Modern North American Literature 101: Socio-political Overview: Roots and Context
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:
Modern North American Literature 101: Introducing Modern North American Literature
Modern North American Literature 101: Socio-political overview: Roots and Context
Modern North American Literature 101: Fundamental, Must-Read Works
Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric
Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity - whose voices, for whom?
Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories
Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature
Modern North American Literature 101: The Legacy of Modern North American Literature
Modern North American Literature 101: Socio-political Overview: Roots and Context
As James Baldwin once expressed in his article ‘A Talk to Teachers’ in The Saturday Review, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it” (Baldwin, 1963). Throughout the 20th century, this longer and larger history had been questioned and challenged. It is probably undeniable that the great myth of American prosperity and democracy was built with the oppression of other marginalized groups. Activists and authors like Baldwin presented in their work the socio-political consequences of American history. Considering the staging of a social revolution in the US, the 20th century meant confronting its past mistakes and, to some extent, attempting to remedy them. Hence, a great number of social struggles faced by American individuals were evidently represented in Modern North American Literature. Some of those are classism, racism, gender-based discrimination, religious confrontation, sexuality, and the growing armed conflict that swamped the civil rights movement.
Moreover, international affairs had an impact on the definition of American identity and social behavior, as well as patriotic sentiment. Events such as World War I and II, and the overall expansion of Communism and Marxism confronted in the Cold War had an effect on American culture, which strived to accentuate its differences from Europe and the East. Nonetheless, the melting pot the American government promoted internationally clashed with the salad bowl America was internally. For example, Smith (2004) argues that in WWII, “representational conventions were being established across various media that would be extremely important at war’s end. The most common breakthrough was the inclusion of regional and ethnic types as ordinary Americans working side by side […]. The melting-pot list of names as a formulaic statement of democratic inclusion circulated widely” (Smith, 2004, p. 23). Therefore, this article will present the main events that marked the development of the 20th-century US both internationally and internally, and thus, how they mostly influenced the literature of the time.
Entering the War Century
Society and culture go hand in hand in any social context. One cannot exist without the other most of the time. Yet, society is formed by countless individuals, without two ever being the same. At the turn of the century, individualism was at the center of American culture and society. The self-made individual was regarded as the ultimate goal, primarily by middle-class men, who were encouraged to transcend their economic and social status single-handedly and successfully in order to climb the social ladder. As Borus (2008) explains, “there was an underlying material basis to this autonomous self. Republican thought put great emphasis on property ownership as the guarantee of mastery, control, independence, and eventually the ability to be and govern oneself” (Borus, 2008, p. 124). The main character of The Great Gatsby (1925) greatly embodies such a belief. Nonetheless, the expression for this utopian achievement of the Roaring Twenties stemmed from the afterlife of World War One.
On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war on the German Empire. Interestingly enough, their initial collaboration was through the provision of materials, money, and supplies. It is important to remember that until that moment, the US had led a more isolationist approach to foreign affairs regarding European politics. Yet, the US economy experienced an influx of wealth that increased the economic capacity of its citizens after the war ended. Culturally speaking, “the status of multiplicity in American culture resembled a war within the war. […] Victory, they argued, required national unity around a singular standard” (Borus, 2008, p. 226). In fact, the great narratives of war advertised by yellow journalism and other propaganda persuaded young men to enlist for a common American cause. The home front, mostly run by women, was also captivated by the great narrative of saving the old continent. Bravery, heroism, and military glorification swindled the young minds of those who faced the first modern war in history.
Furthermore, the literary consequences of both World Wars, which in turn reflected the emotional atmosphere of American society, were the common denominator for many of the 20th-century literary works. The psychological afterlife of war in American soldiers shaped and propelled literature trends and forms to evolve. As explained in the first 101 article, after World War II, forms, themes, and mental health representation took on a more abstract, non-linear direction to Postmodernism. That is, reality appeared insufficient to digest the actual events that partook in Europe from 1939 to 1945. Accordingly, American society was exposed to the first technological attack on American soil: Pearl Harbor. Geographically, the US had been physically and militarily attacked on a few occasions. The attack on Pearl Harbor implied there were cracks in the external armour presented by the American government. As a consequence, the national identity had to be strengthened. Therefore, the US worked on promoting American society, not as a reality, but as a social canon. Considering European national relationships had to be reinforced, the US swapped in as the main great power of the 20th century. From then onwards, the rest of the world recalibrated their societies according to the American filter since they had a bigger piece of the cake, figuratively speaking.
However, the American intrusion into world affairs paved the way for the current global market that not only involved North America and Europe but a great chunk of Asia. As Frieden (2012) explains, “the growth of these regional blocs has contributed to the expansion of economic authority beyond the traditional economic powers. While the United States remains the world’s largest economy, it no longer stands alone in terms of economic influence. The United States today has become, in many ways, just another country” (Frieden, 2012, p. 156). For reasons that surpass the scope of this 101 series, the reasons for the decline of American influence after 9/11 cannot be dealt with here. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the 20th century was, generally, the United States century. Analogously, if the 19th century was Queen Victoria’s century, and thus, the British century, the 20th was undoubtedly the American century for politics, economy, literature, and other forms of art.
The Internal American Turmoil
As exposed, the US presented itself as a united front in contrast to the shambles found in post-war Europe and to other socio-political frames around the world. However, as Baldwin himself exposes, “there are in this country tremendous reservoirs of bitterness which have never been able to find an outlet, but may find an outlet soon” (Baldwin, 1963). Internally, in the cobwebs of the true American society, America was at war with itself. Society was highly fragmented into subdivisions that depended on the great white male majority who ruled the country. Correspondingly, with the rise of women's suffrage, feminism started to gain a more crucial role in accomplishing a more progressive American culture. Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger performed their activism in favour of the female population’s demands and necessities. The former led the campaign for the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, while the latter protested for the right to birth control which evolved into the famous Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Paul and Sanger fought for the unity of female voices that, regardless of their political values or personal beliefs, could work together for a common goal. As Alice Paul announced in her speech on Forming a Woman’s Party in 1916,
“Now, if women who are Republicans simply help the Republican Party, and if women who are Democrats help the Democratic Party, women’s votes will not count for much. But if the political Parties see before them a group of independent women voters who are standing together to use their voice to promote Suffrage, it will make Suffrage an issue – the women voters at one become a group which counts; whose voices are wanted” (Paul, 1916).
In addition, the political and social atmosphere of first-wave feminism translated into artistic literary works in both poetry and prose. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that this feminism is intrinsically white. White women activating for white women’s rights. Until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, only some free African American men were granted the right to vote through the 15th Amendment. It would not be until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all African Americans were allowed to vote. In those 45 years, the black population was evidently discriminated against for their skin colour, and within the population, for gender, since black women were gender-discriminated as well. Many female black authors of the postwar era such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, or Alice Walker did in fact cover this discrimination in their work. Being Black and being a woman added the double of oppression upon one individual who had no public voice whatsoever.
In regard to art forms, since the abolition of slavery, “black people actively and freely would define themselves rather than accepting white society’s artistic, legal, and social prescriptions of blackness” (Williams, 2015, p. 36). Well into the Roaring Twenties, and due to the Great Migration, the Harlem neighborhood became the center and spotlight for the African American cultural movement with jazz and blues, and famous clubs. The poet Langston Hughes, the novelist Nella Larsen, and the performer Josephine Baker are some of the iconic faces and names that present the Harlem Renaissance. As Brown (2015) argues, “fine art had an inseparable relationship to the low down, funky, dirty jazz and blues cultures coming into Harlem […]. They furnished the core qualities of African American culture, […] what was singular about the race’s contribution to the nation, black intellectuals and artists looked backward for a usable past” (Brown, 2015, p. 52). Naturally, much of the art involved race, class, and gender issues focused on the black community, radically oppressed by white people.
Another millstone African Americans had to carry was segregation, the forced separation of a body of people according to a set of characteristics. In the US, only race was the defining factor for segregation. Accordingly, the civil rights movement arose with great force in the entire country. Martin Luther King became the face of the movement for equal rights between races by means of pacifist protest and civil disobedience. His 17-minute-long speech ‘I Have a Dream’ resonated throughout the whole of the United States. He declared:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned” (King, 1963).
Yet, white America was not prepared for the desegregation and reconciliation of all people, regardless of their race. The assassination of activists such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and the arrest of Rosa Parks for the Montgomery bus boycott demonstrate that “although blacks attempted to close the gap between black and white citizenship, whites were equally up to the task of maintaining white privilege. Good black citizenship created an opening for some blacks to succeed, but the white response used black authenticity as a representation of bad black citizens” (Hohle, 2013, p. 129). Authors such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Ralph Ellison carried on the torch of the basic goal of the civil rights movement: to highlight the injustices African American people suffered and demand an end to it.
The Queer Crusade
Another latent debate throughout the 20th century, and that only surged in the late 1970s, concerns the rights, integration, and acceptance of the queer community. In America, this issue was deeply intertwined with the strong-held religious beliefs in the country. Christianity, as the most prevalent religion at the time, stood opposite to free sexual speech. Respectively, “a central theme of postwar discourse on American sexuality was the relation between private sexual behaviors and the public interest” (Reumann, 2005, p. 33). Therefore, the debate relied on whether American society was open to the idea of allowing a safe space for the discourse and representation of non-normative sexuality. When the straight line for gender and sex started to bend, America responded according to the patriarchal heteronormative traditional values which had stood for centuries. Despite gender and sexuality adding ingredients to the salad bowl, “gays and lesbians become demonized in mainstream literature and the public sphere, […]. This homophobic atmosphere of the Cold War inevitably shaped the literature of gay and lesbian writers. Often writers had to bury their treatments of gay identity and gay life in stories of tragedy or […] cryptic narratives” (Bibler, 2015, p. 127).
Moreover, with the AIDS epidemic, American society kept on fragmenting due to the intolerance of sexual and gender diversity. For example, many queer neighborhoods were violently raided by the police; Stonewall is the most famous example. Beyond the social action taken, activism through literature also became essential. As Minich (2015) claims, “the telling of such stories helps us understand sexuality in its full complexity not because these texts claim to represent a universal queer experience but because of their emphasis on […] ‘a model of nonrepresentative, dispersed, displaced selfhood’” (Minich, 2015, p. 61). Authors such as James Baldwin, poet Audre Lorde, and philosopher Judith Butler approached these issues in their work.
Butler is prominently recognised for their work on Gender Studies and decentring the binary traditional standards of gender expression and identity. Masculinity, femininity, and the fluctuating state between both allowed Butler to theorise that “gender is ‘unnatural’, so that there is no necessary relationship between one’s body and one’s gender. In that case, it will be possible to have a designated ‘female’ body and not to display traits generally considered ‘feminine’: in other words, one may be a ‘masculine’ female or a ‘feminine’ male” (Salih, 2002, p. 46). Notwithstanding, the gender spectrum and identity were not critically discussed until the very late 1990s, even if activists like Marsha P. Johnson sounded familiar, and integrated into American culture way into the 2000s. Clearly, although America was considered a progressive, developed country, the multiplicity of expressions and identities was not something 20th-century America was ready for. Given the topic is outside the historical context this series contends with, it should be stated that the 21st century is attempting to solve and reconcile many wrongdoings that American society disregarded due to patriarchal stereotypes, traditional beliefs, and roles of behavior.
Overall, this article has strived to summarize how the American social and political context has greatly affected its literature. First, from an international perspective and accounting for both the First and Second World Wars, the literature was shaped and affected by the experience and aftermath of the war. As a consequence, the United States of America came to represent a country of freedom and opportunities because of its booming economy and progressive beliefs. However, the homogeneous appearance the country wanted to portray did not correspond to the actual heterogenic diversity of inner America, only displayed to its citizens. Secondly, the controversies regarding sex, gender, and race were the actual reality that Americans were part of. That is, real America transcended international successful relations and economic prosperity. In fact, its culture and society were authentic exhibitions of either success or failure. America has failed socially in many ways, and for that reason, artists and authors have provided naturally the struggles and reality of the human condition, specifically in the United States. Hence, beyond the statistics and historical facts, literature has become the perfect outlet, as Baldwin said, to express the atmosphere and social phenomena of the time for those that found themselves on the edges of society.
Baldwin, J. (1963). A Talk to Teachers. Zinn Education Project. Teaching People’s History. Retrieved from https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baldwin-talk-to-teachers. Accessed February 9th, 2023.
Bibler, M. (2015). The Cold War Closet. In S. Herring (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 122-138). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCO978110711025.010
Borus, D. (2009). Twentieth-Century Multiplicity: American Thought and Culture, 1900-1920. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Brown, J. (2015). Harlem Nights: Expressive Culture, Popular Performance, and the New Negro. A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by Sherrard-Johnson (Ed.). pp. 51-64. https://doi-org.are.uab.cat./10.1002/9781118494110.ch3
Frieden, J. (2012). From the American Century to Globalization. The Short American Century: A Postmortem. Edited by Andrew J. Bacevich. Harvard University Press.
Hohle, R. (2013). Black Citizenship and Authenticity in the Civil Rights Movement / Randolph Holhe. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203569115
King, M. (1963). I Have a Dream. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety
Minich, J. (2015). Writing Queer Lives: Autobiography and Memoir. In S. Herring (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 59-72). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9781107110250.006
Paul, A. (1916). Forming the Woman’s Party – April 9, 1916. Archives of Women’s Political Communication. Iowa State University. Retrieved from https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/2020/10/21/forming-the-womans-party-april-9-1916/
Reumann, M. (2005). American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/j.ctt1pnzck
Salih, S. (2002). Judith Butler / Sara Salih. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203118641
Smith, J. (2004). Visions of Belonging Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960 / Judith E. Smith. Columbia University Press. https://doi.org/10.7312/smit12170
Williams, A. (2015). Postbellum, Pre-Harlem: Black Writing before the Renaissance. A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by Sherrard-Johnson (Ed.). pp. 35-50. https://doi.org.are.uab.cat./10.1002/9781118494110.ch2
Figure 1. The Melting Pot metaphor. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melting_pot
Figure 2. American Propaganda for World War I. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/world-war-1-propaganda-woodrow-wilson-fake-news
Figure 3. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin informed on the Pear Harbor bombing. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/pearl-harbor-ultimate-guide-attacks
Figure 4. American women protesting for their right to vote. Retrieved from https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/womens-suffrage-in-america/
Figure 5. Martin Luther King delivering his speech 'I Have a Dream' in 1963. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/I-Have-A-Dream
Figure 6. The only known photograph of the first night of protests during the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots