January 21, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Central Themes in the 20th Century American Novel
Some Incomplete and Random Notes

Freedom has always been the primary national value of America; the writing during this time usually addresses the failure to obtain the ideal of freedom. The century begins with a naturalistic outlook on life followed by a backlash against traditional values after the devastation of World War I. The ’20s were a decade of excess materialism gone mad. Writers do not approve of this trend and react against it accordingly. Following the roaring ’20s, the stock market crash precipitated economic and political depression. World War II’s holocaust and nuclear weapons increases the country’s instability with the threat of Armageddon. Therefore, the act of creating art is the foremost freedom for the twentieth-century artist. Artistic imagination holds the world together; art is something positive out of the chaos of the everyday, valueless world. Writing becomes an affirmation and hope that a new order can be achieved—that a restructuring is possible at least on a personal level.

There is a resistance to everything that attempts to force order, or any manifestations of dogmatic coercion. America represents excessive disorder while Russia is a country of excessive order. This sparks a temptation for ready-made answers.

An aversion to material values and mechanism that were (are) seen to cause dehumanization—humans becoming machines. Modern humans have lost their humanity and now must engage in a quest to find it again. The breakdown of Christianity and community marks the end of innocence—these simple values will no longer suffice in giving answers to the twentieth-century’s more complex questions. Like T. S. Eliot’s knight in The Waste Land, the modern man must “put his lands in order” by finding the holy grail: the way to live. The writer must find and present values that can give life meaning in an ostensibly meaningless universe. What can be made of a diminished thing, i.e. humanity?

Values become relative, no longer absolute and dogmatic, but private and necessary. With the demise of faith, the writers often look to the regenerative powers of nature. Alienation from God, society, and the universe is often a product of this questing. How can we overcome being a stranger to everything that we had once held as the truth? We must existentially create our own meaningful world—this becomes the new definition of freedom for the twentieth-century artist.

Literary Movements in Twentieth-century America

The novel is fairly new genre in America, having only become popular around 1790. Charles Brockton Brown is considered the first American novelist (Edgar Huntly and Weiland). He was the father of the psychological novel—the chief American idiom—and influenced Poe and Hawthorne.

Romanticism was the first movement that pursued the truth through non-rational means. Logic and reason stood in the way to personal truth in a sensual exploration. The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick helped to expand the novel from a bourgeois genre to the modern novel. The Romantic period ends after the Civil War.

Realism is less concerned with the quest for truth, yet the best writers of this era—James, Howells, and Twain—transcend simple realism in their best works.

Naturalism takes a scientific approach to art. Generally people are driven by Darwinian determinism; they have no meaningful or effective control in a cause-and-effect universe. Objective, non-judgmental, and environmental forces act upon the human character. Newtonian physics (absolute, physical cause and effect) coupled with Darwinian evolution (survival of the fittest) are the main ideas behind naturalism. Man is not beyond the atavistic reach these forces: environment determines character. Freewill is not a factor in the naturalistic view of things. Sundry chance occurrences and accidents act upon the character producing a determined, chemical result. The characters take on a binary existence only able to hope for pleasure and fear pain. Both inner and outer forces are beyond the character’s control; chemical compulsion is the essence of naturalism. Naturalism ususally uses the lower classes as exemplars of naturalistic tendencies. Norris, Crane, and Dreiser represent America’s most-respected naturalists.

Modernism is made of a generation of writers that survived the destruction of World War I. This devastation included the obliteration of inherited values or any semblance of order and structure. This brought the end of a progressive era (the “age of innocence”) that believed that dreams could be achieved, that altruism was the key to societal woes, and general American prosperity. The horror and waste of the war altered the realities of a generation of young Americans inspiring intellectual disillusionment and cynicism; they were described by Gertrude Stein as the “lost generation.” The traditional values of country, church, and family grounded in optimism, idealism, hope, and innocence were lost. The center had been destroyed, and this generation was left in a directionless, valueless void, strangers to themselves and the world. This is a time of emotional confusion, chaos, and faithlessness.

Four intellectual revolutions added to the war’s effect on the modernists.

  1. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species questions man’s divinity, precipitating theological abandonment.
  2. Marx’s political philosophy questions social order, capitalism, and present political economies.
  3. Freud’s work on the subconscious dethrones the conscious, rational mind as the dominant force in human cognition.
  4. Einstein’s theory of relativity (and Heizenberg’s uncertainty principle) overthrows Newtonian physics.

The artists of modernism turned inward to find the truth since the external world was one of chaos. As a result, truth became relativistic, subjective, and personal, lacking absolutes. This fluctuating reality became the basis of modernist interpretation of the universe. We construct our own reality based upon an individual and provisional interpretation of internal values. The psychological novel, then, is the best representation of the modernist zeitgeist. Since the values presented by the author are his/her own, the novel’s message and reality are limited. We, as readers, can choose to believe that the artist’s representation of reality as germane to our condition, but the modern novel does represent a truth to the artist who created it; it is his vision of reality, truth.

In modernism, all types are removed and rendered invalid. The artist must reinvent the art to match his/her personal vision. This makes much modern art as difficult, if not impossible, to understand as it is to create. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land represents the modernist zeitgeist. He portrays the West as physically, intellectually, and spiritually exhausted—floundering for meaning. Wastelanders have lost their connection with their roots—“all gods [are] dead and all faiths in man [are] shaken” in this world of fragments. Many try to escape the desolation with alcohol, but they only succeed in spinning their wheels. Eliot offers a solution: love, sympathy (compassion), and self-discipline could make life worth living again. The knight’s quest is to find these values in life; the holy grail can offer a new center, value, and purpose. While these sound like Christian values, the institution of Christianity could not withstand World War II’s destruction—these values must be found internally, within the heart and mind of the individual. We must relearn how to live.

The Social, or proletarian, novel represents a third movement in the twentieth-century novel. Also dubbed the “new naturalism,” the social novel, while it contains aspects of naturalism, focuses on the lower class’ struggles . . .