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Early Twentieth Century and Modernism

in American Literature (1901-1950):

from "Fields of Vision" by D.Delaney

North American History (1900-1950)

 An End to Isolationism. As twentieth century dawned, the United States was poised to change its relationship with the rest of the world. Up until then it had been content to stay out of international disputes, but as its economic power grew, it saw how colonial influence over other countries had benefited European powers and consequently began to end its historic isolationism.

Latin America. The United States did not embark on a blatant policy of colonization. In 1898, the inhuman treatment of Cuban rebels at the hands of the Spanish colonists had strongly affected public opinion in America and led to a short war with Spain which saw the United States victorious. The Spaniards left Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the Americans. The United States, therefore, had become, almost overnight, a colonial power.

As the economic and strategic importance of Latin America became obvious, intervention in the affairs of central and southern American states became accepted policy. Perhaps the most significant intervention was the construction of the Panama canal in 1914, which linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The First World War. While Latin America came to be regarded almost as an annexe to the United States, it was felt in Washington that Europe should try to resolve its problems by itself. Public opinion was against any involvement in the First World War, but insistent German provocation led eventually to American intervention in April 1917.

Even when the war was won, the American public continued to show distaste for involvement in other nations’ wars. Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering of the League of Nations as an international forum that could help prevent war in the future found little favor among his countrymen.

The Second World War. The United States, however, could not ignore the destiny which history was carving out for it. A weak and indebted Europe called on the world’s richest country to help it out of its difficulties, thus starting the military and economic dependence of Europe on the ZZUSA. America’s involvement in the war following a Japanese attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor in 1941 proved to be crucial. American troops were leading protagonists in the landings in Normandy and Sicily which led to the Allied victory in Europe, while the dropping of the first ever atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the conflict to an end in Asia. Following the Second World War, the United States officially took on its role as leader of the western world. In 1948 massive American financial investments, which went under the name of Marshall Aid, gave the necessary impetus for the reconstruction of Europe, and the setting up of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1948 saw the United States become leader of an anti-Soviet Bloc military alliance.   

The Economy. While foreign policy changed, the economy continued to expand. Average incomes rose steadily, there was a five fold increase in exports, and the world looked on admiringly at the economic miracle of the age. The 1920s, known as the Roaring Twenties, were years of excess and enjoyment  as people put the First World War firmly behind them. The brash prosperity of those years, however, was to come to sudden end in 1929 when the Stock Exchange in the Wall Street collapsed. Public confidence in financial institutions vanished, and America slipped into the Great Depression during which millions lost their jobs while some farmers were reduced to starvation.

In order to rescue the economy and restore public confidence in the financial system, President F.D.Roosevelt launched the New Deal. This was a double-edged policy which aimed at stimulating economic activity while offering relief to combat poverty.  

Although not totally successful, the New Deal managed to save a dying economy which would then enjoy a massive boom after the Second World War.

Society. Despite the great hardships of the 1930s American society continued to evolve and develop.

One of the major features of the Roaring Twenties was the freer role allowed to women. In the jazz era young women, often preferring a masculine to a feminine style of dress, danced and drank the night away in illegal drinking clubs.

These clubs were illegal because between 1920 and 1933 the sale and consumption of alcohol was prohibited, but the only lasting effect of the measure was the increased power and influence of organized crime gangs who trafficked in alcohol.

Money that could not be sent on alcohol was spent on other goods as a consumer society was born. The consumer boom only really started after 1945, but before that, the radio, telephone and fridge had become features of most American homes.


Main Events: North America 1900-1950

1898             War with Spain over Cuba

1901-1909        Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

1906                     Pure Food and Drug Act guarantees the quality of food for consumers

1914                     Construction of Panama Canal completed

1913-1921        Presidency of Woodrow Wilson

1913             Direct election of senators approved

1917                      USA enters the First World War

1920            USA does not join the League of Nations

                   Prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol

1929                     The Wall Street Crash

1933-1945        Presidencies of F.D.Roosevelt

1941                     USA enters the Second World War

1945                    USA joins the United Nations

1949            NATO founded 


North American Literature

 The Road to Maturity. The nineteenth century had seen the beginning of a native American literature with the publication of such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick and the emergence of a national poet in the shape of Walt Whitman. In the first half of the twentieth century, American writing was to move from being a peripheral adjunct to the world of English letters to being a dynamic and fully accepted branch of world literature. Writers like Hemingway and Faulkner were translated into every major language and helped put an end to America’s literary isolation at the same time as the United States was coming out of political isolation.


Perhaps the greatest contribution that American writers made to world literature was in the field of fiction. In the early years of the century, the realism of European novelists like Emile Zola (1840-1902) was much admired, as it allowed novelists to describe graphically the dynamic, competitive and often violent nature of American life. One of the most strikingly realistic writers was Jack London who survived a poor childhood to live a short but intense and adventurous life. His tales of adventure set in the Far North have never lost their popularity, especially The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), in which dogs are the heroes. London was also passionately interested in politics, and in The Iron Heel (1908) he predicted a Fascist revolution.

Like London, Theodore Dreiser came from a difficult background and set out to describe life as it was really lived without hiding the nastier sides of existence. Although his novels are sometimes structurally flawed, his powerful and original descriptions of the fate of a wide variety of representative characters have secured his reputation as a leading American writer. Among his best works are the trilogy The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947), about business corruption.

Other critics of contemporary society were Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941),  whose Winesburg, Ohio (1919) highlights the soul-destroying frustration of small-town life, and John Dos Passos (1896-1970), whose USA is sprawling, cinematic picture of an America where injustice triumphs.

While the above four writers lived most of their lives in the United States, a number of their colleagues preferred to move to the world’s cultural center, Europe. Edith Wharton, a close friend of Henry James, traveled widely in Europe and set many of her novels and short stories outside America. Her works highlight the tragic nature of individual lives as exemplified in the highly praised Ethan Frome (1911), which tells the unhappy tale of a poor New England farmer.

Gertrude Stein is another American woman who found Europe more convivial and stimulating than her native land. In Paris she mixed with leading painters including Picasso and Matisse, and invented what was called ‘automatic writing’, a variant from of stream of consciousness, which involved constant use of repetition and the abandonment of punctuation.

Both European influences and native realism played a part in the full flowering of the American novel in the twenties and thirties.

When America emerged rich and strong from the First World War, and as the world watched and envied the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, a group of writers began to question the unswerving belief in limitless progress and fabulous wealth that the United States was seen to represent. In so doing they brought to their writing a directness and clarity that have become one of the hallmarks of American writing in English.

The first, in chronological order, of this group was F.Scott Fitzgerald, whose work is inexorably linked with the 1920s. Fitzgerald was a product of and an active participant in the carefree madness of his age but in his books he reveals the darker side of the glamour. In The Great Gatsby (1925) the veneer of youth, beaty, wealth and success fails to cover up the moral black hole at the center of American society, while in Tender is the Night (1934) the mood is one of impending disaster as a group of expatriates while away their time in utter futility on the Riviera.

The world of William Faulkner is very different from that of Fitzgerald, but a similar sense of decadence pervades his work. His decaying world is that of the Deep South, in which old established white families fall into disrepute and where traditional values are slowly eroded. By telling his stories from different points of view in novels like The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), and by using the stream of consciousness technique, he builds up a comprehensive picture of the intense pride and passion of the people who make up the racial cauldron of the South.

Another writer who is associated with a certain region is John Steinbeck. The Depression of the 1930s forced millions of farmers and workers to migrate in search of work, and many of them chose the fertile state of California as their new home. The way in which these migrants were exploited and the shocking new home. The way in which these migrants were exploited and the shocking conditions under which they lived provides the raw material for Steinbeck’s finest novels, including Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Like Faulkner and Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway dealt in his work with the more primitive and elemental sides of human life. In a deceptively simple direct style he presents an almost nihilistic vision of reality in which man is constantly fighting against the forces of death. The struggle against hostile nature is the main theme in Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952), while the destructive folly of war acts as a backdrop to personal tragedy in A Farewell to Arms (1929).                   



After the First World War, Hemingway spent some time in Paris, where he was in touch with Ezra Pound. Pound and his English-based compatriot T.S. Eliot were the most famous American poets of their day because of the influence they had on the development of poetry, but back home other notable writers were continuing to build a native strain of poetic expression.

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

No direct successor to Walt Whitman had been found, but a mini-renaissance took place between 1910 and 1920. The city, and in particular the city of Chicago, began to inspire poets. Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916), which employed colloquial language and free verse, struck a claim for a modern approach to the writing of poetry.

Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)

Meanwhile Edgar Lee Masters was compiling his poetic pen-pictures of Mid-western provincial  life. In his Spoon River Anthology (1915) the inhabitants of a small town tell the stories of episodes from their lives to reveal a desolate picture of disappointment, poverty, frustration and shame.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

A more lyrical vision was to inspire the work of America’s most popular twentieth-century poet, Robert Frost. Many of his finest poems, such as The Road not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, evoke the beautiful New England countryside where he lived for much of his life. Frost’s formally simple pastoral poems are teasingly philosophical and invite many re-readings and reinterpretations.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Equally intriguing verse was written by Wallace Stevens. His combination of technical excellence with intellectual and enigmatic content has gained him a steadily growing reputation. Of the other poets writing during this period, one of the most popular was John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) from Tennessee, whose collections include well-known ballads and elegies. The ambitious project of Hart Crane to write a poetic epic of modern America resulted in the publication of The Bridge in 1930. The breadth and scope of this work have led to comparisons with Whitman, but any further project was brought to a tragic halt when Crane committed suicide. Also worthy of mention is William Carlos Williams, who wrote both poetry and prose. A friend of Ezra Pound, he started as an Imagist but moved on to other verse forms, often dealing with the lives of ordinary people, which his job as a practicing doctor allowed him to observe from a privileged position.  



The stagnant world of American theatre, which had for years been confined to the realms of light entertainment, was given new life by the arrival on the scene of Eugene O’Neill. For the first time, an American playwright drew from the European experience of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov to portray life in naturalistic terms. The family tragedy, A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941), which is partially based on his own family history, is generally regarded as his finest work.

A more violent and passionate world is revealed in the works of Mississippi playwright Tennessee Williams. A Street-car named Desire (1947), in which Blanche Dubois is embroiled in a violent liaison with her brother-in-law, is one of the most powerful dramas.

Much of Arthur Miller’s work belongs to the second half of the twentieth century, but perhaps his major contribution to American literature was made with his first two plays. The broken American Dream of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (1949) and the persecution of Salem witches in The Crucible (1953) at a time when Communist suspects were being witch-hunted all over the USA were themes that roused great interest among audiences.


Maturity. By 1950 American writers were household names all over the English-speaking world. In fiction, in poetry and in drama the dynamic United States was enriching English literature with its challenging and unashamedly modern works. The descendants of the colonists and the slaves would be in the vanguard of writing in the English language right up to the present day. 



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