(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of American Literature.)
American Prose, 1945-1990: Realism and Experimentation
By Kathryn VanSpanckeren
Narrative in the decades following World War II resists generalization: It was extremely various and multifaceted. It was vitalized by international currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism, while the electronic era brought the global village. The spoken word on television gave new life to oral tradition. Oral genres, media, and popular culture increasingly influenced narrative.
In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status and example; the reverse seems true in the United States in the postwar years. Serious novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alice Walker, and E.L. Doctorow borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and oral history.
To say this is not to trivialize this literature: Writers in the United States were asking serious questions, many of them of a metaphysical nature. Writers became highly innovative and self-aware, or reflexive. Often they found traditional modes ineffective and sought vitality in more widely popular material. To put it another way, American writers in the postwar decades developed a postmodern sensibility. Modernist restructurings of point of view no longer sufficed for them; rather, the context of vision had to be made new.
THE REALIST LEGACY AND THE LATE 1940s
As in the first half of the 20th century, fiction in the second half reflected the character of each decade. The late 1940s saw the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
World War II offered prime material: Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity, 1951) were two writers who used it best. Both of them employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify combat. The same was true for Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948). Herman Wouk, in The Caine Mutiny (1951), also showed that human foibles were as evident in wartime as in civilian life.
Later, Joseph Heller cast World War II in satirical and absurdist terms (Catch-22, 1961), arguing that war is laced with insanity. Thomas Pynchon presented an involuted, brilliant case parodying and displacing different versions of reality (Gravity's Rainbow, 1973). Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., became one of the shining lights of the counterculture during the early 1970s following publication of Slaughterhouse-Five: or, The Children's Crusade (1969), his antiwar novel about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces during World War II (which Vonnegut witnessed on the ground as a prisoner of war).
The 1940s saw the flourishing of a new contingent of writers, including poet-novelist-essayist Robert Penn Warren, dramatists Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams, and short story writers Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. All but Miller were from the South. All explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group.
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Robert Penn Warren, one of the southern Fugitives, enjoyed a fruitful career running through most of the 20th century. He showed a lifelong concern with democratic values as they appeared within historical context. The most enduring of his novels is All the King's Men (1946), focusing on the darker implications of the American dream as revealed in this thinly veiled account of the career of a flamboyant and sinister southern politician, Huey Long.
Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
New York-born dramatist Arthur Miller reached his personal pinnacle in 1949 with Death of a Salesman, a study of man's search for merit and worth in his life and the realization that failure invariably looms. Set within the family of the title character, Willy Loman, the play hinges on the uneven relationships of father and sons, husband and wife. It is a mirror of the literary attitudes of the 1940s, with its rich combination of realism tinged with naturalism; carefully drawn, rounded characters; and insistence on the value of the individual, despite failure and error. Death of a Salesman is a moving paean to the common man -- to whom, as Willy Loman's widow eulogizes, "attention must be paid." Poignant and somber, it is also a story of dreams. As one character notes ironically, "a salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
Death of a Salesman, a landmark work, still is only one of a number of dramas Miller wrote over several decades, including All My Sons (1947) and The Crucible (1953). Both are political -- one contemporary and the other set in colonial times. The first deals with a manufacturer who knowingly allows defective parts to be shipped to airplane firms during World War II, resulting in the death of several American airmen. The Crucible depicts the Salem (Massachusetts) witchcraft trials of the 17th century in which Puritan settlers were wrongfully executed as supposed witches. Its message, though -- that "witch hunts" directed at innocent people are anathema in a democracy -- was relevant to the era in which the play was staged, the early 1950s, when an anti-Communist crusade led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others ruined the lives of innocent people. Partly in response to The Crucible, Miller was called before the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and asked to provide the names of persons who might have Communist sympathies. Because of his refusal to do so, Miller was charged with contempt of Congress, a charge that was overturned on appeal.
A later Miller play, Incident at Vichy (1964), dealt with the Holocaust -- the destruction of much of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. In The Price (1968), two brothers struggle to free themselves from the burdens of the past. Other of Miller's dramas include two one-act plays, Fame (1970) and The Reason Why (1970). His essays are collected in Echoes Down the Corridor (2000); his autobiography, Timebends: A Life, appeared in 1987.
Lillian Hellman (1906-1984)
Like Robert Penn Warren, Lillian Hellman's moral vision was shaped by the South. Her childhood was largely spent in New Orleans. Her compelling plays explore power's many guises and abuses. In The Children's Hour (l934), a manipulative girl destroys the lives of two women teachers by telling people they are lesbians. In The Little Foxes (1939), a rich old southern family fights over an inheritance. Hellman's anti-fascist Watch on the Rhine (1941) grew out of her trips to Europe in the l930s. Her memoirs include An Unfinished Woman (l969) and Pentimento (1973).
For many years, Hellman had a close personal relationship with the remarkable scriptwriter Dashiell Hammett, whose streetwise detective character, Sam Spade, fascinated Depression-era Americans. Hammett invented the quintessentially American hard-boiled detective novel: The Maltese Falcon (l930); The Thin Man (1934).
Hellman, like Arthur Miller, had refused to "name names" for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she and Hammett were blacklisted (refused employment in the American entertainment industry) for a time. These events are recounted in Hellman's memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976).
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Tennessee Williams, a native of Mississippi, was one of the more complex individuals on the American literary scene of the mid-20th century. His work focused on disturbed emotions within families -- most of them southern. He was known for incantatory repetitions, a poetic southern diction, weird gothic settings, and Freudian exploration of human emotion. One of the first American writers to live openly as a homosexual, Williams explained that the longings of his tormented characters expressed their loneliness. His characters live and suffer intensely.
Williams wrote more than 20 full-length dramas, many of them autobiographical. He reached his peak relatively early in his career -- in the 1940s -- with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1949). None of the works that followed over the next two decades and more reached the level of success and richness of those two pieces.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Katherine Anne Porter's long life and career encompassed several eras. Her first success, the short story "Flowering Judas" (1929), was set in Mexico during the revolution. The beautifully crafted short stories that gained her renown subtly unveil personal lives. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" (1930), for example, conveys large emotions with precision. Often she reveals women's inner experiences and their dependence on men.
Porter's nuances owe much to the stories of the New Zealand-born story writer Katherine Mansfield. Porter's story collections include Flowering Judas (1930), Noon Wine (1937), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower (1944), and Collected Stories (1965). In the early 1960s, she produced a long, allegorical novel with a timeless theme -- the responsibility of humans for each other. Titled Ship of Fools (1962), it was set in the late 1930s aboard a passenger liner carrying members of the German upper class and German refugees alike from the Nazi nation.
Not a prolific writer, Porter nonetheless influenced generations of authors, among them her southern colleagues Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.
Eudora Welty (1909-2001)
Born in Mississippi to a well-to-do family of transplanted northerners, Eudora Welty was guided by Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Anne Porter. Porter, in fact, wrote an introduction to Welty's first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green (1941). Welty modeled her nuanced work on Porter, but the younger woman was more interested in the comic and grotesque. Like fellow southerner Flannery O'Connor, Welty often took subnormal, eccentric, or exceptional characters for subjects.
Despite violence in her work, Welty's wit was essentially humane and affirmative, as, for example, in her frequently anthologized story "Why I Live at the P.O." (1941), in which a stubborn and independent daughter moves out of her house to live in a tiny post office. Her collections of stories include The Wide Net (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), and Moon Lake (1980). Welty also wrote novels such as Delta Wedding (1946), which is focused on a plantation family in modern times, and The Optimist's Daughter (1972).
The 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life. Not only did World War II defeat fascism, it brought the United States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. Business, especially in the corporate world, seemed to offer the good life (usually in the suburbs), with its real and symbolic marks of success -- house, car, television, and home appliances.
Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme for many writers; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Generalized American alienation came under the scrutiny of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950).
Other popular, more or less scientific studies followed, ranging from Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) to William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) and C. Wright Mills's more intellectual formulations -- White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Economist and academician John Kenneth Galbraith contributed The Affluent Society (1958).
Most of these works supported the 1950s assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. The studies spoke in general terms, criticizing citizens for losing frontier individualism and becoming too conformist (for example, Riesman and Mills) or advising people to become members of the "New Class" that technology and leisure time created (as seen in Galbraith's works).
The 1950s in literary terms actually was a decade of subtle and pervasive unease. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day. African-American Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) revealed racism as a continuing undercurrent in her moving 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, in which a black family encounters a threatening "welcome committee" when it tries to move into a white neighborhood.
Some writers went further by focusing on characters who dropped out of mainstream society, as did J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, and Jack Kerouac in On the Road. And in the waning days of the decade, Philip Roth arrived with a series of short stories reflecting a certain alienation from his Jewish heritage (Goodbye, Columbus). His psychological ruminations provided fodder for fiction, and later autobiography, into the new millennium.
The fiction of American-Jewish writers Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- among others prominent in the 1950s and the years following -- are also worthy, compelling additions to the compendium of American literature. The output of these three authors is most noted for its humor, ethical concern, and portraits of Jewish communities in the Old and New Worlds.
John O'Hara (1905-1970)
Trained as a journalist, John O'Hara was a prolific writer of plays, stories, and novels. He was a master of careful, telling detail and is best remembered for several realistic novels, mostly written in the 1950s, about outwardly successful people whose inner faults and dissatisfaction leave them vulnerable. These titles include Appointment in Samarra (1934), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1959).
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison mirror the African-American experience of the 1950s. Their characters suffer from a lack of identity, rather than from over-ambition.
Baldwin, the oldest of nine children born to a Harlem, New York, family, was the foster son of a minister. As a youth, Baldwin occasionally preached in the church. This experience helped shape the compelling, oral quality of his prose, most clearly seen in his excellent essays such as "Letter From a Region of My Mind," from the collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In this work, he argued movingly for an end to separation between the races.
Baldwin's first novel, the autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), is probably his best known. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy who seeks self-knowledge and religious faith as he wrestles with issues of Christian conversion in a storefront church. Other important Baldwin works include Another Country (1962) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), a collection of passionate personal essays about racism, the role of the artist, and literature.
Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
Ralph Ellison was a Midwesterner, born in Oklahoma, who studied at Tuskegee Institute in the southern United States. He had one of the strangest careers in American letters -- consisting of one highly acclaimed book and little more.
The novel is Invisible Man (1952), the story of a black man who lives a subterranean existence in a cellar brightly illuminated by electricity stolen from a utility company. The book recounts his grotesque, disenchanting experiences. When he wins a scholarship to an all-black college, he is humiliated by whites; when he gets to the college, he witnesses the school's president spurning black American concerns. Life is corrupt outside college, too. For example, even religion is no consolation: A preacher turns out to be a criminal. The novel indicts society for failing to provide its citizens -- black and white -- with viable ideals and institutions for realizing them. It embodies a powerful racial theme because the "invisible man" is invisible not in himself but because others, blinded by prejudice, cannot see him for who he is.
Juneteenth (1999), Ellison's sprawling, unfinished novel, edited posthumously, reveals his continuing concern with race and identity.
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Flannery O'Connor, a native of Georgia, lived a life cut short by lupus, a blood disease. Still, she refused sentimentality, as is evident in her extremely humorous yet bleak and uncompromising stories.
Unlike Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston, O'Connor most often held her characters at arm's length, revealing their inadequacy and silliness. The uneducated southern characters who people her novels often create violence through superstition or religion, as we see in her novel Wise Blood (1952), about a religious fanatic who establishes his own church.
Sometimes violence arises out of prejudice, as in "The Displaced Person" (1955), about an immigrant killed by ignorant country people who are threatened by his hard work and strange ways. Often, cruel events simply happen to the characters, as in "Good Country People" (1955), the story of a girl seduced by a man who steals her artificial leg.
The black humor of O'Connor links her with Nathanael West and Joseph Heller. Her works include short story collections A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955), and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965); the novel The Violent Bear It Away (1960); and a volume of letters, The Habit of Being (1979). The Complete Stories came out in 1971.
Saul Bellow (1915-2005)
Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow was of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influenced his writing. He once expressed a profound debt to Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow's early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) -- the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe -- and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa.
Bellow's later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the romantic self; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean's December (1982).
In the late 1980s, Bellow wrote two novellas in which elderly protagonists search for ultimate verities, Something To Remember Me By (1991) and The Actual (1997). His novel Ravelstein (2000) is a veiled account of the life of Bellow's friend Alan Bloom, the best-selling author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a conservative attack on the academy for a perceived erosion of standards in American cultural life.
Bellow's Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella centered on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate -- a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. Wilhelm is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore -- one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen.
Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)
Bernard Malamud was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. In his second novel, The Assistant (1957), Malamud found his characteristic themes -- man's struggle to survive against all odds, and the ethical underpinnings of recent Jewish immigrants.
Malamud's first published work was The Natural (1952), a combination of realism and fantasy set in the mythic world of professional baseball. Other novels include A New Life (1961), The Fixer (1966), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and The Tenants (1971). Malamud also was a prolific master of short fiction. Through his stories in collections such as The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), and Rembrandt's Hat (1973), he conveyed -- more than any other American-born writer -- a sense of the Jewish present and past, the real and the surreal, fact and legend.
Malamud's monumental work -- for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- is The Fixer. Set in Russia around the turn of the 20th century, it is a thinly veiled look at an actual case of blood libel -- the infamous 1913 trial of Mendel Beiliss, a dark, anti-Semitic blotch on modern history. As in many of his writings, Malamud underscores the suffering of his hero, Yakob Bok, and the struggle against all odds to endure.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991)
Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story master Isaac Bashevis Singer -- a native of Poland who immigrated to the United States in 1935 -- was the son of the prominent head of a rabbinical court in Warsaw. Writing in Yiddish all his life, he dealt in mythic and realistic terms with two specific groups of Jews -- the denizens of the Old World shtetls (small villages) and the ocean-tossed 20th-century emigrés of the pre-World War II and postwar eras.
Singer's writings served as bookends for the Holocaust. On the one hand, he described -- in novels such as The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), set in 19th-century Russia, and The Family Moskat (1950), focused on a Polish-Jewish family between the world wars -- the world of European Jewry that no longer exists. Complementing these works were his writings set after the war, such as Enemies, A Love Story (1972), whose protagonists were survivors of the Holocaust seeking to create new lives for themselves.
Vladimir Nabokov (1889-1977)
Like Singer, Vladimir Nabokov was an Eastern European immigrant. Born into an affluent family in Czarist Russia, he came to the United States in 1940 and gained U.S. citizenship five years later. From 1948 to 1959, he taught literature at Cornell University in upstate New York; in 1960 he moved permanently to Switzerland.
Nabokov is best known for his novels, which include the autobiographical Pnin (1957), about an ineffectual Russian emigré professor, and Lolita (U.S. edition, 1958), about an educated, middle-aged European who becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old American girl. Nabokov's pastiche novel, Pale Fire (1962), another successful venture, focuses on a long poem by an imaginary dead poet and the commentaries on it by a critic whose writings overwhelm the poem and take on unexpected lives of their own.
Nabokov is an important writer for his stylistic subtlety, deft satire, and ingenious innovations in form, which have inspired such novelists as John Barth. Nabokov was aware of his role as a mediator between the Russian and American literary worlds; he wrote a book on Gogol and translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. His daring, somewhat expressionist subjects helped introduce 20th-century European currents into the essentially realist American fictional tradition. Nabokov's tone, partly satirical and partly nostalgic, also suggested a new serio-comic emotional register made use of by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, who combines the opposing notes of wit and fear.
John Cheever (1912-1982)
John Cheever often has been called a "novelist of manners." He is also known for his elegant, suggestive short stories, which scrutinize the New York business world through its effects on the businessmen, their wives, children, and friends.
A wry melancholy and never quite quenched but seemingly hopeless desire for passion or metaphysical certainty lurks in the shadows of Cheever's finely drawn, Chekhovian tales, collected in The Way Some People Live (1943), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). His titles reveal his characteristic nonchalance, playfulness, and irreverence, and hint at his subject matter.
Cheever also published several novels -- The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977) -- the last of which was largely autobiographical.
John Updike (1932- )
John Updike, like Cheever, is also regarded as a writer of manners with his suburban settings, domestic themes, reflections of ennui and wistfulness, and, particularly, his fictional locales on the eastern seaboard of the United States, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Updike is best known for his five Rabbit books, depictions of the life of a man -- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom -- through the ebbs and flows of his existence across four decades of American social and political history. Rabbit, Run (1960) is a mirror of the 1950s, with Angstrom an aimless, disaffected young husband. Rabbit Redux (1971) -- spotlighting the counterculture of the 1960s -- finds Angstrom still without a clear goal or purpose or viable escape route from the banal. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Harry has become a prosperous businessman during the 1970s, as the Vietnam era wanes. The final novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990), glimpses Angstrom's reconciliation with life, before his death from a heart attack, against the backdrop of the 1980s. In Updike's 1995 novella Rabbit Remembered, his adult children recall Rabbit.
Among Updike's other novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (l988). Updike creates an alter ego -- a writer whose fame ironically threatens to silence him -- in another series of novels: Bech: A Book (l970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998).
Updike possesses the most brilliant style of any writer today, and his short stories offer scintillating examples of its range and inventiveness. Collections include The Same Door (1959), The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), Too Far To Go (1979), and Problems (1979). He has also written several volumes of poetry and essays.
J.D. Salinger (1919- )
A harbinger of things to come in the 1960s, J.D. Salinger has portrayed attempts to drop out of society. Born in New York City, he achieved huge literary success with the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), centered on a sensitive 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who flees his elite boarding school for the outside world of adulthood, only to become disillusioned by its materialism and phoniness.
When asked what he would like to be, Caulfield answers "the catcher in the rye," misquoting a poem by Robert Burns. In his vision, he is a modern version of a white knight, the sole preserver of innocence. He imagines a big field of rye so tall that a group of young children cannot see where they are running as they play their games. He is the only big person there. "I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff." The fall over the cliff is equated with the loss of childhood innocence -- a persistent theme of the era
Other works by this reclusive, spare writer include Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963), a collection of stories from The New Yorker magazine. Since the appearance of one story in 1965, Salinger -- who lives in New Hampshire -- has been absent from the American literary scene.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
The son of an impoverished French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac also questioned the values of middle-class life. He met members of the Beat literary underground as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City. His fiction was much influenced by the loosely autobiographical work of southern novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), describes beatniks wandering through America seeking an idealistic dream of communal life and beauty. The Dharma Bums (1958) also focuses on peripatetic counterculture intellectuals and their infatuation with Zen Buddhism. Kerouac also penned a book of poetry, Mexico City Blues (1959), and volumes about his life with such beatniks as experimental novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg.
THE TURBULENT BUT CREATIVE 1960s
The alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the civil rights movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked through American society. Notable political and social works of the era include the speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist leader Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique), and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about a 1967 antiwar march.
The 1960s were marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote (1924-1984) -- who had dazzled readers as an enfant terrible of the late 1940s and 1950s in such works as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) -- stunned audiences with In Cold Blood (1965), a riveting analysis of a brutal mass murder in the American heartland that read like a work of detective fiction.
At the same time, the New Journalism emerged -- volumes of nonfiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being reported. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Tom Wolfe (1931- ) celebrated the counterculture wanderlust of novelist Ken Kesey (1935-2001); Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) ridiculed many aspects of left-wing activism. Wolfe later wrote an exuberant and insightful history of the initial phase of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1979), and a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a panoramic portrayal of American society in the 1980s.
As the 1960s evolved, literature flowed with the turbulence of the era. An ironic, comic vision also came into view, reflected in the fabulism of several writers. Examples include Ken Kesey's darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel about life in a mental hospital in which the wardens are more disturbed than the inmates, and the whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967) by Richard Brautigan (1935-1984).
The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid, brilliant V and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme (1931-1989), whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.
This new mode came to be called metafiction -- self-conscious or reflexive fiction that calls attention to its own technique. Such "fiction about fiction" emphasizes language and style, and departs from the conventions of realism such as rounded characters, a believable plot enabling a character's development, and appropriate settings. In metafiction, the writer's style attracts the reader's attention. The true subject is not the characters, but rather the writer's own consciousness.
Critics of the time commonly grouped Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme as metafictionists, along with William Gaddis (1922-1998), whose long novel JR (l975), about a young boy who builds up a phony business empire from junk bonds, eerily forecasts Wall Street excesses to come. His shorter, more accessible Carpenter's Gothic (1985) combines romance with menace. Gaddis is often linked with midwestern philosopher/novelist William Gass (1924- ), best known for his early, thoughtful novel Omensetter's Luck (1966), and for stories collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968).
Robert Coover (1932- ) is another metafiction writer. His collection of stories Pricksongs & Descants (1969) plays with plots familiar from folktales and popular culture, while his novel The Public Burning (1977) deconstructs the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage.
Thomas Pynchon (1937- )
Thomas Pynchon, a mysterious, publicity-shunning author, was born in New York and graduated from Cornell University in 1958, where he may have come under the influence of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, his innovative fantasies use themes of translating clues, games, and codes that could derive from Nabokov. Pynchon's flexible tone can modulate paranoia into poetry.
All of Pynchon's fiction is similarly structured. A vast plot is unknown to at least one of the main characters, whose task it then becomes to render order out of chaos and decipher the world. This project, exactly the job of the traditional artist, devolves also upon the reader, who must follow along and watch for clues and meanings. This paranoid vision is extended across continents and time itself, for Pynchon employs the metaphor of entropy, the gradual running down of the universe. The masterful use of popular culture -- particularly science fiction and detective fiction -- is evident in his works.
Pynchon's work V (1963) is loosely structured around Benny Profane -- a failure who engages in pointless wanderings and various weird enterprises -- and his opposite, the educated Herbert Stencil, who seeks a mysterious female spy, V (alternatively Venus, Virgin, Void). The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a short work, deals with a secret system associated with the U.S. Postal Service. Gravity's Rainbow (1973) takes place during World War II in London, when rockets were falling on the city, and concerns a farcical yet symbolic search for Nazis and other disguised figures.
In Pynchon's comic novel Vineland (l990), set in northern California, shadowy forces within federal agencies endanger individuals. In the novel Mason & Dixon (1997), partly set in the wilderness of 1765, two English explorers survey the line that would come to divide the North and South in the United States. Again, Pynchon sees power wielded unjustly. Dixon asks: "No matter where...we go, shall we find all the World Tyrants and Slaves?" Despite its range, the violence, comedy, and flair for innovation in his work inexorably link Pynchon with the 1960s.
John Barth (1930- )
John Barth, a native of Maryland, is more interested in how a story is told than in the story itself, but where Pynchon deludes the reader by false trails and possible clues out of detective novels, Barth entices his audience into a carnival fun house full of distorting mirrors that exaggerate some features while minimizing others.
Realism is the enemy for Barth, the author of Lost in the Funhouse (1968), 14 stories that constantly refer to the processes of writing and reading. Barth's intent is to alert the reader to the artificial nature of reading and writing and to prevent him or her from being drawn into the story as if it were real. To explode the illusion of realism, Barth uses a panoply of reflexive devices to remind his audience that they are reading.
Barth's earlier works, like Saul Bellow's, were questioning and existential, and took up the 1950s themes of escape and wandering. In The Floating Opera (1956), a man considers suicide. The End of the Road (1958) concerns a complex love affair. Works of the 1960s became more comical and less realistic. The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) parodies an 18th-century picaresque style, while Giles Goat-Boy (1966) is a parody of the world seen as a university.
Chimera (1972) retells tales from Greek mythology, and Letters (1979) uses Barth himself as a character, as Norman Mailer does in The Armies of the Night. In Sabbatical: A Romance (1982), Barth uses the popular fiction motif of the spy; this is the story of a woman college professor and her husband, a retired secret agent turned novelist. Later novels -- The Tidewater Tales (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), and Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994) reveal Barth's "passionate virtuosity" (his own phrase) in negotiating the chaotic, oceanic world with the bright rigging of language.
Norman Mailer (1923- )
Norman Mailer made himself the most visible novelist of the l960s and l970s. Co-founder of the anti-establishment New York City weekly The Village Voice, Mailer publicized himself along with his political views. In his appetite for experience, vigorous style, and a dramatic public persona, Mailer follows in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway. To gain a vantage point on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War protests, black liberation, and the women's movement, he constructed hip, existentialist, macho male personae (in her book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett identified Mailer as an archetypal male chauvinist). The irrepressible Mailer went on to marry six times and run for mayor of New York.
Mailer is the reverse of a writer like John Barth, for whom the subject is not as important as the way it is handled. Unlike the invisible Thomas Pynchon, Mailer constantly courts and demands attention.
A novelist, essayist, sometime politician, literary activist, and occasional actor, Mailer is always on the scene. From such New Journalism exercises as Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), an analysis of the 1968 U.S. presidential conventions, and his compelling study about the execution of a condemned murderer, The Executioner's Song (1979), Mailer has turned to writing such ambitious, if flawed, novels as Ancient Evenings (1983), set in the Egypt of antiquity, and Harlot's Ghost (1991), revolving around the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Philip Roth (1933- )
Like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth has provoked controversy by mining his life for fiction. In Roth's case, his treatments of sexual themes and ironic analysis of Jewish life have drawn popular and critical attention, as well as criticism.
Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), satirized provincial Jewish suburbanites. In his best-known novel, the outrageous, best-selling Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a New York City administrator regales his taciturn psychoanalyst with off-color stories of his boyhood.
Although The Great American Novel (1973) delves into baseball lore, most of Roth's novels remain resolutely, even defiantly, autobiographical. In My Life As a Man (1974), under the stress of divorce, a man resorts to creating an alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whose stories constitute one pole of the narrative, the other pole being the different kinds of readers' responses. Zuckerman seemingly takes over in a series of subsequent novels. The most successful is probably the first, The Ghost Writer (1979). It is told by Zuckerman as a young writer criticized by Jewish elders for fanning anti-Semitism. In Zuckerman Bound (1985), a novel has made Zuckerman rich but notorious. In The Counterlife (1986), the fifth Zuckerman novel, stories vie with stories, as Nathan's supposed life is contrasted with other imaginable lives. Roth's memoir The Facts (1988) twists the screw further; in it, Zuckerman criticizes Roth's own narrative style.
Roth continues wavering on the border between fact and fiction in Patrimony: A True Story (1991), a memoir about the death of his father. His recent novels include American Pastoral (1997), in which a daughter's 1960s radicalism wounds a father, and The Human Stain (2000), about a professor whose career is ruined by a racial misunderstanding based on language.
Roth is a profound analyst of Jewish strengths and weaknesses. His characterizations are nuanced; his protagonists are complex, individualized, and deeply human. Roth's series of autobiographical novels about a writer recalls John Updike's recent Bech series, and it is master-stylist Updike with whom Roth -- widely admired for his supple, ingenious style -- is most often compared.
Despite its brilliance and wit, some readers find Roth's work self-absorbed. Still, his vigorous accomplishment over almost 50 years has earned him a place among the most distinguished of American novelists.
Southern writing of the l960s tended, like the then still largely agrarian southern region, to adhere to time-honored traditions. It remained rooted in realism and an ethical, if not religious, vision during this decade of radical change. Recurring southern themes include family, the family home, history, the land, religion, guilt, identity, death, and the search for redemptive meaning in life. Like William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel, 1929), who inspired the "southern renaissance" in literature, many southern writers of the 1960s were scholars and elaborate stylists, revering the written word as a link with traditions rooted in the classical world.
Many have been influential teachers. Kentucky-born Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), who married southern poet Allen Tate, was a respected professor of writing. She set her novels in her native Kentucky. Truman Capote was born in New Orleans and spent part of his childhood in small towns in Louisiana and Alabama, the settings for many of his early works in the elegant, decadent, southern gothic vein.
African-American writing professor Ernest Gaines (1933- ), also born in New Orleans, set many of his moving, thoughtful works in the largely black rural bayou country of Louisiana. Perhaps his best known novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), reflects on the sweep of time from the end of the Civil War in 1865 up to 1960. Concerned with human issues deeper than skin color, Gaines handles racial relations subtly.
Reynolds Price (1933- ), a long-time professor at Duke University, was born in North Carolina, which furnishes the scenes for many of his works, such as A Long and Happy Life (1961). Like William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, he peoples his southern terrain with interlinked families close to their roots and broods on the passing of time and the imperative to expiate ancient wrongs. His meditative, poetic style recalls the classical literary tradition of the old South. Partially paralyzed due to cancer, Price has explored physical suffering in The Promise of Rest (1995) about a father tending his son who is dying of AIDS. His highly regarded novel Kate Vaiden (1986) reveals his ability to evoke a woman's life.
Walker Percy (1916-1990), a resident of Louisiana, was raised as a member of the southern aristocracy. His very readable novels -- by turns comic, lyrical, moralizing, and satirical -- reveal his awareness of social class and his conversion to Catholicism. His best novel is his first, The Moviegoer (l961). This story of a charming but aimless young New Orleans stockbroker shows the influence of French existentialism transplanted to the booming and often brash New South that burgeoned after World War II.
THE 1970s AND 1980s: CONSOLIDATION
By the mid-1970s, an era of consolidation had begun. The Vietnam conflict was over, followed soon afterward by U.S. recognition of the People's Republic of China and America's bicentennial celebration. Soon the 1980s -- the "Me Decade" in Tom Wolfe's phrase -- ensued, in which individuals tended to focus more on personal concerns than on larger social issues.
In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation dwindled. New novelists like John Gardner, John Irving (The World According to Garp, 1978), Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, 1981), William Kennedy (Ironweed, 1983), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982) surfaced with stylistically brilliant novels to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes associated with realism returned, along with renewed interest in history, as in works by E.L. Doctorow.
Realism, abandoned by experimental writers in the 1960s, also crept back, often mingled with bold original elements -- a daring structure like a novel within a novel, as in John Gardner's October Light, or black American dialect as in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Minority literature began to flourish. Drama shifted from realism to more cinematic, kinetic techniques. At the same time, however, the Me Decade was reflected in such brash new talents as Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, 1984), Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, 1985), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, 1986).
E.L. Doctorow (1931- )
The novels of E.L. Doctorow demonstrate the transition from metafiction to a new and more human sensibility. His critically acclaimed novel about the high human cost of the Cold War, The Book of Daniel (1971), is based on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, told in the voice of the bereaved son. Robert Coover's The Public Burning treats the same topic, but Doctorow's book conveys more warmth and emotion.
Doctorow's Ragtime (1975) is a rich, kaleidoscopic collage of the United States beginning in 1906. As John Dos Passos had done several decades earlier in his trilogy U.S.A., Doctorow mingles fictional characters with real ones to capture the era's flavor and complexity. Doctorow's fictional history of the United States is continued in Loon Lake (1979), set in the 1930s, about a ruthless capitalist who dominates and destroys idealistic people.
Later Doctorow novels are the autobiographical World's Fair (1985), about an eight-year-old boy growing up in the Depression of the 1930s; Billy Bathgate (l989), about Dutch Schultz, a real New York gangster; and The Waterworks (1994), set in New York during the 1870s. City of God (2000) -- the title referencing St. Augustine -- turns to New York in the present. A Christian cleric's consciousness interweaves the city's generalized poverty, crime, and loneliness with stories of people whose lives touch his. The book hints at Doctorow's abiding belief that writing -- a form of witnessing -- is a mode of human survival.
Doctorow's techniques are eclectic. His stylistic exuberance and formal inventiveness link him with metafiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, but his novels remain rooted in realism and history. His use of real people and events links him with the New Journalism of the l960s and with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, while his use of fictional memoir, as in World's Fair, looks forward to writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and the flowering of the memoir in the 1990s.
William Styron (1925-2006)
From the Tidewater area of Virginia, southerner William Styron wrote ambitious novels that set individuals in places and times that test the limits of their humanity. His early works include the acclaimed Lie Down in Darkness (1951), which begins with the suicide of a beautiful southern woman -- who leaps from a New York skyscraper -- and works backward in time to explore the dark forces within her family that drew her to her death.
The Faulknerian treatment, including dark southern gothic themes, flashbacks, and stream of consciousness monologues, brought Styron fame that turned to controversy when he published his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). This novel re-creates the most violent slave uprising in U.S. history, as seen through the eyes of its leader. The book came out at the height of the "black power" movement, and, unsurprisingly, the depiction of Nat Turner drew sharp criticism from many African-American observers, although some came to Styron's defense.
Styron's fascination with individual human acts set against backdrops of larger racial injustice continues in Sophie's Choice (1979), another tour de force about the doom of a lovely woman -- the topic that Edgar Allan Poe, the presiding spirit of southern writers, found the most moving of all possible subjects. In this novel, a beautiful Polish woman who has survived Auschwitz is defeated by its remembered agonies, summed up in the moment she was made to choose which one of her children would live and which one would die. The book makes complex parallels between the racism of the South and the Holocaust.
More recently Styron, like many other writers, turned to the memoir form. His short account of his near-suicidal depression, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), recalls the terrible undertow that his own doomed characters must have felt. In the autobiographical fictions in A Tidewater Morning (1993), the shimmering, oppressively hot Virginia coast where he grew up mirrors and extends the speaker's shifting consciousness.
John Gardner (1933-1982)
John Gardner, from a farming background in New York State, was his era's most important spokesperson for ethical values in literature until his death in a motorcycle accident. He was a professor of English specializing in the medieval period; his most popular novel, Grendel (1971), retells the Old English epic Beowulf from the monster's existentialist point of view. The short, vivid, and often comic novel is a subtle argument against the existentialism that fills its protagonist with self-destructive despair and cynicism.
A prolific and popular novelist, Gardner used a realistic approach but employed innovative techniques -- such as flashbacks, stories within stories, retellings of myths, and contrasting stories -- to bring out the truth of a human situation. His strengths are characterization (particularly his sympathetic portraits of ordinary people) and colorful style. Major works include The Resurrection (1966), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), October Light (1976), and Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982).
Gardner's fictional patterns suggest the curative powers of fellowship, duty, and family obligations, and in this sense Gardner was a profoundly traditional and conservative author. He endeavored to demonstrate that certain values and acts lead to fulfilling lives. His book On Moral Fiction (1978) calls for novels that embody ethical values rather than dazzle with empty technical innovation. The book created a furor, largely because Gardner bluntly criticized important living authors -- especially writers of metafiction -- for failing to reflect ethical concerns. Gardner argued for a warm, human, ultimately more realistic and socially engaged fiction, such as that of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison.
Joyce Carol Oates (1938- )
Joyce Carol Oates is the most prolific serious novelist of recent decades, having published novels, short stories, poetry, nonfiction, plays, critical studies, and essays. She uses what she has called "psychological realism" on a panoramic range of subjects and forms.
Oates has authored a Gothic trilogy consisting of Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (l984); a nonfiction book, On Boxing (l987); and a study of Marilyn Monroe (Blonde, 2000). Her plots are dark and often hinge on violence, which she finds to be deeply rooted in the American psyche.
Toni Morrison (1931- )
African-American novelist Toni Morrison was born in Ohio to a spiritually oriented family. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a senior editor in a major Washington publishing house and as a distinguished professor at various universities.
Morrison's richly woven fiction has gained her international acclaim. In compelling, large-spirited novels, she treats the complex identities of black people in a universal manner. In her early work The Bluest Eye (1970), a strong-willed young black girl tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, who is driven mad by an abusive father. Pecola believes that her dark eyes have magically become blue and that they will make her lovable. Morrison has said that she was creating her own sense of identity as a writer through this novel: "I was Pecola, Claudia, everybody."
Sula (1973) describes the strong friendship of two women. Morrison paints African-American women as unique, fully individual characters rather than as stereotypes. Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977) has won several awards. It follows a black man, Milkman Dead, and his complex relations with his family and community. In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison deals with black and white relations. Beloved (1987) is the wrenching story of a woman who murders her children rather than allow them to live as slaves. It employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism in depicting a mysterious figure, Beloved, who returns to live with the mother who has slit her throat.
Jazz (1992), set in 1920s Harlem, is a story of love and murder; in Paradise (1998), males of the all-black Oklahoma town of Ruby kill neighbors from an all-women's settlement. Morrison reveals that exclusion, whether by sex or race, however appealing it may seem, leads ultimately not to paradise but to a hell of human devising.
In her accessible nonfiction book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Morrison discerns a defining current of racial consciousness in American literature. Morrison has suggested that though her novels are consummate works of art, they contain political meanings: "I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination...yes, the work must be political." In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Alice Walker (1944- )
Alice Walker, an African-American and the child of a sharecropper family in rural Georgia, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her teachers was the politically committed female poet Muriel Rukeyser. Other influences on her work have been Flannery O'Connor and Zora Neale Hurston.
A "womanist" writer, as Walker calls herself, she has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. Like Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, the late Toni Cade Bambara, and other accomplished contemporary black novelists, Walker uses heightened, lyrical realism to center on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. Her work underscores the quest for dignity in human life. A fine stylist, particularly in her epistolary dialect novel The Color Purple, her work seeks to educate. In this she resembles the black American novelist Ishmael Reed, whose satires expose social problems and racial issues.
Walker's The Color Purple is the story of the love between two poor black sisters that survives a separation over years, interwoven with the story of how, during that same period, the shy, ugly, and uneducated sister discovers her inner strength through the support of a female friend. The theme of the support women give each other recalls Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which celebrates the mother-daughter connection, and the work of white feminists such as Adrienne Rich. The Color Purple portrays men as basically unaware of the needs and reality of women.
Although many critics find Walker's work too didactic or ideological, a large general readership appreciates her bold explorations of African-American womanhood. Her novels shed light on festering issues such as the harsh legacy of sharecropping (The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970) and female circumcision (Possessing the Secret Joy, 1992).
THE RISE OF MULTIETHNIC FICTION
Jewish-American writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer were the first since the 19th-century abolitionists and African-American writers of slave narratives to address ethnic prejudice and the plight of the outsider. They explored new ways of projecting an awareness that was both American and specific to a subculture. In this, they opened the door for the flowering of multiethnic writing in the decades to come.
The close of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s saw minority writing become a major fixture on the American literary landscape. This is true in drama as well as in prose. The late August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote an acclaimed cycle of plays about the 20th-century black experience that stands alongside the work of novelists Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman, and Toni Morrison. Scholars such as Lawrence Levine (The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History, 1996) and Ronald Takaki (A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, 1993) provide invaluable context for understanding multiethnic literature and its meanings.
Asian Americans also took their place on the scene. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior (1976), carved out a place for her fellow Asian Americans. Among them is Amy Tan (1952- ), whose luminous novels of Chinese life transposed to post-World War II America (The Joy Luck Club, 1989, and The Kitchen God's Wife, 1991) captivated readers. David Henry Hwang (1957- ), a California-born son of Chinese immigrants, made his mark in drama, with plays such as F.O.B. (1981) and M. Butterfly (1986).
A relatively new group on the literary horizon were the Latino-American writers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-born author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989). Leading writers of Mexican-American descent include Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, 1991); and Rudolfo Anaya, author of the poetic novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972).
Native-American fiction flowered. Most often the authors evoked the loss of traditional life based in nature, the stressful attempt to adapt to modern life, and their struggles with poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1968), by N. Scott Momaday (1934- ), and his poetic The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) evoke the beauty and despair of Kiowa Indian life. Of mixed Pueblo descent, Leslie Marmon Silko wrote the critically esteemed novel Ceremony (1977), which gained a large general audience. Like Momaday's works, hers is a "chant novel" structured on Native-American healing rituals.
Blackfoot poet and novelist James Welch (1940-2003) detailed the struggles of Native Americans in his slender, nearly flawless novels Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990). Louise Erdrich, part Chippewa, has written a powerful series of novels inaugurated by Love Medicine (1984) that capture the tangled lives of dysfunctional reservation families with a poignant blend of stoicism and humor.
After World War I, popular and lucrative musicals had increasingly dominated the Broadway theatrical scene. Serious theater retreated to smaller, less expensive theaters "off Broadway" or outside New York City.
This situation repeated itself after World War II. American drama had languished in the l950s, constrained by the Cold War and McCarthyism. The energy of the l960s revived it. The off-off-Broadway movement presented an innovative alternative to commercialized popular theater.
Many of the major dramatists after 1960 produced their work in small venues. Freed from the need to make enough money to pay for expensive playhouses, they were newly inspired by European existentialism and the so-called Theater of the Absurd associated with European playwrights Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco, as well as by Harold Pinter. The best dramatists became innovative and even surreal, rejecting realistic theater to attack superficial social conventions.
Edward Albee (1928- )
The most influential dramatist of the early 1960s was Edward Albee, who was adopted into a well-off family that had owned vaudeville theaters and counted actors among their friends. Helping produce European absurdist theater, Albee actively brought new European currents into U.S. drama. In The American Dream (1960), stick figures of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma recite platitudes that caricature a loveless, conventional family.
Loss of identity and consequent struggles for power to fill the void propel Albee's plays, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (l962). In this controversial drama, made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, an unhappily married couple's shared fantasy -- that they have a child, that their lives have meaning -- is violently exposed as an untruth.
Albee has continued to produce distinguished work over several decades, including Tiny Alice (l964); A Delicate Balance (l966); Seascape (l975); Marriage Play (1987); and Three Tall Women (1991), which follows the main character, who resembles Albee's overbearing adoptive mother, through three stages of life.
Amiri Baraka (1934- )
Poet Amiri Baraka, known for supple, speech-oriented poetry with an affinity to improvisational jazz, turned to drama in the l960s. Always searching to find himself, Baraka has changed his name several times as he has sought to define his identity as a black American. Baraka explored various paths of life in his early years, flunking out of Howard University and becoming dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force for alleged Communism. During these years, his true vocation of writing emerged.
During the l960s, Baraka lived in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he knew many artists and writers including Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg.
By 1965, Baraka had started the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, the black section of New York City. He portrayed black nationalist views of racism in disturbing plays such as Dutchman (1964), in which a white woman flirts with and eventually kills a younger black man on a New York City subway. The realistic first half of the play sparkles with witty dialogue and subtle characterization. The shocking ending risks melodrama to dramatize racial misunderstanding and the victimization of the black male protagonist.
Sam Shepard (1943- )
Actor/dramatist Sam Shepard spent his childhood moving with his family from army base to army base following his father, who had been a pilot in World War II. He spent his teen years on a ranch in the barren desert east of Los Angeles, California. In secondary school, Shepard found solace in the Beat poets; he learned jazz drumming and later played in a rock band. Shepard produced his first plays, Cowboys and The Rock Garden, in 1964. They prefigure his mature works in their western motifs and theme of male competition.
Of almost 50 works for stage and screen, Shepard's most esteemed are three interrelated plays evoking love and violence in the family: Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1980), his best-known work. In True West, two middle-aged brothers, an educated screenwriter and a drifting thief, compete to write a true-to-life western play for a rich, urban movie producer. Each thinking he needs what the other has -- success, freedom -- the two brothers change places in an atmosphere of increasing violence fueled by alcohol. The play registers Shepard's concern with loss of freedom, authenticity, and autonomy in American life. It dramatizes the vanishing frontier (the drifter) and the American imagination (the writer), seduced by money, the media, and commercial forces, personified by the producer.
In his writing process, Shepard tries to re-create a zone of freedom by allowing his characters to act in unpredictable, spontaneous, sometimes illogical ways. The most famous example comes from True West. In a gesture meant to suggest lawless freedom, the distraught writer steals numerous toasters. Totally unrealistic yet oddly believable on an emotional level, the scene works as comedy, absurd drama, and irony.
Shepard lets his characters guide his writing, rather than beginning with a pre-planned plot, and his plays are fresh and lifelike. His surrealistic flair and experimentalism link him with Edward Albee, but his plays are earthier and funnier, and his characters are drawn more realistically. They convey a bold West Coast consciousness and make comments on America in their use of landscape motifs and specific settings and contexts.
David Mamet (1947- )
Equally important is David Mamet, raised in Chicago, whose writing was influenced by the Stanislavsky method of acting that revealed to him the way "the language we use...determines the way we behave, more than the other way around." His emphasis on language not as communication but as a weapon, evasion, and manipulation of reality give Mamet a contemporary, postmodern sensibility.
Mamet's hard-hitting plays include American Buffalo (l975), a two-act play of increasingly violent language involving a drug addict, a junk store, and an attempted theft; and Speed-the-Plow (1987). The acclaimed and frequently anthologized Glengarry Glen Ross (l982), about real estate salesmen, was made into an outstanding 1992 movie with an all-star cast. This play, like most of Mamet's work, reveals his intense engagement with some of America's unresolved issues -- here, as if in an update of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, one sees the need for dignity and job security, especially for older workers; competition between older and younger generations in the workplace; intense focus on profits at the expense of the welfare of workers; and -- enveloping all --the corrosive atmosphere of competition carried to abusive lengths.
Mamet's Oleanna (l991) effectively dissects sexual harassment in a university setting. The Cryptogram (1994) imagines a child's horrific vision of family life. Recent plays include The Old Neighborhood (1991) and Boston Marriage (1999).
David Rabe (1940- )
Another noted dramatist is David Rabe, a Vietnam veteran who was one of the first to explore that war's upheaval and violence in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (l971) and Sticks and Bones (l969). Subsequent plays include The Orphan (l973), based on Aeschylus's Oresteia; In the Boom Boom Room (1973), about the rape of a dancer; and Hurlyburly (1984) and Those the River Keeps (l990), both about Hollywood disillusionment. Rabe's recent works include The Crossing Guard (l994) and Corners (1998), about the concept of honor in the Mafia.
August Wilson (1945-2005)
The distinguished African-American dramatist August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, was the son of a German immigrant who did not concern himself with his family. Wilson endured poverty and racism and adopted the surname of his African-American mother as a teenager. Influenced by the black arts movement of the late 1960s, Wilson co-founded Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater.
Wilson's plays explore African-American experience, organized by decades. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (l984), set in 1927 Chicago, depicts the famous blues singer. His acclaimed play Fences (1985), set in the 1950s, dramatizes the conflict between a father and a son, touching on the all-American themes of baseball and the American dream of success. Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986) concerns boarding-house residents in 1911. The Piano Lesson (1987), set in the 1930s, crystallizes a family's dynamic by focusing on the heirloom piano. Two Trains Running (1990) takes place in a coffeehouse in the 1960s, while Seven Guitars (1995) explores the 1940s.
[Kathryn VanSpanckeren, professor of English at the University of Tampa, has lectured in American literature widely abroad, and is former director of the Fulbright-sponsored Summer Institute in American Literature for international scholars. Her publications include poetry and scholarship. She received her Bachelors degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University.]