12 History of American Literature (1900-1950)

Mr. Md. Ekramul Haque

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This module is about the history of American literature; happenings of concerned times, scientific developments, changes of human psyche, men women relationships, drastic changes in milieu, economical, ecological changes, rise of queer studies, and the evolution of American power. The Modern Age: 1900-1950 the 20th century began with the end of an era. But with that, also came change. The world was becoming more technologically advanced. People were asking for more rights and we suddenly began wondering more about ourselves. It was also a time for tragedy, violence and death. These moments though, were captured in time in one of the few mediums that withstands time: literature. The time Period the first half of the 20th century, from 1900 to 1950, can best be described as a time of change. It is argued that no period of time changed more than those first 50 years of the last century. Countries that were once ruled by the empires of the past, were suddenly independent. People who were once ruled by kings were suddenly given new governments. And people who once could not vote, suddenly could. The following is a list of the ten most important events of the 1900 to 1950, and how they impacted literature. There are some writers who have written during 1900-1950 and after 1950, but only their writings from 1900-1950 have been included in the list.



An offshoot of realism, naturalism claimed to give an even more realistic and unflinching depiction of contemporary life. Naturalism was characterized by a pessimistic view of humanity and human existence.


A period in British and American literature spanning the years between WWI and WWII. Works in this period reflect the changing social, political, and cultural climate and are diverse, experimental, and non-traditional.


The Harlem Renaissance was the first major burgeoning of visual, literary, and performing arts by African Americans concerned with African-American life, art, culture, and politics. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance remained strong for the remainder of the 20th century.

Important writers of this period:


In the history of American Literature there are galaxy if writers emerged during 1900- 1950. Some of them have written after this period as well but those writing have not been discussed here. Here writers of worth reading including African American have been discussed keeping in mind their focus on the issues of milieus.



Novelists of this are famous for portraying the realism, gender issues, and women empowerment and so on. Some of them are discussed below.

William Faulkner:


Hemingway’s great rival as a stylist and mythmaker was William Faulkner, whose writing was as baroque as Hemingway’s was spare. Faulkner combined stream-of- consciousness techniques with rich social history. Works such as The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and The Hamlet (1940) were parts of the unfolding history of Yoknapatawpha County, a mythical Mississippi community, which depicted the transformation and the decadence of the South. Faulkner’s work was dominated by a sense of guilt going back to the American Civil War and the appropriation of Indian lands. His later books such as Go Down, Moses (1942) and Intruder in the Dust (1948), showed a growing concern with the troubled role of race in Southern life.


Ernest Hemingway: 


Hemingway’s early short stories and his first novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), were full of the existential disillusionment of the Lost Generation expatriates. The Spanish Civil War, however, led him to espouse the possibility of collective action to solve social problems, and his less-effective novels, including To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), embodied this new belief. He regained some of his form in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and his posthumously published memoir of Paris between the wars, A Moveable Feast (1964).

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941):


The novels of Anderson are Windy McPherson’s Son (1916), Marching Men (1917), Poor White (1920), Many Marriages (1923), Dark Laughter (1925), Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926, semi-autobiographical novel), Alice and The Lost Novel (1929), Beyond Desire (1932), Kit Brandon: A Portrait (1936). Theme of loneliness, marriage, family was his main themes in his novels.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940):


This Side of Paradise (1920), The  Beautiful  and  Damned (1922),  The  Great  Gatsby (1925), Tender Is the Night (1934), The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941), these novels shows the American history, illusion and reality, wealth, youth, maturity, beauty and economic classes are some prominent themes.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951):


He was one of the famous novelists of America. His notable novels are Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925); Mantrap (1926); Elmer Gantry (1927), The Man Who  Knew  Coolidge (1928),  and Dodsworth (1929)  His  later  novels   include Ann  Vickers (I933), It Can’t  Happen  Here (1935), The  Prodigal  Parents (1938), Gideon  Planish (1943), Cass Timberlane (1945), Kingsblood Royal ( 1947), The God-Seeker (1949), and World So Wide (1951). From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919- 1930 was published in 1952. He won Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 for his contribution to literature.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968):


To a God Unknown (1933), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Sea of Cortez (1941) or The Log from “Sea of Cortez” (1951), Cannery Row (1945), A Russian Journal (1948). His novels deals with land, social problem, environmental ethics, father, son and friend relationship and cold war. He won Nobel Prize in 1962.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960):


Hurston’s first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was released in 1934. Her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God came in 1937. Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) was an autobiography.

Claude McKay (1889-1948):


He wrote four novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem.


James T. Farrell:His notable works are The Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934).

Susan Glaspell:


The Glory of the Conquered (1909), The Visioning (1911), Fidelity (1915), Brook Evans (1928), Fugitive Return (1929), Ambrose Holt and Family (1931), The Morning is Near Us (1939), Norma Ashe (1942), Jud Rankin’s Daughter (1945)

Nella Larsen (1891-1964):


She wrote two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) which deals with issues of racial and sexu identities. Some other notable novelists are Frank Norris (McTeague), Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie), Jack Londo (The Sea-Wolf,) Stephen Crane (Maggie: a Girl of the Street), Richard Wright, (Native Son), Jessie Redmo Fauset, James Weldon, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and so on.



Poetry of this was of paramount importance. They wrote about the nature, romance, mulatto, suppressio gender equality, and issues of war affected people. In the following paragraphs poets of worth mentioned discussed-

Edward Estlin Cummings:


Buffalo’s Bill’s” “Serving as Cummings” debut to a wider American audience, these “experiments” foreshadowed the synthetic cubist strategy Cummings would explore in the next few years. Tulips and Chimneys (T. Seltzer, 1923), XLI Poems, No Thanks, 50 Poems (1944), Xaipe: Seventy-One Poem (1950) Cummings’s poems are loved because they are full of sentimentally, of sex, of more or less improper jokes, of elementary lyric insistence. During his lifetime, Cummings received a number of honors, including an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1958, and a Ford Foundation grant.

Robert Frost:


In Contemporary Literary Criticism, the editors state that “Frost’s best work explores fundamental questions of existence, depicting with chilling starkness the loneliness of the individual in an indifferent universe.” The critic T. K. Whipple focused in on this bleakness in Frost’s work, stating that “in much of his work, particularly in North of Boston, his harshest book, he emphasizes the dark background of life in rural New England, with its degeneration often sinking into total madness.”




A Boy’s Will (1915),

North of Boston (1914);

  • “After Apple-Picking”
  • “The Death of the Hired Man”
  • “Mending Wall”

Mountain Interval (1916)

  • “Birches”
  • “Out, Out”
  • “The Oven Bird”
  • “The Road Not Taken”

Selected Poems (1923)


Includes poems from first three volumes and the poem The Runaway

New Hampshire (1924)

  • “Fire and Ice”
  • “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
  • “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

West-Running Brook (1929)

  • “Acquainted with the Night”

The Lovely Shall Be Choosers, The Poetry Quartos, printed  and  illustrated  by Paul  Johnston (Random House, 1929)


Collected Poems of Robert Frost (Holt, 1930; Longmans, Green, 1930)


The Lone Striker (Knopf, 1933)


Three Poems (Baker Library, Dartmouth College, 1935)


The Gold Hesperidee (Bibliophile Press, 1935)


From Snow to Snow (Holt, 1936)


A Further Range (Holt, 1936; Cape, 1937)


Collected Poems of Robert Frost (Holt, 1939; Longmans, Green, 1939)


A Witness Tree (Holt, 1942; Cape, 1943)

  • “The Gift Outright”
  • “A Question”
  • “The Silken Tent”

Come In, and Other Poems (Holt, 1943)


Steeple Bush (Holt, 1947)


Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949 (Holt, 1949; Cape, 1951).

Robert Frost won Pulitzer Prize for four times in 1924 for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes, in 1931 for Collected Poems, in1937 for A Further Range and in 1943 for A Witness Tree.

Langston Hughes:


Hughes was great poet apart from being a dramatists. His collection of poems are as follows-The Weary Blues (1926), Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), Dear Lovely Death (1931), The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play (1932), Let America Be America Again (1938). Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), Freedom’s Plow (1943), Fields of Wonder (1947), One-Way Ticket (1949). His poems also deals with the same themes as plays.

Wallace Stevens 1879-1955):


Harmonium (1923), Ideas of Order (1936), Owl’s Clover (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), The Auroras of  Autumn (1950). He won Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for collected poems. Imagination and reality was his main focus.

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963):


His  collection  of  poems  are  Poems (1909),  The  Tempers (1913),  Al  QueQuiere! (1917), Sour Grapes (1921), Spring and  All (1923),  Go  Go (1923),  The  Cod Head (1932),  Collected  Poems,  1921-1931 (1934),   An   Early   Martyr   and   Other Poems (1935), Adam & Eve & The City (1936), The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906-1938 (1938), The Broken Span (1941), The Wedge (1944),The Collected Later Poems (1950). He won Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1963.

Hilda Doolittle (H.D.):


Her poetry collections are Sea Garden (1916), The God (1917), Translations (1920), Hymen (1921), Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), Hippolytus Temporizes (1927), Red Roses for Bronze (1932), The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945),  Trilogy (1946), The Flowering of the Rod (1946), By Avon River (1949).

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967):


Her some famous poems are “A Certain Lady,” “A Dream Lies Dead,” “A Fairly Sad Tale, Afternoon,” “After Spanish Proverb,” “Alexandre Dumas And His Son,” “Alfred, Lord Tennyson,” “Anecdote,” “A Pig’s-Eye View Of Literature,” “A Portrait, August,” “A Very Short Song,” “A Well-Worn Story,“Star Light, Star Bright.”


Carl Sandburg (Sandburg earned Pulitzer Prizes for his collection The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, Corn Huskers), Edna St. Vincent Millay (Renascence: and other poems, Second April), Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, are other writer of this genre.

Plays in American Literature: 


Early 20th century theatre was dominated by the Barrymores—Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore. Other greats included Laurette Taylor, Jeanne Eagels, and Eva Le Gallienne. The massive social change that went on during the Great Depression also had an effect on theatre in the United States. Plays took on social roles, identifying with immigrants and the unemployed. The Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt, helped to promote theatre and provide jobs for actors. The program staged many elaborate and controversial plays such as It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein. By contrast, the legendary producer Brock Pemberton (founder of the Tony Awards) was among those who felt that it was more than ever a time for comic entertainment, in order to provide an escape from the prevailing harsh social conditions: typical of his productions was Lawrence Riley’s comedy Personal Appearance (1934), whose success on Broadway (501 performances) vindicated Pemberton.


The minstrel shows of the early 19th century are believed by some to be the roots of black theatre, but they initially were written by whites, acted by whites in blackface, and performed for white audiences. After the American Civil War, blacks began to perform in minstrel shows (then called “Ethiopian minstrelsy”), and by the turn of the 20th century they were producing black musicals, many of which were written, produced, and acted entirely by blacks. The first known play by an American black was James Brown’s King Shotaway (1823). William Wells Brown’s The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), was the first black play published, but the first real success of a black dramatist was Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel (1916).


Black theatre flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Experimental groups and black theatre companies emerged in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Among these was the Ethiopian Art Theatre, which established Paul Robeson as America’s foremost black actor. Garland Anderson’s play Appearances (1925) was the first play of black authorship to be produced on Broadway, but black theatre did not create a Broadway hit until Langston Hughes’s Mulatto (1935) won wide acclaim. In that same year the Federal Theatre Project was founded, providing a training ground for blacks. In the late 1930s, black community theatres began to appear, revealing talents such as those of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. By 1940 black theatre was firmly grounded in the American Negro Theatre and the Negro Playwrights’ Company.


After World War II black theatre grew more progressive, more radical, and more militant, reflecting the ideals of black revolution and seeking to establish a mythology and symbolism apart from white culture. Councils were organized to abolish the use of racial stereotypes in theatre and to integrate black playwrights into the mainstream of American dramaturgy.

Plays of Eugene o Neil.


Bread and Butter (1914), The Personal Equation (1915), Beyond the Horizon, 1918 – Pulitzer Prize (1920), Anna Christie (1920) – Pulitzer Prize (1922), The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), The Fountain, (1923), All God’s Chillun Got Wings, (1926), Strange Interlude, (1928) – Pulitzer Prize, Mourning Becomes Electra, (1931), Days Without End, (1933), The Iceman Cometh, written 1939, published 1940, first performed 1946, Long Day’s Journey into Night, written 1941, first performed 1956; Pulitzer Prize 1957, A Moon for the Misbegotten, written 1941–1943, first performed 1947, A Touch of the Poet, completed in 1942, first performed 1958, these are his most famous plays.. He also wrote plenty of one-act plays. Bound East for Cardiff (1914), In The Zone (1917), The Long Voyage Home (1917), Moon of the Caribbees (1918) are some notable one-act plays of Neil.


O’Neill was the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium and the only American playwright ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. O’Neill saw the theatre as a valid forum for the presentation of serious ideas. For more than 20 years, both with such masterpieces as Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh and by his inspiration to other serious dramatists, O’Neill set the pace for the blossoming of the Broadway theatre.

Tennessee William: 


Tennessee Williams was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose works include The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951). His others plays are Candles to the Sun (1936), Fugitive Kind (1937), Spring Storm (1937), Me Vaysha (1937), Not About Nightingales (1938), Battle of Angels (1940), I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix (1941), You Touched Me (1945), Stairs to the Roof (1947).

Arthur Miller: 


The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), revolves around a person who believes he has no control over his life, but is instead the victim of chance. All My Sons (1947), explores the effect of past decisions on the present and future of the individual. Death of a Salesman (1949), addresses the loss of identity, as well as a man’s inability to accept change within himself and society.. Arthur Miller is considered one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. He got the Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman.

William Saroyan:


Saroyan famous plays are My Heart’s in the Highlands (1939), The Time of Your Life (1939), A Theme in the Life of the Great American Goof (1940), Love’s Old Sweet Song (1940), The Beautiful People (1941), Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning and Talking to You (1942), Hello Out There (1942), Get Away Old Man (1943)

Clifford Odets’ Plays and Monologues: 


He began with Awake and Sing, which is a play about three generations living under the same roof. His other play Waiting for Lefty (1935) is a play about the events that surround a cab strike in New York in 1934 happened because of Great Depression. Also in 1935, the Group Theatre produced Odets’ Till the Day I Die, which is about conflict between communists and Nazis. Next, Odets wrote Paradise Lost, which addresses the issues of a middle-class family as their values and morals shift due to the change in social structure. He also wrote Golden Boy (1937) and Rocket to the Moon (1939). He was a multitalented person. He was a playwright, screenplay writer, an actor, and director.

Randolph Edmonds:


In 1945 he wrote five plays-The Land of Cotton, Gangsters over Harlem, Yellow Death, Silas Brown, and The High Court of Historia. He portrays the worthwhile themes of Negro life which, earlier was depicted as a derogatory subject matter, keeping the balance between literary and artistic values.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967):


Mule Bone, with Zora Neale Hurston (1931),  Mulatto  (1935),  Troubled  Island,  with William Grant Still (1936), Little Ham, (1936), Emperor of Haiti, (1936) Don’t You Want to be Free? (1938) Street Scene, contributed lyrics, 1947. The American dream, dignity, racism, wisdom self-actualization, aspiration, sexuality and theme of mulatto are some notable themes he dealt with in his plays. He got many awards.

Susan Glaspell:


Full-Length Plays-Bernice (1919), Inheritors (1921), The Verge (1921), Chains of Dew (1922), published for the first time in (2010),  The  Comic  Artist (1927),  co-written with Norman Matson, Alison’s House (1930), winner of 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Springs Eternal (1943), published for the first time in 2010. Some of her one-act plays are Suppressed Desires (1915), co-written with George Cram Cook, Trifles (1916), adapted into the short story A Jury of Her Peers (1917), Close the Book (1917), The Outside (1917). Her daring views on justice and morality is considered as a very daring feminist writer in America.

Notable Prose/Short Story Writers– Sherwood Anderson:


Winesburg, Ohio (1919) are his famous writing where casting his inmates O Henry , oral tradition of storytelling, failure,, ambition, nostalgia, desire, loneliness, epiphany.

Ring Lardner:


‘You Know Me Al’ (1916) and ‘The Big Town’ (1920) explores tales of country folk encountering the slick and exploitation of big city.

Dorothy Parker and F, Scott Fitzgerald:

‘A Telephone Call’ and ‘Good Souls’ are the short stories of Dorothy Parker and her stories generally deal with ordinary people’s lives and their struggles in a satirical, humorous way. ‘Head and Shoulders’ (1920), ‘Absolution’ (1924), ‘Love in the Night’ (1925), ‘The Rich Boy’ ‘At Your Age’ (1929), ‘Two Wrongs’ (1930), ‘Emotional Bankruptcy (1931)’, ‘Babylon Revisited’ (1931) ‘Six of One1932),’ ‘Boil Some Water- Lots of It’ (1940). Family relationship, selfishness, loss of youth, portrayal of strong female characters, consequences of wars in American society, dangers and consequences of alcohol are themes Fitzgerald explored in his short stories. Their focus was on urbane wit, sophistication, immortalization of a metropolitan world of glamour, romance and superficiality.

Ernest Hemingway:


Author’s most beloved classics such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “A  Clean,  Well-Lighted  Place.”  In  Our  Time  (1925),  collection  of  short stories talks about Great War, relationship between men and women, post-war Europe, and alter ego of Nick Adams. In ‘Big Two Hearted Rivers’ (In Our Time) presents a memorable vignette  of  the  counterbalancing  and  the  forces  of  order  and  chaos,  pleasure  and  duty, calmness and disruption and the unspoiled and the devastated. First Forty Nine Stories (1938) helped in establishing the development of American prose.


William Faulkner:


“Barn Burning” (1938), “A Rose for Family’’ (1930), “Dry September” (1931), “the Unvanquished” (1938), “The Tall Men” (1942), “Knight’s Gambit” (1949), most of his short stories probe into the mores and morals of the South, which he was not hesitant to criticize.

William Saroyan:


His  collection  of  short  stories  are  Inhale  and  Exhale  (1936),  Love,  Little  Children (1937), Saroyan’s Fables (1941The Human Comedy (1943), Get Away Old Man (1944), Dear Baby (1944), The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946), Jim Dandy: Fat Man in a Famine (1947), The Saroyan Special (1948), The Twin Adventures (1950), The Assyrian and Other Stories (1950).


James T. Farrell, John Fante, John Steinbeck wrote on working class subject during 1930s and 194s on migrant experience. Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1940), collection of short stories, Flannery O Conor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Anzia Yezierska’s Hungry Hearts makes place in mainstream American literature. Jean Toomer, Rudolf Fisher, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank Norris, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, W.E.B DuBois, Jean Toomer are some other prose writers. Some Important Events/Groups

Lost Generation, 1920


After WWI, a group of American writers grew increasingly disillusioned by, and resistant to, what they saw as hypocrisy in dominant American ideology and culture. Many of these writers left America in search of a more artistic life in London or Paris. Major works in Poetry Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, in prose Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and in novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises are notable examples.

Beat Writers, 1950s


Beat Writers’ writing was generally anti-traditional, anti-establishment, and anti- intellectual.


Major works in poetry by Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, prose by Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and in novels by William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are mentionable.

The history of American literature during 1900-1950 is of paramount importance in every aspect from American as well as world literature point of view. Apart from writers of different genres of literature and their writings on various issues, emergence of literary theory and criticism, women writings, African American writings, and emergence of America as a political superpower were of significant importance in the sphere of world literature.

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