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Modern North American Literature 101: Fundamental, Must-Read Works


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historic, social, economic, and most importantly, literary events which unfolded within the United States of America, spanning from the 20th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast to previous phenomena, the 20th century entailed an extreme disruption of morality, ethics, and priorities that affected the rest of the world. This series attempts to assess how the North American literary scene engaged with the socio-political panorama that engorged the patriotic American sentiment of that time, which both World Wars and the Cold War largely contributed to fueling over the period. Furthermore, it will also attempt to analyze how literature became a means and medium to protest against social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism. This analysis will involve the study and examination of literary movements and literary criticism that clearly influenced the evolution of American literature, resulting in a deep, outstanding, and long-lasting impact on the American sense of identity, only to see it shift further as the 21st century opened.

The North American Modern Literature 101 series consists of eight articles, arranged in the following order:

  1. Modern North American Literature 101: Fundamental, Must-Read Works

  2. Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric

  3. Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity - whose voices, for whom?

  4. Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories

  5. Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature

  6. Modern North American Literature 101: The Legacy of Modern North American Literature

Modern North American Literature 101: Fundamental, Must-Read Works

American Literature is by far one of the youngest realms of literature. The twentieth century accumulated most of the great American works since American independence. The nineteenth century supposed the consolidation of national identity and the US as a potential great power. Subsequently, 20th-century works were essential for understanding America as a national identity, not only as an already-established great power since World War I but also as the propeller of new literary trends and forms. Clearly, many of the works from this period are influenced by authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Merville. Yet, modern American culture and society introduced new themes and contexts that allowed for greater literary works, the imprint of which still influences current literature today. Nonetheless, as explained in the second 101 article, American culture was fundamentally male-dominated, specifically by white heterosexual individuals, whose voices had the right to be heard. Therefore, a great number of works recognized nowadays, and considered fundamental for the study of Modern North American literature, deal with certain topics exclusive to this population. In short, the texts primarily introduced in this article belong to the white heteronormative patriarchal atmosphere.

In addition, these works are basically renowned because of their supposed faithful representation of the human experience; to the extent of some of them being labelled as Great American Novels or GANs. The American experience and spirit are crucial for the success of such novels. However, it is imperative to understand the ambition to generate GANs. The term was first coined by John William De Forest, a nineteenth-century realist writer, in 1868, overlapping with the rise of the novel in America. As Buell (2014) introduces, “De Forest envisaged a work that would capture ‘the American soul’ by portraying ‘the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence’ in a ‘tableau’ that would grasp the full geographical and cultural range of national life” (Buell, 2014, p. 24). It goes without saying that such an experience was essentially white, male, and heterosexual. That is, they fomented a particular identity as the country kept on politically and economically developing. Such identity is presently being discussed since this type of categorization has disposed of other key novels.

Figure 1. Map of Great American Novels, displaying 42 renowned titles linked to their geographical setting in the USA.

In fact, the term gained recognition quite rapidly. The search for the American novel was not only a literary goal, but a social one. The narration had to depict real America by demonstrating the factual possibility of the American Dream, which suffered constant changes on a contextual basis. Nonetheless, the basic notion of the American dream was America as the land of opportunities. Thus, “the great American novel could not be based on local or sectional ideas: it had to concern the nation as a whole” (Hayes, 2012, p. 139). However, although not all the novels achieved GAN acknowledgment, many fundamental novels did reach a privileged status within American literature that produced furore and wide interest among the readerships. Consequently, this article focuses on introducing some Great American Novels as well as other focal texts and authors that contributed to the flare-up of American literature as a global phenomenon.

Roaring the Twenties with The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 and written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is considered the first Great American Novel of the 20th century. Told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, this novel, in broad outline, relates the love story which took place between Gatsby and Daisy during the Roaring Twenties. The glamorous and consumeristic setting of the Prohibition era decorates the story by displaying the economic extravagance and pompousness of American citizens. Basically, Gatsby, as a self-made man, swims against the tide to destabilize and challenge the notion of old money versus new money, effectively questioning whether the latter has a place in American society. Climbing the social ladder supposed a controversy that both challenged class hegemony and opened the gates to the American Dream.

Figure 2. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the end, Gatsby probably bit more than he could chew. By cheating and deceiving his audience, Fitzgerald ponders on the perception of authenticity as the introduction to economic and social prosperity the American Dream promises. In other words, Fitzgerald experiments with the dream’s accessibility and realness. That is, whether being a Gatsby is essential and a requirement for the social and economic success envisioned in America. As Batchelor comments, “Gatsby could never achieve his all-consuming goal, even though people around him may have contended that his wealth and power were the final aspiration. […] Certainly, Fitzgerald demonstrated keen insight into Gatsby’s real desire by making all the traditional signs of success […] inconsequential” (Batchelor, 2013, p. 144). Consequently, the reason why this text is fundamental for 20th-century American literature falls back to the trustworthiness America started to project through its literary channels. Gatsby embodies the dichotomy of personal truth and social survival; the lengths one will strive to in order to chase a phantom.

Surviving the Great War with A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms follows Frederic Henry serving in World War One. Published more than ten years after the war, Hemingway was one of the first American authors to break the silence of a long period without war-related works. The shock and trauma suffered by many soldiers carved a scar in American fervor. The act of writing and representing such experiences supposed a writer’s block for many. Hemingway himself used his own experience at the Red Cross to faithfully show his traumatic experience. For this reason, psychological realism began to take on a larger role in American literature. The novel per se does not devote itself to on-combat conflict, but rather on the constant push and pull between Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death) in war and its aftermath in Henry’s private life, i.e., his affair with Catherine.

Figure 3. A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway.

Psychological realism in Hemingway’s text involves the ideas of the absurdity of war and the banality of life. Chiefly, Hemingway questions the military system and campaign of great metanarratives war subjects its victims to. Correspondingly, “Hemingway has fashioned a new form of tragedy in which the hero acts not mistakenly but supremely well, and suffers a doom which is not directly caused by his actions at all. The belief that life is a tragedy, life itself, has become the backbone for a new literary structure” (Merrill, 1974, p. 572). Therefore, although A Farewell to Arms is not labelled as a GAN, Hemingway impelled the wording of a social reality that impacted not only the United States, but other world powers. Consequently, Hemingway proposed that the economic grandeur the US achieved after the war was non-analogous to emotional and psychical turmoil suffered by both combatants and noncombatants.

Anger in Depression with The Grapes of Wrath

Another Great American Novel that marked the 20th-century literary scene was Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck published in 1939. Extremely controversial at the time, the novel realistically depicts the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and its subsequent Great Depression. One of its major consequences is the great migrations of farmer families to cities in search of jobs and economic amelioration. The main family featured in the novel, the Joads, migrate from Oklahoma to California in order to escape the harshness of the Depression and the storms of the Dust Bowl. Highlighting the migration of working-class families from the South to more accommodated geographical locations such as California allowed Steinbeck to distance the American novel from urbanity and redirect it to another social reality within American borders, the poverty of rural life. Yazell, a professor of Literature at the University of Southern Denmark whose thesis and work focus on the literary treatment of migration movements and the issue of homelessness, maintains that:

“Steinbeck resorts to the language of race and national types in order to frame the debate over migrant labor in terms of preserving the future integrity of the nation-state. […] At once Steinbeck conflates race, class, and nationalism to make a claim about the temporal integrity of migrant labor: by delineating the face of the “new” migrant worker, he produces a thoroughly nostalgic vision of “the old American way” (Yazell, 2017, p. 504).

Figure 4. Map retracing the route of the migration in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck.

Consequently, the systematically structured and economically oppressive capitalistic class warfare collapsed vertically, that is, those at the top of the social structure found themselves at the bottom, crushing those who were already there. The already impoverished population sought migration to the socio-economic stifling situation. In Steinbeck’s case, he “frames the political reform he is seeking -more federal oversight of the wages and working conditions of migrant labor- around the moral issue of preserving America’s spiritual identity. In making this case, however, Steinbeck must play up the most stereotypical cultural and racial underpinnings inherent to this identity” (Yazell, 2017, 507). As America’s spiritual identity of the time is, to an extent, inherently sexist and racist, Steinbeck manipulates the playground he stands on and calculates its moves to provide the social reality of the Great Depression in the United States.

The Irony of War in Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in 1961, along with other works such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, introduce the postmodern era. Despite it not being considered a GAN per se, it has become a cannon among readers, not only for its anti-war sentiment, but also for the satiric and absurd tone that sets the paradox, to the extent that to this day, the title of the novel is still widely used in everyday English as a neologism. In simple terms, a "Catch-22" is a paradox made unescapable by its contradictory nature. It originated in Heller’s novel, in which a character, by requesting to be declared clinically insane to fly missions, indirectly admits to his own sanity, thus ending up not being declared insane. Although the plot of the novel is set in World War II, Heller was most influenced by the Cold War, specifically the Korean War. In addition, “it could be said that Catch-22 turns to absurd humour in order to reflect a society that often appeared irrational and ridiculous […]. War is crazy, but modern American life seems just as bad; undoubtedly Heller himself felt that this was the principal focus of his satire in the book” (McDonald, 2012, p. 59).

Figure 5. Catch-22 exemplified.

In addition to the postmodern non-linear third-person narrative, Heller heavily employs other literary devices such as alliteration, anaphors, and imagery to set the paradox in motion. The reader, as well as the characters, finds themselves in an endless loop of contradictions and limitations beautified by the use of language to criticize the military bureaucracy of the American military system. In effect, “it could be argued that as a postmodern novel, Catch-22 is underpinned by the premise that what is true of the system within the army, counts for the world in general” (McDonald, 2012, p. 68). Hence, Heller launches the establishment of Postmodernism as a literary discourse as rejecting the preconceived American values and morals of the first mid-20th century America.

Poetry and Drama

Since the rise of the novel in America in the mid-19th century, both poetry and drama have acquired a second-rank position in the literary scene. Nonetheless, their contribution is crucial for many theoretical and formal developments of 20th-century literature, since many of its authors were also critics and essayists who discussed the social and political phenomena literature faced. The most essential authors to discuss mostly wrote in the Modernist period. For example, the poet Ezra Pound’s slogan ‘Make it New’ from his collections of essays encapsulates the basic goal of modernism: to create new forms, not ideas; in other words, to reinvent art formally. Ezra’s contemporaries, William Carlos Williams with Spring and All (1923) and T.S Eliot with The Waste Land (1922), contributed to this reinvention of form with Imagism, a movement in which Pound is a precursor too. The authors will be extensively discussed further in the series. Furthermore, there is a shift in dynamics within the Modern North American Literature currents once in the postwar era, as MacGowan, Professor of English in Williamsburg, Virginia, summarizes it in the university handbook about 20th century American Poetry which he published in 2004:

“The polarities against which American poetry defined itself in the last decades of the century are no longer England – or even Europe – and a new continent. They are instead any one, or a mix, of an array of cultures – both internal and those that are the result of broader, especially Latin American and Asian, immigration – that define themselves against a mainstream culture, and make a claim to be part of the nation” (MacGowan, 2004, p. 279).
Figure 6. A colections of essays in Ezra Pounds 'Make It New' (1934).

In contrast, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were more prominent in the postwar era. As noticed by Bigsby (2000), British literary analyst with more than sixty publications to his credit, “it is, however, not merely the literary expression of the experiences of particular sections of American society that have fallen below the threshold of critical attention. There is also another surprising absence, another silence, another example of critical reticence. Whatever happened to American drama?” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 1). One element of explanation might be the relatively restrained accessibility of the theater to actually see a play performed. Only a certain population could afford the theater experience. However, drama can also be read, so the actual reason for the absence of drama in American literary criticism remains somewhat of a mystery. Nevertheless, Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (2947) continues to be one of the most acclaimed plays of the 20th century. Following the dramatized life of Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire discusses the role of the artist, and art overall, in society. That is, how the categorization of artists shifts according to literary cannons and tendencies. In fact, as Bigsby suggests that “it foregrounds the processes of theatre, the elaboration of a structure of meaning out of mere events. It defamiliarizes the real by dramatizing the extent to which, and the manner in which, that reality is constituted” (Bigsby, 2000, p. 4). Furthermore, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awarded Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller follows the lines of many authors by questioning the American Dream and the mental health of working-class individuals.

Conclusion and Other Recommendations

On the whole, 20th-century American literature englobes countless works and authors, who were influenced by and subsequently influenced literary affairs conditioned by social context and background. The Great American Novel supposed a search and chase for a novel that could defend America as an exceptional national identity. Moreover, this article could only afford to include the canonical, most well-known, and recognised authors that are essential for a general understanding of American literary scenes. Since the number of authors and texts per author are so extensive, it is recommended to read other texts such as The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Invisible Man. Poets and authors of the same caliber that could not be included are William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Charles Bukowski, and Paul Auster. Furthermore, the article has strived to demonstrate that most works are a critique or commentary on the social atmosphere of their time. In addition, they introduce new topics in their literature such as psychological realism or non-linear narrative. Finally, even though these works and choices are presented here, it is primary to introduce a diversity of topics, religious, racial, feminist, and others. The miscellany the United States and its literature was conformed by must be included both in its study and culture.

Bibliographical references

Batchelor, B. (2013). Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Bigsby, C. (2000). The Absent Voice: American Drama and the Critic. Modern American Drama, 1945-2000. Cambridge University Press. 1-13.

Buell, L. (2014), The Dream of the Great American Novel. Harvard University Press.

Hayes, K. (2012). The Great American Novel. A Journey Through American Literature. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. 136-157.

MacGowan, C. (2004). Twentieth-Century American Poetry. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

McDonald, P. (2012). Reading Catch-22. Humanities-Ebooks, LLP.

Merrill, R. (1974). Tragic Form in A Farewell to Arms. American Literature, 45(4), 571-579.

Yazell, B. (2017). Steinbecks’ Migrants: Families on the Move and the Politics of Resource Management. Modern Fiction Studies, 63(3), 502-523.

Visual References


Author Photo

Natàlia Vila

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