America’s literature matters. A nation defines itself and its world by the stories it tells and the books it reads. Concurrently, its international identity is shaped by the songs of its poets, the myths of its writers, and the imagination of its citizens. At the close of the American Century, the men and women of the United States [could] celebrate the essential voices they [had] given to themselves and to the world: Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sylvia Plath, E.L. Doctorow. Their work has described to America and to the world what it is like to be American.
At a time when this nation’s culture increasingly has become defined by the notion of deliberate obsolescence, however, the preservation of its true cultural and artistic heritage is difficult work indeed. As the citizens of this country [closed] the American century, we [were] faced with one simple question: for what do we want to be remembered by our descendants? Do we wish our children to celebrate our shopping malls, our fast food, and our penchant for sequels only? Or will we undertake the steps necessary to ensure that the vital American voices of the 20th century, those such as Gertrude Stein, William Gaddis, Alice Walker, and Bobbie Ann Mason, survive also to define the contours of the American story?
Literature is the most portable of all art forms, yet the barriers to its enjoyment extend from a lack of institutions and delivery systems to the troubling fact that as [the last] millennium [gave] way to the next, too many of America’s citizens lack[ed] the capacity to read the novels, poems, and stories that tell us who we are. At a time when the United States Department of Education states that perhaps as many as one person in five cannot read or write adequately enough to read story books to their children, and the Department of Labor estimates that illiteracy costs U.S. businesses $225 billion each year, words mark the difference between success and failure. And during an era when technological change facilitates the transmission of information at increasingly accelerated rates, books, the purveyors of knowledge and understanding, mark the distinction between blindness and insight.
Adapted from a Literature Report from the Director of the Literature Program at The National Endowment for the Arts
Why a Literate Culture is Important, or Why I Founded The Writer’s Garret
by Thea Temple, Executive Director
(Originally published in the Langdon Review, Volume II, August 2005)