Ch. 5 Outline of American Literature by Kathryn VanSpanckeren
Outline of American Literature Chapter 5
This chapter features a brief overview of the realist movement, and brief biographies of writers such as Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Booker T. Washington.
Chapter 5: The Rise of Realism: 1860-1914
As industrialization grew, so did alienation
By Kathryn VanSpanckeren
- Introduction and Overview
- Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) (1835-1910)
- Frontier Humor and Realism
- Local Colorists
- Midwestern Realism
- Cosmopolitan Novelists: Henry James, Edith Wharton
- Naturalism and Muckraking: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser
- The “Chicago School” of Poetry: Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Edwin Arlington Robinson
- Two Women Regional Novelists: Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather
- The Rise of Black American Literature: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Waddell Chesnutt
EIL Editor’s Note: Remember that literary analysis is subjective, and the opinions expressed in this article below are the analysis of one particular writer, rather than the final word on how you should interpret these artists and their works. Each writer’s analysis is informed by his or her worldview, education, personal taste, and reading background, just as yours will be. As you read this article and write about authors from this period, remember to support your analysis with quotes from the original texts and other evidence, including biographical information about the authors and their other writings. That use of evidence is what makes an analysis interesting, and in the end, plausible.
You may observe that this article reflects something of the modernist method described in Chapter 6 of Outline of American Literature:
…a school of “new criticism” arose in the United States, with a new critical vocabulary. New critics hunted the “epiphany” (moment in which a character suddenly sees the transcendent truth of a situation, a term derived from a holy saint’s appearance to mortals); they “examined” and “clarified” a work, hoping to “shed light” upon it through their “insights.”
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a watershed in American history. The innocent optimism of the young democratic nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. American idealism remained but was rechanneled. Before the war, idealists championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon.
Business boomed after the war. War production had boosted industry in the North and given it prestige and political clout. It also gave industrial leaders valuable experience in the management of men and machines. The enormous natural resources – iron, coal, oil, gold, and silver – of the American land benefited business. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. Over 23 million foreigners – German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter – flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino contract laborers were imported by Hawaiian plantation owners, railroad companies, and other American business interests on the West Coast.
In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in about 12 cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay (called “wage slavery”), difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business. Labor unions grew, and strikes brought the plight of working people to national awareness. Farmers, too, saw themselves struggling against the “money interests” of the East, the so-called robber barons like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Their eastern banks tightly controlled mortgages and credit so vital to western development and agriculture, while railroad companies charged high prices to transport farm products to the cities. The farmer gradually became an object of ridicule, lampooned as an unsophisticated “hick” or “rube.” The ideal American of the post-Civil War period became the millionaire. In 1860, there were fewer than 100 millionaires; by 1875, there were more than 1,000.
From 1860 to 1914, the United States was transformed from a small, young, agricultural ex-colony to a huge, modern, industrial nation. A debtor nation in 1860, by 1914 it had become the world’s wealthiest state, with a population that had more than doubled, rising from 31 million in 1860 to 76 million in 1900. By World War I, the United States had become a major world power.
As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period — Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy — depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, and Dreiser’s opportunistic Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality.
Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, grew up in the Mississippi River frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri. Ernest Hemingway’s famous statement that all of American literature comes from one great book, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, indicates this author’s towering place in the tradition. Early 19th-century American writers tended to be too flowery, sentimental, or ostentatious – partially because they were still trying to prove that they could write as elegantly as the English. Twain’s style, based on vigorous, realistic, colloquial American speech, gave American writers a new appreciation of their national voice. Twain was the first major author to come from the interior of the country, and he captured its distinctive, humorous slang and iconoclasm.
For Twain and other American writers of the late 19th century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Thus it was profoundly liberating and potentially at odds with society. The most well-known example is Huck Finn, a poor boy who decides to follow the voice of his conscience and help a Negro slave escape to freedom, even though Huck thinks this means that he will be damned to hell for breaking the law.
Twain’s masterpiece, which appeared in 1884, is set in the Mississippi River village of St. Petersburg. The son of an alcoholic bum, Huck has just been adopted by a respectable family when his father, in a drunken stupor, threatens to kill him. Fearing for his life, Huck escapes, feigning his own death. He is joined in his escape by another outcast, the slave Jim, whose owner, Miss Watson, is thinking of selling him down the river to the harsher slavery of the deep South. Huck and Jim float on a raft down the majestic Mississippi, but are sunk by a steamboat, separated, and later reunited. They go through many comical and dangerous shore adventures that show the variety, generosity, and sometimes cruel irrationality of society. In the end, it is discovered that Miss Watson had already freed Jim, and a respectable family is taking care of the wild boy Huck. But Huck grows impatient with civilized society and plans to escape to “the territories” – Indian lands. The ending gives the reader the counter-version of the classic American success myth: the open road leading to the pristine wilderness, away from the morally corrupting influences of “civilization.” James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, Walt Whitman’s hymns to the open road, William Faulkner’s The Bear, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are other literary examples.
Huckleberry Finn has inspired countless literary interpretations. Clearly, the novel is a story of death, rebirth, and initiation. The escaped slave, Jim, becomes a father figure for Huck; in deciding to save Jim, Huck grows morally beyond the bounds of his slave-owning society. It is Jim’s adventures that initiate Huck into the complexities of human nature and give him moral courage.
The novel also dramatizes Twain’s ideal of the harmonious community: “What you want, above all things, on a raft is for everybody to be satisfied and feel right and kind toward the others.” Like Melville’s ship the Pequod, the raft sinks, and with it that special community. The pure, simple world of the raft is ultimately overwhelmed by progress – the steamboat – but the mythic image of the river remains, as vast and changing as life itself.
The unstable relationship between reality and illusion is Twain’s characteristic theme, the basis of much of his humor. The magnificent yet deceptive, constantly changing river is also the main feature of his imaginative landscape. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain recalls his training as a young steamboat pilot when he writes: “I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or hands on, that was the chief.”
Twain’s moral sense as a writer echoes his pilot’s responsibility to steer the ship to safety. Samuel Clemens’s pen name, “Mark Twain,” is the phrase Mississippi boatmen used to signify two fathoms (3.6 meters) of water, the depth needed for a boat’s safe passage. Twain’s serious purpose, combined with a rare genius for humor and style, keep his writing fresh and appealing.
Two major literary currents in 19th-century America merged in Mark Twain: popular frontier humor and local color, or “regionalism.” These related literary approaches began in the 1830s – and had even earlier roots in local oral traditions. In ragged frontier villages, on riverboats, in mining camps, and around cowboy campfires far from city amusements, storytelling flourished. Exaggeration, tall tales, incredible boasts, and comic workingmen heroes enlivened frontier literature. These humorous forms were found in many frontier regions – in the “old Southwest” (the present-day inland South and the lower Midwest), the mining frontier, and the Pacific Coast. Each region had its colorful characters around whom stories collected: Mike Fink, the Mississippi riverboat brawler; Casey Jones, the brave railroad engineer; John Henry, the steel-driving African-American; Paul Bunyan, the giant logger whose fame was helped along by advertising; westerners Kit Carson, the Indian fighter, and Davy Crockett, the scout. Their exploits were exaggerated and enhanced in ballads, newspapers, and magazines. Sometimes, as with Kit Carson and Davy Crockett, these stories were strung together into book form.
Twain, Faulkner, and many other writers, particularly southerners, are indebted to frontier pre-Civil War humorists such as Johnson Hooper, George Washington Harris, Augustus Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and Joseph Baldwin. From them and the American frontier folk came the wild proliferation of comical new American words: “absquatulate” (leave), “flabbergasted” (amazed), “rampagious” (unruly, rampaging). Local boasters, or “ring-tailed roarers,” who asserted they were half horse, half alligator, also underscored the boundless energy of the frontier. They drew strength from natural hazards that would terrify lesser men. “I’m a regular tornado,” one swelled, “tough as hickory and long-winded as a nor’wester. I can strike a blow like a falling tree, and every lick makes a gap in the crowd that lets in an acre of sunshine.”
Like frontier humor, local color writing has old roots but produced its best works long after the Civil War. Obviously, many pre-war writers, from Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell, paint striking portraits of specific American regions. What sets the colorists apart is their self-conscious and exclusive interest in rendering a given location, and their scrupulously factual, realistic technique.
Bret Harte (1836-1902) is remembered as the author of adventurous stories such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” set along the western mining frontier. As the first great success in the local colorist school, Harte for a brief time was perhaps the best-known writer in America – such was the appeal of his romantic version of the gunslinging West. Outwardly realistic, he was one of the first to introduce low-life characters – cunning gamblers, gaudy prostitutes, and uncouth robbers – into serious literary works. He got away with this (as had Charles Dickens in England, who greatly admired Harte’s work) by showing in the end that these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold.
Several women writers are remembered for their fine depictions of New England: Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and especially Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). Jewett’s originality, exact observation of her Maine characters and setting, and sensitive style are best seen in her fine story “The White Heron” in Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s local color works, especially The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), depicting humble Maine fishing communities, greatly influenced Jewett. Nineteenth-century women writers formed their own networks of moral support and influence, as their letters show. Women made up the major audience for fiction, and many women wrote popular novels, poems, and humorous pieces.
All regions of the country celebrated themselves in writing influenced by local color. Some of it included social protest, especially toward the end of the century, when social inequality and economic hardship were particularly pressing issues. Racial injustice and inequality between the sexes appear in the works of southern writers such as George Washington Cable (1844-1925) and Kate Chopin (1851-1904), whose powerful novels set in Cajun/French Louisiana transcend the local color label. Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880) treats racial injustice with great artistry; like Kate Chopin’s daring novel The Awakening (1899), about a woman’s doomed attempt to find her own identity through passion, it was ahead of its time. In The Awakening, a young married woman with attractive children and an indulgent and successful husband gives up family, money, respectability, and eventually her life in search of self-realization. Poetic evocations of ocean, birds (caged and freed), and music endow this short novel with unusual intensity and complexity.
Often paired with The Awakening is the fine story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Both works were forgotten for a time, but rediscovered by feminist literary critics late in the 20th century. In Gilman’s story, a condescending doctor drives his wife mad by confining her in a room to “cure” her of nervous exhaustion. The imprisoned wife projects her entrapment onto the wallpaper, in the design of which she sees imprisoned women creeping behind bars.
For many years, the editor of the important Atlantic Monthly magazine, William Dean Howells (1837-1920), published realistic local color writing by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and others. He was the champion of realism, and his novels, such as A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), carefully interweave social circumstances with the emotions of ordinary middle-class Americans.
Love, ambition, idealism, and temptation motivate his characters; Howells was acutely aware of the moral corruption of business tycoons during the Gilded Age of the 1870s. Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham uses an ironic title to make this point. Silas Lapham became rich by cheating an old business partner; and his immoral act deeply disturbed his family, though for years Lapham could not see that he had acted improperly. In the end, Lapham is morally redeemed, choosing bankruptcy rather than unethical success. Silas Lapham is, like Huckleberry Finn, an unsuccess story: Lapham’s business fall is his moral rise. Toward the end of his life, Howells, like Twain, became increasingly active in political causes, defending the rights of labor union organizers and deploring American colonialism in the Philippines.
Henry James (1843-1916)
Henry James once wrote that art, especially literary art, “makes life, makes interest, makes importance.” James’s fiction and criticism is the most highly conscious, sophisticated, and difficult of its era. With Twain, James is generally ranked as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.
James is noted for his “international theme” – that is, the complex relationships between naïve Americans and cosmopolitan Europeans. What his biographer Leon Edel calls James’s first, or “international,” phase encompassed such works as Transatlantic Sketches (travel pieces, 1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In The American, for example, Christopher Newman, a naïve but intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a bride. When her family rejects him because he lacks an aristocratic background, he has a chance to revenge himself; in deciding not to, he demonstrates his moral superiority.
James’s second period was experimental. He exploited new subject matters – feminism and social reform in The Bostonians (1886) and political intrigue in The Princess Casamassima (1885). He also attempted to write for the theater, but failed embarrassingly when his play Guy Domville (1895) was booed on the first night.
In his third, or “major,” phase James returned to international subjects, but treated them with increasing sophistication and psychological penetration. The complex and almost mythical The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) (which James felt was his best novel), and The Golden Bowl (1904) date from this major period. If the main theme of Twain’s work is appearance and reality, James’s constant concern is perception. In James, only self-awareness and clear perception of others yields wisdom and self-sacrificing love. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. In James’s later works, the most important events are all psychological – usually moments of intense illumination that show characters their previous blindness. For example, in The Ambassadors, the idealistic, aging Lambert Strether uncovers a secret love affair and, in doing so, discovers a new complexity to his inner life. His rigid, upright, morality is humanized and enlarged as he discovers a capacity to accept those who have sinned.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Like James, Edith Wharton grew up partly in Europe and eventually made her home there. She was descended from a wealthy, established family in New York society and saw firsthand the decline of this cultivated group and, in her view, the rise of boorish, nouveau-riche business families. This social transformation is the background of many of her novels.
Like James, Wharton contrasts Americans and Europeans. The core of her concern is the gulf separating social reality and the inner self. Often a sensitive character feels trapped by unfeeling characters or social forces. Edith Wharton had personally experienced such entrapment as a young writer suffering a long nervous breakdown partly due to the conflict in roles between writer and wife.
Wharton’s best novels include The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), The Age of Innocence (1920), and the beautifully crafted novella Ethan Frome (1911).
Wharton’s and James’s dissections of hidden sexual and financial motivations at work in society link them with writers who seem superficially quite different: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. Like the cosmopolitan novelists, but much more explicitly, these naturalists used realism to relate the individual to society. Often they exposed social problems and were influenced by Darwinian thought and the related philosophical doctrine of determinism, which views individuals as the helpless pawns of economic and social forces beyond their control.
Naturalism is essentially a literary expression of determinism. Associated with bleak, realistic depictions of lower-class life, determinism denies religion as a motivating force in the world and instead perceives the universe as a machine. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers had also imagined the world as a machine, but as a perfect one, invented by God and tending toward progress and human betterment. Naturalists imagined society, instead, as a blind machine, godless and out of control.
The 19th-century American historian Henry Adams constructed an elaborate theory of history involving the idea of the dynamo, or machine force, and entropy, or decay of force. Instead of progress, Adams sees inevitable decline in human society.
Stephen Crane, the son of a clergyman, put the loss of God most succinctly:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Like Romanticism, naturalism first appeared in Europe. It is usually traced to the works of Honoré de Balzac in the 1840s and seen as a French literary movement associated with Gustave Flaubert, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. It daringly opened up the seamy underside of society and such topics as divorce, sex, adultery, poverty, and crime.
Naturalism flourished as Americans became urbanized and aware of the importance of large economic and social forces. By 1890, the frontier was declared officially closed. Most Americans resided in towns, and business dominated even remote farmsteads.
Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Stephen Crane, born in New Jersey, had roots going back to Revolutionary War soldiers, clergymen, sheriffs, judges, and farmers who had lived a century earlier. Primarily a journalist who also wrote fiction, essays, poetry, and plays, Crane saw life at its rawest, in slums and on battlefields. His short stories – in particular, “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” – exemplified that literary form. His haunting Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was published to great acclaim in 1895, but he barely had time to bask in the attention before he died, at 29, having neglected his health. He was virtually forgotten during the first two decades of the 20th century, but was resurrected through a laudatory biography by Thomas Beer in 1923. He has enjoyed continued success ever since – as a champion of the common man, a realist, and a symbolist.
Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is one of the best, if not the earliest, naturalistic American novels. It is the harrowing story of a poor, sensitive young girl whose uneducated, alcoholic parents utterly fail her. In love and eager to escape her violent home life, she allows herself to be seduced into living with a young man, who soon deserts her. When her self-righteous mother rejects her, Maggie becomes a prostitute to survive, but soon commits suicide out of despair. Crane’s earthy subject matter and his objective, scientific style, devoid of moralizing, earmark Maggie as a naturalist work.
Jack London (1876-1916)
A poor, self-taught worker from California, the naturalist Jack London was catapulted from poverty to fame by his first collection of stories, The Son of the Wolf (1900), set largely in the Klondike region of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Other of his best-sellers, including The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf (1904) made him the highest paid writer in the United States of his time.
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. Eden, an impoverished but intelligent and hardworking sailor and laborer, is determined to become a writer. Eventually, his writing makes him rich and well-known, but Eden realizes that the woman he loves cares only for his money and fame. His despair over her inability to love causes him to lose faith in human nature. He also suffers from class alienation, for he no longer belongs to the working class, while he rejects the materialistic values of the wealthy whom he worked so hard to join. He sails for the South Pacific and commits suicide by jumping into the sea. Like many of the best novels of its time, Martin Eden is an unsuccess story. It looks ahead to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in its revelation of despair amid great wealth.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
The 1925 work An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, like London’s Martin Eden, explores the dangers of the American dream. The novel relates, in great detail, the life of Clyde Griffiths, a boy of weak will and little self-awareness. He grows up in great poverty in a family of wandering evangelists, but dreams of wealth and the love of beautiful women. A rich uncle employs him in his factory. When his girlfriend Roberta becomes pregnant, she demands that he marry her. Meanwhile, Clyde has fallen in love with a wealthy society girl who represents success, money, and social acceptance. Clyde carefully plans to drown Roberta on a boat trip, but at the last minute he begins to change his mind; however, she accidentally falls out of the boat. Clyde, a good swimmer, does not save her, and she drowns. As Clyde is brought to justice, Dreiser replays his story in reverse, masterfully using the vantage points of prosecuting and defense attorneys to analyze each step and motive that led the mild-mannered Clyde, with a highly religious background and good family connections, to commit murder.
Despite his awkward style, Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, displays crushing authority. Its precise details build up an overwhelming sense of tragic inevitability. The novel is a scathing portrait of the American success myth gone sour, but it is also a universal story about the stresses of urbanization, modernization, and alienation. Within it roam the romantic and dangerous fantasies of the dispossessed.
An American Tragedy is a reflection of the dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America’s competitive, success-driven society. As American industrial power soared, the glittering lives of the wealthy in newspapers and photographs sharply contrasted with the drab lives of ordinary farmers and city workers. The media fanned rising expectations and unreasonable desires. Such problems, common to modernizing nations, gave rise to muckraking journalism – penetrating investigative reporting that documented social problems and provided an important impetus to social reform.
The great tradition of American investigative journalism had its beginning in this period, during which national magazines such as McClures and Collier’s published Ida M. Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904), and other hard-hitting exposés. Muckraking novels used eye-catching journalistic techniques to depict harsh working conditions and oppression. Populist Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) exposed big railroad companies, while socialist Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) painted the squalor of the Chicago meat-packing houses. Jack London’s dystopia, The Iron Heel (1908), anticipates George Orwell’s 1984 in predicting a class war and the takeover of the government.
Another more artistic response was the realistic portrait, or group of portraits, of ordinary characters and their frustrated inner lives. The collection of stories Main-Travelled Roads (1891), by William Dean Howells’s protégé, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), is a portrait gallery of ordinary people. It shockingly depicted the poverty of midwestern farmers who were demanding agricultural reforms. The title suggests the many trails westward that the hardy pioneers followed and the dusty main streets of the villages they settled.
Close to Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), begun in 1916. This is a loose collection of stories about residents of the fictitious town of Winesburg seen through the eyes of a naïve young newspaper reporter, George Willard, who eventually leaves to seek his fortune in the city. Like Main-Travelled Roads and other naturalistic works of the period, Winesburg, Ohio emphasizes the quiet poverty, loneliness, and despair in small-town America.
Three Midwestern poets who grew up in Illinois and shared the midwestern concern with ordinary people are Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. Their poetry often concerns obscure individuals; they developed techniques – realism, dramatic renderings – that reached out to a larger readership. They are part of the Midwestern, or Chicago, School that arose before World War I to challenge the East Coast literary establishment. The “Chicago Renaissance” was a watershed in American culture: It demonstrated that America’s interior had matured.
Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)
By the turn of the century, Chicago had become a great city, home of innovative architecture and cosmopolitan art collections. Chicago was also the home of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, the most important literary magazine of the day.
Among the intriguing contemporary poets the journal printed was Edgar Lee Masters, author of the daring Spoon River Anthology (1915), with its new “unpoetic” colloquial style, frank presentation of sex, critical view of village life, and intensely imagined inner lives of ordinary people.
Spoon River Anthology is a collection of portraits presented as colloquial epitaphs (words found inscribed on gravestones) summing up the lives of individual villagers as if in their own words. It presents a panorama of a country village through its cemetery: 250 people buried there speak, revealing their deepest secrets. Many of the people are related; members of about 20 families speak of their failures and dreams in free-verse monologues that are surprisingly modern.
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
A friend once said, “Trying to write briefly about Carl Sandburg is like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black-and-white snapshot.” Poet, historian, biographer, novelist, musician, essayist – Sandburg, son of a railroad blacksmith, was all of these and more. A journalist by profession, he wrote a massive biography of Abraham Lincoln that is one of the classic works of the 20th century.
To many, Sandburg was a latter-day Walt Whitman, writing expansive, evocative urban and patriotic poems and simple, childlike rhymes and ballads. He traveled about reciting and recording his poetry, in a lilting, mellifluously toned voice that was a kind of singing. At heart he was totally unassuming, notwithstanding his national fame. What he wanted from life, he once said, was “to be out of jail…to eat regular…to get what I write printed,…a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape,…(and) to sing every day.”
A fine example of his themes and his Whitmanesque style is the poem “Chicago” (1914):
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the
Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…
Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)
Vachel Lindsay was a celebrant of small-town midwestern populism and creator of strong, rhythmic poetry designed to be declaimed aloud. His work forms a curious link between the popular, or folk, forms of poetry, such as Christian gospel songs and vaudeville (popular theater) on the one hand, and advanced modernist poetics on the other. An extremely popular public reader in his day, Lindsay’s readings prefigure “Beat” poetry readings of the post-World War II era that were accompanied by jazz.
To popularize poetry, Lindsay developed what he called a “higher vaudeville,” using music and strong rhythm. Racist by today’s standards, his famous poem “The Congo” (1914) celebrates the history of Africans by mingling jazz, poetry, music, and chanting. At the same time, he immortalized such figures on the American landscape as Abraham Lincoln (“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”) and John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), often blending facts with myth.
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
Edwin Arlington Robinson is the best U.S. poet of the late 19th century. Like Edgar Lee Masters, he is known for short, ironic character studies of ordinary individuals. Unlike Masters, Robinson uses traditional metrics. Robinson’s imaginary Tilbury Town, like Masters’s Spoon River, contains lives of quiet desperation.
Some of the best known of Robinson’s dramatic monologues are “Luke Havergal” (1896), about a forsaken lover; “Miniver Cheevy” (1910), a portrait of a romantic dreamer; and “Richard Cory” (1896), a somber portrait of a wealthy man who commits suicide:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim,
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
“Richard Cory” takes its place alongside Martin Eden, An American Tragedy, and The Great Gatsby as a powerful warning against the overblown success myth that had come to plague Americans in the era of the millionaire.
Novelists Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) and Willa Cather (1873-1947) explored women’s lives, placed in brilliantly evoked regional settings. Neither novelist set out to address specifically female issues; their early works usually treat male protagonists, and only as they gained artistic confidence and maturity did they turn to depictions of women’s lives. Glasgow and Cather can only be regarded as “women writers” in a descriptive sense, for their works resist categorization.
Glasgow was from Richmond, Virginia, the old capital of the Southern Confederacy. Her realistic novels examine the transformation of the South from a rural to an industrial economy. Mature works such as Virginia (1912) focus on the southern experience, while later novels like Barren Ground (1925) – acknowledged as her best – dramatize gifted women attempting to surmount the claustrophobic, traditional southern code of domesticity, piety, and dependence for women.
Cather, another Virginian, grew up on the Nebraska prairie among pioneering immigrants – later immortalized in O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), and her well-known story “Neighbour Rosicky” (1928). During her lifetime she became increasingly alienated from the materialism of modern life and wrote of alternative visions in the American Southwest and in the past. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) evokes the idealism of two 16th-century priests establishing the Catholic Church in the New Mexican desert. Cather’s works commemorate important aspects of the American experience outside the literary mainstream – pioneering, the establishment of religion, and women’s independent lives.
The literary achievement of African-Americans was one of the most striking literary developments of the post-Civil War era. In the writings of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others, the roots of black American writing took hold, notably in the forms of autobiography, protest literature, sermons, poetry, and song.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Booker T. Washington, educator and the most prominent black leader of his day, grew up as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia, born to a white slave-holding father and a slave mother. His fine, simple autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), recounts his successful struggle to better himself. He became renowned for his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans; his policy of accommodation with whites – an attempt to involve the recently freed black American in the mainstream of American society – was outlined in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address (1895).
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Born in New England and educated at Harvard University and the University of Berlin (Germany), W.E.B. Du Bois authored “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” an essay later collected in his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois carefully demonstrates that despite his many accomplishments, Washington had, in effect, accepted segregation – that is, the unequal and separate treatment of black Americans – and that segregation would inevitably lead to inferiority, particularly in education. Du Bois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also wrote sensitive appreciations of African-American traditions and culture; his work helped black intellectuals rediscover their rich folk literature and music.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Like Du Bois, the poet James Weldon Johnson found inspiration in African-American spirituals. His poem “O Black and Unknown Bards” (1917) asks:
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal Away to Jesus?” On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Of mixed white and black ancestry, Johnson explored the complex issue of race in his fictional Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), about a mixed-race man who “passes” (is accepted) for white. The book effectively conveys the black American’s concern with issues of identity in America.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)
Charles Waddell Chesnutt, author of two collections of stories, The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth (1899), several novels, including The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and a biography of Frederick Douglass, was ahead of his time. His stories dwell on racial themes, but avoid predictable endings and generalized sentiment; his characters are distinct individuals with complex attitudes about many things, including race. Chesnutt often shows the strength of the black community and affirms ethical values and racial solidarity.
Outline of American Literature is a publication of the U.S. State Department. You can read more and explore further at the official website for Outline of American Literature (OAL). This chapter of OAL has been updated by the EIL staff, who added a table of contents and additional section headings for easier reading.
Kathryn VanSpanckeren, professor of English at the University of Tampa, has lectured in American literature widely abroad, and is former director of the Fulbright-sponsored Summer Institute in American Literature for international scholars. Her publications include poetry and scholarship. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University.
More of the Outline of American Literature hosted by Excellence in Literature.