Early Twentieth Century and
in American Literature
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
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
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.
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
War with Spain over Cuba
Presidency of Theodore
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
enters the First World War
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
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
was also passionately interested in politics, and in The Iron Heel (1908) he predicted a Fascist revolution.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
A more lyrical vision was to inspire the work
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
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.
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.