American literature: The Lost Generation and After

The Lost Generation and After

The years immediately after World War I brought a highly vocal rebellion against established social, sexual, and aesthetic conventions and a vigorous attempt to establish new values. Young artists flocked to Greenwich Village, Chicago, and San Francisco, determined to protest and intent on making a new art. Others went to Europe, living mostly in Paris as expatriates. They willingly accepted the name given them by Gertrude Stein: the lost generation. Out of their disillusion and rejection, the writers built a new literature, impressive in the glittering 1920s and the years that followed.

Romantic clichés were abandoned for extreme realism or for complex symbolism and created myth. Language grew so frank that there were bitter quarrels over censorship, as in the troubles about James Branch Cabell's Jurgen (1919) and—much more notably—Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1931). The influences of new psychology and of Marxian social theory were also very strong. Out of this highly active boiling of new ideas and new forms came writers of recognizable stature in the world, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and E. E. Cummings.

Eugene O'Neill came to be widely considered the greatest of the dramatists the United States has produced. Other writers also enriched the theater with comedies, social reform plays, and historical tragedies. Among them were Maxwell Anderson, Philip Barry, Elmer Rice, S. N. Behrman, Marc Connelly, Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, and Thornton Wilder. The social drama and the symbolic play were further developed by Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams.

By the 1960s the influence of foreign movements was much felt with the development of “off-Broadway” theater. One of the new playwrights who gained special notice at the time was Edward Albee, whose later works again attracted attention in the 1990s. Important playwrights of recent decades who have imbued the modern world with qualities ranging from menace to a kind of grace in their surreal or hyper-real works include Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Tony Kushner.

The naturalism that governed the novels of Dreiser and the stories of Sherwood Anderson was intensified by the stories of the Chicago slums by James T. Farrell and later Nelson Algren. Violence in language and in action was extreme in some of the novels of World War II, notably those of James Jones and Norman Mailer. Not unexpectedly, after World War I, black writers came forward, casting off the sweet melodies of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and speaking of social oppression and pervasive prejudice. Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes in the 1920s and 30s were succeeded by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) in the 1940s and 50s.

Poetry after World War I was largely dominated by T. S. Eliot and his followers, who imposed intellectuality and a new sort of classical form that had been urged by his fellow expatriate Ezra Pound. Eliot was also highly influential as a literary critic and contributed to making the period 1920–60 one that was to some extent dominated by literary analysts and promoters of various warring schools. Among those critics were H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Lewis Mumford, Malcolm Cowley, Van Wyck Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Yvor Winters, Lionel Trilling, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.

The victories of the new over the old in the 1920s did not mean the disappearance of the older ideals of form even among lovers of the new. Much that was traditional lived on in the lyrics of Conrad Aiken, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Elinor Wylie. In the later years of the period two poets of unusual subtlety and complexity gained world recognition, though they had been quietly writing long before: Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. The admirable novels of Willa Cather did not resort to new devices; the essays of E. B. White were models of pure style, as were the stories of Katherine Anne Porter and Jean Stafford.

In this period humor left far behind the broadness of George Ade's Fables (1899) for the acrid satire of Ring Lardner and the highly polished style of Robert Benchley and James Thurber. The South still produced superb writers, notably Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, whose works, while often grotesque, were also compassionate and humorous.

The tension, horror, and meaninglessness of contemporary American life became a major theme of novelists during the 1960s and 70s. While authors such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Hortense Calisher, and Philip Roth presented the varied responses of urban intellectuals, usually Jews, and John Updike and John Cheever treated the largely Protestant middle class, William Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, and Raymond Carver unsparingly depicted the conflict and violence inherent in American life at all levels of society.

Irony and so-called black humor were the weapons of authors like Roth, Joseph Heller, and Jules Feiffer. However, other writers, notably Donald Barthelme, Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., expressed their view of the world as unreal, as mad, by writing fantasies that were by turns charming, obscure, exciting, profound, and terrifying. Many of these writers have been called postmodern, but the term encompasses a number of charactistics, including multiculturalism, self-reflection, and attention to new means of communication.

Although the poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti gained initial recognition as part of the beat generation, their individual reputations were soon firmly established. Writers of “perceptual verse” such as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan became widely recognized during the 1960s. One of the most provocative and active poets of the decade was Robert Lowell, who often wrote of the anguish and corruption in modern life. His practice of revelation about his personal life evolved into so-called confessional poetry, which was also written by such poets as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and, in a sense, John Berryman. Accomplished poets with idiosyncratic styles were Elizabeth Bishop and James Dickey. To some degree, poetry has also become polarized along ideological lines, as shown in the work of feminist poet Adrienne Rich. Meanwhile, the bittersweet lyrics of James Merrill expressed the concerns of a generation.

The pressure and fascination of actual events during the 1960s intrigued many writers of fiction, and Truman Capote, John Hersey, James Michener, and Norman Mailer wrote with perception and style about political conventions, murders, demonstrations, and presidential elections. Post–Vietnam War American literature has called into question many previously unchallenged assumptions about life. In addition, writing in many prose styles, such novelists as Don DeLillo, Peter Taylor, William Kennedy, Richard Ford, Robert Stone, E. Annie Proulx, and T. Coraghessen Boyle have explored a wide variety of experiences and attitudes in contemporary American society. The literature of the 1980s and 90s also encompasses the work of African-American (e.g., Nobel Prize–winner Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor), Latino (e.g., Oscar Hijuelos, Rudolfo Anaya, and Sandra Cisneros), Native American (e.g., Louise Erdrich and N. Scott Momaday), Asian-American (e.g., Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan), and homosexual (e.g., Edmund Wilson, David Leavitt, and Rita Mae Brown) writers, who previously were often excluded or ignored in mainstream literature.

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