Early Twentieth Century American Literature Essay
Early Twentieth Century American Literature
It is fascinating the sheer number of themes that a relatively short period of literature can bring up and deal with. This is most certainly the case with American literature as it turned the corner from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. Diverse genres as poetry, such as Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy and My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke, and short stories from authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper) and Flannery O’Connor (Good Country People) covered the range of topics from relationships between men and women and fathers and sons, to innocence lost and reality avoided.
These works tested the social fabrics and existences of these topics, often finding new forms of expression for them. In many ways, then, it is difficult to ascertain or name this period for a specific movement. What is true is that it would appear from this gamut that the early nineteen hundreds in the United States had become absolutely pregnant with literary possibilities. Short stories would seem the easiest way for an author to get the point across regarding theme and context. The genre is long enough for simple analysis, yet short enough to avoid meandering far from intent.
Gilman created a masterpiece of the just long enough variety. Within The Yellow Wallpaper the author takes on a primary theme from the early part of the twentieth century: the expected submissive status of women. Apart from the popularly identified issues of psychology found in the story, the chief concern of the author is in fact the treatment of women by their ‘superior’ gender. This theme is found over and again through examples like the freedom of the woman’s husband John to make every single one of the decisions regarding his wife, her care and her liberty.
Incidentally, his wife is apparently suffering from post-partum depression (the textual evidence indicating the presence of their baby son) but yet again, in keeping with the theme, there is no willingness to offer quality compassion or care on the part of the man. Unwittingly, (hopefully, that is) he even worsens her conditions by removing the baby altogether from her life. He simply locks her up and patronizes her, assuring her that she will feel better any day – and especially if she doesn’t get involved in things that might grant her some level of independence, like writing.
The theme, though treated throughout the narrative, is never quite resolved by story’s end. The wife is psychologically mad, and the husband does not realize that he is the cause. Even when faced with the plain existence of insanity upon his wife’s visage, he faints from the horror of it all, rather than from the revolting knowledge that he somehow may have been complicit. The Yellow Wallpaper is an allegory. This is plain and simple. The primary literary device continually reminds the reader that this story, though fictional, is still reality.
Through the ongoing saga of the wife’s illness and treatment, it is seen the connection to daily life for all women of the time. The symbolism at points is quite clear. John locks his wife up and it takes some time for the reader to figure out quite why. It is precisely due to the fact that this is not the point. It is not important to find out the ‘why’ behind locking her up. It is allegorical. John is representative of males, and his wife’s incarceration is representative of the state they are kept by all the Johns of the world.
The wife of the time was to have no say so in family finances, direction and management, and are to remain in the home, locked up and ready to serve. “I sometimes fancy that in my condition,” the wife muses, “if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (1684). The Yellow Wallpaper describes this feeling of both hopelessness and submissiveness well through its use of allegorical story. Similarly, the work exhibits one of the main beliefs, then, of its time.
When this short story was printed, and received by the reading public, it represented the status quo of the Victorian era. Women were the homemakers. They had their place, and it sure wasn’t anywhere that would find them thinking independently. Most likely men did not see The Yellow Wallpaper for the allegory it was at all. This story would have been more of a realist bent than a social statement, to them. The belief in a woman’s submissive role was so prevalent that this story was interpreted more for its talk of mental disorders than for its social discourse. This, unfortunately, is what happens when a cultural belief is so pervasive.
It is a safe bet that women did not see it in the same light. Writing by Gilman became a predecessor to the modern feminist movement, and provided a safe voice through literature for what would become an undercurrent yet to sweep the nation. Women, understood what the book was saying through its nuances about the current cultural belief, and cheered on the wife as she ‘creeped’ right on over John at story’s end (1694). The poem Miniver Cheevy is much different altogether. Rather than focusing on a specific social reality as did Gilman’s work, Robinson instead pointed out an escape from it.
The idea of escape is the theme of this piece. As society began to drift away from the romantic notions of the past with its views of new adventures and discoveries, and toward a new, industrialized modern world, a more mundane existence crept over the country. Though there was more work, it was less creative. The new reality meant longer work hours in dreary conditions. There was less time and freedom for adventures and experiences during the busy and demanding work week. Even the colors and surroundings faded as factories and pollution began to grow.
For free thinkers and romantics, this was not their time. More than a few would find themselves pining away for the more innocent and carefree past. Cheevy went even farther than this, choosing to attempt escape altogether, with perhaps the help of a drink or two. Although one could make the case for alliteration being the chief literary device the author uses, this finding is far too simplistic. Alliteration does make the poem structurally interesting and even more attractive when orally presented. But it does nothing regarding the meaning of the poem itself, and thus must be discarded as a mere tool.
Because of its support in creating and maintaining the theme of the poem, the proper choice of important literary device is that of allusion. Much of the poem concerns itself with just exactly what it is that Cheevy sees in his head as he is escaping the doldrums of the modernized world. One entire stanza is, in fact, devoted to this usage. Miniver sighed for what was not, And dreamed, and rested from his labors; He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot, And Priam’s neighbors. (1898) Thebes, Camelot and the neighbors of Priam become the vision that Miniver is trying to get to, while escaping his work.
Without alliteration, the poem succeeds in expressing its theme, but without allusion to these quasi-historical places and peoples, the theme of escape from reality fades. Fighting back against the growing industrialization of the time, with its blind machines and lack of personal ambition was a main concern of the times in which Robinson wrote. This particular poem exhibited its concern with the issue. The old era had passed, and Miniver Cheevy, like many real people, looked back with regret at what was no more. The newly arriving era must have looked bleak indeed.
A sense of adventure was being lost; in its place came a safe predictability with its set routines and agendas. The more romantic of individuals were inclined to not take this sitting down. Cheevy became their role model. He performed his perfunctory, obligatory labor – and then he dreamed for better. He sought refuge from the present in the past. He dreamed of no longer being a cog in a machine, but a knight on a steed. It is the ultimate picture of this issue of 1900s America: escape from reality. Roethke’s poem My Papa’s Waltz takes issue with society, too. This work, however, takes as a theme the topic of father – child relationships.
As The Yellow Wallpaper appears to demonize men in terms of how they treat women, My Papa’s Waltz appears to indict fathers in terms of how they treat children. It is important to note that neither work is stating that the abuses or neglects are the social norms, but they certainly make a sweeping statement that if they are not actually the norm, then they are certainly within the acceptable. To be more specific about the theme Roethke is exploring, it can be said that the poem is about the dynamics of the father – child relationship; not merely an accepted standard of near abuse, but of the love of the child for his father regardless.
It is almost the love-hate relationship Robinson talks of in Miniver Cheevy. The metaphor of the waltz is how Roethke reaches the reader so easily. With very little time and few lines with which to elucidate a theme, the metaphor becomes one of the best options among literary devices. The waltz, an elegant, formalized, and patterned dance, is an unexpected symbol for what appears tantamount to acceptance of child abuse. Without the expression of the dance, then only abuse would be left. The interpretation of the poem would really suffer.
When the reader experiences the fact that the son is describing a waltz, then suddenly things are different. The power of this literary device changes everything. One word expresses the love of the child that surpasses the fear. It describes a careful orchestration of the relationship that the child understands. Two lines of the poem are the most telling about this understanding, this participation in the horror/love relationship. “But I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy” and “Then waltzed me off to bed still clinging to your shirt” (2321). So the boy talks of hanging on and clinging on.
He desperately wants to be loved by, or at least near to, his familiar father. This despite the fact that he may or may not be being abused. What he does know is that if he just waltzes along, then in his mind and heart, at least, his father still loves him despite the neglect. The specific steps of the dance, its peculiar rhythm and rhyme ensures that all remains status quo in the household relationships. Above all else, this is what the child wants – a predictable father – son relationship. The 1940s belief described by the Roethke poem is that of what modern day readers would consider child abuse.
There is clearly an awareness of society, as seen in the poem, that what goes on in the household between fathers and their children (and especially their sons) may not be right, proper or healthy. And yet, as the poem’s ambivalence shows, it was still an acceptable norm. Even the child appears to agree. His description of the surroundings makes it seem that he acknowledges that things aren’t what they should be. But he found an outlet for his expression, and a safe way to love his father. It became important for him to dance along to the proscribed steps to make sure that all was still right with the world.
He knew that his father loved him, and he just wanted to stay close, even if close meant a beating just as soon as it might mean a kind word. The 1940s culture did experience this, but never specifically took it to task or clearly identified it as wrongdoing. The poem accurately conveys this by showing the waltz ending up with the child off to bed. In other words, this was an accepted part of the father – son relationship, and an accepted part of the family and social dynamic. A digression from these cultural concerns and themes in the turn of the century American literature comes from the rather lengthy short story Good Country People.
This completely topical focused work by O’Connor is a complex treatment of a complicated theme. It wraps ambitious writing arms around the theme of innocence versus experience; a twist on the more commonly expressed good versus evil. This central motif is one of the possibilities that arise when two completely different sort of people come into relationship and interaction with each other. It asks whether this is a compatible notion, or a recipe for utter failure, disappointment or potential disaster. The theme also includes the abstract question of whether innocence is good, or experience bad.
The central idea here spreads from one theme to be exposed as a hydra with its many faces, most of them unexpectedly frightening. Irony is the device that makes Good Country People work so magnificently. The title alone mocks its very characters that play such an important part in Joy’s life. That being said, the irony is absolutely all inclusive, to the point that the reader actively looks for it as the story goes along. It is a thoroughly instructive literary device that guides the reading of the story and allows clear understanding of both the theme and the plot.
Even the names of the characters are ironical. Joy is not a joyful person. Manley is truly a physical man, but hidden behind a facade. The skillful use of irony doesn’t stop there. Consider the attitudes of the characters. The squabbling, gossiping and snippy women presented early in the narrative are perfect forms of this. Mrs. Hopewell doesn’t hope well for most anyone. Mrs. Freeman is not free at all from her self-righteousness. Together, they call themselves Good Country Women, something that is so farfetched that it is only hopeful that one finds it to be irony as opposed to outright falsehood.
Beyond all this is, of course, the interaction between the two primary characters, Joy, who calls herself Hulga (going so far as to actually legally change her name) and Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman. The irony is that Joy is so self-satisfied, and so above all of the alleged good people that she removes herself from their realm. She is better than them and can see them for who they are. She deems herself a quality judge of that sort of people – namely, people who aren’t what they purport themselves to be.
She should be ready then, to clearly and easily discern the false pretenses of Manley Pointer when he arrives. He is so simply not the Christian that he sells himself to be. It is fairly easy to see his plots, his salesmanship and his manipulations. Especially so when it comes to young Hulga. Yet she takes him for what he appears to be. Despite being an atheist and mocking the so called faith of the women, which she sees as hypocrisy, she is somehow blinded to the fact that the Bible salesman is selling snake oil. The scene between Manley and Hulga toward the end of the story tells it best:
The boy was unscrewing the top of the flask. He stopped and pointed with a smile, to the deck of cards. It was not an ordinary deck but one with an obscene picture on the back of each card. “Take a swig,” he said, offering her the bottle first. He held it in front of her, but like one mesmerized, she did not move. Her voice when she spoke had an almost pleading sound. “Aren’t you,” she murmured, “aren’t you just good country people? ” (2582) So Hulga, the former Joy, seems utterly surprised when she eventually comes to realize that he is not one of the good country people after all.
He is not after men’s souls, but women’s bodies. After priding herself on her ability to recognize the hidden evils that hide behind smiles and Christian belief, she has let herself down by letting her guard down. Her naivete finally comes out and is exploited by worldliness. This repeated irony skillfully plays out the overall theme of innocence versus knowledge. The literary technique that had begun to come into vogue when Good Country People was being written was the school of ‘show, don’t tell. ’ This was O’Connor’s first stab into that realm.
She used irony and situation to do all of the talking. Rather than laboriously describe persons’ attitudes and beliefs, she allows readers to eavesdrop on the action. This turns out to be much more realistic than earlier forms of realism and naturalism. Those genres depended upon minute details and descriptions of motivations and intents and did not lead readers astray, which would have been labeled patently unfair at the time. This new convention allows for more reader interaction, more familiarity with context as the reader is not being told exactly what to think.
Showing theme and not telling theme lets the reader begin to interact more fully with the text and the story itself, leaving him to find more personal connections to the action, and filling in the thoughts and emotions between the lines. Ultimately it provides a much more complex and satisfactory experience for the reader’s interaction with the story. Since the publishing of O’Connor’s story, this technique has not only continued, but has become one of the hallmarks of ‘quality writing. ’ As such, it is taught exhaustively at the collegiate writing level, and no creative writing is well accepted if it violates this standard.
O’Connor would be proud. The turning of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries unleashed a great freedom in American literature, both in subjects explored, and in devices and manners utilized. A multitude of themes were raised and dealt with, often with unexpected and clever methods, with their unexpected and clever results. Poetry from authors like Theodore Roethke and Edwin Arlington Robinson, and short stories from the likes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Flannery O’Connor began exploring the new topics of the culture as America began to turn toward modernization of both labor and of relationships.
As new understandings evolved in these arenas, the remnants, too, received treatment in the literature. Some fashionable ideas were finally on their way out, seemingly, as The Yellow Wallpaper showed. And yet some would hold on, like the view of father – son relationships in My Papa’s Waltz. Old faiths and new hypocrisies were examined by O’Connor and others. And sometimes reality itself was discarded, as Roethke showed. The era of these authors was a time of moving on, looking forward and reminiscing back, all at once, and with many devices. ? Works Cited Gilman, Charlotte P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.
” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 1684-95. O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 2569-83. Robinson, Edwin A. “Miniver Cheevy. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 1898. Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 2321.