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From the Turn of the Century to World War II

Given the literary flowering of the nineteenth century, one might suspect that calls for a distinctive and accomplished American literary tradition would have faded in the twentieth century, but this was not the case. In the first half of the twentieth century, the struggle to define and defend American literature continued. Some authors repudiated the literature of the past in a quest to, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “make it new.” Some sought inspiration in Europe, literally and figuratively. Others embraced the growing American tradition and worked to redirect and refine it.

Writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser continued to produce realist and naturalist texts into the early twentieth century, but a series of rapid historical shifts would soon reshape American literature. The devastation of World War I (the first “modern” war), the affluence of the Roaring Twenties, the exodus of African Americans from the South to northern cities, the development of Freudian psychology, the growing attractiveness of Marxism, the deprivations of the Great Depression, and the looming threat of fascism and a second global conflict each made an impact on American letters.

Among of the many changes that came to American literature in the twentieth century was a clear split between high culture and pop culture. While this change began in the nineteenth century, the emergence of modernism accelerated it. While intellectuals and artists were absorbing the poetry of Pound and Eliot, the average American was reading westerns, crime fiction, romance novels, and historical fiction.


Modernism is a difficult term to define, but at its most basic, it was an avant-garde movement in literature and art that sought to break away from ordinary social values, commercialism, and the “genteel” literary tradition that preceded it. Its pessimism was in part a product of the devastation of World War I, which many writers experienced personally, on the battlefield. Much modernist literature is actually antimodern, registering modernity as an experience of loss. The modernist artist was a critic of the art that came before him/her as well as the culture of which he/she was a part. At the heart of modernist art was the belief that the previously sustaining elements of human life, like religious beliefs, social mores, and artistic convictions, had been destroyed or proven false or fragile. This sense of fragmentation led to a literature built out of fragments of myth, history, personal experience, or earlier art. Gone were plots with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, straightforward narration, coherent symbols. Modernist writing is highly self-reflexive, deeply concerned with its own status as art. Novels got shorter, as modernists valued concision, directness, and vividness. Poems became shorter too, and free verse, more important. Many modernists were expatriates, fleeing what they perceived as a provincial national culture hostile to artistic achievement.


Unlike his predecessors, the modernist poet was a doubter, a skeptic, not a prophet or a Romantic. Modernist poetry was heavily influenced by the theory of imagism. The imagist made use of no unnecessary words, seeking instead to capture an image, defined by Ezra Pound as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In imagist poetry, symbols aren’t fixed—the reader can’t decode a single coherent meaning.

Gertrude Stein is an important early figure in the history of modernism, responsible for bringing together many of the major modernists in Europe. She wrote experimental poetry and prose, including Tender Buttons (1913), a collection of short lyrics that reject realism and function instead by word association. In her poetry and prose, plot, character, verisimilitude, even the sentence itself disintegrate: her focus is on the moment, the word, and, as such, her work is very abstract.

Ezra Pound made his mark not only through his own poetry, but also through his advocacy for other young modernist poets. Today, Pound’s politics—his support of Mussolini and his anti-Semitism—often seem more important than his work, but in his own moment he served to connect many promising new talents, like Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and William Carlos Williams, with publishers and with one another. Pound began working on his most important work, Cantos, in 1915, ultimately producing 116 poems of varying length that bring together memories, meditations, allusions, and descriptions into a highly challenging collage.

T.S. Eliot wrote (with the help of Pound’s edits) what has come to be seen as the representative Modernist poem: The Waste Land (1922). The Waste Land summed up the weariness of western culture after WWI, portraying a world in which religious faith has been lost, culture is in decline, mental illness is common, neither sex nor entertainment is meaningful, emotions are blank, and commerce rules. It is made up of five discontinuous segments brought together through recurring allusions to seasonal death, burial, and rebirth. Despite its bleakness, the poem does end with a faint hint of the hope that characterizes his later work, like Ash Wednesday (1930) and The Four Quartets (1943). In his earlier work, like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), we can see the start of Eliot’s hard irony, his sense of the sterility of contemporary life, and his reliance on fragments and free verse. Eliot was also a very important literary critic, strongly influencing the development of New Criticism.

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was one of the first practitioners of imagism, producing lyrics devoid of explanation, rhyme, and a regular rhythm built around the power of an image. H.D.’s poetry often draws on classical myth. Her most significant work is the Trilogy (1942-4), a long poem comprised on The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod. In these poems, H.D. parallels the London Blitz to the history of ancient Egypt, bringing together the Judeo-Christian tradition with Egyptian and Greek paganism to offer a hopeful ending.

Wallace Stevens, a Hartford insurance executive, also wrote lyric poetry intent on observation, abounding in sense imagery and humor. His famous works include “Sunday Morning” (1915) and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917).

William Carlos Williams was connected to the many modernists who had expatriated to Europe, like Pound and Eliot, but unlike his friends, he remained in the U.S. and rejected their cultural dismay. Like them, he was invested in writing concentrated poetry that focused on “the thing itself,” but he also shared Whitman’s Romantic vision and hopefulness for the future. Williams’ most significant work is Paterson, a series of five volumes of poetry and collage published starting in 1946. The epic poem was inspired by Williams’ native Paterson, New Jersey, but aimed for the universal and the transcendent.

Robert Frost was a poet who, like Williams, remained committed to American subjects and indebted to the American past. His subjects were often drawn from nature, especially the nature of New England. The seeming simplicity of his folksy voice, colloquial rhythms, and stoic moralizing convinced many that he was the poet of rural America, a popular sentimentalist and individualist whose work formed a striking contrast to the difficulty and despondency of his peers’ poetry. But others see a tragic and skeptical vision in his work, not a continuation of nineteenth-century buoyancy. His most famous poems include “Mending Wall” (1914), “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1922), and “The Road Not Taken” (1916).

Carl Sandburg was one of the most popular poets in the 1920s and 1930s, writing free verse poetry with the rhythm of ordinary speech that celebrated American working people. One of his best known works is “Chicago” (1914).


Willa Cather is famous for her novels about western heroines, especially O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918). These novels present the lives of Nebraska settlers of a variety of ethnicities who meet and build communities on the prairie.

Sherwood Anderson is best known for Winesburg, Ohio (1919), an innovative collection of interconnected short stories of small-town life in the Midwest as observed by an adolescent newspaper reporter, George Willard. The stories mingle compassion for the individuals whose lives and desires have been frustrated with social critique.

As a novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed to many to exemplify the spirit of the 1920s. A talented chronicler of the social life, amusements, and fashions of the upper classes of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald is both critical of and invested in the dreams and illusions of the characters he creates. His most enduring work (though not his most popular in his own lifetime) is The Great Gatsby (1925). The story of Jay Gatsby, a Midwesterner who moves to New York and amasses a splendid fortune that he lavishes on party guests in attempt to win back the love of Daisy Buchanan from her wealthy but wandering husband Tom, is told by his neighbor Nick Carraway, a character both devoted to and skeptical of Gatsby. Gatsby’s quest becomes a metonym for the American dream itself, a dream the novel both embraces and ironizes. Tender is the Night (1934), the story of a Freudian psychologist, Dick Diver, and his wife Nicole living an expatriate life on the French Riviera, is an important later work.

Ernest Hemingway was known for the economy of his prose, his controlled use of words, simple style, and fierce refusal of romantic illusions. Much his work centers on a man struggling against the seemingly merciless universe. His first significant book, a collection of short stories called In Our Time (1924), is largely set in the Michigan woods, offering glimpses of the coming of age of Nick Adams. Most of Hemingway’s other work, however, is set abroad and frequently deals with war. The Sun Also Rises (1926), for example, is narrated by Jake Barnes, whose war wounds have left him impotent. A Farewell to Arms (1929) reflects Hemingway’s experience of WWI, stripping war of its heroism and sacrifice. The novel tells the story of a lieutenant, Henry, who falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine Barkley, in an attempt to escape the horrors of war, but the ideal is shattered by Catherine’s death in childbirth. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) also deals with war, in this case, the Spanish Civil War, telling the story of an American, Robert Jordan, who joins the fight against Franco and fascism, falls for a Spanish girl, Maria, and willingly sacrifices his life in the end. Late in his life, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which tells of an old Cuban fisherman battling first with a giant marlin and then with a shark eating his prize.

John Steinbeck is best remembered for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which tells the story of the Joads, a family of “Okies,” migrants from Oklahoma fleeing the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression via Route 66. The novel portrays the pain and loss of the Depression and the impact of capitalist indifference while also affirming humans’ connections to one another. Of Mice and Men (1937) was also a bestseller, focusing on two itinerant ranch hands, George and his friend Lennie, whose mental disability leads to tragedy.

Richard Wright’s most famous work is Native Son (1940), which tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man executed for the nearly accidental killing of a white woman. Bigger Thomas is both a modernist protagonist—an exile, an identityless man—and a victim of racism and the violence of his culture. Native Son made Wright the first African American author of a bestseller. Wright’s later autobiographical work, Black Boy (1945), offers a portrait of the troubled African American artist.


For much of American history, when people talked about American literature, they were really talking about literature produced in (and often written about) the northeastern United States. While regionalism helped to change this, it was the literary flowering of the first half of the twentieth century that finally brought southern literature to national prominence. This flowering is sometimes referred to as the Southern Renaissance. The poetry of Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom, the plays of Tennessee Williams, and the fiction of Warren, Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty made southern literature a force to be reckoned with. Southern writers also proved instrumental in the development of New Criticism.

Ellen Glasgow, a Virginian, wrote a series of novels set in the South after the Civil War dealing with the decline of the southern aristocracy and the transforming ideals of the defeated region. She rejected sentimentalizing the old South, focusing instead of the stoicism necessary to endure in a world of pain, especially for women. Her most famous works include Barren Ground (1925) and Vein of Iron (1935).

In his fictional explorations of the South, William Faulkner brought together a modernist sensibility and a deep sense of the past. Many of his works are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place of his own creation, a land of tattered aristocrats, carpetbaggers, sharecroppers, and former slave holders. The Sound and the Fury (1929), the story of the Compson brothers (Benji, Quentin, and Jason) responding to the loss of their sister, Caddie, is a particularly strong example of American Modernism, told via four different narrators speaking on four different days (three in 1928 and one in 1910), not in consecutive order, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) also reflect Faulkner’s complex style and interest in the mythic past. In Absalom, Absalom!, four different narrators try to make meaning of the story of Thomas Sutpen, a ruthless man who tried to found a southern dynasty after the Civil War.


Around 1915, as a result of the needs of the armed forces in World War I, factories in the North became an attractive option for African Americans hoping to flee southern segregation. The Great Migration led to high concentrations of blacks in northern cities, especially in Harlem, a section of Manhattan, which had an almost wholly black population of over 150,000 people by the mid-1920s. The resulting flowering of African American literature and art, which we now called the Harlem Renaissance, sparked arguments between those seeking membership in broader U.S. culture and those seeking a separate domain for African Americans, between lovers of the urban and those invested in rural black life, and between those who celebrated a “primitive” African heritage and those who rejected this vision of Africa as a harmful stereotype. Harlem Renaissance writers expressed their anger at American racism, but many also articulated hopes for racial uplift and focused on the vibrancy of African American culture.

The publication of Claude McKay’s 1922 book of poetry, Harlem Shadows, marks the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. His work blends radical politics with formal poetic technique—much of his work strictly follows sonnet form. His famous “If We Must Die” (1919) is a response to race riots in Chicago and other cities that calls for fighting back.

Like McKay, Countee Cullen also wrote in traditional poetic forms, like the sonnet, couplet, and quatrain, writing about being black without imitating folk traditions in books like Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1928).

Langston Hughes was the most popular of the Harlem Renaissance writers. His prolific output included poetry, novels, short stories, plays, children’s books, biographies, autobiographies, histories, opera librettos, essays, articles, radio scripts, and songs. His poetry seeks to capture the oral traditions of black culture and the improvisation of jazz. His first volume of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926, the same year his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” appeared.

In Cane (1923), Jean Toomer combined poetry, drama, and prose to describe black communities from Chicago and DC to small-town Georgia. Cane explores whether a northern, urban African American can understand himself by immersion in black folk heritage.

Zora Neale Hurston became well-known in Harlem as a storyteller; her studies in anthropology fueled her interest in black folk traditions and oral narrative. Her 1935 book Mules and Men reflected her field studies in her native Eatonville, Florida, retelling folk tales in dialect. Her best-known work is Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a novel about an African American woman, Janie Crawford, and her quest for selfhood.


While nineteenth-century Americans certainly enjoyed the theater, America’s first playwright to gain international recognition didn’t appear on the stage until the twentieth century: Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill was an innovator who ignored the standard divisions of scenes and acts, made characters wear masks, split one character between two actors, and brought ghosts, choruses, and Shakespearean monologues back to the stage. Influenced by Freud, O’Neill frequently focuses on the family, as in his best-known work, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941-2), which centers on the Tyrones, a family markedly like O’Neill’s own. In the play, the Tyrones are controlled by the past; they all hurt one another, but ultimately none are made to bear the blame, as each suffers and causes suffering.


To craft this document, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism, the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shortened eighth edition), Christopher MacGowan’s Twentieth-Century American Fiction Handbook and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and Christopher Beach’s The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry.