Capturing America: A History of Modern American Literature

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BBC Radio 4, 25 February 2010
This programme, presented by Mark Lawson, took a look at the ways in which contemporary African-American writers have tried to make sense of their experiences. In an interview given at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature (available on the BBC website), Toni Morrison stressed that most of her novels were set in the past, focusing in particular on the ways in which the (mostly female) protagonists coped with slavery, sexuality and brutality - not only from their white masters, but from their men-folk. This type of African-American writing, according to fellow-author Jane Smiley, was a fairly recent phenomenon: when Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the "timebomb of American Literature" that was the African-American experience had not been set off.
Five decades later African-American writers still experience difficulties articulating their experiences. This is partly due to the fact that white editors in publishing houses expect them to adopt a particular form of American English, so that the work can be marketed as an 'African-American' novel. Moreover, in spite of the fact that there is now an African-American President, many of the social tensions that have riven American society over the last five decades still remain: most African-Americans still live in poverty and experience limited opportunities for self-improvement. Thus it comes as no surprise to find many African-American writers of today focusing on the same issues that they have done in the past - inequality, poverty and violence.
The articulation of violence also dominated literature produced by Euro-Americans. Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) depicted the white and the African-American experience of the inner city - a place of latent violence, provoked not only by poverty but by larger political forces, such as reaction to the Vietnam War. Joyce Carol Oates' work likewise dealt with violence; but this time against females such as Marilyn Monroe, whom Oates believed met a grisly fate on account of her liaisons with the Kennedy family.
Even today, many American writers are still profoundly affected by the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s. James Ellroy set most of his novels during that period - partly as a way of making sense of the period, and partly due to personal motives. His mother was killed at that time; thus for him the violence had both a political and a personal meaning. Cormac McCarthy - author of Blood Meridian as well as No Country for Old Men - was likewise preoccupied with violence. Perhaps it was part of the American national myth.
Capturing America has obviously been designed as an introductory series of programmes, encouraging listeners to find out more for themselves. The BBC website has greatly encouraged this process by creating the American Authors Collection (, comprised of feature-length interviews with the greatest American writers from 1939 to the present. These interviews are permanently available.