Book Places Contemporary Authors in Conversation with Literary Legends

In the early 19th century, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other now-canonical authors contributed to what Harvard University scholar F. O. Matthiessen later termed the “American Renaissance.” Their work, he argued, represented a burgeoning American literary tradition at a time when the country itself was still trying to formulate — culturally, socially, geographically — what it meant to be American.

Building from that tradition, Professor Caroline Chamberlin Hellman (New York City College of Technology) explores “the existence of a new American Renaissance.”

Her book Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions in American Literature places contemporary authors  — such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz — in conversation with their forebears in order to trace a “literary genealogy, influence, and inheritance.”

In one chapter, Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn pick up on “[Walt] Whitman’s interest in a spectrum of American identity in order to historicize difference as native.” In another, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing responds to Herman Melville, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

Hellman explains that the resulting conversation “concern[s] the project of the United States, the problematic coexistence of its diverse inhabitants, and the premises on which the country was built.”

American authors of diverse ethnic heritage have long been relegated to the margins of literature compared to the canon’s center. But by placing them in conversation with the early American literary tradition, Hellman presents a “constellation” that argues for a “continual story,” one that “reflects a unified approach to the canon and rejects the historical fallacy of deciding which peoples, texts, and histories find inclusion.”

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Children of the Raven and the Whale
University of Virginia Press, 2019

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Caroline Chamberlin Hellman (Professor, English) | Profile 1