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What is American Literature?

Ilan Stavans

Publication Date - February 2022

ISBN: 9780198816218

224 pages
8.5 x 5.4 inches

In Stock


An incisive, thought-provoking, and timely meditation, at once panoramic and synoptic, on American literature for an age of xenophobia, heightened nationalism, and economic disparity.

The distinguished cultural critic Ilan Stavans explores the nation's identity through the prism of its books, from the indigenous past to the early settlers, the colonial period, the age of independence, its ascendance as a global power, and its shallow, fracturing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The central motives that make the United States a flawed experiment--its celebration of do-it-yourself individualism, its purported exceptionalism, and its constitutional government based on checks and balances--are explored through canonical works like Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson's poetry, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the work of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison, and immigrant voices such as those of Américo Paredes, Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others. This is literary criticism at its best-informed: broad-ranged yet pungent and uncompromising.


  • Literary criticism at its most razor-sharp
  • Offers a new interpretation of American literature that is urgent, controversial, and unapologetic
  • Polemicizes in the context of the current xenophobic climate worldwide

About the Author(s)

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NPR podcast "In Contrast". The recipient of numerous international awards, his work, adapted into film, theatre, TV, and radio, has been translated into twenty languages. He is the author of, among other titles, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (Viking), Spanglish (Harper), Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (Palgrave), Quixote: The Novel and the World (Norton), and The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pitts). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (OUP), The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (FSG), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (Norton), Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (Library of America), and How Yiddish Changes America and How America Changed Yiddish (Restless).


"It constitutes a rich sample of texts and genres that can inspire whoever reads it to pull the thread and delve into the themes that Stavans points out." -- Teresa Requena Pelegrí, Escola de Llibreria

"At its core [What is American Literature?] is a compelling thought about the tension between protest and assimilation: the way American literature simultaneously âpropels change, and manufactures consent... " -- Alicia Rix, Times Literary Supplement

"Stavans brings all his passion and experiences as a prolific and versatile writer, commentator, publisher, anthologist, and academic to bear on this heady reconsideration of American literature... [a] speedy, veering, catch-all book of pronouncements and provocations, upended assumptions and unexpected associations..." -- Donna Seaman, Booklist

Table of Contents

    Preface: American Carnage
    1. The Ambition of Origins
    2. Hucks R' Us
    3. Language and Authority
    4. Surviving Democracy
    Epilogue: The Second American Civil War: A Reckoning