The activist tradition in American literature has long testified to the power of words to change people and the power of people to change the world, yet in recent years many professional humanists have chosen to distract themselves with a postmodern fundamentalism of indeterminacy and instability rather than engage with social and political issues. Throughout her bold and provocative call to action, Elizabeth Ammons argues that the responsibility now facing humanists is urgent: inside and outside academic settings, they need to revive the liberal arts as a progressive cultural force that offers workable ideas and inspiration in the real-world struggle to achieve social and environmental justice.


Brave New Words challenges present and future literary scholars and teachers to look beyond mere literary critique toward the concrete issue of social change and how to achieve it. Calling for a profound realignment of thought and spirit in the service of positive social change, Ammons argues for the continued importance of multiculturalism in the twenty-first century despite attacks on the concept from both right and left. Concentrating on activist U.S. writers—from ecocritics to feminists to those dedicated to exposing race and class biases, from Jim Wallis and Cornel West to Winona LaDuke and Karen Armstrong and many others—she calls for all humanists to link their work to the progressive literature of the last half century, to insist on activism in the service of positive change as part of their mission, and to teach the power of hope and action to their students.


As Ammons clearly demonstrates, much of American literature was written to expose injustice and motivate readers to work for social transformation. She challenges today’s academic humanists to address the issues of hope and purpose by creating a practical activist pedagogy that gives students the knowledge to connect their theoretical learning to the outside world. By relying on the transformative power of literature and replacing nihilism and powerlessness with conviction and faith, the liberal arts can offer practical, useful inspiration to everyone seeking to create a better world.

“This exuberant and erudite defense of multicultural American literature is a crucial reminder of how much ground we have gained in advancing the idea that America’s literature has always come from diverse, often-overlooked genius corners of this continent; it also reminds us of what we stand to lose when we fail to recall how the best American writers have so often been committed to making the world a different and better place through their literary interventions. Ammons’s nimble marshaling of authors across a range of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation is fresh, incisive, and often fun.”—Robert Warrior, author, The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction
“In this inspiring mandate, Elizabeth Ammons calls on liberal scholars to live up to the high moral standards that drove us to pursue humanism in the first place. Ammons dares us to replace our present cowardice in the classroom with progressive secular ethics and spiritual politics. Rather than cower before postmodern nihilism, this brave book insists, we not only can save the world: we must. Ammons draws on American literature and a range of astute polemical and imaginative thinkers from William Apess and Sui Sin Far to James Baldwin and Vandana Shiva to show us how.”—Joycelyn Moody, Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature, University of Texas at San Antonio

“Beautifully written, passionate, and engaged, without question this work makes a significant contribution. It is an urgent call to revitalize literary studies within the American activist progressive tradition, and Elizabeth Ammons gives the subject exactly the treatment it needs. In discussing the activist tradition in American literature, Ammons’s goal is to make that literature, and literary criticism too, available, accessible, and important. She seeks to open new conversations with practicing scholars, teachers, and graduate students. These are important conversations about social justice, environmental threats, capitalism run amok, and destructive exploitation of lands and peoples. She reads both the literature and the literary criticism as devices for opening these conversations and beginning the process of problem solving.”—Annette Kolodny, author, The Lay of the Land and The Land before Her

Preface ix

1 Postmodern Fundamentalism 1

2 What David Walker and Harriet Beecher

Stowe Still Have to Teach Us 37

3 The Multicultural Imperative 77

4 Rising Waters 103

5 Jesus, Marx, and the Future of the Planet 139

Acknowledgment 175

A Note on Method 177

Works Cited 179

Index 191

Retail price

Retail price

Retail price

Publication Details

Publication Date
Pages, art, trim size
168 pages, 6 x 9 inches