American Prose Fiction in The 20th Century

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      In the second decade of the twentieth century, what might be termed a “literary renaissance” taking place in America. The nineteenth century’s ideas, forms, and habits were discarded for vigorous experimental work in fiction, poetry, and drama. In 1912, for example, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse was founded providing the first outlet for writers of experimental poetry.

      In the 1920s the theatrical innovations of Eugene O’Neill led the way in drama, while in fiction the ‘twenties was a time of experimentation and searching for new values and the meaning of life.

      These, then, were years of change, reform, youth, and promise. Most of the novels which were first published in the 1920s grew up in the years when the nation was confident, powerful, and reaching maturity as a world power.

      The United State’s entry into World War I ended this optimism, as the horror and sordidness of war swept away the confidence of pre-war, isolated America.

      The writers of the 1910’s emerged from the war to find their world in a state of upheaval, and the literature of the period reflects these profound changes. After the challenge and excitement of the battlefields, many of these young writers returned to America to find that their country had suffered few of the cruel realities of war. Disillusioned and bitter, the young writers turned against the self-satisfaction of their country, many of them moving to Europe, disgusted with what they called American provincialism. This move away from America resulted in a period of stock-taking and rapid technological development. In America, writers of prose fiction began to discuss problems of national rather than regional interest.

      During the ‘twenties, then, many of the writers were ready to consider themselves a “Lost Generation” in the words of Gertrude Stein, whose salon in Paris became the center for American literary exiles. Her work gave new impetus to the young writers, showing a deliberate abandonment of conventional narrative writing. Other writers of the period were Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald (a cynical and disillusioned author), John Dos Passos (in whose writing the revolt of youth, with its attack on the basic institutions of American society, came into the open) and Ernest Hemingway, the leading figure of the “Lost Generation”. In general, this was a period in which American literature became cosmopolitan. Ernest Hemingway, for example, set his characters—even when they were Americans—in other contexts.

      The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression. Novels from the pens of writers such as James T. Farrell, who analyzed his generation in the deeply disturbing trilogy which traced the gradual corruption of a Chicago youth, Studs Lonigan, Erskine Caldwell, interpreter of degeneracy in the South and author of Tobacco Road, and John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, summed up the despair of these years. These realistic writers, showing human nature in action and usually in an unflattering light, rejected many of the traditional “romantic” qualities of American fiction.

      In the opinion of many critics, William Faulkner, author of such novels as The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!, was the foremost American novelist of the early twentieth century. Both he and Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Old Man and the Sea, continued to exercise tremendous influence during the decades of the ‘thirties and ‘forties.

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