By John Lowe

Writers of color in America help validate American writing.

-- Russell Leong, Chinese American poet and novelist      

At universities across the United States, at the outset of the 21st century, students entering a class in American literature will confront a syllabus that will include books that are stunningly diverse.

Indeed, even in secondary schools, teenagers are ruminating over the writings of men and women with names that appear unpronounceable at first, or at the least, unfamiliar. And yet, as the youths delve into these volumes, they will learn more than their parents did, during high school, about the experiences of representatives of different ethnic, racial and immigrant groups that are today part of the mosaic that is the United States populace.

Multicultural, and immigrant, literature may be expanding on the college and high school syllabus, but it is not at all a new phenomenon. It goes back to the turn of the 20th century -- when waves of Europeans came to the United States -- and beyond, to 19th-century newcomers, and, even further, for example, to Native American tales in the oral tradition. And since Native Americans are, as their identification clearly states, the only homegrown denizens of the country, one can fairly argue that every other U.S. writer is a descendant of another culture -- indeed, an ethnic. The focus in this article, though, is on literature written by non-English immigrants and their descendants, African Americans and Native Americans.

As part of a course of study, indigenous U.S. literature is a fairly recent phenomenon. When Thomas Jefferson was attending the College of William and Mary in the mid-18th century, Latin and Greek ruled the classroom. Well into this century, America's colonial linkage with England still was leaving a mark: most works studied were by English writers. At the time of his death in 1891, in fact, Herman Melville was virtually a forgotten figure. Emily Dickinson and other 19th century poets and writers now considered "classic" had to wait to achieve their status until 20th-century scholars affirmed and acclaimed them.

But if white, Anglo-American writers, born in the United States, had to wait their turn in the first century or so of U.S. history, multicultural writers fared worse. Frederick Douglass, now extolled for his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and others had stories to tell that had a limited readership. The same fate befell the works of other exciting black American writers in the late 19th century -- Anna Julia Cooper, Pauline Hopkins and Charles Chesnutt, for example. Other ethnic and racial groups had no profile whatsoever. Gradually, though, there were some enlightened individuals, such as novelist William Dean Howells, editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine in the early 20th century, who took some of these writers under his wing, encouraging Chesnutt, Abraham Cahan (an Eastern European Jewish immigrant) and black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar to pursue their crafts. Howells also made use of fairly convincing, if dialect-speaking ethnic characters in A Hazard of New Fortunes and An Imperative Duty, two of his later novels.

How do we define multicultural, or multiethnic writing? Early on, ethnicity was explained in terms of color -- "red," "black" and "white." As the 19th century ensued, and the national debate over slavery heightened, citizens narrowed the focus to "black" and "white."

Although black Americans have become visible in all forms of cultural expression in the United States, during the first half of the nation's history, primarily, they were featured in writing emanating from the Southern U.S., and invariably in stereotypical roles. Only with the rise of groups like the elegant French-speaking men of color, Les Cenelles, whose poetry discussed the complexities of a mixed heritage, did a truly distinctive ethnic voice emerge. In the late 19th century, the writer George Washington Cable began to make a case against the continuing oppression of people of color. His novel, The Grandissimes, was a heroic story of slavery against the backdrop of the rich creole world of the state of Louisiana.

Gradually, other multicultural writing surfaced. A Cherokee Indian named John Rollin Ridge, or Yellow Bird, wrote a stirring novel in 1854, not about Cherokees, but about a legendary Mexican bandit who had committed robberies in California in the manner of a Robin Hood. In time, mostly in the 20th century, the rich Native American and African American oral traditions -- including tales, chants, work songs, creation stories, trickster legends and poetry -- were mined, first by Anglo academics and later by scholars from within the multicultural groups themselves.

Principally, though, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, multicultural literature found its readership through newspaper columns and magazines. In Chicago, journalist Finley Peter Dunne created a bartender, Mr. Dooley, a garrulous Irish-American who would hold forth on local, national and international matters for an audience of one, a patron named Mr. Hennessey. In New York City, Jewish immigrants faithfully followed the "Bintel Brief" in Cahan's Forward, a Yiddish-language paper. This column, consisting of letters from the newly-arrrived seeking advice and succor, and the responses of an unattributed writer, was widely read. And in Oklahoma, Alexander Posey, a Creek Indian, created comic newspaper columns featuring Fus Fixico and his sidekick, Hotgun.

There were some examples of formal literature among ethnic groups during the early decades of the past century. Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska pioneered American Jewish literature with their novels and memoirs. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and other works by writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s had a limited impact, but Richard Wright's Native Son, focusing on a young black man in Chicago, was an immediate success in 1940, as well as a selection of the popular Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen. Still, ethnic writing, particularly by women, only came to the foreground decades later. In the 1940s and 1950s, in African American writing, the "protest" novel held sway, dominated by Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin (although the mystery novels of Chester Himes did find an audience).

In the postwar era, of course, with the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Chicano political activism and migration from Latin America and Asia from the 1970s on, it was quite natural that the expansion of the U.S. multicultural population would produce a body of writing to be reckoned with, a pattern that continues into the new century. The question was, how would this writing find its way into U.S. literature?

The actual study of multicultural literature has come about gradually during the past three decades. A student in a representative university in the late 1960s might have come upon one or two writers, at most, in his American literature survey course. This was linked, as always, to the publishing industry, to what publishers in the United States were issuing, less than to racism and elitism. The first challenge within the academic community was to successfully argue the case for ethnic literature in the curriculum. The second was to convince publishers of the merits of this body of work. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and many other books, has recalled reading a photocopy version of Hurston's landmark novel in graduate school, and wondering why she had never heard of it, and moreover, why it wasn't available anywhere in print.

To make an impact, multicultural writing had to succeed in two arenas. The first was in university classrooms. Universities are where teachers are trained, and where future scholars delve into their subjects and make career choices based upon that research. In that sense, institutions of higher learning have a direct linkage with the reading patterns people establish as adults. The second arena consisted of the national organizations, such as the Modern Language Association, who sponsor the annual conferences with thousands of participants, and a wealth of scholarly presentations, that can be so influential to budding academics and venerable authorities as well.

As recently as the early 1970s, the MLA still was adhering to the American canon, dappled with the likes of Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway, and a few contemporary male Jewish writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. At one annual meeting, a group of young scholars pressed unsuccessfully the case for a panel session on multicultural literature; rejected, they reconvened in a hotel hallway for an impromptu discussion on African American writing. Out of that spur-of-the-moment conversation came the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, or MELUS. With chapters in several countries and plans for expansion to others, MELUS presents two sessions each year at the MLA conference, sponsors its own annually, and publishes a journal that has introduced many new writers from diverse backgrounds to scholars.

Of course, the MLA has a totally different cast today. At the group's most recent meeting, in December 1999, the schedule encompassed sessions on ethnicity, hybridity, transnationalism and many other subjects related to multiculturalism. Then, too, the American Studies Association, an important professional group for teachers of U.S. literature and U.S. history, has also created conferences around themes such as multiculturalism dynamics and the impact of borderlands.

With these beneficial developments within scholar organizations, and with the wave of new arrivals to the United States, the fact is that multicultural literature as a direction and a discipline arose chiefly out of a series of developments in literary studies from the 1970s on. The work of European criticism regarding "difference" in literature encouraged scholars in the United States, such as Columbia University Professor Edward Said, to explore this subject -- the status of "the other" and the exotic in Western literature. As a result, scholars began to investigate writers from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, such as Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston, or Native Americans Leslie Marmon Silko and Gerald Vizenor. Ultimately, a decided impact emerged from Harvard University literature professor Werner Sollors' positing -- in his 1986 volume, Beyond Ethnicity -- a new definition of ethnicity, dependent on boundary, rather than content. His assertion that all U.S. literature was ethnic and his careful readings both of works from the traditional canon and from the growing number of ethnic texts prompted a rethinking of the canon itself.

Whatever the field of literature, one of the more vital components for its study is the creation of one or more anthologies -- samplings of representative readings that, when taken together, can form the basis for a course of study. In 1982, literature professor Paul Lauter gathered more than 40 scholars -- including a number of specialists in ethnic literature -- for a summer institute at Yale University. The conversations were designed to display, critique and assemble the paradigmatic examples of U.S. ethnic literature for an anthology to revolutionize the study of American literature. Since its publication in 1990 by a U.S. academic publishing house, and its reissuance by W.W. Norton and Company, a major New York City-based publisher of general fiction and nonfiction, the resulting Heath Anthology of American Literature, a two-volume set, has proven an invaluable catalyst for this field of study. In its wake have come scores of collections treating U.S. literature as a whole -- with multicultural writers well represented -- as well as volumes covering individual disciplines. The numbers of anthologies of Asian American literature, Native American literature and others increase year by year.

Who are these multicultural writers? They are numerous, and wondrously diverse. Today's students on U.S. college campuses, and indeed, students of American studies and literature around the globe, have the opportunity to be exposed to the writings of U.S. novelists, playwrights, poets and memoirists whose roots are in the Caribbean and Mexico, India and Korea, Pakistan and Vietnam, Lebanon and the Philippines, as well as in black America and the Native American nations.

It's interesting to note a possible future expansion in a new direction within the field of multicultural U.S. literature. One of the gnawing problems, in the academic community, has been the fact that a significant amount of work appropriately included in this discipline has been written in languages other than English, and then poorly translated. As a result, the Longfellow Institute, recently established at Harvard University, is working to identify, collect and retranslate literature from many cultures and all time periods. Werner Sollors' recent anthology, Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity and the Languages of American Literature, provides a hint as to the work being accomplished at Longfellow.

To be sure, these developments expanding the influence of multicultural literature, paralleling its actual creation by the myriad storytellers in the field, are not without some measure of controversy and debate. Each new engagement of teacher and student can be intimidating, until the subject is explored. Still, it is generally acknowledged in the United States today that some of the finest contemporary literature in this country is multicultural in origin, narrative, ideas and perspective, and that the issues of family, identity, the search for self-expression, community that are raised by members of other ethnic and racial groups in fiction and nonfiction speak to all of us. Ultimately, given the changing demographics of the nation as a whole, multicultural literature is unequivocally representative.


John Lowe is professor of English at Louisiana State University, and the author of Jump At the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy and other books.

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