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(50) New Movements, Trends, Issues, and Forms of Fiction in the 1930s.

(N. West, H. Miller, T. Wolfe, and J. Steinbeck).


H i s t o r i c a l  B a c k g r o u n d :  1 9 3 0 s

- the breakdown of the NY stock exchange (1929) resulted in the Great Depression (1930s)

- F. S. Fitzgerald declared (1931) the end of the Jazz Age (1929), and the expatriate writers returned from Paris to Am. to capture its changed atmosphere

- the concept of art as a weapon of social protest (M. Gold) resulted in the rise of radical lit.: the proletarian novel, proletarian theatre, the revival of naturalism, and muckraker lit.

- 1930s: the left oriented writers sympathising with Marxism, the new revolutionary voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and the new minority voices of the Am. Jewish lit.

- 1937: the political pseudo-trials in Rus. resulted in the rejection of totalitarianism, and in accepting the concept of art as independent from any orthodox ideology


N a t h a n a e l  W e s t  ( 1 9 0 3 – 4 0 )

L i f e :

- b. Nathan Weinstein, son of Lithuanian-Jewish parents, later adopted the half-biblical / half-Am. name of Nathanael West

- experienced a number of failures: failed at school, at sports, failed to be accepted to a student club due to his Jewish orig., etc. => became an outsider, draw caricatures, and wrote parodies

- divided btw the 2 worlds without belonging anywhere really: his country of orig. x Am. => became a poser and a fashionable cynic

- felt the discrepancy btw the Am. dream x the Am. reality, sympathised with the left x but: never wrote social novels

- died in a car crash with his bride

W o r k :

- a skilful and speedy scriptwriter, author of 4 grotesque novels

The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931):

- a surrealist parody on pseudo-art

- a would-be-poet’s pilgrimage in the digestive tract of the Troyan horse: gets inside through the anal orifice of the horse, and meets various characters developing some lit. activities

- the Troyan horse = the symbol of artificiality and pretentiousness

- the same for the characters: a writer of the biography of St. Flea living in Christ’s armpit, a schoolboy writing his own version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and sexually longing for his teacher, etc.

- the language = the motif of artificiality, a parody of clichés

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933):

- a black farce on the Miss Lonelyhearts column in magazines and newsps

- the Am. dream x the Am. reality during the Great Depression: the impossibility of achieving one’s dreams

- characters: symbolically dead, deprived of life, and resembling inanimate objects

- shrike = a bird imitating oth. birds’ voices to impale his food on thorns <=> Shrike = the character imitating (and parodying) the language and dreams of Miss Lonelyhearts, as if impaling the Christian phrases of Miss L. on the thorns of his sardonic ridicule

- orig.: Miss L.’s sickness of the lying dreams he is creating x then: his true attempt to fit into his saviour role leading to tragedy

- language: a simple and reduced modern language expressing the rage of a group of people

- the dark-mood vision behind the comedy <=> M. Twain’s late novels

A Cool Million, or the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934):

- the danger of the Am. dream for those believing in it, and the danger of the Am. optimism and innocence

- a political satire on the clichés and the emptiness of the Am. dream

- the protagonist = Lemuel Pitkin, a worthy and virtuous man bound to succeed accord. the Am. dream x but: fails, loses his teeth, eye, thumb, leg, and hair, and ends up physically dismantled and shot to death while holding a public speech

= symbolically the physical dismantling of the Am. dream

- concl.: a parade to commemorate the martyr’s death said to have died for the ideals of the parade holder

The Day of the Locust (1939):

- his own experience in Hollywood: not the prospering people from the film industry x but: the Hollywood periphery

- characters: stiff as dead corpses, making only mechanical movements

- concl.: an apocalyptic destructive dance


H e n r y  M i l l e r  ( 1 8 9 1 – 1 9 8 0 )

L i f e :

- spent the money to support him on the uni on travelling with his mistress, left without degree

- underwent a variety of odd jobs, incl. a post with a telegraph company, responsible for accepting employees > the knowledge of people, mostly odd and poor figures

- became convinced of the absurdity of the human society and life in general

- became a nihilist x but: desired to learn the Eur. culture and people different from the Am., and spent a decade of bohemian life in Paris

W o r k :

- produced largely autobiog. and rather unorganised mixtures of impressions and ideas

- boasted with his obscenity and sexual frankness, dismissed both lit. and social conventions, and wrote a kind of anti-novels springing from the economical and political crisis

Tropic of Cancer (1931):

- an autobiog. account of his Paris y.

- the rich historical heritage of Paris x the emptiness of Am.

Black Spring (1936)

Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945):

- an attack on the disgusting Am. society

The Rosy Cruxifixion:

- a trilogy

- a reconciliation with the Am. society and a shift from nihilism to a Transcendentalist optimism

Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960)


T h o m a s  W o l f e  ( 1 9 0 0 – 3 8 )

L i f e :

- b. in a small town in NC > portrayed in his fiction under the name Altamont

- after taking a uni degree travelled widely both US and Eur. and wrote

W o r k:

- conc. with his self, life, and Am.

- desired to live, learn, and experience everything, then to capture it in writing: did not follow any lit. form or tradition, wrote spontaneously in a rich and emotional style

- produced an unorganised mixture of immediate impressions and had it ordered by his ed. into novels

- experimental in his style x but: within the Transcendentalist tradition in his message

E d i t o r  M a x w e l l  P e r k i n s :

Look Homeward, Angel (1929):

<=> W. Whitman

- claimed each honest narrative to be autobiog., and the only heroic life he knew thoroughly to be his own

- attempted to contain a multitude and to create a symbolical myth centred around his transcendental self

- described the troubles of a young confused boy => pop. among young readers

Of Time and the River (1935):

- a sequel describing the boy’s studies and growing up

- less pop.

E d i t o r  E d w a r d  C .  A s w e l l :

- the change of the ed. resulted in a different mode of the novels

The Web and the Rock (1939):

- described the youth of another boy

- the title: ‘the web’ of tradition, and ‘the rock’ of the contemp. town

You Can’t Go Home Again (1940):

- described his estrangement from the native country

- travelled Eur., began to realise the political problems of Nazism x but: preserved his optimism


J o h n  S t e i n b e c k  ( 1 9 0 2 – 6 8 )

L i f e :

- b. in CA > portrayed the CA paisanos in his writing

- left uni without degree, underwent a series of odd jobs

- consistently wrote short stories and novels x but: consistently rejected for publ.

- eventually received the Nobel Prize for lit.

W o r k :

- content: lowly dispossessed people with their indignant fear and inherent dignity against the Great Depression background x an universal desire to become a voice for the broken dreams and lives of common people

- form: used naturalist methods to examine the inner workings of human mind

- interested in socio-biology: examined the difference btw individuals and groups and believed it qualitative rather than quantitative

- conc. with extremely reduced states of consciousness <=> his CA predecessor J. London: portrayed idiots, illiterates, and animals – animal imagery incl. Pirate living with his dog in a kennel in Tortilla Flat, a turtle crossing a highway and prefiguring the progress of human journey in The Grapes of Wrath, etc.

The Pastures of Heaven (1932): a coll. of short stories about a CA farming community

To a God Unknown (1933): a novel about a CA farmer’s pagan fertility cult

Tortilla Flat (1935): a novel about CA paisanos, social problems, and the trend of migration to the western CA

In Dubious Battle (1936): a novel about a strike by migrant fruit pickers and the mood of the mob

Of Mice and Men (1937): a folk parable of itinerant farmhands dreaming of a piece of land to own

The Long Valley (1938): a coll. of short fiction, incl. the stories “The Red Pony” and “The Snake”

The Grapes of Wrath (1939):

- an odyssey of a family of dispossessed sharecroppers migrating to the ‘Promised Land’ of CA against the Great Depression background

- the family driven from their home both by draughts and banks demanding the payments for mortgages = the trend of migration to the western CA, the indifference of capitalism

- orig. intended as a study of the features of human nature x but: ended up as a novel of social protest: a record of poverty resulting from the Great Depression and draughts, and a chronicle of humanity (a woman suckles a man to save him from death of hunger)

- won him the Pulitzer Prize, directly led to the Nobel Prize

Cannery Row (1944): a ‘down-and-out’ tale from the dock

East of Eden (1952): a family saga following the pattern of biblical Cain and Abel


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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