This article traces the history of American poetry in the Victorian period, which witnessed the birth, maturity, and demise of American poetic culture. In 1837, American poetry was in its infancy. Cultural pressures to create a distinctively American literature that was respected by Europeans and met the needs and democratic aspirations of a highly diverse populace raised the value of poetic production and rewarded those who produced it. By mid-century, a fully accredited culture of letters was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with Emerson, manned an American outpost of mainstream Victorian culture: English poetry’s satellite campus at Harvard.
One of the major expressions of American literary naturalism occurred in the cycle of Hollywood films made during the 1940s and 1950s commonly referred to as film noir. These films revisit and adapt nineteenth-century naturalist narratives via characters constrained by the forces of material environments, past experiences, instinctual urges, and mysterious fates. This article presents a close analysis of two of the most central and critically acclaimed films noirs, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944). These films blend naturalist narrative conventions with key cinematic devices: environmental constraints, emphasized through staging, high-contrast lighting, and low-angle cinematography; instinctual urges, emphasized through dialogue, costuming, blocking, and close-ups; and fate as a determining force, emphasized through dialogue, voiceover, and flashbacks. These conventions and devices find concrete expression in the thoughts and actions of the films' protagonists, who negotiate their desires for money and sex in the contexts of harsh environments, such as the criminal underworld, the private-detective business, an unsatisfying job, or a failed marriage. These negotiations often conclude with the characters succumbing to their greed and sinking into depravity or death; on rare occasions, however, these negotiations end with a hazy yet significant glimmer of hope. In each case, these movies attest not only to the power of film noir but also to the richness of cinematic naturalism.
Stephen C. Brennan
This article considers five important naturalistic works, published between 1895 and 1925, that reveal the diversity of psychological themes during naturalism's classical age. These are Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) for the pre-Freudian period and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground (1925), and Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925) for the early Freudian period. If there is an implicit thesis in the discussions that follow, it is that America's naturalists read psychology not to depict mindless puppets in the hands of implacable forces or animals snared in the trap of circumstances but to portray convincingly the often undecided struggle for dignity at that intersection of inner and outer reality, the human consciousness.
This article examines the relationship between American literary naturalism and sexuality. By the close of the 1890s, American literary naturalism had established itself decisively as the first American genre committed to the direct representation of heterosexuality and its discontent. Defying conventions governing the depiction of sexuality in public discourse, naturalist writers emphasized the power of sexual desire to shape human experience. The complexity of naturalism's engagement with sexual issues during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century period derives from the heated debate over the social meanings of sexuality between feminist and masculinist factions taking place then in the American progressive movement. Entering this polemical fray, naturalist writers produced works of fiction emphatically inflected toward either masculinist or feminist sexual politics and thereby created a genre divided along its authors' gender lines.
Thomas S. Hischak
This essay examines the history of musical theater in the United States during the period from 1870 to 1945. It explains that while The Black Crook from 1866 may be considered as the first modern-style musical, the fully integrated musical did not arise until sometime later, which set in motion a period frequently referred to as the “golden age” of musical drama. It considers several musicals in the 1940s, including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, and Carousel. This essay also argues that while the musical is rarely considered realistic, most of the musicals in the 1940s engaged in an integrated fashion with something approximating real life.
Jeff P. Turpin
This article focuses on how writers seemed to anticipate developments that science would not “discover” for another half-century. Modern studies of sexual selection and reciprocal altruism, when applied to works like Edith Wharton's Roman Fever (1934) and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), reveal some surprising, prescient aspects of the works. These authors were not just dramatizing the theories handed to them by evolutionary science, but they were extending the evolutionary hypotheses well beyond the reach of their contemporaries. In Wharton's case, retrospective evolutionary analysis shows that, contrary to traditional criticism, some of her more famous female characters were radically empowered, subtle, and competent survivors. In Steinbeck's case, that the author cut directly across contemporary ideas about altruism to both complicate theories of human morality and advocate for true morality and true selflessness.
Twentieth-century American poetry metabolizes a variety of discursive genres, including fiction, song, theory, advertising, letters, and the law. To adapt Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, it dialogizes “literary and extraliterary languages,” “intensifying” and “hybridizing” them, making them collide and rub up against one another. But Bakhtin famously theorized poetry as monologic and exclusionary, “suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse, any allusion to alien discourse,” “destroying all traces of social heteroglossia and diversity of language”: “The language of the poetic genre is a unitary and singular Ptolemaic world outside of which nothing else exists and nothing else is needed.” Close analysis of twentieth-century American poems in relation to their generic others reveals a vastly more dialogic conception of poetry. This article focuses on poetry's ambivalent interactions with two of its generic others: the news and prayer as representing two widely divergent positions on a broad discursive spectrum. How do modern and contemporary American poems that engage with the news respond to journalism's mimeticism, presentism, and transparency? How do poems that adapt prayer respond to its ahistoricity, ritualism, and recursiveness? Do modern and contemporary American poetry more nearly resemble one or the other of its discursive cousins? How does American poetry overlap with, and distinguish itself from, these intergenres?
Christopher J. Herr
This essay examines the history of political drama in the United States from 1910 to 1945. It describes the diversity of styles used and attitudes taken by politically influenced dramas, including those that supported capitalism in the 1920s, the increasingly oppositional leftist dramas of the 1930s, and the pro-war (or antifascist) plays of the 1940s. This essay also considers how much political content is required in order to label a play as political.
Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard
In 1900, Germany and the United States divided the Samoan archipelago into Western Samoa, consisting of nine western islands, and Amerika Samoa, comprised of seven eastern islands. This political partition resulted in the respective development of written literatures in the “two” Samoas shaped by distinctively different sets of cultural exigencies, opportunities, and constraints. This chapter explores the emergence of a modern, distinctively Amerika Samoan literature; specifically, it analyzes Amerika Samoan writing as a discrete body of literature that addresses its historical context, including the dynamics of colonialism and its discontents, along with cultural integrity as modern Samoan aesthetic expression. The chapter first provides an overview of literary genealogies for the two Samoas before shifting to Amerika Samoa, focusing on works by John Kneubuhl, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, Sia Figiel, and Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard. It concludes by discussing shifting notions of home, place and displacement, and cultural and gender identities in the literature.
This article discusses how Amoretti and Epithalamion singly and together clear a space in late Elizabethan poetry. The Amoretti and the Epithalamion establish themselves in relation to an actual event, Spenser's marriage to Elizabeth Boyle of 11 June 1594, more than any other sequence of the period. The Amoretti is unique in representing a courtship that demonstrably leads to a marriage, while the wedding takes place not out of the reader's sight but immediately after the sequence, within the same volume of 1595. The Epithalamion is one of the most successful wedding songs in any European vernacular. The process of the Epithalamion is to narrate the wedding day not only as an event in itself but as an intersection of social and mythological significance, as though Edmund Spenser's marriage to Elizabeth Boyle mattered equally to the townspeople, distant merchants, and classical figures such as Hymen and Hesperus.