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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

16. The Search For Identity

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
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- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
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•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
Like the revolutionaries who hundreds of years earlier fought for the American colonies' freedom from English rule, the Unit 16 authors have challenged the status quo to demand recognition as independent subjects with unique identities. These authors continue the work started by earlier feminist writers, such as Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Kate Chopin, as well as by writers who celebrated self-determination, freedom, diversity, and democracy, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alice Walker. Alongside the sweeping social revolutions of the 1970s, including the Black Power movement and the women's movement, Unit 16's authors highlight individuals' searches for identity--legal, social, cultural, sexual, and artistic. With often-innovative postmodern narrative styles, these writers have claimed places not only for themselves in the always-shifting canon of American literature, but also for the communities they represent in the popular imagination's conception of America.

In the 1970s through the early 1990s, women writers enjoyed historically unprecedented prominence, as government arts funding and publishing houses, many independent and run by women, recovered "lost" women authors from previous eras and gave opportunities to young women writers. "The Search for Identity: American Prose Writers, 1970-Present," the video for Unit 16, focuses on three women writers who use postmodern narrative styles to enlarge American society's definition of womanhood. In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston combines fiction and autobiography to articulate how a Chinese American adolescent negotiates her values: which of her parents' and which of the dominant culture's values will she adopt? As she grows from childhood to adulthood, she also experiences the double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois's term, of being both American and Chinese. Similarly, in The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes the story of Esperanza, a nascent Chicana feminist growing up in Chicago. Cisneros's novel--actually, a collection of short vignettes that cohere to tell the story--highlights the multilayered processes of identification necessary for many Americans. This idea of identity as a process is also at the center of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues. Combining fiction and autobiography, Feinberg writes of Jess Goldberg, a transgendered individual attempting to deal with her own confusion in the face of mainstream society's often hostile reaction to her sexual variance.

By discussing these and the unit's other seven authors in the context of social changes and movements from the 1970s on, Unit 16 strives to teach students how to discuss identity as fluid and multivalent rather than static and unified. The Unit 16 archive and the curriculum materials extend the video's discussion of identity as a process, as they situate Kingston, Cisneros, and Feinberg in relation to other activist writers of their time, as well as to texts such as David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, whose characters tell the other side of the story--how some people in the mainstream can react to societal changes that they perceive as threatening to their ways of life.

This unit asks students to consider "identity" in racial, sexual, gendered, financial, and educational terms. It also invites students to analyze the literature in light of artistic movements (collage, performance art), cultural trends (memorials, the city within the city), and identity theory (gay and lesbian identities). The core and extended contexts can help students to better appreciate the authors' social milieus: (1) the performance art context discusses how artists expanded the definition of "art" to raise awareness of social issues; (2) the memorials context describes some of the postmodern memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that were built in the late twentieth century and remain powerful; (3) the collage context explores the work of Romare Bearden and other collage artists; (4) the gay and lesbian identities context explains how the gay rights movement is related to the ideas of Judith Butler and other theorists who pioneered new ways of thinking about identity; and (5) the city within the city context introduces the idea of economic imbalances in America's urban spaces. By giving students the opportunity to read literature by authors who have been involved in these artistic and political movements, Unit 16 asks students to examine their own relationships to society by considering the roles of heritage, community, opportunity, and identity.

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