Monday, September 27, 2010

20TH CENTURY AMERICAN NOVEL

The turn of the century saw a wide array of events and developments -periods of prosperity and depression, a Great War, transformation in the lives of Black Americans, urban chaos, revolutionary technology, emergence of the "new woman" as protagonist and writer-changed society. But they also changed fiction by deepening the alienation and the fascination writers experienced as they confronted the nation's changing scene. Novelists became more self conscious, self absorbed, and self referential. They changed the novel's regular form for experimental forms of flux, perplexity, openness, skepticism, freedom, and horror. They replaced omniscience with fixed or fallible perspectives, broke their chapters into fragments, and dissolved their sentences into the streams and flows of interior psychic life. Time and space dissolved and the moderns went as far as to question reality itself. Intellectual currents particularly Freudian psychology and Marxism contributed to the breakdown of traditional values. These views fired the imagination of young writers.  

   Modernity favoured "the transient, the fleeting, the contingent", and fascination with these things meant making fiction more dynamic and variable. Faster, fragmentary writing could not only make fiction feel more like itself, but also encourage the sort of nimble thoughts and feelings readers might need to thrive amid modernity's chaotic effects.  

   The writers began to doubt their judgments and their senses, making doubt perhaps the dominant mood of modern fiction. A world constantly in flux was one in which nothing could be certain. It demanded constant recognition of human fallibility and failure.  

   Skepticism often dwells upon the gap between appearances and reality. Modern novelists frequently discover deeply ironic or even ruinous differences between the way things seem and what proves true about them. Appearances reverse realities. Impressions and presuppositions exist to be corrected or defied; truths and realities retreat to story's end, or beyond. To try for truth, modern writers frequently come at it from different perspectives. Another key feature of the modern novel is its sense that truth and meaning vary with point of view. Things appear differently to different people, and the modern novel therefore, tends to vary its perspectives. Sufficient representation demands many tellings, and the full story comes out only as alternative versions present its different sides. Modern novels deal in no absolutes- moral, perceptual, or cultural. Rather, they make truth to be a relative thing, reliant upon circumstances, changing with time and place. 

   Traditional narration conducted with the objective impersonality had come to seem unrealistic, or at least ineffective in conveying the reality of limited human experience and knowledge. By contrast, the subjective narrative, usually aligned with some particular character's point of view, became the only way to achieve narrative credibility. Depending on the temperament of the writer in question or the mood of the story, this stress on subjective experience could be negative or positive. 

   "Consciousness" is the modern novels signature field of play and became fully elaborate in Henry James's psychological novels. Writers bombarded consciousness with sensory impressions of changing objects and scenes that overlapped. Character lost coherence as a result: unified selves fragmented into such a jumble of perceptions, motives, memories, and desires that fictional people ceased to have the fixed, standard "qualities" that had made them engaging and memorable in the novels of the past. Lost within their own mental fluctuation, they ceased strong engagement with the outside world. In modern novel, accurate characterization became a matter of plumbing new depths of idiosyncrasy and confusion; plot turned now on decisions, realizations, and reflections that were more minute and diverse. 

   The early twentieth century novelists tried to make fiction more true to the heterogeneity of human temporality. They also tried to make it more true to the vagaries of human memory. Just as the passing of time had come to seem more irregular, the past had come to seem more elusive, in contrast to what familiar stories and records implied about its easy accessibility. The past therefore, appears in modern novels as something to be discovered only haphazardly, imperfectly, and through much effort. 

   Novelists were determined no longer to preach or to allow the art of fiction to pass into moral argument; they traded ethical priorities for aesthetic ones, and made realism more typical than any preference for good over evil. Moral certainties became unavailable as the ambiguity of human motivation, the relative nature of goodness, and even the savagery of human appetites would have the last word.  

   Even despite the despair and irony that often characterizes modern fiction; it often has an idealistic wish to find new forms of salvation. In some accounts, the modern novel occupies a critical moment of faith in art's powers of redemption. Novelists took aesthetic experiment to new heights, in the hope that doing so could yet reform or redeem culture. 

   Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920's were "the lost generation"-so named by the American writer Gertrude Stein. Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity. The sense of the world still at war, or at least deeply wounded by the war, hovers over the fiction of the twenties. Numerous novels, notably Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation.  

   Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the novel. The way the story was told became as important as the story itself. Henry James, William Faulkner, and many other American writers experimented with fictional points of view. Henry James often restricted the information in the novel to what a single character would have known. Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) breaks up the narrative into four sections, each giving the viewpoint of a different character. 

   The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920's and 1930's. Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the playwright Eugene O'Neill repeatedly portrayed the tragedy awaiting those who live in flimsy dreams.  

   During the 1920's, Harlem, the black community situated in New York City, sparkled with passion and creativity. The sounds of its Black American Jazz swept the United States by a storm. Carl Van Vechten's sympathetic 1926 novel of Harlem gives some idea of the complex and bitter sweet life of black America in the face of economic and social inequality. In the 1930's, novels portrayed concern for the welfare of the common citizen and their focus was on groups of people, professions, families and urban masses. 

   Novels written during World War II reflect little social interest. Americans had turned from domestic problems to a struggle for survival. What most readers wanted was escape-writing. There were novels that attempted to deal with the impact of the war on men so recently civilians, but this fiction is largely autobiographical. 

   In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status and example; the reverse seems true in United States today. Serious novelists such as Alice Walker, Thomas Pynchon, and E.L. Doctorow have borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and oral history. Writers have become more innovative and self-aware. Often they find traditional modes ineffective and seek vitality in more widely popular material. Fiction in the second half of the 20th century reflects the character of each decade. The late 1940's saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Writers like Norman Mailer and James Jones employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify combat. Later, Joseph Heller cast World War II in satirical and absurdist terms, arguing that war is laced with insanity. In 1940's novelists explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group. 

   Loneliness was a dominant theme in the 1950's. The faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Flannel Suit (1955). General American alienation came under scrutiny of David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Most of the works of 1950's supported the assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. They criticized citizens for losing their individualism and becoming too conformist. The 1950's was actually a decade of subtle and pervasive stress. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggles to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. O'Hara wrote about outwardly successful people whose inner faults and dissatisfaction leaves them vulnerable. 

   The alienation and stress underlying the 1950's found outward expression in the 1960's in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, and minority activism. The 1960's was marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage that has carried through the present day. An ironic, comic vision also came into view, reflected in the works of several writers. Examples include Ken Kesey's darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel about life in a mental hospital in which wardens are more disturbed than the inmates. The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical. 

   In the 1980's-the "Me Decade"- ensued, in which individuals tended to focus more on personal concerns than on larger social issues. In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation dwindled. New novelists like John Gardner and Alice Walker surfaced with stylistically brilliant novels to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes associated with realism returned. Realism was employed often mingled with bold original elements, for example, a daring structure like a novel within a novel. The close of the 1980's and the beginning of 1990s saw minority literature flourish. 

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

   Melville's imagination originates in his powerful sense of the irrationality and contradictoriness of experience. The language and metaphor of Shakespeare make themselves strongly felt in his novel Moby-Dick. The travelogue-novel contributes to the realism employed by the 20th century fiction. In discussing allegory and symbol, Moby-Dick is in one sense a symbolist poem. It also contains strong melodramatic, if not fully tragic elements.  

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

   He is noted for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which has been called "The Great American Novel", and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Twain wrote about the vanities, hypocrisies and murderous acts of mankind. He combined rich humour, sturdy narrative and social criticism. Twain was a master at rendering colloquial speech and helped to create and popularize a distinctive American literature built on American themes and language. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

   Fitzgerald's secure place in American literature rests primarily on his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), a brilliantly written, economically structured story about the American dream of the self-made man. He captured the glittering, desperate life of the 1920's; This Side of Paradise was heralded as the voice of modern American youth. The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) continued his exploration of the self-destructive extravagance of his times. His special style includes a dazzling style perfectly suited to his theme of seductive glamour. 

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

   He is one of the most popular American novelists of this century. His simple style makes his novels easy to comprehend, and they are often set in exotic surroundings. A believer in the "cult of experience", Hemingway often involved his characters in dangerous situations in order to reveal their inner natures. He wrote of war, death and the "lost generation" of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers but tough bullfighters, soldiers and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned. His hallmark is a clean style devoid of unnecessary words. Often he uses understatement. He uses simple words in economical ways. He treats language as a tool and calls attention to new ways of using familiar words. His best novels include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short poetic novel that won him a Pulitzer Prize. 

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

   An innovative writer, Faulkner experimented brilliantly with narrative chronology, different points of view and voices (including those of outcasts, children, and illiterates), and a rich and demanding style built of extremely long sentences full of complicated subordinate parts. The best of his novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932). Most of these novels use different characters to tell parts of the story and demonstrate how meaning resides in the manner of telling, as much as in the subject at hand. Each novel reflects upon itself, while it simultaneously unfolds a story of universal interest. His themes are southern tradition, family, community, the land, history and the past, race, and the passions of ambition and love. He employed Freudian elements in all his works. 

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

   His incisive presentation of American life and his criticism of American materialism, narrowness and hypocrisy brought him national and international recognition. In 1930, He became the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Lewis's major novels include Babbitt(1922). The novel added a new word to the American language-"babbitry", meaning narrow-minded, complacent, bourgeois ways.  

John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

   Dos Passos wrote more realistically, in line with the doctrine of socialist realism. His best work achieves a scientific objectivism and almost documentary effect. He developed an experimental collage technique for his masterwork U.S.A., consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). His techniques included "newsreel" sections taken from cotemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as "biographies" briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos's novels a documentary value. A third technique, the "camera eye", consists of stream of consciousness prose poems that offer a subjective response to the events described in the books. 

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

   Steinbeck is a liberal American writer noted for his social criticism. His best work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Other Works include Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952). Steinbeck combines realism with romanticism that finds virtue in poor farmers who live close to the land. His fiction demonstrates the vulnerability of such people, who can be uprooted by droughts and are the first to suffer in periods of political unrest and economic depression. 

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

   Wright was the first African-American novelist to reach a general audience. His outspoken writing blazed a path for subsequent African –American novelists. His novel Native Son (1940) was a necessary and overdue expression of the racial inequality that has been the subject of so much debate in the United States. 

Norman Mailer (1932- )

   He is generally considered the representative author of recent decades, able to change his style and subject many times. His ideas are bold and innovative. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and dramatic public persona, he follows in the tradition of Hemingway. His great works include novels Ancient Evenings (1983) and Harlot's Ghost (1992). 

John Gardner (1933-1982)

   John Gardner used a realistic approach but employed innovative techniques-such as flashbacks, stories within stories, retellings of myths, and contrasting stories- to bring out the truth of a human situation. His strengths are characterization and colorful style. Major works include The Resurrection (1966) and October Light (1976). 

Toni Morrison (1931-)

   An African-America novelist, her richly woven fiction has gained her international acclaim. In compelling, large-spirited novels, she treats the complex identities of black people in a universal manner. 

Alice Walker (1944-)

   A "womanist" writer, as Walker calls herself, she has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. She uses heightened lyrical realism to centre on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. Her work underscores the quest for dignity in human life. Her work seeks to educate. The Color Purple is one of her finest works.


Contributed by alias used: A nice enough individual, willing to contribute, Sarah Terry M.

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