Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

IV. Literary History and Criticism

Works included under this heading will help readers appreciate the literature listed in other sections. Authors listed include Vietnamese, communist and non-communist, and Western scholars. To illustrate teaching possibilities, the introduction describes an assignment that involves reading two literary histories, one by a committed Marxist scholar from the North, the other by an anti-communist writer and scholar from the South.

Discussion: Two Critical Perspectives

Literary histories written by Vietnamese provide important background for understanding individual works about the war. I would suggest assigning chapter V of Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n and Hu+u Ngo.c's Vietnamese Literature--the chapter surveying the years 1945 to 1975--and selections from Vo~ Phie^'n's Literature in South Vietnam, 1954-1975. Drawing on the writings of Tru+o+`ng Chinh, the hardline theoretician of Marxism-Leninism, the authors of the first book make the case for a revolutionary literature that conforms to the principles of socialist realism. After the August Revolution of 1945, Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n and Hu+u Ngo.c write:
The period of hazy dreams and visions that led to hermetism, art for art's sake and purely formal research was over. . . . An artist's genius lay not in plumbing the depths of his own individual soul divorced from social relationships, and producing works devoid of content; but in sharpening his sensitivity and setting his imagination to work out the endless material furnished by social life. . . . Apolitical literature was out of the question. (142)

They include works by northerners and by writers from the "liberated" South. They exclude the literature produced "in the towns under American occupation," finding it to be "with few exceptions not worth mentioning, except in that it served as a tool of neo-colonialism" (144).

Vo~ Phie^'n surveys this southern literature so casually dismissed by the communist commentators, making no extravagant claims but revealing its rich variety. He explains how during this period (from 1954--1975) contact with the West increased greatly and "transformed our society, our way of life, our very conception of human existence" and in the process "whetted our intellectual curiosity and excited our creative spirit" (87). Some writers abandoned the traditional delicacy and subtlety in matters of sex and love and wrote daring love stories. Others explored philosophical and religious themes. Some began to experiment with reportage and memoirs. Vo~ Phie^'n observes that although during this 20-year period people in the North were also living through terrible circumstances, there was no hint of crisis in their works--no "spiritual perturbation, no frantic philosophical and religious searches, no heart-rending cries of pain and despair" (80). Instead we get works with characters who "look as if they have just been dragged out from civics and ethics textbooks or from government training and propaganda material" (81).

Interestingly, this same criticism of socialist realism is now being voiced by northerners, including Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n. Several of the writers included in his collection--Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u, Nguye^n Ngo.c, Nguye^~n DDi`nh Thi and Le^ Lu+'u--are now associated with the contemporary Renovation movement, a movement that at least for a brief period (especially 1987-89) resulted in the publishing of works that provide more honest, less propagandistic views of the war and its aftermath (See articles by Nguye^~n Hu+ng Quo^'c and Phu+o+ng Kie^n Khanh below). Assigning these two literary histories will expose students to two approaches to literary history that differ greatly in style and content and also provide background information useful when they encounter examples of socialist realism, Renovation literature, and works from the South.


Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
P.O. Box 208206, New Haven CT 06520-8206
Web Author: Andrew Kuklewicz
Revised: June 18, 1996
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