Re: literature of witness

Kali Tal (
Thu, 18 Dec 1997 20:11:26 -0700

>Can someone recommend a good essay on the "literature of witness"?
>Something I would give to my undergraduates in a course on the literature
>of the Vietnam War.

I'm not sure what you're calling the "literature of witness." I do
recall that the final chapter of Beidler's second book on Viet Nam
war literature bore that title, though I found his description of
the "genre" largely incoherent and was left feeling that he'd
tacked it on in a hurry. It's not something I'd assign to my

There's a discourse between literary critics focusing on trauma and
memory (sometimes referred to as "testimony" or "witness") which is
carried out mostly within psychoanalytic critical circles. The most
active participants in that dialogue are Cathy Caruth (late of Yale,
now at Duke) and Shoshona Felman (Yale English dept). Both have
books out, including one interesting anthology edited by Caruth,
titled _Trauma_, which features essays by a variety of critics in
different disciplines. I'm not personally a fan of psychoanalytic
criticism, since I think it tends to encourage ethnocentric bias.
Caruth's latest book has a section on _hiroshima, mon amour_ that
made my hair stand on end; a postcolonialist critic could use it
as a perfect example of unconscious Orientalism.

Carolyn Forche has anthologized the "poetry of witness," but she has
excluded most of the Viet Nam war writers--all of them, in fact, who
do not inhabit pretty elitist literary circles.

David DeRose has done some excellent work on theatrical representations
of traumatic experience, particularly of the Viet Nam war. He's on the
list, so perhaps he could give you a couple of citations to his published
works, or even send you some forthcoming or unpublished essays.

You might try assigning some of the work of critics of Holocaust
literature, since they address the topic of writing from the standpoint
of the survivor so directly. Lit critters who deal with the Holocaust
are a complicated bunch, but there are dozens of good essays available.
My favorite critic is an Israeli critic names Sidra Ezrahi. I also like a
lot of Lawrence Langer's work. Primo Levi has some beautiful essays,
as well.

My own writing directly addresses the topic, so that might be worth a
look. There's a lengthy essay in Phil Jason's collection, _Fourteen
Landing Zones_, or you might consider the chapters on either Viet Nam
War literature or Bill Ehrhart's work in particular from _Worlds of
Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma_ (Cambridge, 1996).

SIXTIES-L Co-moderator

Kali Tal
Lecturer, University of Arizona
new WORD order
PO Box 13746, Tucson AZ 85732-3746
520-790-9218 (phone & fax) "Web Design For Smart People"

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