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American Passages
From Annenberg/CPB, materials to support the study of American literature

Additional Resources
Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

The American Voice

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson embarks on an ambitious journey across America, showing how voice writing evokes a profound sense of time and place in ways no other medium can.

If the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality — as it continues to do — there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the Northerner and the Southerner, the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities such as those discovered when Mark Twain set Huck and Jim afloat on the raft.  Ralph Ellison[1]

Over the centuries, American authors have shaped a vast body of work, often reflecting voices that are distinctly American. From the river-raft philosophizing of a poor Mississippi Valley boy, to the “words walking without masters” filling the journey of a woman descended from slaves, to the border tongue blends increasingly finding a place on the page, the language of American literature has many voices and variations.

American voice writers demonstrate the potential of literature to capture realities of time, place and, above all, people. Uniquely American voices illuminate the power of language. Many times, these works teach readers that the makings of great literature can be found in their own communities, in the languages and speech and dialects they hear everyday.

For Lee Smith, a preeminent American voice writer who often looks to her Appalachian roots for material, a work of literature validated the speech with which she grew up. “I had not understood that the language of my childhood could be the language of great literature,” she told writer Silas House when speaking about the personal impact of James Still’s novel, River of Earth.[2]

Ralph Ellison credited his background as a jazz musician, as well as the time he spent working in barbershops where “oral art flourished,” for helping him to create such groundbreaking works as Invisible Man.[3] Ellison turned to “fictional truth, to reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.”[4]

The power of literature to transcend stereotypes and debunk myths is apparent in the many works of American literature

The power of literature to tell truths, to transcend stereotypes and debunk myths is apparent in the many works of American literature. Often these voices are artful in their own right. It’s the reason why, in Tobias Wolff’s short story Bullet in the Brain, a cynical book critic who can’t stop being sarcastic — even to save his life — returns to a voice-driven childhood memory just before his death.[5]

In his dying moments, Anders (the ill-fated critic) doesn’t recall his first love or the birth of his daughter. Instead, he recalls a baseball game with childhood friends, when someone’s cousin, visiting from Mississippi, says he wants to play shortstop. “Short’s the best position they is,” the boy says.[6] Anders wants to hear that again, but he’s afraid the other boys will think he’s making fun of the grammar. “But that isn’t it, not at all — it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.”[7] This is the proverbial light into which the jaded book critic walks as the story ends:  

Time for shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.[8]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Lee Smith, This preeminent American voice writer often looks to her Appalachian roots for material.
  • James Still, River of Earth is a portrait of one of Kentucky’s most distinguished and honored writers.
  • Ralph Ellison, A look at the life and work of one of the great American masters.
  • Tobias Wolff, A brief biography of a master of short stories.
  • Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York:  The Modern Library, 1992.
  • House, Silas.  “A Day with Lee Smith.”  Berea College, Berea, KY:  Appalachian Heritage, Winter 2003.
  • Wolff, Tobias.  “Bullet in the Brain.”  The Night in Question.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Back to Essay

Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

Back to Top

  1. Ellison, Ralph. “Introduction.” Invisible Man. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
  2. House,  Silas “A Day With Lee Smith.”  Berea College, Berea, KY: Appalachian Heritage, Winter 2003.
  3. Ellison, p.xxvii
  4. Ellison, p.xxvi
  5. Wolff, Tobias. “Bullet in the Brain.” The Night in Question.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
  6. Wolff, p.205
  7. Wolff, p.206
  8. ibid.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York