COLONIAL WRITING (1600-1776)
The first explorers and settlers who came to North America from Europe wrote little beyond practical reports which they sent back to the Old World, describing the continent’s natural beauty, its unique plants and animals, and the customs of the dark-skinned inhabitants already there. They did not note the rich local folklore (myths, legends, tales, and lyrics of Indian cultures) – an oral, not written, tradition – which was really the first American literature.
MAIN LITERARY FORMS
Leaders of the earliest permanent settlements, in the first years of the 1600s, kept detailed accounts of the lives of their little groups of colonists. Their purpose was not only to tell their friends back home what the new land was like; they also wanted to describe what was in effect a social experiment. The first English colony was set in 1585 at Roanoke, off the coast of North Carolina. The exploration of the area was recorded by Thomas Hariot in “A Brief and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia” (published in 1588). Captain John Smith (1580-1631), who organized the English colony of Jamestown (in what is now the state of Virginia), wrote books in which he outlined carefully the economic and political structure of his settlement. He probably wrote the first personal account of a colonial life in America “A True Relation of Virginia” (published in England in 1608). Farther north, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) recorded the experiences of the Pilgrims who had come from England and Holland seeking religious freedom. His history “Of Plymouth Plantation” (1651) focused on their hardships, on their spiritual response to life in a remote wilderness, and on the religious meaning of those events. This account was written only for his own reflection.
For a long time, however, there was little imaginative literature produced in the colonies. At first, the settlers’ waking hours were occupied nearly totally with efforts to ensure survival. Later, the community discouraged the writing of works such as plays because these weren’t “useful” and were widely considered to be immoral. In the North, where the communities were run by the religious Protestants generally called Puritans, hard work and material prosperity were greatly valued as outward signs of God’s grace. Making money was also important, for other reasons, to the merchants of the growing cities of New York and Philadelphia and to the farmers of large tracts of land in the southern colonies.
The population of the colonies increased rapidly, and by the middle of the 17th century these colonies were no longer crude outposts. In 1647, Massachusetts began to require towns of 50 families or more to establish elementary schools. Excellent colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary were founded throughout the colonies for training religious leaders. In 1640, the “Bay Psalm Book” was the first book printed in America; by the early 1700s, newspapers were appearing. As the latest books arrived on ships from Europe, colonists involved themselves in various European religious and political controversies. Puritan sermons, such as those of Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather, the author of 1702 “Magnalia Christi Americana” (“Ecclesiastical History of New England”) in the late 1600s, or of Jonathan Edwards (Calvinism defender) in the mid-1700s, were often highly intellectual discussions of theology, responding to arguments in the English church. These were not inevitably dry, sterile lectures. Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” for example, was full of imagery and passion. John Woolman, a Quaker, left a record of his innermost thoughts in his “Journal” (published in 1774). The work reflects his deep faith in the “Inner Light”. According to Quaker’s belief, the light is God’s spirit and exists in every human being.
The Puritan notion that God should be seen in every phase of daily life also gave rise to poetry. Anne Bradstreet published a volume of fine poems, chiefly religious meditations, in 1650. Edward Taylor, who wrote at about the same time but did not publish his poems during his life, used imagery in the same bold, witty, original way as did English religious poets John Donne and George Herbert. These writers were known as the “Metaphysical” poets. Taylor’s poems belong to the literary tradition of the individual focusing on his interior life. Anne Bradstreet’s poems represent yet another important element of American literature: From the beginning, women were active literary figures in the New World. Michael Wigglesworth, another important colonial poet, achieved wide popularity with his poem “The Day of Doom” (first published in 1662). It gives the description of the day of judgment.
THE BIRTH AND RISE OF A NATIONAL LITERATURE (1776-1820)
As a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment swept over Europe in the 18th century, its rational logic and its ideas on human rights were eagerly adopted in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), a printer and publisher in Philadelphia, was a model Enlightenment figure. He was an author, scientist, inventor, common-sense philosopher, and a statesman and diplomat in his later years, during the colonies’ fight for independence. Franklin’s “Autobiography”, written about his life from 1731 to 1759, displays worldly wisdom and wit, along with satire and a practical dose of advice on daily living.
By the mid-1700s, the colonies had enough printing presses to publish a great number of newspapers and political pamphlets, most of them echoing the ideology of the Enlightenment. These political writings helped arouse the colonists to wage war against the British government that ruled them. In 1776, the colonists’ position was formally stated in the Declaration of Independence, which was chiefly the work of a wealthy young Virginia landowner and lawyer, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Although he wasn’t a writer by profession, Jefferson was a brilliant thinker, and the strong, clear, fervent language of the Declaration makes it a prose masterpiece. After the colonies won their independence from Britain in 1783, Jefferson campaigned for Constitutional provisions protecting individual rights, which were embodied in the Bill of Rights (the Constitution’s first 10 Amendments). He also served as the new country’s third president.
With independence, energies that had gone into fighting the war were channeled instead into building the new United States. That included the development of a “native” culture. Colonists had imported new plays and novels from Europe before the war; now they hoped for American writers to give them similar literature, dealing with American subjects. A new literature could not, of course, spring up overnight. What often happened was that American writers strained to copy British works. The first American plays were mostly romantic melodramas, usually set during the recent war. The first novelists generally imitated popular European novels. Many women wrote sentimental love stories modeled upon British novelist Samuel Richardson’s (1689-1761) “Pamela” and “Clarissa”. American author Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816) wrote a sprawling satire, “Modern Chivalry”, which was similar to the Spanish masterpiece Don Quixote, except that it was set on the American frontier. Charles Brockden Brown’s (1771- 1810) “Wieland” and “Ormond” were imitations of the suspenseful “Gothic” novels then being written in England.
The leading poet of the early republic was Philip Freneau (1752-1832), a personal friend of many important leaders of the American Revolution. Freneau’s early poems were glowingly patriotic, either celebrating American victories or commenting passionately upon the issues facing the new democracy. After the turn of the century, however, he wrote instead about nature, following the trend in Europe, where the “Romantic” movement was just beginning.
Freneau was perhaps the first professional writer in America, but his fame did not spread beyond his native shores. In 1819, however, a cultured young New Yorker named Washington Irving (1783-1859) published “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”, a volume of stories that was read just as eagerly in Europe as in the United States. Irving was known in New York as part of a circle of literary men-about-town called “the Knickerbocker Wits," but his travels in Europe and his friendship with major literary figures abroad had given him a more cosmopolitan viewpoint. The Sketch Book contains such classic American stories as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” To Europeans, these tales from the New World seemed exotic, yet they were written with a European polish and humor.
Only two years after The Sketch Book, another American writer began to attract attention – James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). His books included a series of frontier novels, such as “The Last of the Mohican” and “The Deerslayer”, and several gripping sea novels. Cooper used the “exotic” settings of the new continent, but he went beyond that to create a distinctively American style of hero – an uneducated man, close to nature, who survived on his instincts, honesty and common sense.
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) became recognized as the finest American poet. His most famous poem “Thanatopsis” is a meditation on the meaning of death. he was also one of the most influential newspaper editors of his time and played a leading role in public affairs for almost 50 years.
In 1828, Noah Webster published an American dictionary, defining what made the English language spoken in America different from British English. The election of frontier hero Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1829 symbolized to many the achievement of a real democracy, and political cartoons and satiric humor blossomed in newspapers. The spread of public schools through the states ensured a large reading public. Educator William Holmes McGuffey’s (1800-1873) publishing of a series of primers, which were widely used in those schools, ensured that the general population shared a common store of literary material – poems, moralistic tales and quotations from literature. After 1836, more than 120 million copies of the “McGuffey Readers” were printed, and they influenced generations of Americans.
THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (1820-1860)
The Romantic Movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread to England, France, and beyond, reached America around the year of 1820. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: it stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination for its aesthetic and ethical values. So, American Romanticism was defined by five “I’s”: inspiration, innocence, intuition, imagination, and inner experience. It lasted from 1828 to 1895, the glory years being 1850-1855.
The country was expanding westward, but in the older cities of the northeastern states still – referred to as “New England” – the influence of early Puritan teachings remained strong. However, such authoritarian religious organizations inevitably produce dissenters. In 1836, an ex-minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) published a startling book called “Nature”. In this volume, Emerson claimed that by studying and responding to nature individuals could reach a higher spiritual state without formal religion. For the next several years, Emerson’s essays (“Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “Compensation” and others) made him extremely influential, not only upon other thinkers and writers, but upon the general population as well, thanks to a growing popular lecture circuit that brought controversial speakers to small towns across the country. In effect, Emerson’s lectures were like sermons, with their direct, motivating language. In his poetry, Emerson developed a free-form, natural style, using symbols and imagery drawn from nature. His work had an immense impact on other poets of the time.
A circle of intellectuals who were discontented with the New England establishment soon gathered around Emerson. They were known as “the Transcendentalists,” based on their acceptance of Emerson’s theories about spiritual transcendence. One of Emerson’s most gifted fellow-thinkers was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).
Thoreau was passionate about individuals’ learning to think for themselves and being independent, both traditional American values. He carried out this ideal by going to live by himself for two years in simple cabin beside a wooded pond, where he survived essentially by his own labors and meditated in solitude. The book he wrote about this experience, “Walden”, was published in 1854, but many of its statements about the individual’s role in society – simply put, that the dictates of an individual’s conscience should take precedence over the demands, even the laws, of society – sound radical even today.
THE BOSTON BRAHMINS
The most popular poet in America at this time was a rather traditional writer – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Although his style was conservative, with strict meter and rhymes, his themes were deliberately American, and he was intent upon giving American history the dignity of classical mythology. Longfellow published over 20 books. In 1855 there appeared “The Song of Hiawatha”, a long epic poem about a young warrior of an American Indian tribe. In his poem, the author sang the harmony of nature and the harmony in the relationship of man and nature. For the first time in American literature, Indian themes gained recognition as sources of imagination, power, and originality.
Longfellow was one of a popular group called the “Fireside Poets” because they often depicted the lives of simple New Englanders in gentle, nostalgic verse. Although they came from old New England families – a sort of American “aristocracy”, they named themselves “The Boston Brahmins” – Longfellow and his circle were dedicated to America’s democratic ideals. Besides Longfellow, leading Brahmin authors included George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell and some famous historians. In 1857, the club started its own magazine, the “Atlantic Monthly”, through which Boston’s literary establishment tried to influence the intellectual life and tastes of the new American republic.
THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (2)
While these New England intellectuals presented perspectives of literature and life other writers were concentrating upon human imagination and emotion rather than the intellect. A young Virginian, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), was publishing poems of musical language and extravagant imagery, which made him a worthy rival of the European Romantic poets. Poe based his poetic works (“The Raven”, “Annabel Lee”, “To Helen”, Ulalume”, “For Annie”, etc.) on the theory that the best subject for poetry is the death of a beautiful woman, who symbolizes an ideal spiritual value. Brilliant but unstable, Poe earned his living as a journalist, often writing devastating reviews of other writers’ work. In 1835, he also began writing bold, original short stories, such as “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. These suspenseful, sometimes terrifying tales plunged deep into human psychology and explored the realms of science fiction and the mystery story long before such genres were recognized. With his “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, The Purloined Letter”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, Poe also became the father of detective fiction. As to his literary criticism, Poe believed that the ideal critic should be objective, analytical, and, if necessary, unhesitatingly negative. He insisted that criticism should deal with qualities of beauty, not history, biography, or philosophy.
Meanwhile, in 1837, a young writer in New England named Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) published a volume called “Twice-Told Tales”, stories rich in symbolism and peculiar incidents. Although he knew the Transcendentalists, Hawthorne did not share their beliefs. His way of rebelling against the traditional New England outlook on life was to write imaginative “romances,” stories and novels which were not necessarily realistic but which were designed to explore certain moral themes such as guilt, pride and emotional repression. His masterpiece was “The Scarlet Letter”, a novel published in 1850. Set in the Puritan past, it is the stark drama of a woman harshly cast out from her community for committing the sin of adultery.
Hawthorne’s writing had a profound impact upon another writer, originally from New York, who was living at the time in New England. Herman Melville (1819- 1891), whose wealthy father had gone bankrupt, had worked at many jobs before signing on in 1839 for the first of several sea voyages. Seven years later, he began writing accounts of his adventures on the open seas and in exotic ports, which won him instant success. Yet Melville longed to write something more serious. Inspired by Hawthorne’s example, he began writing novels which were fundamentally allegories on politics and religion. The public rejected them, however, and, discouraged, Melville published little except poetry for the rest of his life. Ironically, the very books that proved unacceptable during his lifetime are the ones most admired today. “Moby Dick”, published in 1851, uses a story of a whaling voyage to explore profound themes such as fate, the nature of evil, and the individual’s struggle against the universe. It is considered an American masterpiece.
THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (3)
INDIVIDUALS: NEW VISIONS OF AMERICA
Poe, Hawthorne and Melville all struggled to find their individual voices, and through them American literature began to acquire its own personality. One more figure emerged in the 1850s to assert a truly American voice, one that celebrated the American landscape, the American people, their speech and democratic form of government. His name was Walt Whitman (1819-1892), and like so many other of these writers, he had had to work hard for a living as a schoolteacher, printer and journalist. In 1848, he took a trip to the southern city of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, that great waterway flowing through the heart of the country. There Whitman gained a new vision of America and began writing poetry that would embody this vision. In 1855, he published a ground-breaking book called “Leaves of Grass”. Readers were amazed by the free-flowing structure of this poetry, with its long irregular lines. Like Melville in “Moby Dick”, Whitman ventured beyond traditional forms to meet his need for more space to express the American spirit. Some readers were disturbed by Whitman’s egotism (one main poem in “Leaves of Grass” is called “Song of Myself”), but Whitman dwelt on himself simply because he saw himself as a prototype of “The American.” The subject material ranges from the particular to the universal, from the intimate to the cosmic, the theme of self-realization being central to Whitman’s sense of purpose. Startling as this poetry was, it won Whitman admirers across America and in Europe. Throughout the rest of his life, he kept rewriting and republishing editions of “Leaves of Grass”. He celebrated a sweeping
panorama of the American landscape and sang almost mystically of the rhythms of life uniting all citizens of the democracy.
While prose fiction in the United States was developing in vital and imaginative ways, poetry seemed to recede as an art form. The poetic giants, Longfellow and Whitman, both died in the 1880s, as did two poets who have been admired by later generations, but who were barely known while they lived. One was southerner Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), who mourned the romantic ideal of the “Old South,” which he felt had been shattered by the Civil War. Lanier held strong theories about poetry’s relationship to music, and his rhythmic, singing verse reminded many people of the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
The other unrecognized poet was Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), a shy, brilliant New England woman who lived almost as a recluse in her family home. After a batch of her poems were rejected by one editor, she wrote only for herself, or sent verses as gifts to friends and relatives. They were typically short, reflective poems, with regular meter and rhyme and fresh, closely observed images. Although at first they appear to be traditional love poems or religious meditations, upon closer reading Dickinson’s poems reveal a religious skepticism and psychological shrewdness that is surprisingly modern.
Emily Dickinson was one of the first writers whose work can be seen as inherently American. Two of her great themes are eternity and the moment of death, and her use of dashes gives us a visual sense of the gap between the worlds and emphasizes the endlessness of infinity. She wrote over 1.700 poems, which were discovered after her death.
REFORM AND LIBERATION: ABOLITIONISTS
New England intellectuals had, in fact, a tradition of involvement in liberal reform. In the 1850s, this took the form of a movement to end the institution of slavery, which by that time was practiced chiefly in the southern states. In 1852, a New England woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, an antislavery novel that galvanized political opinion across the nation. Sentimental and melodramatic as it was, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” portrayed black slaves as sympathetic, suffering figures, and created an image of the cruel slave-owner in the character of Simon Legree. Largely as a result of this best-selling novel, the slavery question became a passionately debated political issue. Eventually the Southern states determined to secede from the Union and to establish themselves as an independent country in order to preserve their way of life, which included an agrarian economy based in great part on slave labor. The result of Northern reaction to this secession was the Civil War (1861-1865), fought to preserve the Union. One consequence of the South’s defeat in that war was the abolition of slavery in the United States. In many ways, this bloody, divisive war dimmed American optimism, and for a time writers retreated from national themes.
THE RISE OF REALISM (1860-1914)
FRONTIER HUMOR AND REALISM
The country had been growing; as pioneers settled new territories in the West, writers now focused on the differences between the various regions of the United States rather than on a single vision of the expanding country. One of the most important leaders of this “regionalism” movement was William Dean Howells (1837-1920), who in 1866 became editor of the influential Atlantic magazine. Howells published stories from all over the United States, and in his literary reviews he praised writers who described local life realistically. In New England, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) wrote fine novels and stories about small-town life.
Three other women, in different parts of the country, were also writing sympathetic psychological studies. Though influenced by regionalism, they didn’t emphasize setting so much as they did their characters, individuals who often felt out of place in their environments. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” (1899) is set in the heart of the South, in New Orleans; Ellen Glasgow’s “The Voice of the People” (1900) is a realistic portrait of provincial Virginia society; and Willa Cather’s “О Pioneers!” (1913) depicts life on the sweeping plains of Midwestern Nebraska. Glasgow and Cather went on to write several novels and establish themselves as major American writers, but Chopin stopped writing after her book was condemned by literary critics.
Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) wrote colorful stories about the South, such as his “Uncle Remus” stories, in which the strong southern accent was written in dialect. The central part of the country, the wide plains and rolling farmlands of the Midwest, were depicted in John Hay’s “Pike Country Ballads” and Edward Eggleston’s “The Hoosier Schoolmaster”. And the raw mining camps and settlements of the far West were brought to life by storytellers such as Bret Harte, in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and a newspaper correspondent named Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast. He grew up in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River and received only a basic public school education. He began working in a printer’s shop when he was still a boy, and this experience led to a series of newspaper jobs in the Midwest and the West. Twain was a new voice, an original genius, a man of the people, and he quickly won readers. He captured a peculiarly American sense of humor, telling outrageous jokes and tall tales in a calm, innocent, matter-of-fact manner. He sometimes used local dialect for comic effect, but even his normal prose style sounded distinctively American – rich in metaphor, newly invented words and drawling rhythms.
Twain had a cynical streak that matched the country’s skeptical post-Civil War mood. He soon developed beyond merely “regional” stories and turned to comic novels. His shrewd social satire was most apparent in books such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, but perhaps his greatest book is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884). This is the story of a boy running away from home and steering a raft down the Mississippi River, but it is more than that. The people the boy meets cover the entire spectrum of humanity, and his voyage down the river becomes a metaphor for a journey through life. Funny, powerful, humane and laced with social commentary and criticism, ‘Huckleberry Finn” has been called the greatest novel in American literature.
Throughout all of Twain’s writings, we see the conflict between the ideals of Americans and their desire for money. Twain never tried to solve the conflict. He was not an intellectual. He was like a newspaperman who reports what he sees.
As the wounds of the Civil War slowly healed, many Americans became discontented with the growing materialism of society in the United States. Henry Adams (1838-1918), a thoughtful historian and social critic, wrote two social novels in the 1880s (although today they are not as well read as his autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams”).
Henry James (1843-1916), an American who lived in Europe, examined American society by observing the divergence between American and European culture in novels like “The American” and “Portrait of a Lady”. James’ realism was a special kind of psychological realism. He was an observer of the mind rather than a recorder of the times. He never tried to give a detailed picture of society. He selected a problem and studied it from different points of view. One kind of problems James considered is the nature of art, the other – the unlived life.
In 1888, one of the most widely read American books was Edward Bellamy’s (1850-1898) “Looking Backward”, a portrait of an imaginary future society which embodied all of Bellamy’s ideas for social, economic and industrial reorganization. These books signaled a return to social discussion in fiction.
NATURALISM AND MUCKRAKING
“Regional” writers began to drop their narrow provincial focus, while still using realistic descriptions of everyday life. As they concentrated increasingly upon the grimmer aspects of reality and a deterministic view of life, they were called “naturalists,” linking them to European naturalists such as French novelist Emile Zola. Again, William Dean Howells led the American realistic movement, both with his magazine criticism and with his own novels, such as “The Rise of Silas Lapham”, a probing but sympathetic portrait of an American businessman. Howells defined the aims of realism as “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”. He called on writers to describe the average and the ordinary in the lives of the people of America.
In 1881, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) published “Main-Travelled Roads”, a gritty portrayal of the farming communities of the upper Midwest, where he had grown up. It went beyond regionalism to condemn the economic system that, in his opinion, kept these people poor. Stephen Crane’s (1871- 1900) “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets”, in 1893, and Theodore Dreiser’s (1871-1945) “Sister Carrie”, in 1900, were considered shocking because they described young urban women who fell into sexual sin. Crane’s next novel, ‘The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) was set during the Civil War. By limiting itself to a young soldier’s confused impressions of battle, it became the first impressionistic novel in America. Frank Norris’ (1870-1902) “McTeague” (1899) was the story of a dentist’s despairing life; Upton Sinclair’s (1878-1968) “The Jungle” (1906) exposed the horrible lives of meat-packing factory workers. Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” (1903), the tale of a sled dog, was set in the snowy wilderness of the Northwest, where the discovery of gold had caused a rush of greedy prospectors. In this novel and other celebrated tales set in Alaska and in the South Pacific, London expressed his sense that primitive urges underlie all of life, reducing even humans to the level of animals. The autobiographical novel “Martin Eden” (1909) depicts the inner stresses of the American dream as London experienced them during his meteoric rise from obscure poverty to wealth and fame. The novel looks ahead to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in its despair amid great wealth.
While these controversial books disturbed the reading public, other writers were quietly exploring the fate of the individual. After the turn of the century, Henry James, still living in Europe, wrote three brilliant novels, “The Wings of the Dove’, “The Ambassadors” and “The Golden Bowl”, in which he plunged deep into the characters and personalities of his subjects. These were chiefly wealthy, cultured Americans living in Europe, but, like the lower-class characters of the naturalists’ novels, James’ people were trapped in their environment, struggling to find happiness. James’ interest was psychological rather than social, however. Recording the most minute details of perception, he drew his readers close to his characters’ mental and emotional processes. His writing style became increasingly complex, but this focused attention away from action and setting and onto what the characters were feeling.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was one of James’ close friends and literary followers. She came from a socially prominent New York family and had married into an equally important Boston family. This high-toned social circle disapproved of her writing, but eventually she defied her peers and produced insightful novels and stories. One of her finest books, “The House of Mirth” (1905), tells the tragic story of a fading beauty hunting desperately for a rich husband. Wharton exposed her upper-class world as only an insider could, but her characters were her main interest.
By the first decade of the 20th century, even writers of popular fiction were concentrating their attention upon the lower levels of society. One of the most successful of these writers was O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910), who churned out hundreds of clever magazine stories, usually with an ironical surprise ending. Like Mark Twain (whose work is filled with stories about how ordinary people trick experts, or how the weak succeeded in “hoaxing” the strong), he takes the side of the “little people” and the weak “under-dogs” against the strong or important.
Midwesterners Ring Lardner (“The Love Nest and Other Stories”) and Booth Tarkington (“Alice Adams” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”), were less sentimental and more satirical than O. Henry, but they too wrote humorous popular fiction about the unglamorous lives of everyday people.
THE 1ST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY
In the first decades of the 20th century the United States became increasingly urban.
Three major works of literature expressed this new attitude of rebellion against the limited life of the typical small American town. The first work, written in 1915, was “Spoon River Anthology”, by Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950). The “Spoon River” poems all took the form of gravestone inscriptions from the cemetery of an imaginary Midwestern town. In each short poem, one buried person recounted his or her life experience in ironic, sometimes bitter statements, full of regret. The overall message was one of tragically wasted lives.
In 1919, a writer named Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) published a book of short stories called “Winesburg, Ohio”. Like “Spoon River Anthology”, this was a series of portraits of different personalities in one Midwestern town, creating an overall impression of narrow-minded ignorance and frustrated dreams.
The third “revolt from the village” work was a novel called “Main Street”, by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), published in 1920. Again, the setting was a small Midwestern town, this one called Gopher Prairie, a name that suggested crudeness and lack of culture. In this book, and in others such as “Babbitt” and “Arrowsmith”, Lewis drew vivid caricatures and satirized the traditional “American dream” of success. To urban Americans and Europeans both, Lewis seemed to sum up what small-town America was all about. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first American to be so honored.
The 1925 work “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, like London’s “Martin Eden”, explores the dangers of the American dream. The novel is a reflection of dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America’s competitive, success-driven society. His other works of desire and fate are “Jennie Gerhardt” (1911), and a “Trilogy of Desire” which include “The Financier” (1912), ‘The Titan” (1914), and “The Stoic” (1947). Dreiser is still considered one of the great American realists, or naturalist. His works deal with everyday life, often with its sordid side. The characters of his novels , unable to assert their will against natural and economic forces, are mixtures of good and bad, but he seldom passes judgment on them. He describes them and their actions in massive detail. As Dreiser sees them, human beings are not tragic but pathetic in their inability to escape their petty fates.
THE “LOST GENERATION”
The central distinguishing element of American literature is a strong strain of realism, seen earlier in perhaps America’s greatest novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884) by Mark Twain and also in its greatest, or at least, most extensive work of poetry, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (1855). Also, at its best there is a high moral tone to American literature reflected in the constant anguish over the loss of ideals and failure of the American dream to provide opportunity for all. This same concern for spiritual or moral well-being is evident in the rebellion against the stultifying elements of small-town American life.
In the aftermath of World War I many novelists produced a literature of disillusionment. Some lived abroad and were known as “the Lost Generation.” The term refers to the generation who came of age during World War I. Many of this generation – writers and artists – ended up living in Paris. They came from the United States, from the United Kingdom, from Canada. The term itself was coined by Gertrude Stein. Her phrase “you are all a lost generation” quickly became a name for these authors after Ernest Hemingway mentioned it in the epigraph for ‘The Sun Also Rises”.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) novels capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. His first novel “This side of Paradise” (1920), became a bestseller. In the second, “The Beautiful and the Damned” (1922), he continued his exploration of the self-destructive extravagance of his times. Fitzgerald’s great theme, expressed poignantly in “The Great Gatsby” (1925), was of youth’s golden dreams turning to disappointment. His prose was exquisite, yet his vision was essentially melancholy and nostalgic. Other fine works include “Tender Is the Night” (1934), the collections of stories “Flappers and Philosophers” (1920), “Tales of the Jazz Age” (1922), and “All the Sad Men”(1926).
John Dos Passos (1896-1970) came home from the war to write long novels that attempted to portray all of American society, usually with a critical eye. In three novels combined under the title U.S.A. (“The 42nd Parallel”, “1919”, “The Big Money”) he interwove many plots, characters and settings, fictional and non-fictional, cutting back and forth between them in a style much like the new popular art-form, motion pictures. Dos Passos’s new techniques included “newsreel” sections taken from contemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as “biographies” briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos’s novels a documentary value; a third technique, the “camera eye”, consists of stream of consciousness prose poems that offer a subjective response to the events described in the books. His style is fast-moving and unemotional. It is filled with the sounds, smells and colors of reality. Like other members of the Lost Generation, Dos Passos saw the modern, post-war world as dirty and ugly. To him, only art, and the invention of new artistic styles (“modernism”), could save the world.
War had also affected Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Having seen violence and death close at hand, Hemingway adopted a moral code exalting simple survival and the basic values of strength, courage and honesty. In his own writing, he cut out all unnecessary words and complex sentence structure, concentrating on concrete objects and actions. The language is rarely emotional and only rarely the writer does use adjectives. He will sometimes repeat the a key phrase to emphasize his theme. His main characters are usually tough, silent men, good at sports or war but awkward in their dealings with women. The concept of the Hemingway hero (sometimes known as the “code hero”) is common to almost all of the author’s novels. As to Hemingway’s heroines, they nearly always personify the physical appearance of the ideal woman in their beauty. But in their personality, they appear as two types: the “all-woman” who gives herself entirely to the hero and the “femme fatale” who retains herself and prevents the hero from possessing her completely. But the heroine, like the hero, obeys the “Hemingway code” – she is basically courageous in life, choosing reality over thought, and she faces death stoically. Among Hemingway’s best books are “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940). “The Old Man and the Sea”, a short poetic story about a poor, old fisherman who heroically catches a huge fish devoured by sharks is an allegory of human life. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Next year Hemingway won the Nobel Prize and is considered one of the greatest American writers.
Another expatriate, Henry Miller (1891-1980), used a comic, anecdotal style to record his experiences as a down-and-out artist in Paris. Miller’s emphasis on sexual vitality made his books, such as “Tropic of Cancer” (1934), shocking to many, but others felt that his frank language brought a new honesty to literature.
Southerner Thomas Wolfe (1900-19380 felt like a foreigner not only in Europe but even in the northern city of New York, to which he had moved. Though he rejected the society around him, he did not criticize it – he focused obsessively on himself and on describing real people from his life in vivid characterizations. His long novels, such as “Of Time” and the “River” and “You Can’t Go Home Again”, gushed forward, powerful, romantic and rich in detail, although emotionally exhausting.
Another southerner, William Faulkner (1897-1962), found in one small imaginary corner of the state of Mississippi, deep in the heart of the South, enough material for a lifetime of writing. Faulkner created an entire imaginative landscape, Yoknapatawpha County (with its capital Jefferson), mentioned in numerous novels, along with several families with interconnections extending back for generations. His social portraits were realistic, yet his prose style was experimental. To show the relationship of the past and the present, he sometimes jumbled the time sequence of his plots using the “continuous present” style of writing, which was invented by G. Stein; to reveal a character’s primitive impulses and social prejudices, he recorded unedited the ramblings of his or her consciousness (stream-of-consciousness technique”). In most of his novels, Faulkner uses various viewpoints and voices, which makes his works self-referential, or “reflexive”. His best novels include “The Sound and the Fury” (1929) and “As I Lay Dying” (1930), two modernist works; “Light in August” (1932), “Absalom, Absalom!”(1936), “The Hamlet” (1940), “The Town” (1957), and “The Mansion” (1959). Faulkner won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
With growing sophistication in literature came a resurgence of American poetry.
Many poets first became known by having work published in “Poetry” magazine in Chicago, though the writers themselves came from various regions of the country. The one thing they had in common was technical skill and originality.
On one hand there were social satirists like Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson wrote melancholy, ironic portraits of American characters, often set in a small town, a New England version of Masters’ “Spoon River”. On the other hand, Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg poured out exuberant verse that sang proudly of America.
Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) lyric poems about the New England countryside seemed simple and traditional in form, although underneath there ran a darker vision. On the other side of the continent, in the western state of California, Robinson Jeffers was writing, in sprawling free verse, more openly pessimistic poetry set against a grimmer image of nature.
THE MODERNISTS Technical innovations in both poetry and prose were just getting under way, perhaps as a reaction to the plain style of the realists and naturalists. The large wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization’s classical traditions. . Modern life seemed radically different from traditional life – more scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced these changes.
In 1909, an American woman named Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who had settled abroad in Paris, France, published an experimental work of prose called “Three Lives” that would influence an entire generation of younger writers. Stein once explained that she and Picasso were doing the same thing, he in art and she in writing. Using simple, concrete words as counters, she developed an abstract, experimental prose poetry. The childlike quality of Stein’s simple vocabulary recalls the bright, primary colors of modern art, while her repetitions echo the repeated shapes of abstract visual compositions. By dislocating grammar and punctuation, she achieved new abstract meanings as in her influential collection “Tender Buttons” (1914), which views objects from different angles, as in a cubist painting. Meaning, in Stein’s work, was often subordinate to technique, just as subject was less important than shape in abstract visual art. The idea of form as the equivalent of content, a cornerstone of post-War War II art and literature, crystallized in this period.
In 1912, in the major Midwestern metropolis of Chicago, Harriet Monroe founded a magazine called “Poetry”, through the pages of which she would discover and encourage a whole group of masterful new poets.
One important literary movement of the time was “Imagism,” whose poets focused on strong, concrete images. New Englander Amy Lowell poured out exotic, impressionistic poems; Marianne Moore, from the Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri, was influenced by Imagism but selected and arranged her images with more discipline. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) began as an Imagist but soon went beyond, into complex, sometimes obscure poetry, full of references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature. Living in Europe, Pound influenced many other poets, especially T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).
Eliot was also born in St. Louis but settled in England. He became a towing figure in the literary world there and one of the most respected poets of his day. To both Eliot and Pound, knowledge of tradition is necessary for the poet to create “new” poetry. Another principle of their philosophy was “impersonalism”, which means that it is important to look at the poetry, not at the poet. Eliot wrote spare, intellectual poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. His modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas. As a critic, Eliot is best remembered for his formulation of the “objective correlative”, which he described in “The Scared Wood”, as a means of expressing emotion through “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” that would be the formula of that particular emotion. Poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) embody this approach. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (1922) spun out, in fragmented, haunting images, a pessimistic vision of post-World War I society. From then on, Eliot dominated the so-called “Modern” movement in poetry. His other major poems include ”Gerontion” (1920), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash-Wednesday” (1930), and “Four Quartets” (1943), a complex, highly subjective, experimental meditation on transcendent subjects such as time, the nature of self, and spiritual awareness. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, for his innovations in modern poetry.
Another Modernist, e.e. cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings, 1894-1962), called attention to his poetry by throwing away rules of punctuation, spelling, and even the way words were placed on the page. His poems were song-like but satiric, humorous and anarchistic. He was the most joyful poet of the Lost Generation. His first work was a novel about war, “The Enormous Room” (1922). It attacks both war and government. In his poetry, we can see the clear influence of both G. Stein and the Cubist painters. Like the Cubists broke their paintings up into many different angles or “facets”, Cummings loved to break the traditional poem into unusual bits and pieces. He made every part of a poem express his own individuality. He rarely capitalized the words we usually capitalize (like his name). He sometimes uses capital letters in the middle or at the end of words. Cummings hated the large, powerful forces in modern life: politics, the Church, Big Business. To him, real love can only happen in complete freedom. Just as Whitman liberated American poetry in the nineteenth century, Cummings liberated the poetry of the twentieth century.
Wallace Stevens, in contrast, wrote thoughtful speculations on how man can know reality. Stevens’ verse was disciplined, with understated rhythms, precisely chosen words and a cluster of central images. The poetry of William Carlos Williams, with its light, supple rhythms, was rooted in Imagism, but Williams, a New Jersey physician, used detailed impressions of everyday American life.
THE 1ST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY (2)
DEPRESSION REALISM The Depression caused novelists, too, to focus on social forces. In the South, Erskine Caldwell took a satiric look at poor southern life in “Tobacco Road” and “God's Little Acre”. In the Midwest, James T. Farrell depicted the harsh city slums of Chicago in a trilogy of novels about a young man named Studs Lonigan. In the West, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) told sympathetic stories about drifting farm laborers and factory workers. His 1939 masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath”, depicted an impoverished Midwestern family joining a stream of poor farm laborers heading west to the “land of opportunity,” the state of California. By interweaving chapters of social commentary with his story, Steinbeck made this portrait of the Joad family into a major statement about the Depression.
In New York, humorists Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and Ogden Nash carried on a tradition of witty, urbane, cynical writing in magazines like “The New Yorker” and ‘Vanity Fair”. This was followed by a crop of novelists and short story writers, whose literary territory was on the east coast, in sophisticated suburbs or city neighborhoods, populated by the upper middle class. J. P. Marquand established his reputation with “The Late George Apley” (1937). John O’Hara wrote a stream of short stories, as well as novels such as “Appointment in Samarra” and “Butterfield 8”. John Cheever's masterful short stories, beginning in the early 1940s, defined what has become known as “the New Yorker story” – an understated, elegantly written tale of modern lives.
As the seedy underside of society began to acquire a perverse glamour, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler elevated the detective story from the status of cheap fiction to literature. Hammett’s most famous detective hero was tough guy Sam Spade, in “The Maltese Falcon’ (1930); Chandler’s was Philip Marlowe, who first appeared in “The Big Sleep” (1939).ESCAPISM AND WAR Historical fiction became increasingly popular in the Depression, for it allowed readers to retreat to the past. The most successful of these books was “Gone With the Wind”, a 1936 bestseller about the Civil War by a southern woman, Margaret Mitchell.
The western novel became popular in the 1940s. The earliest westerns had been adventures of cowboys and Indian fighters, published in cheap fiction magazines in the late 19th century. Owen Wister’s novel “The Virginian” (1902) had introduced rugged, self-contained cowboy hero, who embodied the American ideal of the individualist. Even in the hands of a master like Zane Grey (“Riders of the Purple Sage”, 1912), however, western novels were written to a formula, colorful and action-packed but rarely thought-provoking. Then in 1940 Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Oxbow Incident” examined the rights and wrongs of frontier justice and Jack Shafer’s ”Shane”, published in 1948, was a sensitive study of a boy’s hero-worship of a frontier loner.
In 1939, war broke out in Europe, and eventually the entire world was embroiled in conflict again. The United States joined the war in December 1941, fighting both in Europe and in the Pacific. Right after the war, a series of young writers wrote intelligent novels showing how the pressures of war highlight men’s characters. These included Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead”, Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions”, Herman Wouk's Caine “Mutiny” and James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”. By 1961, Joseph Heller published his satiric war novel “Catch-22”, in which war is portrayed as an absurd exercise for madmen.HARLEM RENAISSANCE American literature entered the 20th century not as optimistic or patriotic as it had been a century earlier, yet full of democratic spirit. There were some voices still to be heard, however. Black Americans were just beginning to make their mark in literature in the wake of the Civil War’s having freed them from slavery. One gifted black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), published a few volumes of poetry during the 1890s which were discovered and admired by white readers. Most of his poems, however, used the black dialect of folklore for humorous effect; only a few poems express the painful struggle of his short life. In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois (1869-1963) published “Souls of Black Folk”, a series of sketches of the common lives of his people which was the first glimpse many white Americans had had of the social condition of blacks since slavery. In 1912, poet James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote a novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man”, which also depicted blacks building a new culture after slavery. But it would still be a few years before black literature would burst into flower.
The 1920s also saw the rise of an artistic black community centered in New York City in Harlem, a fashionable black neighborhood. African-Americans had brought a lively, powerful music called jazz with them as they moved to northern cities; the jazz clubs of Harlem became chic night spots in the 1920s. The nation suddenly discovered “the new Negro,” an articulate urban black, conscious of his or her racial identity. Magazines and newspapers dedicated to black writing sprang up. New poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Arna Bontemps wrote about what it mean to be black. They used exotic images drawn from their African and slavery pasts, and incorporated the rhythms of black music such as jazz, blues and the folk hymns called “spirituals.” Many of these poets also wrote novels, such as Toomer’s “Cane” (1923), McKay’s “Home to Harlem” (1928) and Bontemps’ “Black Thunder” (1936). Cullen and James Weldon Johnson published anthologies of black poetry. The Harlem Renaissance gave African-American culture prominence and an impetus to grow.
THE 2ND HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY
POSTWAR VOICES After World War II, southern literary pride gave rise to a host of new southern writers, all with a skill for rich verbal effects and a taste for grotesque or violent episodes. These included Carson McCullers (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”), Eudora Welty (“The Wide Net”), Truman Capote (“Other Voices, Other Rooms”), Robert Penn Warren (“All The King's Men”), William Styron (“Lie Down in Darkness”), Flannery O’Connor (“Wise Blood”) and James Agee (“A Death in the Family”).
Science fiction had for years existed in cheap popular magazines, offering readers a fantastic escape from their own world. Yet in the 1950s, “sci-fi” became serious literature, as Americans became more and more concerned about the human impact of their advanced technological society. Ray Bradbury (“Martian Chronicles”, 1950), Isaac Asimov (“Foundation”, 1951), Kurt Vonnegut (“Player Piano”, 1952), and Robert Heinlein (“Stranger in A Strange Land”, 1961) imaginatively portrayed future worlds, often with a moral message for the writer’s own era.
The new receptivity of American society to a diversity of voices incorporated black writers and black protest into the mainstream of American literature. Richard Wright’s disturbing novel “Native Son”, published in 1940, revealed a new black hero, whose character had been warped by his violent and cruel society. The hero of Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man” (1952), is also driven underground by the values of white society. James Baldwin’s characteristic themes, hatred of racism and celebration of sexuality, were expressed in novels like “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (1953) and in essays like “The Fire Next Time” (1963). Beginning with “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945), Gwendolyn Brooks wrote haunting poetry of life in a Chicago black ghetto. Lorraine Hansberry dramatized the tensions pulling apart a poor black family in her 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun”. Black writing grew even more political in the 1960s, as the struggle for equal rights for blacks grew into a more general “black power” movement. Some of this anger could be seen in the poetry, plays and essays of Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly known as Leroi Jones). Black political figures produced stirring books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), written with Alex Haley, and “Soul On Ice” (1968) by Eldridge Cleaver. Women poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans and Nikki Giovanni expressed their black pride in less violent, but still bitter, language.
American Jews also began to raise their literary voices at this time. Writers such as Saul Bellow (“The Adventures of Augie March”,1953), Bernard Malamud (“The Assistant”,1957), and Philip Roth (“Goodbye. Columbus”, 1959) not only focused upon Jewish characters and social questions, they brought a distinctively Jewish sense of humor to their novels. Their prose often carried echoes of Yiddish, the language used by European Jews which had helped preserve Jewish culture, isolated but intact, until the early 20th century. Another Jewish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland but had emigrated to the United States in 1935, continued to write in Yiddish, though his stories were quickly translated into English and became part of the national literature. Both Singer and Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature.TOWARD A “BEAT GENERATION” Post-war poets, such as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Theodore Roethke and Howard Nemerov, emphasized traditional form, polish and precision, yet they could be emotional and moving, as some of Roethke’s love poems or Lowell’s personal “confession” poems show. Other poets experimented with new poetic effects.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the leading figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, wrote topical poems specifically to be read aloud in local coffeehouses. By making art a public event, artists like Ferlinghetti hoped to shake middle-class America out of a lifestyle they viewed as self-centered, materialistic and conformist.
The San Francisco writers were also part of a larger group called the “Beat Generation”, a name that referred simultaneously to the rhythm of jazz music, to their sense that society was worn out, and to their interest in new forms of experience, through drugs, alcohol or Eastern mysticism. Poet Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) set for them a tone of social protest and visionary ecstasy, in elaborate language reminiscent of Whitman. Other poets included Gregory Corso (“Gasoline”, 1958) and Gary Snyder (“Riprap”, 1959). Novelist Jack Kerouac, with “On the Road” (1957), celebrated the reckless lifestyle of the Beats. Other Beat-inspired novels included William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” (1959), a hallucinatory look at the subculture of drug addiction, and Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (1962), an anarchic satire on life in a mental hospital.
While other writers did not espouse the lifestyle of the Beats, they also viewed the world in a comic, absurd light. In J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951), a sardonic teenage boy resists the hypocrisies of adult society. Funny as the novel is, there is something tragic in the boy’s hopelessness about his world. This same combination of wild comedy and despair, often touched with a nightmare surrealism, appeared in novels like John Barth’s “The End of the Road” (1961),
Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” (1966), John Hawkes’ “The Blood Oranges” (1970), and also in the work of two European emigrants, Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”, 1951) and Polish-born Jerzy Kosinski (“The Painted Bird”, 1965).Lecture 10
THE 2ND HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY (2)
JOURNALISTIC APPROACHES The line between journalism and fiction began to blur in the 1960s, as magazine reporters such as Tom Wolfe (“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”) and Hunter S. Thompson (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vega”) explored the various subcultures developing in America. Both used subjective viewpoints, slang and colloquial rhythms to convey the feeling of these lifestyles. In turn, novelists created “non-fiction novels,” reporting on real incidents using the techniques of fiction: dialogue, descriptive prose and step-by-step dramatic suspense. Truman Capote’s ”In Cold Blood” (1966) told the detailed story of a family murdered on their Midwestern farm; Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” (1979) was about a social misfit and the path that led him to violent crime and a death sentence.PERSONAL POETRY The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s fueled creative energies for many women writers. Poets Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton, with their searingly personal poetry, revealed some of the pain and joy of being a woman. Novelists like Joan Didion (“Play It As It Lays”), Marge Piercy (“Woman on the Edge of Time”) and Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying”) were consciously social critics, with a feminist perspective. As the women’s movement gained more acceptance, however, women wrote less in protest and more in affirmation – particularly black women writers, such as Toni Morrison (“Beloved”, 1988), Gloria Naylor (“The Women of Brewster Place”, 1980), Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”, 1982) and Paule Marshall (“Praisesong for the Widow”, 1983), who portrayed strong black women as the source of continuity, the preservers of values, in black culture.NEW AMERICAN VOICES Only in the 1970s did other ethnic groups begin to find their literary voice. Magazines and anthologies were dedicated to the works of American Hispanics, who had come largely from Mexico and the Caribbean. The new Hispanic poets included Tino Villanueva, Ronald Arias, Carlos Cortez and Victor Hernandez Cruz. N. Scott Momaday, an American Indian, wrote about his Native American ancestors in “The Names” (1976). Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston also wrote about her ancestors in the books “The Woman Warrior” and “China Men”. And writers from foreign ethnic backgrounds did not occupy the fringe of American literature – they were very much in the mainstream. Amy Tan, a Chinese-American writer, told of her parents’ early struggles in California in “The Joy Luck Club” (1989), which quickly climbed to the top of the best-selling book list. In 1990, Oscar Hijeulos, a writer with roots in Cuba, won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”. In 1991, Russian-born Joseph Brodsky was appointed poet laureate of the United States.
While turbulent social changes of the 1960s and 1970s unsettled American culture, several writers kept a steady eye on basic values and main traditional plot, characterization and lucid prose style. John Updike, following in John Cheever’s footsteps, wrote polished stories for magazines such as “The New Yorker”, and in novels such as “Rabbit Run” (1960) and “Couples” (1968) crystallized a view of contemporary America. Later on he wrote “Rabbit Redux, “Rabbit is Rich”. Evan Connell, in a pair of novels called “Mrs. Bridge” and “Mr. Bridge”, sensitively painted a portrait of a middle-class family. For many years William Kennedy’s novels were neglected, but with the publication of “Ironweed” in 1983, his tender, keen-eyed social panorama of Albany, New York, was finally brought to public attention.
Both John Irving (“The World According to Garp”, 1976) and Paul Theroux (“The Mosquito Coast”, 1983) portrayed eccentric American families, in comic, even surrealistic episodes. Anne Tyler, in novels such as “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” (1982) and “Breathing Lessons” (1989), painted a gently humorous picture of misfits on the shabby fringes of middle-class society. Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories, which first appeared in the early 1980s, depicted life in the rural southern state of Kentucky with an unsentimental and yet sympathetic eye. The spare, understated stories of Raymond Carver have helped establish a “minimalist” school of fiction writing that has proven influential. Some contemporary writers, such as Peter Taylor (“A Summons to Memphis”, 1987) Peter Dexter (“Paris Trout”, 1988), and Mary Gordon (“The Other Side”, 1989) bring fresh perspectives to the time-honored themes of fiction: love, death, family relationships and the quest for justice. Other young writers take real events and actual people as inspiration for their novels. Joanna Scott’s “Arrogance” (1990) focuses on Egon Schiele, a controversial Austrian artist of the early twentieth century. And John Edgar Wideman’s “Philadelphia Fire” (1990) looks at an actual news event through the prism of African-American consciousness. While it is difficult to predict which of these writers will endure as major figures of American literature, their optimism, strong sense of place, love of the absurd and delight the individual, however eccentric, place them firmly within the American tradition.
20TH CENTURY AMERICAN DRAMA
There was another burst of intense literary activity in the 1920s – in drama. Although the premiere theater town was the large eastern city of New York, most cities had their own theaters. Professional actors toured the United States, performing British classics, musical entertainments or second-rate melodramas. During the 19th century, melodramatic plays with exemplary democratic figures and clear contrasts between good and evil had been popular. Plays about social problems such as slavery also drew large audiences; sometimes these plays were adaptations of novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Bronson Howard (1842-1908) was the first important realist in American drama. In such plays as “The Banker’s Daughter” (1878), “Young Mrs. Winthrop” (1882), “The Henrietta” (1887), he carefully studied two areas of American society: business and marriage. He made audiences at the time think “uncomfortable thoughts” about both of them. But Howard’s techniques were still the old-fashioned techniques of melodrama.
The Little Theater movement began around 1912. It was a revolt against the big theaters, whose main interest was making money. The “Little Theaters” were to be art theaters. Between 1912 and 1929, there were over a thousand of Little Theaters across the country. The most famous of these were the Washington Square Players in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts. In 1916, the Provincetown Players began to produce the works of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) – plays that were more than just entertainment. With O’Neill, American drama developed into a form of literature.
O’Neill borrowed ideas from European playwrights, such as August Strindberg. Like the Modernists, he used symbolism, adapted stories from classical mythology and the Bible, and drew upon the new science of psychology to explore his characters’ inner lives. What made O’Neill unique was his incorporation of all these elements into a new American voice and dramatic style. His characters spoke heightened language – not realistic, yet not flowery. He described elaborate stage sets that stood as dramatic symbols. O’Neill redefined the theater by abandoning traditional divisions into acts and scenes (“Strange Interlude” has nine acts, and “Mourning Becomes Electra” takes nine hours to perform); using masks such as those found in Asian and ancient Greek theater; introducing Shakespearean monologues and Greek choruses; and producing special effects through lighting and sound. So, to express psychological undercurrents, he had characters speak their thoughts aloud or wear masks, to represent the difference between public self and private self. He wrote frankly about sex and family relations, but his greatest theme was the individual’s search for identity. Among his major plays were “The Hairy Ape” (1922), “Desire Under the Elms” (1924), “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931), “The Iceman Cometh” (1946) and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1956). O’Neill is generally acknowledged to have been America’s foremost dramatist. In 1936 he won a Nobel Prize for literature.
By the 1930s, the country was plunged into a severe economic depression, and O'Neill’s emphasis on the individual was replaced by other playwrights’ social and political consciousness. Robert Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest”, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Winterset” all written in 1935, were marked by this new awareness of the individual’s place and role in society. Even comedies acquired biting wit and social awareness, as in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” and S. N. Behrman’s “No Time for Comedy”. Yet the Depression made many people long for tender humor and the affirmation of traditional values; this they found in “Our Town”, Thornton Wilder’s panorama of an American small town, and “The Time of Your Life”, William Saroyan’s optimistic look at an assortment of outcasts gathered in a saloon.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), a native of Mississippi, was one of the most complex individuals on the American literary scene of the mid-20th century. Elements of the Southern literary tradition can clearly be seen in his work. The first of these elements is his complicated feelings about time and the past. The past is usually looked upon with sadness, guilt or fear. Like many Southern writers, he describes his society as a kind of “hell” of brutality and race hatred. His work focused on disturbed emotions and unresolved sexuality within families – most of them southern. He was known for incantatory repetitions, a poetic southern diction, weird Gothic settings, and Freudian exploration of sexual desire. Beginning with “The Glass Menagerie” (1945), T. Williams expressed his southern heritage in poetic yet sensational plays, usually about a sensitive woman trapped in an insensitive environment. Other famous works include “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Orpheus Descending”, “Suddenly Last Summer”, “Summer and Smoke”, “Sweet Bird of Youth”, “Tattoo Rose”.
The world of Tennessee Williams is ruled by irrational forces. He seems to see life as a game which cannot be won. The world of Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is quite rational. He believes that things happen for a reason. Unlike Williams, he believes that “life has meaning”. The theme of his plays “The Crucible” (1953) and “View from the Bridge” (1955), is that social evil is caused by individuals who do not take responsibility for the world they live in. He portrays the common man pressured by society; his greatest play, “Death of a Salesman” (1947), turns a second-rate traveling salesman, Willy Loman, who judges his own value as a human being by his own financial success, into a quasi-tragic hero. All Miller’s plays show a deep faith. They show that moral truth can be found in the human world.
William Motter Inge (1913-1973) was an American playwright and novelist, whose works typically feature solitary protagonists encumbered with strained sexual relations. Inge’s psychological dramas, such as “Picnic” (1952), explored the secret sorrows in the lives of an ordinary small town.
In the theater, dramatists competed against movies and television by featuring the kind of strong language, illogical events and satirical subject matter that didn’t often appear in commercial film and TV. The big discovery of 1958 (after some period of crisis in the American theater) was “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee (b. 1928). Many of Albee’s plays seem to be influenced by the European “Theatre of the Absurd” movement of the fifties and sixties. The basic philosophy of this movement was that traditional realism only shows life as it “seems to be”; and that in fact, life is meaningless (absurd). Art should reflect the meaninglessness (absurdity) of life. Albee used absurdist techniques in his plays such as “The Sandbox” (1960) and “The American Dream” (1961). In his dark comedy “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962), the author made a savagely realistic study of marriage using a barrage of witty dialogue to keep audiences disoriented.
Many American playwrights, though they were not necessarily absurdist writers, used nonrealistic theatrical techniques. Arthur L. Kopit, in plays such as “Indians”, wrote funny, energetic satires. Sam Shepard’s strong dramas – “Buried Child” and “True West” – used outrageous jokes and boisterous physical action on stage to make audiences aware that they were watching live actors, not filmed figures. David Rabe (“Hurlyburly”), David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross’) and Lanford Wilson (“The Fifth of July”) began with realistic groups of characters in typical situations, which then exploded with confrontations, physical violence and rich, rapidly flowing dialogue.
THE AMERICAN SHORT STORY
From the beginning of time, man has been interested in stories. For many thousands of years stories were passed from generation to generation orally, either in words or in song. Usually the stories were religious or national in character. There were myths, epics, fables and parables. Some famous examples of story-telling of the Middle Ages are “A Thousand and One Nights”, Chaucer`s “Canterbury Tale”, and Boccaccio`s “Decameron”.
Perhaps it can be said that the short story is well-suited to American life style and character. It is brief. (It can be read usually in a single sitting). It is concentrated. (The characters are few in number and the action is limited).
Dr. J. Berg Esenwein in his book “Writing the Short Story” defines the short story as follows: “A short story is a brief, imaginative narrative, unfolding a single predominating incident and a single chief character; it contains a plot, the details of which are so compressed, and the whole treatment so organized, as to produce a single impression”.
A good short story should (1) narrate an account of events in a way that will hold the reader`s interest by its basic truth; and (2) it should present a struggle or conflict faced by a character or characters. The plot is a narrative development of the struggle as it moves through a series of crises to the final outcome. The outcome must be the inevitable result of the traits of the character involved in the struggle or conflict.
The short story is the literary form to which the United States made early contributions. In fact, early in 19th century America, the short story reached a significant point in its development. Three American writers were responsible for this development: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. It was the latter who defined the literary form in his review of Hawthorne`s “Twice-Told Tales”. (See also: lecture 4 “The Romantic Period. Individuals”). In this review, Poe asserts that everything in a story or tale – every incident, every combination of events, every word – must aid the author in achieving a preconceived emotional effect. He states that since the ordinary novel cannot be read at one sitting, it is deprived of “the immense force derivable from totality”. For Poe the advantage of the short prose narrative over the novel was that it maintained unity of interest on the part of the reader, who was less subject to the intervention of “wordly interests” caused by pauses or cessation of reading as in the case of a novel.
“In the brief tale, however,” Poe states, “the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intentions, be it what may. During the hour of perusual the soul of the reader is at the writer`s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences – resulting from weariness or interruption”.
Poe felt that the writer of short stories should conceive his stories with deliberate care in order to achieve “a certain unique or single effect”, beginning with the initial sentence of the story. According to Poe, the short story writer should not form his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, and thereby destroy the possibility of establishing the pre-conceived single effect, so much desired.
In his short stories, Poe concentrated on the plot and emphasized mystery and suspense. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Purloined Letter” became models for later detective stories. In his stories “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Poe is a forerunner of symbolism, impressionism, grotesque in modern literature. His fiction is filled with the strange and the terrible; many stories present the theme of moral responsibility, express psychological and moral realities. His method is to put his character into unusual situation and carefully describe his feelings of terror and guilt (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”,”William Wilson”).
The short story grew in importance during the 1900s. Serious and humorous, detective and mystery stories appeared and became popular. The horror stories of Howard Philip Lovecraft (1890-1937) often have themes which come closer to science fiction. Lovecraft invented a basic myth for all his tales: “The Cthulu Mythos”. According to this myth, in the days before human beings, our planet Earth was ruled by fish-like people. Their God was Cthulu. Then the civilization was destroyed by man. The fish-like people are always trying to get back their power on our planet. They always fail but they keep trying. Lovecraft wrote more than sixty “Cthulu” stories. Myths and invented histories like this have now become an important part of modern science fiction.
Many leading novelists, including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, also devoted their skills to short stories. (See also: lecture 7 “The Lost Generation”).
The author most closely associated with the short story is O. Henry (the pen name of William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910). Millions of readers have enjoyed such favorites as “The Furnished Room” and “The Gift of the Magi”, “A Retrieved Reformation”. Like Mark Twain (see also: lecture 6 “Frontier Humor and Realism”), he wrote in an easy-to-understand, journalistic style. His stories begin with action and move quickly toward their conclusion. His plots often seem to be written according to a formula. One such formula is the “reversal”: an action by a character produces the opposite effect from the one he had been hoping for. Another O. Henry formula is to keep an important piece of information from the reader until the very end (this technique became known as the “O. Henry twist”).
Another author, writing with a minimum of concessions to the critics and to the public, began to attract the attention of serious students of literature. She was a Southerner, Katherine Anne Porter (1894-1980).
K.A. Porter grew up in Texas and lived for a time in Mexico. She used both places as the settings for some of her rich, involved stories. She gathered her early tales in a book called “Flowering Judas”. Later collections of her works also proved to be distinguished. The best of them was “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. The title story tells about a girl`s love for a soldier who dies of influenza in camp during World War I. It is a remarkable appealing tale told in a style that is elegant but with a cutting edge. Much of the critical acclaim for this work resulted from Porter`s skillful use of symbols in it.
Some of her stories Show Porter’s interest in the tension between two cultures, in particular between the Mexican and American, and between the Negro and the White. The short story “Theft” – unusually short for her – is a brilliant combination of clashes. It encompasses the encounters of races, nations, and sexes. The same talent for simultaneously treating several conflicts appears in her one long novel entitled “Ship of Fools”.
Humorous stories and essays have attracted a large audience: Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E. B. White, Dorothy Parker, and of many other short story writers can be mentioned among those whose books are a very important part of America’s culture. (See also: lecture 8 “Depression Realism”).