The Flowering of the Individual
The Great Depression of the 1930s had virtually destroyed the American economy. World War II revived it. The United States became a major force on the world stage, and post-World-War-II Americans enjoyed unprecedented personal prosperity and individual freedom.
Expanded higher education and the spread of television throughout America after World War II made it possible for ordinary people to obtain information on their own and to become more sophisticated. A glut of consumer conveniences and access to large, attractive suburban houses made middle-class families more autonomous. Widespread theories of Freudian psychology emphasized the origins and the importance of the individual mind. The birth control “pill” liberated women from rigid subservience to biological norms. For the first time in human history, many ordinary people could lead vastly satisfying lives and assert their personal worth.
The rise of mass individualism—as well as the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s—empowered previously muted voices. Writers asserted their deepest inner nature, as well as personal experience, and the importance of the individual experience implied the importance of the group to which it was linked. Homosexuals, feminists, and other marginalized voices proclaimed their stories. Jewish American and black American writers found wide audiences for their variations of the American dream, or nightmare. Writers of Protestant background, such as John Cheever and John Updike, discussed the impact of postwar culture on lives like theirs. Some modern and contemporary writers are still placed within older traditions, such as realism. Some may be described as classicists, others as experimental, stylistically influenced by the ephemera of mass culture, or by philosophies such as existentialism, or socialism. Many are more easily grouped according to ethnic background or region. However, on the whole, modern writers always lay claim to the worth of the individual identity.
Sylvia Plath 1932-1963
Sylvia Plath lived an outwardly exemplary life, attending Smith College on scholarship, graduating first in her class, and winning a Fulbright grant to Cambridge University in England. There she met her charismatic husband-to-be, poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children, and settled in a country house in England.
Beneath the fairy-tale success festered unresolved psychological problems evoked in her highly readable novel The Bell Jar (1963). Some of these problems were personal, while others arose from her sense of repressive attitudes toward women in the 1950s. Among these were the beliefs—shared by many women themselves—that women should not show anger or ambitiously pursue a career, and instead find fulfillment in tending their husbands and children. Professionally successful women like Plath felt that they lived a contradiction.
Plath’s storybook life crumbled when she and Hughes separated and she cared for the young children in a London apartment during a winter of extreme cold. Ill, isolated, and in despair, Plath worked against the clock to produce a series of stunning poems before she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. These poems were collected in the volume Ariel (1965), two years after her death. The poet Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction, noted her poetry’s rapid development from the time she had attended his poetry classes in 1958.
Plath’s early poetry is well crafted and traditional, but her late poems exhibit a desperate bravura and proto-feminist cry of anguish. In “The Applicant” (1966), Plath exposes the emptiness in the current role of wife (who is reduced to an inanimate “it”):
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook.
It can talk, talk, talk.
The “Beat poets” emerged in the 1950s. The term “beat” variously suggests musical downbeats, as in jazz; angelical beatitude or blessedness; and “beat up”—tired or hurt. The Beats (beatniks) were inspired by jazz, Eastern religion, and the wandering life. These were all depicted in the famous novel by Jack Kerouac On the Road, a sensation when it was published in 1957. An account of a 1947 cross-country car trip, the novel was written in three hectic weeks on a single roll of paper in what Kerouac called “spontaneous bop prose.” The wild, improvisational style, hipster-mystic characters, and rejection of authority and convention fired the imaginations of young readers and helped usher in the freewheeling counterculture of the 1960s.
Allen Ginsberg 1926-1997
Most of the important Beats migrated to San Francisco from America’s East Coast, gaining their initial national recognition in California. The charismatic Allen Ginsberg became the group’s chief spokesman. The son of a poet father and an eccentric mother committed to Communism, Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he became fast friends with fellow students Kerouac (1922-1969) and William Burroughs (1914-1997), whose violent, nightmarish novels about the underworld of heroin addiction include The Naked Lunch (1959). These three were the nucleus of the Beat movement.
Beat poetry is oral, repetitive, and immensely effective in readings, largely because it developed out of poetry readings in “underground” clubs. Some might correctly see it as a great-grandparent of the rap music that became prevalent in the 1990s. Beat poetry was the most anti-establishment form of literature in the United States, but beneath its shocking words lies a love of country. The poetry is a cry of pain and rage at what the poets see as the loss of America’s innocence and the tragic waste of its human and material resources.
Poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) revolutionized traditional poetry:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
Tennessee Williams 1911-1983
Tennessee Williams, a native of Mississippi, was one of the more complex individuals on the American literary scene of the mid-20th century. His work focused on disturbed emotions within families—most of them southern. He was known for incantatory repetitions, a poetic southern diction, weird gothic settings, and Freudian exploration of human emotion. One of the first American writers to live openly as a homosexual, Williams explained that the longings of his tormented characters expressed their loneliness. His characters live and suffer intensely.
Williams wrote more than 20 full-length dramas, many of them autobiographical. He reached his peak relatively early in his career—in the 1940s—with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1949). None of the works that followed over the next two decades and more reached the level of success and richness of those two pieces.
Eudora Welty 1909-2001
Born in Mississippi to a well-to-do family of transplanted northerners, Eudora Welty was guided by novelists Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Anne Porter. Porter, in fact, wrote an introduction to Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green (1941). Welty modeled her nuanced work on Porter, but the younger woman was more interested in the comic and grotesque. Like fellow southern writer Flannery O’Connor, Welty often took subnormal, eccentric, or exceptional characters for subjects.
Despite violence in her work, Welty’s wit was essentially humane and affirmative. Her collections of stories include The Wide Net (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), and Moon Lake (1980). Welty also wrote novels such as Delta Wedding (1946), which is focused on a plantation family in modern times, and The Optimist’s Daughter (1972).
Ralph Ellison 1914-1994
Ralph Ellison was a midwesterner, born in Oklahoma, who studied at Tuskegee Institute in the southern United States. He had one of the strangest careers in American letters—consisting of one highly acclaimed book and little more.
The novel is Invisible Man (1952), the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a cellar brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences. When he wins a scholarship to an all-black college, he is humiliated by whites; when he gets to the college, he witnesses the school’s president spurning black American concerns. Life is corrupt outside college, too. For example, even religion is no consolation: A preacher turns out to be a criminal. The novel indicts society for failing to provide its citizens—black and white—with viable ideals and institutions for realizing them. It embodies a powerful racial theme because the “invisible man” is invisible not in himself but because others, blinded by prejudice, cannot see him for who he is.
Saul Bellow 1915-2005
Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow was of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influenced his writing. He once expressed a profound debt to the American realist novelist Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow’s early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe—and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa.
Bellow’s later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the romantic self; Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970); Humboldt’s Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean’s December (1982). Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella centered on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate—a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. Wilhelm is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore—one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen.
John Cheever 1912-1982
John Cheever often has been called a “novelist of manners.” He is also known for his elegant, suggestive short stories, which scrutinize the New York business world through its effects on the businessmen, their wives, children, and friends.
A wry melancholy and never quite quenched but seemingly hopeless desire for passion or metaphysical certainty lurks in the shadows of Cheever’s finely drawn, Chekhovian tales, collected in The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). His titles reveal his characteristic nonchalance, playfulness, and irreverence, and hint at his subject matter. Cheever also published several novels—The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977)—the last of which was largely autobiographical.
John Updike 1932-2009
John Updike, like Cheever, was also regarded as a writer of manners with his suburban settings, domestic themes, reflections of ennui and wistfulness, and, particularly, his fictional locales on the eastern seaboard of the United States, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Updike is best known for his five Rabbit books, depictions of the life of a man—Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom—through the ebbs and flows of his existence across four decades of American social and political history. Rabbit, Run (1960) is a mirror of the 1950s, with Angstrom an aimless, disaffected young husband. Rabbit Redux (1971)—spotlighting the counterculture of the 1960s—finds Angstrom still without a clear goal or purpose or viable escape route from the banal. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Harry has become a prosperous businessman during the 1970s, as the Vietnam era wanes. The final novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990), glimpses Angstrom’s reconciliation with life, before his death from a heart attack, against the backdrop of the 1980s.
Updike possessed the most brilliant style of any writer today, and his short stories offer scintillating examples of its range and inventiveness.
Norman Mailer 1923-2007
Norman Mailer made himself the most visible novelist of the 1960s and 1970s. Co-founder of the anti-establishment New York City weekly The Village Voice, Mailer publicized himself along with his political views. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and a dramatic public persona, Mailer followed in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. To gain a vantage point on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War protests, black liberation, and the women’s movement, he constructed hip, existentialist, macho male personae (in her book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett identified Mailer as an archetypal male chauvinist). The irrepressible Mailer went on to marry six times and run for mayor of New York.
From such New Journalism exercises as Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), an analysis of the 1968 U.S. presidential conventions, and his compelling study about the execution of a condemned murderer, The Executioner’s Song (1979), Mailer turned to writing such ambitious, if flawed, novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot’s Ghost (1991), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Toni Morrison 1931-
African-American novelist Toni Morrison was born in Ohio to a spiritually oriented family. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a senior editor in a major Washington publishing house and as a distinguished professor at various universities.
Morrison’s 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. In her early work The Bluest Eye (1970), a strong-willed young black girl tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, who is driven mad by an abusive father. Pecola believes that her dark eyes have magically become blue and that they will make her lovable. Morrison has said that she was creating her own sense of identity as a writer through this novel: “I was Pecola, Claudia, everybody.”
Sula (1973) describes the strong friendship of two women. Morrison paints African-American women as unique, fully individual characters rather than as stereotypes. Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) has won several awards. It follows a black man, Milkman Dead, and his complex relations with his family and community. Beloved (1987) is the wrenching story of a woman who murders her children rather than allow them to live as slaves. It employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism in depicting a mysterious figure, Beloved, who returns to live with the mother who has slit her throat. Jazz (1992), set in 1920s Harlem, is a story of love and murder. In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As the 20th century ended and the 21st century began, mass social and geographic mobility, the Internet, immigration, and globalization only emphasized the subjective voice in a context of cultural fragmentation. Some contemporary writers reflect a drift towards quieter, more accessible voices. For many prose writers, the region, rather than the nation, provides the defining geography.
Louise Glück 1943-
One of the most impressive contemporary poets is Louise Glück. Born in New York City, Glück, the U.S. poet laureate for 2003-2004, grew up with an abiding sense of guilt due to the death of a sister born before her. At Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, she studied with poets Leonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz. Much of her poetry deals with tragic loss. Each of Glück’s books attempts new techniques, making it difficult to summarize her work.
In Glück’s memorable The Wild Iris (1992), different kinds of flowers utter short metaphysical monologues. The book’s title poem, an exploration of resurrection, could be an epigraph for Glück’s work as a whole. The wild iris, a gorgeous deep blue flower growing from a bulb that lies dormant all winter, says: “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth.”
From the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Billy Collins 1941-
The poetry of Billy Collins is refreshing and exhilarating. Collins uses everyday language to record the myriad details of everyday life, freely mixing quotidian events (eating, doing chores, writing) with cultural references. His humor and originality have brought him a wide audience. Though some have faulted Collins for being too accessible, his unpredictable flights of fancy open out into mystery.
Collins’s is a domesticated form of surrealism. His best poems quickly propel the imagination up a stairway of increasingly surrealistic situations, at the end offering an emotional landing, a mood one can rest on. The short poem “The Dead,” from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), gives some sense of Collins’s fanciful flight and gentle settling down, as if a bird had come to rest.
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
Annie Proulx 1935-
The striking stylist Annie Proulx crafts stories of struggling northern New Englanders in Heart Songs (1988). Her best novel, The Shipping News (1993), is set even further north, in Newfoundland, Canada. Proulx has also spent years in the West, and one of her short stories inspired the 2006 movie Brokeback Mountain.
Richard Ford 1944-
Mississippi-born Richard Ford began writing in a Faulknerian vein, but is best known for his subtle novel set in New Jersey, The Sportswriter (1986), and its sequel, Independence Day (1995). The latter is about Frank Bascombe, a dreamy, evasive drifter who loses all the things that give his life meaning—a son, his dream of writing fiction, his marriage, lovers and friends, and his job. Bascombe is sensitive and intelligent—his choices, he says, are made “to deflect the pain of terrible regret”—and his emptiness, along with the anonymous malls and bald new housing developments that he endlessly cruises through, mutely testify to Ford’s vision of a national malaise.
Amy Tan 1952-
Northern California houses a rich tradition of Asian-American writing, whose characteristic themes include family and gender roles, the conflict between generations, and the search for identity. One Asian-American writer from California is novelist Amy Tan, whose best-selling The Joy Luck Club became a hit film in 1993. Its interlinked story-like chapters delineate the different fates of four mother-and-daughter pairs. Tan’s novels spanning historical China and today’s United States include The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), about half-sisters, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), about a daughter’s care for her mother.
Sherman Alexie 1966-
A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie is the youngest Native-American novelist to achieve national fame. Alexie gives unsentimental and humorous accounts of Indian life with an eye for incongruous mixtures of tradition and pop culture. His story cycles include Reservation Blues (1995) and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which inspired the effective film of reservation life Smoke Signals (1998), for which Alexie wrote the screenplay. Alexie’s recent story collection is The Toughest Indian in the World (2000).