1. Modernism and Experimentation: 1914-1945:
Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States’ traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement was relatively brief (1917-1918) and its casualties many fewer than those of its European allies and foes.
Western youths were rebelling, angry and disillusioned with the savage war, the older generation they held responsible, and difficult post-war economic conditions that, ironically, allowed Americans with dollars, like writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, to live abroad handsomely on very little money. Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism (like the earlier Darwinian theory of evolution), implied a “godless” world view and contributed to the breakdown of traditional values. Americans abroad absorbed these views and brought them back to the United States where they took root, firing the imagination of young writers and artists. William Faulkner, for example, a 20th-century American novelist, employed Freudian elements in all his works, as did virtually all serious American fiction writers after World War I.
Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation”, so named by literary portraitist Gertrude Stein. Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity. The secure, supportive family life; the familiar, settled community; the natural and eternal rhythms of nature that guide the planting and harvesting on a farm; the sustaining sense of patriotism; moral values inculcated by religious beliefs and observations, all seemed undermined by World War I and its aftermath.
Numerous novels, notably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation.
The large cultural wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization’s classical traditions. Henry James, William Faulkner, and many other American writers experimented with fictional points of view. James often restricted the information in the novel to what a single character would have known. Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) breaks up the narrative into four sections, each giving the viewpoint of a different character.
B. PROSE WRITING, 1914-1945: AMERICAN REALISM
Although American prose between the wars experimented with viewpoint and form, Americans wrote more realistically, on the whole, than did Europeans. Novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote of war, hunting, and other masculine pursuits in a stripped, plain style. William Faulkner set his powerful southern novels spanning generations and cultures firmly in Mississippi heat and dust; and Sinclair Lewis delineated bourgeois lives with ironic clarity. The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920s and 1930.
§ F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), became a best- seller. Fitzgerald’s secure place in American literature rests primarily on his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), a brilliantly written, economically structured story about the American dream of the self-made man. The protagonist, the mysterious Jay Gatsby, discovers the devastating cost of success in terms of personal fulfillment and love. Other fine works include Tender Is the Night (1934), and some stories in the collections Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), and All the Sad Young Men (1926). More than any other writer, Fitzgerald captured the glittering, desperate life of the 1920s; This Side of Paradise was heralded as the voice of modern American youth. His second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), continued his exploration of the self-destructive extravagance of his times.
§ Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) Hemingway is arguably the most popular American novelist of this century. His simple style makes his novels easy to comprehend, and they are often set in exotic surroundings. A believer in the “cult of experience,” Hemingway often involved his characters in dangerous situations in order to reveal their inner natures; in his later works, the danger sometimes becomes an occasion for masculine assertion. Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway became a spokesperson for his generation. But instead of painting its fatal glamour as did Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote of war, death, and the “lost generation” of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers but tough bullfighters, soldiers, and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned. His hallmark is a clean style devoid of unnecessary words. His best novels include The Sun Also Rises, about the demoralized life of expatriates after World War I; A Farewell to Arms, about the tragic love affair of an American soldier and an English nurse during the war; For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Old Man and the Sea.
§ William Faulkner (1897-1962) An innovative writer, Faulkner experimented brilliantly with narrative chronology, different points of view and voices (including those of outcasts, children, and illiterates), and a rich and demanding baroque style built of extremely long sentences full of complicated subordinate parts. The best of Faulkner’s novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), two modernist works experimenting with viewpoint and voice to probe southern families under the stress of losing a family member; Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), perhaps his finest, about the rise of a self-made plantation owner and his tragic fall through racial prejudice and a failure to love. Most of these novels use different characters to tell parts of the story and demonstrate how meaning resides in the manner of telling, as much as in the subject at hand. The use of various viewpoints makes Faulkner more reflexive than Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Faulkner’s themes are southern tradition, family, community, the land, history and the past, race, and the passions of ambition and love.
C. NOVELS OF SOCIAL AWARENESS
§ Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) Lewis’s Main Street (1920) satirized monotonous, hypocritical small-town life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. His incisive presentation of American life and his criticism of American materialism, narrowness, and hypocrisy brought him national and international recognition. In 1926, he was offered and declined a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925), a novel tracing a doctor’s efforts to maintain his medical ethics amid greed and corruption. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lewis’s other major novels include Babbitt (1922). George Babbitt is an ordinary businessman living and working in Zenith, an ordinary American town. Babbitt is moral and enterprising, and a believer in business as the new scientific approach to modern life.
§ John Dos Passos (1896-1970) Like Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos began as a left-wing radical but moved to the right as he aged. Dos Passos wrote realistically, in line with the doctrine of socialist realism. His best work achieves a scientific objectivism and almost documentary effect. Dos Passos developed an experimental collage technique for his masterwork U.S.A., consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). This sprawling collection covers the social history of the United States from 1900 to 1930 and exposes the moral corruption of materialistic American society through the lives of its characters. Dos Passos’s new techniques included “newsreel” sections taken from contemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as “biographies” briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period, such as inventor Thomas Edison, labor organizer Eugene Debs, film star Rudolph Valentino, financier J.P. Morgan, and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos’ s novels a documentary value.
§ John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Like Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck is held in higher critical esteem outside the United States than in it today, largely because he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. In both cases, the Nobel Committee selected liberal American writers noted for their social criticism. His best known work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which follows the travails of a poor Oklahoma family that loses its farm during the Depression and travels to California to seek work. Family members suffer conditions of feudal oppression by rich landowners. Other works set in California include Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952). Steinbeck combines realism with a primitivist romanticism that finds virtue in poor farmers who live close to the land. His fiction demonstrates the vulnerability of such people, who can be uprooted by droughts and are the first to suffer in periods of political unrest and economic depression.
2. American Prose Since 1945: Realism and Experimentation:
Narrative since World War II resists generalization: It is extremely various and multifaceted. It has been vitalized by international currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism, while the electronic era has brought the global village. The spoken word on television has given new life to oral tradition. Oral genres, media, and popular culture have increasingly influenced narrative.
A. THE REALIST LEGACY AND THE LATE 1940s
The late 1940s saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
§ Arthur Miller (1915- ) New York-born dramatist-novelist-essayist-biographer Arthur Miller reached his personal pinnacle in 1949 with Death of a Salesman, a study of man’s search for merit and worth in his life and the realization that failure invariably looms. Set within the Loman family, it hinges on the uneven relationships of father and sons, husband and wife. It is a mirror of the literary attitudes of the 1940s,with its rich combination of realism tinged with naturalism; carefully drawn, rounded characters, and insistence on the value of the individual, despite failure and error. Death of a Salesman is a moving paean to the common man.
B. THE AFFLUENT BUT ALIENATED 1950s
§ James Baldwin (1924-1987) Baldwin’s first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), is probably his best known. It is the story of a 14-year-old youth who seeks self-knowledge and religious faith as he wrestles with issues of Christian conversion in a storefront church. Other important Baldwin works include Another Country (1962), a novel about racial issues and homosexuality.
§ Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914-1994) Invisible Man (1952) is the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a hole brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences.
§ Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) O’Connor most often held her characters at arm’s length, revealing their inadequacy and silliness. The uneducated southern characters who people her novels often create violence through superstition or religion, as we see in her novel Wise Blood (1952), about a religious fanatic who establishes his own church.
§ Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story master Isaac Bashevis Singer — a native of Poland who immigrated to the United States in 1935 — was the son of the prominent head of a rabbinical court in Warsaw. Writing in Yiddish (the amalgam of German and Hebrew that was the common language of European Jewry over the past several centuries) all his life, he dealt in mythic and realistic terms with two specific groups of Jews — the denizens of the Old World shtetls (small villages) and the ocean- tossed 20th-century emigré of the pre-World War II and postwar eras. Singer’s writings served as bookends for the Holocaust. On the one hand, he described, in novels such as The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), set in 19th-century Russia, and The Family Moskat (1950), focused on a Polish-Jewish family between the world wars — the world of European
§ Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977). He is best known for his novels, which include the autobiographical Pnin (1957), about an ineffectual Russian emigre professor, and Lolita about an educated, middle-aged European who becomes infatuated with an ignorant 12-year-old American girl. Nabokov’s pastiche novel, Pale Fire (1962), another successful venture, focuses on a long poem by an imaginary dead poet and the commentaries on it by a critic whose writings overwhelm the poem and take on unexpected lives of their own.
C. THE TURBULENT BUT CREATIVE 1960s
The alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture. Notable political and social works of the era include the speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist leader Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963). The “New Journalism” emerged, volumes of non-fiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being reported.
§ Norman Mailer (1923- ) Norman Mailer is generally considered the representative author of recent decades, able to change his style and subject many times. In his appetite for experience and vigorous style, he follows in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. His ideas are bold and innovative, for whom the subject is not as important as the way it is handled. Mailer constantly courts and demands attention. A novelist, essayist, sometime politician, literary activist, and occasional actor, he is always on the scene. From such “New Journalism” exercises as Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), an analysis of the 1968 U.S. presidential conventions, and his compelling study about the execution of a condemned murderer, The Executioner’s Song (1979), he has turned to writing such ambitious, heavyweight novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot’s Ghost (1992), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
D. THE 1970s AND 1980s: NEW DIRECTIONS
In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation dwindled. New novelists like John Gardner, John Irving (The World According to Garp, 1978), Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, 1982), William Kennedy (Ironweed, 1983), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982) surfaced with stylistically brilliant novels to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes associated with realism returned. Realism, abandoned by experimental writers in the 1960s, also crept back, often mingled with bold original elements a daring structure like a novel within a novel, as in John Gardner’s October Light (1976) or black American dialect as in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Minority literature began to flourish.
§ John Gardner (1933-1982) His most popular novel, Grendel (1971), retells the Old English epic Beowulf from the monster’s existentialist point of view. A prolific and popular novelist, Gardner used a realistic approach but employed innovative techniques, such as flashbacks, stories within stories, retellings of myths, and contrasting stories, to bring out the truth of a human situation. His strengths are characterization (particularly his sympathetic portraits of ordinary people) and colorful style. Major works include The Resurrection (1966), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), October Light (1976), and Mickelson’s Ghosts (1982). Gardner’s fictional patterns suggest the curative powers of fellowship, duty, and family obligations, and in this sense Gardner was a profoundly traditional and conservative author.
§ Toni Morrison (1931- ) Morrison’s richly woven fiction has gained her international acclaim. She treats the complex identities of black people in a universal manner. In her early work The Bluest Eye (1970), a strong-willed young black girl tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, who survives an abusive father. Pecola believes that her dark eyes have magically become blue, and that they will make her lovable. Sula (1973) describes the strong friendship of two women. Morrison paints African-American women as unique, fully individual characters rather than as stereotypes. Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) has won several awards. It follows a black man, Milkman Dead, and his complex relations with his family and community. In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison deals with black and white relations. Beloved (1987) is the wrenching story of a woman who murders her children rather than allow them to live as slaves. It employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism in depicting a mysterious figure, Morrison has suggested that though her novels are consummate works of art, they contain political meanings. In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
§ Alice Walker (1944- ) A “womanist” writer, as Walker calls herself, she has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. Walker uses heightened, lyrical realism to centre on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. Her work underscores the quest for dignity in human life. A fine stylist, particularly in her epistolary dialect novel The Color Purple, her work seeks to educate which is the story of the love between two poor black sisters that survives a separation over years, interwoven with the story of how, during that same period, the shy, ugly, and uneducated sister discovers her inner strength through the support of a female friend. The Color Purple portrays men as basically unaware of the needs and reality of women.
A relatively new group on the literary horizon are the Hispanic-American writers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-born author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima (1972), which sold 300,000 copies, mostly in the western United States.
E. THE NEW REGIONALISM
For the past decade or so, regionalism has been making a triumphant return in American literature, enabling readers to get a sense of place as well as a sense of time and humanity.
§ In the environs of Baltimore, Maryland, Anne Tyler presents, in spare, quiet language, extraordinary lives and striking characters. Novels such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), and Saint Maybe (1991) have helped boost her reputation in literary circles and among mass audiences.
§ Texas chronicler Larry McMurtry covers his native state in varying time periods and sensibilities, from the vanished 19th century West (Lonesome Dove, 1985; Anything For Billy, 1988) to the vanishing small towns of the postwar era (The Last Picture Show, 1966).
§ Cormac McCarthy, whose explorations of the American Southwest desert limn his novels Blood Meridian (1985), All The Pretty Horses (1992), and The Crossing (1994), is a reclusive, immensely imaginative writer.
§ Set in the striking landscape of her native New Mexico, Native American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko‘s critically esteemed novel Ceremony (1977) has gained a large general audience. It is a “chant novel” structured on Native American healing rituals. Silko’s novel The Almanac of the Dead (1991) offers a panorama of the Southwest, from ancient tribal migrations to present-day drug runners and corrupt real estate developers reaping profits by misusing the land.
Analysis of The Colour Purple by Alice Walker:
Alice Walker won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple (Day 85). The book is written in epistolary form, creating a keen sense of honesty. Walker once said she hoped, “people can hear her [Celie’s] voice”. Like most of her works, this, her third and most highly acclaimed novel, is informed by her own southern background. This self-proclaimed “womanist” was born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1944 to a sharecropping family. At the age of eight, she was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB gun. Her parents did not have access to a car and, by the time she received medical attention, irreversible damage had been done. Walker spent much of her childhood withdrawn from others because of the disfigurement. She began to “really see people and things, to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out” and wrote poetry to ease her loneliness. In 1961, Alice won a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. Here, she became involved in the civil rights movement and participated in sit-ins at local businesses. Two years later, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She graduated in 1965. The following summer was spent in Mississippi as an activist and teacher. She also met her future husband, Melvyn Leventhal, who was, at that time, a Jewish civil rights attorney. The two married in 1967 and continued their activist work in Mississippi. They were the first legally married interracial couple to live in the state capital of Jackson. Since their divorce in 1976, Walker has focused more on her writing and has taught at various colleges and universities (Draper 1808). The Color Purple made Walker one of the most important contemporary writers. It also made her an overnight celebrity in the world of literature.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, published in 1982, tells the story of Celie, a Black woman in the South. Celie writes letters to God in which she tells about her life, her roles as daughter, wife, sister, and mother. In the course of her story, Celie meets a series of other Black women who shape her life: Nettie, Celie’ s sister, who becomes a missionary teacher in Africa; Shug Avery, the Blues singer her husband is in love with, and who becomes Celie’s salvation; Sofia, the strong-willed daughter-in-law whose strength and courage inspire Celie; and Squeak, who goes through awakenings of her own. Throughout the story, though, Celie is the center of this community of women, the one who knows how to survive. The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, from a young girl being abused, to her final triumph over adversity.
The Setting: The colour Purple is set in Southern America, during the time when the “coloured” population was heavily discriminated against. Born to a poor coloured farmer, Celie grows up being treated as a second class citizen by all those around her.
The Characters: There are many very strong characters throughout the film, and I believe it is this that makes the film so compelling. All of the characters have a trait that brings out our sympathy, except perhaps Celie’ s father. I could even empathise with the overbearing Mister.
The Heroine: She may not be an all action hero, but Celie is definitely, in my opinion, a heroine, when you see all that she has to endure and the dignity she retains, you can not help but root for her.
The Story: At the heart of this fantastic film is a great story. The film begins in 1909 and Celie is 14 and pregnant. Through the next few scenes we learn that after her Mother’s death Celie has taken her place in more ways than one, and has previously had a son. Both her children are taken away from her, and it´s her greatest desire to see them once more.
The next big upheaval in Celie’s life, is when she is married to Mister, an ignorant oaf, who is looking for a slave more than love. The majority of the film focuses on this period of Celie’s life and her loneliness and the small triumphs she achieves.