The American Novel Analysis

Puritan influence

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The original Puritan experiment lasted less than one hundred years but indelibly marked American thought and expression. Emphasis on a godly life and personal motives shapes the journals of colonial governors William Bradford (1590-1649) and John Winthrop (1588-1694). Their documents reveal harsh dealings with merchandisers who invaded the colonies only to reap the wealth of the New World. The diaries of Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) and Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) endorse the same catalog of virtues Benjamin Franklin lists in his Autobiography (1791). Puritan temperance, order, frugality, industry, and justice also suited the rational, moral sensibility of Franklin’s Enlightenment God, the deistic Watchmaker-Creator who let the world tick on unhindered.

Though Edwards’s harsh God had been replaced by a nearly indifferent craftsman, America’s habit of thought was focused on the quest for personal identity and spiritual journeys central to Puritan self-examination. The search for identity and meaning articulated in Puritan journals appears in many guises in America’s long-fiction tradition.Herman Melville’s (1819-1891) Ishmael (Moby Dick, 1851), Kate Chopin’s (1851-1904) Edna Pontillier (The Awakening, 1899), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) Amory Blaine (This Side of Paradise, 1920), and Toni Morrison’s (born 1931) Milkman (Song of Solomon, 1977) all struggle with the context and significance of their lives.

Puritan practice shaped American novels metaphorically long after the Spartan spiritual regimen weakened. Puritan preachers reveled in comparisons between the biblical world and their own. Pairing events across time created a deeper sense of significance for American life. Moses’s prophetic leadership made him a model for Puritan patriarchs. As men of God, their calling...

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The twentieth century novel in America

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The effects of speculation and class aspirations on American moral character persisted into early twentieth century novels. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) portrayed the painful significance of class and wealth in a woman’s life in The House of Mirth (1905). Her work explores the dislocation and struggle of people caught in social forces beyond their control. The post-Civil War transition to industrial strength and expansion left New England’s shipping industry and economy weakened, signaling the end of America’s cycle of origination and settlement. Writers Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) recorded the details of village life and change in Pembroke (1894) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), respectively, examining the lives of those who remained when those such as Howells’s Silas Lapham migrated to the city. Unlike Silas, Jewett’s Mrs. Todd Maine is not liable to be corrupted. Freeman’s characters do not fare as well.

Although Freeman’s novel’s central dilemma seems romantic, the sources of tension and tragedy for the inhabitants of Pembroke are the versions of Puritan theology and moral strategies that control village households. Unlike later critics who marginalized the women as quaint, regional authors, Howells lauded their veracity in depicting American life, publishing them as his peers when he was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Their frank look at economic...

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The Harlem Renaissance

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The flowering of culture and identity known as the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom during the 1920’s, at the same time the novels of immigrant experience were appearing. Langston Hughes’s (1902-1967) stories, poetry, and plays, along with Claude McKay’s (1889-1948) Home to Harlem (1928), presented all aspects of African American life. McKay’s work introduced the urban experience of working-class blacks that many black intellectuals chose to downplay. Later, Ann Petry’s (1908-1997) The Street (1946) took another hard look at black urban life, portraying the pressures on a single mother trying to raise her son in Harlem, their lives beset by poverty and the temptations of the street.

Immigrant and African American experiences narrated in novels of the 1920’s showed aspects of the American Dream that Alger overlooked in his optimistic portrayal of opportunity for most whites. However, McKay’s cynical Ray and Cather’s optimistic Alexandra still strove to enter the mainstream. They aspired to knowledge or property as a measure of success, adopting a version of the Puritan work ethic, even with backgrounds far from New England. Insistence on personal independence and the ability to affect one’s destiny is a primary theme in early twentieth century novels.

Morality in American fiction

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The theme of testing moral formulas for material success was present in the stories of mainstream white America as well. The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrates the ironic coexistence of great wealth and moral carelessness. Like Silas Lapham, Jay Gatsby cannot rise in old-money society. The two characters replace the unifying moral framework of Ben Franklin’s schema with faith in a tangible world of goods. For Fitzgerald, relational morality and context changes are emblems of modern society.

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) deals overtly with appearance and reality in Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Sinclair Lewis’s (1885-1951) Elmer Gantry (1927) combines several American strains in the adventure of a rogue evangelist whose commodity is religion. E. L. Doctorow’s (born 1931) Ragtime (1975) explores the interplay of public events and private lives as characters grapple with restless shifts in the American way of life after 1900. John Updike’s (1932-2009) Rabbit series (1960-1990) chronicles striving in the span of one man’s life and milieu. That Night (1987), by Alice McDermott (born 1953), measures love, loss, and success in post-World War II suburban neighborhood life. Finally, Wallace Stegner’s (1909-1993) The Spectator Bird (1976) offers a retrospective on how one man’s professional and private lives coincide in contemporary times. American characters ceaselessly question...

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In fiction, Stephen Crane’s (1871-1900) Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s (1871-1945) Sister Carrie (1900), and Frank Norris’s (1870-1902) The Octopus (1901) exemplify the naturalist movement. Their novels, like those of the FrenchmanÉmile Zola (1840-1902), stress that the forces at work in nature work in humans as well. Transcendence was a myth.

The relentless effect of portraying life as a process controlled by indifferent natural forces put an end to the sentimental romantic tradition that had begun with Washington Irving (1783-1859). The fantastic quality of Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and his folk figure in “Rip Van Winkle” (both from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820) feature American landscapes and the phenomenal effects of the Hudson River Valley light but have no relationship to real events. James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) work is an amalgam of American democratic ideas, Rousseauian philosophy, and Cooper’s fascination with aristocratic England. His Leatherstocking Tales, produced between 1823 and 1841, romanticize Natty Bumppo as a knightlike figure who rights wrongs and is aided by the noble savage Chingachgook. Despite his aristocratic tendencies and the foolishness of some of his scenarios, Cooper’s work remains popular because it promotes the mythic belief Americans have in individual determination, as well as their earlier romantic vision of the American wilderness as a place that could engender the highest ideals in people.

Local colorists

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The pervasive optimism of American devotion to personal success accounts for other bridging novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Novels of local color or of regionalism capture the essence of different geographic areas of American life, which were beginning to erode as the United States was bound together by transportation and communication.

Critics tend to group all local-color writers in a quaint or nostalgic subgenre. In fact, there are distinct differences among the local colorists. The stories of Bret Harte (1836-1902) in the West, George Washington Cable (1844-1925) in Creole Louisiana, Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) in the South, and Mark Twain in the Midwest capture the rambunctious character of life in these regions with dialect and flamboyance. New England’s local-color female writers, discussed previously, pay serious attention to social structure and the business of daily life. Their use of parochial dialect and event portrays one area’s character without claiming superiority. Their work also tends to avoid the irony and satire that pervade most literature produced by men in this school.

Willa Cather’s fiction embodies the serious attention to local detail these women engendered in their view of New England’s rapidly shifting economic landscape. Although written later, her novels O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia chronicle events of an earlier time that all depend on the character of frontier life. Even later, Eudora Welty (1909-2001) and William Faulkner (1897-1962) molded their southern heritage into stories and novels that captured the gothic quality of southern life, which had seeped into the twentieth century. Faulkner created his mythic Yoknapatawpha County as an archetypal southern context. Contemporary African American writers Alice Walker (born 1944), in The Color Purple (1982), and Morrison, in Beloved (1987), focus on African American southern life with clarity and compassion, bringing local color’s emphasis on region and cultural diversity into later twentieth century fiction.


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Muckrakers are known for their crusading vision, as typified by Upton Sinclair’s (1878-1968) The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry that prompted enactment of the first pure food and drug laws. Such effort is a version of the Puritan quest for a new Eden.

Although not preoccupied with social change per se, other American novelists called attention to America’s problems and their costs. Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) wrote Vein of Iron (1935), the story of an Appalachian woman’s struggle during the Great Depression. Character Ada Fincastle’s Scotch-Irish immigrant history and gritty determination enable her to survive as she molds a new working identity for herself. John Steinbeck’s(1902-1968) Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) laid bare the vulnerability of the Joad family, caught, like a sea of other Americans, in the grip of big money and farmers who exploit migrant workers. Tillie Olsen’s (1913-2007) heart-wrenching Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974) was begun in the 1930’s and tells the story of illiterate Anna and Jim Holbrook, who barely survive with their children. Hanging on to hope by the merest thread, they finally settle in a shack near slaughterhouses, where the stench and heat overwhelm them. These two books examine the desperate plight of workers denied the basic requirements of food and decent living conditions, as well as education for their children.

Utopian novels

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Utopian novels offered another alternative to naturalism’s grim paradigms between 1889 and 1900. The most famous, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), influenced social philosophers such as John Dewey. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), an author and lecturer for social reform, wrote three utopian novels. Herland (1915 serial, 1979 book) posits a society free of men that functions perfectly, even on the reproductive level. Her use of humor and the plight of three men stranded in the strange land show just how gender-driven life is in Western society. All the utopian novels explore the interaction of context and culture. Far from the rigid Puritan dogmas, they investigate how to fashion a better world for oneself and society, a dilemma that has plagued Americans since their appearance on the continent.

From the earliest days of derivative sentimental and gothic novels, the creators of American literature sought an indigenous art and culture. They sought to establish aesthetic standards of their own on a par with the standards set by English and other European masters. This often led to consideration of the European preoccupation with hereditary class distinction and how Americans fit into such society, a theme raised to its highest form by Henry James (1843-1916). In The American (1876-1877), Daisy Miller (1878), and The Ambassadors (1903), he showed the dangers inherent in New World sensibilities braving European society, where moral superiority cannot measure up to European style and cultural sophistication. James’s narrative style gave rise to an introspective novel that paved the way for later interior monologues.

The lost generation

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In the 1920’s, European and American values collided in the works of the lost generation, a group of expatriate artists, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller (1891-1980), and Gertrude Stein. These writers fled the United States for the openness and sophistication of the Old World, though the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) corrupted their idealistic beliefs.

Hemingway produced novels that explore individual male quests for masculinity and identity via the odd amalgam of free love, decadent travel, self-indulgence, and foreign civil wars. He filled the epic novel form with American expatriates looking for ultimate reality and self-expression among societies their immigrant forebears and settlers had abandoned. The character Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, finds no way to exert himself for his own or anyone else’s happiness. In 1925, while F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Europe, The Great Gatsby was published, detailing, again, the sad hero’s tragic search for meaning in the material world. In exile, these writers expressed a hopelessness and a cynicism that replaced the faith and vision that had propelled earlier Americans across the Atlantic. Ironically, their works ask more questions about individual worth and possibilities than they answer. The chief values of a European sojourn were cheaper living costs and proximity to new aesthetic trends.

The effect of European forms on American experience can also be seen in the development of the gothic genre in American literature. Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) legacy lived on in the southern traditions fed by genteel aristocratic customs that exploited slaves, where graceful manners coexisted with the violence of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. Faulkner’s broken perspective in The Sound and the Fury (1929) creates dislocation in reader and narrative progression. Carson McCullers’s (1917-1967) novels furnish a cast of unconventional characters who long for safety. Flannery O’Connor’s (1925-1964) tortured Catholics clutch at a faith that offers only torment. Harper Lee’s (born 1926) protagonist, Atticus, in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as well as plain-spoken characters from Welty’s southern novels, counteract the gothic mutations. Their compassionate portrayals offer a South tolerant of eccentricity, a region trying to comprehend the effect of changing times on tradition and decorum.

American modernism

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American modernism, launched by the 1913 Armory Show in New York, prefigured the collapse of spirit after World War I that led to the cynicism and materialism of the Jazz Age. Modernism’s emphasis on the unpredictability of narrative time and voice echoed uncertainties about the permanence of values and life’s possibilities. Doubt altered the form and emphasis of modern American novels. The search for identity became acutely personal in J. D. Salinger’s (born 1919) The Catcher in the Rye (1951), as well as in Jack Kerouac’s (1922-1969) Beat classic, On the Road (1957). The protagonists of Saul Bellow’s (1915-2005) Herzog (1964) and John Irving’s (born 1942) The World According to Garp...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Adamson, Lynda G. Thematic Guide to the American Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Discusses recurring themes in the American novel, including alienation, death, family, immigrant life, race, nature, and the search for identity. Features excerpts from novels of all literary periods that exemplify these themes.

Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. Provides insight into and critical commentary on the modern novel in the United States. A much-used resource.

Crane, Gregg. The Cambridge Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century American Novel. New...

(The entire section is 440 words.)