24 History of American Literature (1950-2000)

Md Humayun Sk

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The present module deals with the History of American Literature from the period 1950 – 2000. It includes the following elements: Introduction, Socio-Political Background, Major Characteristics and general Conclusion.


Diversity becomes one of the outstanding features of the American literature in the latter half of the twentieth century which extends from the year 1950 to 2000. Such diversity causes both celebration and consternation. It provides readers clear and accessible routes through the texts, contexts, genres, historical periods and also a lot of debates and discourses. American literature in this period varies in inputs in terms of themes and styles. It is also hybrid in production because the American literature is no more homogenous, rather it is heterogeneous in nature and plural in terms of ‘gender’, ‘race’, ‘class’ ‘colour’, and many more. However the American literary history has witnessed tremendous changes in that period especially in the literary and intellectual spheres of America. Many ethnic groups especially from the margins have started to raise their suppressed voices in the previous decades and have become louder in this period. The different voices of protest such as Native Americans, and Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, women, third gender, lesbians and gay etc, together compose a kind of cacophony in the front line of what is called American society and literature. However, the American literature still maintains a unity in diversity and symphony in cacophony. Therefore, the diversity has become an outstanding feature of the American literature. In the introduction of the book ‘Contemporary The American literature ’, Rangrao, ( 2011 ) says – “In the 1960s and 1970s, America was stirred socially and intellectually in the same manner in which England was stirred in the latter half of the 19th century.”

Nevertheless for the better convenience of discussion, some literary critics divide the continuity of the American literature into some useful segments based on the span of time. The major periods of the American literature are:


Part I The Literature of Colonial America (1607-1765)

Part II The Literature of Reason and Revolution (1765- the end of 18th century)

Part III The Literature of Romanticism (1800-1865)

Part IV Literature of Realism (1865-1918) Part V Literature of Modernism (1918-1945)

Part VI Contemporary literature (1950- present)


The present study is exclusively based on the Contemporary the American literature which roughly extends from the year 1950 to 2000.


Socio-Political Background:


The period of 1960s and 1970s witnesses huge radical changes in the American literary history. American society had experienced several ups and downs in the 20th century. It raised several questions to ponder upon. The period from the year 1914 to 1939 in the American history had gone through a huge economic degradations and unemployment. The First World War had brought huge decline in the socio-economic conditions along with depression, and illusion and despair in the American life. As a result, a violent social upheaval was noticed as a means to a better order. However, the Second World War added salts to the wounds of ongoing disillusionment and misery of the American life. The people were like the rudderless boats in the life and in need to immediate anchorage.

Again the American policy has started war with Korea in 1950, followed by the Vietnam War (1959-75). Therefore such climate of tyranny shaped to a larger extends, the minds of the intellectuals and literary artists and writers of that period. As a result, social activists, artists and writers have expressed their vehement and sometimes violent opposition against warmongers. Many youths including Mohammad Ali refused to go to the war which indicated that the country did not want any further war. Theodore Roszak has discussed such oppositions in his book- The Making of a Counter Culture in 1969. Morris Dickstein also talks about such tendency in his book Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties.


Besides this, within a single decade (1960-1970), America witnessed a series of the assassination of many great leadership figures like President Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in 1967 then Robert Kennedy in 1968.


A number of social and literary movements which started in the previous periods have become stronger. The major literary movements were Feminist literature, Afro-American or Black literature, Native The American literature , Asia-The American literature etc. Among these movements, the Afro-American literary and feminist movement were the most prominent. The Afro-Americans, who had been fighting for equal rights for centuries, had bended towards radicalisation in this period especially after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. The poet like Amiri Baraka, a beat poet expressed black anguish through his magazine Cricket. He also started Black Arts Movement and The Revolutionary Theatre. His book Back Magic Poetry 1961-1967(1969) was the finest work in this regard. Again many organisations like Congress of Racial Equality, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence worked to protect the rights of Afro -Americans.


Following the footsteps, the others marginalised and ethnic groups started to raise their voices through their individuals’ artistic microphones. Therefore The American literature no more remained as singular number ‘The American literature ’ as it compartmentalized into its plural form ‘The American literature s’.

The Basis Characteristics of the Periods (1950-2000) Tradition and Experiments:

The 1950s is regarded as cultural traditionalism and complacency. Literature of this period is marked by the emergence of strong anti-establishment and anti-traditional literary movements. The Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac rejected the traditional styles. Thus modern The American literature was a motley display. It is an inquisitive mixture of heterogeneous elements- of tradition and experiment of imitation and revolt of the old and the new. The appearance and disappearance of different schools and movements was another characteristic of The American literature . The writers rejected many traditional art forms and styles and created and adapted new artistic way of expressions. For example, Modern poets sought to free poetry from the shackles of a metre. Thus verse libre (Free Verse) has become the commonest mode of poetic expression. In the field of poetry, new form of poetry like confessional poetry, Nuclear protest poetry become popular, in the field of drama, a new form of dram what is called Absurd drama came to exist to represent the contemporary absurdity of American life.



The literature produced in this period vividly portrays the contemporary socio, political and others aspects of American lives. Afro-American writers tried to depict the pathetic socio, economic conditions of black lives. Maya Angelo compared the blacks with the caged birds who cry for freedom. Toni Morrison deals with the Psychological aspects of her community. Writers like Henry Millar, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and Vladimir Nabokov depict the extreme sexual candor especially in their writings. Nabokov’s novel Lolita deals with  such themes published in 1955. In the field of Drama, the concept of absurd drama came to exist in this period. Eugene O Neill tried to depict the contemporary American society through his plays. Asian The American literature s depicted their problems in their writings. Therefore realism becomes one of the integral parts of contemporary American art and literature.

Sprout of New Form of Poetry:


Poetry as usual, was one of the most powerful genres in this period. Many poets find this genre as the best way to express the mental anguish, resentment and best way to articulate the suppressed voices. The poet like Maya Angelo could expressed thousands of sad songs of slaves of America in a single line –“I know why the caged birds sings?” A numbers of poets like John Ashbury, Richard Wilbur, John Berryman, Mark Stand and many others national and Pulitzer Prize winner poets emerged in this period. For example Richard Wilbur got both National Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for poetry Things of This World. John Berryman got Pulitzer Prize for The Dream Songs in 1964. Mark Strand got Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Blizzard of One.


Emergence of Confessional poetry:


The emergence of Confessional poetry is another production of this age. Confessional poetry is a type of poetry of the personal or “I”. This form of poetry starts in the late 1950 and early 1960s. Major poets are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W.D Snodgrass. Lowell’s book “life Studies, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs (385 poems) are the best examples. Mare Howe and Sharon Olds are the contemporary poets. This new form of poetry receives huge popularity in many countries. It is believed such poetry influenced Indian poet Kamala Das who practices this genre in her poetry.

Emergence of Nuclear Protest Poetry:


One of the most striking features or contributions of this period is the emergence of Nuclear Protest Poetry. This form of poetry talks against Nuclear Weapons which can destroy the entire human civilization in the twinkle of the eyes. The poets of this group show great concerns against the war, especially nuclear war. The poets want to create a kind of awareness about the nuclear war. They often give the example of consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where America dropped two Atom Bombs on august 1945.They want to make nuclear weapons free world. In the definition of nuclear poetry, Brickey, a famous American poet said in his essay ‘Turning Away From the Blast: Forms of Nuclear Protest Poetry’


All nuclear poetry is protest poetry in which the poets tend to beseech the reader to take action, any kind of action by imaging the vulnerable. Nuclear poetry seems to reifies-individual haplessness in the face of global technocracy. It also focuses not on the terrible power of the device itself, but on the creatures on the periphery. Overall nuclear poetry since to reify some tacit understanding of some conundrum between language and image and most poets spotlight a few specific details of the blast before quickly turning away to watch the outcome, a move which since more suited to the poetic register.(Brickey)

Allen Ginsberg has expressed his anger against America and nuclear weapons in his poem “The Plutonium Ode” in the following way:


“America, America


When will we end the human war?


Go fuck yourself with your Atom Bomb”.


For these poets, the war is the complete end of the mankind. This poetry spreads the prophecy of Elbert Einstein.


“ I do not know what weapons world war third will be fought with But world war fourth will be fought with sticks and stones”

Minority Literatures:


The Emergence of new identities and new literatures within the Mainstream The American literature is another characteristic of The American literature of late twentieth century. The writers from different ethnic groups and communities within the country started using their arts and literatures to articulate their voices.

M H Abram Said-


The later decades of the twentieth century have been marked by innovative and distinguished literary works by the writers belong to minority or ethnic literary group. These authors are distinguishable within a majority cultural and social system. Racial issues, Religious issues, languages, cultural identity etc become the primary push of their writings. (215)

Development of Afro-American Criticism and Literature:


“To be sold.


A parcel of likely Negros imported from Africa, cheap for cash, or short credit. Enquire near the south market; also, if any persons have any Negro Men, they may have an exchange for small Negroes” (qtd. In Bressler 245).


The above advertisement appeared in the Boston Evening Post on August 3, 1761. The above advertisement revealed two basic two facts. First, it showed how painful to be an imported black slave. Second, it showed the cruelty the so-called white skinned American.


W.E.B Dubois’s highlighted racial problems as the most serious issues in the 20th century. In his essay-“The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Dubois said-


“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”( qtd in Charles 247).


During the civil Right Era of the 1950s and 1960s, three black James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and drawn attention to the racial issues in the American society from the Marxist point of view. Richard Wright wrote “Native Son”(1940). The Outsiders (1953) and White Man, Listen!(1957), Ralph Ellison’s works Invisible Man (1953) shadow and act (1966) and Going to the Territory(1986) were the most important works in this regard. In this context, two critics gave the shaped of African and The American literature or Aesthetics. They are Abdul R. JanMohamed and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Henry Louis Gates’ works The Signifying Monkey (1988) and Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Radical” Self(1989), provided a theoretical framework for creating pure black- American literary Canon.

Feminist Literature:


Unlike the previous decades, Feminist movement have become stronger and more appealing in this period. After 1950, they started to demand of equal opportunities, equal pay. Though the 19th Amendment of American constitution Women got the rights to vote in 1920, still  they would feel marginalised in terms of higher education, some specific professions. In her book When Everything changed: the Amazing Journey of American women from 1960 to the present, Collin Gail wrote – “1960s only Six percent women were doctors, three percent were lawyers and one percent of engineers.(Collin). The Employment Opportunity Commission was formed this time but the implementation was little. In her book The Feminine Mystique (1962), by Betty Friedan tried to depict such condition of American women. In 1966 NOW (National Organisation for Women was formed for the fight for gender discrimination through the Courts and legislatures. Another important feature of the feminist movement was they come out against the Vietnam War. In her book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, Rosen Ruth said- “The way in which the traditional women’s peace movement condoned and even enforced the gender hierarchy in which men made war and women wept” (242).

In august 1970, feminist movement went for huge strike for equality. The National Black Feminist Organisation started in 1973.


Some feminists felt the need of unity and try to build the spirit of common sisterhood. But such unity of sisterhood was not possible in real life of America where diversity of womanhood itself divides in the lines of upper class, lower class, conservative and radical, white and black, American and Non –American, Christian and Non- Christian and such list of binary goes on. Apart from that, the conservative feminists oppose some of the radical tendencies.


Belly Friedan, one of the major feminists, wanted the feminist movement respectable and part of mainstream society and thus she distanced herself from what she termed- “bra-burning, anti-man, politics- of –Orgasm School of feminism” (Sullivan). However the present  feminist movement in America does not care for such warning. This year they virtually burnt their bras and organised a topless parade in public as a symbolic protest for equality between men and women.

Native-American Literature:


The emergence of Native American voice in the form of Native The American literature is another characteristic of this period. There are numbers prolific Native Americans represent Native art, cultures through their writings. Their identity crisis as a minority in their own country worked as inspiration for their writings. They want to preserve their art, culture and establish an identity in the modern world. Sherman Alexie is one of famous and prolific Native American writers who talks about poverty, despair, identity crisis of Native American. His well-known work Ceremony deals with World War II. Charles Eastman talks about the native culture and history from the native point of view. His two best known works are Deep Woods to Civilisation and The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American. Diane Glancy is another prolific writer talk about spirituality, family ties and her identity as a person of mixed blood. Winona La Duke is an author and activist, best known for his two known fiction books – All Our Relations: Native Struggle for Land and Life which deals with the Native Americans reclaim tribal lands and Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming deals with Native American identity Crisis. Barney Bush is a poet talks about identity, cultural conflict, social struggle.


Vine Deloria Jr.: one of the most outspoken voices among the Native Amrican writers. His work Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which inspire the Native Activism in the 60s and 70s. He challenged many stereotype ideas of American history. N.Scott Momaday is a novelist. His novel House Made of Dawn got Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Duane Niatum is best known as poet. His poetic collection The Crooked Beak of Love and song for the Harvesters of Dreams got American Book Award. Gerald Vizenor is another great writer got American Book Award in 1988. Joy Harjo is poet explore native culture and her struggle as an individual and a women. David Treuer is one of the contemporary Native American authors. He is best known for his short stories. Truer got recognition for his work The translation of Dr. Appelles in 2006. According him the genre of Native The American literature should be viewed as part of the larger canon of The American literature rather than an artefact of historic Native culture. Janet Campbell Hale is another important writer. Her novel The Jailing of Cecelia Capture was nominated for Pulitzer Prize. Her best known work is Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter. Therefore the majority of the Native Americans talks about their Identity crisis. They think that their identity crisis lies in the very claim “Columbus discovers America in 1492”. Therefore their art and literature become the medium of protest against such claim.

Jews-American Literature:


Jews are also another minority community of America. Recently Bob Dylan, a Jews – American got novel prize for literature (2016). Philip Rot vigorously explores the Jews identity in American society especially after post-war era and earlier 21st century. His most well-known novels are Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Goodbye Columbus (1959). He got Pulitzer Prize for his novel American Pastoral (1997).William Gaddis was known as the post-war novelist. His work The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975) deals with war-related issues.

Chinese-American Literature: 


Chinese migration took places in America near about 1830 and onward as sugar master, paddlers, and sailors. They settled in Hawaii which later on became the 50th states of America. Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan were major Chinese American writers. Maxine Hong’s fictional memoir The Women Warrior (1976) was an impotent work about Chinese- American identity crisis. Amy Tan’s novel China Men (1980) and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book were impotent works. Another chine –American author Ha Jin got

National Book Award in 1999 for his novel Waiting. Some major chine-American writers and their works are the following:

Jude Snow Wong – Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950)

Diana Chang – Frontiers of Love(1956)

C.Y Lee – Flower Drum Song(1957)

Joy Kogawa- The Splintered Moon(1968)

Fusao Lawson Inada- Before the War(1971)

Sky Lee Disappearing MoonCafe(1990)

Loung Ung- First They Killed My Father(2000)

Indian- American Literature:


In the late twentieth century, Indian-The American literature emerged as new branch of the The American literature . Jhumpa Lahiri, one of the writers, got Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her collection of short story Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Her novel The Nameshake (2003) adapted for film in 2007. Her second collection of stories Unaccustomed Earth got huge commercial and critical success. Another Indian American writer, Boman Desai’s book The Memory of Elephants about her experiences as a Diaspora identity writer in America. Some major Indian American writers and their works:

Zulfikar Ghose – The Loss of India(1964)

Meena Alexander – The Bird’s Bright Ring(1976)

Vikram Seth – Golden Gate (1986)

Amitav Ghose – In An Antique Land(1993)

Gita Mehta- A River Sutra (1993)

Jhumpa Lahiri – The interpreter of Maladies (1999)

Amitava Kumar – Pass Port Photos (2000).

Lesbian and Gay’s Literature:


Emergence of lesbian and Gay literature was another characteristics of that period. It was the African- American literary theories and criticism let the foundation for this new literature. Bressler wrote in his book Literary Criticism-


The beginning of this reformation, reclamation, and ongoing development of peculiarly African-American literary theories and criticism has helped other marginalized groups such as gays and lesbians to develop their own critical theories and practical criticism.


Arab-American Literature:


Arab-American literature is also noticeable. Among the most famous writers was Diana Abu- Jaber whose novel Arabian Jazz and his memoir The Language of Baklava got popularity. The others writers are Etel Adnan, Rabih Alameddine, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye.



Like other literary genres, there were tremendous changes in the characteristics the Drama or theatre in this period. Portrays of realism is another major characteristic of the period. Among them Eugene O’ Neill used the combination of naturalistic and expressionist techniques of realism. Susan uses German expressionism in his play Trifles. Another famous play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice also based on such realism. Folk drama is another key feature of the contemporary drama. For example Abraham’s Bosom is such play. Paul Green got Pulitzer Prize for this play. The Black Drama becomes more mature in this period in the works of Lorrane Harsbery, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. Some important Women Dramatists were Beth Henlrey, Marsha Norman, Megan Terry and Paula Vogel. The gay right movement and of the AIDS crisis were reflected in the plays of cristopher Durang, Holly Hushes, Keren Malpede, Lary Kramer etc. Apart from that Asian American theatre group was founded in 1965. It was the period The Growth of Ethnic pride Movement developed by some racial minorities as Douglas, Turner Ward, Adrienne Kennedy and George C. Wofte.




Diversity is one of the key characteristics of this period. Such diversity can be seen in terms of themes and styles. So many social and political upheavals like war policies, civil rights movement, and series of assassinations shaped contemporary minds of artists and writers.

The identity crisis among the different ethnic groups pushed them for creative writings in this period. In the field of arts and literatures, a number of movements including Afro-American, Feminism, Asian-American, and Native- American produced a big body of literary works. Some new literary forms like confessional poetry, nuclear protest poetry, and Absurd drama emerged in this period. However, such huge out pouring of different literary works enriched the American literary canon. Nonetheless, the Journey of The American literature did not  stop in the year 2000, rather the vehicle of the American literature is still rolling. Therefore it is the time which can define the future of the American literature. As M.H Abram rightly said-


The contemporary literary scene in American is crowded and varied, and these lists could readily be expanded. We must await the passage of time to determine which writers how active will emerge as enduringly major figures  in the canon of The American literature.


Thus, we have discussed in this module the socio- political and historical background of the history of American literature from the year 1950 to 2000. Apart from background study, we have also discussed the major characteristics of the period including various socio political and literary movements.

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  • Rangao, Bangle, “Introduction” Contemporary The American literature ed. By Rangao, Bangle, Atlantic New Delhi 2011.Print
  • Alice walker The Color Purple, New York: Pocket Books, 1982 Print
  • Abram M.H A Handbook of Literary Terms, Delhi: Cengage Learning, 2009.
  • Gail, Collin, When Everything changed: the Amazing Journey of American women from 1960 to the present, New York: Little Brown@Company, 2009
  • Rosen, Ruth, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, New York: Penguin, 2006.
  • Bressler, Charles E., Literary Criticism, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Sullivan, Parricia. “Voice of Feminism‘s Second Wave” Washington Post 5 Feb, 2006
  • Brickey, Russell, Turning Away From the Blast: Forms of Nuclear Protest Poetry, Wlaarchive