Twentieth Century Genres in American Literature Essay

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Twentieth Century Genres in American Literature: From Naturalism to Post-Modernism in Under Sixty Years

The literary periods of the industrial (and perhaps the post-industrial, though this term is still quite controversial and fraught with implications beyond the scope of this paper) periods have progressed with a great deal more rapidity than those of decades and, indeed, centuries prior to the middle of the eighteenth century CE. Perhaps the reason for this is as simple as noting that as the pace of daily life increased, the pace of literary and aesthetic movements were required to increase their cadence in order to keep in step. On the other hand, key global events seem to exist and serve as markers for the beginning of new literary periods, and these sharper and more rapid divisions could be wholly dependent on these events. Regardless, the romanticism that emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century and persisted through much of the nineteenth gave way to an ever more rapid succession of styles at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

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Romanticism was a direct response to the industrialization of the world, attempting to situate man and human identity in the context of the nature he was losing and the science and industry he was gaining (though "gaining" in the purely practical sense without its usual connotation of a positive increase, as the Romantics as a rule never saw these gains in a positive light). Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the very first part of the twentieth, Naturalism emerged as a solution to this tension found in Romantic literature; nature emerged as the dominant theme and man was placed in direct and often mortal opposition to it. Clearly, science had won in society, and ironically this immediately diminished its importance in literature.

Essay on Twentieth Century Genres in American Literature: From Assignment

Beginning in the years just before World War I, a new genre that would ultimately become known as Modernism emerged reflecting the further changes that had occurred in man's view of himself and in his relation to nature. Rather than a direct opponent, nature became an ambivalent force that was almost unrelated to man despite the fact that it could still impact on him. By and large, however, nature had ceased to matter despite its constant presence, and it became simply a reflection of man himself, and a way for man to reflect on himself and his own identity. Then came World War II, and along with the physical destruction of the war came the destruction of true identity, and of truth, in literature. The Post-Modernist age had arrived, and the fact that the title for the period is nothing more than reference to another period provides a clue as to the style of post-modernism -- it was a rejection of previous notions, with untrustworthy narrators that force the reader to question the existence of any real truth, including (and perhaps especially) about identity and one's self. Nature is no longer present at all, and man is left only with meaningless internally and externally. This paper will examine each of these three periods with a key text from each, exploring these elements in greater and more specific detail.

Naturalism: Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"

Beginning as it does with a description of the sky and the waves, and in fact with the human characters in direct relation to these elements, it is clear that nature is a primary force in this work. The men in the titular boat of this story are in mortal peril following a shipwreck, and nature is their only enemy. As with many works of this genre, nature is all-encompassing and completely unstoppable. Nature is automatically and unconsciously set against man, and man is virtually helpless against it.

The extreme supremacy of nature in the perspective of this genre has immediate and direct implications on man's view of man. Despite the extraordinary amount of tension, worry, and fear that the men in the boat were undoubtedly experiencing, there is no real description of any inner life of any of the characters. This story is actually almost entirely autobiographical; Stephen Crane was involved in a shipwreck and managed to survive in a lifeboat with several other men, one of whom drowned near the end of the journey just as in the story. The fact that no reflections on the inner thoughts and lives are given not only increases the prominence of nature as not only a force but a true character -- the antagonist -- of the story, but it also suggests that man has no identity except for the fate that is determined by nature, or perhaps that identity simply ceases to matter altogether when the forces of nature conspire to rob men of it. Either way, the point is that nature is the defining (or undefining, as the case may be) power in the world.

Modernism: Ernest Hemingway's the Snows of Kilimanjaro

While nature is not the antagonist in Hemingway's the Snows of Kilimanjaro, it does play a prominent role in the story. The central character, Harry, is dying due to an infection that resulted from being pierced by a thorn. Were he left alone and dying as the wilderness closed in around him, we would still be in Naturalism territory, but instead nature serves as a backdrop for the dying man while he examines his life and consistently finds himself (and others) coming up short. The fact that a simple thorn will be the cause of his death is yet another string f rather weak disappointments in his life. Nature is no longer a fully active force, but rather a reflection of this character's sense of identity and self, and this is a hallmark of literature from the modernist period.

With nature becoming more of a symbolic background and means of reflection and less a focus of the genre, self-identification and -- realization become more important concepts. The inner life is as prominent in the Snows of Kilimanjaro as it was absent in "The Open Boat;" very little action actually takes place in the time of the novel, but rather the novel is concerned with Harry's memories of action and reflections on his past's implications on who he is. The novel, then, is concerned with a searching for meaning and purpose in the self, and it is man's ability to define himself that ultimately ends up torturing Harry who has refused to take the steps to accomplish this self-definition. This implies, however, that there is absolutely the possibility for him to have succeeded had he taken appropriate action, and this is a key feature in Modernist literature. Though many characters fail to realize their potentials and identity, they are believed to exist however mutable they might prove to be. This would not continue to be the case in literature for long.

Post-Modernism: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

If Modernism saw the reduction of nature form antagonistic character to ambivalent backdrop, Post-modernism can be described as having eradicated nature altogether. Invisible Man takes place not simply in an urban setting, but in an environment that is quite heavily and conspicuously industrialized. Ellison's protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the book, lives in an abandoned and forgotten part of an apartment building's basement, where he has strung over a thousand light bulbs connected to his free electricity source. Though his recollections take him out of the city, the feel of the novel as a whole is of the grime and the shine of the city, and images of nature and of man's relationship to it are almost wholly if not entirely lacking.

Also lacking is any real notion of identity. This seems an odd statement, at first, given that the entire novel is told from the first-person point-of-view of the narrator as he recollects key… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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