In the last decades of the 19th century, American literature entered a period of regionalism, exploring the stories, dialects, and idiosyncrasies of the many regions of the United States.
Edwin Arlington Robinson explores the lives of New Englanders in his dramatic monologues of Tilbury Town where the rhythm of everyday speech reflects a Puritan sense of moral corruption and Edgar Lee Masters, from Kansas, who achieves success with Spoon River Anthology (1915). His poetic commemorations capture the hidden passions and hopes of Midwesterners buried in the imaginary Spoon River cemetery.
Robert Frost reserved, humorous, and simple, gives voice to modern psychological constructions of identity without ever losing its focus on the local and the specific. Frost gives his poems the rhythms of natural speech using the standard meter of blank verse (lines with five stresses)
The huge industrial expansion with its culture based on business led some writers to exile themselves in cultures that seemed more favourable to art, while others decided to stay and resist through their poetry the growing materialistic culture.
The major modernist poets who left the United States and wrote most of their poetry as expatriates in Europe were Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (who wrote under the pen name H. D.), T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein.
William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, and Robinson Jeffers. stayed in America and wrote poems aimed at developing a democracy.
Carl Sandburg celebrated the power of a free, democratic working class and focussed on the idea of social identity, idea that culminated in his Depression-era book, The People, Yes (1936).
Vachel Lindsay travelled around America, exchanging poems for food. His purpose was to build a sort of mass participatory poetry, “the higher vaudeville” as he called it, performances in which he led large groups of people in chanting his poetry.
Langston Hughes, one of the century’s most important black writers, wrote socially conscious poems about the black experience using the rhythmic structure of blues music and the improvisational rhythms of jazz.
Michael Gold, born and raised in New York City slums, wrote impassioned chants to American workers, often invoking Whitman.
William Carlos Williams, a physician from industrial New Jersey, declared he wrote his poems after listening to Americans talk on the streets and its rhythm Williams used brief lines that focussed attention on the concrete reality in front of the poet: “No ideas but in things,” he says. His five volume poem Paterson (1946-58), is an epic about Paterson, New Jersey.
Ezra Pound led a group called the imagists. Pound, Williams, and Doolittle all from the University of Pennsylvania, based their poems on new rhythms, clear and simple images, free choice of subject matter, concentrated or compressed poetic expression, and use of common speech.
The poets apply this credo differently: Williams found his new rhythms in everyday speech, while Pound’s Personae (1909) demonstrates his extraordinary ability to write intense, beautiful experimental verse, echoing poems from other languages such as Chinese, Greek and Provencal. His brief imagist poems were collected into a collage that eventually became a massive long poem, The Cantos.
Pound believes that the poet should be a citizen of the world and a contemporary of all the ages; true art can come only by encounters with the distant and the past, the lost and forgotten. His Cantos move through time, languages, and cultures—leading Pound eventually to a flirtation with fascism, which he embraces while in Italy during World War II (1939-1945).
Pound introduces the poetry of Hilda Doolittle as the model of imagism, and her chiselled and often-erotic Sea Garden poems (1916) became the movement’s signature book. In her trilogy, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946) she turns to Egyptian mythology, ancient history, and Christian tradition as a response to the violence of the War.
H. D., Pound, and Williams left imagism behind, but it continued to influence some poets for a number of years under the leadership of Amy Lowell, a descendant of James Russell Lowell.
An important result of Pound’s example to build long poems out of imagist fragments was his editing of The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot, a work that found many followers in America.
Hart Crane viewed his epic-length The Bridge (1930) as an answer to Eliot. Crane saw a bridge between the American past and a productive American future and revealed the wasteland of the present as a necessary passage to that future. The Bridge is a difficult poem, written in highly symbolic language and rich in imagery, taken from American myth, legend, and history.
Other modernist poets go on experimenting with language and form and show the influence of dada and surrealism, European movements that mock the value and traditions of art.
E. E. Cummings wrote highly experimental poetry that parodied the banality of what he called the unworld, a sterile modern world that seemed to him to spoil human beings of their humanity. Using puns, unorthodox typography—words divided and spread out letter by letter across a page— he created a playful yet serious, highly individual poetic voice.
One of the most radical innovators of modern poetry was Gertrude Stein, although most of her poetry was not published until after her death. Her work shows that language ultimately refers only to itself, not to things of the world, and she experiments with multiple, shifting speaking voices.
Marianne Moore also wrote experimental poems, but she imposed on herself a discipline of precise syllable counts and elaborate structures. She observed animals and other objects and described them using a witty, precise language and surprising metaphors. An incessant reviser of her poetry, Moore produced a small but intricately complex body of work.
Wallace Stevens created a cerebral, philosophical poetry, abstract and often difficult. Stevens believed things emerged from ideas, and that without thought, there are no things that language can embrace.
An influential group of modernist poets came from the South and initially their poetry had a regional basis. These poets—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—created poems ironic, and often indirect or obscure. Their work was afterwards defined as New Criticism, a way of reading poems and other literature that tended to value work that was difficult, ambiguous, and that transcended its personal, historical, and cultural surroundings. The goal was a poem that could survive on its own as a perfected work of art.
After the great poems by the modernists, American poetry paused. Many poets imitated what had been innovative a few decades and by the 1950s there was neither innovative work nor interest in leading a poetic revolution.
The new forms of communication-pictures, radio, and television amusement and new modes of transportation made American society more and more mobile.Every literary voice could reach a national audience and, at the same time, American fiction writers began to influence world literature.
Even in fiction the 20th century saw the emergence of modernism.
James and Wharton had examined the complex psychology of America’s elite, in the 20th century other writers turned to the psychological and physical reality of the working classes, that included a great number of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel about the unsanitary and miserable working conditions in the stockyards of Chicago, Illinois. The book led to an investigation by the federal government and the subsequent passage of pure food laws.
The novels of Theodore Dreiser dealt with the brutal injustices of social class, and they represent a magnificent example of American naturalism. Sister Carrie (1900) depicts the downfall of a young woman who moves from small-town America to Chicago and then to New York City. An American Tragedy (1925) shows the downfall of a weak young man who tries to rise from poverty into fascinating society.
Jack London was another 20th-century naturalist. His writings depict the force-often violent-of nature and of human nature, combining realism with idealist views on human betterment. The Call of the Wild (1903) describes how a domesticated creature turns to a primitive state in order to survive.
Other writers who worked in the mode of social realism were Sinclair Lewis and Josephine Herbst.
Lewis focused on the American middle class, replacing traditional notions of its self-satisfaction with a vision that was harsh and at times bitter. In both Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), Lewis satirically portrayed the monotony and emotional, spiritual, and intellectual poverty of American middle-class life.
Herbst’s Pity is Not Enough (1933) was the first in a trilogy that traced the development of American society by tying one family’s history to larger social and historical events.
A period of disillusion and cynicism followed World War I (1914-1918)and found expression in the writings of a group of Americans living in Paris who became known as the Lost Generation. The group never formed a cohesive literary movement, but the writers shared bitterness about the war, a sense of rootlessness, and dissatisfaction with American society. The most influential American writers of this generation include novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, dramatist Thornton Wilder, and poets Archibald MacLeish and Hart Crane.
The term lost generation was first used by writer Gertrude Stein in her preface to Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) to characterize Hemingway and his circle of expatriate friends in Paris.
Both The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms (1929) are set in Europe during and after the war and portray the emotional exhaustion and the vain search for meaning and value in life of this generation.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is a tragic tale about the disillusion of the American dream; his works often reflect the material and emotional excesses of America in the 1920s, a period he called the Jazz Age.
In Paris (1903) Stein gathered around her a large group of painters and writers. Her own writing is noted for innovations in narrative style, such as simplification and fragmentation of plot and the use of unconventional syntax and punctuation. Stein’s fiction includes Three Lives (1909), a character study of three women, and The Making of Americans (1925), a novel dealing with her family’s social and cultural history.
Another innovative American writer was John Dos Passos, who wrote bitter, and impressionistic novels that attacked the hypocrisy and materialism of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. His Manhattan Transfer (1925), a panorama of life in New York City between 1890 and 1925, introduced his “newsreel” technique of inserting fragments of popular songs and news headlines into his text. It also introduced his “camera eye” technique: he provids his own point of view in short, poetic narratives.
The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s centred in Harlem. The poets, novelists, political essayists, and dramatists all wanted to give artistic expression to the African American experience and to improve the social and economic situation of blacks. Major prose writers in the movement were historian and sociologist such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who was best known for his non-fiction. Jean Toomer in his novel Cane (1923) gives voice to the conditions of black poors. Zora Neale Hurston in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) tells the story of a Southern black woman in search for her true identity.
The excess of the Jazz Age end with the 1929 stock market crash, and the angry decade of the 30s begins. Now many novels echoe the despair of the Great Depression. During the Depression a federal agency, known first as the Works Progress Administration and later as the Works Projects Administration (WPA), was created to put unemployed Americans to work on public projects. A branch of it was the Federal Writers Project (FWP; 1935 to 1941). The FWP employed writers to produce travel guides, local histories, nature studies, and other books and it also provided training for some exceptional authors, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both of whom went on to write about tensions between races and social classes.
Wright’s Native Son (1940) explores the extreme psychological pressures that drive a young urban black man to violence. Wright’s work influences younger writers, including James Baldwin. Whose first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), depicts Harlem in the 1930s.
Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952) is the story of an unnamed young black man in searching for his place in the world and confronts the idea that American society consciously turns a blind eye to its black members.
The 1920s was the most prolific decade for professionally produced plays on the New York City stage. During the 1920s and early 1930s audiences saw incisive and exciting American drama. What Price Glory (1924) by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, set in France during World War I, portrays two soldiers’ behaviour and satirizes the romanticized vision of warfare.
During this period Eugene O’Neill reached success with vast five-hour plays in which the playwright investigates on the human condition and the forces that plague humankind. In Strange Interlude (1928), a nine-act play, the leading female character explored the way in which hidden psychological processes affect outward actions. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1928. Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a trilogy, was a powerful adaptation of three ancient Greek tragedies by Aeschylus that told the story of Orestes and are known as the Oresteia. Set in New England after the Civil War (which replaces the Trojan War of the Oresteia), Mourning Becomes Electra analyses the moral, emotional, and physical destruction of two generations of the Mannon family, and emphasizes the consequences of adultery, incest, jealousy, and vengeance. In 1936 O’Neill became the first American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature.
African American characters became more visible in plays of this period. In the play In Abraham’s Bosom (1926) by Paul Green, the main character, whose father is white and mother is black, works to help his black community but is defeated by the racial prejudice of both whites and blacks. The play won 1927 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Black playwrights, however, remained on the margins of the theatre world until the 1950s.
Even the musical was renewd during the 1920s and early 1930s. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome Kern create Show Boat (1927), a musical production adapted from a novel of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. This was the first American musical to integrate a musical score with meaningful and consistent dialogue and lyrics.
American theatre sees a decline in the 1930s and after both because of the new motion pictures and as a result of the economic collapse of the Great Depression that closed many theatres permanently. The austerity of the 1930s inspired a new wave of drama that deals with economic suffering, left-wing political ideologies, fascism, and fears of another world war. The most famous of these plays is Waiting for Lefty (1935) by Clifford Odets. In the play taxi drivers decide to go on strike, but the theme of the play is a more abstract debate over the pros and cons of capitalism.
Langston Hughes paved the way for acceptance of African American drama with his successful play Mulatto (1935), about the complexity of race relations.
Robert Sherwood wrote a satirical attack on weapons manufacturers and predicted the tragedy of World War II in Idiot’s Delight (1936) that was awarded the 1936 Pulitzer Prize.
During World War II (1939-1945) the plays deal with the themes of escapism or of wartime propaganda. With the end of hostilities, however, two playwrights emerged who would dominate dramatic activity for the next 15 years or so: Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Arthur Miller combined realistic characters and social ideas in modern tragedies like Death of a Salesman (1949), a tale of the life and death of the ordinary workingman Willy Loman. Miller’s The Crucible (1953), about the Salem witch trials of the 17th-century, was a parable for a hunt for Communists in the 1950s led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Tennessee Williams wrote many plays about social rebels and outsiders. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a neurotic, impoverished woman of the south fights to maintain her illusions of decorum, but she is forced to confront the truth about her life by her sister’s husband, working-class man. Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, also focused on pretence and and destruction in an unhappy family.
In the 1940s the collaboration between librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers launched light-hearted musicals, most notably with the love story Oklahoma! (1943) which was successfully performed until 1960s.
Realism continued strongly in the 1950s with character studies of society’s forgotten people. Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) by William Inge told the story of the unhappy lives of an alcoholic doctor and his wife. O’Neill wrote in 1956 his painful autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), probably his masterpiece. It chronicles a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during which family members inexorably confront one another’s mistakes and failures.
In the late 1950s African American playwriting get a great success with the highly acclaimed Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry, the story of a black family and how they handle a financial windfall. It was the first Broadway production to be directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards.
Also at the end of the 1950s the semi-absurdist plays of Edward Albee attracted the American public with their intelligent dialogue. The most famous is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) that depicts the destructive relationship of a married couple primarily through their verbal abuse.