Recently a former student emailed me about how I might define "the American writer." Since everything I want to blog about is too hot for me to comment, I thought I'd post what I wrote to him. I hope someone find this edifying.
I remember being asked a question similar to this one in graduate school, and though I was concentrating most of my study on American writers, I was at a loss to answer. I still am, to some degree. I suppose citizenship has a little something to do with it, but perhaps so does birth. This might be confusing: Auden became an American citizen; Eliot became a British subject (though I don't think he renounced his American citizenship). I can't say being here, in the U.S., has much to do with it. Some of our finest writers (and most "American") did their work abroad.
Nor can I say an "American Writer" is one that espouses American values, because despite what so many say, there are very few clear cut ones. Some have decided that certain things are or are not "American". Most of those people have a limited vision of America and of values in general.
One way to define a "American writer" — and I stress it is only one way — is to say that the American writer responds, in some way, to the vague concept of the American dream. Noting that the idea is vague, I know, means I may have contradicted myself. So be it. America is full of contradictions and I believe it is the tension between what the concept and the reality that really defines America as a people. Thus the American writer constantly examines the American Dream, not just to see where it is wanting, but to see where one's place is in it. Certainly there are questions, but it is to me not criticism, but the sort of doubt that produces faith.
The example that comes readily to mind is E.E. Cummings. Many of my students see him as particularly un-American. I disagree. Here is a man who made the choice to not fight in World War I for reasons of conscience, but who did serve his country. Because he refused to say "I hate the Germans" (instead proclaiming, "I love the French"), he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. His experience became the basis for his novel The Enormous Room. In one of his poems, he notes the irony of soldiers, presumably fighting for "freedom" who take the freedom away from some one who legally chooses to not fight in war ("i Sing of Olaf glad and big"). In another poem, he questions the image of the American male that is personified in western showman Buffalo Bill.
Okay, I said this was going to be brief, and of course, it isn't. However, I do hope this helps you. Thanks for trusting me with the question, and forgive me for delaying my answer.