Outline of American Literature
Chapter 6: Modernism and Experimentation: 1914-1945
Historians characterize this period as U.S.’ traumatic “coming of age”
By Kathryn VanSpanckeren
- Introduction & Overview
- Poetry 1914-1945: Experiments in Form: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams
- Between the Wars [more poets]: e. e. cummings, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes
- Prose Writing, 1914-1945: American Realism: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner
- Novels of Social Awareness: Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck
- The Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston
- Literary Currents: The Fugitives and New Criticism
- 20th Century American Drama: Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets
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.
Also, be aware that today’s writers, the author of this article included, are still influenced by the modernist view described in this article (emphasis added):
To analyze such modernist novels and poetry, 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.”
Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States’ traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement was relatively brief (1917-1918) and its casualties many fewer than those of its European allies and foes. John Dos Passos expressed America’s postwar disillusionment in the novel Three Soldiers (1921), when he noted that civilization was a “vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.” Shocked and permanently changed, Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence.
Nor could soldiers from rural America easily return to their roots. After experiencing the world, many now yearned for a modern, urban life. New farm machines such as planters, harvesters, and binders had drastically reduced the demand for farm jobs; yet despite their increased productivity, farmers were poor. Crop prices, like urban workers’ wages, depended on unrestrained market forces heavily influenced by business interests: Government subsidies for farmers and effective workers’ unions had not yet become established. “The chief business of the American people is business,” President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed in 1925, and most agreed.
In the postwar “Big Boom,” business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education – in the 1920s college enrollment doubled. The middle-class prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world’s highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol – an automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the house with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine. Like the businessman protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), the average American approved of these machines because they were modern and because most were American inventions and American-made.
Americans of the “Roaring Twenties” fell in love with other modern entertainments. Most people went to the movies once a week. Although Prohibition – a nationwide ban on the production, transport, and sale of alcohol instituted through the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – began in 1919, underground “speakeasies” and nightclubs proliferated, featuring jazz music, cocktails, and daring modes of dress and dance. Dancing, moviegoing, automobile touring, and radio were national crazes. American women, in particular, felt liberated. Many had left farms and villages for homefront duty in American cities during World War I, and had become resolutely modern. They cut their hair short (“bobbed”), wore short “flapper” dresses, and gloried in the right to vote assured by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1920. They boldly spoke their mind and took public roles in society.
Western youths were rebelling, angry and disillusioned with the savage war, the older generation they held responsible, and difficult postwar economic conditions that, ironically, allowed Americans with dollars – like writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound – to live abroad handsomely on very little money. Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism (like the earlier Darwinian theory of evolution), implied a “godless” world view and contributed to the breakdown of traditional values. Americans abroad absorbed these views and brought them back to the United States where they took root, firing the imagination of young writers and artists. William Faulkner, for example, a 20th-century American novelist, employed Freudian elements in all his works, as did virtually all serious American fiction writers after World War I.
Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation” – so named by literary portraitist Gertrude Stein. Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity. The secure, supportive family life; the familiar, settled community; the natural and eternal rhythms of nature that guide the planting and harvesting on a farm; the sustaining sense of patriotism; moral values inculcated by religious beliefs and observations – all seemed undermined by World War I and its aftermath.
Numerous novels, notably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation. In T.S. Eliot’s influential long poem The Waste Land (1922), Western civilization is symbolized by a bleak desert in desperate need of rain (spiritual renewal).
The world depression of the 1930s affected most of the population of the United States. Workers lost their jobs, and factories shut down; businesses and banks failed; farmers, unable to harvest, transport, or sell their crops, could not pay their debts and lost their farms. Midwestern droughts turned the “breadbasket” of America into a dust bowl. Many farmers left the Midwest for California in search of jobs, as vividly described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). At the peak of the Depression, one-third of all Americans were out of work. Soup kitchens, shanty towns, and armies of hobos – unemployed men illegally riding freight trains – became part of national life. Many saw the Depression as a punishment for sins of excessive materialism and loose living. The dust storms that blackened the midwestern sky, they believed, constituted an Old Testament judgment: the “whirlwind by day and the darkness at noon.”
The Depression turned the world upside down. The United States had preached a gospel of business in the 1920s; now, many Americans supported a more active role for government in the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Federal money created jobs in public works, conservation, and rural electrification. Artists and intellectuals were paid to create murals and state handbooks. These remedies helped, but only the industrial build-up of World War II renewed prosperity. After Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, disused shipyards and factories came to bustling life mass-producing ships, airplanes, jeeps, and supplies. War production and experimentation led to new technologies, including the nuclear bomb. Witnessing the first experimental nuclear blast, Robert Oppenheimer, leader of an international team of nuclear scientists, prophetically quoted a Hindu poem: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”
The large cultural wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization’s classical traditions. Modern life seemed radically different from traditional life – more scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced these changes.
In literature, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) developed an analogue to modern art. A resident of Paris and an art collector (she and her brother Leo purchased works of the artists Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and many others), Stein once explained that she and Picasso were doing the same thing, he in art and she in writing. Using simple, concrete words as counters, she developed an abstract, experimental prose poetry. The childlike quality of Stein’s simple vocabulary recalls the bright, primary colors of modern art, while her repetitions echo the repeated shapes of abstract visual compositions. By dislocating grammar and punctuation, she achieved new “abstract” meanings as in her influential collection Tender Buttons (1914), which views objects from different angles, as in a cubist painting:
A Table A Table means does it not my
dear it means a whole steadiness.
Is it likely that a change. A table
means more than a glass even a
looking glass is tall.
Meaning, in Stein’s work, was often subordinated to technique, just as subject was less important than shape in abstract visual art. Subject and technique became inseparable in both the visual and literary art of the period. The idea of form as the equivalent of content, a cornerstone of post-World War II art and literature, crystallized in this period.
Technological innovation in the world of factories and machines inspired new attentiveness to technique in the arts. To take one example: Light, particularly electrical light, fascinated modern artists and writers. Posters and advertisements of the period are full of images of floodlit skyscrapers and light rays shooting out from automobile headlights, moviehouses, and watchtowers to illumine a forbidding outer darkness suggesting ignorance and old-fashioned tradition.
Photography began to assume the status of a fine art allied with the latest scientific developments. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz opened a salon in New York City, and by 1908 he was showing the latest European works, including pieces by Picasso and other European friends of Gertrude Stein. Stieglitz’s salon influenced numerous writers and artists, including William Carlos Williams, who was one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. Williams cultivated a photographic clarity of image; his aesthetic dictum was “no ideas but in things.”
Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the modernist novel as well. No longer was it sufficient to write a straightforward third-person narrative or (worse yet) use a pointlessly intrusive narrator. The way the story was told became as important as the story itself.
Henry James, William Faulkner, and many other American writers experimented with fictional points of view (some are still doing so). James often restricted the information in the novel to what a single character would have known. Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) breaks up the narrative into four sections, each giving the viewpoint of a different character (including a mentally retarded boy).
To analyze such modernist novels and poetry, 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.”
Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Ezra Pound was one of the most influential American poets of this century. From 1908 to 1920, he resided in London, where he associated with many writers, including William Butler Yeats, for whom he worked as a secretary, and T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land he drastically edited and improved. He was a link between the United States and Britain, acting as contributing editor to Harriet Monroe’s important Chicago magazine Poetry and spearheading the new school of poetry known as Imagism, which advocated a clear, highly visual presentation. After Imagism, he championed various poetic approaches. He eventually moved to Italy, where he became caught up in Italian Fascism.
Pound furthered Imagism in letters, essays, and an anthology. In a letter to Monroe in 1915, he argues for a modern-sounding, visual poetry that avoids “clichés and set phrases.” In “A Few Don’ts of an Imagiste” (1913), he defined “image” as something that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound’s 1914 anthology of 10 poets, Des Imagistes, offered examples of Imagist poetry by outstanding poets, including William Carlos Williams, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Amy Lowell.
Pound’s interests and reading were universal. His adaptations and brilliant, if sometimes flawed, translations introduced new literary possibilities from many cultures to modern writers. His life-work was The Cantos, which he wrote and published until his death. They contain brilliant passages, but their allusions to works of literature and art from many eras and cultures make them difficult. Pound’s poetry is best known for its clear, visual images, fresh rhythms, and muscular, intelligent, unusual lines, such as, in Canto LXXXI, “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world,” or in poems inspired by Japanese haiku, such as “In a Station of the Metro” (1916):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a well-to-do family with roots in the northeastern United States. He received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Merton College of Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his poetry. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social traditions for the modern poet.
As a critic, Eliot is best remembered for his formulation of the “objective correlative,” which he described, in The Sacred Wood, as a means of expressing emotion through “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” that would be the “formula” of that particular emotion. Poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) embody this approach, when the ineffectual, elderly Prufrock thinks to himself that he has “measured out his life in coffee spoons,” using coffee spoons to reflect a humdrum existence and a wasted lifetime.
The famous beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock” invites the reader into tawdry alleys that, like modern life, offer no answers to the questions of life:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
Similar imagery pervades The Waste Land (1922), which echoes Dante’s Inferno to evoke London’s thronged streets around the time of World War I:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many… (I, 60-63)
The Waste Land’s vision is ultimately apocalyptic and worldwide:
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria
Unreal (V, 373-377)
Eliot’s other major poems include “Gerontion” (1920), which uses an elderly man to symbolize the decrepitude of Western society; “The Hollow Men” (1925), a moving dirge for the death of the spirit of contemporary humanity; Ash-Wednesday (1930), in which he turns explicitly toward the Church of England for meaning in human life; and Four Quartets (1943), a complex, highly subjective, experimental meditation on transcendent subjects such as time, the nature of self, and spiritual awareness. His poetry, especially his daring, innovative early work, has influenced generations.
Robert Lee Frost was born in California but raised on a farm in the northeastern United States until the age of 10. Like Eliot and Pound, he went to England, attracted by new movements in poetry there. A charismatic public reader, he was renowned for his tours. He read an original work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that helped spark a national interest in poetry. His popularity is easy to explain: He wrote of traditional farm life, appealing to a nostalgia for the old ways. His subjects are universal – apple picking, stone walls, fences, country roads. Frost’s approach was lucid and accessible: He rarely employed pedantic allusions or ellipses. His frequent use of rhyme also appealed to the general audience.
Frost’s work is often deceptively simple. Many poems suggest a deeper meaning. For example, a quiet snowy evening by an almost hypnotic rhyme scheme may suggest the not entirely unwelcome approach of death. From: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923):
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Born in Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens was educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School. He practiced law in New York City from 1904 to 1916, a time of great artistic and poetic activity there. On moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to become an insurance executive in 1916, he continued writing poetry. His life is remarkable for its compartmentalization: His associates in the insurance company did not know that he was a major poet. In private he continued to develop extremely complex ideas of aesthetic order throughout his life in aptly named books such as Harmonium (enlarged edition 1931), Ideas of Order (1935), and Parts of a World (1942). Some of his best known poems are “Sunday Morning,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
Stevens’s poetry dwells upon themes of the imagination, the necessity for aesthetic form, and the belief that the order of art corresponds with an order in nature. His vocabulary is rich and various: He paints lush tropical scenes but also manages dry, humorous, and ironic vignettes.
Some of Stevens’s poems draw upon popular culture, while others poke fun at sophisticated society or soar into an intellectual heaven. He is known for his exuberant word play: “Soon, with a noise like tambourines / Came her attendant Byzantines.”
Stevens’s work is full of surprising insights. Sometimes he plays tricks on the reader, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” (1931):
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
This poem seems to complain about unimaginative lives (plain white nightgowns), but actually conjures up vivid images in the reader’s mind. At the end a drunken sailor, oblivious to the proprieties, does “catch tigers” – at least in his dream. The poem shows that the human imagination – of reader or sailor – will always find a creative outlet.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
William Carlos Williams was a practicing pediatrician throughout his life; he delivered over 2,000 babies and wrote poems on his prescription pads. Williams was a classmate of poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle, and his early poetry reveals the influence of Imagism. He later went on to champion the use of colloquial speech; his ear for the natural rhythms of American English helped free American poetry from the iambic meter that had dominated English verse since the Renaissance. His sympathy for ordinary working people, children, and everyday events in modern urban settings make his poetry attractive and accessible. “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), like a Dutch still life, finds interest and beauty in everyday objects.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams cultivated a relaxed, natural poetry. In his hands, the poem was not to become a perfect object of art as in Stevens, or the carefully re-created Wordsworthian incident as in Frost. Instead, the poem was to capture an instant of time like an unposed snapshot – a concept he derived from photographers and artists he met at galleries like Stieglitz’s in New York City. Like photographs, his poems often hint at hidden possibilities or attractions, as in “The Young Housewife” (1917).
At ten a.m. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb,
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
To a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
He termed his work “objectivist” to suggest the importance of concrete, visual objects. His work often captured the spontaneous, emotive pattern of experience, and influenced the “Beat” writing of the early 1950s.
Like Eliot and Pound, Williams tried his hand at the epic form, but while their epics employ literary allusions directed to a small number of highly educated readers, Williams instead writes for a more general audience. Though he studied abroad, he elected to live in the United States. His epic, Paterson (five vols., 1946-58), celebrates his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, as seen by an autobiographical “Dr. Paterson.” In it, Williams juxtaposed lyric passages, prose, letters, autobiography, newspaper accounts, and historical facts. The layout’s ample white space suggests the open road theme of American literature and gives a sense of new vistas even open to the poor people who picnic in the public park on Sundays. Like Whitman’s persona in Leaves of Grass, Dr. Paterson moves freely among the working people.
a Sunday afternoon!
– and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting: the proof)
himself among others
– treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other –
Wait for me!
(II, i, 14-23)
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
Numerous American poets of stature and genuine vision arose in the years between the world wars, among them poets from the West Coast, women, and African-Americans. Like the novelist John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers lived in California and wrote of the Spanish rancheros and Indians and their mixed traditions, and of the haunting beauty of the land. Trained in the classics and well-read in Freud, he re-created themes of Greek tragedy set in the rugged coastal seascape. He is best known for his tragic narratives such as Tamar (1924), Roan Stallion (1925), The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1924) – a re-creation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon – and Medea (1946), a re-creation of the tragedy by Euripides.
Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962)
Edward Estlin Cummings, commonly known as e.e. cummings, wrote attractive, innovative verse distinguished for its humor, grace, celebration of love and eroticism, and experimentation with punctuation and visual format on the page. A painter, he was the first American poet to recognize that poetry had become primarily a visual, not an oral, art; his poems used much unusual spacing and indentation, as well as dropping all use of capital letters.
Like Williams, Cummings also used colloquial language, sharp imagery, and words from popular culture. Like Williams, he took creative liberties with layout. His poem “in Just –” (1920) invites the reader to fill in the missing ideas:
in Just —
Spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
Hart Crane (1899-1932)
Hart Crane was a tormented young poet who committed suicide at age 33 by leaping into the sea. He left striking poems, including an epic, The Bridge (1930), which was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, in which he ambitiously attempted to review the American cultural experience and recast it in affirmative terms. His luscious, overheated style works best in short poems such as “Voyages” (1923, 1926) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), whose ending is a suitable epitaph for Crane:
monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
Marianne Moore once wrote that poems were “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Her poems are conversational, yet elaborate and subtle in their syllabic versification, drawing upon extremely precise description and historical and scientific fact. A “poet’s poet,” she influenced such later poets as her young friend Elizabeth Bishop.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
One of many talented poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – in the company of James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and others – was Langston Hughes. He embraced African-American jazz rhythms and was one of the first black writers to attempt to make a profitable career out of his writing. Hughes incorporated blues, spirituals, colloquial speech, and folkways in his poetry.
An influential cultural organizer, Hughes published numerous black anthologies and began black theater groups in Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as New York City. He also wrote effective journalism, creating the character Jesse B. Semple (“simple”) to express social commentary. One of his most beloved poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1925), embraces his African – and universal – heritage in a grand epic catalogue. The poem suggests that, like the great rivers of the world, African culture will endure and deepen:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Although American prose between the wars experimented with viewpoint and form, Americans wrote more realistically, on the whole, than did Europeans. Novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote of war, hunting, and other masculine pursuits in a stripped, plain style; William Faulkner set his powerful southern novels spanning generations and cultures firmly in Mississippi heat and dust; and Sinclair Lewis delineated bourgeois lives with ironic clarity.
The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920s and 1930s: Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the playwright Eugene O’Neill repeatedly portrayed the tragedy awaiting those who live in flimsy dreams.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s life resembles a fairy tale. During World War I, Fitzgerald enlisted in the U.S. Army and fell in love with a rich and beautiful girl, Zelda Sayre, who lived near Montgomery, Alabama, where he was stationed. Zelda broke off their engagement because he was relatively poor. After he was discharged at war’s end, he went to seek his literary fortune in New York City in order to marry her.
His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), became a best-seller, and at 24 they married. Neither of them was able to withstand the stresses of success and fame, and they squandered their money. They moved to France to economize in 1924 and returned seven years later. Zelda became mentally unstable and had to be institutionalized; Fitzgerald himself became an alcoholic and died young as a movie screenwriter.
Fitzgerald’s secure place in American literature rests primarily on his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), a brilliantly written, economically structured story about the American dream of the self-made man. The protagonist, the mysterious Jay Gatsby, discovers the devastating cost of success in terms of personal fulfillment and love. Other fine works include Tender Is the Night (1934), about a young psychiatrist whose life is doomed by his marriage to an unstable woman, and some stories in the collections Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), and All the Sad Young Men (1926). More than any other writer, Fitzgerald captured the glittering, desperate life of the 1920s; This Side of Paradise was heralded as the voice of modern American youth. His second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), continued his exploration of the self-destructive extravagance of his times.
Fitzgerald’s special qualities include a dazzling style perfectly suited to his theme of seductive glamour. A famous section from The Great Gatsby masterfully summarizes a long passage of time: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Few writers have lived as colorfully as Ernest Hemingway, whose career could have come out of one his adventurous novels. Like Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and many other fine novelists of the 20th century, Hemingway came from the U.S. Midwest. Born in Illinois, Hemingway spent childhood vacations in Michigan on hunting and fishing trips. He volunteered for an ambulance unit in France during World War I, but was wounded and hospitalized for six months. After the war, as a war correspondent based in Paris, he met expatriate American writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, influenced his spare style.
After his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) brought him fame, he covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the fighting in China in the 1940s. On a safari in Africa, he was badly injured when his small plane crashed; still, he continued to enjoy hunting and sport fishing, activities that inspired some of his best work. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short poetic novel about a poor, old fisherman who heroically catches a huge fish devoured by sharks, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953; the next year he received the Nobel Prize. Discouraged by a troubled family background, illness, and the belief that he was losing his gift for writing, Hemingway shot himself to death in 1961.
Hemingway is arguably the most popular American novelist of this century. His sympathies are basically apolitical and humanistic, and in this sense he is universal. His simple style makes his novels easy to comprehend, and they are often set in exotic surroundings. A believer in the “cult of experience,” Hemingway often involved his characters in dangerous situations in order to reveal their inner natures; in his later works, the danger sometimes becomes an occasion for masculine assertion.
Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway became a spokesperson for his generation. But instead of painting its fatal glamour as did Fitzgerald, who never fought in World War I, Hemingway wrote of war, death, and the “lost generation” of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers but tough bullfighters, soldiers, and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned.
His hallmark is a clean style devoid of unnecessary words. Often he uses understatement: In A Farewell to Arms (1929) the heroine dies in childbirth saying “I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.” He once compared his writing to icebergs: “There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows.”
Hemingway’s fine ear for dialogue and exact description shows in his excellent short stories, such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Critical opinion, in fact, generally holds his short stories equal or superior to his novels. His best novels include The Sun Also Rises, about the demoralized life of expatriates after World War I; A Farewell to Arms, about the tragic love affair of an American soldier and an English nurse during the war; For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Old Man and the Sea.
William Faulkner (1897-1962)
Born to an old southern family, William Harrison Faulkner was raised in Oxford, Mississippi, where he lived most of his life. Faulkner created an entire imaginative landscape, Yoknapatawpha County, mentioned in numerous novels, along with several families with interconnections extending back for generations. Yoknapatawpha County, with its capital, “Jefferson,” is closely modeled on Oxford, Mississippi, and its surroundings. Faulkner re-creates the history of the land and the various races – Indian, African-American, Euro-American, and various mixtures – who have lived on it. An innovative writer, Faulkner experimented brilliantly with narrative chronology, different points of view and voices (including those of outcasts, children, and illiterates), and a rich and demanding baroque style built of extremely long sentences full of complicated subordinate parts.
The best of Faulkner’s novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), two modernist works experimenting with viewpoint and voice to probe southern families under the stress of losing a family member; Light in August (1932), about complex and violent relations between a white woman and a black man; and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), perhaps his finest, about the rise of a self-made plantation owner and his tragic fall through racial prejudice and a failure to love.
Most of these novels use different characters to tell parts of the story and demonstrate how meaning resides in the manner of telling, as much as in the subject at hand. The use of various viewpoints makes Faulkner more self-referential, or “reflexive,” than Hemingway or Fitzgerald; each novel reflects upon itself, while it simultaneously unfolds a story of universal interest. Faulkner’s themes are southern tradition, family, community, the land, history and the past, race, and the passions of ambition and love. He also created three novels focusing on the rise of a degenerate family, the Snopes clan: The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959).
Since the 1890s, an undercurrent of social protest had coursed through American literature, welling up in the naturalism of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser and in the clear messages of the muckraking novelists. Later socially engaged authors included Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and the dramatist Clifford Odets. They were linked to the 1930s in their concern for the welfare of the common citizen and their focus on groups of people – the professions, as in Sinclair Lewis’s archetypal Arrowsmith (a physician) or Babbitt (a local businessman); families, as in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; or urban masses, as Dos Passos accomplishes through his 11 major characters in his U.S.A. trilogy.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and graduated from Yale University. He took time off from school to work at a socialist community, Helicon Home Colony, financed by muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair. Lewis’s Main Street (1920) satirized monotonous, hypocritical small-town life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. His incisive presentation of American life and his criticism of American materialism, narrowness, and hypocrisy brought him national and international recognition. In 1926, he was offered and declined a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925), a novel tracing a doctor’s efforts to maintain his medical ethics amid greed and corruption. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lewis’s other major novels include Babbitt (1922). George Babbitt is an ordinary businessman living and working in Zenith, an ordinary American town. Babbitt is moral and enterprising, and a believer in business as the new scientific approach to modern life. Becoming restless, he seeks fulfillment but is disillusioned by an affair with a bohemian woman, returns to his wife, and accepts his lot. The novel added a new word to the American language – “babbittry,” meaning narrow-minded, complacent, bourgeois ways. Elmer Gantry (1927) exposes revivalist religion in the United States, while Cass Timberlane (1945) studies the stresses that develop within the marriage of an older judge and his young wife.
John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Like Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos began as a left-wing radical but moved to the right as he aged. Dos Passos wrote realistically, in line with the doctrine of socialist realism. His best work achieves a scientific objectivism and almost documentary effect. Dos Passos developed an experimental collage technique for his masterwork U.S.A., consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). This sprawling collection covers the social history of the United States from 1900 to 1930 and exposes the moral corruption of materialistic American society through the lives of its characters.
Dos Passos’s new techniques included “newsreel” sections taken from contemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as “biographies” briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period, such as inventor Thomas Edison, labor organizer Eugene Debs, film star Rudolph Valentino, financier J.P. Morgan, and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos’s novels a documentary value; a third technique, the “camera eye,” consists of stream of consciousness prose poems that offer a subjective response to the events described in the books.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Like Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck is held in higher critical esteem outside the United States than in it today, largely because he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963 and the international fame it confers. In both cases, the Nobel Committee selected liberal American writers noted for their social criticism.
Steinbeck, a Californian, set much of his writing in the Salinas Valley near San Francisco. His best known work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which follows the travails of a poor Oklahoma family that loses its farm during the Depression and travels to California to seek work. Family members suffer conditions of feudal oppression by rich landowners. Other works set in California include Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952).
Steinbeck combines realism with a primitivist romanticism that finds virtue in poor farmers who live close to the land. His fiction demonstrates the vulnerability of such people, who can be uprooted by droughts and are the first to suffer in periods of political unrest and economic depression.
During the exuberant 1920s, Harlem, the black community situated uptown in New York City, sparkled with passion and creativity. The sounds of its black American jazz swept the United States by storm, and jazz musicians and composers like Duke Ellington became stars beloved across the United States and overseas. Bessie Smith and other blues singers presented frank, sensual, wry lyrics raw with emotion. Black spirituals became widely appreciated as uniquely beautiful religious music. Ethel Waters, the black actress, triumphed on the stage, and black American dance and art flourished with music and drama.
Among the rich variety of talent in Harlem, many visions coexisted. Carl Van Vechten’s sympathetic 1926 novel of Harlem gives some idea of the complex and bittersweet life of black America in the face of economic and social inequality.
The poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946), a native of Harlem who was briefly married to W.E.B. Du Bois’s daughter, wrote accomplished rhymed poetry, in accepted forms, which was much admired by whites. He believed that a poet should not allow race to dictate the subject matter and style of a poem. On the other end of the spectrum were African-Americans who rejected the United States in favor of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Somewhere in between lies the work of Jean Toomer.
Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
Like Cullen, African-American fiction writer and poet Jean Toomer envisioned an American identity that would transcend race. Perhaps for this reason, he brilliantly employed poetic traditions of rhyme and meter and did not seek out new “black” forms for his poetry. His major work, Cane (1923), is ambitious and innovative, however. Like Williams’s Paterson, Cane incorporates poems, prose vignettes, stories, and autobiographical notes. In it, an African-American struggles to discover his selfhood within and beyond the black communities in rural Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, and as a black teacher in the South. In Cane, Toomer’s Georgia rural black folk are naturally artistic:
Their voices rise…the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…
Their voices rise…the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars…(I, 21-24)
Cane contrasts the fast pace of African-American life in the city of Washington:
Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks. (II, 1-4)
Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Richard Wright was born into a poor Mississippi sharecropping family that his father deserted when the boy was five. Wright was the first African-American novelist to reach a general audience, even though he had barely a ninth grade education. His harsh childhood is depicted in one of his best books, his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He later said that his sense of deprivation, due to racism, was so great that only reading kept him alive.
The social criticism and realism of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis especially inspired Wright. During the 1930s, he joined the Communist party; in the 1940s, he moved to France, where he knew Gertrude Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre and became an anti-Communist. His outspoken writing blazed a path for subsequent African-American novelists.
His work includes Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a book of short stories, and the powerful and relentless novel Native Son (1940), in which Bigger Thomas, an uneducated black youth, mistakenly kills his white employer’s daughter, gruesomely burns the body, and murders his black girlfriend – fearing she will betray him. Although some African-Americans have criticized Wright for portraying a black character as a murderer, Wright’s novel was a necessary and overdue expression of the racial inequality that has been the subject of so much debate in the United States.
Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960)
Born in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston is known as one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance. She first came to New York City at the age of 16 – having arrived as part of a traveling theatrical troupe. A strikingly gifted storyteller who captivated her listeners, she attended Barnard College, where she studied with anthropologist Franz Boaz and came to grasp ethnicity from a scientific perspective. Boaz urged her to collect folklore from her native Florida environment, which she did. The distinguished folklorist Alan Lomax called her Mules and Men (1935) “the most engaging, genuine, and skillfully written book in the field of folklore.”
Hurston also spent time in Haiti, studying voodoo and collecting Caribbean folklore that was anthologized in Tell My Horse (1938). Her natural command of colloquial English puts her in the great tradition of Mark Twain. Her writing sparkles with colorful language and comic – or tragic – stories from the African- American oral tradition.
Hurston was an impressive novelist. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is a moving, fresh depiction of a beautiful mulatto woman’s maturation and renewed happiness as she moves through three marriages. The novel vividly evokes the lives of African-Americans working the land in the rural South. A harbinger of the women’s movement, Hurston inspired and influenced such contemporary writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison through books such as her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).
From the Civil War into the 20th century, the southern United States had remained a political and economic backwater ridden with racism and superstition, but, at the same time, blessed with rich folkways and a strong sense of pride and tradition. It had a somewhat unfair reputation for being a cultural desert of provincialism and ignorance.
Ironically, the most significant 20th-century regional literary movement was that of the Fugitives – led by poet-critic-theoretician John Crowe Ransom, poet Allen Tate, and novelist-poet-essayist Robert Penn Warren. This southern literary school rejected “northern” urban, commercial values, which they felt had taken over America. The Fugitives called for a return to the land and to American traditions that could be found in the South. The movement took its name from a literary magazine, The Fugitive, published from 1922 to 1925 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and with which Ransom, Tate, and Warren were all associated.
These three major Fugitive writers were also associated with New Criticism, an approach to understanding literature through close readings and attentiveness to formal patterns (of imagery, metaphors, metrics, sounds, and symbols) and their suggested meanings. Ransom, leading theorist of the southern renaissance between the wars, published a book, The New Criticism (1941), on this method, which offered an alternative to previous extra-literary methods of criticism based on history and biography. New Criticism became the dominant American critical approach in the 1940s and 1950s because it proved to be well-suited to modernist writers such as Eliot and could absorb Freudian theory (especially its structural categories such as id, ego, and superego) and approaches drawing on mythic patterns.
American drama imitated English and European theater until well into the 20th century. Often, plays from England or translated from European languages dominated theater seasons. An inadequate copyright law that failed to protect and promote American dramatists worked against genuinely original drama. So did the “star system,” in which actors and actresses, rather than the actual plays, were given most acclaim. Americans flocked to see European actors who toured theaters in the United States. In addition, imported drama, like imported wine, enjoyed higher status than indigenous productions.
During the 19th century, melodramas with exemplary democratic figures and clear contrasts between good and evil had been popular. Plays about social problems such as slavery also drew large audiences; sometimes these plays were adaptations of novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not until the 20th century would serious plays attempt aesthetic innovation. Popular culture showed vital developments, however, especially in vaudeville (popular variety theater involving skits, clowning, music, and the like). Minstrel shows, based on African-American music and folkways – performed by white characters using “blackface” makeup – also developed original forms and expressions.
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
Eugene O’Neill is the great figure of American theater. His numerous plays combine enormous technical originality with freshness of vision and emotional depth. O’Neill’s earliest dramas concern the working class and poor; later works explore subjective realms, such as obsessions and sex, and underscore his reading in Freud and his anguished attempt to come to terms with his dead mother, father, and brother. His play Desire Under the Elms (1924) recreates the passions hidden within one family; The Great God Brown (1926) uncovers the unconsciousness of a wealthy businessman; and Strange Interlude (1928), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, traces the tangled loves of one woman. These powerful plays reveal different personalities reverting to primitive emotions or confusion under intense stress.
O’Neill continued to explore the Freudian pressures of love and dominance within families in a trilogy of plays collectively entitled Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), based on the classical Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles. His later plays include the acknowledged masterpieces The Iceman Cometh (1946), a stark work on the theme of death, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956) – a powerful, extended autobiography in dramatic form focusing on his own family and their physical and psychological deterioration, as witnessed in the course of one night. This work was part of a cycle of plays O’Neill was working on at the time of his death.
O’Neill redefined the theater by abandoning traditional divisions into acts and scenes (Strange Interlude has nine acts, and Mourning Becomes Electra takes nine hours to perform); using masks such as those found in Asian and ancient Greek theater; introducing Shakespearean monologues and Greek choruses; and producing special effects through lighting and sound. He is generally acknowledged to have been America’s foremost dramatist. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first American playwright to be so honored.
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
Thornton Wilder is known for his plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927).
Our Town conveys positive American values. It has all the elements of sentimentality and nostalgia – the archetypal traditional small country town, the kindly parents and mischievous children, the young lovers. Still, the innovative elements such as ghosts, voices from the audience, and daring time shifts keep the play engaging. It is, in effect, a play about life and death in which the dead are reborn, at least for the moment.
Clifford Odets (1906-1963)
Clifford Odets, a master of social drama, came from an Eastern European, Jewish immigrant background. Raised in New York City, he became one of the original acting members of the Group Theater directed by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford, which was committed to producing only native American dramas.
Odets’s best-known play was Waiting for Lefty (1935), an experimental one-act drama that fervently advocated labor unionism. His Awake and Sing! , a nostalgic family drama, became another popular success, followed by Golden Boy, the story of an Italian immigrant youth who ruins his musical talent (he is a violinist) when he is seduced by the lure of money to become a boxer and injures his hands. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, the play warns against excessive ambition and materialism.
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, as well as links within the text to further resources.
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.
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