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(42) Followers of W. Whitman and Epic Poetry (1900 – 1940).

(C. Sandburg, E. L. Masters, V. Lindsay, and R. Jeffers).


A m e r i c a n  M o d e r n i s m

[See "Background for Topics 41-44..."]


C h i c a g o  R e n a i s s a n c e  ( c a  1 8 9 0 s – 1 9 2 0 s )

- C. replaced Boston and later NY as both the literary and symbolic setting for the lit. of both the Naturalist prose and Modernist poetry

- incl. T. Dreiser, S. Anderson, C. Sandburg, E. L. Masters, and V. Lindsay

> Harriet Monro’s Chicago-based modernist magazine Poetry


C a r l  S a n d b u r g  ( 1 8 7 8 – 1 9 6 7 )

< W. Whitman:

(a) rejected the genteel tradition in favour of free verse and a long open line

(b) the poet of the people: celebrated the vigorous, even violent common working-class men

- attempted to regenerate the native language of the nation

- coll. folksongs: toured the country, read and sang the songs, accompanied himself on guitar, and interspersed his performances with a homespun philos.

- his lifetime: criticized by E. Pound and R. Frost for his artlessness and lack of culture as ‘one of the roughs’ x now: valued for his part on the modernist rev., and for the real power, vigour, and freshness of some individual poems

(a) Whitmanian Poems – “Chicago”: celebrates the industrial, fast-paced, and cruel C. (= the ‘Hog Butcher for the World) and the poor teeming in its streets x criticises capitalism

(b) Imagist Poems – “Fog”: juxtaposes images to repres. the immediacy of reality

(c) Poems of Social Protest – “Graceland”

Chicago Poems (1914, 1916): 1st publ. in H. Monro’s Poetry

Smoke and Steel (1920)

The People, Yes (1936)

Also wrote: a 6-vol. biography of A. Lincoln: won him the Pulitzer Prize for history and made him a celebrated public figure


E d g a r  L e e  M a s t e r s  ( 1 8 6 9 – 1 9 5 0 )

Spoon River Anthology (1915) and The New Spoon River Anthology (1924):

< E. A. Robinson’s stoicism and his naturalistic portraits

< the ancient Gr. epigrams, esp. epitaphs: the expression of the essential in the most condensed form, as if the dead people themselves were addressing the passers by

- the title: from Spoon River = an imaginary town x but: based on actual places in IL, esp. the graveyard he adopted some names from

- a series of about 200 portraits of the inhabitants of one town, all of the depicted persons have already died, and tell their sad stories from the oth. world

- in a free verse, and colloquial language

- the epilogue: an attempt of the Whitmanian all-embracing tone x but: the prevailing impression of the destroyed lives, helplessness, and abuse

=> the deconstruction of the rural idyll myth

> “Lucinda Mattlock”, “Petit the Poet”, and “Seth Compton”

> S. Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio


V a c h e l  L i n d s a y  ( 1 8 7 9 – 1 9 3 1 )

L i f e :

- b. in Springfield, S.’s ‘2nd most famous’ only to A. Lincoln

- admired L., like him fascinated by the common people

- studied art in Chicago and NY > attempted a new amalgam of poetry and music

- spent y. on the tours to preach ‘the gospel of beauty’: read his verse, lectured to promote various art projects, half-spoke, half-sang, and drew large audiences

- twd the end of his life disillusioned, consid. his achievement a failure, and committed suicide

W o r k :

< W. Whitman: not W. the innovator x but: W. the all-embracing democratic poet of as much popular as populist poetry

< himself claimed certain links to imagism x but: does not apply for his poetry

- formed his style in relig. gatherings, rustic entertainment, and folk song performances

- did not disguise his populism, and celebrated the provincial virtues

- remained rather naive, did not fully develop his experiments x but: helped to form the Am. poetry, still remembered chiefly for this contrib.

“William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (1913):

- people of all the races and all the relig. sing the song of progress in a mutual harmony

- publ. in H. Monro’s Poetry

“The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race”: a jazz motivated poem using a voodoo language

“Simon Legree” and “John Brown”: the Negro revival chant motivated poems

“The Chinese Nightingale”: a poor Chinese worker in an Am. city dreams of his ancient culture

The Congo and Other Poems (1914), The Chinese Nightingale (1917)


R o b i n s o n  J e f f e r s  ( 1 8 8 7 – 1 9 6 2 )

L i f e :

- travelled Eur. with his family

- educated in both Eur. and Am., studied medicine, and forestry

- fell in love with Una Kall Custer, married her 8 y. later, after she obtained her divorce

- personally indebted to her: spiritually ‘co-authored’ his poems, and served as a mediator btw him x the world

- shy and extremely self-protective: spent a reclusive and outwardly uneventful life on the Pacific coast in Carmel (CA) > the beautifully rugged region furnished much of the settings and the spirit of his major poetry

- enjoyed a pop. and financial success until the public began to tire of his relentless pessimism

W o r k :

- wrote sensational, philos., tragic x but: austerely and stony stoical poetry

- created at once a relig., psychological, historical, and scientific vision of Am. and the cosmos

- his ‘inhumanism’ moulded by the disillusionment by the WW I: ‘the human race will cease..., but the great splendours of nature will go on’

- remained stoically detached from the passions of mankind, stood aloof, felt the necessity of struggling out of the ‘tidewash’ of human passions and illusions to face the ‘enormous inhuman beauty of things’

- condemned his fellows for their self-destructive self-preocc. (urbanisation, WW, etc.) resulting in self-degradation: found comfort in the thought of the extinction of the human race, when nature will have purified itself of man

C o n t e n t :

- preocc. with lonely individuals of higher sort (x the collective degradation) standing out in a painful self-transcendence, and looking directly on the inhuman reality = looking directly at God

- conc. with the landscape and the wild animals, raged at the careless destruction of the irrecoverable natural beauty, and deplored the triumph of civilisation over the wild nature x the modernist mourning over the loss of civilisation

- used a frequent theme of incest = symbolised the species causing its own suffering by turning away from the grandeur of the non-human nature and focusing its energies and passions on itself

=> used the Whitmanesque prophetic tone x but: berated rather than celebrated the Am. democracy, and deeply criticised the historical trends of his own nation

F o r m :

- remained a poetic conservative

- rejected controversy, new movements, and attempts of finding new forms

- saw the modern world as a falling away from the Am. past

(a) short meditative lyrics in free verse, typically set on the dramatic Pacific coastline

(b) long narrative poems in blank verse

Tamar and Other Poems (1924): his 1st major work

Tamar (1924), Roan Stallion (1925), The Women at Point Sur (1927), Dear Judas (1929), Thurso's Landing (1932), Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933), and Solstice (1935): his long tragic narrative poems

Also wrote: verse plays based on Gr. myths


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Flajšar, Jiří. Semináře: Americká literatura 2. ZS 2004/05.


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