Posted December 2006 Early American and Colonial Period to 1776



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MIDWESTERN REALISM

For many years, the editor of the important Atlantic Monthly magazine, William Dean Howells (1837-1920), published realistic local color writing by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and others. He was the champion of realism, and his novels, such as A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), carefully interweave social circumstances with the emotions of ordinary middle-class Americans.

Love, ambition, idealism, and temptation motivate his characters; Howells was acutely aware of the moral corruption of business tycoons during the Gilded Age of the 1870s. Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham uses an ironic title to make this point. Silas Lapham became rich by cheating an old business partner; and his immoral act deeply disturbed his family, though for years Lapham could not see that he had acted improperly. In the end, Lapham is morally redeemed, choosing bankruptcy rather than unethical success. Silas Lapham is, like Huckleberry Finn, an unsuccess story: Lapham's business fall is his moral rise. Toward the end of his life, Howells, like Twain, became increasingly active in political causes, defending the rights of labor union organizers and deploring American colonialism in the Philippines.

COSMOPOLITAN NOVELISTS

Henry James (1843-1916)
Henry James once wrote that art, especially literary art, "makes life, makes interest, makes importance." James's fiction and criticism is the most highly conscious, sophisticated, and difficult of its era. With Twain, James is generally ranked as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.

James is noted for his "international theme" -- that is, the complex relationships between naïve Americans and cosmopolitan Europeans. What his biographer Leon Edel calls James's first, or "international," phase encompassed such works as Transatlantic Sketches (travel pieces, 1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In The American, for example, Christopher Newman, a naïve but intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a bride. When her family rejects him because he lacks an aristocratic background, he has a chance to revenge himself; in deciding not to, he demonstrates his moral superiority.

James's second period was experimental. He exploited new subject matters -- feminism and social reform in The Bostonians (1886) and political intrigue in The Princess Casamassima (1885). He also attempted to write for the theater, but failed embarrassingly when his play Guy Domville (1895) was booed on the first night.

In his third, or "major," phase James returned to international subjects, but treated them with increasing sophistication and psychological penetration. The complex and almost mythical The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) (which James felt was his best novel), and The Golden Bowl (1904) date from this major period. If the main theme of Twain's work is appearance and reality, James's constant concern is perception. In James, only self-awareness and clear perception of others yields wisdom and self-sacrificing love. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. In James's later works, the most important events are all psychological -- usually moments of intense illumination that show characters their previous blindness. For example, in The Ambassadors, the idealistic, aging Lambert Strether uncovers a secret love affair and, in doing so, discovers a new complexity to his inner life. His rigid, upright, morality is humanized and enlarged as he discovers a capacity to accept those who have sinned.



Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Like James, Edith Wharton grew up partly in Europe and eventually made her home there. She was descended from a wealthy, established family in New York society and saw firsthand the decline of this cultivated group and, in her view, the rise of boorish, nouveau-riche business families. This social transformation is the background of many of her novels.

Like James, Wharton contrasts Americans and Europeans. The core of her concern is the gulf separating social reality and the inner self. Often a sensitive character feels trapped by unfeeling characters or social forces. Edith Wharton had personally experienced such entrapment as a young writer suffering a long nervous breakdown partly due to the conflict in roles between writer and wife.

Wharton's best novels include The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), The Age of Innocence (1920), and the beautifully crafted novella Ethan Frome (1911).

NATURALISM AND MUCKRAKING

Wharton's and James's dissections of hidden sexual and financial motivations at work in society link them with writers who seem superficially quite different: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. Like the cosmopolitan novelists, but much more explicitly, these naturalists used realism to relate the individual to society. Often they exposed social problems and were influenced by Darwinian thought and the related philosophical doctrine of determinism, which views individuals as the helpless pawns of economic and social forces beyond their control.

Naturalism is essentially a literary expression of determinism. Associated with bleak, realistic depictions of lower-class life, determinism denies religion as a motivating force in the world and instead perceives the universe as a machine. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers had also imagined the world as a machine, but as a perfect one, invented by God and tending toward progress and human betterment. Naturalists imagined society, instead, as a blind machine, godless and out of control.

The 19th-century American historian Henry Adams constructed an elaborate theory of history involving the idea of the dynamo, or machine force, and entropy, or decay of force. Instead of progress, Adams sees inevitable decline in human society.

Stephen Crane, the son of a clergyman, put the loss of God most succinctly:

A man said to the universe:


"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Like Romanticism, naturalism first appeared in Europe. It is usually traced to the works of Honoré? de Balzac in the 1840s and seen as a French literary movement associated with Gustave Flaubert, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. It daringly opened up the seamy underside of society and such topics as divorce, sex, adultery, poverty, and crime.

Naturalism flourished as Americans became urbanized and aware of the importance of large economic and social forces. By 1890, the frontier was declared officially closed. Most Americans resided in towns, and business dominated even remote farmsteads.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Stephen Crane, born in New Jersey, had roots going back to Revolutionary War soldiers, clergymen, sheriffs, judges, and farmers who had lived a century earlier. Primarily a journalist who also wrote fiction, essays, poetry, and plays, Crane saw life at its rawest, in slums and on battlefields. His short stories -- in particular, "The Open Boat," "The Blue Hotel," and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" -- exemplified that literary form. His haunting Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was published to great acclaim in 1895, but he barely had time to bask in the attention before he died, at 29, having neglected his health. He was virtually forgotten during the first two decades of the 20th century, but was resurrected through a laudatory biography by Thomas Beer in 1923. He has enjoyed continued success ever since -- as a champion of the common man, a realist, and a symbolist.

Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is one of the best, if not the earliest, naturalistic American novels. It is the harrowing story of a poor, sensitive young girl whose uneducated, alcoholic parents utterly fail her. In love and eager to escape her violent home life, she allows herself to be seduced into living with a young man, who soon deserts her. When her self-righteous mother rejects her, Maggie becomes a prostitute to survive, but soon commits suicide out of despair. Crane's earthy subject matter and his objective, scientific style, devoid of moralizing, earmark Maggie as a naturalist work.



Jack London (1876-1916)
A poor, self-taught worker from California, the naturalist Jack London was catapulted from poverty to fame by his first collection of stories, The Son of the Wolf (1900), set largely in the Klondike region of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Other of his best-sellers, including The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf (1904) made him the highest paid writer in the United States of his time.

The autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909) depicts the inner stresses of the American dream as London experienced them during his meteoric rise from obscure poverty to wealth and fame. Eden, an impoverished but intelligent and hardworking sailor and laborer, is determined to become a writer. Eventually, his writing makes him rich and well-known, but Eden realizes that the woman he loves cares only for his money and fame. His despair over her inability to love causes him to lose faith in human nature. He also suffers from class alienation, for he no longer belongs to the working class, while he rejects the materialistic values of the wealthy whom he worked so hard to join. He sails for the South Pacific and commits suicide by jumping into the sea. Like many of the best novels of its time, Martin Eden is an unsuccess story. It looks ahead to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in its revelation of despair amid great wealth.



Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
The 1925 work An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, like London's Martin Eden, explores the dangers of the American dream. The novel relates, in great detail, the life of Clyde Griffiths, a boy of weak will and little self-awareness. He grows up in great poverty in a family of wandering evangelists, but dreams of wealth and the love of beautiful women. A rich uncle employs him in his factory. When his girlfriend Roberta becomes pregnant, she demands that he marry her. Meanwhile, Clyde has fallen in love with a wealthy society girl who represents success, money, and social acceptance. Clyde carefully plans to drown Roberta on a boat trip, but at the last minute he begins to change his mind; however, she accidentally falls out of the boat. Clyde, a good swimmer, does not save her, and she drowns. As Clyde is brought to justice, Dreiser replays his story in reverse, masterfully using the vantage points of prosecuting and defense attorneys to analyze each step and motive that led the mild-mannered Clyde, with a highly religious background and good family connections, to commit murder.

Despite his awkward style, Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, displays crushing authority. Its precise details build up an overwhelming sense of tragic inevitability. The novel is a scathing portrait of the American success myth gone sour, but it is also a universal story about the stresses of urbanization, modernization, and alienation. Within it roam the romantic and dangerous fantasies of the dispossessed.



An American Tragedy is a reflection of the dissatisfaction, envy, and despair that afflicted many poor and working people in America's competitive, success-driven society. As American industrial power soared, the glittering lives of the wealthy in newspapers and photographs sharply contrasted with the drab lives of ordinary farmers and city workers. The media fanned rising expectations and unreasonable desires. Such problems, common to modernizing nations, gave rise to muckraking journalism -- penetrating investigative reporting that documented social problems and provided an important impetus to social reform.

The great tradition of American investigative journalism had its beginning in this period, during which national magazines such as McClures and Collier's published Ida M. Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities (1904), and other hard-hitting exposés. Muckraking novels used eye-catching journalistic techniques to depict harsh working conditions and oppression. Populist Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901) exposed big railroad companies, while socialist Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) painted the squalor of the Chicago meat-packing houses. Jack London's dystopia, The Iron Heel (1908), anticipates George Orwell's 1984 in predicting a class war and the takeover of the government.

Another more artistic response was the realistic portrait, or group of portraits, of ordinary characters and their frustrated inner lives. The collection of stories Main-Travelled Roads (1891), by William Dean Howells's protégé, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), is a portrait gallery of ordinary people. It shockingly depicted the poverty of midwestern farmers who were demanding agricultural reforms. The title suggests the many trails westward that the hardy pioneers followed and the dusty main streets of the villages they settled.

Close to Garland's Main-Travelled Roads is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), begun in 1916. This is a loose collection of stories about residents of the fictitious town of Winesburg seen through the eyes of a naïve young newspaper reporter, George Willard, who eventually leaves to seek his fortune in the city. Like Main-Travelled Roads and other naturalistic works of the period, Winesburg, Ohio emphasizes the quiet poverty, loneliness, and despair in small-town America.



THE "CHICAGO SCHOOL" OF POETRY

Three Midwestern poets who grew up in Illinois and shared the midwestern concern with ordinary people are Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. Their poetry often concerns obscure individuals; they developed techniques -- realism, dramatic renderings -- that reached out to a larger readership. They are part of the Midwestern, or Chicago, School that arose before World War I to challenge the East Coast literary establishment. The "Chicago Renaissance" was a watershed in American culture: It demonstrated that America's interior had matured.



Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)
By the turn of the century, Chicago had become a great city, home of innovative architecture and cosmopolitan art collections. Chicago was also the home of Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the most important literary magazine of the day.

Among the intriguing contemporary poets the journal printed was Edgar Lee Masters, author of the daring Spoon River Anthology (1915), with its new "unpoetic" colloquial style, frank presentation of sex, critical view of village life, and intensely imagined inner lives of ordinary people.



Spoon River Anthology is a collection of portraits presented as colloquial epitaphs (words found inscribed on gravestones) summing up the lives of individual villagers as if in their own words. It presents a panorama of a country village through its cemetery: 250 people buried there speak, revealing their deepest secrets. Many of the people are related; members of about 20 families speak of their failures and dreams in free-verse monologues that are surprisingly modern.

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
A friend once said, "Trying to write briefly about Carl Sandburg is like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black-and-white snapshot." Poet, historian, biographer, novelist, musician, essayist -- Sandburg, son of a railroad blacksmith, was all of these and more. A journalist by profession, he wrote a massive biography of Abraham Lincoln that is one of the classic works of the 20th century.

To many, Sandburg was a latter-day Walt Whitman, writing expansive, evocative urban and patriotic poems and simple, childlike rhymes and ballads. He traveled about reciting and recording his poetry, in a lilting, mellifluously toned voice that was a kind of singing. At heart he was totally unassuming, notwithstanding his national fame. What he wanted from life, he once said, was "to be out of jail...to eat regular...to get what I write printed,...a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape,...(and) to sing every day."

A fine example of his themes and his Whitmanesque style is the poem "Chicago" (1914):

Hog Butcher for the World,


Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the
Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders...

Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)
Vachel Lindsay was a celebrant of small-town midwestern populism and creator of strong, rhythmic poetry designed to be declaimed aloud. His work forms a curious link between the popular, or folk, forms of poetry, such as Christian gospel songs and vaudeville (popular theater) on the one hand, and advanced modernist poetics on the other. An extremely popular public reader in his day, Lindsay's readings prefigure "Beat" poetry readings of the post-World War II era that were accompanied by jazz.

To popularize poetry, Lindsay developed what he called a "higher vaudeville," using music and strong rhythm. Racist by today's standards, his famous poem "The Congo" (1914) celebrates the history of Africans by mingling jazz, poetry, music, and chanting. At the same time, he immortalized such figures on the American landscape as Abraham Lincoln ("Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight") and John Chapman ("Johnny Appleseed"), often blending facts with myth.



Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
Edwin Arlington Robinson is the best U.S. poet of the late 19th century. Like Edgar Lee Masters, he is known for short, ironic character studies of ordinary individuals. Unlike Masters, Robinson uses traditional metrics. Robinson's imaginary Tilbury Town, like Masters's Spoon River, contains lives of quiet desperation.

Some of the best known of Robinson's dramatic monologues are "Luke Havergal" (1896), about a forsaken lover; "Miniver Cheevy" (1910), a portrait of a romantic dreamer; and "Richard Cory" (1896), a somber portrait of a wealthy man who commits suicide:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim,
 
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
 
And he was rich -- yes, richer than a king --
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
 
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

"Richard Cory" takes its place alongside Martin Eden, An American Tragedy, and The Great Gatsby as a powerful warning against the overblown success myth that had come to plague Americans in the era of the millionaire.



TWO WOMEN REGIONAL NOVELISTS

Novelists Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) and Willa Cather (1873-1947) explored women's lives, placed in brilliantly evoked regional settings. Neither novelist set out to address specifically female issues; their early works usually treat male protagonists, and only as they gained artistic confidence and maturity did they turn to depictions of women's lives. Glasgow and Cather can only be regarded as "women writers" in a descriptive sense, for their works resist categorization.

Glasgow was from Richmond, Virginia, the old capital of the Southern Confederacy. Her realistic novels examine the transformation of the South from a rural to an industrial economy. Mature works such as Virginia (1912) focus on the southern experience, while later novels like Barren Ground (1925) -- acknowledged as her best -- dramatize gifted women attempting to surmount the claustrophobic, traditional southern code of domesticity, piety, and dependence for women.

Cather, another Virginian, grew up on the Nebraska prairie among pioneering immigrants -- later immortalized in O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), and her well-known story "Neighbour Rosicky" (1928). During her lifetime she became increasingly alienated from the materialism of modern life and wrote of alternative visions in the American Southwest and in the past. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) evokes the idealism of two 16th-century priests establishing the Catholic Church in the New Mexican desert. Cather's works commemorate important aspects of the American experience outside the literary mainstream -- pioneering, the establishment of religion, and women's independent lives.



THE RISE OF BLACK AMERICAN LITERATURE

The literary achievement of African-Americans was one of the most striking literary developments of the post-Civil War era. In the writings of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others, the roots of black American writing took hold, notably in the forms of autobiography, protest literature, sermons, poetry, and song.



Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Booker T. Washington, educator and the most prominent black leader of his day, grew up as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia, born to a white slave-holding father and a slave mother. His fine, simple autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), recounts his successful struggle to better himself. He became renowned for his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans; his policy of accommodation with whites -- an attempt to involve the recently freed black American in the mainstream of American society -- was outlined in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address (1895).

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Born in New England and educated at Harvard University and the University of Berlin (Germany), W.E.B. Du Bois authored "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," an essay later collected in his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois carefully demonstrates that despite his many accomplishments, Washington had, in effect, accepted segregation -- that is, the unequal and separate treatment of black Americans -- and that segregation would inevitably lead to inferiority, particularly in education. Du Bois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also wrote sensitive appreciations of African-American traditions and culture; his work helped black intellectuals rediscover their rich folk literature and music.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Like Du Bois, the poet James Weldon Johnson found inspiration in African-American spirituals. His poem "O Black and Unknown Bards" (1917) asks:

Heart of what slave poured out such melody


As "Steal Away to Jesus?" On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

Of mixed white and black ancestry, Johnson explored the complex issue of race in his fictional Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man (1912), about a mixed-race man who "passes" (is accepted) for white. The book effectively conveys the black American's concern with issues of identity in America.


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