Because the most articulate artists are, by definition, writers, most of the arguments about what culture is and ought to do have been about what literature is and ought to do—and this can skew our perception of American culture a little, because the most memorable American art has not always appeared in books and novels and stories and plays. In part, perhaps, this is because writing was the first art form to undergo a revolution of mass technology; books were being printed in thousands of copies, while one still had to make a pilgrimage to hear a symphony or see a painting. The basic dispute between mass experience and individual experience has been therefore perhaps less keenly felt as an everyday fact in writing in the 20th and 21st centuries than it has been in other art forms. Still, writers have seen and recorded this quarrel as a feature of the world around them, and the evolution of American writing in the past 50 years has shown some of the same basic patterns that can be found in painting and dance and the theatre.
In the United States after World War II, many writers, in opposition to what they perceived as the bland flattening out of cultural life, made their subject all the things that set Americans apart from one another. Although for many Americans, ethnic and even religious differences had become increasingly less important as the century moved on—holiday rather than everyday material—many writers after World War II seized on these differences to achieve a detached point of view on American life. Beginning in the 1940s and ’50s, three groups in particular seemed to be “outsider-insiders” who could bring a special vision to fiction: Southerners, Jews, and African Americans. Each group had a sense of uncertainty, mixed emotions, and stifled aspirations that lent a questioning counterpoint to the general chorus of affirmation in American life.
The Southerners—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor most particularly—thought that a noble tradition of defeat and failure had been part of the fabric of Southern life since the Civil War. At a time when “official” American culture often insisted that the American story was one of endless triumphs and optimism, they told stories of tragic fate. Jewish writers—most prominently Chicago novelist Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in l976, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth—found in the “golden exile” of Jews in the United States a juxtaposition of surface affluence with deeper unease and perplexity that seemed to many of their fellow Americans to offer a common predicament in a heightened form.
For African Americans, of course, the promise of American life had in many respects never been fulfilled. “What happens to a dream deferred,” the poet Langston Hughes asked, and many African American writers attempted to answer that question, variously, through stories that mingled pride, perplexity, and rage. African American literature achieved one of the few unquestioned masterpieces of late 20th-century American fiction writing in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (l952). More recently, the rise of feminism as a political movement has given many women a sense that their experience too is richly and importantly outside the mainstream; since at least the 1960s, there has been an explosion of women’s fiction, including the much-admired work of Toni Morrison, the first African American female to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993); Anne Tyler; and Ann Beattie.
Perhaps precisely because so many novelists sought to make their fiction from experiences that were deliberately imagined as marginal, set aside from the general condition of American life, many other writers had the sense that fiction, and particularly the novel, might not any longer be the best way to try to record American life. For many writers the novel seemed to have become above all a form of private, interior expression and could no longer keep up with the extravagant oddities of the United States. Many gifted writers took up journalism with some of the passion for perfection of style that had once been reserved for fiction. The exemplars of this form of poetic journalism included the masters of The New Yorker magazine, most notably A.J. Liebling, whose books included The Earl of Louisiana (1961), a study of an election in Louisiana, as well as Joseph Mitchell, who in his books The Bottom of the Harbour (1944) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1942) offered dark and perplexing accounts of the life of the American metropolis. The dream of combining real facts and lyrical fire also achieved a masterpiece in the poet James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (l941; with photographs by Walker Evans), an account of sharecropper life in the South that is a landmark in the struggle for fact writing that would have the beauty and permanence of poetry."USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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