41 6.1. American Literature 1900-1945

At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction’s social spectrum to encompass both high and low life and sometimes connected to the naturalist school of realism. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up. One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence, centers on a man who chooses to marry a conventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider.

At about the same time, Stephen Crane (1871–1900), best known for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, depicted the life of New York City prostitutes in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And in Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman. Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris wrote about the problems of American farmers and other social issues from a naturalist perspective.

More directly political writings discussed social issues and power of corporations. Some like Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward outlined other possible political and social frameworks. Upton Sinclair, most famous for his muck-raking novel The Jungle, advocated socialism. Other political writers of the period included Edwin Markham, William Vaughn Moody. Journalistic critics, including Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens were labeled The Muckrakers. Henry Brooks Adams‘ literate autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams also depicted a stinging description of the education system and modern life.

Race was a common issue as well, as seen in the work of Pauline Hopkins, an African-American woman who published five influential works from 1900 to 1903 discussing racial and sexual inequalities. Similarly, Sui Sin Far wrote about Chinese-American experiences, Maria Cristina Mena wrote about Mexican-American experiences, and Zitkala-Sa wrote about Native American experiences.

1920s

The 1920s Brought in effervescence of American literature, both in the states and in Paris and London. Many writers had direct experience of the World War, and used it to frame their writings.

Experimentation in style and form soon joined the new freedom in subject matter. In 1909, Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), by then an expatriate in Paris, published Three Lives, an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements in contemporary art and music. Stein labeled a group of American literary notables who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as the “Lost Generation“.

The poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972) was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life in Europe. His work is complex, sometimes obscure, with multiple references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature, both Western and Eastern. He influenced many other poets, notably T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), another expatriate. Eliot wrote spare, cerebral poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. In The Waste Land, he embodied a jaundiced vision of post–World War I society in fragmented, haunted images. Like Pound’s, Eliot’s poetry could be highly allusive, and some editions of The Waste Land come with footnotes supplied by the poet. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Stein, Pound and Eliot, along with Henry James before them, demonstrate the growth of an international perspective in American literature, and not simply because they spend long periods of time overseas. American writers had long looked to European models for inspiration, but whereas the literary breakthroughs of the mid-19th century came from finding distinctly American styles and themes, writers from this period were finding ways of contributing to a flourishing international literary scene, not as imitators but as equals. Something similar was happening back in the States, as Jewish writers (such as Abraham Cahan) used the English language to reach an international Jewish audience.

American writers also expressed the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth’s golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. Fitzgerald also elucidates the collapse of some key American Ideals, such as liberty, social unity, good governance and peace, features which were severely threatened by the pressures of modern early 20th century society. Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson also wrote novels with critical depictions of American life. John Dos Passos wrote about the war and also the U.S.A. trilogy which extended into the Depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, photographed by Carl van Vechten, 1937.

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) saw violence and death first-hand as an ambulance driver in World War I, and the carnage persuaded him that abstract language was mostly empty and misleading. He cut out unnecessary words from his writing, simplified the sentence structure, and concentrated on concrete objects and actions. He adhered to a moral code that emphasized grace under pressure, and his protagonists were strong, silent men who often dealt awkwardly with women. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are generally considered his best novels; in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

William Faulkner (1897–1962) won the Nobel Prize in 1949: . Faulkner encompassed an enormous range of humanity inYoknapatawpha County, a Mississippian region of his own invention. He recorded his characters’ seemingly unedited ramblings in order to represent their inner states, a technique called “stream of consciousness“. (In fact, these passages are carefully crafted, and their seemingly chaotic structure conceals multiple layers of meaning.) He also jumbled time sequences to show how the past – especially the slave-holding era of the Deep South – endures in the present. Among his great works are Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August.

The rise of American drama

Although the United States’ theatrical tradition can be traced back to the arrival of Lewis Hallam‘s troupe in the mid-18th century and was very active in the 19th century, as seen by the popularity of minstrel shows and of adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, American drama attained international status only in the 1920s and 1930s, with the works of Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize.

In the middle of the 20th century, American drama was dominated by the work of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as by the maturation of the American musical, which had found a way to integrate script, music and dance in such works as Oklahoma! and West Side Story. Later American playwrights of importance include Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, August Wilson and Tony Kushner.

Depression-era literature

Depression era literature was blunt and direct in its social criticism. John Steinbeck (1902–1968) was born in Salinas, California, where he set many of his stories. His style was simple and evocative, winning him the favor of the readers but not of the critics. Steinbeck often wrote about poor, working-class people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life. The Grapes of Wrath, considered his masterpiece, is a strong, socially-oriented novel that tells the story of the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma and their journey to California in search of a better life.

Other popular novels include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Steinbeck’s contemporary, Nathanael West‘s two most famous short novels, Miss Lonelyhearts, which plumbs the life of its eponymous antihero, a reluctant (and, to comic effect, male) advice columnist, and the effects the tragic letters exert on it, and The Day of the Locust, which introduces a cast of Hollywood stereotypes and explores the ironies of the movies, have come to be avowed classics of American literature.

In non-fiction, James Agee‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men observes and depicts the lives of three struggling tenant-farming families in Alabama in 1936. Combining factual reportage with passages of literary complexity and poetic beauty, Agee presented a complete picture, an accurate, minutely detailed report of what he had seen coupled with insight into his feelings about the experience and the difficulties of capturing it for a broad audience. In doing so, he created an enduring portrait of a nearly invisible segment of the American population.

Henry Miller assumed a unique place in American Literature in the 1930s when his semi-autobiographical novels, written and published in Paris, were banned from the US. Although his major works, including Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, would not be free of the label of obscenity until 1962, their themes and stylistic innovations had already exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of American writers, and paved the way for sexually frank 1960s novels by John Updike, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, John Rechy and William Styron.

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