American literature: The Turn of the Century

The connection of American literature with writing in England and Europe was again stressed by William Dean Howells, who was not only an able novelist but an instructor in literary realism to other American writers. Though he himself had leanings toward social reform, Howells did encourage what has come to be called genteel writing, long dominant in American fiction. The mold for this sort of writing was broken by the American turned Englishman, Henry James, who wrote of people of the upper classes but with such psychological penetration, subtlety of narrative, and complex technical skill that he is recognized as one of the great masters of fiction. His influence was quickly reflected in the novels of Edith Wharton and others and grew in strength in the 20th cent.

The realism preached by Howells was turned away from bourgeois milieus by a number of American writers, particularly Stephen Crane in his poetry and his fiction—Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and the Civil War story, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). These were forerunners of naturalism, which reached heights in the hands of Theodore Dreiser and Jack London, the latter a fiery advocate of social reform as well as a writer of Klondike stories.

Ever since the Civil War, voices of protest and doubt have been heard in American fiction. Mark Twain (with Charles Dudley Warner) had in The Gilded Age (1873) held the postwar get-rich-quick era up to scorn. By the early 20th cent. Henry Adams was musing upon the effects of the dynamo's triumph over man, and Ambrose Bierce literally abandoned a civilization he could not abide.

Since the mid-19th cent. American poetry had tended to empty saccharine verse—with the startling exception of the Amherst recluse, Emily Dickinson, whose terse, precise, and enigmatic poems, published in 1890, after her death, placed her immediately in the ranks of major American poets. A revolution in poetry was announced with the founding in 1912 of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe. It published the work of Ezra Pound and the proponents of imagism (see imagists)—Amy Lowell, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), John Gould Fletcher, and their English associates, all declaring against romantic poetry and in favor of the exact word.

Meanwhile, other poets moved along their own paths: Edwin Arlington Robinson, who wrote dark, brooding lines on humankind in the universe; Edgar Lee Masters, who used free verse for realistic biographies in A Spoon River Anthology (1915); his friend Vachel Lindsay, who wrote mesmerizingly rhythmical verse; Carl Sandburg, who tried to capture the speech, life, and dreams of America; and Robert Frost, who won universal recognition with his evocative and seemingly simply written verse.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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