The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature

The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature

The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature

The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature


These essays assess the nature of nuclear war literature from a variety of perspectives. Scholars, activists, novelists, poets, and teachers challenge nuclear ideologies and traditional readings of apocalyptic texts. Included: Holocaust literature of the 1950s, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, poetry and nuclear war, Riddley Walker, Fiskadoro, haiku and Hiroshima, Kopit's End of the World, O'Brien's The Nuclear Age, and Vonnegut's cataclysmic novels.


Summer fields:
fragments of nightmare
flash before my eyes.

(by Hara Tamiki, trans. Richard Minear)

This is a difficult moment to present a study of nuclear war literature. As Soviet policies soften international relations, as the Berlin Wall is torn down, and as Eastern European countries reject communist rule, Cold War tensions are easing. the Persian Gulf war has refocused national attention on conventional warfare. a world-wide nuclear freeze movement has risen from the grassroots level, and in response, on March 6, 1990, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset its famous "Doomsday Clock" back four minutes, to ten minutes from nuclear midnight. Against this backdrop, arguing for the necessity of nuclear studies may seem both pessimistic and counter-productive. Yet the contradictions and debates inherent in such studies indicate the need still exists. Along with what appears to be an overriding desire to classify and categorize this literature, paradoxes abound, matched only by the oxymoronic euphemisms of nuclear rhetoric such as "peace keeper missiles" and "star wars defense." One paradox surfaces when, at the same time the nuclear threat seems to be diminishing, there is an outpouring of new post-holocaust novels. One debate centers on the relative merits of science fiction versus mimetic texts as the best conveyors of nuclear commentary. One contradiction lies in the argument that the eschatological capability of our nuclear arsenals provides a new literary subject, when in fact, there have been writings of apocalyptic doom for a long, long time. Hovering above these issues, however, is the general consensus that this literature is important and must be integrated into the classroom at as many levels as possible.

It is also important not to dismiss the critical studies of nuclear literature as merely esoteric resources for scholars only. Isolating the academic from the political is as naive as believing imaginative literature has no impact on history or societal change. Furthermore, as Daniel Zins suggests in his argument for nuclear criticism in the English department, "...what our students think about—or fail to think about—when they leave our classrooms and educational institutions forges an inevitable nexus between our activities and what we perceive as 'the real world' " (27).

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