Three Eras in American Literature
The greatest flowering of American literature came during the period between the two world wars. It was a time of radical change in the U.S. -- disillusionment after the first mechanized war in history, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression.
Americans zigzagged from the naive idealism of "the war to end all wars" to the debauched thrills of illegal booze and false prosperity to the worst economic collapse in U.S. history. It was a bumpy ride captured by the best group of writers this country ever produced.
Among them were our first four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. They also included two of our best novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, as well as lesser-known authors John Dos Passos, John O'Hara, Erskine Caldwell and women writers such as Marjorie Rawlings, Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker.
They wrote about great themes -- war, hard times, personal loss and the persistence of hope in the human spirit.
A mini-flowering of American literature happened in the post-World War II era: Jack Kerouac, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Nelson Algren. But their themes were more parochial than the previous generation of authors. At the beginning of the baby boom most of them wrote about romantic and family relationships, jobs, money, urban decadence and the split-level traps of suburbia. Paradoxically, the country they described was larger in scope but somehow smaller in substance.
The Vietnam war was a time of sweeping social change not seen since the Roaring Twenties, yet strangely it produced no truly great American authors. The best were non-fiction writers like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe and novelist Richard Brautigan, but they hardly compared to the golden generation of American authors. Perhaps this was because their focus was largely politics, which I have never considered a great theme of literature.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa