I'm studying the representation of violence in 20th century American literature. Could you perhaps provide me with some context behind the use of violence in American literature, e.g. its...

I'm studying the representation of violence in 20th century American literature. Could you perhaps provide me with some context behind the use of violence in American literature, e.g. its beginnings and also its prevalence in recent times? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With two world wars in the twentieth century and the proliferation of organized crime, and the Great Depression, America became all too familiar with the baseness of man's nature. Therefore, with the rise of Naturalism in literature, authors portrayed what is inherent in man's nature in chronicles such as Ernie Pyle's Here Is Your War and other works, then, in Ernest Hemingway's short stories and novels in which soldiers find themselves detached and alienated. Satires such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 point to the devalued life of a soldier and the exploitation of the foot soldier for the gain of bureaucrats and officers.

In his doctoral dissertation, Necessary Evil: Rhetorical Violence in 20th Century American Literature,Texas A&M's James A. Baker writes,

Rhetorical violence functions to promulgate the author's ideology by emotionally jarring the reader loose from commonly-held ideological assumption in three specific appeals:

  1. to negate one socially-held ideology in order to promote a conflicting one
  2. to elicit compassion for victimized characters representing social ills
  3. to call into question the validity of social institutions and practices 

1. Certainly Flannery O'Connor employs violence in her works to shake the souls of both her characters and her readers. In stories such as "A Good Man is Hard to Find," O'Connor demonstrates that violence is the avenue to moral redemption for the main character of the grandmother. For all her sanctimony, it is not until she is stripped of her family and looking at the end of the gun belonging to the Misfit that she experiences her epiphany: she realizes that the Misfit is one of her "children"; that is, they are all depraved by sin. As she accepts him, saying, "Why, you're one of my children" and he murders her, the grandmother experiences grace and redemption. Only by experiencing evil, can we know grace

2. Many of the works of 20th century African-American writers use acts of violence to cause readers to sympathize and understand the condition of blacks who lived prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Toni Morrison's Beloved exemplifies the absolute desperation of a mother who kills her child rather than witness it become a slave. This murderous act of love is shocking, yet it declares the evil of slavery and the absolute desperation of a mother amid such social ills.

Writers and poets both often use images of the body under violence when they wish to disturb their readers. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" certainly depicts graphic scenes of violence in order to illustrate metaphorically, among other things, the punishments of drug usage.

3. Another way in which African-American authors, and others, as well, point to the incongruity and lack of validity of social institutions is through the depiction of violence. For instance, in his "Battle Royal," Ralph Ellison illustrates with violence the exploitation of the white males who watch with sadistic pleasure a boxing match of sorts among young black males. Later, this young men are subjected to electric shocks as they try to pick up coins that are thrown to them.

Perhaps, the poet Wallace Stevens explains best the use of violence in literature:

The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

Dr. Baker concludes that by using violence in literature an "act is cut from its ethical moorings and becomes a free radical." Although free, it is yet as intense as when it is in its original form, but the author now can "redefine it and load it with a new meaning," its rhetorical one.

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