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

14. Becoming Visible

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, N. Scott Momaday

Who's Interviewed:
Judith Baskin, professor of religious studies and director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies (University of Oregon); John Callahan, Ralph Ellison's literary executor and Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities (Lewis and Clark College); Joy Harjo, poet/musician, professor of English (University of California, Los Angeles) (Muscogee/Creek); N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Greg Sarris, professor of English (Loyola Marymount University) (Miwok Chief/Pomo); Pancho Savery, professor of English (Reed College); Eric Sundquist, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English (Northwestern University); Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Award, Dramatists Guild Award, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright

Points Covered:
• The decades after World War II were a conflicting time, characterized by prosperity and conformity for some and rebellion for others. Mass consumption, a movement to the suburbs from the inner cities, and a fear of communism helped to stifle dissent. During the 1950s and 1960s mainstream literary and popular culture embraced some ethnic writers who achieved both commercial success and literary acclaim.

• Writers Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and N. Scott Momaday grappled with issues of ethnicity and race and redefined what it meant to be American and part of the American literary canon. Each produced a novel of identity in which an existential hero goes on a journey of self-discovery. Widely appreciated for their universal appeal, these authors also tackled issues unique to their particular cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

• Ellison's Invisible Man sparked an ongoing debate about the obligations and consequences of a "black identity."

• Roth's Portnoy's Complaint explores the anxieties and aspirations of Jewish Americans as they attempt to adapt to life among the gentiles.

• N. Scott Momaday explores ethnic identity in House Made of Dawn. Influenced by the Native American oral tradition, Momaday's experimental style juxtaposes three kinds of voices: mythic, historical, and personal.

• Preview the video: In the 1950s and 1960s, ethnic writers moved onto the bestseller lists and achieved recognition in literary circles. Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and N. Scott Momaday showed how Americans once at the margins were now closer to the country's cultural center. In doing so, all three writers expanded the boundaries of American literature and opened up the definition of what it is to be American. The video provides the backdrop for this era, as a post-World War II America began to enjoy a prosperity that led it toward conformity and mass consumption. However, the postwar economic boom and "white flight" to the suburbs increased the physical and class distance between the white middle class and ethnic minorities who remained in older neighborhoods closer to the city centers. Ellison, Roth, and Momaday helped to resist the imaginative segregation that accompanied these changes in the urban and suburban landscape. Ellison's adaptations from jazz and blues, Roth's ethnic comedic rifts, and Momaday's ingenious use of Native American narrative traditions all helped to make storytelling richer and expanded readers' awareness of where narrative art comes from and who is capable of creating it. The video also emphasizes the risk these authors took in their innovative approaches as representatives of their own communities, often facing fierce criticism and misunderstanding of their fiction and its intentions.

• What to think about while watching: How do Ellison, Roth, and Momaday expand the definition of what it means to be American? What traditions influenced each of these writers? How do they respond to the social and political tensions of the time, such as the pressure to conform and the need for overall recognition of civil rights for minorities? What American icons do the authors invoke and redefine in their works?

• Tying the video to the unit content: This unit focuses on "novels of identity" from the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those dealing with issues of ethnicity and race. In an era remembered now for conformity, but also for the cultural rebellions of the 1960s, these writers spoke both as individuals and as members of groups. In doing so, they exemplify a conflict between being American and being part of an ethnic community. Unit 14 provides background information that will help readers understand this literature.

The Context "With Justice for All: From World War II to the Civil Rights Movement" provides a surprising picture of how ethnic minorities who had served their country well in war were subjected to hatred and racism upon their return to civilian life. In one sense, these citizens were assimilated into the dominant culture through their service during the war but then were expected to return to disenfranchised minority status after the war was over. Alternatively, Japanese Americans were detained and confined without representation during the war because of widespread fear about their loyalties. Major works exploring such themes include Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. In the Context "Suburban Dreams: Levittown, New York" students learn how new suburban subdivisions intensified a pressure to assimilate and conform and eroded the sense of coherence and belonging that had been possible for many families when they lived in ethnic neighborhoods. Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and even Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman explore the suburban setting, while Bellow's "Looking for Mr. Green" is set in the city. The Context "Living with the Atomic Bomb: Native Americans and the Postwar Uranium Boom and Nuclear Reactions" deals with Native Americans working in uranium mines and with the cultural paranoia of living with "the bomb" in the late 1950s and the 1960s. "Jazz Aesthetics" helps readers understand the influence of this music as it crossed over into other arts, such as writing and painting. Note the influences of jazz and the blues in Ellison's Invisible Man and "Cadillac Flambé," along with works by writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. Finally, "Baseball: An American Pastime" discusses the influences of the "all-American" sport across the country, demonstrating how it reflected the ethnic and labor struggles that were occurring in the rest of American society. Note the use of baseball in the works of Ellison, Miller, Malamud, and Roth.

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