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LITERATU RE: 1600 TO 1914

The first explorers and settlers who came to North America from Europe wrote little beyond practical reports, 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—an oral, not written, tradition—which was really the first American literature.


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. Captain John Smith (1580- 1631), who organized the English colony of Jamestown (in what is now the state of

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as "Mark Twain," wrote in a distinctly American style—rich in metaphor, newly invented words and drawling rhythms. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called the greatest novel in American literature.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

Virginia), wrote books in which he outlined carefully the economic and political structure of his settlement. 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 the Plymouth plantation 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 in the late 1600s, or of Jonathan Edwards 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.


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.


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 Mohicans 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.

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 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, sue! 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 t nature individuals could reach a higher spiritual state without formal religion. For the next several years, Emerson's essays made him extremely influential, not only upon other thinkers and writers, but upon the general population as well, thanks to ; 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' 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 idea by going to live by himself for two years in a 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


While these New England intellectuals presented perspectives of literature and life other writers were concentrating upon human imagination and emotion rather th the intellect. A young Virginian, Edgar Allan Ðîå (1809-1849), was publishing poems of musical language and extravagant imagery, which made him a worthy rival < the European Romantic poets. Brilliant but unstable, Ðîå earned his living as a journalist, often writing devastating reviews of other writers' work. In 1835, h also began writing bold, original short stories, such as "The Pit and the Pendulum and "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.

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.


Ðîå, 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." 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.

The most popular poet in America at this time, however, was a much more 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. The same year that Whitman .first published Leaves of Grass, Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha, a long epic poem about a young warrior of an American Indian tribe.

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"—Longfellow and his circle were dedicated to America's democratic ideals.


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 slaveowner 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 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. 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 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.


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 Ðîå. 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.


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. 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 signalled a return to social discussion in fiction.

"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 (1885), a probing but sympathetic portrait of an American businessman.

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' McTeague (1899) was the story of a dentist's despairing life; Upton Sinclair's 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.

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.


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 Î 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.

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. 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.

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. DuBois (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.

Similarly, 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. In 1909, an American woman named Gertrude Stein, 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. 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. But these were still underground currents in 1914, when war broke out in Europe—a war so devastating that the entire world was swept up in it.

Suggestions for Further Reading Brooks, Van Wyck.

The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981 (cl936).

Chase, Richard.

The American Novel and Its Traditions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, (cl957).

Ellmann, Richard, ed.

The New Oxford Book of American Verse.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Litz, A. Walton, ed.

Major American Short Stories.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Parrington, Vernon L.

Main Currents in American Thought: An

Interpretation of American Literature from the

Beginnings to 1920. 3 volumes.

San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955-1958.




LITERATURE: 1914 TO 1990

By Holly Hughes

(Managing Editor, Successful Meetings)


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 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. 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 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, 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 Arrow smith, 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.


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 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.


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 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.

Eliot was also born in St. Louis but settled in England. He wrote spare, intellectual poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. His 1922 poem, "The Waste Land" 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. Another Modernist, e.e. cummings, 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. 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.


In the aftermath of World War I many novelists produced a literature of disillusionment. Some lived abroad and were known as "the Lost Generation." F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald's great theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, was of youth's golden dreams turning to disappointment. His prose was exquisite, yet his vision was essentially melancholy and nostalgic. John Dos Passos 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., 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.

War had also affected Ernest Hemingway. 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. His main characters were usually tough, silent men, good at sports or war but awkward in their dealings with women. Among his best books were The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He eventually won the Nobel Prize and is considered one of the greatest American writers.

Another expatriate, Henry Miller, 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 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, 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. 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; to reveal a character's primitive impulses and social prejudices, he recorded unedited the ramblings of his or her consciousness. Some of his best novels are The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Light in August (1932). Faulkner, too, won a Nobel Prize.


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 meant 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.


There was another burst of intense literary activity in the 1920s—in drama. Although the premiere theater town was the large eastern cit of New York, most cities had their own theaters. Professional actors toured the United States, performing British classics, musical entertainments or second-rate melodramas. Bu there had not yet been an important American dramatist. Then, in 1916, a company called the Provincetown Players began to produce the works of Eugene O'Neill—plays that were more than just entertainment.

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. 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 Desire Under the Elms (1924), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1956). O'Neill won a Nobel Prize in 1936 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 Winter set, 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


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 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).


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 a 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.


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 ofAugie 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.

In the theater, Tennessee Williams, beginning with The Glass Menagerie (1945), expressed his southern heritage in poetic yet sensational plays, usually about a sensitive woman trapped in an insensitive environment. Arthur Miller portrayed the common man pressured by society; his greatest play, Death of a Salesman (1947), turned a second-rate traveling salesman, Willy Loman, into a quasi-tragic hero. William Inge's psychological dramas, such as Picnic (1952), explored the secret sorrows in the lives of an ordinary small town.


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 Burrough's 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 ÑThe Painted Bird, 1965).


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 Vegas) 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.


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. Edward Albee's dark comedies, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, used a barrage of witty dialogue to keep audiences disoriented. 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 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.


Only in the 1970s did other ethnic groups begm 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. 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 ii the individual, however eccentric, place them firmly within the American tradition.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cerf, Bennett, ed. Plays of Our Time.

New York: Random House, 1967.

Cowley, Malcolm.

A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973.

Emanuel, James A. and Theodore L. Gross. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Hoffman, David, ed. Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Kazin, Alfred.

On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. (© 1942).


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