American Ethnic Literature
The Nature of American Ethnic Literature
The literary tradition of the United States and the colonies that preceded them is one of the proudest in the world. Even though the United States is relatively young as countries go, literature was born in the states long before the Revolutionary War because many men and women came to America with the ability to add to the growing literary canon. However, most of the people that established this canon were of European origin, and there was little ethnic diversity among the most prominent early writers of the new country. Because ethnic writers had a different experience in the United States than their contemporaries with European ancestry, the literary tradition that they established differed, sometimes greatly from the accepted American literature. People from different cultures and ethnicities had to establish themselves as writers and they had to break the mold of what was accepted by the literary establishment. This essay looks at American literature from an ethnic perspective and examines the growth and acceptance of writers from different ethnic backgrounds than those who had established American literature in the first place.
A literary canon is a group of works that is in some way special to a time period, place, etc. (Tweten, 2011). American literature, at least as far as it applies to the United States, takes its canon from a group of novels that explain the history of America (Tweten, 2011). This group of books includes authors such as Melville, Hemingway and Ellison. It is considered a canon because, as a group, it tells a story. However this does not have to be the only canon of American literature. It can also be the great works from a genre or a time period. Often a canon of works tells the story of a particular time. Melville and his contemporaries wrote of sailing and whaling. Certain of these books could be called a canon because they represent the genre at that time.
The problem with demonstrating a particular literary tradition is that it often will not include all of the influences that have graced literature in a particular region. Because the United States has such a poor history with immigrant groups (Irish), those who were sold into slavery, and the people who here before the Europeans, it has sometimes been difficult for people from these ethnic and racial groups to enter the American literary tradition. It is much like one of the writers mentioned above talked about in his seminal novel on the subject of racism. Ralph Ellison (1952) wrote “Invisible Man” because he had seen what being black in America afforded him. It was not that he was stomped or turned away; he was ignored. That has been the fate of much of the early writing by people who did not fit the literary profile.
It is interesting to contemplate how long-marginalized ethnic writers view what has been termed the American tradition. Ethnic writing comes from a place that is not typically American, so the literature of people who do not necessarily fit the majority mold would necessarily be different. According to Krys Lee (2012), herself an ethnic writer, people from a certain heritage talk about the experiences of the culture. Often, like Ellison, they talk about that experience as it relates to their time in the United States. A country that has such a great amount of diversity that seems to push it into the shadows at times. Ethnic writers would differ from traditional American writers in their use of voice.
Many people who have tried to expand the American literary tradition see the world through a different lens than traditional American writers. This is because they have seen things that those writers cannot. American writers, that can be termed traditional, have likely grown up in a cocoon of Americana that is much different from the killing fields of Cambodia or the slums in Bombay. Even those who are second, thirdgeneration Americans have a different perspective because they have seen the dark underbelly of the society. Asians are smart and run groceries; Hispanics drive beat up Chevys and have lots of kids; blacks people the welfare rolls. These are stereotypes that a white American does not have to deal with, but they can shape an opinion that comes out in literature that is tilted away from the traditional American canon.
Because of this difference in perspective, Americans from different ethnicities may have a different outlook on liberty, opportunity and equality. Someone raised in South Chicago tenements may not think that opportunity exists. Someone who has parents who emigrated to the United States from Soviet Russia may have a different perspective of liberty. Equality is a word found in the Declaration and Constitution to many, but it is not necessarily found in a society that ignores its citizens. Due to the different experiences that many ethnic writers have had growing up a minority or emigrating from a third world country, the literature that they produce may look very different from that of a traditional American writer.
The good thing about that is the fact that diversity is what is injecting the American canon with a new voice. The opportunity for these writers comes in the form of the new media transfers such as the internet and social media. Their message is entering the American literary tradition because they are now able to disseminate it.
Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible Man. New York: Random House.
Lee, K. (2012). Should we still be using the term ‘ethnic literature’? Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/krys-lee/should-we-still-be-using- _b_1291861.html
Tweten, C. (2011). Tweten, C. (2011). What is the American literary canon? Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/facts_6851835_american-literary-canon_.html
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