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Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity - whose voices, for whom?


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historic, social, economic, and most importantly, literary events which unfolded within the United States of America, spanning from the 20th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast to previous phenomena, the 20th century entailed an extreme disruption of morality, ethics, and priorities that affected the rest of the world. This series attempts to assess how the North American literary scene engaged with the socio-political panorama that engorged the patriotic American sentiment of that time, which both World Wars and the Cold War largely contributed to fueling over the period. Furthermore, it will also attempt to analyze how literature became a means and medium to protest against social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism. This analysis will involve the study and examination of literary movements and literary criticism that clearly influenced the evolution of American literature, resulting in a deep, outstanding, and long-lasting impact on the American sense of identity, only to see it shift further as the 21st century opened.

The North American Modern Literature 101 series consists of eight articles, arranged in the following order:

  1. Modern North American Literature 101: Introducing Modern North American Literature

  2. Modern North American Literature 101: Socio-political overview: Roots and Context

  3. Modern North American Literature 101: Fundamental, Must-Read Works

  4. Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric

  5. Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity - whose voices, for whom?

  6. Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories

  7. Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature

  8. Modern North American Literature 101: The Legacy of Modern North American Literature

Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity

- whose voices, for whom?

The issue of diversity and representation has been a recurring theme throughout this series. Who is represented and how they are represented are crucial for the ethics and values associated with national literature. The representation of diversity mirrors the inclusion and integration of individuals who might not fit within national borders. In the established literature, gender, sexuality, race, religion, class, and others are categorized between the Self and the Other, hence, providing “insights into the problematic of constructing a Self from pre-existing materials belonging to the Other” (Palumbo-Liu, 1994, p. 77). In this article, the Other, encompassing the minorities -the discriminated sections of a society-, includes LGBTQ people, women, people of color, and non-Christian religious beliefs and ways of living, which have been repetitively repressed in the North American social context. As an extremely postmodern concept, representation ponders on who owns history -whatever might be understood by owning and history-, and “raises questions about the relationship between agency and media which are crucial to understanding our postmodern dilemmas” (Jay, 1994, p. 10).

Furthermore, this issue does not appear because of a lack of integration but because “the struggle over representation emerges as a historical event and as an opportunity for the development of more just representation in culture, politics, and knowledge” (12). In other words, representation is not merely enough, but a faithful and accurate one might easily encapsulate and provide diversity in art pieces. For the US, the representation of minorities or discriminated sectors englobes a great issue in its literature, particularly in the 20th century. The US is regarded as the optimum of a miscellany of identities, communities, and expressions. Nonetheless, the male cis heteronormative narrative taints and rejects other literary experiences. This can be clearly the case in the first half of the 20th century in America. As it can be deduced, the last century, particularly from the 60s onwards, supposed an explosion of identities by stepping out of the ordinary and normative. Consequently, this essay attempts to present and discuss the literary phenomena of representation in 20th-century North American Literature, and thus, present works that strive to burst the normative literary bubble that North American Literature inhabited until the 1960s.

Figure 1. Some literary works are more representative of American identity than others.

The Conceptuality of Woman, Blackness, and Queerness

Considering the context this series covers, it is essential to understand that representing is not just about having authors as representatives of certain images, but also evaluating how previous literature represents the non-normative. For example, the 20th century is mainly dominated by male voices; thus, representation falls on their shoulders. In terms of gender, the representation of women by male authors tends to stereotype and stigmatize the female figure in literature. Mostly conceived as an object of desire instead of a sole agent subject, as in modern poetry, “there is often a triangulated situation in the lyric: an overtly male ‘I’, speaking as if overheard in front of an unseen but postulated, loosely male ‘us’ about a (Beloved) ‘she’” (DuPlessis, 2001, p. 29). Such traditional narratives reduced women to passive participants in men’s fantasies and desires about their beauty. Therefore, male poets should have had to research how “to identify as and with women” (DuPlessis, 2001, p.32). Therefore, it is not sufficient to represent figures but to understand and identify with them. Nonetheless, these narratives would not be fully approached until postmodernism arrived.

Barely a few female writers and poets are recognized before the 1960s. Postmodernism started to deconstruct mainstream meta-narratives as the main representatives of society. A while before, Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) was “written at a time when the boundaries of racial and gender identity were being drawn more sharply than at any other period of America’s history, in what spaces and places, Larsen’s subtly subversive prose asks, may such women evolve? And what is their narrative position?” (Gillespie, 2015, p. 280). As one of the few modernist writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen both included race and gender in her work in a way that Langston Hughes, the male counterpart of the movement, could not accomplish. Moreover, the representation of a black woman passing for white “put[s] across another more complex view of identity. Whilst ostensibly written in conformity with – or “passing as” the traditional, moralizing tragic mulatto tale, Larsen’s text concomitantly liberates spatial description from the confining dictates of plot to give veiled expression to another even greater transgression than racial passing: lesbian desire” (Gillespie, 2015, p. 286). As a result, with poets such as Anne Spencer and Georgia Douglas Johnson, Larsen represented and recognized that “racial definitions are as confining as those of gender” (Wall, 2009, p. 42).

Figure 2. Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), a classic of the Harlem Renaissance.

In the 60s and 70s onwards, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker were some of the many African American novelists and poets that could profit from their somewhat improved conditions as women, as African American, and chiefly, as African American women to resume and revolutionize Larsen and the others’ work. In The Color Purple (1982), Walker “represents black women’s sexual relationships with and tutelage of one another as an alternative to being subjected to masculinist and dominative ideas of sex” (Musanga & Mukhuba, 2019, p. 396). Female sexuality and desire are critically underrepresented, and if so, poorly represented. The concept of the ‘male gaze’ extends to the perception of female pleasure as hyper-sexualized and exclusive to the male viewer or reader. The representation and diversity of female desire and sexuality depend on “women writers [who] are more invested in dismantling fictions of gender and sexuality than male writers; but American postmodern fiction, on the whole, succeeds in drawing critical attention to how narratives about gender and sexuality frame and limit the possibilities of identity, knowledge, and action” (Robinson, 2017, p. 110). Therefore, it seems evident that proper inclusion and representation directly pilot literature to a diverse and inclusive space.

In a similar way to Larsen and Walker, James Baldwin wrote in Another Country (1962) a complex representation of homosexuality and interracial identity by “contrasting ideals and ideologies, and the formation of nonconforming relationships, be they interracial or homosexual. Individual desire and external social pressure create tension that pulls white and black, homo- and heterosexual characters toward and away from each other” (Salenius, 2016, p. 884). Baldwin’s work demonstrates the struggle for the negotiation of spaces, social norms, and identities. Similarly, Gore Vidal's satirical Myra Breckinridge (1968) challenged the social construction of gender and sexuality. As Carlevale expresses, “Vidal’s androgyne heroine makes it her mission to destroy the genitally-focused, reproductively-oriented sexuality that, as Myra sees it, supports the identity of the American male […]. Myra aims to shatter gender barriers, sex roles, and gender stereotypes” (Carlevale, 2006, p. 385). The implantation of certain gendered- and sexual roles educated and primed American individuals for a non-existent reality. That is, the dominant literature of the first fifty years of the 20th century did not, by any means, cover the extension of the diversity of real America. Gender, race, and sexuality were introduced as male, white, and heterosexual. Hence, forgetting the multiplicity of expressions that formed the US.

Figure 3. Sexuality and interraciality are the main themes of James Baldwin's Another Country (1962).

We are not mental, we are real

A current popular theme is mental health. The conviction that people’s experiences, relations, and prospects influence and deeply affect someone’s emotional state indicates the great strides society is taking. Our mental state is determined by and determines our identity or crisis of identity. However, this was not the situation in the 20th century. Many situations now named depression, anxiety, bipolarity, and so were not strictly conceived and were beyond comprehension. As a result, the representation of these was included in the literature, but it was in a state of confusion and misunderstanding of oneself. Even more, “literary representations of illness challenge essentialist notions of pathology and reveal how social narratives of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, and nationally crucially shape psychobiological models of personhood” (Mendelman, 2021, p. 607). Because of postmodernism, these issues surfaced in literature. The radical changes the post-war era entailed did not simply affect politics or the economy, but the social atmosphere had an impact on psychological behavior. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) attracted a young readership in its depiction and representation of alienation, anxiety, and depression. This might be justified by the parallelism of post-war America with Salinger’s novel being “a profound statement of the fundamental outlook of popular existentialist philosophy: that the world in and of itself, independent of our assuming personal responsibility and infusing it with goals of our own, is altogether purposeless and devoid of meaning” (Jacquette, 2015, p. 171).

Sylvia Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar (1963) informs and represents the psychological and mental deterioration a young woman sustains because of clinical depression and a possible bipolar disorder. Written as a roman à clef (French for novel with a key - real-life events blurred by fiction), Plath fictionalizes her emotionally troubled life. In fact, valued as one of the most inspiring novels by BBC News, The Bell Jar realistically presents the effects of mental health Plath herself suffered and translated to the page. This representation is vital because “talking about illness in general provides an area of human experience in which gender identities are reinforced, contested or transformed” (Charteris-Black, 2012, p. 200). Hence, the representation and diversity of mental health issues benefit one’s own identification with oneself and with the world.

Figure 3. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) attracted a young readership for its implication in mental health.

Othered Communities

Other ethnic communities that are not fairly represented and recognized in American literature are the Native American and the Asian American communities. The struggle between the white population and those descendants of black slaves is relatively and widely known, in a worldwide sense. However, the genocide and extermination of the Native American community and the ostracization of the Asian American community should also be literarily reflected as an American social reality of Otherization. Yet, as presented here, it would not be until the late 60s that literary opportunities would appear for these communities. In fact,

“It is no accident that the possibilities for representing an Asian-American Self as no longer subordinate to, but part of, the dominant Other are sustained most vigorously in the realm of art, and particularly in the world of fiction-for it is there that the Asian American subject can partake of the unity and authority (thought to be) enjoyed by the Other by authoring a Self that can share (at least provisionally) the imaginative power of the Other” (Palumbo-Liu, 1994, p. 76).

Furthermore, it has not been until the second decade of the 21st century that Asian American novels are actually being recognized as valued pieces of American Literature. Few texts such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) would be admired for their representation of the Asian community, although also being criticised for falling under the hegemonic conceptions the US had of this community. For instance, men “were portrayed as misogynistic and cheap, and their Asian American women love interests turned to relationships with White man” (Shek, 2007, p. 381). Authors such as Ocean Vuong with the publication of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in 2019 would remedy the prejudices against the Asian community in America. This could be also applied to the Muslim and Jewish American communities.

Parallel to the Asian Americans, the Native Americans, massively discriminated against and survivors of genocide, lost their voices before even having one in the ‘new’ America. The literature passed on orally was not allowed to complete the culture the founding fathers and its successors wanted to establish for the US. Consequently, representation fell in the hands of Native Americans and their work, which “encourage[[d] thoughtful responses by introducing and directing readers to the issues and ideas important within them. Likewise, they steer[ed] readers away from other beliefs and traditions. […] Native fiction guides readers to new ways of thinking about the world and their roles in it” (Coulombe, 2011, p. 6). For example, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968) opens the gate for proper representation and inclusion of Native American literary texts. He introduces the complexity of living outside of the mainstream ethnic normative. Hence, readers are confronted “with racial antagonism, cultural exclusivity, and their own ignorance (since it draws upon tribal contexts that are probably unfamiliar to many readers). In this regard, House Made of Dawn – published in 1968 – represents an initial confrontation of the so-called Native American Renaissance, particularly to non-Native readers” (37). This demonstrates how representation -independently of the community- transcends the textuality but implies gaining consciousness of the stigmatisation and prejudices enforced on minorities.

Figure 4. Watercolor illustration of Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968) by Bart Forbes.


Overall, proper representation, which includes the complexities and diversities of human experience and relations, is a major issue in Modern North American Literature. The 20th century started by perpetuating the traditional narratives and conceptualisations of previous literature. However, the tenacity and persistence of having their voices heard and owning part of US history have allowed many minorities to depict the American social reality that hegemonic literature had attempted to conceal. These authors have shown how “the struggle for representation has many dimensions. American citizens from every group voice a sense that they are not represented” (Jay, 1994, p. 24). These voices have continuously proved that women, black people, queer people, mental health, Asian and Native Americans have been pinned under the thumb of tradition, ignorance, and reticence. That they deserve a voice for themselves to narrate their own history. For these reasons, the authors and their work presented here, alongside those that could not be included, deserve recognition for their participation in architecting American identity beyond the male heteronormative vision.


Carlevale, J. (2006). The Dionysian Revival in American Fiction of the Sixties. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 12(3), pp. 364-391.

Charteris-Black, J. (2012). Shattering the Bell Jar: Metaphor, Gender, and Depression. Metaphor and Symbol, 27(3), pp. 199-216.

Coulombe, J. L. (2011). Reading Native American Literature / Joseph L. Coulombe. (1st ed.). Routledge.

DuPlessis, R., B. (2001). Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908- 1934 / Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Cambridge University Press.

Gillespie, M. (2015). Gender, Race and Space in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 5 (2), pp. 279-289.

Jacquette, D. (2015). Salinger’s World of Adolescent Disillusion. Philosophy and Literature, 39 (1), pp. 156-177.

Jay, G. S. (1994). Knowledge, Power, and the Struggle for Representation. College English, 56 (1), pp. 9-29.

Mendelman, L. (2021). Diagnosing Desire: Mental Health and Modern American Literature, 1890-1955. American Literary History, 33 (3), pp. 601-619.

Musanga, T., & Mukhuba, T. (2019). Toward the Survival and Wholeness of the African American Community: A Womanist Reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Journal of Black Studies, 50 (4), pp. 388-400.

Palumbo-Liu, D. (1994). The Minority Self as Other: Problematics of Representation in Asian-American Literature. Cultural Critique, (28), pp. 75-102.

Robinson, S. (2017). Gender and Sexuality: Postmodern Constructions. In P. Geyh (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern American Fiction (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 97-111). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316216514.008

Salenius, S. (2016). Marginalized Identities and Spaces: James Baldwin’s Harlem, New York. Journal of Black Studies, 47 (8), pp. 883-902.

Shek, Y. L. (2007). Asian American Masculinity: A Review of the Literature. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 14 (3), pp. 379-391.

Wall, C. (2009). Woman of the Harlem Renaissance. In A. Mitchell & D. Taylor (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to African American Women’s Literature (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 32-49). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521858885.003

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Natàlia Vila

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