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United States of America: Richard Francis

american century fiction life

American fiction is not simply an off-shoot of English literature, but a separate tradition altogether, arising out of what was then a completely new experience: settling the wilderness and building up the institutions and social structure of a western country from scratch. The pilgrim fathers (and mothers) were English people, it is true, but they were refugees, disillusioned with the past, hopeful about the future. On his ship the Arbella, in 1630, John Winthrop looked towards the American coast and foresaw the building of a ‘city on a hill’, and the American dream was born.

The novel form began in Europe in the eighteenth century, a new kind of writing for the newly literate middle class which had grown in numbers and self-confidence as the commercial and manufacturing structure of the modern world came into being. The American colonies during that period were still agricultural and pioneering: in addition, the legacy of puritanism had produced a suspicion of any sort of artistic activity on the grounds that it was at best frivolous and at worst blasphemous (since it challenged God's role as the creator). But when the republic was established after the Revolution of 1776, a new society began to feel the need for a culture and literature to define itself by.

The paradox is that in this country of beginnings the earliest prose fiction tended to be nostalgic in tone, reaching back towards a pioneering way of life that was already in decline on the eastern side of the continent where the authors (and readers) lived. It is almost as if the early writers, like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, wanted to give voice to the two hundred years of white settlement that America had already experienced. More poignantly, they seem to have had a sense that in some fundamental way the dream had already been betrayed. Irving's famous character, Rip Van Winkle, sleeps his life away and misses the Revolution altogether; yet when he awakes, nothing has really changed. Cooper's hero, the explorer Natty Bumppo, sees his wilderness diminished and ultimately destroyed by settlement; Hawthorne dissects the psyche and explores the guilt of his puritan ancestors as they established their townships in the forests. Even Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories have a much more European flavour, uses the Gothic form to explore the lingering hold of the values of the past on the present.

Man and nature: the theme seems to imply man as male as well as man as representative human. Hawthorne places a female character, Hester Prynne, at the heart of The Scarlet Letter (1850), but on the whole female characters, and women writers, are thin on the ground for most of the American nineteenth century, apart from two who had immense popular success and influence: Harriet Beecher Stowe with her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–2), and Louisa May Alcott and her celebration of American family life, Little Women (1868–9).

In the hands of the male authors, the relationship between the sexes seems to have been replaced by male bonding across the racial and cultural divide. Natty Bumppo has his Indian friend Chingachgook, the last of the Mohicans (over a century later the relationship would be echoed by Tonto and the Lone Ranger). Ishmael, narrator of the great Moby Dick (1851), has the south Pacific islander, Queequeg, as his opposite number (though it could be argued that the central relationship is that between Captain Ahab and the white whale itself—which shows in a nutshell how far we are from the world of Charles Dickens and George Eliot). Twenty years later, the hero of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), who loves and reveres his friend Tom Sawyer, shares a raft on the Mississippi with Jim, the runaway slave.

By the end of the nineteenth century Americans were beginning to live in large cities like New York and Chicago; department stores and skyscrapers were appearing; it was time for some fiction that dealt with an urban setting. Stephen Crane's Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893) revealed the depths of life in the Bowery slums; Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) also explored the ways in which money (or the lack of it) turned people into commodities. The move from nature (memorably chronicled in Willa Cather's My Ántonia, 1918) to a civilization that is equally red in tooth and claw allowed women, as authors and characters, to come to the fore. Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) dissected the frustration of a married woman coping with a stuffy husband and a fossilized social code in late-nineteenth-century Louisiana; Edith Wharton, in many novels, dealt with similar predicaments faced by women in New York and other American—and European—environments.

After a century of confronting American history and geography it was time for writers to look back to their origins. It was almost as if they had gone west, literally and imaginatively, as far as they could: lacking a promising horizon in that direction, the only thing for it was to turn round and look eastward. Henry James, like his friend Edith Wharton, was fascinated by what he felt was a European alternative to the materialistic values of America, a world free of the puritan and capitalist work ethic, valuing art and leisure. It was a rather selective perspective, of aristocratic privilege and refinement, but it enabled James to concentrate on psychological dilemmas without any distracting ‘dailiness’ (just as, ironically, Twain's raft, or Melville's whaling boat, or Cooper's wilderness, had permitted an equivalent focus and intensity).

A generation later, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald were seduced by Paris and Pamplona and the Riviera, where characters disillusioned by the First World War could spend time trying (and mostly failing) to find themselves, though Fitzgerald's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), was set on an American east coast that was as riven as Europe was with class warfare. Their great contemporary, William Faulkner, kept his imagination closer to home, exploring a disillusioned deep south of shabby gentility, impoverished white farmers, and black people who had swapped slavery for servanthood, but magically infusing this regional setting with modernist literary experiment.

The Wall Street crash brought the Jazz Age to an end and the 1930s was a grim and ominous decade, brilliantly satirized in Nathaniel West's novellas, and movingly documented in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The black writer Richard Wright produced an extraordinary combination of poetry and polemic in his story of the doomed Negro youth, Bigger Thomas, in his ground-breaking novel Native Son (1940).

After the Second World War the plot gets harder to follow, partly because we are nearer our own time, and partly because the literary scene has become richer and more diverse. Norman Mailer's development from the gritty wartime realism of The Naked and the Dead (1948), through existentialism and absurdism to the documentary novel, demonstrates that anything is possible, while Joseph Heller manages to combine all those elements at once in Catch-22 (1961). Other Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud evoke the predicament of minority culture with a humanity that makes their preoccupations ring true to the wider reading public. Ralph Ellison grafted a hypnotic brand of surrealism on to the legacy of his one-time friend, Richard Wright. J. D. Salinger wrote his sad and funny account of teenage anxiety and rebellion, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), while Jack Kerouac helped to set the agenda for hippy culture with On the Road (1957). In the 1960s Thomas Pynchon began his investigation of American conspiracy (and paranoia) with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), issues which have been explored more recently in the novels of Don DeLillo.

American writing has often bridged the gap between popular and literary fiction, and in recent years Kurt Vonnegut has made science fiction into a mainstream genre with books like Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a marvellous account both of the bombing of Dresden and the ennui of post-war suburban America. Anne Tyler has given a new lease of life to the theme of the family in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), while a darker view of human relationships is apparent in the ‘dirty realism’ of Raymond Carver's sharply written tales of blue collar life and culture, or in E. Annie Proulx's poetic studies of modern-day cowboys, and girls, in her Wyoming short stories, Close Range (1999). Louise Erdrich has chronicled the interaction of whites and native Americans in South Dakota in Love Medicine (1984) and Tracks (1988). Black writing has flourished, with James Baldwin taking on the mantle of Wright and Ellison in the 1960s, to be followed by a new generation, including important women novelists like Alice Walker with The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison with her great exploration of the trauma of slavery, Beloved (1987).

American writing is nowadays as diverse as it has ever been. In the late 1980s we have had Tom Wolfe's vast study of New York high (or at least rich) society, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and a savage revisionist western by Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985). Both these books reach back to earlier achievements, the works of Edith Wharton and Herman Melville respectively, and both relate to each other, in the way they show their central characters trying to find themselves and their place in the urban or natural wilderness. That was, after all, the American task when the first settlers landed, and it has been the American theme from the start of their fiction right up to the present.

See also RICHARD FRANCIS

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