Posted December 2006 Early American and Colonial Period to 1776


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American drama imitated English and European theater until well into the 20th century. Often, plays from England or translated from European languages dominated theater seasons. An inadequate copyright law that failed to protect and promote American dramatists worked against genuinely original drama. So did the "star system," in which actors and actresses, rather than the actual plays, were given most acclaim. Americans flocked to see European actors who toured theaters in the United States. In addition, imported drama, like imported wine, enjoyed higher status than indigenous productions.

During the 19th century, melodramas with exemplary democratic figures and clear contrasts between good and evil had been popular. Plays about social problems such as slavery also drew large audiences; sometimes these plays were adaptations of novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin . Not until the 20th century would serious plays attempt aesthetic innovation. Popular culture showed vital developments, however, especially in vaudeville (popular variety theater involving skits, clowning, music, and the like). Minstrel shows, based on African-American music and folkways -- performed by white characters using "blackface" makeup -- also developed original forms and expressions.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)
Eugene O'Neill is the great figure of American theater. His numerous plays combine enormous technical originality with freshness of vision and emotional depth. O'Neill's earliest dramas concern the working class and poor; later works explore subjective realms, such as obsessions and sex, and underscore his reading in Freud and his anguished attempt to come to terms with his dead mother, father, and brother. His play Desire Under the Elms (1924) recreates the passions hidden within one family; The Great God Brown (1926) uncovers the unconsciousness of a wealthy businessman; and Strange Interlude (1928), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, traces the tangled loves of one woman. These powerful plays reveal different personalities reverting to primitive emotions or confusion under intense stress.

O'Neill continued to explore the Freudian pressures of love and dominance within families in a trilogy of plays collectively entitled Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), based on the classical Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles. His later plays include the acknowledged masterpieces The Iceman Cometh (1946), a stark work on the theme of death, and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956) -- a powerful, extended autobiography in dramatic form focusing on his own family and their physical and psychological deterioration, as witnessed in the course of one night. This work was part of a cycle of plays O'Neill was working on at the time of his death.

O'Neill redefined the theater by abandoning traditional divisions into acts and scenes (Strange Interlude has nine acts, and Mourning Becomes Electra takes nine hours to perform); using masks such as those found in Asian and ancient Greek theater; introducing Shakespearean monologues and Greek choruses; and producing special effects through lighting and sound. He is generally acknowledged to have been America's foremost dramatist. In 1936 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature -- the first American playwright to be so honored.

Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
Thornton Wilder is known for his plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927).

Our Town conveys positive American values. It has all the elements of sentimentality and nostalgia -- the archetypal traditional small country town, the kindly parents and mischievous children, the young lovers. Still, the innovative elements such as ghosts, voices from the audience, and daring time shifts keep the play engaging. It is, in effect, a play about life and death in which the dead are reborn, at least for the moment.

Clifford Odets (1906-1963)
Clifford Odets, a master of social drama, came from an Eastern European, Jewish immigrant background. Raised in New York City, he became one of the original acting members of the Group Theater directed by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford, which was committed to producing only native American dramas.

Odets's best-known play was Waiting for Lefty (1935), an experimental one-act drama that fervently advocated labor unionism. His Awake and Sing! , a nostalgic family drama, became another popular success, followed by Golden Boy , the story of an Italian immigrant youth who ruins his musical talent (he is a violinist) when he is seduced by the lure of money to become a boxer and injures his hands. Like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Dreiser's An American Tragedy , the play warns against excessive ambition and materialism.

American Poetry, 1945-1990: The Anti-Tradition

Robert Lowell (© AP Images)

Sylvia Plath (© AP Images)

Elizabeth Bishop (© AP Images)

Allen Ginsberg (© AP Images)

John Ashbery (© AP Images)

Nikki Giovanni (© AP Images)

Maya Angelou (© AP Images)

Maxine Hong Kingston (© AP Images)
TTraditional forms and ideas no longer seemed to provide meaning to many American poets in the second half of the 20th century. Events after World War II produced for many writers a sense of history as discontinuous: Each act, emotion, and moment was seen as unique. Style and form now seemed provisional, makeshift, reflexive of the process of composition and the writer's self-awareness. Familiar categories of expression were suspect; originality was becoming a new tradition.

The break from tradition gathered momentum during the 1957 obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. When the San Francisco customs office seized the book, its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights, brought a lawsuit. During that notorious court case, famous critics defended Howl's passionate social criticism on the basis of the poem's redeeming literary merit. Howl's triumph over the censors helped propel the rebellious Beat poets -- especially Ginsberg and his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs -- to fame.

It is not hard to find historical causes for this dissociated sensibility in the United States. World War II itself, the rise of anonymity and consumerism in a mass urban society, the protest movements of the 1960s, the decade-long Vietnam conflict, the Cold War, environmental threats -- the catalog of shocks to American culture is long and varied. The change that most transformed American society, however, was the rise of the mass media and mass culture. First radio, then movies, and later an all-powerful, ubiquitous television presence changed American life at its roots. From a private, literate, elite culture based on the book and reading, the United States became a media culture attuned to the voice on the radio, the music of compact discs and cassettes, film, and the images on the television screen.

American poetry was directly influenced by the mass media and electronic technology. Films, videotapes, and tape recordings of poetry readings and interviews with poets became available, and new inexpensive photographic methods of printing encouraged young poets to self-publish and young editors to begin literary magazines -- of which there were more than 2,000 by 1990.

At the same time, Americans became uncomfortably aware that technology, so useful as a tool, could be used to manipulate the culture. To Americans seeking alternatives, poetry seemed more relevant than before: It offered people a way to express subjective life and articulate the impact of technology and mass society on the individual.

A host of styles, some regional, some associated with famous schools or poets, vied for attention; post-World War II American poetry was decentralized, richly varied, and difficult to summarize. For the sake of discussion, however, it can be arranged along a spectrum, producing three overlapping camps -- the traditional on one end, the idiosyncratic in the middle, and the experimental on the other end. Traditional poets have maintained or revitalized poetic traditions. Idiosyncratic poets have used both traditional and innovative techniques in creating unique voices. Experimental poets have courted new cultural styles.


Traditional writers include acknowledged masters of established forms and diction who wrote with a readily recognizable craft, often using rhyme or a set metrical pattern. Often they were from the U.S. eastern seaboard or the southern part of the country, and taught in colleges and universities. Richard Eberhart and Richard Wilbur; the older Fugitive poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren; such accomplished younger poets as John Hollander and Richard Howard; and the early Robert Lowell are examples. In the years after World War II, they became established and were frequently anthologized.

The previous chapter discussed the refinement, respect for nature, and profoundly conservative values of the Fugitives. These qualities grace much poetry oriented to traditional modes. Traditionalist poets were generally precise, realistic, and witty; many, like Richard Wilbur (1921- ), were influenced by British metaphysical poets brought to favor by T.S. Eliot. Wilbur's most famous poem, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" (1950), takes its title from Thomas Traherne, a 17th century English metaphysical poet. Its vivid opening illustrates the clarity some poets found within rhyme and formal regularity:

        The tall camels of the spirit

    Steer for their deserts, passing the last
    groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust,to the
    whole honey of the arid
        Sun. They are slow, proud...

Traditional poets, unlike many experimentalists who distrusted "too poetic" diction, welcomed resounding poetic lines. Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) ended one poem with the words: "To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God." Allen Tate (1899-1979) ended a poem: "Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!" Traditional poets also at times used a somewhat rhetorical diction of obsolete or odd words, using many adjectives (for example, "sepulchral owl") and inversions, in which the natural, spoken word order of English is altered unnaturally. Sometimes the effect is noble, as in the line by Warren; other times, the poetry seems stilted and out of touch with real emotions, as in Tate's line: "Fatuously touched the hems of the hierophants."

Occasionally, as in Hollander, Howard, and James Merrill (1926-1995), self-conscious diction combines with wit, puns, and literary allusions. Merrill, who was innovative in his urban themes, unrhymed lines, personal subjects, and light conversational tone, shares a witty habit with the traditionalists in "The Broken Heart" (1966), writing about a marriage as if it were a cocktail:

Always that same old story --

Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.

Obvious fluency and verbal pyrotechnics by some poets, including Merrill and John Ashbery, made them successful in traditional terms, although they redefined poetry in radically innovative ways. Stylistic gracefulness made some poets seem more traditional than they were, as in the case of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) and A.R. Ammons (1926-2001). Ammons created intense dialogues between humanity and nature; Jarrell stepped into the trapped consciousness of the dispossessed -- women, children, doomed soldiers, as in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1945):

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream
    of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare
When I died they washed me out of the turret
    with a hose.

Although many traditional poets used rhyme, not all rhymed poetry was traditional in subject or tone. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) wrote of the difficulties of living -- let alone writing -- in urban slums. Her "Kitchenette Building" (1945) asks how

could a dream send up through
    onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with
    fried potatoes
And yesterday's garbage ripening
    in the hall...

Many poets, including Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, and Robert Penn Warren, began writing traditionally, using rhyme and meters, but abandoned these in the 1960s under the pressure of public events and a gradual trend toward open forms.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)
The most influential poet of the period, Robert Lowell, began traditionally but was influenced by experimental currents. Because his life and work spanned the period between the older modernist masters like T.S. Eliot and the recent antitraditional writers, his career places the later experimentalism in a larger context.

Lowell fits the mold of the academic writer: white, male, Protestant by birth, well educated, and linked with the political and social establishment. He was a descendant of the respected Boston Brahmin family that included the famous 19th-century poet James Russell Lowell and a 20th-century president of Harvard University.

Robert Lowell found an identity outside his elite background, however. He left Harvard to attend Kenyon College in Ohio, where he rejected his Puritan ancestry and converted to Catholicism. Jailed for a year as a conscientious objector in World War II, he later publicly protested the Vietnam conflict.

Lowell's early books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed great control of traditional forms and styles, strong feeling, and an intensely personal yet historical vision. The violence and specificity of the early work is overpowering in poems like "Children of Light" (1946), a harsh condemnation of the Puritans who killed Indians and whose descendants burned surplus grain instead of shipping it to hungry people. Lowell writes: "Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones / And fenced their gardens with the Redman's bones."

Lowell's next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), contains moving dramatic monologues in which members of his family reveal their tenderness and failings. As always, his style mixes the human with the majestic. Often he uses traditional rhyme, but his colloquialism disguises it until it seems like background melody. It was experimental poetry, however, that gave Lowell his breakthrough into a creative individual idiom.

On a reading tour in the mid-1950s, Lowell heard some of the new experimental poetry for the first time. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Gary Snyder's Myths and Texts, still unpublished, were being read and chanted, sometimes to jazz accompaniment, in coffee houses in North Beach, a section of San Francisco. Lowell felt that next to these, his own accomplished poems were too stilted, rhetorical, and encased in convention; when reading them aloud, he made spontaneous revisions toward a more colloquial diction. "My own poems seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into a bog and death by their ponderous armor," he wrote later. "I was reciting what I no longer felt."

At this point Lowell, like many poets after him, accepted the challenge of learning from the rival tradition in America -- the school of William Carlos Williams. "It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language," Lowell wrote in 1962. Henceforth, Lowell changed his writing drastically, using the "quick changes of tone, atmosphere, and speed" that Lowell most appreciated in Williams.

Lowell dropped many of his obscure allusions; his rhymes became integral to the experience within the poem instead of superimposed on it. The stanzaic structure, too, collapsed; new improvisational forms arose. In Life Studies (1959), he initiated confessional poetry, a new mode in which he bared his most tormenting personal problems with great honesty and intensity. In essence, he not only discovered his individuality but celebrated it in its most difficult and private manifestations. He transformed himself into a contemporary, at home with the self, the fragmentary, and the form as process.

Lowell's transformation, a watershed for poetry after the war, opened the way for many younger writers. In For the Union Dead (1964), Notebook 1967-68 (1969), and later books, he continued his autobiographical explorations and technical innovations, drawing upon his experience of psychoanalysis. Lowell's confessional poetry has been particularly influential. Works by John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (the last two his students), to mention only a few, are impossible to imagine without Lowell.

Idiosyncratic Poets

Poets who developed unique styles drawing on tradition but extending it into new realms with a distinctively contemporary flavor, in addition to Plath and Sexton, include John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Sylvia Plath lived an outwardly exemplary life, attending Smith College on scholarship, graduating first in her class, and winning a Fulbright grant to Cambridge University in England. There she met her charismatic husband-to-be, poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children and settled in a country house in England.

Beneath the fairy-tale success festered unresolved psychological problems evoked in her highly readable novel The Bell Jar (1963). Some of these problems were personal, while others arose from her sense of repressive attitudes toward women in the 1950s. Among these were the beliefs -- shared by many women themselves -- that women should not show anger or ambitiously pursue a career, and instead find fulfillment in tending their husbands and children. Professionally successful women like Plath felt that they lived a contradiction.

Plath's storybook life crumbled when she and Hughes separated and she cared for the young children in a London apartment during a winter of extreme cold. Ill, isolated, and in despair, Plath worked against the clock to produce a series of stunning poems before she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. These poems were collected in the volume Ariel (1965), two years after her death. Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction, noted her poetry's rapid development from the time she and Anne Sexton had attended his poetry classes in 1958.

Plath's early poetry is well crafted and traditional, but her late poems exhibit a desperate bravura and proto-feminist cry of anguish. In "The Applicant" (1966), Plath exposes the emptiness in the current role of wife (who is reduced to an inanimate "it"):

A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook.
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

Plath dares to use a nursery rhyme language, a brutal directness. She has a knack for using bold images from popular culture. Of a baby she writes, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch." In "Daddy," she imagines her father as the Dracula of cinema: "There's a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you."

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)
Like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton was a passionate woman who attempted to be wife, mother, and poet on the eve of the women's movement in the United States. Like Plath, she suffered from mental illness and ultimately committed suicide.

Sexton's confessional poetry is more autobiographical than Plath's and lacks the craftedness Plath's earlier poems exhibit. Sexton's poems appeal powerfully to the emotions, however. They thrust taboo subjects into close focus. Often they daringly introduce female topics such as childbearing, the female body, or marriage seen from a woman's point of view. In poems like "Her Kind" (1960), Sexton identifies with a witch burned at the stake:

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

The titles of her works indicate their concern with madness and death. They include To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), Live or Die (1966), and the posthumous book The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975).

John Berryman (1914-1972)
John Berryman's life paralleled Robert Lowell's in some respects. Born in Oklahoma, Berryman was educated in the Northeast -- at prep school and at Columbia University, and later was a fellow at Princeton University. Specializing in traditional forms and meters, he was inspired by early American history and wrote self-critical, confessional poems in his Dream Songs (1969) that feature a grotesque autobiographical character named Henry and reflections on his own teaching routine, chronic alcoholism, and ambition.

Like his contemporary, Theodore Roethke, Berryman developed a supple, playful, but profound style enlivened by phrases from folklore, children's rhymes, clich鳬 and slang. Berryman writes, of Henry, "He stared at ruin. Ruin stared straight back." Elsewhere, he wittily writes, "Oho alas alas / When will indifference come, I moan and rave."

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
The son of a greenhouse owner, Theodore Roethke evolved a special language evoking the "greenhouse world" of tiny insects and unseen roots: "Worm, be with me. / This is my hard time." His love poems in Words for the Wind (1958) celebrate beauty and desire with innocent passion. One poem begins: "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, / When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them." Sometimes his poems seem like nature's shorthand or ancient riddles: "Who stunned the dirt into noise? / Ask the mole, he knows."

Richard Hugo (1923-1982)
Richard Hugo, a native of Seattle, Washington, studied under Theodore Roethke. He grew up poor in dismal urban environments and excelled at communicating the hopes, fears, and frustrations of working people against the backdrop of the northwestern United States.

Hugo wrote nostalgic, confessional poems in bold iambics about shabby, forgotten small towns in his part of the United States; he wrote of shame, failure, and rare moments of acceptance through human relationships. He focused the reader's attention on minute, seemingly inconsequential details in order to make more significant points. "What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American" (1975) ends with a person carrying memories of his old hometown as if they were food:

in case you're stranded in some
     odd empty town
and need hungry lovers for
     friends, and need feel
you are welcome in the street
     club they have formed.

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