Tuesday, September 4, 2012


This is a blog initially created by Jesús A. González for his students of English Literature at the University of Cantabria, Spain. It is now open for use by anybody interested in the field.


1.- OLD ENGLISH: Anglo-Saxon Literature (ap.450-1066)

Historical Background: Early Middle Ages ("The Dark Ages")
- Decline and fall of the Roman Empire
- Anglo-Saxon invasions (from Denmark-Germany)
- Native Britons (Celts, among them the legendary King Arthur) move west
- Christianization (from Rome and from Ireland)
- 7 kingdoms
- 9th century: Viking Invasions (Danes: the Danelaw)
- Movement towards unification and fragmentation
- 1066 Norman conquest

Oral tradition: Epic poems, like Beowulf (8th-11th century), which describes the fights of the hero against monsters, warriors and dragons. Alliterative verse (consonant rhyme) as opposed to end-rhyme.

First written texts in Old English: 9th century (Previously, only in Latin): sermons, saints’ lives, biblical translations, Christian poetry. Most famous author: King Alfred (who wrote translations from Latin).

2. – MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE (1066-ap.1485, 1470 “Chancery Standard”, first printing press: a more unified form of English)

Historical background:

- The Middle Ages: Feudalism.
- The Battle of Hastings (1066) brought about the Norman domination of England. (Bilingualism: Norman (a dialect of French, for the higher classes) and English (Middle English, for the lower classes, great diversity of dialects, no clear standard). Deep influence on English: beef/cow, liberty/freedom). Progressive integration of Anglo-Normans.
- House of Plantagenet (1154-1485): Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Magna Carta (1215, Powers of the Parliament). Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Crusades.
- 1337-1453: Hundred Years’ War (over the control of France, dynastic war, beginning of English and French nationalism).

Medieval literature: Society revolved around the Church, so religious values were always present, but priests, monks and nuns were also frequently criticized in medieval literature (particularly in "Goliardic" literature). The feudal system led to chivalric values (bravery, honour, "courtly love") which were shown in chivalric literature. Allegory is also a frequent feature of medieval literature (particularly religious literature). Medieval literature is sometimes very contradictory (because high ideals run together with coarse vulgarity and social criticism) but also very lively and surprising.

- Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400): diplomat and writer, the “father of English Literature”. The Canterbury Tales, (ap. 1386) a collection of 24 stories told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury. Realistic characters, variety of stories. 2 stories in prose, 22 in verse. Influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron.

- Medieval Romances. Chivalric. Adventures of a heroic knight. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ap. 1390, Arthurian Romance: Gawain is a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, symbolic poem).

- Piers Plowman. Allegorical narrative poem. Part theological allegory, part social satire. A quest for true Christian life. Written by William Langland.
Morality plays. Allegorical theatre. A character meets other characters representing moral attributes. Example: Everyman. (with characters like Everyman, God, Death, Beauty, Strenght…) . There were also Miracle Plays and Mystery Plays played in church.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

FINAL EXAM: Jan 21st

Remember the date for the final exam: January 21st. In the exam you will find 5 texts. You will have to choose 4, analyze them and identify the work they come from, the author who wrote them and the period where they appeared. Discuss the period or movement they come from and the significance of the passage within the work and within the general context of English Literature. Here you have
two sample texts:

1. Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

2. Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn't speak to wharf–rat boys, not even to give directions; don't eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school;


The deadline to hand in the Lesson Plan is January 21st (the date of the final exam), although you can bring it earlier if you have it ready. You have two samples here. Remember you have the instructions here and some useful links here. Don't forget to add any materials that you would be using and to mention your sources: books, websites, etc. It's fine to use published materials, just remember to quote them appropriately. The Lesson Plan will be 20% of your final mark.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Number of refrigerators I've lived with: 18. Number of rotten eggs I've thrown: 1. Number of finger rings I've owned: 3. Number of broken bones: 0. Number of Purple Hearts: 0. Number of times unfaithful to wife: 2. Number of holes in one, big golf: 0; miniature golf:3. Number of consecutive push-ups, maximum: 25. Number of waist size: 32. Number of gray hairs: 4. Number of children: 4. Number of suits, business: 2; swimming: 22. Number of cigarettes smoked: 83. Number of times I've kicked the dog: 6. Number of times caught in the act, any act: 64. Number of postcards sent: 831; received: 416. Number of spider plants that died while under my care: 34. Number of blind dates: 2. Number of jumping jacks: 982,316. Number of headaches: 184. Number of kisses, given: 21,602, received: 20,041. Number of belts: 21. Number of f***kups, bad: 6; not so bad: 1,500. Number of times swore under breath at parents: 838. Number of weeks at church camp: 1. Number of houses owned: 0. Number of houses rented: 12. Number of hunches played: 1,091. Number of compliments, given: 4,051; accepted: 2,249. Number of embarrassing moments: 2,258. Number of states visited: 38. Number of traffic tickets: 3. Number of girlfriends: 4. Number of times fallen off playground equipment, swings: 3; monkey bars: 2; teeter-totter: 1. Number of times flown in dreams: 28. Number of times fallen down stairs: 9. Number of dogs: 1. Number of cats: 7. Number of miracles witnessed: 0. Number of insults, given: 10,038; received: 8,963. Number of wrong telephone numbers dialed: 73. Number of times speechless: 33. Number of times stuck key into electrical socket: 1. Number of birds killed with rocks: 1. Number of times had the wind knocked out of me: 12. Number of times patted on the back: 181. Number of times wished I was dead: 2. Number of times unsure of footing: 458. Number of times fallen asleep reading a book: 513. Number of times born again: 0. Number of times seen double: 28. Number of deja vu experiences: 43. Number of emotional breakdowns: 1; Number of times choked on ones, chicken: 4; fish: 6; other: 3. Number f times didn't believe parents: 23,978. Number of lawn-mowing miles: 3,575. Number of light bulbs changed: 273. Number of childhood home telephone: 384-621-5844. Number of brothers: 3 2. Number of passes at women: 5. Number of stairs walked, up: 745-821; down: 743,609. Number of hats lost: 9. Number of magazine subscriptions: 41. Number of times seasick: 1. Number of bloody noses: 16. Number of times had sexual intercourse: 4,013. Number of fish caught: 1. Number of time heard "The Star Spangled Banner": 2,410. Number of babies held in arms: 9. Number of times I forgot what I was going say: 631.

1.- What is this text about?

2.- What can you deduce about the life of the person the ‘subtotals’ refer to? Think about:

- Sex:

- Age:

- Family background:

- Childhood:

- Young age:

- Middle age:

- Job:

- Marital status:

- Children:

- Tastes:

- Hobbies:

- Daily life:

- Physical aspect:

- Health:

- Personality:

3.- What’s the point of the text? Would you call it a story?


Post-Colonial Literature is a term frequently used to talk about writers and writings that deal with issues of de-colonization or the political and cultural independence of people and countries formerly subjugated to colonial rule. These texts therefore often deal with racial as well as social and cultural issues: once independence is achieved, what is the new cultural identity of the country and its people? Who is really in power here? Which race? What is the writer’s identity and role in this context? What kind of language should they use? Frequently, post-colonial writers have mixed origins, live in different countries and have a complex Eastern-Western identity.

Given the size of the British Empire, the most important post-colonial writers write in English, although the term has also been used to talk about Latin American magical realism and literature written in other languages. The term “post-colonial literature” is then a useful term to talk about Literature in English written in places other than the United Kingdom or the United States of America (most of them belonging to the “Commonwealth”, a term also frequently used to talk about these writers),

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are very good examples of English writers who wrote about the colonies, often with a critical voice: Kipling (India), Orwell (Burma), Anthony Burgess (Malaysia), E. M. Forster (India), Graham Greene (The Quiet American, about Vietnam) and Joseph Conrad (Africa).

INDIA has produced some excellent writers in English, like Salman Rushdie (1947 -), whose Midnight’s Children (1981) tells the story of Indian independence with a style akin to Magical Realism. The Satanic Verses (1988) was the centre of Muslim protests. Arundhati Roy (1961-) wrote The God of Small Things (1997), a story of twins in Kerala. Michael Ondaatje (1943- ) was born in SRI LANKA and became a Canadian citizen. Author of The English Patient (1992). Hanif Kureishi (1954- ) was born in England in a family that had come from PAKISTAN, and he often deals with these origins (and is racial and social consequences) in his novels, like The Buddha of Suburbia (1990).

THE CARIBBEAN has also produced some excellent writers in English. V. S. Naipaul (1932- ) was born in Trinidad and Tobago in a family of Indian origins. He has written some excellent novels and received the Nobel Prize in 2001. Derek Walcott (1930- ) is a poet and playwright born in St. Lucia and also a Nobel Prize (1992). Jamaica Kincaid (1949- ) was born in Antigua and moved soon to the USA. She has written novels and short stories like “Girl”.

In AFRICA, we can also find three English-writing Nobel Prizes: Wole Soyinka (1934-) from Nigeria, used traditional African myths in his poems and plays; Nadine Gordimer (1923- ), is a white writer who criticized the apartheid system in South Africa in her novels and short stories; and J. M. Coetzee (1940), was born in South Africa, but lives in Australia now. Author of Disgrace (1999), among other novels.

Finally, the literature from predominantly Anglo countries like Canada or Australia stands somewhat apart from the rest of Post-Colonial Literature. Frequently, CANADIAN writers are concerned with more specific themes, like Canadian identity, the relationship with nature and the USA (what has been called the “Garrison mentality” referring to the open spaces and fear of other nations). Margaret Atwood (1939- ) is probably the most famous Canadian writer. She has written novels, poems and short stories. Alice Munro (1931- ) is one of the most prestigious contemporary short-story writers. Both Munro and Atwood have been included in a group called Southern Ontario Gothic, because of the theme and style (grotesque characters, evil in human soul). Margaret Laurence (1926-1987) wrote short stories and novels like The Stone Angel (1964). And, of course, we cannot forget AUSTRALIA, with excellent writers like Patrick White (Nobel Prize 1973), Peter Carey, David Malouf, Brian Castro or Tim Winton. 


Literature in the UK after WWII is also difficult to generalize. Maybe the only clear group is the “Angry Young Men”, a group of dramatists and novelists (among them Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Allan Sillitoe and Tom Stoppard) who in the 1950s expressed their discontent with traditional English society in anti-establishment works that have also been described as “Kitchen Sink Realism” (with its audiovisual correspondence in film—the British New Wave and Free Cinema—and television—Coronation Street, Eastenders). George Orwell (1903-1950) was also a left-wing writer who criticized social injustice in his novels, like Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949). Doris Lessing (1919-), a recent Nobel Prize, has written both left-wing radical novels and science fiction. Graham Greene (1904-1991) was both a popular writer and well received by the critics. He wrote “Catholic” novels, like The Power and the Glory (1949) and espionage novels like The Third Man (1950, after the script for the film) and The Human Factor (1978).

Other more experimental novelists are Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), who wrote Under the Volcano (1947) a modernist novel with complex symbolism; John Fowles (1926-2005), author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), which is frequently mentioned as an example of a metafictional post-modern novel; Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), who wrote novels about sexual relationships and the power of the unconscious (Under the Net, 1954); and Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), A Clockwork Orange (1962).

Some of the most acclaimed turn-of-the-century English novelists include Ian McEwan (1948-, Amsterdam, Saturday), Martin Amis (1949-) and Kazuo Ishiguro (1954-, born in Japan, The Remains of the Day). Two Scottish novelists worth mentioning are Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, 1994) and William Boyd (Armadillo, 1998).

Two important recent poets are Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and Ted Hughes (1930-1998), Poet Laureate and Sylvia Plath’s husband, “The Jaguar”.

The field of popular literature has been extremely fruitful in England during the twentieth century:
- Agatha Christie (1890-1976): detective novels
- Ian Fleming (1908-1964): James Bond novels
- J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): Lord of the Rings
- C.S. Lewis(1898-1963): The Chronicles of Narnia
- Sea Adventure: Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander
- Historical novels. Robert Graves (1895-1985), I, Claudius novels. Ken Follet (1949-) The Pillars of the Earth (1989)
- Confessional writing: Helen Fielding’s Bridget’s Jones’s Diary, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995), Fever Pitch (1992)
- In the field of Children’s literature, English literature has provided the world with the most famous books and characters: Enid Blyton (1897-1968), the fifth most translated author worldwide (The Famous Five series, Malory Towers; J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter); Roald Dahl (1916-1990), born in Wales to Norwegian parents. James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Revolting Rhymes. Unsentimental, dark humour. Also stories for adults, like Tales of the Unexpected.


Narrative since WW II resists easy generalization because it is extremely various. On the one hand, it has been vitalized by international currents (French existentialism, ‘nouveau roman’, Latin-American magical realism) and by the media and popular culture, and on the other it has become more self-conscious and reflexive, that’s to say, it has developed a post-modern sensibility. In fact, the term ‘Post-Modernism’ is frequently used to talk about the whole post-war period, although here we will use it only to talk about a particular kind of novels. Another obvious problem when talking about recent literature is the lack of perspective. This means that many times all the attempts at classification are somewhat artificial (some writers should appear in more than one place, depending on which of their books we are talking about) and in most cases they become just lists of writers and books without a clear defining line.
The end of the Second World War brought about an ‘age of anxiety’ during the 40s and 50s in American society and literature: the cold war (fear of the Bomb), the McCarthy witch hunt (fear of Communism), and a general feeling of loneliness and alienation in spite of the material well-being were very widespread. The response to this anxiety was varied: first of all, there were some very interesting novels about the war, like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Irvin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948) or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Then, after the war some writers decided to go back to their cultural and racial roots looking for the reasons for this alienated spirit (Jewish-American novelists, African Americans, Writers from the South), others tried to portray in a realistic manner the absurdity of life (Realists), while others tried to experiment with words and write about the role of literature in this new society, questioning and playing with common assumptions about reading and literature (Post-Modern Novel).


In the 40s and 50s the Jewish-American novel grew in importance. These novels looked at the spiritual and psychological problems of mid twentieth-century life in a new way. They brought to American literature a new interest in the old problems of morality and a new kind of self-critical humor, as well as a different vision of cultural conflict and linguistic identity.
ISAAC B. SINGER (1904-1991). Born in Poland, he migrated to the USA in 1935. Most of his work was written in Yiddish, the mixture of German and Hebrew which had been the common language of East European Jews for centuries. Singer’s stories brought to America the world of Jewish superstitions and folk tales, with a sad kind of humor that introduced the wisdom of the pre-war Polish-Jewish village to the non-Jewish world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.
SAUL BELLOW (1915-2005). With a Russian-Jewish background, Bellow is highly influenced by anthropology and sociology. His early novels Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) are existentialist novels about the war and urban life respectively. Novels from the 50s like The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Henderson the Rain King (1959) are more humorous while Herzog (1964) portrays a far more serious and intellectual hero. He is probably the Jewish American writer who has achieved most worldwide recognition. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
BERNARD MALAMUD (1914-1986). His first novel, The Natural (1952) is the story of a great baseball player who is a moral failure. But most of his novels and stories deal humorously with the Jewish-American tradition, conveying a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend. His main novels are The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer (1966).
PHILIP ROTH (1933- ) is younger than the other three and his humor shows a much more critical attitude towards the American Jewish community. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is a very funny book about sex and also an extremely self-critical novel. In the 1980s and 1990s he became a much more ambitious writer, and in works like American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) or The Human Stain (2000) he has attempted a trilogy of American life of tolstoian proportions.
There are other Jewish writers who are also worth mentioning, like HENRY ROTH (1906-1995), the ‘father’ of Jewish American fiction. His novel Call it Sleep (1934) is a modernistic story of a ghetto child. Others have not made such an intensive use of the Jewish American background in their works: JOSEPH HELLER (Catch-22 ,1961), E. L DOCTOROW (Ragtime, 1975) and J. D. SALINGER (1919) whose The Catcher in the Rye (1951) became an emblematic work of the post-war period. Holden Caulfield’s narrative voice, his personal sense of humor and his teen-age anxieties have turned the book into a cult-phenomenon.

► See Book Presentation Guide 5.6 “The Catcher in the Rye”, p. 140.


Literature written by African-Americans has always had a distinct identity in the context of American literature. Present since slavery times, its emergence and power walks parallel to a slow and difficult process of fighting for freedom, self-awareness and cultural consciousness.
The first books written by Blacks were the slave narratives from colonial times like OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1745-1797) and his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). In the 19th century, FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817-1895), born a slave and escaped to the North, became a very famous antislavery leader and orator. He published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (1856-1915) wrote Up from Slavery (1901), an autobiographical work in which he tried to improve the lives of Blacks, although he accepted segregation. W. E. B. DU BOIS (1868-1963) wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in response to Washington and in it he described the special culture of American Blacks and called public attention to the ‘Negro problem’. However, it was not until the HARLEM RENAISSANCE that works of true literary value were first produced. This was a movement of African American writers connected with the Harlem jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s. Their works were a vindication of their own literary identity. LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) and COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946) are the three most important poets of the movement.
From the Depression to the 1960s three major figures stand out: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. In Native Son (1940), RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960) used naturalistic techniques to describe the social and psychological pressures on his black hero. RALPH ELLISON (1914-1994) used in Invisible Man (1952) the metaphor of invisibility to talk about black people as seen by white society. JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987) wrote moving fiction and essays about the black problem and also about homosexuality: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Another Country (1962). Wright and Ellison are examples of opposite stands in a debate that is always present when talking about African-American literature: to what extent must art be a political weapon used to improve the status of African-Americans or mere art, just considered from an aesthetic point of view. Following this dichotomy, one could distinguish two lines in African American literature: one that is more political and combative, which uses art as a political weapon (and where one could find Wright, Baraka, Morrison or movie-makers like Spike Lee), and another one which stresses aesthetics and which, although usually thematically centered on problems of race, considers art from an aesthetic point of view (Ellison, Cullen).

► See Classroom Activity # 22 “African American Literature”, p. 182.

In the 1960s IMAMU AMIRI BARAKA (Leroi Jones, 1934- ) led the Black Arts Movement with powerful poetry and drama. Black awareness, political use of art, the search for Black English (called ‘Ebonics’) and a challenge to white tradition and forms are some of the features of a movement that also includes other writers like ED BULLINS (1935- ) and ADRIENNE KENNEDY (1931- ). LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1930-1965) wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first play by a black woman produced on Broadway.
From the 1970s to the present, African-American writing has known its best moments with female writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. TONI MORRISON (1931- ) has written novels which, although with clear political meaning, are consummate works of art. She wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970, and later other longer novels like Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), in which she employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. ALICE WALKER (1944- ) has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. She uses a kind of lyrical realism to center on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. The Color Purple is her most famous work, an epistolary dialect novel which tells the story of the love between two poor black sisters. Some interesting contemporary African-American poets are RITA DOVE (1952- ), MAYA ANGELOU (1928- ), and ISHMAEL REED (1938-).

► See Book Presentation Guide 5.7 “The Bluest Eye”, p. 143,

Other minorities
The last decades have witnessed a vindication of the literatures of different minorities, who write about their own cultural difference and about the difficulties in reconciling their conflicting origins and traditions with American society:

• Native Americans:
o WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON (1939- ), travel writer, author of Blue Highways (1982), a cult road story in prairie territory.
o SIMON ORTIZ (1941- ), poet.
o LESLIE MARMON SILKO (1948- ), poet and short story writer.

• Asian-Americans:
o CATHY SONG (1955- ) and LI-YOUNG-LEE (1957- ) are poets who write about the contradictions of life in the US for Asian-Americans.
o AMY TAN (1952- ): The Joy Luck Club (1989), a novel about two generations of Chinese-American women.
o DAVID HENRY HWANG (1957): M. Butterfly (1988), a play inspired by the opera which was then turned into a film.

• Latino writers are particularly interesting for Spanish-speaking readers, because of the interactions between the languages (including ‘Spanglish’ and ‘Caló’, a mixture of languages typical of Chicano culture) that we can be lucky enough to appreciate.
o JOSE ANTONIO BURCIAGA (1940- ), RODOLFO ‘CORKY’ GONZALES (1928- ) and ABELARDO ‘LALO’ DELGADO (1931-) are three examples of militant Chicano poets from the 60s and 70s.
o OSCAR HIJUELOS (1951- ), of Cuban origin. The first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).
o SANDRA CISNEROS (1954-), short story writer (The House on Mango Street, 1983) and author of the novel Caramelo (2002).
o Other Mexican-American writers worth mentioning are RUDOLFO ANAYA (1927- ) and ROLANDO HINOJOSA-SMITH (1929- ), prose writers; and LORA DEE CERVANTES (1954- ) and ALBERTO RÍOS (1952- ), poets.

► See Classroom Activity # 23 “Chicano Poems”, p. 183.


The South has always had a distinct social and literary identity in American society. From the earliest history of American Literature, Southern writers have exhibited a peculiar way of portraying life in their works. Most Southern writers, like Poe, Kate Chopin, Faulkner or Tennessee Williams display some typically Southern features: an obsession with the past as the source of the moral sickness of the present, Gothic settings and atmosphere, and a poetic kind of language.
Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Ann Porter continued producing interesting works of fiction after the war and had an important influence on writers like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, three female writers who have also been described as ‘new naturalists’ because of the description of suffocating settings and oppressive destinies which destroy the dreams of their characters.
• EUDORA WELTY (1909- ) writes about Mississippi and shows an interest in myth, the comic and the grotesque, and in the individual rather than in sociology. Her most important novel is Delta Wedding (1946).
• FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1925-1964) shares the use of subnormal, eccentric or exceptional characters with Eudora Welty. She belongs to the so-called ‘Southern Gothic’ school of writing: her grotesque characters are violent often because of superstition, religion or racial prejudice. Sometimes the events and characters are part of a religious allegory (she is a Catholic and her writing is frequently described as such). O’Connor handles terribly violent events with a touch of black humor, and she is the author of Wise Blood (1952) and short stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) and “The Life You Save May be your Own”.
• CARSON MCULLERS (1917-1967) also belongs to the ‘Southern Gothic’ tradition. In works like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) or the short story “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1941) she also uses strange characters to show the horrors and sadness of modern life in Southern towns. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for example, is the story of the (in)communication between and other lonely individuals who think (wrongly) that he is the only person who understands their problems.
TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924-1984) started writing in the ‘Southern Gothic’ tradition, with works like Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951), which are beautifully written, painful stories about young boys growing up in the South. Most of the scenes take place at night, in a dreamlike reality where the characters discover their true identity. But Capote changed and so did his work: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) changed locale, content and style: it is a comedy of manners set in New York. In Cold Blood (1960) is a ‘non-fiction’ novel, part of the ‘New Journalism’ movement, as well as a fascinating account of a real murder and the fate of the murderers.

► See Book Presentation Guide 5.8 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, p. 145.
► See Classroom Activity # 17 “20th Century Short Stories”, p. 176.

Other interesting Southern writers are WILLIAM STYRON (Sophie’s Choice, 1982) and WALKER PERCY (The Moviegoer, 1961).


The term ‘post-modern’ can be used in two ways: first, to designate in a general manner post-war art and the contemporary cultural condition after modernism, and secondly, to talk about a specific set of characteristics exhibited by certain writers and their works. These are some of the features of post-modernism in this second sense:
• A change in the relationship between reality and art. Post-modern works or art are not mimetic, do not try to show reality. They continue the experimentation started by modernism, but instead of searching for a hidden meaning in the world through different tools (like modernists), post-modernists imply that there is no reality, no meaning and that all our attempts to find it are just fictions. This is what some of these writers say: “Reality is a word that means nothing without quotation marks” (Nabokov) “What the hell, reality is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there, and literature never did, very long” (John Barth), “Language is arranged and rearranged in such a manner as to give pleasure to artists and readers, excluding any referent to an available exterior world” (Joyce Carol Oates). Therefore, artists talk about ‘the death of the novel’, in the sense that the word novel had in the 19th century.
• Self-consciousness. The novel looks at itself. The novelist writes in order to show the impossibility of writing, and makes comments about the processes of writing and reading, and about the artificiality of this enterprise, so that the novel becomes a fiction about fiction, frequently called metafiction. The writers don’t expose, attack or explain American reality; they just play, laugh at or destroy all the devices used till now to explain reality. This is a British example from The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles: after twelve chapters of a conventionally told love story, chapter 13 begins with these questions: “Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?” and the answers are
I do not know. The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.... Have I disgracefully broken the illusion? No, my characters still exist, and in a reality no less, or no more, real than the one I have just broken ... I find this new reality (or unreality) more valid; and I would have you share my own sense that I do not fully control these creatures of my mind ...

• This implies a playful attitude (also called ‘ludism’) where reading becomes a kind of game played between the writer and the reader. Some writers (Pynchon, Barth) use ‘Black Humor’ in novels which combine humor with horror and violence. Laughter is a means to make the reader realize that all the values that rule reality and fiction are completely artificial and gratuitous, that their work is as empty as the world it represents.
• Fragmentation and discontinuity: In order to show the artificiality of the fictional processes, all these processes are ‘deconstructed’ and novels become incomplete, the plot sometimes disappears and novels may have no beginnings or ends. Richard Brautigan, for example, proposes 5 different endings for A Confederate General from Big Sur, but “then, there are more endings: the sixth, the 53rd, the 131st, the 9,435th ending, endings going faster and faster until this book is having 186,000 endings per second”. Post-modern writers also draw attention to the fact that life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and expose these frames in their works. Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance seems to be an autobiographical story by one of the characters, but there is a foreword which implies another fictitious author. Auster’s Oracle Night is a novel about a writer who is writing a story about another writer who is, in turn, writing another story about another writer who …
• Intertextuality: the game of reading and writing involves other stories and genres, and therefore, the novels play with generic conventions, become parodies of other texts and dislocate readers’ expectations. Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, have been called anti-detective stories because of the way they use detective story conventions to actually achieve opposite results.
• For some writers, words and stories become the only way to make sense out of life. Douglas Coupland says “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them”. And Paul Auster: “Stories are the soul’s basic food … It’s through stories that we struggle to find a meaning in the world”.
Although strictly speaking postmodernism could be a movement restricted only to the experimental works of the 60s and 70s, in a broader sense of the word there are quite a lot of writers that can be called post-modern. ‘Post-modern writers’ in this sense have been considered as “probably the best and most daring generation since the Lost Generation”:
• VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1889-1997). Born in Russia, he went to the USA in 1940, and some years later started to write in English. A mediator between the Russian and American worlds, he helped to introduce expressionist European currents into the more realistic American tradition. Lolita (1958), Pale Fire (1962).
• JOHN BARTH (1930- ). His works have been called ‘Existentialist comedies’. More interested in how the story is told than in the story itself, he sees realism as the enemy. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Lost in the Funhouse (1968).
• THOMAS PYNCHON (1937- ). A ‘cult’ writer, as mysterious as Salinger. Plots around mysteries that the characters have to solve. Difficult, complex and solid novels. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), V (1963). A good place to start is The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), a short novel about conspiracies with lots of possible meanings.
• RICHARD BRAUTIGAN (1935-1984). A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), Trout Fishing in America (1967). Metafictional games.
• WILLIAM H. GASS (1934- ). In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968).
• KURT VONNEGUT (1922- ). A master of ‘black humor’. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
• JOHN IRVING (1942- ). Uses humor and the act of writing as a way of making sense out of life. Mixture of tragedy and comedy, emotion and reflection. A great story-teller, very popular lately. Long, ‘undownputtable’ novels. The World According to Garp (1978), A Widow for a Year (1998). Oscar for the script of The Cider House Rules (based on his own novel Princes of Maine, Kings of New England).
• DON DE LILLO (1936- ), a visionary, one of the sharpest chroniclers of end-of-the-century American society: Americana (1971), White Noise (1985), Underworld (1997).
• PAUL AUSTER (1947- ). Auster’s New York Trilogy (1987) plays with generic expectations and the conventions of the detective genre although later novels are more traditionally narrated (Moon Palace, 1989, The Brooklyn Follies, 2005). Oracle Night (2002) goes back to the metafictional games of the New York Trilogy. Also a scriptwriter (Smoke, 1995) and film director (Blue in the Face, 1995, Lulu on the Bridge, 1999), he is a great story-teller whose narrative always offers excellent food for thought.
• DOUGLAS COUPLAND (1961- ). Canadian-born, his Generation X is not just a description of a dissatisfied generation, but also a reflection on how telling stories helps us to make sense out of life.
• TIM O’BRIEN (1946- ). Maybe the best writer to describe the Vietnam experience. The Things They Carried (1990) is a series of interconnected short stories about the Vietnam war, told in a very metafictional manner (the same stories told from different points of view, contrasts between a ‘true’ war story and a false one…)
• WILLIAM BURROUGHS (1914- ). A member of the ‘beat generation’, his works are post-modern but not in the same sense as the other writers: his novels are set in a complete dream world and filled with terrible nightmares. The Naked Lunch (1959) is a gallery of atrocities that has influenced authors like HUBERT SELBY (1928-2004) or BRET EASTON ELLIS (1964- American Psycho), in a movement that has been described as ‘New Naturalism’ and which is centered on the description of evil.

► See Classroom Activity # 24 “Subtotals”, p. 184.
► See Book Presentation Guide 5.9. “Moon Palace”, p. 148.


There are a number of writers who do not share the post-modernist spirit of experimentation but instead try to tell stories which reflect the changes in contemporary world in a less experimental manner. Of course, the label ‘realists’ is just a tool which includes many writers who have completely different approaches towards literature, although all of them (including the ones we have classified under the labels ‘Writers from the South’ and ‘Jewish-Americans’) share the same belief in the power of the word to represent the world we live in.
In the 1960s there was a movement called New Journalism which tried to combine journalism and novelistic techniques to describe the contemporary world in what were called ‘non-fiction novels’. TOM WOLFE (1931- ) wrote The Electric Kool-Acid Test (1968), TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924-1984) wrote In Cold Blood (1968) and NORMAN MAILER (1923- ) The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1978). Mailer has been a prolific writer who has been able to change his style throughout the last decades. Before his non-fiction novels, he wrote an excellent post-war novel (The Naked and the Dead, 1948), and lately he has come back to fiction with works like Ancient Evenings (1983) or Tough Guys don’t Dance (1984).
Mailer is also representative of a group of writers who seem to be following Hemingway’s lead and who try to make of themselves men of action, the heroes people need to wake them and stir their consciences. JACK KEROUAK (1922-1969) is a member of the ‘Beat Generation’ who narrated his rebellion against conventionalism in On the Road (1957). KEN KESEY (1935- ) was also a part of the counterculture, and his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is a funny and mordant satire on the dehumanization of western society. Also from the 60s, although not too realistic, TERRY SOUTHERN (1924-1995) is an underground writer who wrote novels like Candy (1968) or The Magic Christian (1959), together with the scripts for Easy Rider or Dr. Strangelove.
JOHN CHEEVER (1912-1982) and JOHN UPDIKE (1932- ) have frequently been called ‘novelists of manners’ in the sense that they both write stories that reflect and criticize a certain kind of society that they know well. Cheever is known for his elegant, suggestive short stories which scrutinize the New York middle-class suburban world. Updike set his novels in the East and is famous for his four ‘Rabbit’ novels in which he follows a man through four decades of American history: from Rabbit, Run (1960) to Rabbit at Rest (1990). RAYMOND CARVER (1938-1988) specialized in short stories set in the Pacific Northwest (“Cathedral”, Short Cuts) and started a trend which became very popular in the 80s. This style is sometimes called minimal fiction or ‘dirty realism’, because the stories are not strictly realistic). Other examples of ‘dirty realism’ (although they all dislike the label) are DAVID LEAVITT (1961- ), a gay writer who became pretty famous with The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), RICHARD RUSSO (1949- , Empire Falls, 2001) and RICHARD FORD (1944- , Independence Day, 1995).

Other writers, not very easy to classify but still worth mentioning, are:

• ANNE TYLER (1941- ), the author of The Accidental Tourist (1985).
• JOYCE CAROL OATES (1938- The Wheel of Love, 1970) who has become a popular success lately with Blonde (1998) or We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).
• CORMAC MC CARTHY (1933- ) who has played with the settings and conventions of the western to talk about the end of ranch life in his ‘Border Trilogy’ (All the Pretty Horses, 1992, The Crossing, 1994 and Cities of the Plain, 1998) and Blood Meridian (1985). McCarthy’s characters try to relive the myth of the Old West but find a cruel reality instead.
• GORE VIDAL (1925- ) has published satirical novels (Myra Breckingridge, 1968), historical novels (The City and the Pillar, 1948, Burr, 1973) as well as political essays, where he criticizes fiercely American expansionism and Republican administrations.

Finally, some recent writers (called the New Generation by The New Yorker):

• JONATHAN FRANZEN (1959- ). The Corrections (2001).
• DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (1962- ). Infinite Jest (1996), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)
• MICHAEL CHABON (1963- ). The Extraordinary Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
• CHUCK PALAHNIUK (1962- ). The Fight Club (1996).
• RICK MOODY (1961- ). The Ice Storm (1994).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MODERNISM (1901-1945)

Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes a set of cultural tendencies and movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the "traditional" forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. The first half of the 20th century is then normally referred to in literary histories as ‘Modernism’, a very general term used to talk about a series of different movements and tendencies (impressionism, expressionism, imagism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism...) that tried to break with old tradition and the realistic concept of art. Modernism challenged the assumption of reality which is at the roots of realism: that there is a common phenomenal world that can be reliably described. Psychoanalysis, Darwinism, Nietzche and Marxism questioned traditional assumptions and so did World War I and the skeptical spirit it brought about. They all helped to shatter traditional beliefs. (((Regardless of the specific year it was produced, modernism is characterized primarily by a complete and unambiguous embrace of what Andreas Huyssen calls the "Great Divide."[7] That is, it believes that there is a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture, and it places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture. (Postmodernism, according to Huyssen, may be defined precisely by its rejection of this distinction.)))))

The artistic response to all these changes took place both in the realm of form and content. From the point of view of content, the horrors of WW I and the arrival of the ideas mentioned before brought about a general spirit of pessimism, disillusionment and skepticism (reflected in The Waste Land, for instance). There was an important group of American writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, e.e.cummings, Hart Crane) who shared this spirit of post-war alienation and lived in Paris for some time, who came to be known as the Lost Generation.


Just as in painting artists were looking for a new form of expression, in literature writers were trying to experiment and find a new vocabulary and new techniques. Poets dislocated grammar and punctuation looking for new images and ways of expression, and novelists experimented with new points of view and a different conception of time and plot to try to reflect the hidden consciousness of the characters. The term ‘HIGH MODERNISM’ is sometimes used to describe a group of writers particularly interested in this formal revolution. With the exception of William Faulkner, this group is more European-based than American. The two masterpieces in English that best represent this movement are probably T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both first published in 1922. These are some of the FORMAL INNOVATIONS introduced by these writers:

  • In poetry, the concept of ‘image’ (Imagism): the writer’s response to a visual object or scene.
  • Obscurity, opacity. The reader is required to make an effort to understand the works. In Eliot’s and Pound’s poetry, for example, there are all kinds of cultural references the reader must work hard to understand.
  • Time is not presented in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are used instead.
  • Fragmented plots, sometimes without a beginning or an end are also frequent.
  • Disappearance of the traditional omniscient narrator in the novel. In their search for different ways to represent reality, they replaced this narrator by partial points of view or by interior monologues or soliloquies that try to reproduce the ‘stream of consciousness’ of the characters. A few theoretical considerations will probably be welcome: bearing in mind the distinction between focalization and narration (‘who sees?’ versus ‘who speaks?’), we can establish different kinds of narrators:
    • First person narrator (major participant, as in Huck Finn; minor, as in The Great Gatsby; or even non-participant, as in The Scarlet Letter). In some cases, the narrator is unreliable, and therefore everything that s/he tells is suspect and must be interpreted by the reader (for example, children telling stories where adults do things they don’t really understand. Huck Finn might be a good example).
    • Second person narrator. Quite uncommon. An example: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter Night a Traveller.
    • Third person narrator. When the narration is in the third person, the focalization becomes extremely important. We can then talk about
      • an omniscient point of view (typical of 19th century realist novels. The voice that tells the story is in total control, knows everything and has authoritative value),
      • a dramatic or objective point of view (Hemingway’s short stories: the narrator is like the lens of a camera that simply records what s/he sees), or
      • a selected or limited point of view (also called ‘Jamesian’ after Henry James: a character is the ‘focus’ or ‘center of consciousness’, and the reader sees the action through the focus of that character).
  • Modernist fiction became extremely interested in characters’ psychology and the concept of ‘stream of consciousness’ that psychologist William James had developed. This term refers to the thoughts, memories and feelings that exist in our mind in what he called the Pre-Speech level. They are not censored, rationally controlled or logically ordered and are formed instead by a method of free association. Modernist writers tried to show the hidden aspects of a character’s personality through the representation of this level of consciousness, and the different techniques they developed were:
    • Description: the narrator describes with his/her own language the hidden thoughts of a character.
    • Interior Monologue: reproduction of these thoughts in the character’s own language.
    • Soliloquy: Its purpose is not only to communicate psychic identity (like the interior monologue), but also to advance the plot. It communicates ideas and emotions which are related to plot and action.

This period has sometimes been described as the ‘coming of age’ of American Literature, and it is certainly an extraordinarily productive time with an outstanding number of excellent writers in English, whether British, Irish or American.

JAMES JOYCE (1882-1941) might the best modernist writer in the English language. Born in Dublin, he left his native city never to come back, but he kept writing about it for all his life. He wrote Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Ulysses is probably the most characteristic novel of this period. It was published in Paris and for a long time was censored in Ireland. It has no real plot, following instead the wanderings and thoughts (stream of consciousness in interior monologues) of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on a single day (Bloom’s day). Each chapter corresponds to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey and has a distinct style of its own (for instance, in the Maternity Hospital scene the prose imitates all the English literary styles starting with Beowulf, symbolizing the growth of the foetus in the womb in its steady movement through time). It is one of the most ambitious novels of the century as well as one of the best achievements of modernist literature.

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1948) lived in Paris and her poetic work and her role as mentor and art collector made her essential for the development of American modernism. Her experimental poetry is a mixture of extravagance and genius. She tries to describe reality in a completely new way, sometimes almost impossible to understand. Tender Buttons (1914).

But the most important poets of the group were EZRA POUND (1885-1972) and T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965), who were both born in America but spent most of their lives in Europe. EZRA POUND (1885-1972). From 1909 through the 20s, he was involved in most of the major artistic movements. A leader of the ‘Imagist’ school of poetry, where an image is described as the writer’s response to a visual object or scene. His poetry is full of allusions to works of literature and art from many eras and cultures. Influenced by Asian literature, he edited Eliot’s The Waste Land and was an important link between the United States and Britain. His main works are Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the Cantos (1925-1972).

T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965) went to England early and stayed there, where he became a major figure. The Waste Land (1922) is probably the most important American poem of the 20th century both formally (because of its modernist techniques) and thematically (because of the disillusionment, skepticism and decadence of the modern world shown). Like Pound, he was influenced by Eastern philosophy and literature and he made references to all kinds of works of literature and art.

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1841) was an English novelist, part of the so-called “Bloomsbury group”. Author of Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).

Other important American poets of this movement are:

· WALLACE STEVENS (1879-1955). Wrote abstract, difficult poetry, with very deep meanings: “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully”, he said. One of his most famous poems is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

· HILDA DOOLITTLE or H.D. for short (1886-1961) and MARIANNE MOORE (1887-1972) were influenced by Pound and imagism and wrote excellent poetry.

· e. e. cummings (he never wrote capitals in his name) (1894-1962). A member of the ‘Lost Generation’. Innovative verse distinguished for its humor, celebration of love and eroticism, and the experimentation with punctuation and visual format on the page. “O sweet spontaneous”

· WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (1883-1963). Influenced by Eliot and Pound, but more interested in the language and scenes of everyday life. Warmer feeling for real people and real life. Colloquial language. Easier to understand. “The Young Housewife”, “The Dead Baby”.

► See Poems in “Twentieth Century Poetry”, pp. 177 & 178, by Ezra Pound, H.D. Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and cummings.


There was an important group of American writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, e.e.cummings, Hart Crane) who shared this spirit of post-war alienation and lived in Paris for some time, who came to be known as the Lost Generation (term used by Gertrude Stein talking to Hemingway). They were ‘lost’ because they had lost their ideals, ‘lost’ to America because they lived abroad, and ‘lost’ because they did not accept older values but couldn’t really find the writer’s place in this new society

FRANCIS SCOTT FITZGERALD (1896-1940) found rapid success in the 20s with his novel This Side of Paradise (1921) and his Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), with which he became the official spokesman of the ‘Jazz Age’. The Great Gatsby (1925) was also received with enthusiastic reviews, but soon afterwards his literary eclipse started. He went to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter, but did not find success and in 1940 died poor and forgotten. The Great Gatsby is his masterpiece, an excellent novel about the American Dream and the failure associated with success. Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, the narrator, we see both the glamour and the moral ugliness of the twenties. Gatsby is possibly a criminal, but also a true romantic, someone able to pursue a dream, even if it is impossible to achieve. The novel combines symbolism and psychological realism in a way that has been described as a “symbolist tragedy”. Fitzgerald also dealt with similar topics in his short stories, some of which are also worth mentioning, like “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” or some of the Pat Hobby stories about his Hollywood failure.

WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962) is probably the best representative of ‘high modernism’ in the American novel. His use of different narrative voices and focalizations, interior monologues and soliloquies, or use of ‘continuous present’ (mixture of past, present and future actions) make novels like The Sound and the Fury (1929) or As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932) or Absalom, Absalom! (1936) stand out as some of the best of 20th century world literature. Faulkner was also the first writer to create a fictional territory (Yoknapatawpha County) in which all his stories take place. This territory was based on Oxford, Mississippi (where Faulkner had been born) and is the background for characters that appear and reappear in different novels creating a complete fictional world of mythical proportions. In his novels and short stories, Faulkner analyzes individual psychology as well as social conflicts, particularly racial problems in the South that had lost the war. He received the Nobel Prize in 1949 and is universally acclaimed as one of the best writers of the century.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899-1961) was a very different kind of modernist. He developed a sparse, concise style which he combined with what has been called the ‘Dramatic’ or ‘Objective’ point of view, that is, the perspective of an impartial observer who describes everything from the outside, without explanations or comments. Hemingway says as little as possible, and he then lets the characters speak. Therefore, his use of dialogue becomes fundamental to understand both the action and the characters’ motives. He also described his technique of implying things rather than explaining them using the metaphor of an iceberg (“There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows”). All these techniques are typically modernistic, because they put the reader in an uncomfortable position: he/she has to make an effort to guess what exactly is going on and what the implications and possible deeper meanings are. Hemingway lived in Paris between 1921 and 1928 and this is the time when he wrote some of his best short stories (“Hills like White Elephants” and “The Killers” among them), collected in In Our Time and Men Without Women. His experience in Spain was reflected in The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta) (1926). Death in the Afternoon (1932) and For Whom the Bells Toll (1940). In these and his other novels and stories (like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, A Farewell to Arms or “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) we see the development of the typical Hemingway hero: a stoic man of few words who may be sensitive but never shows it, and who frequently shows a misogynistic attitude. He liked to put his heroes in situations between life and death (bullfighters, soldiers, hunters) where they would show their real self. His last novel was The Old Man and the Sea (1952), after which he received the Nobel Prize. He was probably the most popular American novelist at the time, but the misogynistic attitude of some of his works has put Hemingway in an uncomfortable position in the American canon in these days of political correctness.

SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876-1941) was a precursor of Modernism. Considered by Faulkner “the father of [his] generation of writers”, his best work is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a series of interconnected short stories taking place in the same town and narrated by the same character. Thematically it is part of a movement called the ‘Revolt from the Village’ which tried to show the many ways in which people were damaged by the narrowness of life in small-town America. But the book is also modernist because of its use of time, the importance of form over content and its emphasis on the problems of perception and communication. There isn’t really a plot, and instead the writer attempts to capture special and significant moments in the lives of the citizens of Winesburg, moments that are like windows into the true nature of a character (a concept similar to Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’).

JOHN DOS PASSOS (1896-1970). A left-wing radical in the beginning, he combined a realistic use of language with modernist techniques to try to show the daily life of citizens in Manhattan Transfer (1925) or the evolution of the recent history of his country in U.S.A., a trilogy that included The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). He shared with the ‘Lost Generation’ the spirit of disillusionment, with the naturalists before him a strong sense of fate and a realistic style, and with the modernists the ideas about the difficulty of perceiving reality. His solution to try to reflect the complex reality of life is to use strategies coming from the movies, like the combination of whole scene ‘shots’ with ‘close-ups’ to show the feelings of individual people. He also used ‘collage’ techniques, mixing popular songs with newspaper headlines, phrases from advertisements, short biographies of contemporary public figures and impressionistic visions of reality (that he called ‘camera eye’).


There are other excellent writers who shared the spirit of the times but were not part of any group and did not attempt a formal revolution. In the United States, these are some important poets:

· CARL SANDBURG (1878-1967) is probably the clearest heir of the Emerson-Whitman spirit, and shares with them his faith in America and natural optimism. His best well-known poem is Chicago (1914).

· ROBERT FROST (1874-1963). Very popular poet. A farmer in New England, most of his poems deal with farming and nature. He uses ‘unliterary’ direct language, but behind their apparent simplicity his poems hide deeper meanings (for him, a good poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”). Some famous poems by Frost are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Mending Walls”.

· Harlem Renaissance. A movement of African American writers connected with the Harlem jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s who vindicated their own literary identity. LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) and COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946) are the three most important poets of the movement.

And some American novelists:

SINCLAIR LEWIS (1885-1951). A socialist, his writing is more realistic than modernistic, but shows a new spirit: instead of portraying the typical realistic fight for life, his characters have everything they need from a material point of view, but they show a kind of spiritual dissatisfaction. Main Street (1920) satirized monotonous, hypocritical small-town life. Babbit (1922) is the story of a frustrated businessman. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

JOHN STEINBECK (1902-1968). A late heir of the Naturalist movement, his work is a response to the Depression era after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is probably the book that has best pictured the spirit of the times. It’s another story of a trip to the west and a sweet-and-sour portrayal of the American Dream, a mixture of realism and deep concern about other human beings. Also a Nobel Prize, other important works of Steinbeck are Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952). He is part of a movement called Proletarian Realism, to which JAMES AGEE (1909-1955) and MICHAEL GOLD (1896-1967) also belong.

Apart from the ‘sacred cows’ (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner) and the writers described above, there are other novelists that don’t fit exactly within any of the movements mentioned but that should at least be mentioned: THOMAS WOLFE (1900-1938), whose autobiographic ‘anti-novels’ were years ahead of his time; HENRY MILLER (1891-1980), a big rebel whose ‘obscene’ novels, like Tropic of Cancer (1934), could not be published in the USA until the 60s, when he became a kind of guru for the ‘beats’ and ‘hippies’; and NATHANIEL WEST (1902-1940), whose Days of the Locust (1939) is an inversion of the American Dream set in Hollywood.

In the American South, a movement called ‘The Fugitives’ (J, C. RANSOM, ALLEN TATE AND ROBERT PENN WARREN) criticized the business and commercial base of American society and praised the agrarian traditions of the Old South. Also from that part of the country, KATHERINE ANN PORTER (1894-1980) combined the false world of dreams and fantasies with the cruelty of real experience. In her works, tradition and the nostalgic longing for a romantic past create a suffocating atmosphere.

In ENGLAND, there are several important novelists that shared time and ideas with the modernists, but did not take part in their deep formal experimentations:

- D. H. LAWRENCE (1885-1930). Author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Sons and Lovers (1913). He showed physical love and human passion in his novels, which meant that some of his novels could not be published in the UK for a long time.

- E. M. FORSTER (1879-1979) wrote ironic, well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy and also the attitudes towards gender and homosexuality in early 20th-century British society. A Room with a View (1908), A Passage to India (1924), Howard's End (1910).

- JOSEPH CONRAD (1857-1924) is another important literary figure, frequently considered a precursor of Modernist literature. Born in Poland, he learned English as an adult and managed to write excellent novels like Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904). Heart of Darkness (1902) is a symbolic novella of a journey into the Congo river as well as into the human psyche. It is the origin of the film Apocalypse Now.

- EVELYN WAUGH (1903-1966) wrote satires of British high society. ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1963) is the author of the dystopia Brave New World (1932). KATHERINE MANSFIELD (1888-1923) was born in New Zealand but developed her short literary career in England. A very good short-story writer.

Poets from the British Isles

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS (1865-1939), an excellent Irish poet and dramatist, he has been considered one of the twentieth century's key English language poets. Received the Noble Prize in 1923. A master of traditional forms and symbolism. DYLAN THOMAS (1914-1953) was born in Wales and wrote only in English. Images from the Bible and from Welsh folklore. W. H. AUDEN (1907-1973) was born in England but later became an American citizen (“Funeral Blues”).