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? vanbra Student High School - 11th Grade Posted by vanbra on June 3, 2012 at 9:28 PM and tagged with american lit, literature, optimism?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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