American Post-Civil War and 20th Century Literature

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 15

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American Literature 19th century


After the American Civil War, a new era of literature began: Realism. This was due to the radical changes in American society. The U.S. developed from an agricultural to an industrial society and money started to make the world go round. But along with industrialization and urbanization there came alienation the loss of the community for the individual, especially in big cities and this development was of course to be seen in leterature, too.

One of the most important writers of the second half of the 19th century was Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. „Mark Twain“ is originally the expression of Mississippi boatmen for the depth of water that is needed for a ship’s safe passage.

One can see Twain’s importance for American literature by Ernest hemingway’s statement that all of American literature comes from one great book, Twain’s „The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin“, which is Twain’s major work. The story is about a boy who is threatened by his father and who runs away because of that. Soon he is joined by a slave called Jim and although Huckleberry Finn knows that he is breaking the law by helping a slave (the novel plys in times of slavery) he decides to do so, following his conscience. The two have to go through a series of adventures before the novel finally comes to ist happy ending. Twain’s style in „Huckleberry Finn“ is very vigorous and realistic and he is mostly using colloquial language. For Mark Twain as well as for other authors of tht time, realism was not a literary technique, but a way of speaking the truth and of liberating themselves of all the strange conventions of society.

One reason for Twain’s success is perhaps that he combined two of the major aims of literature at that time: frontier humor and local color writing or „regionalism“. Because on the one hand the frontier spirit and all ist consequences were very popular but on the other hand people were interested in reading about specific American regions and their specific features.

A very important person concerning American realism is William Dean Howells, editor of the „Atlantic Monthly“ magazine, which contained texts by Mark Twain as well as by other so called „local colorists“ such as e.g. Bret Harte. But Howells didn’t only publish this magazine, he also wrote himself, mostly about topics like love, ambition, idealism and temptation. Another subject which was very important for him was the corruption of emerging business tycoons, with which he deals in „The Rise of Silas Lapham“.

A kind of contrary to the local colorists were the so called „cosmopolitain novelists“ like e.g. Henry James who’s writing was on a very high level. James is, apart from Mark Twain, regarded as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 19th century. He is mostly concerned with the so called „international theme“, meaning the complex relationships between the „naive“ Americans and „cosmopolitain“ Europeans.

A third cathegory of realists are the naturalists, who often wrote about social problems and who were strongly influenced by Darwinism and determinism. Determinism in this case means the denial of a religious force as leader adn creator of the world and instead the idea of the universe as a machine that could not be controlled.

One of the best and one of the earliest naturalistic novels is „Maggie: A Girl of the Streets“ by Stephen Crane, published in 1893. Maggie, a poor and sensitive girl is neglected by her parents, runs away with a man who deserts her, becomes a prostitute and finally commits suicide.

A naturalistic author who is known better than Crane today is Jack London, famous for „The Son of the Wolf“ (1900) and „The Sea Wolf“ (1904). London was the highest paid U.S. writer of that time, but nevertheless he never forgot that in his past he had been a poor worker and that’s why all his novels kept their down - to - earth style.

Apart from realism there was another important post - Civil War development: the rise of AfroAmerican Literature.

Former slaves, now freed had suddenly the time and the rigt to explore theri creative talents. Thus a number of great Afro- American writers emerged. One of them was Booker T. Washington, who was not only a writer, but also the most prominent black leader of that time. In his autobiography „Up From Slavery“ (1901) he described his own way towards freedom, a giftthat he wanted to use to improve the lives of other Afro -Americans and to integrate them into the American society. He expressed this wish in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895.

American Literature: 20th century


Although in the beginning and in the course of the 20th century books lost some of their influence due to new forms of mass media like the radio, the television and recently the internet, American literature became more and more influential on an internationale level. By the turn of the century writers of prose as well as poets and playwrights were keen on experimenting with new techniques and topics. The rather idealistic point of view authors had taken in the 19th century was no longer up - to - date and especially after the 1st World War another style of writing got popular. Perhaps it would be the best description to say that realism got even more realistic. Ernest Hemingway e.g. had a very realistic, straightforward style without the romantic ornaments that had been used before. He got first famous with his two anti - war novels „The Sun Also Rises“ and „A Farewell to Arms“ published in 1926 and 1929.

American authors in general began to reject the emotional aspects of literature more and more. Instead they became fascinated with describing and analyzing the psychologic depths of their characters. An example for this development is Ellen Glasgow who described in her novels the transformation of the American South from a rural to an industrial economy and the role of southern women caught in the traditionals southern code of domesticity, piety and dependence.

The 1920s, also known as „The Roaring Twenties“ brought change again. Society and thus also the society of writers, started to reject the Puritan and Victorian values and ideals that had been established. Writers felt that now they had much more freedom in chosing their topics - and also in choosing their way of life. A good example for this is Francis Scott Fitzgerald. On the one hand he was a brilliant author, who draw a satiric portrait of the American upper class ind „This Side of Paradise“ in 1920 and analyzed the American Dream in „The Great Gatsby“ in 1925. On the other hand he was a severe alcoholic and lead a very eccentric and sometimes immoral life.

In 1930 Sinclair Lewis was the first American to get the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel „Dodsworth“.

But the most important persons of the American literature scene at that time were surely a group of people called the Lostgeneration. Gertrude Stein, a homosexual American writer living in Paris, who wrote the famous poem A/ ROSE IS A/ ROSE IS A/ ROSE IS A/ ROSE, gathered some writers around her, for whom she became both mentor and idol. Members of this group were e.g. Thornton Wilder, a famous novelist and playwright and Scott Fitzgerald as well. They were mainly influenced by the consequences of the 1st World War, which were personal disillusionment and the loss of old values. The most important author of the Lostgeneration who was even called the most important American author of the 20th century was certainly Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on the 21st July 1899 in Illinois and the biggest part of his life was influenced by tragic events. He took part in the 1st World War, where he was severely wounded and about at that time his father commited suicide. In the first period of his life Hemingway wrote mainly anti- war novels, but other topics followed soon. In the following years Hemingway concentrated on Short Stories - something he got especially famous for. His Short Stories were so tight, compact, condensed and plain in style that up to now many people think nobody could ever come close to Hemingway. The best example for this is „The Killers“, published in his collection of Short Stories „men Without Women“ in 1927. Later, Hemingway decided to take part in the Spanish Civil War as well as in the 2nd Worl War. In 1952 his most famous novel, although critics agree that it’s not his best one, was published - The Old Man and the Sea. In 1954 he was awarded with the Nobel Prize.But after that Hemingway’s creative energy strated to vanish. On the 2nd of July 1961 he, like his father, commited suicide by shooting himself with a gun.

Another very important person especially for the Lostgeneration but also for every other writer was the Irishman James Joyce. With his stream of consciousness- technique, the use of many symbols and his prose style that was rather lyric, he set new standards not only for Europeans, but also for Americans.

The second important literary movement of the early 20th century was the so called Harlem Renaissance. This name describes the literary work of Afro- American novelists, whose creative center was Harlem, N. Y.. These people wanted to evoke a new kind of cultural selfconfidence in their black brothers and sisters spread all over the country and to support the idea of the „New Negro“, a topic which was described by Alain Le Roy, a sociologist, in 1925. An author of the Harlem Renaissance was e.g. Langston Hughes who wrote poems as well as short stories. His most famous invention is the short story character Jesse B. Simple, who is the prototype of an Afro- American living in a big city.

At the beginning of the new decade, the 1930s the Black Friday at the New York Stock Exchange and the following world- wide recession shocked all Americans. Many writers suddenly left their old topics to write in a very realistic way about social problems. One of the authors to do so was John Steinbeck, who expressed all his despair in „Of Mice and Men“ in 1937. In 1939 he published his novel „The Grapes of Wrath“. In this book he decribes the life of poor farmhands in California and their will to live, but he also criticizes American capitalism. In 1940 John Ford made a very successful film out of this story. Steinbeck achieved the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Another very popular subject at that time was the so called Southern Gothic, which means the American South and its problems. William Faulkner e.g. created in his novel „The Hamlet“ in 1940 as well as with other books a very humorous picture of the South for which he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1949.

Other authors occupied with this subject were Truman Capote and Robert Penn Warren, not only a novelist but also a critic who was in 1946 drawing the portrait of a politician in the South in his novel „All the King’s Men“

After the 2nd World War an ethnic minority in the U.S. the Jews became more and more creative. In their novels, short stories and poems they decribed their life as Jews in American cities, sometimes humorous, sometimes marked by despair. One of these jewish authors, Saul Bellow even got the Nobel Prize in 1979.

In general prose after the 2nd World War can be divided into two categories. On the one side there was the realisitc and naturalistic way of describing things, on the other side there was literature full of black humor and strange phantasies.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the many authors to publish anti - war novels because of his own experiences. His most famous book is „Slaughterhouse - Five“ (1969), which is about a group of prisoners in Germany during 2nd World War who are suddenly sent to a fictitious planet, a subject that is very similar to Science- Fiction Literature.

Although ist importance is very controversial, Science - Fiction and Fantasy Literature should not be forgotten when talking about American Literature. The history of Science - Fiction started alread in the 1920s but it reached the peak of ist popularity in the 1950s and 60s. While Science - Fiction is oriented towards the future and a world full of roboters and machines, Fantasy Literature describes a forgotten world, full of fairies, dwarfs and other magical and mystical beings. An example for Science - Fiction is Arthur C. Clarke’s „Odysse in Space“ published in 1968. The most famous American Fantasy author was probably Marion Zimmer Bradley who died only a few years ago. In her trilogy „The Mists of Avalon“, „The Forests of Avalon“ and „The Lady of Avalon“ she combines legends about King Arthur and his court with ancient Celtic legends about godesses, magicians and faeries.

As America had always been a nation of immigrants it was just natural that some of these immigrants were also writers and even very successful ones who achieved a lot of fame in the U.S.. Probably the best example for this is Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian who first emigrated to Germany and later to America. Thus his literary work is divided into three sections: the Russian, the German and the American one. His most famous, but also his most scandalous novel „Lolita“ was published in 1955 and belongs to the American part of his work. Lolita is about a college professor in his late 30s who desperately falls in love with his teenage stepdaughter and who finally manages to start a sexual relationship with her. This topic was so scandalous that American publishing companies refused to print the book so that it had to be published in Paris and was sold in the U.S. only secretly. But critics defended it and praised it highly for ist brilliant prose style so that in 1958 it was published in America as well. „Lolita“ was so successful there that Nabokov could retire and become a full- time author.

Another very important novel of the 1950s is J. D. Salinger’s „The Catcher in the Rye“ published in 1951. This novel is about a boy / young man called Holden Caulfield who is expelled from school. But instead of going home to his parents he goes to New York and spends some days there, thinking about his past life as well as about his future. Although Holden Caulfield is not in love and doesn’t comitt suicide in the end „The Catcher in the Rye“ ist often associated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s „The sorrows of young Werther“, because both Werther and Holden are lonley, desperate and looking for their real purpose in life.

Not only Salinger’s novel is interesting, but also Salinger himself. He strictly refuses to do all things authors normally have to do. After the success of „The Catcher in the Rye“ he hasn’t published any other novel, he never promoted his book, never gave and still doesn’t give interviews and photos of him virtually don’t exist. Sometimes people even wonder if he is still alive becaus he has not been seen in public for such a long time.

Another important American author is John Updike, who got famous by a series of novels about a man fleeing reality as well as his social responsability.

When talking about recent literature in the U.S. black literature should of course also not be forgotten. Basically Afro - American authors still write about the same subjects as their predecessors of the Harlem Renaissance: the problems of black people in American society. A famous Afro - American writer is Toni Morrison, who wrote e.g. „Beloved“ published in 1987. „Beloved“ is about a female slave, who tries to escape with her children, but who fails and decides to kill her kids, so that they don’t have to suffer under their cruel owner. She only suceeds in killing her oldest dughter, who haunts her as a ghost 20 years later. In 1993 Morrison was awarded with the Nobel Prize.

Alice Walker, another Afro American author achieved the Pulitzer Prize for her novel „The Color Purple“ out of which Stephen Spielberg made a very successful film. The novel shows the struggle of black women for sexual and racial equality. But while the female characters in the book get strong, creative individuals at last, the male ones are decribed in a very negative way, for which she has often been critizised. Nevertheless the book became a bestseller and maybe it’s important to mention, that „The Color Purple“ seems especially realistic, because she wrote it in the dialect of the black population of the American South. Of course we can not jugde from this point which American authors of our days will be known and important in the future.

A novelist who is quite famous today and might also be known to future generations is John Irving, who tries to combine in his novels a satiric and humorous point of view with important lessons about life. His novels are very grotesque and sometimes full of violence, but nervertheless or maybe exactly because of that he is one of the most successful American authors of the present. One of his books „The Cider House Rules“ was made a film in 1999 and Irving got an Oscar, for he wrote the script for this film.

Last but not least the Pulitzer Prize, the most important American Award for achievements in literature, journalism and music should be mentioned. Joseph Pulitzer was an American publisher who owned several newspapers and who is said to be the creatoir of the modern American daily press. In his will he defined that every year a committee, the Pulitzer Prize Board should choose who is to get the award. There are 5 pizes for literature, eight for journalism and one for music. The winners are announced by the Columbia University in New York and the prizes are given to them there.

American Literature 20th Century:


Concerning drama the beginning of the 20th century brought the most radical changes one can think of.

In the 19th century American drama consisted merely of immitations of European plays and stage adaptations of novels such as „Uncle Tom’s Cabin“.There was no real copyright law to protect dramatists and Americans were more focused on seeing famous actors than on attending American plays. European plays as well as European actors had a much better reputation than American stage productions.

But suddenly things started to change and the American drama scene flourished. Along with various other reasons this was due to Eugene O’Neill, probably the most important American playwright.

His plays are, generally speaking about the working class and poor people, obsessions and sex, for O’Neil was influenced by his contemporary Sigmund Freud very much and about the relationships between people. Two of his most famous plays are „Strange Interlude“, published in 1928 and „Mourning Becomes Electra“ published in 1931.

„Strange Interlude“ deals with a woman and her complex relationships and has got nine acts. „Mourning Becomes Electra“ is actually a trilogy based on Sophocles‘ Oedipus trilogy and it takes nine hours to perform. O’Neill got especially famous for his use of uncommon techniques of staging a play. He introduced Shakespearian monologue and Greek choruses as well as masks that had been used in ancient Greek and Asian theatre. He also produced special effects by lighting and sound. In 1936 Eugene O’Neill received the Nobel Prize as the first American playwright.

At the same time, Maxwell Anderson published his plays, which were mostly historical ones. He wrote e.g. „Elizabeth the Queen“ (1930), „Mary of Scotland“ (1933), and „Anne of the Thousand Days“ (1948) about King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn.

Another famous American dramatist in the first half of the 20th century was Thornton Wilder, known e.g. for „Our Town“, about a typical family living in a small American country town. The only equipment on the stage in this play is a set of tables, chairs and some ladders; the play consists of several episodes and the characters use a lot of pantomime. There is also a kind of narrator who communicates directly with the audience and who tries to explain them what’s happening.

An important literary figure of the mid- 20th century is the homosexual dramatist Tennesse Williams. In his more than 20 dramas, he deals with disturbed emotions and unresolved sexuality. For Williams, Sigmund Freud and his exploration of sexual desire play an important role. His most famous plays are „The Glass Menagerie“ (1944) and „A Streetcar named Desire“ (1947) about a faded Southern beauty called Blanche Dubois and her social descend. In the end she is raped by her brother-in-law and commits suicide.

In the 1950s the career of Arthur Miller reached ist peak. His masterpiece „Death of a Salesman“, about a man searching for merit and worth in his life, who finally fails, was published in 1949. „Death of a Salesman“ combines realism with naturalism - a typical feature of the late 1940s - and Miller managed to create a round plot as well as round charakters. Although Miller’s suceeding plays didn’t reach the same level of success, they were also quite popular. „The Crucible“ e.g. is a histroical play about the Salem witchcraft trials in the 17th cenntury. Although it is set in colonial times it had quite a topical meaning in the 1950s, for it referred to Senator Mc Carthy’s desperate hunt for Communists at that time. Miller is today still one of the most influential persons concerning American drama.

Another important dramatist is Edward Albee, who’s plays combine realistic and abstract themes. „Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf“ published in 1962 e.g. is a story about four people, two married couples, who are sitting in a room leading a conversation. In the course of time these conversation reveals intimate facts about one of the couples and the end of the play leaves them standing exposed, their marriage, a farce anyway, torn into pieces. „Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf“ was often critizised because of ist harshness and drastic language, but on the other hand it is regarded as one of the most extraordinary abstract comedies of the 20th century.

In the past few years American theatre got a lot of concurrence: movies, TV and musicals, like e.g. the Box Office hit „The Producers“. Playwrights are therefore often not simply playwrights anymore, but also responsible for films etc. One example for this development is Marvin Neil Simon, who published a lot of plays, some of them running at the Broadway simultaneously, but who also directed a number of films, some of whch were adaptations of his plays. In 1991 Simon was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for his play "Lost in Yonkers“.

American Literature 20th Century:


It was the same with poetry as with drama - American poetry and poetry in general was not very influential in the first years of the 20th century.

This changed when Harriet Monroe, a poet herself, decided to publish the magazine „Poetry: A Magazine of Verse“ in 1912.

One of the most famous American poets of the 20th century, Ezra Pound, contributed a lot to this literary magazine, although he was living in London by the time it appeared first. Pound was the leader of a new movement in poetry, called Imagism, which featured a clear, plain presentation of poems. His life work was certainly „The Cantos“ a series of poems appearing between 1925 and 1960, but which he tried to improve and complete until his death in 1972. The Cantos contains many allusions to literature and art as well as to many different eras and cultures and thus it is very difficult to understand.

The second big American poet of the 20th century is Thomas Sterns Eliot, Pound’s contemporary. Getting a very good education and being a very intelligent man, Eliot’s poetry is on a very high intellectual level. What he writes seems sometimes illogical and too abstract to understand, but exactly because of this innovative style his lyric was a turning point or revolution for American poetry. In his poems e.g. in „The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“ Eliot wrote about disillusionment and the loss of old traditions and values.

Pound and Eliot were both not belonging to one of the two big groups of poets that had developed.

The first one was located in Illinois, e.g. containing Carl Sandburg, famous for his Chicago- Poems, the other one had ist center in New England. Robert Frost was one of these New England- poets. Frost mainly wrote about the traditional farm life and the things to be seen there e.g. about apple picking. These subjects as well as his plain simple style, with a regular rhyme scheme and without many difficult allusions made him very popular.

The highlight of Frost’s career was certainly when he was invited to read one of his works at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Later on the so called lost generation will be of interest to us and thus one of the poets belonging to this movement is to be presented here: Edward estlin Cummings. He was one of the first poets to realize that poetry had become a visual more than an oral art. Thus he didn’t just write, he designed his poems, by unusual punctuation, spacing, indentation and by dropping the use of capital letters. Furthermore he used colloquial language and a lot of words from popular culture. One of his ideas was e.g. to write a poem with gaps that had to be filled in by the reader.

After the 2nd World War poetry can be divided up into several main directions.

The first one is Traditionalism. Traditional poets are mostly coming from the South or the East Coast of the U.S. and use, as the name tells, traditional topics as well as a traditional style of writing. What’s interesting is that many poets like e.g. Robert Penn Warren were supporters of Traditionalism first, but turned to completely different directions of poetry later.

The second group are the so called Idiosyncratic Poets. The fundaments of idiosyncratic poetry are traditional, but the poets just use them to explore and experiment with new forms of poetry.

Experimental poetry, being created in the 1950s is a very complex area, which has to be divided up. Donald Allen defined five different directions in his book „The New American Poetry“.

The Poets of the Black Mountain School, which got ist name because of ist center, the Black Mountain College, support an open form of poetry based on the spontaneity of the breath pause in speech.

The San Fransisco School, to which most of the West Coast poetry belongs, is influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion as well as Japanese and Chinese poetry very much. Poets of the San Fransisco School mostly regard nature as their main source of inspiration.

The Beat Poets are a group that emerged in the 1950s. Beat Poetry developed out of poetry readings in underground clubs. It is not written alone at home. but it is created by reading it out aloud in front of an audience and so readings of Beat Poetry are very impresive. Some people even think of beat poetry as one of the ancestors of rap music.

Poets belonging to the New York School mostly had a very good education and their topics were moral questions, political issues, or the urban lifestyle.

The fith group Allen defined are the surrealists and extentialists, the American followers of an initially European movement. Surrealism’s main feature is the use of a complex, dazzling imagery.

Surrealist poetry was always a kind of poetry for underdogs - ethnic minorities, foreigners living in the U. S: and women - being a counterpart to white, male, mainstream poetry. A recent development of poetry is the so called language Poetry. Language poets promote open forms of poetry and a multicultural way of writing. They use images from pop- culture, the media and fashion. Mostly they don’t want to be interpreted by the reader, but want the reader to participate in their poetry.

Poetry today is more performance oriented than ever. Laurie Anderson e.g. mixes film, video, acoustics, music, choreography and technology to present her poetry.

But of course there are still traditional poets left. In 1992 Mona Van Duyn was awarded with the title : poeta laureatus of the United States. In her poems she deals with the relationship between children and their parents, love and marriage.

No matter which kind of poetry one favours, poetry in general is very popular in the U.S. tody. There are many literary magazines, colleges offer poetry workshops everybody can attend and many poets earn their money by teaching students how and what to write.

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American Post-Civil War and 20th Century Literature
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American, Post-Civil, Century, Literature
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Katrin Reil (Author), 2001, American Post-Civil War and 20th Century Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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