Contemporary American Literature Since 1945

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      This phenomenal change has occurred in the contemporary literary imagination throughout many parts of the world, including the United States. There is a shift away from the literary themes and practices of the earlier period. An assumption was set in that the traditional forms, ideas, and history can provide meaning and continuity to human life. The dreary events of World War II have produced a sense of history as discontinuous: ‘each act, emotion, and moment is seen as unique’. The elements of style and form now seem provisional, makeshift, and reflexive of the process of the composition and the writer’s self-awareness. The familiar categories of artistic expression are suspect; the originality is becoming a new tradition. It is not very difficult to find out historical causes for this ‘disassociated sensibility’ in the United States.

      The 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 the American culture is long and varied. The change that has most transformed American society, however, has been the rise of the mass media and mass culture. Firstly, radio, then movies, and now an all-powerful, ubiquitous television presence have changed the American life at its roots. From a private literate, elite culture based on the book, the eye, and reading, the United States has become 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.

      The American poetry has been directly influenced by mass media and electronic technology. Films, videotapes, and tape recordings of poetry readings and interviews with poets have become available. The new inexpensive photographic methods of printing have encouraged young poets to publish and young editors to begin literary magazines of which there are now well over 2,000. From the late 1950s to the present, the Americans have been increasingly aware that technology, so useful in itself, also presents dangers through the kinds of striking images. To the Americans seeking alternatives, the poetry seems more relevant than before. It offers 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, view for attention. Contemporary American poetry is decentralized, richly varied, and impossible 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. The experimental poets have courted new cultural styles. In this period, America is no more called ‘a boiling pot of different cultures’ but a mosaic of different nations. The literature of this period assumes the ‘transnational’ nature. 

      Traditional writers include the acknowledged masters of traditional forms and diction who write with a readily recognizable craft, often using rhyme of a set metrical pattern. Often they are from the U.S. Eastern seaboard or from the southern part of the country, and teach in colleges and universities. 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 the main examples. They are well-established and frequently anthologized in college textbooks.

      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 are generally precise, realistic, and witty like, Richard Wilbur (1921-), they are often influenced in these directions by 15th and 16th-century 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 metaphysical poet. Its vivid opening illustrates the clarity some poets have 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...”

      The ‘traditional’ poets, unlike many experimentalists who distrust “too poetic” diction, welcome 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!” These poets also, at times, use 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 poetic 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) self-conscious diction combines with wit, puns, and literary allusions. Merrill, who is 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 Ea di A marriage on the rocks.” Obvious fluency and verba pyrotechnics by some poets, like Meirill and John Ashbery, make them successful in traditional terms although their poetry redefines poetry in radically innovative ways. The styles: gracefulness makes some poets seem more traditional than they are, as in the case of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) and A.R Amnions (1926-) Amnions creates intense dialogues between humanity and nature. Jarrell steps into the trapped consciousness of the dispossessed - women, children, doomed soldiers, as in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945):

“From 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 Fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret
With a hose.”

      Although many traditional poets use rhyme, not all rhymed poetry is traditional in subject or tone. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-) writes 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.

      Realism and Experimentation, Narrative since World War II resists generalization. It is extremely varied and multifaceted. International currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism have vitalized it, while the electronic era has brought the idea of global village. The spoken word on television has given new life to the oral tradition. Oral genres, media, and popular culture have increasingly influenced narrative. In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status. The reverse seems true in the United States today. Serious novelists like, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Alice Walker, and E.L. Doctorow have borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and all history.

      To say this is not to trivialize recent literature: Writers in the United States are asking serious questions, many of them are of metaphysical nature. Writers have become highly innovative and self-aware or “reflexive.” Often they find traditional modes ineffective and seek vitality in more widely popular material. To put it another way: The American writers, in recent decades, have developed a post-modern sensibility. The Modernist restructuring of point of view no longer suffice for them. The context of their vision of poetry must be made new.

      As in the first half of the 20th century, fiction in the second half reflects the character of each decade. The late 1940s saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. World War II offered prime material: Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948) and James (From Here to Eternity, 1951) were two writers who used it best. Both of them employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify the combat. The same was true for Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948). Herman Wonk’s The Cain Mutiny (1951), also showed that human foibles were as evident in wartime as in civilian life. Later, Joseph Heller cast World War II in satirical and absurdist terms (Catch - 22, 1961), arguing that war is laced with insanity. Thomas Pyncheon presented an involuted brilliant case parodying and displacing different versions of reality (Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., became one of the shining lights of the counter-culture during the early 1970s following publication of Slaughterhouse - Five; or, The Children’s Crusade (1969), his antiwar novel about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces during World War II (which he witnessed on the ground as a prisoner of war).

      The 1940s saw the flourishing of a new contingent of realistic writers, including poet, novelist, essayist Robert Penn Warren, dramatists like, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and short story writers like, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty except Miller all were from the South. All explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group.

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