Is there such a thing as an American literature

The interwar period represents the earliest moment in U.S. literary history in which the question “Is there such a thing as an American literature?” was answered by

most in the affirmative. In other words, during this time American literature was recognized (belatedly so) as having come of age; it was no longer considered merely

an adjunct to British literature.

Certainly America’s geopolitical position following the Great War — a vast and relatively unscathed military; an economy ready to burst at the seams; women and ethnic

minorities with hard-won, unprecedented social mobility; and a democratic beacon for those displaced by war — furnished its writers with confidence, with subject

matter, and with a growing readership. Just as important to the rise of American literary prominence, though, were those emergent cultural institutions: little

magazines such as Poetry, Little Review, Masses, Seven Arts, and Crisis; cultural centers such as Chicago, Greenwich Village, and Harlem; literary movements such as

imagism, the little-theater movement, and the Harlem Renaissance; and the risk-taking writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers behind all of them.
Many of the watershed events described in the section introduction — the universal suffrage movement and the eventual ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment; the

Great War; anti-immigrant xenophobia and the Red Scare; the Jazz Age of the roaring twenties and the Great Depression of the more sober thirties; the rise of Fascism

and the Second World War — serve as useful entries into any discussion of “modernization,” the rapid change associated with social evolution and technological

innovation, and “modernity,” the sense of historical belatedness experienced by all historical epochs at least since the Renaissance in Europe.

More difficult to teach is “modernism,” the experimental approach to literary form so often associated with the interwar period. Here Daniel Joseph Singal’s outline of

American modernism (“Towards a Definition of American Modernism”), offers useful guidance; the essay keeps in view the “full-fledged historical culture” of the period,

something on a par with European counterparts such as Victorianism or the Enlightenment.

Modernisms in American Poetry: The world of modern American poetry was remarkably intimate, with a few dozen or so still-remembered poets coming into regular and

influential contact with one another: in person, in correspondence, and in the pages of the little magazines that first published much of the modern American poetry

canon. And so from a relatively small number of individuals came a multitude of styles (from blank verse to sonnets to free verse) and publications (from Poetry to

Others to Opportunity) and movements (from imagism to the Harlem Renaissance). It might be said that the history of modernist poetry is a series of entertaining

anecdotes about diverse and lively personalities interacting (for better and for worse) with one another. Modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot insisted on the

impersonal in poetry. Rather than strip individual poems of their pleasure, a firm grounding in poetics reinforces what makes poetry pleasurable to begin with.

As a number of literary historians have pointed out, modernism is closely associated with the rise of avant-garde dispositions and a proliferation of -isms, and the

literary manifesto is indispensable to each. Even those examples that aren’t (strictly speaking) manifestos tend to offer specific advice about how best to write,

publish, or read poetry.

What’s more, such advice is often meant to have a spillover effect upon the wider culture. Several draw explicit connections between modernist poetics and modern

American society; when they don’t (as in the cases of Eliot, Lowell, and Pound), the absence of social commentary is striking. The notion that an “American language”

required a poetry all its own was by no means universal, but it was powerful nonetheless.

At Home and Abroad: American Fiction between the Wars
Before the early part of the twentieth century, prose fiction ranked third or at best a distant second in the English hierarchy of literary genres (behind poetry and

sometimes oratory and nonfiction prose). Prose fiction emerged at this time as the central thrust of the American literary marketplace, and in the minds of many

writers and critics it eclipsed rival genres in prestige. Because most of the short stories collected in the anthology originally found a wide and receptive audience,

taken individually they virtually teach themselves. Taken as a whole, they reveal much about American society and history and literary art during the era, including a

profound concern with the many varieties of regional identity and expression that inform American modernism. As a class on our discussion – It might be helpful for us

to discuss modernist fiction within the wider contexts of the modernized literary-marketplace (including the rise of Madison Avenue–advertising and mass-market

periodicals) and the postindustrial culture-industry (including the rapid proliferation of radio, film, and eventually television). This will help us to understand

what these authors were experiencing. Fiction writers during the interwar period were more interested in sociohistorical questions than in aesthetic ones. Examine the

titles of the essays located in this selection – loss, alienation, abandonment, the harsh realities of life are not romanticized. Just as it is impossible to separate

altogether issues of literary content and form, so too is it impossible to separate social history and aesthetics. Each essay suggests something about the connection

between art and life, between form and subject matter. HERE – I would like if students could envision the society that would occasion individual essays: What are

ordinary people like? How does the essay suggest that they come into contact with literature? What kind of reader does the essay imagine? Is the reader representative

of an ordinary person, or is he or she somehow different? Does the writer see herself or himself as an ordinary person or somehow different? If a writer betrays an

obvious concern about social issues, it helps to emphasize the aesthetic import of the essay; if a writer is an obvious aesthete (as Gertrude Stein is), it helps to

emphasize the essay’s social ramification.

Stein had a significant impact on the authors she labeled the “Lost Generation.” Because she occupied the center of what was arguably modernism’s most important salon,

Stein influenced and was influenced by many of the leading writers and visual artists of her time, including Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald,

Mina Loy, and Ezra Pound. A similarly cubist aesthetic has also been identified in the work of E. E. Cummings and Jean Toomer.

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