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									                                    American Literature
                                          Introduction

Note to pre-interns. Included in this section on American literature is an overview of major
issues and themes as well as brief discussions of the works of major American writers. We
assume that you own a copy of a standard anthology of American literature, such as those
published in two volumes by W.W Norton and Company, D.C. Heath and Company, or McGraw-
Hill, Inc. And of course it is not enough merely to own an anthology, but we expect that you will
read widely in it and that you will read additional works-- particularly novels-- that are too long
to be included in an anthology.

In many respects, American literature resembles the literature of Western Europe, particularly of
Great Britain. It shares the same language, mush of its reflects similar traditions such as
Christianity and the Greek and Roman classics, it reflects many of the same cultural values, and
it uses the same major genres. Yet, because the American experience has necessarily differed
from Europe's, its literature has also differed.

One crucial difference is America's diversity. Since its inception, American society has been
comprised of people from many different backgrounds, and consequently. American culture has
been engaged with divisions and the challenges of reconciling those divisions. This diversity has
significantly enriched American literature, as writers have infused elements of their native
cultures into their works. At the same time, America's cultural diversity has contributed to a
sense of uncertainty about what America is and about what it means to be an American. For
example, Americans have traditionally had the image of themselves both as idealists pursuing the
noble dream of establishing a just society and as a shrewd and practical people who know how to
get ahead. Symbolizing those two images, we have the contrasting cultural icons of the Statue of
Liberty and Uncle Sam. In their idealism, Americans have believed in the American Dream--
the establishment of a society in which individuals are equal, are free to pursue what they want,
are economically self-sufficient, and are politically informed and fairly represented. At the same
time, Americans have prided themselves on their material successes, such as their taming of the
wilderness, their military victories, their creation of individual wealth, and their economic
leadership of the world.

It is not surprising, then, that American literature has been pre-occupied by questions of human
identity, a focus that can be traced to several factors in the American experience. First, the
newness of American culture and the lack of the usual social constraints led Americans to
wonder what an American is, what a human being is, and what the relation is between a human
being and everything else. Second, the geographical isolation of America, especially in the first
two centuries or so of European settlements when the settled communities were surrounded by
ocean and wilderness, placed added emphasis on individual identity. Third, the political
philosophy of democracy places the highest significance on the individual (at least white, male,
property-owning individuals).

Another emphasis in American literature, affected by the emphasis on the individual and by the
geography of American civilization, is the frontier. Central to the American Dream, the frontier
embodies freedom of space, the faith that there is always a better chance somewhere else, that
there is fertile land, or maybe a gold mine, just around the corner. It also embodies an optimistic
sense of time, for the frontier implies an open future that is necessarily better than the present
and the past. The frontier is also associated with the Western European myth of the Westward
movement of culture from Greece to Rome to Western Europe to America.

Yet another emphasis in American literature is a defiant attitude toward Europe-- the brash
Yankee thumbing his nose at stodgy John Bull. Since the past was associated with decadent
European customs, rigid social classes, slums, and worn-out literary forms, Americans preferred
the future with the promise if its own bright civilization. Yet there is a bulit-in tension in this
preference: American culture, while it wanted to look beyond European culture, was highly
dependent on the culture for its very existence. For example, how could Americans use the
languages of Europeans without at least partially retaining European influences? This tension is
often manifested in a curious of self-confidence and doubt in American literature. This tension is
also evident in American's frequent sense of discontinuity with the historical past which was
something to escape, to forget, and to be replaced with new hopes and dreams for an always
better future.

Americans' defiance of the past of the past particularly of the European past that most Americans
had left behind, has contributed to a certain eccentricity and experimentalism in American
literature. In their need to dissociate themselves with Europe, American writers frequently reject
traditional literary forms or expand the limits and conventions of those forms. Many famous
American works do not conveniently fit into European-based niches. American novels such as
The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and The adventures of Huckleberry Finn have often been called
romances rather than novels because they seem to be of a different order of being than classic
nineteenth century European novels. The novels have an eccentric dimension, often
incorporating odd features of supernaturalism amidst their seemingly realistic mode. In the same
vein, many major American protagonists are notably unconventional, free-spirited, and
idiosyncratic: one has only to think of Hawthorne‟s Hester Prynne, Melville's Captain Ahab,
Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Faulkner's Joe Christmas, or Ellison's
invisible man. Similarily, each in its own way, the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson
seems radically different from the poetry of Tennyson or Browning. It seems as if the American
insistence on freedom and individuality carries over to its dominant literature.: just as the country
is founded on those principles, so the authors' most memorable protagonists refuse to be bound
by social restrictions.

For convenience, literary historians divide American literature, as they do other literatures, into
chronological periods. Thus, in the following pages you will find sections on Early American
literature (from its beginnings to about 1820), Romanticism (1820 to 1865), Realism and
Naturalism (1865-1914), Realism and Naturalism (1865-1914), Modernism (1914-1945), and
Contemporary Literature (1945 to the present). These historical divisions and labels provide a
framework for he broad sweep of American Literature, but we label the period from 1820 to
1865 the Romanic period because they seem particularly pervasive then. One must also
remember that writers within a given writer‟s work is related to his or her literary period but also
how each writer‟s version of Romanticism or Naturalism or Modernism is different from
another‟s version.
                        Early American Literature: Beginnings to 1820

Overview. Before the nineteenth century, literature in what is now the United States can best be
characterized by its diversity. Native people in North America, more than 10 million of them
speaking over 350 languages, had rich and varied oral traditions. In journals, diaries, travel
accounts, and other forms, European explorers recorded what they saw and felt as they were
exposed to the New World. Since many of the settlers came to America with strong religious
convictions, there is wealth of religious writings, particularly by Puritan writers. Two forms of
narrative emerged during the period, captivity narratives and slave narratives, which authors used
to recount their traumatic experiences. As European Literature in the eighteenth century shifted
to the Age of Reason, American literature followed suit, most notably in the increased
importance of political writing.

Literature of this period is significant primarily because it provides us with a many-layered sense
of how American culture emerged. Its variety of forms and voices testifies to the multi-racial and
multi-cultural dimensions of this emerging culture. In this process, one important theme is the
exploration of the question of American identity, and another is the complex, often uneasy,
interactions between cultures, as Europeans came to grips with their experiences in their new
land. It is literature of witness and discovery—of the self, of the new country and its inhabitants,
and of the new culture being created.

Native American Oral Traditions. Native American peoples used a great variety of forms of
oral expressions, which therefore is often referred to as “orature.” These forms are primarily
stories, songs, and rituals, which were passed on from generation and were performed for a
multitude of cultural purposes. Among the many specific forms are seasonal ceremonial rituals,
jokes, naming chants, dream songs, condolence rituals, and curing chants. Among the many
narrative forms are creation or origin stories, myths that explained how things came to be as
they are. Another form was cultural hero stories, which showed how remarkable people—
usually with superman powers—changed the natural world and helped create the existing Native
culture. Trickster tales are a specialized form of narrative in which a trickster figure, often an
animal with relatively weal physical characteristics (such as a coyote, raven, or rabbit), uses its
cunning to outwit more powerful adversaries. Almost always successful, trickster figures are also
complex because they typically violate cultural norms and thus provide a means for the
questioning and reconsidering of established patterns of behavior.

European Travel Accounts. As they explored, mapped, and settled in America, Europeans
often recorded their experiences. These accounts tell the story of some of the early American
explorers, such as The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542 by Pedro de Castenada. Most also
provide descriptions of the new land and its native peoples (as in John Smith’s The Generall
Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles and Samuel de Champlain’s The
Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604-18). Christopher Columbus’ journals and related
documents detail his unsuccessful attempts to find the fabled riches he sought in th New World.
In The Relation of Alvar Nunez de Vaca, de Vaca not only describes events but also the
transformations of his own identity during his years of life in a native tribe. As the Pilgrims
established their first settlements in Massachusetts, William Bradford, their governor,
expressed the religious and political principles upon which the new community was based in his
treatise, Of Plymouth Plantation.

Puritan Literature. Largely because of their strong religious convictions, the English settlers in
New England had a profound effect on American culture. Their version of Protestantism, known
as Puritanism, was based on several core principles. First, like most Protestants, they believed
that no earthly religious authority—such as a pope, bishop, or a priest—could intervene between
an individual and God. God alone decided who was saved and who was damned. Furthermore,
since the original state of human beings was thought to be one of sin and depravity, each
individual required God‟s redemption. This is often called the doctrine of election (that is, only
those who are personally redeemed by God are part of the elect) or of grace (one is redeemed
when one receives and accepts God‟s grace). A second principle was that every material thing in
this life could be interpreted as a sign of spiritual life. Thus, natural events were thought to reveal
the constant battle between good and evil, and an individual‟s material success in this world
indicated his or her state of grace in the spiritual world. Notice that this doctrine of signs ties in
conveniently with the principles of capitalism, which also validates personal material success.
Through a third doctrine—the covenant—Puritans believed that they were a special group of
people, much like the Israelites of the Old Testament, chosen by God to create a holy community
in the New World. Without the overtly Christian overtones, this notion has permeated much of
American culture, particularly in the idea of the American Dream.

Puritan writing took many forms. One was the personal diary or journal (for example, those of
Samuel Sewall), in which the individual typically recorded ongoing assessments of the state of
his of her soul. Another was religious tracts and treatises, especially those written by Cotton
Mather, who is usually regarded as the most important exponent of Puritanism. A third form,
not surprisingly, was sermons. The most memorable Puritan sermon writer was Jonathan
Edwards, who lived in the 18th century, well after the Puritan heyday during what was called the
Great Awakening, a religious revival in the 1730s and 1740s. Probably every American student
has heard of Edwards‟ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” with its
vivid descriptions of the consequences of not receiving God‟s grace. Yet another form of Puritan
writing was religious poetry, most notably the metaphysical reflections by Edward Taylor and
the more homespun poems by Anne Bradstreet demonstrating her domestic pieties. Taylor‟s
highly wrought poems resemble those of such English poets as John Donne and George Herbert.
Typically they begin with the speaker‟s religious despair and the introduction of one speaker‟s
process of working through the despair to a sense of religious elation and finally a prayer for
God‟s mercy.

Personal Narrative. Two forms of personal narrative, captivity narratives and slave narratives,
emerged during this period of early American literature. Captivity narratives were written by
Europeans to document periods of time in which they lived in Native American communities.
Their purposes were not just to present the factual events of the experience but, Puritan diaries
and journals, to record the authors‟ spiritual crises during the ordeal. Although captivity
narratives were written by many non-Puritan writers, the most famous one, and a very popular
book from its publication in 1682 in the 19th century, was Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of
the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Captivity narratives, such as
Rowlandson‟s, also served the political purpose of demonstrating the presumed savagery of
Native Americans.

Similarly, slave narratives, autobiographical and pseudo-autobiographical accounts by ex-slave
of their lives in slavery and their escapes to freedom, also served a political purpose. They were
usually promoted, edited, and published by Northern Abolitionists trying to strengthen their case
against the institution of slavery. The best known slave narrative of the period was The
Interesting Narratives of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano‟s narrative became the prototype for the
19th century slave narratives, such as those by Fredrick Douglass‟s and Harriet Jacobs (see the
section on slave narratives in the Romantic period for a fuller discussion of this genre and of
Douglas‟s and Jacob‟s narratives).

Equiano‟s narrative not only served as Abolitionist propaganda but also exemplified the tradition
of the spiritual autobiography, that is, a life-story that documents the author‟s spiritual growth as
well as the outward events of his or her life. The prime example of this genre in American
literature is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. In this influential work, Franklin tells the
classic rags-to-riches story of the determined young man who starts at the bottom and, through
hard work and determination, rises to the top. Combining practical wisdom as well as moderate
idealism, it is a case in point of the American dream, an example of the promise that America
stood for. Franklin‟s Autobiography also exhibits many traits of eighteenth-century literature: its
reliance on common sense and rationalism, its faith in science, its advocacy of Deism, and its
humanitarian and philanthropic point of view. As many writers of the period advocated, its
purposes were both to instruct and to entertain.

Political Writing. With Franklin, we have moved into the 18th century and the predominance of
political writing in America. Because America was heavily influenced by European culture,
writing in this century also was dominated by an emphasis on reason rather than faith. In his
Autobiography, Franklin comes across as the most reasonable of human beings, and in their
political works, such writers as Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson relied
primarily on reason to persuade Americans to revolt against England and then to develop the
basis for the new American democracy.

Though not as overtly political, Letters of an American Farmer (published in 1782), by J.
Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, is a significant volume. Crevecoeur, a native Frenchman and
naturalized American, uses a fictional narrator—the farmer in the title—to delineate American
life, including the advantages but also the social problems and divisions, such as slavery, that
were already apparent. Perhaps more clearly than any other writer, Crevecoeur captures the
essence of what it means to be an American, particularly the idea of America as a chance for
renewal and regeneration and as a melting pot for all immigrants.

Neoclassical Poetry. In English literature, the period from the late 17th century to the late 18th
century is known as Neoclassicism, primarily because of the interest in the classic literature and
art of ancient Greece and Rome (see our discussion of the period in the English literature
section). The best known American poet in this tradition is Philip Freneau, who, like many
Neoclassicists, often wrote poems celebrating contemporary people and events, often, in
Freneau‟s case, those associated with the American Revolution. Perhaps the most remarkable
American poet of the late 18th century was Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley arrived in Boston at the
age of seven or eight as a slave shipped directly from Africa, knowing no English and nothing of
American culture. Yet only six years later, she published her first poems, and in 1773 she
published the first volume of poetry of an African American, Poems on Various Subjects,
Religious and Moral. Wheatley‟s poems are squarely in Neoclassical tradition with strong
similarities to the poetry of Alexander Pope. Using the elegant poetic diction of the period, most
are written to or about a public figure or on the occasion of a public event. Most are written in
Pope‟s typical form of the heroic couplet—iambic pentameter with pairs of rhyming lines (a
rhyme scheme of AA, bb, cc, etc.)

Some of the complexity of Wheatley‟s poetry is evident in an unusually personal poem:

                            On Being Brought from Africa to America

                          „Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
                            Taught my benighted soul to understand
                           That there‟s a God, that there‟s a Savior too:
                           Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
                           Some view our sable race with scornful eye.
                                  “Their color is a diabolic dye.”
                          Remember, Christmas, Negroes, black as Cain,
                            May be refined, and join the angelic train.

On the surface, this poem appears to agree with the dominant White viewpoint that Africans are
better off in America and therefore that slavery is at worst a necessary evil and at best a moral
good. The first four lines present this view in a hymn of gratitude for the divine and human
mercy that brought the speaker from the spiritual darkness of her “benighted soul” to the
knowledge and possibility of redemption. Yet, Wheatley‟s tone becomes increasingly critical, as
she first proves “some” (obviously White) people for their racial prejudice and then as she
didactically warns them in theological terms to remember their Christian principles. Moreover,
the phrase “sable race” suggests that Africans are not merely “pagans” associated with darkness
or evil but have dignity and nobility. That they possess these traits heightens the speaker‟s satiric
contrast between her view of Africans and the indirectly “benighted” view of “scornful” whites.
If we read more deeply into the poem, Wheatley seems to be punning on “dye” and “Cain,” for
the triangular trade that brought Africans to the Americans also included a lively commerce in
indigo dye and sugar cane, the latter pun being continued with the word “refined.” Along with its
didacticism, Wheatley‟s last two lines introduce an intriguing ambiguity: do they address
Christians and convey the sense that Christians and Negroes are sinners (“black as Cain”) who
have the chance to be redeemed? The most compelling response is that she means both.
Complacent White, Christian readers may fall into the trap of self-congratulations, assuming that
they are obviously candidates for redemption. More discerning readers should notice the second
possibility, which deepens the satire by suggesting that Christians (Whites), like Africans and
indeed like all human beings according to Christian doctrine, are in the same boat, that everyone,
equally, “may be refined,” and in other words can hope for the chance of God‟s grace.

Sentimental novels. In the last years of the 18the century, a form of fiction called the
sentimental novel became quite popular in the United States. The best known author of these
novels is Susanna Rowson, and her most popular novel was Charlotte Temple, a novel that was
reprinted in over 200 editions. Purporting in its subtitle to be “a tale of truth,” the novel
anticipates nineteenth-century Realism by depicting the lives of everyday people living in the
present time. However, the sentimentalism comes to the fore in the plot, which is dominated by a
seemingly endless series of hardships and crises for the young female characters, including
troubles with friends, landlords, and, of course, lovers, as well as economic problems, unwanted
pregnancies, and fatal childbirths.

                                    Romanticism: 1820-1865

Overview. American culture and the literature of this period were heavily influenced by
European Romanticism. As reflected by the political revolutions in America and France in the
late eighteenth century, Romanticism is characterized by the overthrown of old, traditional
systems, institutions, and ways of thinking and the championing of new ones. Whatever the
human imagination can conceive of is valued. Whatever is unusual, exotic, and far-off is
preferred over the everyday and the here-and-now. Romantics want to explore and celebrate the
diverse states of human spirituality, and they believe that the individual‟s immersion in nature is
the best way to do so. Typical Romantic works place individuals alone in nature where they
meditate on the natural surroundings and thereby reach greater understandings of themselves and
their relationship to the cosmos. Often this meditation leads to a deep spiritual insight or even
transformation, sometimes called an epiphany, in which the individual feels at one with nature
and, through nature, with the divine. Not surprisingly, the central figure, or hero, in Romantic
literature is often the artist, the observer, the “I,” and its ideal form of art is pure, unfiltered
expression.

It is not surprising that Romanticism blossomed in the United States, for the new country was
itself a Romantic notion: it represented a radical break from the European past, it was a political
and social experiment, it championed the individual, and it was heavily influenced by its natural
environment. The American Dream is inherently Romantic. From around 1820 to the Civil War,
America experienced a wave of optimism and self-confidence that also fit in with the Romantic
temperament.

Philosophically, the American version of Romanticism is called transcendentalism. This fancy
word comes from the Romantic belief that the most important aspects of life, and even of reality,
are transcendent, that is, not material but spiritual, not objects but ideas, feelings, sensations.
Like European Romantics, American transcendentalists were influenced by non-Western
religions and philosophies that emphasize mystical experience, the dominance of the spirit, and
the unity of human beings, nature, and the divine. Romanticism was also influenced by the
emphasis in Protestantism on the individual and his or her direct relationship of God.

American Romanticism was also characterized by an idealistic mood in the young nation. Freed
from political domination by Europe, becoming more independent economically, and enthused
by their country‟s growing size and strength, Americans were on the whole upbeat about
themselves and their new nation. Opportunities seemed to abound—in urban factories, in new
lands opening up across the continent, in the Gold Rush of 1849, in the defeat of Mexico in the
war of 1845, in the persistent pushing back of native Americans. America was seen as a second
Eden, a new chance for former Europeans to start over and to avoid the mistakes that seemed to
be plaguing Europe. A sign of this optimism was the wave of new ideas and new projects that
sprouted up all over America during this period, such as utopian communities, charitable
organizations, and get-rich-quick schemes.

Despite this dominance sense of optimism, Americans also doubted themselves and their future.
If they were blessed with a chance to make a new, better society, they also feared that they might
fail and that their failure would be their own fault. They were typically ambivalent about Native
Americans, both idealizing them as “noble” and stereotyping them as “savages.” They were
increasingly divided and disturbed about African Americans and the “peculiar institution” of
slavery, an issue that was largely ignored by the leading literary figures of the period and an
issue would lead to the devastating end of the period in the Civil War.

Pre-Romantic Writers. Three American writers, all born in the late 18th century, are usually
considered pre-Romantics: Washington Irving (1783-1859), James Fenimore Cooper (1789-
1851), and William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). This first generation of American Romantics
was largely eclipsed by their contemporaries in England (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats,
Shelley, Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen), but they successfully used American
experience to write works of literature not possible for a European to write, and they showed for
the first time that a person could be an American and a successful writer. Irving is best known
for his short stories, especially “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Cooper,
vowing to write better fiction than Scott, achieved his greatest success with a series of novels
about frontier life—The Leatherstocking Tales—Which featured his idealized hero, Natty
Bumppo. Bryant was primarily a poet, writing short lyric poems in the Romantic traditions (such
as “Thanatopsis,” “To a Waterfowl,” and “To the Fringed Gentian”) in which the speaker,
immersed in nature, reflects upon the natural landscape and, through that reflection, better
understands himself and the ultimate forces of the universe.

The Fireside Poets. The most popular poets during the Romantic period were the so-called
fireside poets—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-
1892), Oliver Wendel Holmes (1809-1894), and James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). Their
poetry, suitable for reading aloud around a living room fireplace, was popular for its comforting
readability and its expression of contemporary social values. Some poems recounted American
legends (as in Longfellow‟s Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha), others evoked nostalgic
scenes of rural America (as in Whittier‟s “Snowbound”), and still others addressed contemporary
issues (such as Holme‟s “Old Ironsides,” a plea not to scrap the ship Constitution).

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). A philosopher and occasionally a poet, Emerson was the
major spokesperson for transcendentalism and, as such, he had a tremendous influence on this
period of American literature. His works are collected in several volumes of essays, the most
well-known of which are “Nature,” “The American Scholar,” “The divinity School Address,”
“Self-Reliance,” and “The poet.”

The heart of Emerson‟s thinking is that there is a non-material, transcendent level of reality and
that this is by far the most important level. His concept of the Over soul, a concentration of this
transcendent reality, is a metaphysical ideal of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual perfection. It‟s like
God but without the imagery and narrative of the Bible. For Emerson, nature is extremely close
to the Over soul, and he uses the term “correspondence” to articulate that connection.
Furthermore, the human mind is also, at least potentially, very close to the Over soul, and
Emerson asserts that human mind continually help create it. For Emerson, there is an underlying
unity in all things, including the Over soul, the cosmos, and nature and by extension all matter,
mind, and therefore all thought, language, and feeling. As you can see, Emerson‟s philosophy is
similar to the Romantic viewpoint.

Emerson‟s focus on the primacy of mind and its unity with nature and the Over soul leads to
several other important concepts in his writing. One is that he is a philosophical idealist, that is,
he believes that what the mind senses or feels is more “real” than any material object or event
outside the mind. That belief pushed Emerson to privilege the act of interpretation over most
other human activities, for when humans interpret an object or event they turn that thing into
language and hence into the mind. Yet another concept is Emerson‟s emphasis on sublime
experiences, when the individual mind fully senses its oneness with nature and the universe.
Emerson is well-known for his call (especially in “The American Scholar”) for a new kind of
literature unique to America. Emerson‟s worldview is on the whole very optimistic, for he
believed that through the operations of the mind people can continually create a better world.
Despite that optimism, however, there are interesting tensions and doubts in Emerson‟s work, for
example his recurring condemnation of cities and of people in their social roles and his fears that
language may be degenerating rather than improving.

Here is a famous passage from Chapter I of “Nature”:

In the woods, we return and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no
 calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my
    head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I
     become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being
                        circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

This passage documents an epiphany, or a sublime moment, when Emerson directly experiences
the oneness among himself, nature, and the transcendent forces of the cosmos (here referred to as
“the Universal Being” and “God” rather than the Over soul). At such moments for Emerson, as
for many Romantics, the sense of being a discrete individual disappears, as, in this case; the self
becomes “transparent.” Moreover, Emerson‟s self is not merely merged with nature but it has
become pure vision (an “eye-ball”), that is to say, an organ of pure interpretation, which is at
least momentarily lifted into the ideal state of impeded contact with the material and spiritual
realities outside the self. For Emerson, this ideal state comes about through his physical presence
in nature—as for most Romantics the pathway to the spiritual runs directly through immersion in
nature. But it also comes about through his reliance on his own mind—“reason and faith”—and
notice that he requires both reason and faith for, since Emerson‟s unities extend to the mind
itself, he needs to affirm the necessity of both capacities. The passage also conveys Emerson‟s
inherent optimism: such moments are possible; they in fact are the essence of life; and in them,
the self becomes “nothing” because it is aligned with everything and thus in a sense is
everything.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Hawthorne supported himself and his family with modest earnings from his published fiction and
from various government-appointed positions, such as surveyor of the Salem, Massachusetts,
Custom House and as American consul at Liverpool. A member of the New England literary
group, he was especially close friends with Herman Melville. He is best known for The Scarlet
Letter and a handful of short stories (“My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman
Brown,” “The Minister‟s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini‟s daughter,” and “Ethan
Brand”), but he also wrote several other novels (including prefaces to each novel), and a
biography of Franklin Pierce.

More than the other writers of this period, Hawthorne focused on the past, particularly on the
early Puritan past of New England. Based on that interest, one of his central themes is human
beings‟ struggles with sin and evil. He is critical of the Puritans‟ focus on the dichotomy
between good and evil, instead asserting through his fictions that all people have the capacity for
both. For example, the title character in “Young Goodman Brown” idealize the influential
characters in his life, and then, when he discovers—or imagines—that they may be evil, he loses
his own faith and his capacity to live a healthy life.

To explore that first theme, Hawthorne often focuses his fictions on a young protagonist (always
males) who goes through a difficult initiation process. The initiate encounters a strange setting,
such as Rappaccini‟s garden or the dreamlike chaos of Boston in “My kinsman, Major
Molineux,” which alienates him and causes him to question his values as well as his senses.
Another theme is the difficulty humans have of ascertaining just what they have seemingly seen
or experienced. This theme of how we interpret objects and events outside ourselves runs
throughout this period of literature. The endings of Hawthorne‟s fictions are usually ambiguous,
for Hawthorne‟s narrators seldom provide a clear sense of closure; for example, the value of
Reverend Hooper‟s wearing a black veil is never determined. When there is more clarity, as in
Arthur Dimmesdale‟s apparent spiritual triumph at the end of The Scarlet Letter, any success is
always balanced by the death and/or suffering of one or more characters. To achieve his victory,
Dimmesdale must die and Hester Prynne must endure a life of penance and expiation.

Another of Hawthorne‟s common themes is the human danger of over-emphasizing any single
trait, particularly the intellect. Hawthorne‟s “Unpardonable Sin” is the mistaken belief that an
individual can use his or her intellect, often symbolized by a character‟s obsession with science,
to reach conclusive answers and particularly to understand fully another human being.
Hawthorne‟s obsessed scientists include Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter, Ethan Brand,
Dr. Rappaccini, and Dr. Aylmer in “The Birthmark.” By showing the fatal consequences of these
characters‟ futile over-reliance on reason and the intellect, Hawthorne repeatedly demonstrates
his belief in the necessary balance among human traits and his conviction that all human beings
must respect the sanctity and the mysteries of the human soul.

Compared to the other writers of this period, Hawthorne is more interested in social
questions. His characters are seldom placed alone in nature to reflect on themselves and the
universe, but instead they are placed in social situations which they endure initiations,
learn or fail to learn how to become viable members of their society, and/or develop or fail
to develop a healthy balance of human traits, a compassionate respect for others, a solid
sense of their own identity. To achieve all of these goals, the individual needs to know the truth
about his or her social position. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, Pearl cannot be part of
society and cannot understand herself until the secrets of her birth and her families are revealed.


The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne‟s masterpiece, is, with Melville‟s Moby-Dick, one of the two
most significant novels of the period. In exploring the peculiar dynamics among Dimmsdale,
Hester, Chillingworth, and Pearl, Hawthorne creates a beautifully structured novel, dominated by
its three scaffold scenes, one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end. The
characters and the plot enable Hawthorne to investigate many enduring themes in American
literature and for that matter all literature, such as who we are as human beings, how we deal
with sin, what we make of the past, how we interpret ourselves and the world around us, and
how we arrange our basic social institutions of the family and the community.

Edgar Allan Poe (1819-1849)

Poe‟s relatively brief was, to say at least, troubled. Orphaned at age two, he was raised by the
Allan family in Richmond but never adopted by them. He continually quarreled with his
stepfather John Allan, often incurred gambling debts, dropping out of several universities, and
had an unfortunate liaison with women, including marriage to his fourteen-year-old cousin. He
supported himself as an editor and hack writer until his early death. His lasting literary works
include a volume of short poems, a volume of short stories, a novel (The Narrative of Arthur
Gordon Pym), a few essays on literary criticism, and a philosophical treatise (Eureka). He is
credited with the invention of the genre of detective fiction (for example, “The Purloined Letter”
and “The murders in the Rue Morgue”).

Except for the detective stories, the situations Poe depicts in his poems and stories are often quite
similar. The main character—usually the poem‟s speaker or the story‟s narrator—is placed in a
gloomy, isolated setting. In that setting, he (the character is either male or assumed male) longs
desperately for a return to the past and, usually, for a lost, ideal lover. He has no interest in the
material world, the present, or the future. His only desire, often not fully conscious, is to
transport himself out of this world into a spiritual realm symbolized by the lost lover. For
example, the speaker of “Annabel Lee” wishes to merge his body and soul with his lost lover.
The speaker of “The raven” is not as enlightened, for he does not realize that the raven represents
his lost Lenore. The narrator of “Ligeia” subconsciously uses his present bride to re-connect
spiritually with his lost Ligeia. In a second mode, Poe creates an imaginary landscape in which
material objects mysteriously fade into nothingness, as in “Dream-land,” “The Valley of Unrest,”
and “The City in the Sea.” In both modes, since Poe‟s literary quest is to escape the material
confines of this world, ordinary values are often reversed, so that death and destruction are
positive rather than negative.

“The Fall of the House of Usher,” often considered Poe‟s best story, illustrates both modes and
Poe‟s underlying theme of the need for transcendence of this world. Here the unnamed narrator
who visits Roderick Usher is not Poe‟s typical protagonist, for he has no inkling of Poe‟s
perspective. But Roderick, mourning the recent death of his twin sister Madeline, is transported
beyond the material world when he dies in a macabre embrace with his dead sister. Moments
later, as the terrified narrator “escapes” back into the physical world, the Usher mansion sinks
into the tarn over which it was built, thus completing the transcendent, “de-materializing”
experience of the two Ushers.

Poe‟s pre-occupation with a host ideal past has been attributed to his longing for his dead parents
and/or for an ideal youth. It is akin to the yearning for an Edenic past in Christianity. In his
interpretation of Poe, poet and critic Richard Wilbur connects Poe‟s poetic and fictional
situations with Poe‟s speculations in Eureka. In that treatise, Poe asserts that the universe itself
once existed in a spiritual unity (the ideal past) but has degenerated into a fragmented,
materialistic multiplicity. In the distant future, Poe argues, the universe will return to that
original unity, a theory surprisingly predictive of contemporary physicists‟ theories about the Big
Bang and a possible Big Crunch. In any case, Poe is in some ways an extreme Romantic: he
focuses on single characters needing or having sublime experiences in nature (or in Poe‟s Gothic
settings) in which the power of the imagination is paramount.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Thoreau lived a varied life—he was a friend of Emerson‟s, he was a naturalist, for a while he ran
his family‟s pencil factory, he protested against slavery. His journals and his accounts of
naturalistic expeditions are intriguing, but his best known works are “Civil Disobedience” and
Walden. The former is a carefully argued essay in which Thoreau details his, and everyone‟s,
obligation to disobey any law, such as the Fugitive Slave Act, that he or she considers unjust.
Such disobedience, Thoreau asserts, must be a pure act of conscience and must be non-violent,
and as such the essay strongly influenced Mohatma Ghandi‟s philosophy of non-violence and the
civil rights movement in America in the 1960s.

Part nature guide, per travel account, part do-it-yourself guide to the art of life, part satire, part
spiritual autobiography, Walden is a curious book. It has been called “a fable of the renewal of
life” and “the artistic recreation of Thoreau‟s discovery of his means of salvation.” On one level,
it is Thoreau‟s account of the two years (compressed into one) that he spent living alone in the
woods next to Walden Pond which then was on the fringes of settled society. As such, he
provides the details of how he built his cabin, how he grew his beans, how he passed the time,
how he explored the pond and the surrounding area, who his visitors were, and so forth. On
another level, Thoreau uses his experience to make fun of—and sometimes to criticize more
seriously—people who do not, in his words, live life to the fullest. Behind such satire lie
Thoreau‟s convictions that each person must live life deliberately, must simplify his or her
material possessions so that the spiritual side of life is not ignored, and must stay refreshed in
nature rather than become mired in the daily grind of society and money-making. Thus, the book
is also about the pre-eminent importance of the spirit, of paying attention to one‟s inner being.
His purpose in going to the woods was “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of
life,” and urges everyone to “Explore thyself” and “to maintain himself in whatever attitude he
finds himself through obedience to the laws of his being.”

Throughout the volume, Thoreau‟s persona is hard to pin down. He is alternately cocky,
melancholic, defensive, self-mocking, ironic, visionary, and satirical. More so than the other
writers of this period, he is interested in material things, the here-and-now of natural phenomena.
He takes pride, for example, in his exact measurements of the length, breadth, and depth of
Walden Pond. Like Emerson, his prose is sprinkled with didactic aphorisms, such as “The mass
of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own
private opinion,” and “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he
hears a different drummer.” Like all the Romantics, he is even more interested in the spiritual
transcendence than can occur when one frees oneself from the usual pursuits of this world and
rises to the sublime. He is adept at creating vivid images for such moments, for example through
images of a transcendent sort of measurement (“The stars are but the apexes of what wonderful
triangles”), of turning things inside out (“the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot” and “We do
not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us”), and of the beginning of a new day (“We must learn to
reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the
dawn” and, in the closing words of Walden, “The sun is but a morning star”).

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Melville began his literary career with several successful novels that depicted adventures in the
South Seas loosely based on the author‟s own experiences: Typee, Omoo, redburn, and White-
Jacket. Although these novels were commercially successful, Melville was unsatisfied, so much
so that in the midst of writing his next novel, Moby-Dick, he transformed it from a traditional sea
adventure into a mythic and symbolic epic.

 In this novel, Melville draws upon resources as varied as scientific treatises on whaling and
the Bible, and the novel incorporates elements of many literary forms, such as the essay,
drama, and myth, epic. In mixing such genres and influences in a radically innovative
fashion, the novel achieves a grandeur of scope and depth as it explores the extremes of
human potential in the face of overwhelming external conditions. The crew of the Pequod
becomes symbolic of all people as well as of the young American republic. The white whale can
be seen as representing many things, such as nature of evil, but the most compelling
interpretation is that he suggests the ultimate mysteries of the cosmos. The men on board apply
their various perspectives to such mysteries, thus constituting a kind of symposium on the
subject. For example, Ahab hates the whale because he cannot tolerate the human position of
ignorance of those mysteries. In contrast, Ishmael, faced with the ultimate mystery embodied in
Queequeg and the sea, responds by accepting and even embracing the mystery. In typically
Romantic fashion, the novel places humans, in this case not an individual but an ensemble,
within nature and then uses their encounter with nature to speculate on such metaphysical issues
as the existence of good and evil, the nature of the individual, the realm of the spiritual versus the
realm of the material, and how we as humans comprehend and interpret all things.

After Moby-Dick Melville continued to write fiction as well as poetry, three of Melville‟s
fictional works have themes especially similar to those of Moby-Dick. In “Bartleby, the
Scrivener,” the unnamed narrator is confronted with the inexplicable behavior of his employee,
Bartleby. He moves through many reactions—including frustration, anger, empathy, and love—
but, like Moby-Dick, Bartleby eludes any final or complete interpretation. Similarly, in “Benito
Cereno,” the American Captain Delano is forced to try to decipher the contradictory and
ambiguous situation aboard a stranded slave-carrying ship. In this case, the mystery is
superficially clarified, but the closing court depositions leave the reader unclear about Melville‟s
attitudes, especially about the vexing issues surrounding slavery in this country. Finally, in
“Billy Budd” Melville depicts an archetypal struggle between good (Billy Bud) and evil
(Claggart) and focuses on the nearly impossible ethnical and legal decision the Captain Vere
must make regarding Billy‟s guilt in the death of Claggart.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Most critics regard Whitman as the greatest American poet of the 19th century and as America‟s
first great poet. Growing up on Long Island in a working-class family, he worked in a variety of
occupations throughout his life, including as a printer and as a nurse during the Civil War. In
1855 he published on his own famous volume of poems, Leaves of Grass, a volume that he kept
revising and enlarging all his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the volume, seeing in the
poems the kind of new poetry that he had been advocating for Americans. Besides revising and
re-issuing Leaves of Grass, Whitman published several other volumes of poetry (such as a series
of Civil War poems titled Drum Tops) as well as collections of essays, such as Democratic
Vistas and Specimens Days.

Whitman‟s poetry is marked by his underlying theme of unity. Pushing Romantic ideas to their
extreme, he continually asserts the unity among all things: mind and body, humans and nature,
the spiritual and the material, even life and death. In his pantheistic vision, ultimate good (akin
to Emerson‟s concept of the Over soul) is uninterrupted, indivisible, and present in all things. His
poetry depicts this optimistic and transcendent philosophy by its all-inclusiveness: he catalogues
lengthy lists of places, objects, occupations, and activities; he declares that his own self is
inseparable from all other selves and all other things in the universe. His breadth of vision means
that he celebrates even death, disease, and seemingly ugly or insignificant things as part of the
cosmic unity. He is therefore an eloquent advocate of democracy, for his unity extends to all
people, whatever their individual circumstances or differences.

The form of Whitman‟s poetry is particularly apt for his main theme. Based on Biblical verses,
he wrote in long lines, without rhyme or set meter but musically rhythmical and often employing
considerable alliteration, assonance, and consonance. The long lines and the typically long
poems provide a formal counterpart to his themes of unity and inclusiveness, for they convey a
sense of endlessness, as if the line and the poem could continue indefinitely.

Whitman‟s most famous poem, the first one in Leaves of Grass, is “Song of Myself.” Echoing
Classical epic poems in which the poet “sings” of historic and/or legendary heroes and events,
Whitman begins with

                                          I celebrate myself
                               And what I assume you shall assume,
                      For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
                                     I loafe and invite my soul,
                 I lean and loafe at my ease…observing a spear of summer grass.

As this passage suggests, for Whitman the most significant subject is the self, for it is
inseparable from all things, all other humans, everything in nature. Just as Emerson required
“reason and faith,” Whitman characteristically unites body and soul in this first epiphany. By
celebrating himself, by singing of himself, Whitman asserts that his very self represents and
incorporates the underlying unity of the cosmos. In Romantic fashion, the poet places himself in
nature from which he gains understanding about the meaning of life and achieves sublime
transcendence.

Two other often cited poems by Whitman are “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “When
Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom‟d.” In the first, a young boy (clearly a representation of
Whitman) recounts his discovery of his calling as a poet when he hears a thrush singing in a vain
attempt to bring back its absent mate. The second poem, an elegy written just after the death the
death Abraham Lincoln, expresses the speaker‟s deep grief and praise for the dead President and,
in the elegiac tradition, depicts how he works through that grief.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Dickinson lived her whole life in her parents‟ home in Amherst, Massachusetts, essentially in
seclusion. She wrote over 1500 short and, for the most part, remarkable poems. Many of hem use
the simple form of religious hymns, with four-line stanzas whose lines alternate between eight
and six syllables.

Beneath that apparent formal simplicity, however, Dickinson‟s poems are usually difficult to
interpret. Part of the difficulty is that she attempts to address extremely complex and
unresolvable issues, such as the essence of the self, what death is and means, the nature of the
supernatural, and how we describe our innermost feelings. Another part of the difficulty is
Dickinson‟s quirky experiments with grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Her poetry abounds
with manipulations of language that leave even the surface meaning difficult or ambivalent and
that make completed interpretations of the meaning of her poems nearly impossible.

Still, there are some recurring patterns of meaning. One is the typical Romantic setting: the lone
speaker, in nature, reflecting on some natural phenomenon, and then moving toward some
insight or epiphany. Typically, however, in Dickinson‟s poems this process is truncated or
becomes ambiguous; for example, in many poems the speaker reaches no clear insight, and the
poems often end with a sense of hesitation, confusion, or anxiety. Examples of this type of poem
are numbers 280 (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) and 465 (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died”).
Another pattern is the definition poem, in which the speaker tries to define a feeling or an
abstraction. As in the first type or poems, the speaker is usually unable to complete the
definition, instead often settling for a kind of negative definition in which she can only assert
what the thing is not. Examples of this type of poem are numbers 258 (“There‟s a certain Slant of
light”) and 510 (“It was not Death, for I stood up”). A third pattern creates a
mastery/submission relationship between a vague male force and the presumably female
speaker. In poem number 520 (“I started Early—Took my dog”), this force is represented as the
sea; in number 315 (“He fumbles at you Soul”): it is reminiscent of the Christian God; and in
number 754 (“My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun”), it is an unidentified male whom the speaker
lives with and goes hunting with. Critics have suggested that this male force symbolizes not only
God, but the dominating patriarchal power of Dickinson‟s world, including male authors and
editors.

One way of viewing Dickinson‟s complex strategies with her themes and knotty language is that
she wants to insist on the ultimate open-endedness of important issues and even of life‟s deeper
moments. By giving closure to her poems, even by limiting her syntax to a single meaning, she
would presume too much authority and would be in danger of replicating the power-plays of the
patriarchal society. Instead she prefers to call into question her own “author-ity” by circling
around a subject, by forcing the reader to entertain multiple possibilities of interpreting a poem, a
line, even a comma or a dash.

Slave Narratives

Curiously, in the writing of the major authors of this period, seldom is slavery mentioned, despite
its centrality to the social and political climate of the country. It is the subject of some literature
of the period, most notably Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the bestseller that
helped galvanize abolitionist sentiments in the North. And it is the focus of a genre that emerged
in the 18th century and then reached its peak in the 20 years preceding the Civil War: the Slave
Narrative. In these narratives—most written by ex-slaves, some dictated by ex-slaves to white
editors, and many written by whites trying to capitalize on the genre‟s popularity—the ex-slaves
recount the story of their lives in slavery through their escapes to the North or Canada. The
narrative were published as political documents, designed to enhance the abolitionist cause by
detailing the evils of slavery, by increasing whites‟ sympathies for slaves, and by demonstrating
that African Americans were the equals of whites.

To serve their political purposes, slave narratives tend to have similar characteristics. They often
have a didactic tone, critical of slavery, white cruelty, and religious hypocrisy. Because of
common doubts among Northern readers about their authenticity, most slave narratives include
prefaces or other documentation designed to prove that the author really was a slave and really
did experience the events described. To appeal to Northern whites‟ sensibilities, the narratives
often cite Biblical references and parallels and often use conventions of popular forms of
narrative, such as sentimental novels, autobiography, and spiritual conversion narratives.

Typically, slave narratives start with the birth and childhood of the protagonist. The childhood
period—prior to the initiation into slavery—is usually depicted as Edenic in order to heighten the
contrast with the protagonist‟s ensuing awareness of slavery. The second stage is the loss of
innocence, when the protagonist is confronted with the violent realities of slavery. This often
entails abrupt separation from his or her parents.

In the third and longest section, the narrative documents the details of life as a slave, including
not only the protagonist‟s own experiences but also those of other slaves that the protagonist
knew about. Besides the physical suffering, the narratives often emphasize the psychological
hardships, such as the sense of isolation, fear, and dehumanization. Many narratives also make
the point that slavery has deleterious effects on whites as well as blacks. Although this piling up
of the evils of slavery is crucial for slave narratives‟ rhetorical purposes, the authors and editors
also had to be careful not to overdo it, for Northern whites were skeptical of exaggeration and
might easily dismiss a narrative if they felt that it overstated the cruelty of Southern whites.
The fourth section, usually overlapping with the third, recounts the protagonist‟s determination
to be free. This conviction is often depicted as a religious conversion, and often the protagonist‟s
acquisition of literary is part of the desire. This period is typically very troubling for the
protagonist, often involving him or her with other slaves also desiring their freedom. The actual
escape—the fifth section—is almost always very brief and is sometimes omitted altogether, for
providing too many details might endanger others who helped in the escape and/or might make it
more difficult for others to escape. When the escape is described, it is sometimes compared to
the flight of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. The last stage of a slave narrative is
the arrival and settling in to live in the North. This section celebrates the sublime moment of
achieving freedom, but it too is typically brief, for not much is needed to indicate the contrast
between North and South. Moreover, life in the North posed considerable problems for ex-
slaves. But extended depiction of such problems did not serve the propagandistic purposes of
white editors and publishers.

The most famous slave narratives is Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, and American
Slave, Written by Himself, written by Fredrick Douglass and published in 1845. Douglass is
particularly skillful at showing how the physical atrocities of slavery affected him psychological,
how slavery corrupts white slaveholders, how he gained confidence from fellowship with other
slaves, how learning to read and write convinced him of the need to be free, and how he finally
fought back against white violence. Particularly memorable are such lines as “You have seen a
man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” and such episodes as
Douglass‟ poignant address to the ships on Chesapeake Bay, which for him seemed like
“freedom‟ swift-winged angels.”

Whereas Douglass‟ Narrative follows the typical pattern of the genre, focusing on the
individual‟s hardships and quest for freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Salve Girl by Harriet
Jacobs, the best known slave narrative by a woman, is significantly different. Facing the
additional problem of unwanted sexual advances by her owner, Dr. Flint, Jacobs‟ ultimate
remedy was to take another white man as a lover and have two children by him. Part of the
rhetoric of her narrative, then, is to convince Northern middle-class readers of the necessity of
such action so that they would not dismiss her for being immoral. The emphasis of her narrative
is not so much on her personal welfare but on her children‟s. Rather than escape to the North, she
finds refuge in the attic of a shed, from which she can keep an eye out of her children‟s condition
and then help them get to relative safety in the North. Hers is thus more of a domestic slave
narrative compared to the more picaresque male narratives such as Douglass‟.

                              Realism and Naturalism: 1865-1914

Overview

For a number of reasons, the Romantic surge that dominated American literature from 1820 to
1860 ended rather abruptly. Partly, this was due to Romanticism‟s excesses and enthusiasms,
which could not be sustained. Partly, it was due to a conservative reaction in Europe after the
upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars and the re-establishment of
moderate governments in France and the rest of the continent. In England, the Romantic
period—dominated by such poets as Wadsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—gave
way in the 1830s and 1840s to the more realistic literature of the Victorian era. In America, the
most dramatic factor that ended Romanticism was the Civil War. This war, which was far
bloodier, devastating and longer than anyone had imagined and which pitted brother against
brother and family against family, took much of the air out of America‟s sails, shaking
American‟s confidence in themselves and the American dream and sobering mood of the
country. Including the difficult years of reconstruction, the nation suffered a cataclysm that
lasted from the late 1850s until the late 1870s.

The new era, usually referred to as the age of Realism, was a reaction against the excesses of
Romanticism. Realists distrusted the idealism, the emotionalism, the supernaturalism, and the
exoticism of the previous era. Instead, they turned to the practical, the reasonable, the everyday,
and the here-and-now. Rejecting idealism, they were pragmatists—what mattered was not what
one could imagine but what one could literally sense and actually do. They were interested in the
material, not the spiritual or the transcendent. Whereas the Romantics were primarily interested
in the solitary individual‟s reflections, in nature, about the transcendent, the Realists focused on
social issues and on the individual in his or her social roles. Nature was incidental, and the
transcendent was largely ignored.

Social issues also came to the forefront in the post-Civil War period because more and more
Americans were interested in such questions as what America was becoming as a nation and a
society, what the differences were among its social classes, what happened when an individual
changed status, what roles and status of women were, and how life differed in the various regions
of the still expanding nation. The period marked the emergence of the United States as an
industrial, urbanized country: it was the era of the closing of the frontier, of mass immigration
from Europe, of industrialization. It was dominated by Big Business and then by Big Labor and
the ensuing labor strife between them. All these changes made people curious and anxious about
the social fabric of the country and thus helped create a reading public desiring to read about
people in their social roles. With urbanization came greater leisure time for reading, particularly
of novels, which was dominate form of the period. Regional literature became popular, as
readers were eager to read about life in different parts of the country.

Because of the economic and demographic changes taking place, as well as the sobering effect of
the Civil War, Americans as a whole were no longer as optimistic as they had been about the
American dream, and at the same time they were increasingly nostalgic about it. This tension is
illustrated by American‟s ambivalent attitudes about the West (the desire both to exploit and to
preserve it), about American Indians (the tendency both to idealize to castigate them), and about
African Americans (Whites gave them freedom but then ignored their poverty and confined them
to a second-class citizenship).

Realism is based on the concept of mimesis, the idea that the real things, people, and events can
be accurately represented in a work of art. The artist can, in effect, hold a mirror up to reality and
record what appears in the mirror. Given that orientation, you can see why Realists wanted to
focus on the present and the local—it‟s pretty hard to hold up a mirror to something one is
imagining or to something occurring in an exotic, far-off, or imaginary place. Moreover, Realists
felt that they could be completely objective as they represented what they saw and heard, that
their mirror was a clear one, and that their holding of the mirror was unbiased. And they believed
that by so representing the world around them they would be improving it, that they would help
society by showing it what it looked like.

William Dean Howells, a novelist and influential editor, was the primary spokesperson and even
arbiter for Realistic literature. He advocated specific criteria for good literature, that is, for
Realistic literature: it should be truthful, it should depict ordinary people, it should maintain an
objective point of view, its characters should be convincingly motivated, its characters should
speak the actual language used by real people, it should include no contrived events, and it
should only include events of a recent time and a specific place. Needless to say, the literature of
the period didn‟t always conform to this list, and to modern reader‟s Howell‟s program sounds
rather naïve, but his emphases did not characterize the period.

Beginning in the 1890s and lasting only a decade or two, Naturalism emerged as an extension of
Realism. A new generation of fiction writers—including Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack
London, and Theodore Dreiser—felt that the previous generation of Realists (most notably,
Howells, Henry James, and Mark Twain) were too soft—too optimistical and sentimental—
about what they considered to be Real. The Naturalists were much more pessimistic, believing
that the individual was inherently and constantly overwhelmed by the external forces of society
and nature. For them, life is an endless fight in which each individual has little influence and
minimal understanding of his or her plight. Nothing in the universe cares: big corporations,
society itself, even one‟s family at times, as well as the forces of nature constantly victimize the
individual, and there is no supernatural force or being to help. Whether the individual succeeds
or fails, lives or dies, is merely a matter of chance. In the grand scheme of things, human beings
are nothing special: just like other animals and objects, they are merely part of a natural cycle,
subject to the uncontrollable forces around them.

American Naturalists were heavily influenced by European Naturalists, such as Emile Zola, as
well as the theories of Charles Darwin and Frederick Nietzsche. The effect of these influences
was the belief that each human life is completely determined by heredity and the environment
and that the writer must apply scientific methods to understand how these external forces shape
individuals. Thus, like Realism, Naturalism advocated a strict objectivity by the writer, but
unlike the Realists, the Naturalists found little hope for the individual. Their pessimism can also
be attributed to a harsher social and political climate as the 19the century ended. Labor strife
intensified, economic disparities were more obvious as the urban slums grew, there was an
economic panic in 1893 that shook the nation, and a sense of impending gloom hung over
Europe as well as America as the century drew to a close.

Because Naturalists needed to portray individuals in extreme danger, their works sometimes
seem rather Romantic. Four men adrift in an open boat, as in Crane‟s “The Open Boat,” is a dire
predicament but also a rather romantic one, based on a real event and certainly quite plausible,
yet not exactly an everyday occurrence for ordinary people. Besides such echoes of
Romanticism, Naturalistic works also anticipate some of the emphasis of Modernism. For
example, by focusing on individuals in crisis, Naturalists often become fascinated with the
psychological effects of extremity, and, as we shall see, 20the century writers are especially
concerned with psychological issues. In addition, by rendering isolated individuals battling the
forces of society and/or nature, Naturalists anticipate 20the century existentialism, a philosophy
that posits that human beings must accept the fact that they are alone and that they alone are
responsible for their lives.

A word of caution about literary labels. While it is useful to distinguish between movements
such as Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism, they are broad generalizations rather than
strictly defined terms. Obviously, all authors are different, so even if one asserts that two authors
are Realists there will be significant differences between them. And it‟s important to remember
that most literary works do not fall completely within on category or another, but Naturalism is
often blurred or debatable. There is no sharp difference between the two periods, as between
Romanticism and Realism; rather, Naturalism is a more pessimistic version of Realism.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) (1835-1910)

Mark Twain, a pseudonym adopted by Samuel Clemens, was born in a small town in Missouri,
and achieved considerable success with his early works, but in his later life he became
increasingly depressed and even misanthropic. He made his early reputation with works based on
his upbringing along the Mississippi River, such as Old Times on the Mississippi (which is better
known by its later title, Life on the Mississippi), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and its much
more significant successor, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After turning fifty, Twain‟s next
novels were not as successful and were not more pessimistic: A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur’s Court and The tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. In his later years, after several deaths in
his family as well as severe financial setbacks, Twain‟s works became bitter and cynical, the best
known of which are “The man that corrupted Hadley burg” and The mysterious stranger.

Twain‟s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is considered by many critics to be the
most important American novel ever written. It tells the famous story of a raft trip down the
Mississippi from Missouri to Arkansas by Jim, a runaway slave, and Huck, an exile from his
father‟s cruelty. In picaresque fashion, it recounts a series of incidents that Huck and Jim have on
shore as well as what happens when two con artists, the so-called King and Duke, share their
raft. The story culminates in comic episodes at the Phelps farm, where Huck‟s and Jim‟s old
friend Tom Sawyer leads them in an absurdly comic “rescue” of the recaptured Jim.

There are a number of reasons for the book‟s significance. One is that Twain masterfully
captures the dialect s of middle Americans (remember Howell‟s dictum about characters
speaking the language of real people?), including not only the accents of rural Midwestern
whites but mostly notably Jim‟s rural African-American speech. Second, Twain paints a clear, if
satirical, picture of middle America, as his cast of characters ranges far and wide, from mean
white trash like Jim‟s father, to scoundrels like the King and the Duke, to cynics like Colonel
Sherburne, to the gullible but true-hearted Emmeline Granger ford. As Twain presents his large
cast of characters, he manages to satirize many characteristics of middle-class American
behavior, such as religious beliefs, sentimentality of all varieties, the weaknesses of people in
crowds or mobs, gullibility, and greed. Third, the novel investigates a number of intriguing
issues, such as slavery and its consequences for individuals and families, the relationship
between one‟s identity and the need for a stable family, lying and truth-telling and the often fine
line between them, and the related issues of storytelling and plot-making.
Fourth, with Huckleberry Finn, Twain creates a kind of archetypal American. In some ways an
all-American boy, Huck is adept at adapting to whatever circumstances he finds himself in, but
he is also remarkably clever at manipulating situations and people to get what he needs or to
scramble out of tight spots. One serious theme of the novel if Huck‟s moral development, as he
grows from a superficial reliance on the hypocritical ethnical values of the adult who have raised
him to a truly admirable morality. This is illustrated in several moments in which Huck considers
what to do about Jim—turn him in since he is the legal property of his white owner or help
escape since he is an honorable and compassionate fellow human being.

Perhaps most significant is the symbolic force of the novel‟s basic story. Twain places a white
boy and a black man drifting down the middle of America. Life on the river is often idyllic, and
in Romantic fashion, the two individuals alone in nature seem to become larger than life. But
contrasted with this almost dreamlike river life is the shore, with its con artists, its mobs, its
feuds, its lying, and its greed. With the contrast, twain captures some of the tensions in the
American imagination—we cherish the American dream and yet we know that reality is usually
quite different. Huck remains enigmatic: after the Phelps Farm episode resolves the plot, he
rejects a future in middle-class society, opting instead to “light out of the territory,” presumably
Oklahoma. By so doing, he echoes Twain‟s own increasing rejection of American society, and
symbolically he remains free, as the American myth would have all Americans be, free to move
on, especially to move west. He is thus like a number of American protagonists—Hester Prynne,
Ahab, Cooper‟s Natty Bumppo, Fitzgerald‟s Jay Gatsby, Morrison‟s Sula—who can only exist
outside of society or on its fringes, and who somehow typify Americans‟ own ambivalence about
the merits of civilization versus our Romantic yearning for individual freedom and open road.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Born into a wealthy family in New York City and brother of the philosopher William James,
Henry James chose to live most of his life in England, where he wrote extensively and enjoyed
the society of the well-to-do. He wrote many novels, novellas, and short stories, as well as a few
travel pieces and unsuccessful plays. His best known works are two novellas—“Daisy Miller”
and “The Turn of the Screw”—and four novels: The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove,
The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. He is firmly in the Realistic mode, as his novels depict
the lives of American and European characters that closely resemble real people. His plots focus
on the intricate details of the slight differences among various strata of the upper class people he
usually writes about. In a sense, he is a regionalist, for his milieu is the independently wealthy
class of Americans living or traveling in Europe and the set of wealthy, often titled, Europeans
whom the Americans encounter. These encounters, in which the relatively naïve Americans
typically are betrayed by the Europeans or more experienced Americans, is Jame‟s international
theme; for example, Daisy—independent, flirtatious, exasperating, but charming—dies after
being misunderstood by her American suitor and being rejected by the American circle in Rome;
and Millie Theale, the “dove” in Wings of the Dove, gets her wings symbolically clipped by two
conniving Europeanized Americans.

James is considered by many to be the founder of the psychological novel. More so than other
Realists, he concentrates on the subtle ways in which his characters react to each detail of the
plot. The Portrait of a Lady chronicles the inner journey that Isabel Archer takes after finding
herself in possession of a small fortune, intelligence, a pleasing personality, and good looks. She
rejects two potential husbands and, against the advice of her friends, chooses badly and then pays
the price. In this novel, as in most of Jame‟s fiction, the action, if one can call it that, is very
tame, consisting mostly of people talking to each other. Bu the depth of Jame‟s work often
comes in the internal monologues, in which character‟s innermost thoughts and feelings are
conveyed in the minutest detail. For example, after Isabel sees her husband and his ex-lover in a
disturbingly intimate scene, James painstakingly delineates her reactions in an uninterrupted
interior monologue taking up about a dozen pages.

Jame‟s narrative techniques are masterful. Nearly always using third-person narration, he
carefully controls what his narrators know; in “Daisy Miller” the effect hinges on the narrator‟s
complete lack of access to Daisy‟s mind, and in most of his other fictions Jame‟s greatest
strength is the narrator‟s ability to know and convey the deepest feelings of the characters. At
times, James also uses an observer character as a substitute for an omniscient narrator. In The
Golden Bowl, large portions of the plot are told by such a reflector, a character who is not
involved in the plot but whose active imagination allows him to re-create how, from his
perspective, the principal characters must have felt.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

Although her primary life‟s work was as an essayist and lecturer for women‟s rights, Gilman is
important in American literature for one story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In part based on
Gilman‟s own depression following the birth of her child, this powerful story details the
psychological deterioration of its unnamed narrator. Following the prevailing treatment of the
time for depression, she is confined to a bedroom by her husband, who is a doctor, and his sister,
their housekeeper, under orders not to read, write, or otherwise tire herself. However, the
treatment backfires as her active imagination creates fantasies about the patterns in the room‟s
yellow wallpaper and the women she senses exist behind it, and the story ends with her apparent
insanity. Part of the unsettling effect of the story is Gilman‟s decision to narrate the story from
the woman‟s point of view, a choice that leaves the reader unsure of her reliability about her
circumstance---for example, is she actually locked in the room, were the bars placed on the
window to keep her from jumping out? This story is a good example of the overlap between
Realism and Naturalism. It is set in the here-and-now, it deals with ordinary people, it is based
on actual experience. At the same time, it is suggestive of Naturalism, for the women are at the
mercy of the powerful social forces that prescribe her treatment and confinement. Like most
Naturalists, Gilman then chronicles her protagonist‟s psychological reactions to her extreme
situation.

 The story has been successfully interpreted from a number of critical approaches. From a
feminist point of view, the story typifies the subordinate position that women have long been
placed in by the dominating patriarchy, and the protagonist‟s plight resembles the struggles of
other female characters (e.g., Gustave Flaubert‟s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy‟s Anna
Karenina, Thomas Hardy‟s Tess d‟Urberville, and in America, Hawthorne‟s Hester Prynne and
most of his primary female characters, Jame‟s series of beleaguered women, Kate Chopin‟ Edna
Pontellier, and Edith Wharton‟s Lily Bart). A psycho-biographical approach to the story focuses
on parallels between Gilman and the women, including Gilman‟s abandonment by her father and
her difficulties with marriage and motherhood. A Freudian perspective picks up on the family as
the site of repression and brings out how the story evokes the uncanny and unaccountable, for
example with its intriguing puns on the words “creep” and “smooch.” A postcolonial theorist
notices that the house in the story is termed “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and
therefore that the gender inequalities and exploitation in the story have existed for centuries and
are parallel to colonialism. Combined with a New Historicist approach, post colonialism also
connects Gilman‟s pejorative use of the color yellow with late 19th century anxiety about so-
called “yellow” people from Asia and Eastern Europe. A stylistics approach focuses on subtle
shifts in linguistic patterns in the story: for example, early on, when the narrator is deferring her
identity to the wishes o her husband, she typically minimizes the syntactical force of the first
person pronoun by placing it in the unemphatic position of a prepositional phrase (“John laughs
at me”) or eliminates it entirely (“What is on to do?); in contrast, by the end of the story, when in
her madness the narrator rebels against her husband‟s regimen, she starts many sentences with
“I” and syntactically reverses the roles in her earlier sentence (“I had to creep over [John]”). For
a reader response theorist, the narrator‟s frequent attempts to decipher—“read”—the wallpaper
parallel the reader‟s required attempts to understand, or “read” the story. Thus, the reader is
entangled in a situation similar to the narrator‟s, as the yellow wallpaper and “The Yellow
Wallpaper” become mixed up in a tangled and indecipherable mystery. Finally, a deconstructive
critic would notice the numerous ambiguities and contradictions surrounding and within the text:
Gilman‟s multiple names (Charlotte, Perkins, Stetson, Gilman), the variant spellings of the title
word (wall=paper, wallpaper, wall paper), the blurred boundary between the protagonist as
narrator and actor, and the vagueness of the intended audience of the narrator‟s text. All these
gaps suggest that this text is a prime example of an open field, not fixed in any single
interpretation but forever shifting and variable. (For a more detailed discussion of these and other
critical approaches, see our introduction).

Booker T. Washington (1856?-1915) and W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963)

At the turn of the century, the key issue for African Americans was whether to adopt a
conciliatory, assimilations posture toward the dominant white society or to insist on absolute
equality. The issue was conveniently framed by the two leading African-American authors of the
time: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois. Washington founded and ran Tuskegee
Institute explicitly to train African Americans for the mechanical and agricultural jobs that were
available to them. In his essays, speeches, and autobiography Up from Slavery, he consistently
advocates his position that African Americans must make the best of their situation. His message
is practical and realistic: learn what we can from the experience of slavery, conciliate reactionary
whites, give up the dream of social equality, and achieve economic progress through training and
industriousness. His message is epitomized by his slogan, “cast down your bucket where you
are.”

If Washington was the moderate, Du Bois was the radical. As the title of his most significant
work (The Souls of Black Folk) suggests, Du Bois is concerned with the spiritual and
psychological dimensions of the African Americans rather than with the economic one. He
reminds his black and white audiences how psychologically destructive slavery was and how
damaging racial discrimination continued to be. He is a “race man,” not content to accept
second-class citizenship.

In the following famous passage from The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois articulates a crucial
effect of being Black in America:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a
  sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a
  world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the
revelations of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of
always looking at one‟s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one‟s soul by the tape of a
 world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a
Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,
                 whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

In this passage, Du Bois articulates the deep psychological effects of discrimination, effects that
may apply to any individual or any group that is discriminated against or that is not part of the
dominant power structure in a society or community. Those effects for Du Bois can be so
extreme as to tear the individual apart—“two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals.” Yet
double-consciousness is “a peculiar sensation,” and Du Bois‟s formulation implies some of that
peculiarity. It is suggested by Du Bois‟s metaphor of the “veil,” which refers physically to the
caul that some babies are born with, but which also suggests the socially constructed obscuring
of African Americans, and which further represents the indirect ways by which African
Americans are typically forced to view the world and to act in it. But in many folk traditions, to
be born with a caul is a fortuitous omen, which implies that double-consciousness is not entirely
a bad thing. Moreover, in West African culture, a seventh son (and especially the seventh son of
a seventh son) is destined for good fortune. More explicitly, Du Bois asserts that African
Americans are “gifted with second sight.” Their forced separation from the dominant White
culture, in addition to causing material and psychological hardship, has the indirect benefit of
giving African Americans insight into themselves, American culture, and human life in general.
And one result of the historical struggle to survive in America is a “dogged strength” that DU
Bois finds in African Americans.

Stephen Crane (1873-1900)

Crane‟s short life was marked by his refusal to adopt any set career or routine. He wrote
voluminously—as a journalist, an essayist, a poet, and a fictional writer. The subjects of his best
known fictions illustrate the variety he craved: Maggie, A Girl of the Streets documents the slide
into poverty and prostitution of a neglected urban girl; The Red Badge of Courage narrates the
Civil War experiences of a common soldier (all the more remarkable since Crane was never in a
war); “The Open Boat” is the story, loosely based on Crane‟s own experience, of four shipwreck
survivors; and “The Blue Hotel” recounts the tragic consequences of a traveler‟s misconceptions
of life in the American West.

Crane‟s fiction provides clear examples of Naturalism, for it shows how the shaping force of the
environment determines the fates of the overwhelmed individuals. Maggie has no chance to
succeed or survive against crushing poverty and social condemnation, including ostracism from
her own family. War not surprisingly overwhelms Henry Fleming, and he runs from the first
assault by the enemy, wanders alone behind the lines, and then is drawn into heroic action, more
by the force of the events than by his own volition. In “The Blue Hotel,” first nature overwhelms
the characters when a blizzard strikes the Nebraska town they are in, and then social forces lead
to the death of the uncomprehending Swede.

“The Open Boat” perhaps most clearly exemplifies Naturalism, in this case the power of nature
relative to the helplessness of individual human beings. After their ship sinks, the Captain, the
oilier, the cook, and a journalist are afloat for two days off the coast of Florida before they risk
the perilous passage through the surf to the shore. The Naturalistic tenor of the story is suggested
by the variety of hazards the men are exposed to: the sun, the wind, the waves, the sharks, even a
diving bird, as well as the surf. In their tiny boat with the water just below the gunwales and only
a half-inch of wood between them and death, their predicament is an emblem for the human
condition in Naturalistic terms. They can row and steer, but they are essentially subject to the
overwhelming forces of nature. Crane constructs his plot to maximize the time while the men are
on the edge of existence, so that he can fully explore their psychological reactions. Among the
men there is unusual harmony, as they politely relieve each other of rowing and as they try their
best to assure that they will survive. But collectively, they go through numerous gyrations of
hope, frustration, and despair about the possibility of surviving. The men, not embracing the
tenets of Naturalism, expect some higher power—in their case, Fate—to care about their plight.
Their refrain is:

“If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why,
     in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and
 contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought her merely to have my nose dragged away as I was
 about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, can
      not do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men‟s fortunes.”

They desperately want to believe in some sort of meaning in the cosmos, some agency that does
manage things, so they personify that meaning. In contrast, Crane‟s narrator, who does embrace
the Naturalistic view, has no such illusions. To convey this disparity, Crane consistently removes
his narrator from the men: for example, the story starts with “None of them knew the color of the
sky,” which implies that the men‟s perspective, unlike the narrator‟s, is inherently limited. That
distance extends to the implied differences between the men‟s wishes for meaningful agency and
the narrator‟s, and by extension Crane‟s, Naturalistic perspective that there is neither any
meaning nor any supernatural agency in the cosmos.

Jack London (1876-1916)

London was born into a lower-middle class family and liked to exaggerate his poverty out of an
ideological, Marxist loyalty to the working class. Throughout his life, he refused to settle down,
preferring instead to experience a wide variety of jobs and locations. He is best known for his
novels (The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and White Fang) that work out the Naturalistic
struggle to survive in extremely hash conditions. Fascinated with the Arctic region, London
developed what has been called his code of the North. To survive, one must be as tough as
external conditions, and one achieves such toughness by imposing an austere discipline on
oneself. Deeds are far more significant than words. One must avoid pride and arrogance and
must be unselfish and tolerant. When the individual reaches this level of personal advancement,
he or she can be elevated into a mythical space beyond civilization and the material world. For
example, Buck, the canine hero of The Call of the Wild, after surviving human brutality,
numerous fights with other animals, and the harsh exigencies of nature, heads off into this
primordial paradise at the end of the novel, a prime example of how Naturalism sometimes
resembles Romanticism.

One of London‟s short stories, “The Law of Life,” nicely illustrates his version of Naturalism.
An aging former chief, Koskoosh, who is unable to travel on with his migrating tribe, is left by
himself to die, according to tribal custom. London follows Koskoosh‟s thoughts and feelings as
he reflects on his life and contemplates his imminent death—again, the Naturalists‟ predilection
to explore the psychological effects of being placed in extremity. Koskoosh knows that the tribal
action is necessary, and he knows that the law of life requires that he, like all things in nature,
must die and that nature is indifferent to his process, yet he cannot avoid wishing that he could
live longer, that his son would return to him, or even that his granddaughter had left him a few
more sticks to keep his fire burning a little longer. But his wishes mean nothing against the strict
enforcement of the law of life, and the fire dies down as the wolves close in.

Other Realists and Naturalists

Other writers primarily in the Realistic mode include William Dean Howells (1837-1920), who
wrote many novels (the best known is The Rise of Silas Lapham), mostly about middle-class life
in America, and was a very influential editor and literary critic. Henry Adams (1838-1918),
grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, is primarily important for
his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, a volume that encapsulates many of the
changes taking place in America during this period. A close friend of Henry James, Edith
Wharton (1962-1937) wrote several important novels (The House of Mirth, Ethan Frame, and
The Age of innocence) that resemble James in their psychological depth and, in The House of
Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in their focus on the upper class. Wharton‟s deep=seated
pessimism about achieving success of happiness and the consequently unhappy lives of all
protagonists push her fiction closer to Naturalism. Kate Chopin (1850-1904) is remembered
primarily for one novel, The Awakening, which chronicles the escape of Edna Pontellier from an
unbearable marriage, her passionate love affair, and her eventual suicide, and which is another
example of a novel that combines Realism and Naturalism in its depiction of a social that
overwhelms the individual.

Two writers who are more clearly Naturalistic are Frank Norris (1870-1902) and Theodore
Dreiser (1871-1945). Norris, part of the late 19th century impulse toward progressive reform of
big business, is known for his novels, such as McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit, that expose
how large industrial companies victimized individual workers. Dreiser develops a similar theme
in such novels such as The Financier and The Titan, but his best known novel in his first, Sister
Carrie, which recounts the material and spiritual ups and downs of several middle-class
characters.

                                     Modernism: 1914-1945
Overview

The second decade of the 20th century marked a radical shift in European and American culture
even more fundamental in America than the shift associated with the Civil War. At the heart of
this shift is a revolt against the core beliefs, conventions, and assumptions—the whole cultural
system—of the 19the century and a sense of disillusionment about the validity of any such
beliefs or system. As the name usually given to this period indicates. Modernism has no single
defining characteristic like the periods preceding it. Its dominant modes are skepticism and
experimentation.

Among the many causes of this shift, World War I is the most dramatic. Similar to the effects of
the Civil War on Americans‟ optimism about their country, the Great War shattered Western
civilization. The new generation who fought in the war and whose outlook was shaped by its
unprecedented scale of destruction no longer had faith in the ideals that had dominated the 19th
century, ideals such as a belief in God, a conviction that progress was inevitable, and the
American dream. The older generation and the old system had failed, and the result among the
new generation was a sense of alienation and doubt.

In addition to the war, many other factors contributed to the emergence of Modernism.
Between 1890 and 1920, America shifted unequivocally from an agrarian-based to an
industrial-based society. Urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and new technologies
combined to create for the first time a mass society, dependent on mass communications and a
large-scale national government. Revolutionary changes in thinking about society, psychology,
and physics also helped to create the new atmosphere. Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism and
his theories about the inevitably of world-wide socialism, combined with the Russian revolution
of 1917, called into question Americans‟ belief in capitalism. Sigmund Freud’s startling ideas
about the human psyche, particularly the unconscious, overthrew previous convictions about
how the mind works and therefore about the very essence of human identity. The discoveries and
theories of Albert Einstein and other physicists‟ similarity rendered obsolete the Newtonian
conception of physics that had previously dominated Western thinking. The new physics,
moreover, concluded not only that Newtonian laws did not adequately explain things like matter
and energy, but also that, instead of being explained by fixed relationships or laws, the universe
can only be accurately discussed in terms of relatively, probability, and uncertainty. Suddenly
Americans and Europeans could no longer comfortably believe in many of the principles that had
seemed sacrosanct: the existence of God, the superiority of capitalism, the pre-eminence of
human consciousness, and the previously accepted laws of physics. To symbolize and cap off all
this crumbling of their cultural system, they witnessed in World War I the literal destruction of
their towns and villages and the horrific casualties inflicted on their young men on a previously
unimaginable scale.

Modernism‟s primary characteristics follow from such social and philosophical changes.
Existentialism emerged as a new philosophy that helped define the new era. French writers such
as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus questioned the traditional assumption that individuals
acquire their identities and find meaning in their lives because of their relationships to larger
social institutions, such as family, career, nation, and religion. Instead, they and other
existentialists argued that true identity and meaning depend fundamentally on the individual‟s
own self. Using other people and institutions for such purposes is a dangerous illusion that
prevents individuals from leading authentic lives. Individuals must realize that there is no larger
meaning to life that will make their lives meaningful, that life is fundamentally absurd, and that
each of us is inevitably isolated. Until they realize such realities, people will be alienated and
dominated by ennui, or profound boredom with life. They must make the existential leap into
rejection of their reliance on society and its institutions and into acceptance of their complete
responsibility for their own being. Once they make that leap, they have the freedom, although it
is a demanding freedom, to develop an authentic self.

In the social science, the skepticism about the validity of Western values and principles led to the
notion of cultural relativism. Instead of the tenet that Western ideas and values are right and
those of other cultures are wrong, cultural relativism places questions of right and wrong in
perspective; that is, the worth of any given action or belief must be considered within the
parameters of a given culture or society. Good and bad became conditional instead of absolute.

In the arts, Modernism meant breaking with tradition, testing old conventions about what art
should do, and therefore experimenting. Ezra Pound‟s credo works for the entire period: “make
it new.” Changes in the plastic arts were particularly dramatic. From a mid-nineteenth century
belief in mimesis, that is, that the purpose of art was to re=present real things, painting had
already undergone the Impressionists‟ revolution in the late 19th century, a style of painting that
attempted to convey an “impression” or an emotion rather than a physically accurate re-
presentation. With thee upheavals of the early 20the century, painting moved rapidly much
further from mimesis, such as movements as cubism, expressionism, op art, and pop art indicate.
Music also shifted drastically in the Modernist period, as classical music evolved from its
traditional harmonic origins to experiments in different scales and structures, and as new forms
emerged such as the blues and jazz.

Because of the emphasis on experimentation, the literature of the Modernist period is
characterized by its variety. It is so varied that any additional generalizations must be qualified,
and one must realize that even though Modernism differs sharply from the earlier periods, there
is still plenty of evidence of the features of Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism. On the less
experimental side, many writers continued in the Realistic and Naturalistic modes. Sometimes
called the “plain” style, this more conventional mode can be found in the works of such writers
as Robert Frost, Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather, and Langston Hughes. A more Naturalistic
sense comes across in some of Frost‟s poems, in William Faulkner‟s fiction, and more strongly
in the fiction of Richard Wright. More experimentally, there are at least two extremes. One is
called minimalism, since such works tend to minimize the text in some way, for example in the
lack of an apparent theme, in the length of the work, or in the work‟s diction and style. Examples
of this tendency can be found in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the fiction of Ernest
Hemingway. The other extreme is a highly symbolic and often highly allusive literature that
requires close attention and hard work of its readers. Examples include much of the poetry of
T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, and the fiction of Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

One way of understanding the variety of Modernism is to see that the literature of this period is a
mixture of Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and an additional effusion of symbolism. To the
extent that it is akin to Realism, Modernist literature usually has a pronounced psychological
focus. Partly because of the spread of Freud‟s theories, writers tended to explore in great depth
their characters‟ complete selves, even the subconscious urges that the characters themselves
may not be aware of. The realism of the 20the century is thus a more radical realism, a realism
freed from reporting merely what a camera and a microphone could record.

Because much of it is experimental, much Modern literature seems strange or weird. Writers
often defy readers‟ expectations by violating or playing with the conventions of their genre. A
prime case of this is the expansion from the convention of a single narrative perspective to the
use of many points of view in a single work, for example Faulkner‟s As I lay Dying with its
fifteen first-person narrators and his The Sound and the Fury with its four narrators. For
Modernists, any convention was fair game: a poem could consist of a mere two line (Pound‟s “In
Station of the Metro”), a poem need not have a theme (Williams‟ “This is Just to Say”), or a
poem could consist of apparently unrelated fragments (Eliot‟s “The Waste-Land”). Short stories
and novels tended to have a less linear plot with a less discernible beginning, middle, and end.
Traditional narratives were usually based on such linear plots and on structures designed to
answer some question about the characters, for example whether or not Arthur Dimmesdale‟s
secret will be revealed or whether or not Ahab will gain his revenge on the white whale. Instead,
the Modernist “plot” tends to be less directional, to be the revelation of a state of affairs or a state
of being, sometimes referred to as a slice of life (as in Porter‟s story “Flowering Judas” or
Hemingway‟s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”). New fictional techniques, such as stream of
consciousness (which creates the effect of recording the unplanned and unedited flow of words
through a character‟s mind), allowed fiction writers to probe more deeply into their characters‟
psyches and tended to replace more traditional plots.

Another common feature of Modernist literature is its reliance on images. “Imagism” was a
term used in the first two decades of the century to refer to the poetry of Amy Lowell, Ezra
Pound, and other poets. This new poetry tended to reduce the poem to its images, eliminating
abstractions, overt references to a speaker, and commentary of any kind. Pound wanted to
present the image in its purest form in order to elicit as strongly as possible as emotional reaction
in the reader. That emotion and whatever meaning the poem has is to the reader. With the typical
reliance on the image itself, much Modernist literature is more overtly symbolic than much 19the
century literature, and, in the relative absence of controlling ideologies such as Christianity,
Modernist symbolism often challenges readers because it is more particular to the given writer
than it is general or archetypal. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, for example developed his
private system of symbols that he then used in many of his poems. Eliot does use Christian
symbolism but by no means exclusively, and Stevens, Faulkner, and Hemingway provide other
examples of private and, therefore, more obscure symbolism,.

Because of its experimentation and its subverting of our expectations, Modernist literature can
often seem difficult and intimidation: for the same reasons it can also be liberating and, yes, fun.
If one frees oneself from a sense that literature must do the kinds of things that it‟s always has
and must stay within the traditional limits of form and content, then Modernist literature is
intriguing if for no other reason than to find out what weird variation will happen next.

Poetry
Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Frost‟s family moved to New England when he was eleven years old, and its places and people
became the subjects of his poetry. His is a conservative poetry by Modernist standards, more
often using traditional techniques such as rhyme and meter instead of the free verse more typical
of the period. His poetry has affinities with Romanticism, for most Frost poems are lyrics in
which the isolated speaker contemplates a natural scene that leads him to express his feelings
and/or an insight. Frost‟s Modernism, however, is evident in the prevalence of uncertainty and
the rarity of any sense of sublimity or epiphany in his poems. His speakers are typically on the
verge of something, of learning something important about themselves or the cosmos, of
capturing an elusive emotion or idea. Nature for Frost seems to be the place where such answers
might be found, but it is always in flux, providing only tantalizing hints but no true knowledge.
His speakers are isolated, reflective, willfully trying their hardest to discover meaning, and
usually resigned to their failure. Sensing that there is some kind of supernatural meaning behind
the visible universe the existence and essence of which remains unknown to human beings, they
want to know if there is order and meaning in the universe, but such knowledge remains elusive.

In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker‟s meditation takes him to the imagined boundaries
between the material and the immaterial, the human and the animal, this life and whatever lies
beyond it, and ends with his uncertainties about his experience and human life in general. In
“Design,” the speaker wonders if there is any design in the universe that would explain death and
survival, but the sonnet ends with a sestet comprised entirely of questions. In “Once by the
Pacific,” the speaker senses a coming cataclysm but cannot be sure. “Directive” is more
optimistic, as the speaker takes the reader on a journey back in time and space to the purer past
of childhood and offers the reader a drink of mystical waters that will allow him or her to “be
whole again beyond confusion.”

Frost also wrote poems with New England characters in them, such as “The Death of the Hired
Man,” “Out, Out—,” and “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Usually longer than his lyric poems,
these poems present a very pessimistic, Naturalistic, picture of the harshness of rural life.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

As he spent his career as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut, Stevens published
numerous volumes of highly wrought, metaphysical poetry. Whereas few Realists and
Naturalists were interested in the abstractions of metaphysics, Stevens broke with that tradition
by thoughtfully pursuing such ultimate questions as, is there a God? How do we live without
knowing if there is? even if there is no God, is there any order in the universe? What is the
beauty and what difference does it make? And, most centrally in his poetry, how is the
perceiving mind related to what is perceives. This last question is the fundamental question of a
branch of philosophy called epistemology, which can be paraphrased as, how do we know what
we know? Another way of approaching this issue is to ask whether the reality of something
ultimately resides in the thing itself or is determined by how it is perceived. Once stance is to say
that it takes something of both; e.g., there really is a boulder on the highway in front of me, but
its meaning depends on my perception of it and on my situation; that is, it means something very
different if I am bearing down on it at 70 miles per hour than if I am walking up to it. A more
extreme perspective is taken by pragmatists or materials (such as William James) who answer
that meaning of a thing is in the thing itself, that the human perceiver is irrelevant to its meaning.
At the other extreme are philosophical idealists (not to be confused with ethical idealists), who
place all or most of the meaning of a thing in the mind of the perceiver. The Romantics, as you
might have guessed, tend toward this position, since for them the spiritual world and the
imaginings of the mind are far more real than the material world, whereas the Realists tended
toward philosophical pragmatism.

Stevens is a philosophical idealist, and many of his poems probe what for him is the complex
relationship between the object or scene and the perceiving and imagining mind. In “Anecdote of
the Jar,” the speaker places the jar on a hillside in the woods of Tennessee and by doing so he
feels that he changes the woods and perhaps the jar. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a
Blackbird,” he makes explicit his multi-perspectival view of the material world as he lists
thirteen meanings for the blackbird. For Stevens, there is no permanent balance between the
mind and reality, so he tries to reflect upon all the permutations and combinations, all the ways
in which reality can be viewed by the imagination. In his view, “it is never the thing but the
version of the thing.” Thus, Stevens is unusual among Modernists because of the dense
philosophical bent of his poetry, but he is like them in his distrust of culturally imposed systems
and values and his consequent reliance on his own imagination and his emphasis on imagery.
The image comes first, the image as the mind‟s re-creation of the material thing, a re-creation
that occurs first in the mind itself and then again in the verbal re-presentation of the thing in the
words of the poem. For him “the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a
fiction, there is nothing else.”

Other key Stevens poems include “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in which the speaker‟s
imagination of the sea and a woman‟s song, the complex interactions between things and words,
produces a sense of order in the speaker‟s mind. “Sunday Morning” illustrates Steven‟s musings
on the relationships between the mind, nature, and the possibility of something supernatural. Set
as the funeral of a poor woman, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” expresses Stevens‟ contempt for
dressing up reality, even death , and his insistence that we celebrate all aspects of life to their
fullest.

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Williams was a pediatrician and obstetrician who spent his adult life in Rutherford, New Jersey,
near New York City. Except for a lengthy poem, Paterson, which reflects on the history of life in
Paterson, New Jersey, Williams wrote short lyrical poems mostly in the minimalist fashion. His
poems are deceptively simple, usually presenting one of more images, or a scene with no
commentary, no explicit reflections by the speaker, and no apparent theme. His credo was “no
ideas but in things”; that is to say, he strove for complete objectivity, presenting in words as
exactly as possible the sensation the speaker has in encountering the object or scene. For
Williams, each object, each sensation, and each word has equal validity and equal reality, and
each contains a storehouse of energy. By combining object, sensation, and other words into his
poems, Williams repeatedly enacts the unity he senses in them. For him, the particular is the
universal. Each poem is needed to release the beauty and meaning of the image it describes, to
differentiate it from the otherwise formless ground of objects and events, and to allow the image
it describes, to differentiate it from the otherwise formless ground of objects and events, and to
allow the poet and the reader to experience the image in a fresh way. He particularly likes images
of flowering, for in a sense each poem allows for the flowering of the images, sensations, and
words it celebrates.

Thus, “The Red Wheelbarrow” focuses readers‟ attention on the sheer beauty and energy of the
wet wheelbarrow and the chickens beside it. Or “Classic Scene” details a scene including a
power plant, its smoke, and the impoverished neighborhood around it. “The Dance” provides a
verbal representation—in its images and its form—of Peter Breughel‟s picture, The Kerness.

Because he celebrates the sensing of objects as well as the objects and the words, Williams‟
poems often convey strong sensuous images. In “This is Just to Say,” the reader can almost touch
and taste the plums, for “they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold”; and in “Queen-Anne‟s-
Lace,” the exquisite descriptions of the plant‟s flower enable the reader to share what the speaker
sees.

Noticeably missing from Williams‟ poems are references to culture or literary tradition. There is
no inflated or so-called poetic language, no allusions to other works or events, as well as no
abstractions or overt symbols (remember—“no ideas but in things”). Similarly, he uses no
conventional poetic forms, instead allowing the subject to dictate the form, as he continually
experimented with free verse.

Williams‟ aesthetics are revealed indirectly in “A Sort of a Song”:

                                   Let the snake wait under
                                            Hi weed
                                        And the writing
                              Be of words, slow and quick, sharp
                                    To strike, quiet to wait,
                                           Sleepless.

                                --through metaphor to reconcile
                                   The people and the stones
                                      Compose. (No ideas
                                      But in things) Invent!
                                Saxifrage is my flower that splits
                                           The rocks.

In the first section, poem and animal are equated, both alive, both equally comfortable in repose
and energetic actions. The oxymoron in “slow and quick” captures the full gamut that both
snake and poem achieve. And both are ever-present, “sleepless,” always present, and capable of
flashing out in beauty, energy, and meaningfulness. The second section is unusually abstract for
Williams, for here he overtly declares that the purpose of poetry (“metaphor”) is to bring
together human and non-human, that is, to verify and celebrate the inherent but often forgotten
unity between them. “Compose” is a lovely pun: he urges us to compose in the sense of create a
work of art, but also the word echoes the “quiet to wait” of the first section, suggesting further
that one must be composed, patient, and internally together to appreciate the objects, sensations,
and words of life. He urges the reader not only to compose but more emphatically to “invent!”
for in doing so each of us participates in the poetic enterprise that is equivalent to life. Finally,
“saxifrage” in his flower because its name translates into rock-breaker; so he singles out that
flower because his poems, like it, contain untapped energy which, when released in their
flowering, is unstoppable.

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

Pound‟s life started quite conventionally in a middle-class family as he prepared for a career as a
college professor. But he immigrated to Europe, became very critical of America and England
after World War I, and embraced Fascists ideals, especially those of Benito Mussolini. Captured
by Allied forces in Italy during World War II, he was tried for treason and placed in a hospital
for the criminally insane from 1946-1958.

His poetic career begun with his invention of “Imagism,” the view that poetry should avoid
fancy language, abstractions, and instead should present images as objectively as possible to
provide the strongest vehicle for readers to react emotionally. His experimental two-line poem,
“In a Station of the Metro,” exemplifies the theory:

                            The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
                                  Petals on a wet, black bough.

Distilled from a 30-line earlier version, the poem even lacks the conventional linkage between
the two images, something like “resembles” or “looks like.” There is apparently no speaker, no
human consciousness filtering the images—just the two images suddenly juxtaposed without
explanation. What does such a poem mean? It has no theme in the ordinary sense; instead the
meaning inheres in the ways in which readers react.

Pound read widely, and some of his best poems are translations, for example of early Chinese
poems (such as “The River-Merchant‟s Life: A Letter”). Much of Pound‟s poetry is very difficult
to read and interpret, in part because it includes allusions to such a wide range to other works.
His longest work, the Cantos, is an unfinished, and not clearly unified, series of 116 poems
written over the last half of his life. The series vaguely resembles an epic, a kind of explanation
of the modern world and how it got to its present state. It is also pseudo-autobiographical,
chronicling events and episodes in Pound‟s life. Borrowing and imitating many other literary
forms, such as drama, satire, sermons, diaries, and essays, it is encyclopedic, polyphonic, and
open-ended, more fugal or spiral than linear.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

(Because Eliot immigrated to England, he is often treated as an English writer, and he is
discussed in our section on English Literature and Language).

The Harlem Renaissance
In the 1920s and to a lesser extent into the early 1930s, an explosion of African American art,
including music, painting, and literature, occurred among artists who gravitated to the Harlem
section of New York City. The two best known writers of this flowering of African-American
literature are Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Hurston
who grew up in rural Florida before migrating to New York City, wrote several novels, an
autobiography (Dust Tracks on the Road), an anthropological compilation of folk tales (Mules
and Men), and numerous stories and essays. She is best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were
Watching God, which chronicles the life of Janie Starks. Raised by her grandmother in rural
Florida, Janie is first married to Logan Killicks, but he turns out to be a rather brutish, insensitive
man. Then she lives with Joe Starks, who at first appears to be more congenial, but, as he rises in
social status, it becomes clear that he wants Janie to stay in her second-class position. Janie
therefore runs off with Tea Cake, the kind of caring man she had been searching for. They
migrate to the muck-land of Southern Florida where they work together as agricultural laborers.
During a flood, however, Tea Cake is bitten by a rapid dog and Janie is forced to shoot him.
Besides its value as an account of the racial, gender, and economic hardships that Janie faces, the
novel is renowned for its combination of realistic Southern, African American dialect and its
lyrical, descriptive passages.

Perhaps more than any other writer, Hughes seems to embody the period. From 1921 on, he lived
and wrote in New York, he was active in the musical and theatrical worlds and he wrote many
poems, stories, and essays. Taken collectively, his poems present a composite portrait of urban
African-American life, with social emphasis on three themes: isolation and despair; an
aggressive, protesting, sometimes socialist response; and affirmations of the integrity and dignity
of African Americans.

In addition to Hughes, another leading poet of the period was Claude McKay (1889-1949), who
articulated some of the complexities of African-American culture including resentment against
White power, faith in the African and folk pasts of African-American and acceptance of the
strengths of the Western tradition. These first four lines of his poem “America” suggest these
complexities.

       Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
       And sinks into my throat her tiger‟s tooth,
       Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
       I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

White America is imaged as a destructive beast, poisoning the speaker, causing the speaker to
harbor a destructive bitterness and driving him into hell on earth. Yet, that White power is
inseparable from a culture that the speaker, despite himself, is attracted to: “I love this cultured
hell.” These conflicting tones and the paradox they describe is an elegant expression of Du
Bois‟s concept of double consciousness.

Other important writers of the Harlem Renaissance include Jessie Redmon Fauset (1884-1961)
and Nella Larsen (1893-1964) with their novels (Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral by the
former and Quicksand and Passing by the latter) about African-American woman‟s role in the
urban North, especially as related to the issue of passing for White. Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
wrote one memorable book-Cane—a curious, fragmented mixture of sketches, stories, and
poems marked by a haunting poetic style that mourns gradual decline of rural, Southern, African-
American culture.

FICTION

Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Although she was born in Virginia and lived most of her life in the East, Cather‟s best fiction is
set in rural Nebraska, where she spent her childhood. In novels such as O Pioneers!, The Song of
the Lark, and My Antonia and stories such as “Neighbor Rossicky” she depicts life on the prairie
for the first generations of settlers. She is particularly concerned with women‟s roles, especially
in the contrast between the necessity for women to work alongside men in the first years of
settlement and the lack of such need as life became more comfortable. She is best known for her
remarkable character development, for example in the female protagonists of the three novels
listed above: Alexandra Bergson, Thea Krongberg, and Antonia Shimerda. Like most of Cather‟s
central characters, these three women have many talents, but in Cather‟s world, lasting
relationships are always elusive and none of them achieve enduring happiness.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Brought up in a middle-class family in the Midwest, Fitzgerald was fascinated with the very rich.
His several novels and numerous short stories typically recount the stories of characters who
have trouble with their wealth or their wealthy lifestyle, or who try to rise from the middle-class
to the upper-class and similarly fail to achieve happiness. He is primarily known for his
masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, a novel about a corrupt rich man. Jay Gatsby, the rootless rich
people around him, and the narrator Nick Carroway, like Fitzgerald a middle-class man from the
Midwest. More than any other American novel of the 20th century, this one has captured
Americans‟ imagination, as it reflects what seems to have gone wrong with the American dream.
Just as Gatsby gazes longingly at the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan‟s pier, Americans
are often nostalgic for their “greener,” agrarian past. Gatsby is an American hero—having
changed his name and invented an identity replete with a false Oxford degree and having made
incredible amounts of money—but he is very much a fallen hero, linked to gamblers, his life
mired in lies, and his soul unfulfilled. Nick is also an archetypal American figure, the young
initiate, reminiscent of Jame‟s naïve Americans, who encounters the more sophisticated world of
the Eastern upper classes. To Nick‟s credit, he retains his integrity, but Gatsby‟s death leaves
him confused and disillusioned.

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

Faulkner is widely recognized as the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, and by some
as the greatest American writer, period. He was born near Oxford, Mississippi, and spent nearly
all his life there, with the exceptions of a year during which he studied at Yale University and
trained for World War I and of several stints in Hollywood as a screenwriter. His large output of
novels and stories include many set in his fictional Southern county, which he called
Yoknapatawpha. Within that defined region, he masterfully probes all facets of the lives of his
wonderfully rich cast of characters. Often using innovative narrative strategies, such as the
multiple narrators of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury and Addie Bundren‟s stream of
consciousness section of A I Lay Dying, Faulkner was adept at probing the inner recesses of his
characters‟ minds and souls. At the same time, his fiction admirably portrays the social issues
confronting all classes of society, Whites and Blacks, and men and women. His fiction is
dominated by his theme of the contrast between what is called “the eternal verities”—enduring
virtues like honesty, integrity, compassion, and truth—and the extent to which American culture,
specifically in the South, had fallen away from those virtues, a falling away that he often
attributed to the curse of slavery and racial inequality.

Faulkner‟s best known novels were written between 1929 and 1936: The Sound of Fury, As I Lay
Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!. The first is the story of the Compson family,
fallen away from its previous integrity and now in the hands of three brothers—Jason, a bitter
man who is falling in business; Quentin, a psychotic who kills himself; and Benjy, an idiot—
each of whom longs in his way for their absent sister, Caddie. As I Lay Dying examines the
effects on the Bundren family of the loss of their center—Addies, the wife and mother. The
rather bizarre and sometimes gruesome plot follows the family as it travels for ten days to bury
Addie‟s body next to her dead father in Jefferson, a journey that requires them to overcome fire
and flood as well as their own psychological disjunctions. Told in a more conventional fashion,
Light in August is the story of a group of characters in a small Southern town whose destinies
intersect. The most memorable is Joe Christmas, presumably half black and half white, as he
tries unsuccessfully to find a viable identity and a place in society. Absalom, Absalom!, narrated
primarily through the convoluted memories of various characters, recounts the downfall of
Thomas Sutpen‟s rural empire—he had bought and tried to farm a square of land ten miles on a
side. He and all who come into intimate contact with him come to tragic or unhappy fates
because of the greed, arrogance, and avarice that he radiates, as well as another case of racial
miscegenation.

Faulkner‟s fiction gains power not only for its detailed analyses of American life and its
penetrating psychological studies, but also for its tendency to go beyond the everyday to the
mythic and archetypal. Burdens‟ journey, in one sense cosmic and in another sense grotesque,
also resonates with symbolic patterns in Western civilization, for example the Biblical-like
threats of fire and water. When a log in the flooded river knocks over their wagon, Faulkner
writes, “It surged up out of the water and stood for an instant upright upon that surging and
heaving desolation like Christ.” Similarly, by naming his character in Light in August Joe
Christmas and then detailing his murder at the hands of vulgar vigilantes, Faulkner alludes to
Jesus Christ and his death. And in his novella, “The Bear,” Faulkner deepens an initiation story
into a complex myth about the relationships between humans and nature and between the present
and the past.

Faulkner is also known for his distinctive prose style, which features long, meandering
sentences, long paragraphs, wide-ranging diction, and an elegance reflecting the author‟s mind
far more than his characters‟ minds. Here for example is a sentence narrated through the
perspective of Sartoris Snopes, the young protagonist of “Barn Burning”:
       But there was no glare behind him now and he sat now, his back toward what he
       had called home for our days anyhow, his face toward the dark woods which he
       would enter when breath was up again, small, shaking steadily in the chill
       darkness, hugging himself into the remainder of his thin, rotten shirt, the grief and
       despair now no longer terror and fear but just grief and despair.

Sarty has just made the nearly impossible decision to turn against his barn-burning father and
stand up for what he knows is right. This plunges him into the existential plight of alienation and
isolation, but in this case, Faulkner points out to a successful future for his character, who as the
story ends “did not look back,” because Sarty has aligned himself with those eternal verities that
Faulkner cherishes.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, Hemingway joined the large group of American
expatriates who centered their activities in Paris. He served as an ambulance driver in World
War I and throughout his adult life engaged in a variety of sports and active pursuits, including
hunting big game in Africa, fishing, and skiing. He wrote voluminously, including a number of
novels (the best known are A farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and
The Old Man and the Sea), tightly constructed short stories (such as the Nick Adams stories
collected in In Our Time and tow hunting stories—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short,
Happy Life of Francis Macomber”), several memoirs and numerous journalistic pieces. His
novels tend to feature characters who are psychologically wounded in one way or another, trying
to face up to the difficult challenges of their lives. He is also renowned for his terse style—pretty
much the opposite of Faulkner‟s—which is characterized by its short, simple sentences and its
lack of adornment, including its sparse use of adjectives and adverbs. He handles dialogue
particularly well, his characters speaking a kind of Hemingway-ese that manages to sound
authentic.

Hemingway‟s philosophy is built around the idea of an unwritten code of behavior based on
sports. The sportsman‟s code is that there are rules—official or unofficial—in any sport. In
hunting, for example, the hunter must make the hunt a reasonably fair contest, so he or she does
not use a machine gun, or less obviously, does not shoot from a moving vehicle. Bullfighting had
its elaborate code of how bulls must be killed. Such rules not only make the game more
interesting, but they also provide a way in which the individual can be evaluated, because it puts
pressure on the individual to show his or her skill, endurance, courage, honor, and grace. In life
as in sports, Hemingway assumes that there is a code by which we should play the game. We
know we will eventually lost the game (ie., die), but we can achieve personal rewards by playing
the game well, by exhibiting “grace under pressure.” For Hemingway we are all in the
existential impasse in which nothing and no one can help us, so he requires that we make the best
of that seemingly impossible decision by, for one thing, not asking for unnecessary help, and for
another, by playing the game as well as we can, and in doing so by demonstrating our spiritual
strength as well as our courage and skill.

Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Along with millions of other African Americans who emigrated from the rural South to Northern
cities, Wright left Mississippi for Chicago as a young man. He lived mostly in Chicago, New
York, and Paris as a political organizer, writer, and literary agent. He is best known for his
autobiography (Black Boy), several novels (the best of which is Native Son), and a volume of
short stories called Eight Men.

Wright‟s fiction is dominated by his central theme of protest against the discriminatory
treatment of African Americans. He repeatedly depicts the overwhelming obstacles confronting
young African-American men as they try to develop their identities and find a place in American
society. His fictions may be characterized as failed initiations, since the barriers raised by White
society always prevent his young men from achieving such goals. Instead, they become isolated
and alienated, and any are murdered, lynched, or executed. Wright‟s orientation was influenced
not only by his racial background but also by his affinity with Marxist theory, which deepened
his conviction that capitalism led to the exploitation of the lower classes. Wright‟s themes and
subject matter place his fiction in the Naturalistic mode because his protagonists are always
victimized by overpowering social forces.

Most of Wright‟s fictions are gripping, intense tales. Native Son begins with the protagonist,
Bigger Thomas, killing a rat in his parents‟ squalid apartment. Later, he is befriended by two
liberal Whites, and, in a moment of temporary insanity, he murders one of them. He is then even
more alienated and is eventually hunted down by a huge posse of law enforcement officers
before being executed for the murder. In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” one of the stories
published in Eight Men, Fred Daniels flees two policemen by descending into the sewer system
and then opts to live an underground life. In doing so, he subverts the values and meaning of
ordinary life, creating a kind of identity outside normal identities and of course outside society.

More Modernist Writers

Fiction. America‟s first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature was Sinclair Lewis (1885-
1951), who wrote primarily realistic novels, such as Babbit and Main Street about middle-class
Americans. Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) is also best known for his stories of middle class
characters in Midwestern small towns, most notably in a volume called Winesburg, Ohio.
Anderson‟s stories usually focus on one or more unusual characters whom he called grotesques.
A leading figure of the early twentieth century was Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who
experimented with literary language, sometimes radically, in a wide range of genres and for
many years formed the nucleus of the American expatriate group of writers and artists in Paris.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) wrote several volumes of short stories, several novellas,
and one less successful novel, Ship of Fools. The stories, often about life in the rural Texas
where Porter was raised, are written in a crystalline prose that captures the seemingly small yet
deeply significant epiphanies in her characters‟ lives and/or develops with precision a slice of life
that perfectly expresses a character‟s state of being. The best known work by John Steinback
(1902-1968) is Grapes of Wrath, a sweeping, almost epic novel that recounts the tragedy of poor
Oklahoma farmers forced off their land in the 1930s and lured by the promise of the agricultural
work in California.

Poetry. Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an influential Modernist poet who developed a
poetic form based on the number of syllables per line and whose short, lyric poems tend to focus
on the need for human dignity at the individual and social levels. In her poetry and prose she
elegantly expresses the significance of poetry, asserting in famous expression that poems are
“imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In his poetry, E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)
deliberately uses the diction and speech patterns of ordinary spoken English and often
experiments with the punctuation, capitalization, and the use of white space. His often humorous
poems convey the sense that life—as a process rather than an endpoint—should be celebrated.

Drama. America‟s first important playwright, Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) wrote many
successful plays from 1913 until his death. Most focus on family conflicts and the inner
workings of them mind, his best known being the loosely autobiographical Long Day’s
Journey’s into Night, which probes the haunting memories, fears, and interacting among two
sons, their mother, and their father.

                           The Contemporary Period: 1945-Present

Overview

Compared to earlier periods, it becomes even more difficult to generalize about very recent
literature. We lack the hindsight needed to describe confidently the characteristics of the period
or even to predict which writers and works will endure as classics.

There is no major shift from the Modernist period to literature after World War II. Even though
that war was more devastating than World War I, it did not have as great a cultural impact. In
many ways, contemporary literature continues to be marked by variety and experimentation,
even more so than during Modernism. It is also characterized by an opening up the literary
canon to include far more works by women and diverse ethnic groups, as well as further blurring
of boundaries between literary genres. Because of increased skepticism about the efficacy of
literature is less likely to try to deal with broad cultural questions. It reflects increased doubt
about the ability of any form of art to represent external reality in a meaningful way. Instead,
contemporary literature tends to focus on the personal and psychological and to concern itself
with aesthetic issues that is to focus on its own art. Thus, postmodern literature often is marked
by extravagant effects of language, unusual stylistic devices, heavy doses of self-referential
language, and unsettling mixtures of what seems mimetic but in which clearly supernatural
events occasionally occur and are usually accepted just as steadily as the apparently
representational ones. Much of this literature becomes rather playful, not attempting to develop
serious themes but simply existing for its own sake and for the pleasures of the genre.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

Born in Mississippi as Thomas Lanier Williams, Williams enjoyed considerable success as the
author of numerous plays although his personal life was always a struggle. His best known plays
are The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. One recurring
theme is nostalgia for a romanticized past, as in Amanda Wingfield‟s and Blanche Dubois‟
fantasized recollections of their earlier days in the Southern towns where they grew up.
Compared to their idyllic visions of the past, the present world in Williams‟ plays is always
harsh and unyielding, symbolized by the allusions to war in Menagerie and by the violence of
the New Orleans neighborhood in which Streetcar is set. Another theme is need for sensitive
human beings (such as Laura Wingfield in Menagerie, Blanche in Streetcar, and Brick in Car),
characters whom Williams called fugitives, to create psychological refuges to which to flee from
the harsh material world. For Williams, the central issues are played out in dysfunctional
families, for the unresolved tensions of life exist there. Outsiders such as Jim O‟Conner and
Maggie can try to ameliorate the psychoses that have been brought on by the family situation,
but their efforts remain ineffective or marginal. With these outsiders or with other family
members, Williams‟ protagonists often attempt to establish and maintain intimacy, but for
Williams this is usually impossible. Thus, Williams‟ work is yet another illustration of
existentialism, for his central characters remain in the existentialist stage of isolation and
alienation. Williams‟ work often has overtones of Naturalism and Marxism, for the characters
also seem to be overwhelmed by external social forces.


Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

Ellison‟s literary output is relatively small, consisting of about thirty short stories (the best of
which are collected in Flying Home and Other Stories), two volumes of essays (Shadow and Act
and Going to the Territory), and two novels (Invisible Man and Juneteenth, which was
unfinished at his death but recently published with the help of an editor). Nevertheless, his
reputation is well established, partly by his incisive analyses of American culture in his essays,
but primarily by the power of Invisible Man, regarded by many as the best African-American
novel ever written and by many as one of the best, if not the best, American novel. It is a
Bildungsroman, that is, a novel about the development (the education, in the fullest sense) of a
young man. The unnamed narrator, the invisible man, undergoes a series of initiations or rites of
passage as he grows from teenager to adult. Each time, he has high expectations for the newest
stage of his life, but then the realities of each stage are disillusioning and deflating. Part of the
effect is to chronicle the nightmarish life of a 20th century African Americans. It recounts the
archetypal African-American quest for freedom, literary, and identity. In critic Robert Stepto‟s
terms, it is a novel of ascent as the protagonist rises from his rural roots to a position of
leadership (albeit temporary) in the urban North, and it is a novel of immersion, as this quest
requires him to experience and understand everything about African-American and American
cultures. But Ellison‟s masterpiece is more than a protest novel, for his language, his symbolism,
and his mythic structure universalize the novel‟s subject and themes. He integrates allusions to
European literature, American frontier legends, antive American folklore,a nd African culture, so
that the novel is about the broader issues of how all civilizations function, such as the individual
versus society as a whole, the extent of human freedom, the quest for individuality, and the role
of violence in society.

Arthur Miller (1915-)

Along with Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller is the other great American playwright of the
period. He is best known for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and he has written a handful
of less successful plays. More than any other American play, Salesman captures the essence of
middle-class life and the tragedies it can lead to. Willie Loman, the salesman, believes in the
American dream to the extent that he is deluded by the fantasy of making it big, but in the
process he doesn‟t give himself credit for his own modest accomplishments. As with Williams,
the crucial setting for these psychological problems is the family, as Willie tries unsuccessfully
to instill his dreams into his sons. Just as Americans as a whole are often characterized as
searching for lasting values and identity, this play is about the search for values: Willie seeks
them in the American dream of the successful and powerful individual (symbolized by his idol
Dave Singleman); his brother Ben finds them in the law of the jungle, essentially the myth of the
robber barons; his son Biff finds them in nature, in a 20th century version of the cowboy myth;
his neighbor Charlie and Charlie‟s son Bernard find them in hard work and study. The play also
focuses on another quintessential American theme—tension between family values and business
values. Willie retains the illusion that business and the social world beyond the family operate on
the same principles and values as the family. Since they don‟t, especially in the increasingly
impersonal post-World War II world, Willie‟s illusions lead him to failure in both family and
work.

The Crucible, written in 1953, is set in Puritan Massachusetts and unfolds the tragic effects of the
Salem witch trials on the community and in particular on the protagonist, John Proctor.
Indirectly, the play is also a bitter response to the anti-communist investigations, led by Senator
Joseph McCarthy, that were conducted with often devastating effects during the early 1950s.

Toni Morrison (1931-)

Born Chloe Anthony Morrison in a middle-class African American family in Loraine, Ohio,
Morrison started her career as an editor for a major book publisher. Starting with The Bluest Eye
in 1969, she has published seven novels, nearly all of them widely acclaimed as well as
bestsellers, and in 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for literature. Set in different eras of American
history from the 1850s through the 1970s, her novels collectively present the inner history of
African Americans. As she said of Beloved, that novel is about what the authors of slave
narratives were not allowed to tell. Her characters typically struggle with archetypal American
issues: how to achieve viable identities; how to blend their individuality with the restrictions that
society—Black as well as White-places on them; how to come to grips with their often traumatic
pasts; and how to survive, and even to succeed, materially but at the same time to retain
psychological and spiritual vitality. As she deals with such realistic issues, Morrison is also adept
at deepening her fiction with haunting touches of magic realism, for example with Pilate Dead‟s
lack of a navel, with the presence of ghosts in Beloved, or with Milkman‟s leap at the end of
Song of Soloman.

In her first three novels—The Bluest Eyes, Sula, and Song of Solomon—Morrison depicts
fragmentation at many levels: individuals (such as Pecola Breedlove and Macon Dead) are
unable to achieve viable identities; families (the Breedloves, the Greenes, and the Deads) are torn
apart by irreconcilable differences and/or suffer interminable divisions, and Black communities
(Lorain, the Bottom, the Southside) are whacked by internal tensions and are subject to the
destructive effects of White domination. Countering these centrifugal forces, Morrison also
explores factors that tend to center individuals, to unify couples and families, and to bring
cohesion to communities. For example, in the second half of Song of Solomon, Milkman‟s Dead
“put‟s it all together,” as he discovers the mysteries of his family, finds his ancestors‟ roots,
gains acceptance into a community, and in the process finds himself.

Morrison‟s three most recent novels are Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Though apparently quite
different, Morrison asserts that they form a trilogy focusing on love. Beloved is the haunting tale
of an ex-slave woman, Sethe, who kills her baby rather than allow it to be returned to slavery.
Jazz tells the story of a couple, Joe and Violet Trace, who, like millions of real African
Americans, migrates to New York City in the 1920s, and who struggle through the psychological
pitfalls of adjusting to live in the urban North. Paradise’s complex plot revolves around the
tragic interactions between residents of an all-Black town in Oklahoma and a small group of
young women living nearby who are refugees from their families and society. Despite their
dissimilar subjects, the three novels address issues of love and the dangers of excessive love. In
Beloved, is Sethe‟s murder an example of love or its excess? Is infanticide ever justifiable? What
are the acceptable limits of love? In Jazz, how does Violet reconcile her love for her dead mother
with her mother‟s suicide? Does her decision not to have children of her own result in her lack of
love for Joe? Is Joe‟s affair with Docas justified in the light of Violet‟s inability to love him?
How does one explain his murder of Docas? And in Paradise, can one justify the town men‟s
killing of the young women? Does their strict faith constitute excessive love of God? Does their
belief in their town legendary past constitute a dangerous obsession? In what sense do characters
like Consolata, Richard Misner, and Lone DuPres provide alternatives of a more compassionate
love?

More Contemporary Writers

Fiction. Contemporary American fiction can be characterized by its many strands and variety of
voices. In the realistic tradition, several writers have consistently produced high-quality fiction
about American life: Saul Bellow (1915-Present) is best known for his Bildungsroman, The
Adventures of Augie March; Norman Mailer (1923-Present) writes a bolder fiction usually
critical of American society, as in his Vietnam War novel, The Armies of the Night; JohnUpdike
(1932-Present) is best known for his series of novels about Rabbit Angstrom, a contemporary
anti-hero; and Phil Roth (1933-Present) achieved early fame with Goodbye, Columbus, a
volume of short stories about Jewish middle-class life and then shifted gradually toward fantasy
and metafiction. One of the most influential writers of the immediate post-World War II years
was J.D. Sallinger (1919-Present), whose novel, Catcher in the Rye, seemed to capture the
uncertainties and rebelliousness of the generation who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s.

Several other writers have pushed the limits of fiction more vigorously than that first group.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), a Russian émigré to the United States, wrote very strange,
often parabolic fiction that often mocks itself as well as its characters. He is best known for
Lolita, his risqué story of a doomed and duped lover, Humbert. John Barth (1930-Present) has
numerous novels and stories that experiment with what fiction is and what it can do. Most of his
fiction is extremely self-reflexive; that is, it is more about itself and fiction than about
representing anything in the real world. An extreme example is his short story, “Life-Story,”
which has virtually no plot but instead details the narrator‟s inability to write a story. This trend
to severely limit the, mimetic dimension of fiction, referred to as the literature of exhaustion,
fortunately has not dominated the period. Thomas Pynchon (1931-Present) writes long,
sprawling novels (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon) that have been called the literature of
replenishment as well as the zone of the bizarre, for they incorporate materials from a
seemingly endless array of sources and they move with ease in and out of fantasy and history, the
exotic and the real. Donald Barthelme (1934-1989) wrote fascinating and difficult fiction that is
best described as surreal, in that its relationship to anything in the external world is always
tenuous.

In Southern literature, a tradition called Southern Gothic combines elements of the grotesque
and the bizarre with mimesis. Examples of writers that contributed to this tradition are Edgar
Allan Poe and William Faulkner. In the contemporary period, Southern Gothic has been further
enriched by Eudora Welty (1909-), Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) and Carson McCullers
(1917-1967). Welty has written several novels (the best known is The Optimist’s Daughter), but
her short stories (such as “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Petrified Man”) are usually considered
her best work. Her fiction is characterized by her gentle humor and her collections of unsettled
families and misfit individuals. Like Welty, O‟Connor is also best known for her short fiction
(most notably “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “The Life
You Save May Be Your Own”). Her fiction is also populated with odd characters who become
involved in strange plots that are simultaneously comic and tragic and that often lead to unusual
religious epiphanies. McCullers is best known for several short novels (e.g., The Ballad Of the
Sad Café) that likewise chronicle the peculiar lives of characters who don‟t seem to have a place
in the community.

Contemporary fiction has been enriched by the growing recognition of a wider diversity of
writers than in previous periods. For the first time in American literary history, a group of
African-American women writers has been widely read. Besides Toni Morrison, this group
includes Alice Walker (1944-), Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995). Paule Marshall (1929-),
and Gloria Naylor (1950-). Walker is best known for her politically oriented novels such as The
Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy, and for her essays (many collected in In Search
of Our Mother’s Gardens) that examine the particular issues of confronting black women in this
country. Bambara, a political activist herself, wrote two volumes of short stories mostly about
poor urban children in two novels, The Salt-Eaters and Those Bones Are Not My Child. Marshall
has written realistic novels (such as Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow)
primarily about the interactions between life in the Caribbean and in the United States. Naylor
has written five novels, the best two of which are Mama Day and Bailey’s Café. Both are superb
examples of magic realism, the former in its depiction of the conflict between the realistic
orientation of some characters and the magical powers that dominate life on an island off the
coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the latter a fantasy about a mystical neighborhood tat has
the potential of healing all refugees from the bruising outside world.

Since World War II, American Indian fiction has emerged as a sub-genre, usually combining
forms such as chants and songs from the Indian tradtion with elements of the novel. N. Scott
Momaday (1934-) is regarder as the originator of this movement, particularly with his ground-
breaking novel, House Made of Dawn, and in his autobiographical work, The Way to Rainy
Mountain. Following Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko (1948-) has written several successful
novels, most notably Ceremony. Both House and Ceremony recount how spiritually wounded
Indian characters return to their tribal roots to purge themselves to their psychic illnesses. Other
contemporary Indian writers of note are Louise Erdrich (1954-) and Sherman Alexie (1966-).
Chicano/a literature, literature written by Mexican-Americans, is another relatively new kind that
has emerged in this period. Rudolfo Anaya (1937-) is the best known Chicano writer, and his
novel Bless Me, Ultima is the most widely read Chicano novel. It plot chronicles the coming of
age of a sensitive boy and competing influences on him, including his mother‟s family, the
Catholic church, and the folk traditions of his community. In The Last of the Menu Girls, a
volume of interrelated stories, Denise Chavez (1948-) examines the tensions facing a teenage
girl growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood but also having to deal with the surrounding Anglo
culture. And in The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1954-) presents a series of
vignettes that similarity depict the coming of age of a young Latina.

The diversity of contemporary American fiction includes a number of significant works by
writers of Asian descent. Two women—Maxine Hong Kingston (1940-);The Woman Warrior:
Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts and Tripmaster Monkey) and Amy Tan (1952-); The Joy
Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses)—have forcefully portrayed the challenges of
growing up in America in an Asian-American family and community. Another woman—Bharati
Mukherjee (1940-); (The Tiger’s Daughter and Jasmine) has similarly depicted the uneasiness
of life in America from the perspectives of Indian-Americans.

Poetry. Some contemporary American poets have used their poetry to express their strong social
concerns and beliefs. The Beat poets, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote poetry highly
critical of traditional middle-class values and lifestyles and poetry that celebrated their hip
counterculture. The most well-known Beat poet is Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997), whose
rambling, intense, image-filled poem, “Howl,” shocked conventional sensibilities when it
appeared in 1956. Another group of poets with a social agenda, such as Robert Bly (1926-)
wrote poems sharply critical of the Vietnam War. Yet another group are African-American
poets—such as Imamu Baraka (1934-) and Nikki Giovanni (1943-)—who wrote and are still
writing poems about racialization in America.

One significant strand of the poetry of this period is expressed in short lyrics in which the
speaker reflects rather quietly on a deeply personal event or moment. The speaker is usually
indistinguishable from the author, thus giving rise to the term “confessional” for this kind of
poetry. Such contemporary poets seldom strive for broad generalizations or commentaries;
instead, they are content to show their private working through of an experience and its related
emotions. Consequently, the preferred form is free verse, so that the form can reflect the poet‟s
representation of the twists and spontaneous turns of his or her meditation. Typically, poets try to
convey life‟s provisionally, fluidity, and intensity through the open-ended forms of their poems
and through the rich and mysterious interactions between the language of their minds presented
directly in their poems and the external world with its immense variety of events and objects.

Three such contemporary poets are Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), Robert Lowell (1917-
1977), and Adrienne Rich ( 1929-). Roethke‟s lyrical poems frequently examine the tension
between the material and the spiritual, body and mind, and desire and the absence of desire. By
describing the beauty and the ugliness of the world, he often reaches a kind of personal
mysticism yet usually remains filled with unanswerable questions about himself and life. For
example, in these lines from “In a Dark Time,” he records a plunge into personal darkness that
takes him very close to madness and a loss of identity:

                          Dark, Dark my light, and darker my desire.
                         My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly.
                            Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

Robert Lowell also struggles with potential loss of identity and consequent insanity, for example
in these lines from “Skunk Hour”:

                                         One dark night,
                             My tudor Ford climbed the hill‟s skull;
                          I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
                                 They lay together, hull to hull,
                          Where the graveyard shelves on the town…
                                      My mind‟s not right.

From the imagery of death (“skull” and “graveyard”) and emptiness (“hull” and “hull”), lovers‟
lane becomes an ironic scene of social hollowness and personal alienation, as the speaker, not
right with himself or society, becomes a haunted and haunting voyeur. Perhaps because of his
familial connections with early Bostonians, Lowell‟s themes are more overtly social than most
contemporary poets. For example, his most famous poem, “For the union Dead,” fuses the
personal and the political by contrasting the heroism of the Civil War and the sterility of the
modern age.

Adrienne Rich is an astounding poet because of her sustained output of volume of high-quality
poems and because her life‟s work provides a kind of documentation of the spiritual life of a
thinking and reflecting woman in this period. After studying the classic male poets of Europe,
she began her career sounding rather like them, moved through a period of chafing under the
thumb of patriarchal power, embraced the feminist movement, and has continued charting her
unabated mental growth. “Transcendental Etude” starts with the speaker‟s encounter with deer
hunting, moves through her deep questioning of her life, and ends with a provocative and elegant
section asserting her newly understood sense of herself and her personal power, a section that
includes the lines:

                               Pulling the tenets of a life together
                                 With no mere will to mastery,
                             Only care for the many-lived, unending
                                Forms in which she finds herself

Other important contemporary poets include Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Gwendolyn
Brooks (1917-), Richard Wilbur (1921-), Denise Levertov (1923-), W.S. Merwin (1927-),
and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963).

Drama

After Williams and Miller, two contemporary American dramatists stand out: San Shepard
(1943-) and August Wilson (1945-). In plays such as True West and Buried Child, Shepard takes
long, hard look at contemporary American culture. Like so many dramatists, he finds the crucial
issues in families, particularly in the secrets harbored there that result in severe psychological
disruptions. Wilson‟s plays dramatize African-American life, decade by decade in 20th century.
Perhaps his best known play is Fences, in which a strong but destructively willful man, Troy
Maxson, struggles against the demons of his own past, the White power structure, and his
difficulty in expressing his love for those around him.

								
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