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From World War II to Today

If I were to attempt to describe American literature since 1945 in a single word, that word would be diverse. While writers of color have always played a significant role in American letters, the last 50 years have seen a great increase in the variety of cultural perspectives and experiences reflected in the American canon. American literature has diversified formally too. Experimentation didn’t end with the end of modernism, but continued apace in the era of the postmodern, with its focus on shifting identities and fragmented selves reflected on the page. The Beats, the confessional poets, and the Black Arts movement reshaped American poetry, while postmodernism, minimalism, New Journalism, and a variety of ethnic traditions refashioned prose. American drama after O’Neill continued to be taken seriously as literature, and since the 1980s, creative nonfiction, which melds aspects of the essay, the memoir, journalism, criticism, and autobiography, has grown in popularity and prestige.

AMERICAN DRAMA

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams achieved fame for his plays. The Glass Menagerie (1945) tells the story of a writer, Tom, who talks to the audience about his life, his mother Amanda, a poor but genteel southern lady, his sister Laura, who owns a “menagerie” of glass animals, and the trauma they experience at the hands of a “gentleman caller.” A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) was even more successful than The Glass Menagerie, depicting the tragic fallout of Blanche DuBois’ decision to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski in New Orleans.

Arthur Miller’s plays, like Eugene O’Neill’s, frequently focus on the family and conflict with the outside world. Death of a Salesman (1949) focuses on Willy Loman’s neglect of his family due to his desire to be well-liked. The Crucible (1953) writes the tensions of Senator McCarthy’s hunt of American communists onto the Salem Witch Trials.

THE BEATS

Famed for their embrace of personal liberation through the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the rejection of sexual taboos, the Beats challenged the conformity we tend to associate with the 1950s. The Beats were defiant and countercultural.

William Burroughs was one of the leading figures in the emergence of the Beat Generation, (in)famous for his experimental methods, his hallucinatory images, and his drug use. His work, which includes Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959), is surrealistic, melding sci fi with drug-induced dreams and obscene language.

Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel On the Road (1957), based on his travels across the country with his friends, became the bible of the Beat generation—a term which Kerouac coined.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) was the defining poem of the Beats in much the way Eliot’s The Waste Land came to define modernism. Ginsberg first delivered the poem aloud, at a reading in San Francisco at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Bookshop. Instead of the formal orthodox lyrics popular at the time, Ginsberg wrote in sprawling, Whitmanesque lines. Ginsberg drew on the style of Whitman not to celebrate national and personal greatness but rather to proclaim pain and disillusionment with twentieth-century America. The poem all but attacks readers, barraging them with a long list of broken lives, acts of rebellion, sexual and cultural oppression, but uses this suffering to offer a particular vision of community. Ginsberg was a public poet, a staunch advocate of freedom from state and corporate interference who worked to reform laws against drug use and homosexuality.

CONFESSIONAL POETRY

Though the term “confessional” is somewhat controversial, it is often used to describe a group of poets who wrote deeply personal poetry told in the first-person about their own inner lives, poetry about pain and threats to one’s sanity. Writing about sex, divorce, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, and insanity, the confessional poets wrote about their inner lives not to insist that their experiences were representative, but rather to insist on their personal distinctness.

Robert Lowell, descended from a well-known New England family, played a major role in the development of confessional poetry. His 1959 collection Life Studies brought a new directness and autobiographical intensity to American poetry.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were Lowell’s students, close friends whose lives both ended in suicide. According to Sexton, poetry should shock the senses and hurt the reader—Sexton writes about sex, guilt, madness, and suicide in her poetry. Plath’s Ariel (1965) likewise focuses on private and previously taboo subjects, turning her biography into myth and symbol in poems like “Daddy,” which moves outward from a reflection on Plath’s relationship with her father to an inquiry into gender politics and repression.

Although Elizabeth Bishop is usually grouped with the confessional poets, she was far more reticent in her portrayals of emotion. Her poetry, especially that which appeared in North & South (1946) and Geography III (1976), often reflects on loss, exile, and travel.

John Berryman is best known for two long works, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956), which explores the similarities between the cultural position of the author and Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet’s relationship to her society, and The Dream Songs (1964-68), a lyric sequence of 385 poems, in three-stanza, 18-line units, modeled on “Song of Myself.”

THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT

The Civil Rights Movement revived interest in the questions posed by the authors of the Harlem Renaissance: should African American writers participate in mainstream American culture to demonstrate their equality with white writers or seek an aesthetic unique to black artists? Black writers in the 1960s moved toward writing for black readers with a sensibility informed by their race. Poets like Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, and Lucille Clifton embraced a new militancy. Many of these poets drew on the contemporary language of urban blacks in order to realistically depict life in the inner cities.

Amiri Baraka’s Black Magic Poetry: 1961-1967 reflects his black nationalist sensibility. Critics are divided in their views of his most famous poem, “Black Art” (1966), which bombards readers with criticism of white society, Jews, white liberals, and bourgeois black people.

Audre Lorde, as a poet and essayist, seeks to break the silence about taboo subjects, like erotic love between women. Her work draws on the mythology and history of West Africa. Her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” (1977) argues for the importance of poetry naming the unnamed and unthought.

Robert Hayden wrote formally sophisticated protest poetry informed by the entire history of Africans in America. “Runagate Runagate” (1962) recounts the story of Harriet Tubman, while “Middle Passage” (written in the 1940s) describes in painful detail the journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to America. His poetry contrasts with the more militant work of his peers.

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her poetry about the black community of Chicago. Her early poetry, like that contained in A Street in Bronzeville (1945), was formally orthodox and written for readers of all races, but her direction changed in 1967, when she started to write primarily for black readers in less traditional forms. Brooks’ poetry frequently focuses on everyday black life and subversive figures who populate the ghetto. Her language combines the biblical speech of black preachers with street talk and the language of earlier poetry.

THE NOVEL AT MIDCENTURY

JEWISH-AMERICAN WRITERS

After 1945, Jewish-American writing flourished as never before. Instead of focusing on the immigrant experience, like many earlier works by Jewish authors, writers like Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Heller, and many others wrote about the American Dream, materialism, urban life, and alienation.

Saul Bellow’s novels have limned the life of American Jews over the last six decades, focusing on fumbling, uncertain protagonists. Among Bellow’s well-known novels are Herzog (1964), the story of Moses Herzog, a man attempting to resist alienation as his family disintegrates, and The Adventures of Augie March (1953), which describes Augie’s coming-of-age in South Side Chicago. In Henderson the Rain King (1959), a man journeys to Africa to find spiritual balance after alienating his family and causing the death of his housekeeper.

Philip Roth’s novels frequently play with the line between autobiography and fiction, often through the character of Nathan Zuckerman, who appeared in nine novels over the course of three decades. Roth’s best-known novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), focuses on Alex Portnoy’s confessions to his psychiatrist, breaking taboos in its representation of his Jewish background as repressive.

AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS

Richard Wright had many heirs at midcentury. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) tells of a black man whose race has rendered his moral agency invisible. James Baldwin’s novels like Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) reflect his desire to raise readers’ consciousness about black identity and civil rights, while books like Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1961) explore questions of queerness. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) is an autobiographical story in which 14-year-old John Grimes is converted at a church service, a conversion that includes recognizing his own homosexuality and defiance of his father. Giovanni’s Room (1956) also deals with queerness, this time with white characters.

POSTMODERNISM AND THE REDEFINITION OF HISTORY

Postmodernism is a label loosely placed on an amorphous group of texts and authors, starting in the 1960s and running through the 1980s. At the heart of postmodernism are questions about the nature of reality and truth: Is reality singular and knowable? Is truth verifiable or is it multifarious and tied to a particular time, place, and individual? Can we ever figure out the meaning of a text or event, or must we be content with arriving at a meaning?

Many postmodern novels treat history itself as a kind of fiction and seek to understand the power of the individual to face the outside forces that threaten him/her. For example, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) assesses life in contemporary America by means of a fantastic and comic narrative set during WWII. In Mother Night (1961) and Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut explores the loss of self in the face of history. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Ken Kesey critiques the U.S. government by means of the tale of a madhouse.

In V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Thomas Pynchon likewise parodies world history. Pynchon’s work frequently focuses on the relationship of order to chaos and who has the power to impose order. Pynchon’s writing is unquestionably difficult and sprawling—Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, is 760 pages and contains over 400 characters—satirizing American society and searching for ever-fleeting meaning in a world of randomness.

A critic of the belief in a singular reality and the referentially of language, Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels whose narrators are frequently liars or madmen who leave the reader to sort out the story. His best known work is Lolita (1955), the story of Humbert Humbert’s pedophilic relationship with 12-year-old Dolores Haze, his stepdaughter.

Norman Mailer gained fame with the publication of The Naked and the Dead in 1948, a novel that relates stories from the Pacific front of WWII to contemporary social issues in a naturalist style. Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968) is a foundational text in the genre of New Journalism, which mixed nonfiction with fictional techniques. It offers an account of the March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, blending autobiography with fiction to blur the line between the two.

AMERICAN WRITING SINCE 1970

MINIMALISM

Popular in the 1980s, the minimalists were realistic writers who questioned what, if anything, can be accepted as truth, stripping narratives and language down to the essentials. In a typical Minimalist story, even though nothing sad is mentioned, a character makes a sign that she is saying something meant to be sad, and another character makes a sign of being unhappy in response. Popularized by Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Barry Hannah, its best-known practitioner was Raymond Carver. In his short story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), and Cathedral (1983), Carver writes of unexceptional working-class people, often drinkers, often failures.

WRITERS OF COLOR ENTER THE CANON

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw the entry of a diverse group of writers into the literary canon, African American writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Native American writers like N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, Asian American writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, and Latino/Latina writers like Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz. While writers of color have always contributed to the American literary tradition, the acceptance of these writers as central to the contemporary American canon, not simply as “token” authors, is a significant and hopeful historical shift.

AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS

Toni Morrison is a prolific novelist and literary scholar, deeply invested in questions of race, gender, and history. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), offers a story of displaced affections. In the novel, Pecola Breedlove is harmfully obsessed with the conventional ideals of (white) beauty and desperate for love, and her story includes incestuous rape and pregnancy at age 11. In Song of Solomon (1977), which mixes realism and folklore, Morrison offers a happier ending, as Milkman Dead searches for his ancestry, acquires a strong sense of the legacy of his ancestors, and learns to transcend material concerns. In Beloved (1987), set in the 1870s, Morrison tells the story of a mother, Sethe, haunted and destroyed by the ghost of a daughter (Beloved) whom she had killed to protect from slavery.

Alice Walker’s best-known novel is The Color Purple (1982), an acute exploration of the relationship between race and gender. In the novel, a young African American woman, Celie, draws on her sister’s letters from Africa to write her own letters to God. Though Celie’s life includes abuse, rape, incest, and murder, she isn’t a pure victim, but rather a strong individual.

LATINA/LATINO WRITERS

Sandra Cisneros gained fame with the publication of The House on Mango Street (1984), a volume of interrelated stories told from the perspective of a child, Esperanza, growing up in a Mexican American community in Chicago. Her short story collection Woman Hollering Creek (1991) deals with the difficulty of navigating young womanhood.

Gary Soto’s The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), like much of his other poetry and prose, draws on his childhood in California and the struggles of Mexican American farm and factory workers there. His work often relies on the conventions of magical realism, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

ASIAN AMERICAN WRITERS

Maxine Hong Kingston’s first book, The Woman Warrior (1976), earned her instant literary fame. The volume combines autobiography with legends of Asian origin and deals with the cultural conflicts of Chinese Americans.

Amy Tan’s best-known novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), deals, like much of her work, with the relationships between Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters.

NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS

Since the 1970s, Native American writers have achieved new prominence in mainstream culture. Some scholars see the publication of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1968) as marking the start of the “Native American Renaissance." In The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), Momaday collects Kiowa tales and myths, interweaving them with brief historical commentaries, family stories, and poetry to offer a vision of the Kiowa from their emergence to their decline.

Leslie Marmon Silko’s writing draws her mixed race heritage—her ancestors include Plains Indians, Mexicans, and white Americans. Her best-known work is her 1977 novel Ceremony, which tells the story of a World War II veteran who finds strengthen in his native heritage.

Louise Erdrich often writes of characters who, like herself, are mixed race, living lives shaped by both the traditions of the reservation and outside forces. Many of her novels are set on the Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota and a nearby fictional town, Argus. Love Medicine (1984) focuses on five interrelated families, spans generations, and mixes small town and reservation life.

Sherman Alexie has written poetry, short stories, novels, essays, songs, and screenplays, focusing on isolation, alcoholism, domestic violence, and the mistreatment of Native Americans and their cultures by mainstream U.S. culture. Especially notable among his many popular works is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), a YA novel about a young man’s bad experiences in a reservation school and isolation after his transfer to a nearby white school, told with humor—and cartoons.

What’s next for the American literary tradition? The next chapter remains to be written—perhaps by writers like you! These six entries are certainly not exhaustive—thousands of authors, immortalized in print, scribbling on the pages of private journals, or telling stories aloud, have made American literature what it is today. I hope these introductions will inspire you to take more American literature courses or recollect those you have taken, to read American texts on your own, and to continue to enrich your understanding. There is no one story of American literature—use these tools to help you tell one that makes sense to you, that reflects your experiences, your tastes, and your America.

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.