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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  


The Death of Modernism

As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, the '20s ended in October 1929, when the Great Depression sent economic shock waves throughout the Western world, culminating in disasters everywhere. During the '30s, fear, misery, and panic reigned. Economic collapse precipitated the rise of totalitarianism, which in its grasp for world-wide domination threatened another brutal world war. Modernism in all its guises had to give way to the enormities of the moment, as writers turned to the social and economic malaise of the time. What emerged was a literature of protest, committed to the recovery of democracy and ethical behavior.

In addition to the economic collapse of Wall Street and the violent collision of political ideologies, the deaths of many of the great writers of the modernist movement -- Luigi Pirandello and Federico Garcia Lorca both died in 1936, W. B. Yeats and Sigmund Freud in 1939, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in 1941 -- helped temper the activity of modernism, already recognized as a significant contribution to the development of literary history.

Literature in the 1930s

The universal problems of unemployment, poverty, and fascist movements emerging in country after country led the Italian critic Arnaldo Bocelli (1900-1976) to describe what the literature of the 1930s should entail. He asked that writing create a new society, based on equality and freedom, without oppression of the working class. He argued for a simple, colloquial language that would "describe authentically the human condition." Bocelli's last requirement brings to mind one of the most important French novels of the decade, La condition humaine (1933) by André Malraux (1901-1976). Although literally and properly translated "The Human Condition," the work appeared in English as Man's Fate. Emphasizing the necessity for political commitment, Malraux's novel details the Chinese rebellions of the 1920s, whose activists were prepared to die for the principles of political freedom, economic well-being, and self-determination.

While the neo-realism advocated by Bocelli was less a movement than a reaction against the rarefied experiments of modernism, a variety of literary responses to economic and political crisis in many countries might be grouped under the heading of "Social Realism." The plight of the downtrodden, hungry masses caught in the constricting noose of political repression became the subject matter of many writers and artists. Giant murals, which were especially prominent in Mexico, became the visual chronicles of the day, depicting both naturalistically and allegorically the agony, suffering, and pathos of the masses of humanity. The worker, the farmer, and the native populations who were the new heroes of these politicized muralists also found new literary champions.

Shocked and outraged by the devastating effects of the economic crash, North American writers levied contempt and anger against the politicians and industrialists who seemed responsible and galvanized pity for the helpless victims. In his U.S.A. trilogy, consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), John Dos Passos experimented with three technical devices, "Newsreel," "Biographies," and "The Camera Eye," which constitute a framework for the novel. "Newsreel" employs a montage(1) of newspaper excerpts detailing the significant as well as trivial context against which his characters move. The "Biographies" showcase representative Americans of the time including Luther Burbank, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Frank Lloyd Wright. "The Camera Eye" employs the modernist stream-of-consciousness prose style which serves as a counterpoint to the characters' narratives. Together the three devices coalesce to paint a stirring picture of injustice and a society in revolt.

If the prose of Dos Passos, as one critic claims, has "the power of a clenched fist," so does the work of John Steinbeck, who captures another bit of 1930s America in The Grapes of Wrath. This novel conveys the plight of dispossessed sharecroppers in Oklahoma, "the Okies," who head across the mountains and desert for the rich valleys of California, the promised land. Their pilgrimage, which mirrors the travels of immigrants from Europe to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, strongly suggests that the American dream of California is no less deceptive than America itself.

Popular Media and the Voice of the People

Significantly, Dos Passos modeled his literary fiction on the technology developed by movies, and Steinbeck's novel probably achieved its greatest fame when it was made into a memorable film in 1940. In fact, the social role filled in the nineteenth century by the novel, as the genre which summarized the concerns of the middle-class audience, passed to movies in the '30s and '40s and television by the end of the twentieth century. The financial resources required to make movies, however, limit opportunities to represent different ranges of experience in film. Ironically, literacy, once the preserve of the privileged, now provides an avenue of expression to those closed out of the more expensive mass media because of lack of funds or access to technology. As we shall see, arguably the most memorable literary achievements of the last half century have been created by and about members of social classes and groups overlooked in the written texts of the past.

The Impact of the Second World War on Literature

Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 changed everything, or, in the words of Leonard Woolf, "ended civilization as we had known it." The sufferings of the preceding decade, coupled with the horrific cruelty of World War II (1939-1945), caused literature to undergo further changes. War inescapably became a part of the fiction of the '40s and the following decades, an ineluctable presence shadowing characters and events. With casualties from the war numbered in the millions, new ways to make sense out of the world and reinvest the individual with dignity and hope had to be invented.


In France, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) articulated an ethical code that he hoped would describe accurately the absurdity of the human condition. His beliefs, known as existentialism or the philosophy of existence, deeply influenced literature throughout the decades of the '40s and '50s. Sartre's works held that since God apparently does not exist, human beings are condemned to be alone and must assume responsibility for their own actions. Actions are not necessarily good or bad, but rather authentic, that is, based on one's inner conscience, or inauthentic, that is, formed because of sources outside the individual, and therefore inharmonious with the individual's conscience. For Sartre, man is condemned to be free, and this freedom brings responsibility, which in turn obligates him to act authentically.

The rhetoric of existentialism called attention to individuals and their interactions with society. The principal focus was always on individual action and its relationship to good and evil, or authenticity and inauthenticity. Removed from the foreground, although not entirely ignored, were socioeconomic and overtly political matters. The war itself and its tragic aftermath became particularly good frames of reference within which to study the peculiarities of individual psychology and authenticity.

Typical of the period were two novels written in 1942, at the height of World War II: The Stranger, by the Algerian-born Albert Camus (1913-1960); and The Family of Pascual Duarte, by the Spaniard Camilo José Cela (b. 1916), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989. Similar in spirit was a third novel, The Tunnel, written in 1948 by the Argentinian Ernesto Sabato (b. 1911), three years after the conclusion of World War II. All three novels have a similar style, eloquently portraying the ethical, philosophical, and literary concerns of the decade. The works also are uncannily alike in plot. Each is narrated in the first person by apparently normal men. However, as they begin to recount their strange lives, filled with alienation and "nausea" -- (to use the title of Sartre's famous novel of 1938) -- the reader perceives that they are seriously disturbed. For these damaged protagonists, murder and violence become the natural reactions to their own frustrations in dealing with others. Thus these first-person "existential novels" differ profoundly from the first-person novels of the modernists, who tended to seek the wellsprings of individual identity in the deepest thoughts of rich and complex personalities.

Post-War Writing in The United States

Conformity and the Loss of Individuality

With the end of World War II in 1945, the United States became the dominant world power, but the pre-war independent spirit of the American people seemed to have disappeared. A deeply conformist trend swept the country, and witch hunts, blacklists, and loyalty oaths drove the political movement led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Complementing the resulting political passivity in the United States, a post-war economic boom rapidly created a mass consumer society. Thousands of GIs returned home from all over the world with news of other cultures and societies. Now eager to resume their lives as civilians, veterans went to college in unprecedented numbers and settled in the new sprawling suburbs which were the most visible symbol of the increasing democratization of the United States. To the old elite, however, these new suburbs symbolized conformity, best illustrated by the "organization man" who wore a "grey flannel suit" and the indistinguishable tract homes. Population shifts within the United States saw the great urban centers, emptied by the middle classes and the upwardly mobile, filled by the less educated and the poor.

All was not well in this technologically advancing society. The bothersome realities of the heated cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union; the ominous Iron Curtain; the pervasive threat of a nuclear war; the memories of genocide and the deformed victims of the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the stirrings of civil unrest and the cry of African-Americans all hung in the air. This apparently complacent decade saw the emergence of writers like John Cheever (1912-1982) and John Updike (b. 1932), ironists who criticized white middle-class society from within, delineating in brilliant detail the insecurities of "the man in the gray flannel suit" (the title of a popular novel by Sloan Wilson). In other words, juxtaposed with the prevailing "good times" existed the nagging feeling that the basic claims of the modernists had been correct. In this sense, the 1950s represent a transition to the present postmodern period.

Post-war American literature probably will be remembered most, however, for the emergence of new literary voices, the voices of those previously on the margins of white middle-class society because of gender, race, or class.

The Second Black Renaissance

The self-defining that marked the Harlem Renaissance assumed a very different tone in the work of Richard Wright (1908-1960), written out of rage. Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, Wright transformed his life through reading and writing. During the Depression he found work with the Federal Negro Theater and the Federal Writer's Project in Chicago; after joining the Communist party, he moved to New York where he wrote for its newspaper, The Daily Worker. Influenced by the naturalistic style of Theodore Dreiser, in his landmark novel Native Son (1940) Wright documented the horrors of the urban ghetto and the violence it spawned. Through its protagonist, Bigger Thomas, Native Son exposes the black man's resentment of -- and refusal to conform to -- white society's expectations. Disillusioned with America and with Communism, after World War II Wright moved to Paris (as generations of self-exiled, or expatriate American -- and African-American -- artists have from the end of the nineteenth century.) There he created a series of deracinated heroes who exemplified the existential predicament like the protagonists of Sartre and Camus.

Another black writer who experimented with radicalism and then turned to literature, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) is best known for the novel Invisible Man (1952). Sometimes criticized by African-American critics who think this prize-winning book owes too much to Western notions of modernism, Invisible Man remains a powerful indictment of the racial attitudes of the 1950s. Ellison has written relatively little since.

A much more prolific writer, James Baldwin (1924-1987), also has seemed too ambivalent about the African-American experience to those who would prefer to use literature as a political tool. While much of Baldwin's best fiction, like Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni's Room (1956) draws on his own sometimes tortured life in dealing with race, religion, and homosexuality, in his celebrated essays he speaks with unambiguous passion of the struggle for civil rights that dominated the 1960s.

Women's Voices

While African-American male artists have debated the purpose of art, African-American women writers have emerged to win large audiences and acclaim. Without disregarding racial and social issues, they have invented a rich poetic language that captivates readers. A long list of these literary daughters of Harriet Ann Jacobs and Zora Neale Hurston could be drawn; prime among them must be Toni Morrison, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987), an honor many felt she had been unfairly denied for her earlier Song of Solomon (1977). In alphabetical order, we might mention as well the artistry of Maya Angelou (b.1928), Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995), Gwendolyn Brooks (b. 1917), Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943), Ntozake Shange (b. 1948), and Alice Walker (b.1944).

Another group of women writers have addressed questions of race and class in this country from the perspective of the white Southerner. Less overtly political in their fiction than their African-American counterparts, Eudora Welty (b. 1909) and Flannery O'Connor (1925-64) so deftly expose the foibles and grotesqueries of individual human beings that their short stories undermine the notion that those who enjoyed the privileges of a white supremacist society had in any way deserved them. Still other women writers, most notably Tillie Olsen (b. 1913), have stressed how simply being female impeded the exercise of their talent.

While we often speak of such groups of writers as a "school," implying a certain shared purpose and background, contemporary authors lack the homogeneous cultural experience that gave cohesion, for example, to the Bloomsbury Group. Among the current generation of major women writers, it seems as if centuries of pent-up creativity have at last been released in the astonishingly various and productive careers of writers who happen to be women but are otherwise as profoundly unlike as, say, Joyce Carol Oates (b. 1938), who evokes violent and disturbing worlds in her fiction, and Cynthia Ozick (b. 1928), who invents brilliant allegories of the spiritual life.

Fitting In or Opting Out: Recent Trends in Fiction

While war, disaster, and injustice intermittently deflected writers from the self-conscious pursuit of identity that we have spoken of as crucial to the concerns of modern literature, in the last century writers have continued to question the best means of defining a self. In the United States, often called a nation of immigrants, a central problem has been whether or how to fit in to an existing society. Writers from successive waves of immigrants have tried to define their personal and communal roles in a society that initially excluded them. Jewish-American fiction in particular has grappled with these problems. As early as 1915, when the Polish-born Anzia Yezierska (c. 1885-1970) began to publish powerful novels and short stories, Jewish-American writers have articulated the basic dilemma of the immigrant caught between two cultures. In the post-war period, writers like Saul Bellow (b. 1915), who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, and Philip Roth (b. 1933), have focused on characters simultaneously alienated from and defined by their roots, while others like Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (b. 1904), who writes in his first language Yiddish and then translates his own prose into English, have adopted more explicitly Jewish themes in exploring the immigrant in the new world.

Over the last two decades, the growing pace of literary production by groups of heretofore silent Americans has changed the national consciousness by bringing "modern" problems of identity to the fore. For all that profound differences separate African-, Jewish-, Italian-, Hispanic-, and Asian-Americans, they share an understanding of what it means to be "Other," to be different from the apparent norm of the society into which they have moved.

To feel a sense of unease in one's own country, of course, one need not be foreign born. The Beats (or beat-down), epitomized by the poet Allen Ginsberg and the novelist Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and The Subterraneans (1958), led what Kerouac called the "rucksack revolution." To the Beats, the forerunners of the hippies of the 1960s and today's counter-culture of rock music and rap, the new world had failed and no one could feel rooted or at home in it.

At the same time, native Americans, the only inhabitants of this country who really can lay claim to it and to whom the land is the sacred source of being, know that they have been defrauded of their heritage. Writers like N. Scott Momaday (b. 1934), a Kiowa Indian, and Leslie Marmon Silko (b. 1948), who draws on her Pueblo Indian background, show that the tribal link between physical place and cultural identity complicates the crisis of those who have been displaced in the place they should call home.

Post-War Europe and the Roots of Post-Modernism

While the United States witnessed remarkable economic and social changes, Europe had an entirely different experience during the post-war period. With much of the continent a shambles, the first order of business was to reconstruct and rehabilitate, stimulated by the generous funding of the Marshall Plan during the late '40s. Perhaps fatigued by the intense social, psychological, ethical, and moral questions that their elders had had to confront, young writers distanced themselves from these issues and contingencies. Instead, they created the so-called New Novel, rejecting psychological motivation and refusing to acknowledge "meaningfulness" or even a hierarchical importance to events.

The New Novel

Alain Robbe-Grillet (b. 1922), the movement's most prominent theorist, argues in his important critical work, For a New Novel (1963), that the author ought to disappear completely from his work to dramatize only things and the perception of things. He asks for a totally objective and neutral language that speaks itself without the slightest trace of the author's presence. The writer, then, is only an instrument for writing.

The works of the New Novelists are devoid of any commentary and avoid psychologically developed characters. Events are often repeated, and objects are redescribed from several different perspectives. Actions, often unmotivated, accumulate without any particular order of importance and tend to be fillers between the objects that appear, disappear and reappear. The world of the New Novel is not significant or even absurd; it simply is, there for no particular reader but rather for the activity of reading. The goal of the New Novelist is to teach the reader how to perceive correctly, that is, objectively, as if to be able to perceive correctly may help society to avoid further tragedy. The New Novelists insist that the traditional language of past literature presents an ideological bias, and therefore, needs "purification" if it is to depict and to cope with the external world, a world that is itself, perhaps, only a lie.

The final retreat of literature into the world of language and into its own traditions was felt -- still more heavily -- during the 1960s, the decade in which postmodernism flourished. While postmodernism could, in part, be thought of as a continuation or rediscovery of many of the literary activities of the modernist period, the movement nevertheless differed greatly in emphasis and usage. Modernism cherished the idea that art and literature were sacred undertakings, a privileged means of access to a new kind of truth; art and literature were separate from the "real world," and needed no further justification for their existence. Modernists imbued their creations with design and form, which begged for interpretation.

Although borrowing many of the same strategies as modernism, postmodernism saw a world of futility, frustration, uncertainty, indeterminacy, and rupture. The postmodernist writer consciously believes that literature cannot offer any special or privileged point of view to reveal hidden truths. Literature must only view itself as one code of meaning among many others. The task of literature, then, does not necessarily consist of imitating the real world but rather of imaginatively recreating our everyday reality.

The father and master of the postmodern movement may well be the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Borges leads the reader through worlds of unending labyrinths. His absurdist search for meaning and reliability is formed by allegories that depict the frustrating activity of reading and sense-giving. In fact, one short story, "The Library of Babel" (1941), presents the world as a giant library filled with books, a graphic visualization of life as an infinite network of language, which in turn is only a fiction, or at the very least, an unstable construction of indeterminate meanings. In "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1944), an elegant spy-mystery tale, ambiguity and indeterminacy are also the subjects. Just as real life is a maze of choices, so are fiction and interpretation. It is this choice-making and its impact on the totality of literary operations that so concern Borges. Yet Borges's universe remains aloof, whole and completely intact.

In regarding literature as just one code among many, the postmodernist sensibility has allowed many different kinds and types of literature to flourish. Neither elitist nor exclusively for the educated classes as modernism tended to be, postmodernism is open and interactive with many different codes of culture and society. As a result, narrative subgenres formerly thought to be inferior, like detective stories and science fiction, have now become "respectable," since both explore implicitly and explicitly the search for meaning and truth. The detective's task is to solve mysteries, to synthesize fragmented clues, just as the reader must wrestle with meaning and fragmentation in a text. Science fiction, in turn, explores the impact of creativity on the relationship between fiction and reality, since the wholly imagined world of science fiction must cohere in some ways in order to create sense in the reader's mind.

While the postmodern rejection of external reality went hand in hand with a new conservatism and withdrawal from political action in the French New Novelists, postmodernism can also challenge the conventional codes of bourgeois society by encouraging the literature of special interest groups. If society is to be unmasked and exposed for its ideological manipulations of ethics and values, it must be confronted by writers who can imaginatively retell the world from an alternative point of view or lifestyle. Thus, in the past twenty-five years or so, the women's movement, along with the gay and lesbian movements, has produced literature that decenters males, the family structure, and heterosexual myth-making. In short, such movements have created new ways of seeing the world.

The Emergence of a Global Literature

The Latin American Boom

In line with this new pluralism is a recognition of the extraordinary writing that has been done in various countries and areas of the world not previously associated with "important literature," such as the phenomenal "boom" of the Latin American novel in the 1960s. Armed with the typical postmodernist strategies, writers such as the Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner of 1967, Miguel Asturias (1899-1974); the Colombian Nobel Prize winner of 1982, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (b. 1928); the Mexican Carlos Fuentes (b. 1928); the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936); the Argentinian Manuel Puig (1932-1990); and many, many others have created worlds of fiction that have widely influenced world literature, particularly the novel. Using the savage landscapes and sophisticated native cultures of their homelands, these Latin American writers have given the world a literature that imparts new information from lands rich in imagery and history and offers a sustained, innovative program to explore the nature of fiction and its relationship to political and religious ideologies. Since Latin American writers are all citizens of countries that have experienced violence, prejudice, poverty, and frequent dictatorships and political instability, their lessons and tales are particularly poignant. The "messages" conveyed are hardly propagandistic, even though the ideological temptation is always present.

Latin American fiction, like much postmodern literature, is often marked by "Magic Realism." Magic Realism is a relatively new term for describing a sensibility that mixes everyday reality with magic and the marvelous at will and without notice, but it is not at all a new phenomenon. Readers of eighteenth-century satires like Voltaire's Candide, for example, will recognize that fictional characters are capable of dying and being resurrected; readers of contemporary texts imbued with the perspective of Magic Realism accept that characters may be transformed into animals or live for hundreds of years. Events within these fictional worlds are both the truth and a lie at the same time.

Magic Realism behaves in about the same way that children play their games of fantasy. For example, in the childhood game of cowboys and Indians, one can no longer be in the game or "play," once "killed" by a member of the opposing side and consequently declared "dead." The "fact" of having died is, then, both true and false at the same time. The incorporation of Magic Realism into the Latin American novel has opened up the possibilities for a rich and varied production of fiction, possibly reaching its height in Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a novel of epic proportions that investigates the double mystery of artistic creativity and man's eternal loneliness.

The Post-Communist World

The rapid and unpredicted political transformation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union owes much to the dissident artists and writers who documented the strange and cruel workings of their totalitarian states in the decades following World War II. Novelists, in particular, blending autobiographical and testimonial work with fiction, created hybrid forms variously called "docufiction," "docudrama," "faction," or "autofiction" that exposed the injustice and absurdity of life in the Eastern Bloc. Although sometimes forced into exile, these writers managed to publish their work surreptitiously and attract a wide readership. It is no accident that the first president of the new non-Communist Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, and the interim president of non-Communist Hungary, Arpad Goncz, are both playwrights who spent years in jail for daring to expose the deceitful ideologies of the repressive Communist regime.

It is worth considering why modern literature and art have mattered so much less to ordinary people in the United States than in other countries of the world. Yet those who live in political freedom have much to learn from the fiction of the politically repressed, whose works indict all ideologies, including those which govern public life in the West -- the ideology of mass media, advertising agencies, and the language of literature itself.

The Post-Colonial World

Writers also have played central roles in the countries that have emerged over the last fifty years from the disintegrating colonial empires of France, Belgium, and England. The so-called post-colonial writers who have harnessed the languages of their former oppressors describe reality from their own perspectives. The themes of the post-colonial writers resemble in many ways those of the hyphenated American authors caught, perhaps stranded, both psychologically and culturally, between their lands of origin and of destination. Indeed, some post-colonial writers, like Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay in 1947, may have taken up citizenship in the West, but they have not assimilated. While specific problems vary with specific circumstances in the Caribbean, in Asia, and in Africa, the common denominator is the bewildering multiplicity of cultures, languages, and identities from which to choose, if final choice is ever possible.


(1) A fast-moving sequence of images offering multiple perspectives on and illustrations of a basic theme or idea. previous table of contents