literature in America.

1. Some 120,000 books are published in the United States each year, but one in four American adults did not read a single book in 2006, according to an Associated Press poll. What can educators do, what can be done more generally—or should anything be done—to draw more readers to books?

2. How does the easy availability of electronic and Web resources affect the dissemination of literature and of knowledge about it? What will the scanning of texts, including contemporary works, mean for the livelihood of living authors? How will text and databases on the Web affect the need for printed books?

3. The 18th century saw the rise of the novel, the 19th brought the first films, and the 20th witnessed the arrival of radio and television plays and scriptwriting as a profession. Are new inventions of the 21st century likely to create completely new cultural genres as well as new venues for writers and other creators?

4. Some of the best-known American texts fall into the category of political rhetoric. From John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” to Ronald Reagan’s “Time for Choosing,” this tradition includes such masterpieces as the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Lincoln’s Second Inagural Address, and Franklin Roosevelt’s first fireside chat. What kind of a relationship, if any, should there be in a democracy between literature and politics?

5. The United States is home to 20 percent of the world’s migrant population and in 2003 had nearly 13 million foreign-born citizens and another 20 million resident aliens; immigrants now account for 75 percent of the population growth. Since the notion of the melting pot has fallen out of favor, what new story of American culture, of American democracy will give newcomers a vivid and true sense of the country they are settling in?

6. From woodcuts to Life magazine, and from Audubon to YouTube, American culture has been deeply visual. Comics were invented in the United States, and photography and film really took off here. Yet there is also an iconoclastic counter tradition at work, from the Puritan religious worry about graven images to the longstanding reluctance to permit in-court photography. In the age of graphic novels and, what consequences for literature will the victory of the visual have?

7. American books, films, television series, and DVDs are widely consumed in countries around the globe, yet unlike countries such as France or Japan, the United States no longer finances a sustained cultural diplomacy. Should cultural dissemination be left to market forces or should diplomacy extend to the area of culture?

8. In the 19th century, major American writers like Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Dean Howells served at diplomatic posts abroad. Would it be desirable or worrisome if writers were, once again, invited to play such roles?

9. When Lionel Trilling or Leslie Fielder wrote essays on literature, they had an extraordinarily wide resonance, whereas contemporary critical essays seem to appeal to a far smaller and much more specialized readership. How can a new form of criticism emerge that attempts to address—and that actually reaches—wider audiences? Can academic critics perform such a task, or is this a role for independent intellectuals?

10. Given the continued popularity of books like D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, should there be a clear separation between writing literature and criticizing it, or should writers take an active part in commenting on works not only of the present but also of the past?

11. It was once believed that it would be extremely difficult to put a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Saturday Evening Post cover “in an enlightening relation to each other.” Even though they were produced by the same culture, they were antithetical as avant-garde and kitsch. How will the already attenuated distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture affect the literature of the future?

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