American Literary History


Abstract, 2013

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


MODERNISM (ca. 1900-1950)

Historical Background

Three Phases of Literary Modernism

1. Avant-garde (early 20th century) e.g. Dada (go away from old literary traditions)
2. Classic Modernism (after WW I) à high phase= 1920s (& between WWs)
3. late phase (after WW II) (Canonization through new criticism)

Modernism and the Victorians/ Transatlantic Modernism

- many artists move to Europe (esp. Paris) because US wasn’t best place for them to liveà living in Europe was cheaper
- too little respect for art in the USA à in Europe greater appreciation of lit.
- very influential period
- expressionism influenced US-American drama and caused it to become high-culture
- WW II not as influential as WW I

High Phase of Literary Modernism – The Jazz Age (1920s)

- Revolt against Victorianism: general disillusionment with civilization after WW I à leads to Primitivism (=particular interest in Afr. Am., Native Am. and other marginalized groups)
- more extensive exchange of cultures characterizes literature and arts
- emphasis on change/make sth. new (= effect of disillusionment as well)
- general increase in living conditions -> middle class can afford cars, vacation…
- automobile industry pioneered mass-production, aviation begins to develop for travelling, advertising becomes important
- “consumer durable revolution” -> people purchased these goods (=lasting longer than one year like cars, TVs or household goods) often on credit à after 1923: new consumer society
- US becomes most influential global player after WW I
- Rise in stock prices during 1920s
- More people live in cities than in countries àliterature in urban environment
- Electrical stuff replaced servants of middle class peopleà but didn’t mean that you lose social status
- Women started to smoke, cut hair short à youth culture
- Alcohol was prohibitedà drinking became fashionable (à revealed in 1933)
- Radio influential role but more and more film (Hollywood), sports in addition to news on TV
- African Americans had high hopes to improve their living standards/perspectives after WW I à but rather a backlash as blacks were lynched
- Ku-Klux-Clan re-established itself after 35years in underground
- important representative = F. Scott Fitzgerald à innovative writing style (= captures atmospheres; describes cultures, only uses selected items of black culture but white ideal remains; strong color symbolism)

Literary Modernism

- experimentation with narrative technique à representing thoughts, feelings, semi-conscious states through “stream of consciousness” narration, interior monologue, free indirect discourse
- experimentation with literary formsà often difficult to readà did this because old forms thought to be limited
- literary texts characterized by fluidity, dynamism, fragmentation, openness
- foregrounding of materiality of language à draw attention to what language can express and show its limits
- literature on urban environment
- prominence of black writers
- “black wing” of literary modernism (Harlem, Jazz Clubs) à starts a bit earlier than white modernism; art had a strict propaganda/political function= “The New Negro” (name for black writers)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) – high modernism, poems 1920s

- New consciousness of Afr. Am. à going back to history to show that Blacks were part of the emergence of high culturally traditions

- uses black music and black English venecular (=folk) in his poems (thought it had value as cultural issue) à recognizable that jazz and blues structures taken over by him to structure his poems

- most prominent and versatile member of Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement (~1900-1930)
- starts because black movement from south to north after WW I (= great
- aim= bring about racial and social uplift
- forms writers used: venecular language, oral story-telling, different poetry forms e.g. sonnet, jazz, blues

- wanted to capture the dominant oral and improvisatory traditions of black culture in written form

- representative of Jazz Poetry
= uses jazz form, rhythm, content (1. input, 2.statement with other words, 3.
ironic variation), actually patronized by whites

- chose to focus his works on modern, urban black life

- modelled his stanza forms on the improvisatory rhythms of jazz music

- adapted vocabulary of everyday black speech to poetry

- poems demanded that African Am. be acknowledged as owners of the culture they gave to the U.S. and as fully enfranchised Am. citizens

- “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1926)

- “river” represents: history of humankind, symbol of life, afr. Am. History, cultural memory, soul
- “my soul has grown deep like rivers”: awareness of history and its richness
- Chronological overview/account of the development of human culture
- Illustrates identity of black race through time
- Talking to Afr. Am. community but also to human kind in general, addresses white people
- Illustrates identity of the black race through time
- Black race has a heritage like any other race à equal identity as white race

Modern US-American Drama

- Before 1900: theatre as big business (Broadway)à comedy and melodrama (=exaggerated stereotypical contrasts, happy ending after unrealistic turn of story, virtue is rewarded/vice punished, dramatic developments to evoke emotion)
- ~1900: still melodrama but more realistic elements
- After 1900: change through European influenceà theatres as high-art (playwrights became central, not actors)
- against entertainment orientated commercial theatre, organized around the star system (=actor is center)
- non commercial: Little Theater Movement (small groups, remote locations) à Provincetown Players
- experimentation with stage techniques
- between the two poles expressionism and realism

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1963) modern U.S. Am. Drama (high modernism)

- first major playwright, the first to explore serious themes in the theatre and to experiment with theatrical conventions

- mostly associated with US-American drama, even though also other genres and there were also other authors influential even before him

- influence of expressionist theatre à central idea= express a subjective view of reality (usually the protagonist’s), uses sounds and light as major effects, includes psychological dimensions, frequent use of symbols

- experiments with techniques to convey inner emotions that usually were not openly expressed in drama

- influence of Greek drama à use of masks, adoption of classical plays

- importance of psychology and psychoanalysis

- critical rereading of US-American history

- tendency for no happy-endingà reason: chose form of tragedy

- “Emperor Jones” (1920)

- a station-play (=loose sequence of scenes) 1 actà classic expressionist form
- Expressionism: central topics: trauma, social misery, poverty, alienation, Angst à need to find new modes of artistic representation/expression à new artistic forms (station-drama/play)
- tells tale of Brutus Jones, Afr. Am. man, who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes to Caribbean Island and sets himself up as emperor
- his story is recounted in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape former “subjects” (the natives) who have rebelled against him
- ignored standard play divisions of scenes and acts, paid no attention to the expected length of plays à quality of intense concentration
- about a black manà innovative effect used by white author
- stage design: “plaster sky dome”=white plaster half igloo which is lit from back à effect: actors can appear in color (=realistic) and black and white
- color symbolism: uniform-> strong colors, golds à looses clothes during
wood=social decent symbolized, from civilized to primitive (“rebecoming” slave)
- Smithers= “a dirty white”à seen from clothes; worst kind of colonizer (has
alcohol problem, is sneaky, does not learn native language)
à traditional roles reversed (esp. in opening scene)
- Jones= working and intellect (even though veecular speech)
- Smithers= lazy, cockney accent
- “Tom Toms” = most striking feature, new stage construction à signify Jones’ heartbeat à viewers
heartbeat might be affected as well à empathy because you want to stop
them as well; stop when Jones is dead
- Process of self-understanding and self-exploration
- Themes: human life itself, conflict of good and evil, racism, imperialism

The Gender of Modernism

- centrality of women as authors, editors and patrons (=wealthy women who supported artists because had few chances to get one of the rare scholarships)
- modernist writing qualities that are associated with femininity: fragmentation, fluidity, discontinuity, irrationality
- importance of subconscious
- new constructions of sexuality à women have sexual desires as well-> becomes more accepted
- importance of consumption, but modernists ambivalent to mass/popular culture
- 1920: suffragette movement successfulà women=full citizens in terms of voting
- Availability of contraceptivesà family size sinks, women can influence number and point of time when children born
- New ways of moving and dressing allowed (bob-haircut, smoking in public, Charleston dance, use of cars, travelling, no more courgettes)
- New household appliances help domestic household a bit
- Visual image/look/body ideals become more important
- “femme fatale”à Vamp =fashion style
- Very influential movie industryà first silent movies, after 1920 talkies

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

- one of most influential female modern writers

- more radically experimental than most

- pushed language to its limits – and kept on pushing

- work was sometimes literal nonsense but exciting à thought of writing as a craft and language as a medium with its possibilities and limits

- texts hard to read/to access à breaks up hierarchical structures in language = paratactic sentences instead of hypotactic constructions e.g.

- links her writing to Cezanne’s painting with dot-method(à she wants every word to a weight like the single dots) and to democracy (à”the evenness of everybody having a vote”)

- language is a medium & not transparentà emphasis on materiality of language

- against logocentrism (=fact that our language has certain structure that we regard as normal)à wants to disturb these notions through other perspectives and sub-consciousness

- coins term “the lost generation”

- cubist movement= believed that in painting the “representational paintings” conveyed not what people saw but rather what they had learned to think they saw

- friendship with modernist painters important for her à because of them she came to think of words as tangible entities in themselves as well as vehicles conveying meaning or representing reality

- “Tender Buttons” (1916)

- poem-like short story à hard to classify (Cubist prose-poem) à closely related to lit. Modernism: both movements wanted to distance themselves from the authoring, one-dimensional view in reality à interpretation of her work: multi-dimensional
- collage of domestic objects
- more like meditations/free associations with objects, rather than description/def. à emphasis on sounds and rhythm rather than sense of words à ignored/defied connection between words and meanings continually undercutting expectations about order, coherence and associations
- departing from conventional meaning, grammar and syntaxà attempts to capture “moments of consciousness” independent from time and memory à writes down what comes to her mind (subconscious forces made visible through writing)
- Reduced vocabulary, punctuation, feminist reworking of patriarchal style= uses binary oppositions differently à everything is not less worthy but just different
- provides new lexicon of old words
- influenced by movements: present objects from a different/innovative revolutionary perspective (new way of perceiving ordinary objects of daily use which have become so normal that their essence has been forgotten)

Political Advocacy in the 1930s

- economy strongly going down until 1933 à new president Franklin D. Roosevelt
- since then new role of women à achivements esp. of wife Elenore Roosevelt
- US-Am literature in 1930s
- turn towards more “realistic” narration but not end of modernist
- new idea of America: solidarityy, democratic tendencies, working class (≠only
- documentary impulseà photography/art produced to document current
political situation, e.g. poor woman with children
- Relief programs of US gov’t

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

- Great Depression

- focus on lower middle class, Afr. Am. folk culture

- female self-determination and emergence of a distinct voiceà black venecular used in free indirect discourse

- raising star of Harlem Renaissance (=cultural movement 1920s-30s “New Negro Movement”)

- Afr. Am. Narrativeà main interest= achieve black narrative voice , make black dialect (=venecular) function as literary language

- “The Gilded Six-Bits” (1933)

- short story with omniscient third person narrator
- use of venecular speech -> deeply emotional, focus on individual
- “negro”= word for independence and standing up for Afr. Am culture
- story takes place at Eatonville, Fl = first incorporated all-black town in US
- several parallels to Hurston’s life e.g. Eatonville her hometown until 9, problems with marriage, had to leave school for financial problems
- marriage/love = main theme of story (->beginning everything is good- trouble husband truly forgives her and continue with rituals from before, but changed situation)
- sexuality also role (->she betrays husband)
- money plays important role
- appearance vs. reality à story shows that Slemmons is not as classy as he pretends
- protagonists are poor but happy
- gilded six-bits symbolize fake/being unreal/being white = symbol of fake American Dream
- rituals symbolize happiness
- moral of story: do not betray husband and be happy with what you have got!

New Criticism

- 1930: development of first Am. literary canonà Am. Dream and recognition that Am. literary culture is worth looking at ->Myth and Symbol School (=group of authors who shaped this process of canonization): Puritan view-> US= virgin land (≠ native Am. view: “long invasion”), looks also what influence industrialization has on US
- “New Critics” influential after WW II but esp. 1950s/60s (= group of male white from south) who defined methodology for Am. literary studiesà close reading best thing because they were mostly interested in form of literature ->intrinsic (= point of view, focalization analysis) and extrinsic approach (= relation to context)
- There ideal was William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1930)

Jewish American Literature

- mid 20th century: Am. jewfish finally made it into mainstream à after WW II no more fights against anti-Semitism and because of their skill (which was only then realized and appreciated)

America in the 1950s

- conservative decade, president: Eisenhower, economic boom because after WW II not much destruction in country (benefitted from WW II) àrichest & most powerful country in the world

- large number of people joined middle-class, redistribution from bottom to middle à focus on material wealth and social mobility

- new forms of distributing goods= supermarket, new eating habits adapted to TV

- The Beat Generation

- group of writers centered in SF and NYC in later half of 1950s
- members shared antagonism towards middle-class values, commercialism and conformity (emphasis on the individual), as well as enthusiasm for the visionary states produced by religious meditation, sexual experience, jazz or drugs à against capitalism
- expanding one’s consciousness through drugs, sex, mystical elements of the Jewish, Christian and Buddhist religion
- spirituality as an antidote to the mindless materialism of the 1950s
- 2 meanings of “beat” 1.beaten = outsiders of society
2. beatific = felt social, special culture, blissful
- Writing style: oceanic prose (long sentences that refused establishes sentence formats) in fiction; use if colloquial language, free verse (elaboration on Whitman’s free verse (fairly ling lines)


Excerpt out of 10 pages


American Literary History
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik & Amerikanistik)
American Literary History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Modernism, Victorians, Jazz Age, New Criticism, Jewish American Literature, Postmodernism, Multiculturalism, Feminism, late 20th century, Toni Morrison, tony kushner, neo-realism, jhumpa lahiri, foer, hughes, gender, hurston, anzaldúa, stein
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Lea Lorena Jerns (Author), 2013, American Literary History, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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