Pessimism in American literatureThe following question was asked by vanbra on June 3, 2012. It seems very insightful and worth discussion. Is American literature in general very pessimistic? I...

Pessimism in American literature

The following question was asked by vanbra on June 3, 2012. It seems very insightful and worth discussion. Is American literature in general very pessimistic? I confess that I never thought about it that way before--but now that I do think about it I have to agree with her.

American literature to me seems very pessimistic, but how can someone argue that there are messages of hope and optimism in these texts?



High School - 11th Grade

Posted by vanbra on June 3, 2012 at 9:28 PM and tagged with american lit, literature, optimism?

8 Answers

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I can certainly see why Dickens and Dostoyevski might be pessimistic, but wny should our literature be so pessimistic when we have freedom, democracy, and abundance? That was what struck me about vanbra's original question of June 3, 2012.

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Wow. Looking back at many of the texts I have read, and have my students read, many are pessimistic. That being said, much of the literature does come from times where the state of society was rather bleak. (Think Of Mice and Men which takes place during the Great Depression.) I guess that I look at literature as something where the response to the piece is far more important. In that sense, I would suggest that while many texts are pessimistic, the response may not be.

bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I have never viewed American literature as any more pessimistic than writing from other nations. Most of Charles Dickens' novels end optimistically but are still filled with huge doses of pessimism. Most American works are similar. My favorite novel, Catch-22, is devastatingly pessimistic about the futility of war, but in the end, even the most pessimistic character of them all, Yossarian, finds a way to save himself. 

kiwi's profile pic

kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

All great literature boils down to sex and/or death. In general, we like a story to have a twist, otherwise it isn't engaging. I don't think this is unique to American literature, but the texts with happy endings are few and far between.

shake99's profile pic

shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

Relevant literature deals with serious problems. Relevant literature also deals with life realistically. Most of us, at some points in our lives, have to deal with difficult issues that don't turn out the way we want. That creates the internal conflict and soul-searching that makes for good literature.

So, yes, American and other types of literature may have a pessimistic tone. We can't have happy endings to problems that don't really work out that way and still have a meaningful literary tradition.

rrteacher's profile pic

rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Which texts was the original question referencing? I would hesitate to generalize about over two centuries of literature. I do think that much recent literature (Jonathan Franzen springs to mind) is fairly pessimistic and concerned with the superficiality of modern life, and you can certainly find plenty of examples of this same attitude in many twentieth century works. 

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Isn't a great deal of all literature quite pessimistic?  I mean, it's not as if Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment are full of hope.  There is also at least some American literature that is not pessimistic.  Huck Finn is supposed to be a classic American novel and it seems relatively hopeful.  So I'm not sure that I agree that US literature is more pessimistic than other countries' literature.

vanbra's profile pic

vanbra | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted on

I was referencing books/novels/stories such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and The Awakening.