Contemporary Period: 1945 to the Present
Orthodoxy and Resistance: Cold War Culture and Its Discontents
New Communities, New Identities, New Energies
Postmodernity and Difference: Promises and Threats
In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator explains the method behind his circular narrative by declaring that "the end is in the beginning," and in a way the three sections on contemporary literature bring us back to issues raised by the texts about the origins of America that open The Heath Anthology. The introduction to the sections "Native American Oral Literatures" and "Cultures in Contact" suggest that the class consider the "creation stories" that students bring with them in order to come to some sense of that cultural construct we call "America." Such a discussion questions how such stories are produced, by what groups of people, and for what purposes. Throughout the section introductions, this approach is described as an analysis of "cultural rhetoric"--the consideration of texts not as static artifacts with self-contained meanings but as strategic examples of what Jane Tompkins calls "cultural work"--the products of dynamic processes of cultural confrontation, negotiation, assimilation, and transformation. These processes include the printing and dispersal of these texts in The Heath Anthology, the assignment of these texts in college classes, and the particular reading experiences of the students in the class taken as both individuals and as members of various communities. Such an approach demonstrates as well that since the study of the past involves the active creation of knowledge on the part of students and teachers, history becomes an active part of the present.
The study of contemporary culture reverses this equation as a part of the same pedagogical approach by regarding the present as part of history. The historical debates over the so-called "canon" of American literature can be illustrated for students by having them define a contemporary canon by themselves. To do this, the class will have to consider what is meant by contemporary culture, how we define what is central, what is marginal, why we might want to undertake such definitions, and what the consequences of different definitions might be. The anthology itself (as well as the class syllabus) can then be regarded as just one such example of canon-building, complete with explanations and justifications of the choices made.
In regard to the section on contemporary literature in particular, discussion can center on the classification system used to organize these texts. If copies of the first and/or second editions of The Heath Anthology are handy, the class can compare how categories have been revised from one edition to the next and why. For example, both the second and the third editions can be seen as grouping contemporary texts by decades--the fifties, the sixties (and the extension of the sixties into the seventies), and the eighties/nineties--under rubrics that highlight a particular historical interpretation of each decade: "Orthodoxy and Resistance: Cold War Culture and Its Discontents" (a subtle but significant revision of "The Cold War: Orthodoxy and Resistance" from the second edition); "New Communities, New Identities, New Energies"; "Postmodernity and Difference: Promises and Threats." From another perspective, however, these titles are contemporaneous, not chronological--Joyce Carol Oates and Lee Smith from the first section are primarily writers of the last two decades; Hisaye Yamamoto and Saul Bellow, while included in section two, are writers of the forties and fifties as well, a point underscored by other changes from the second to third editions, where writers like Bellow and Ralph Ellison switch categories, while Raymond Carver moves all the way from section one to section three. All of the above suggests the complexity of cultural forces at work in contemporary society: the tension and sometimes dialectic between culture and counterculture ("Orthodoxy and Resistance"); the (re)emergence of multicultural literature following the liberation movements of the sixties ("New Communities, New Identities, New Energies"); the self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness of contemporary literature, including contemporary multicultural and countercultural literature ("Postmodernity and Difference: Promises and Threats"). The complexity of these issues also foregrounds the fact that all anthologies of literature, including The Heath Anthology, are not just chronicles of cultural change but active participants in that change.
Such an analysis of the textbook naturally suggests inviting the class to construct their own textbook--their own canons--and to engage in the same operation of historicizing the present and near-present past by examining the associations students have in conjunction with terms like "the fifties," "the sixties," "the seventies," and "the eighties." Where do these associations come from? How are they perpetuated through the mass media and the popular culture and for what ends? Political? Commercial? What other categories and groupings could we use to organize, read, and interpret the texts in this section? "Women Writers"? "The African-American Tradition"? "Poetic Experimentation"? This kind of pedagogical approach emphasizes multiculturalism as an activity, not an inert state of being, an activity that reads texts--all texts, not just texts by "ethnic" writers (as if it were possible for there to be "nonethnic" writers)--as complex, hybrid forms of discourse.
In a similar way, Gloria Anzaldúa developed the concept of "mestiza consciousness" primarily as a way of describing how her own complex identity as a multilingual, multinational lesbian Chicana writer taught her to "cope by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity" by learning how to "juggle cultures." She also implies, however, that such an experience is typical rather than exceptional, and that we are all to a more or less extent juggling cultures as well, the difference being not between the pure and the mixed in terms of cultural identity, but between the conscious recognition of the complicated interrelationship of diverse cultural backgrounds and a kind of willful innocence/ignorance of this diversity.
The struggle is inner: Chicano, indo, American Indian, Mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian--our psyches resemble the borderlands and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real" world unless it first happens in the images in our heads. (87)
Anzaldúa's reference to the outer terrains--the rhetorical space where these internal issues of cultural definition, resistance, and transformation are played out--serves well as a pedagogical coda to this instructor's guide, reminding us that the point of cultural contestation or consensus, the site of struggle and mastery, doesn't lie between the covers of any particular anthology, but takes place in what Louise Rosenblatt called the transaction between reader and text, a transaction that includes both the immediate historical context of the reader as well as that of the text. Whatever the particular selections made for any given class syllabus, the real focus of the class is that transaction--the "images in our heads" that constitute the internal terrain of American literature.