Southern writing of the l960s tended, like the then still largely agrarian southern region, to adhere to time-honored traditions. It remained rooted in realism and an ethical, if not religious, vision during this decade of radical change. Recurring southern themes include family, the family home, history, the land, religion, guilt, identity, death, and the search for redemptive meaning in life. Like William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, 1929), who inspired the "southern renaissance" in literature, many southern writers of the 1960s were scholars and elaborate stylists, revering the written word as a link with traditions rooted in the classical world.
Many have been influential teachers. Kentucky-born Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), who married southern poet Allen Tate, was a respected professor of writing. She set her novels in her native Kentucky. Truman Capote was born in New Orleans and spent part of his childhood in small towns in Louisiana and Alabama, the settings for many of his early works in the elegant, decadent, southern gothic vein.
African-American writing professor Ernest Gaines (1933- ), also born in New Orleans, set many of his moving, thoughtful works in the largely black rural bayou country of Louisiana. Perhaps his best known novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), reflects on the sweep of time from the end of the Civil War in 1865 up to 1960. Concerned with human issues deeper than skin color, Gaines handles racial relations subtly.
Reynolds Price (1933- ), a long-time professor at Duke University, was born in North Carolina, which furnishes the scenes for many of his works, such as A Long and Happy Life (1961). Like William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, he peoples his southern terrain with interlinked families close to their roots and broods on the passing of time and the imperative to expiate ancient wrongs. His meditative, poetic style recalls the classical literary tradition of the old South. Partially paralyzed due to cancer, Price has explored physical suffering in The Promise of Rest (1995) about a father tending his son who is dying of AIDS. His highly regarded novel Kate Vaiden (1986) reveals his ability to evoke a woman's life.
Walker Percy (1916-1990), a resident of Louisiana, was raised as a member of the southern aristocracy. His very readable novels -- by turns comic, lyrical, moralizing, and satirical -- reveal his awareness of social class and his conversion to Catholicism. His best novel is his first, The Moviegoer (l961). This story of a charming but aimless young New Orleans stockbroker shows the influence of French existentialism transplanted to the booming and often brash New South that burgeoned after World War II.
The 1970s and 1980s: Consolidation
By the mid-1970s, an era of consolidation had begun. The Vietnam conflict was over, followed soon afterward by U.S. recognition of the People's Republic of China and America's bicentennial celebration. Soon the 1980s -- the "Me Decade" in Tom Wolfe's phrase -- ensued, in which individuals tended to focus more on personal concerns than on larger social issues.
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, 1981), 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, along with renewed interest in history, as in works by E.L. Doctorow.
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, or black American dialect as in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Minority literature began to flourish. Drama shifted from realism to more cinematic, kinetic techniques. At the same time, however, the Me Decade was reflected in such brash new talents as Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, 1985), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, 1986).
E.L. Doctorow (1931- )
The novels of E.L. Doctorow demonstrate the transition from metafiction to a new and more human sensibility. His critically acclaimed novel about the high human cost of the Cold War, The Book of Daniel (1971), is based on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, told in the voice of the bereaved son. Robert Coover's The Public Burning treats the same topic, but Doctorow's book conveys more warmth and emotion.
Doctorow's Ragtime (1975) is a rich, kaleidoscopic collage of the United States beginning in 1906. As John Dos Passos had done several decades earlier in his trilogy U.S.A., Doctorow mingles fictional characters with real ones to capture the era's flavor and complexity. Doctorow's fictional history of the United States is continued in Loon Lake (1979), set in the 1930s, about a ruthless capitalist who dominates and destroys idealistic people.
Later Doctorow novels are the autobiographical World's Fair (1985), about an eight-year-old boy growing up in the Depression of the 1930s; Billy Bathgate (l989), about Dutch Schultz, a real New York gangster; and The Waterworks (1994), set in New York during the 1870s. City of God (2000) -- the title referencing St. Augustine -- turns to New York in the present. A Christian cleric's consciousness interweaves the city's generalized poverty, crime, and loneliness with stories of people whose lives touch his. The book hints at Doctorow's abiding belief that writing -- a form of witnessing -- is a mode of human survival.
Doctorow's techniques are eclectic. His stylistic exuberance and formal inventiveness link him with metafiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, but his novels remain rooted in realism and history. His use of real people and events links him with the New Journalism of the l960s and with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, while his use of fictional memoir, as in World's Fair, looks forward to writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and the flowering of the memoir in the 1990s.
William Styron (1925-2006)
From the Tidewater area of Virginia, southerner William Styron wrote ambitious novels that set individuals in places and times that test the limits of their humanity. His early works include the acclaimed Lie Down in Darkness (1951), which begins with the suicide of a beautiful southern woman -- who leaps from a New York skyscraper -- and works backward in time to explore the dark forces within her family that drew her to her death.
The Faulknerian treatment, including dark southern gothic themes, flashbacks, and stream of consciousness monologues, brought Styron fame that turned to controversy when he published his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). This novel re-creates the most violent slave uprising in U.S. history, as seen through the eyes of its leader. The book came out at the height of the "black power" movement, and, unsurprisingly, the depiction of Nat Turner drew sharp criticism from many African-American observers, although some came to Styron's defense.
Styron's fascination with individual human acts set against backdrops of larger racial injustice continues in Sophie's Choice (1979), another tour de force about the doom of a lovely woman -- the topic that Edgar Allan Poe, the presiding spirit of southern writers, found the most moving of all possible subjects. In this novel, a beautiful Polish woman who has survived Auschwitz is defeated by its remembered agonies, summed up in the moment she was made to choose which one of her children would live and which one would die. The book makes complex parallels between the racism of the South and the Holocaust.
More recently Styron, like many other writers, turned to the memoir form. His short account of his near-suicidal depression, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), recalls the terrible undertow that his own doomed characters must have felt. In the autobiographical fictions in A Tidewater Morning (1993), the shimmering, oppressively hot Virginia coast where he grew up mirrors and extends the speaker's shifting consciousness.
John Gardner (1933-1982)
John Gardner, from a farming background in New York State, was his era's most important spokesperson for ethical values in literature until his death in a motorcycle accident. He was a professor of English specializing in the medieval period; his most popular novel, Grendel (1971), retells the Old English epic Beowulf from the monster's existentialist point of view. The short, vivid, and often comic novel is a subtle argument against the existentialism that fills its protagonist with self-destructive despair and cynicism.
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 Mickelsson'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. He endeavored to demonstrate that certain values and acts lead to fulfilling lives. His book On Moral Fiction (1978) calls for novels that embody ethical values rather than dazzle with empty technical innovation. The book created a furor, largely because Gardner bluntly criticized important living authors -- especially writers of metafiction -- for failing to reflect ethical concerns. Gardner argued for a warm, human, ultimately more realistic and socially engaged fiction, such as that of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison.
Joyce Carol Oates (1938- )
Joyce Carol Oates is the most prolific serious novelist of recent decades, having published novels, short stories, poetry, nonfiction, plays, critical studies, and essays. She uses what she has called "psychological realism" on a panoramic range of subjects and forms.
Oates has authored a Gothic trilogy consisting of Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (l984); a nonfiction book, On Boxing (l987); and a study of Marilyn Monroe (Blonde, 2000). Her plots are dark and often hinge on violence, which she finds to be deeply rooted in the American psyche.
Toni Morrison (1931- )
African-American novelist Toni Morrison was born in Ohio to a spiritually oriented family. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a senior editor in a major Washington publishing house and as a distinguished professor at various universities.
Morrison's richly woven fiction has gained her international acclaim. In compelling, large-spirited novels, 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 is driven mad by an abusive father. Pecola believes that her dark eyes have magically become blue and that they will make her lovable. Morrison has said that she was creating her own sense of identity as a writer through this novel: "I was Pecola, Claudia, everybody."
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, Beloved, who returns to live with the mother who has slit her throat.
Jazz (1992), set in 1920s Harlem, is a story of love and murder; in Paradise (1998), males of the all-black Oklahoma town of Ruby kill neighbors from an all-women's settlement. Morrison reveals that exclusion, whether by sex or race, however appealing it may seem, leads ultimately not to paradise but to a hell of human devising.
In her accessible nonfiction book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison discerns a defining current of racial consciousness in American literature. Morrison has suggested that though her novels are consummate works of art, they contain political meanings: "I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination...yes, the work must be political." In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Alice Walker (1944- )
Alice Walker, an African-American and the child of a sharecropper family in rural Georgia, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her teachers was the politically committed female poet Muriel Rukeyser. Other influences on her work have been Flannery O'Connor and Zora Neale Hurston.
A "womanist" writer, as Walker calls herself, she has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. Like Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, the late Toni Cade Bambara, and other accomplished contemporary black novelists, Walker uses heightened, lyrical realism to center 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. In this she resembles the black American novelist Ishmael Reed, whose satires expose social problems and racial issues.
Walker's The Color Purple 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 theme of the support women give each other recalls Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which celebrates the mother-daughter connection, and the work of white feminists such as Adrienne Rich. The Color Purple portrays men as basically unaware of the needs and reality of women.
Although many critics find Walker's work too didactic or ideological, a large general readership appreciates her bold explorations of African-American womanhood. Her novels shed light on festering issues such as the harsh legacy of sharecropping (The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970) and female circumcision (Possessing the Secret Joy, 1992).
The Rise of Multiethnic Fiction
Jewish-American writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer were the first since the 19th-century abolitionists and African-American writers of slave narratives to address ethnic prejudice and the plight of the outsider. They explored new ways of projecting an awareness that was both American and specific to a subculture. In this, they opened the door for the flowering of multiethnic writing in the decades to come.
The close of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s saw minority writing become a major fixture on the American literary landscape. This is true in drama as well as in prose. The late August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote an acclaimed cycle of plays about the 20th-century black experience that stands alongside the work of novelists Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and Toni Morrison. Scholars such as Lawrence Levine (The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History, 1996) and Ronald Takaki (A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, 1993) provide invaluable context for understanding multiethnic literature and its meanings.
Asian Americans also took their place on the scene. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior (1976), carved out a place for her fellow Asian Americans. Among them is Amy Tan (1952- ), whose luminous novels of Chinese life transposed to post-World War II America (The Joy Luck Club, 1989, and The Kitchen God's Wife, 1991) captivated readers. David Henry Hwang (1957- ), a California-born son of Chinese immigrants, made his mark in drama, with plays such as F.O.B. (1981) and M. Butterfly (1986).
A relatively new group on the literary horizon were the Latino-American writers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-born author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989). Leading writers of Mexican-American descent include Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, 1991); and Rudolfo Anaya, author of the poetic novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972).
Native-American fiction flowered. Most often the authors evoked the loss of traditional life based in nature, the stressful attempt to adapt to modern life, and their struggles with poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1968), by N. Scott Momaday (1934- ), and his poetic The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) evoke the beauty and despair of Kiowa Indian life. Of mixed Pueblo descent, Leslie Marmon Silko wrote the critically esteemed novel Ceremony (1977), which gained a large general audience. Like Momaday's works, hers is a "chant novel" structured on Native-American healing rituals.
Blackfoot poet and novelist James Welch (1940-2003) detailed the struggles of Native Americans in his slender, nearly flawless novels Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990). Louise Erdrich, part Chippewa, has written a powerful series of novels inaugurated by Love Medicine (1984) that capture the tangled lives of dysfunctional reservation families with a poignant blend of stoicism and humor.
After World War I, popular and lucrative musicals had increasingly dominated the Broadway theatrical scene. Serious theater retreated to smaller, less expensive theaters "off Broadway" or outside New York City.
This situation repeated itself after World War II. American drama had languished in the l950s, constrained by the Cold War and McCarthyism. The energy of the l960s revived it. The off-off-Broadway movement presented an innovative alternative to commercialized popular theater.
Many of the major dramatists after 1960 produced their work in small venues. Freed from the need to make enough money to pay for expensive playhouses, they were newly inspired by European existentialism and the so-called Theater of the Absurd associated with European playwrights Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco, as well as by Harold Pinter. The best dramatists became innovative and even surreal, rejecting realistic theater to attack superficial social conventions.
Edward Albee (1928- )
The most influential dramatist of the early 1960s was Edward Albee, who was adopted into a well-off family that had owned vaudeville theaters and counted actors among their friends. Helping produce European absurdist theater, Albee actively brought new European currents into U.S. drama. In The American Dream (1960), stick figures of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma recite platitudes that caricature a loveless, conventional family.
Loss of identity and consequent struggles for power to fill the void propel Albee's plays, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (l962). In this controversial drama, made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, an unhappily married couple's shared fantasy -- that they have a child, that their lives have meaning -- is violently exposed as an untruth.
Albee has continued to produce distinguished work over several decades, including Tiny Alice (l964); A Delicate Balance (l966); Seascape (l975); Marriage Play (1987); and Three Tall Women (1991), which follows the main character, who resembles Albee's overbearing adoptive mother, through three stages of life.
Amiri Baraka (1934- )
Poet Amiri Baraka, known for supple, speech-oriented poetry with an affinity to improvisational jazz, turned to drama in the l960s. Always searching to find himself, Baraka has changed his name several times as he has sought to define his identity as a black American. Baraka explored various paths of life in his early years, flunking out of Howard University and becoming dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force for alleged Communism. During these years, his true vocation of writing emerged.
During the l960s, Baraka lived in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he knew many artists and writers including Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg.
By 1965, Baraka had started the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, the black section of New York City. He portrayed black nationalist views of racism in disturbing plays such as Dutchman (1964), in which a white woman flirts with and eventually kills a younger black man on a New York City subway. The realistic first half of the play sparkles with witty dialogue and subtle characterization. The shocking ending risks melodrama to dramatize racial misunderstanding and the victimization of the black male protagonist.
Sam Shepard (1943- )
Actor/dramatist Sam Shepard spent his childhood moving with his family from army base to army base following his father, who had been a pilot in World War II. He spent his teen years on a ranch in the barren desert east of Los Angeles, California. In secondary school, Shepard found solace in the Beat poets; he learned jazz drumming and later played in a rock band. Shepard produced his first plays, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, in 1964. They prefigure his mature works in their western motifs and theme of male competition.
Of almost 50 works for stage and screen, Shepard's most esteemed are three interrelated plays evoking love and violence in the family: Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1980), his best-known work. In True West, two middle-aged brothers, an educated screenwriter and a drifting thief, compete to write a true-to-life western play for a rich, urban movie producer. Each thinking he needs what the other has -- success, freedom -- the two brothers change places in an atmosphere of increasing violence fueled by alcohol. The play registers Shepard's concern with loss of freedom, authenticity, and autonomy in American life. It dramatizes the vanishing frontier (the drifter) and the American imagination (the writer), seduced by money, the media, and commercial forces, personified by the producer.
In his writing process, Shepard tries to re-create a zone of freedom by allowing his characters to act in unpredictable, spontaneous, sometimes illogical ways. The most famous example comes from True West. In a gesture meant to suggest lawless freedom, the distraught writer steals numerous toasters. Totally unrealistic yet oddly believable on an emotional level, the scene works as comedy, absurd drama, and irony.
Shepard lets his characters guide his writing, rather than beginning with a pre-planned plot, and his plays are fresh and lifelike. His surrealistic flair and experimentalism link him with Edward Albee, but his plays are earthier and funnier, and his characters are drawn more realistically. They convey a bold West Coast consciousness and make comments on America in their use of landscape motifs and specific settings and contexts.