There’s no doubt that it is a dark and divided moment in American society—one that both echoes some of our darkest prior periods and presents its own unique and evolving challenges. In such a moment, literature can feel like at best an irrelevant luxury, and at worst a distraction from the collective work we should be doing.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. As I argue in my recently published History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2016), works of American literature offer vital examples of both engaging with our darkest moments and histories and finding our way toward hopeful perspectives and futures through that engagement. Here, briefly, are five of the books on which my project focuses, each of which (along with many others—and I’d love to hear your nominees in comments!) can help us find hope in this dark time.
- Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901): A time of white supremacist violence and terror, of “race riots” and civic unrest, of contested elections and even a political coup. All those histories came together, along with the legacies of slavery and segregation, in the 1898 Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat—and in Chesnutt’s multi-layered historical, political, and social novel inspired by that event. The book concludes with a fictionalized portrayal of the massacre and its tragic effects for all the novel’s characters and communities, but then builds to one of the most inspiring final choices and moments in all of American literature. “There’s time enough, but none to spare,” is the book’s last line. Sounds about right.
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939): Although closely tied to the complementary 1930s histories of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Steinbeck’s Joad family prefigures so many 21st century American stories: dispossessed of their home, unable to find work, uprooted from all that they’ve known, at the mercy of global forces against which they seem beyond powerless. Tom Joad’s famous concluding conversation with his mother about the community and collective struggle that he and they are part of offers one hopeful response to those losses and tragedies. But the novel’s stunning final image—Rosasharn offering the breast milk her stillborn baby will never need to a starving man—provides an even more striking moment of community and hope.
- Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977): Silko’s protagonist Tayo, a young Laguna Pueblo Native American man dealing with PTSD from his World War II service, as well as with the legacies of centuries of cultural oppression and destruction, faces a series of unimaginable challenges in the course of his quest to complete the novel’s titular ceremony and conquer the evil of the Witchery (a force Silko links not only to white supremacy but also native mythology and the atomic bomb, among other narratives). When he does so, his triumph leads to three of the most beautiful pages in all of American literature, images of hope that cover the spectrum from the most universal and spiritual to the most intimate and personal.
- Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker (2004): The traumatic histories of torture, totalitarianism, and genocide that the Haitian refugee characters in Danticat’s multi-perspectival short story cycle experience and bring with them to the United States echo so many 21st century international and American stories. The act of reading these stories and voices itself represents a hopeful expression of empathy and community. Yet Danticat frames her book with the story of the titular torturer and his own multi-generational Haitian American family, a challenging and crucial choice that asks us to consider both the worst of such crimes and the possibility of life and even hope beyond them.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006): Even if we find a way to engage with all our darkest histories and move toward collective hope, however, isn’t it possible—perhaps even likely—that climate change will produce a horrifically bleak global future? Unfortunately it is, and McCarthy’s dystopian novel imagines a particularly grim such world. Yet his story of a father and son struggling not only to survive in that world but also and most importantly to “carry the flame” of courage and love becomes—without minimizing the limits and horrors of its world in any way—an inspiring portrayal of how hope endures even when virtually nothing else does.
Now more than ever, we need to read, to learn from, and to carry forward such literary visions of history and hope. I’d love to hear your additions to this list!