American Writing in the 20th Century
Americans on the Move
On American Writing
American writers such as Diane Carey, Peter David and Robert Silverberg owe a great deal to the early pulps for not only inspiration but also for the building of an audience base worthy of their abilities to write science fiction.
The pulps, however, needed a ready audience which was in part supplied by the massive number of people from Europe that came to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The novel that best describes the early 20th Century from an American point of view is E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. It deals with the migrants from Europe that were pouring into New York and the challenges this created.
There had to be new housing and new ways of dealing with sewage and fresh water as the population continued to expand. Also there was exploitation. Big business men and factory owners could pick and choose their workers and keep wages low.
First published in 1974, Ragtime shows a USA whose population was rapidly growing and whose common workers were searching for but yet to find their political voice. It was also a time of incredible wealth for some and dire poverty for others.
The 20th Century began with the new pulp magazines causing a stir. They were cheaply made and designed to appeal to the common man.
They were sensational with gaudy covers that often barely got past the form of censorship that was around at the time. This censorship usually amounted to what the postal authorities would allow to be transported and thus given a wide enough distribution to be profitable.
Our present day sense of genre and how we are to classify novels comes in part from these pulp magazines. Though many of the stories in them would not count as literature by both past and present day university standards, surprisingly quite a few of them are still readable and enjoyable.
H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, for example, still have a following among readers who either enjoy horror, sword and sorcery, or a combination of both.
Robert E. Howard is best known for his creation of Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja.
Mark Twain with his plain talking was a controversial writer of his day and has gone back to being controversial. Today his writing is considered to be literature. This, however, was not always so.
Twain used the language of the people of his time rather than the language that some people felt ought to be spoken.
By the end of the 19th Century the Western was well established as so many thoughts, ideas and images that can safely be branded as all American.
Between 1850 and 1875 the desire to move West by people living in the East was two-fold. There was rich farmland and there were ranges to run cattle.
In the 1870s the government made it easy to own land through land grants. There was also gold. Strikes in California in the 1850s then later on in the black hills of Dakota wet the appetites of adventurers.
Young men, frustrated by life in the big cities and larger towns back East, thought they might be able to make their fortunes in the gold fields then return and set themselves and their families up on easy street. For most of the gold seekers this did not pan out.
Both in the USA and in Australia during the gold rush periods there were smart operators who quickly realized that the real money was in supplying the gold seekers rather than being one of them.
A man living in San Francisco, an immigrant by the name of Levi Strauss, discovered that old sail material could be converted into tough, durable pants and that the pants would sell very well to miners who needed tough wear. To this day Levi jeans still sell very well. Others made their fortune with salt beef and pork. San Francisco grew up during the California gold rush period because of the gold rush.
What has all this to do with American literature? In terms of the American slant on the English language it was a turning point.
The migrants from places such as Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden and Italy brought their language with them and it combined well with English to create the unique hybrid we can now call American English. This hybrid had been forming for some time but this injection of new terms, words and ideas from people coming from overseas accelerated matters.
Animals encountered in the west also contributed. A sidewinder is a snake. It is also the term for someone so low he's likely to shoot you in the back.
The term redneck comes from the redness observed on the necks of people traveling via river system who were so poor they were going by raft or row boat rather than steam boat.
A panhandler became a new name for a beggar. It started out as a term for someone who was down on their luck in gold country. They were using the pan they had employed for sifting through a stream for yellow nuggets to beg with thus they were handling a pan and were panhandlers.
In New York migrants who spoke Yiddish and German were changing the American language. Kid is a corruption of the German word kinder. The term drifted south and also into the works produced by writers of Westerns.
Billy Bonney or Henry McCarty is best known to us today as Billy the Kid. No one is quite sure where he was born but it is possible it was back East and that he came West.
People back East made money writing about the likes of Billy the Kid and so the Western came about. In many large American cities Irish immigrants became policemen. Thus the term paddy wagon refers as much to who might be riding up front as to who might be riding in the back.
Not everything fictional, factual or somewhere in between about the West was literary gold. Like someone panning for real gold you have to sift through the material to find the precious nuggets that not only have endured the press of the years but have deserved to survive. And who makes these judgments? For the most part the American people.
The Virginian by Owen Wister, published in 1902, is a terrific western that brings us nicely into the 20th Century.
This may be the first genuine cowboy novel and there is some evidence to suggest that it may have been influenced by the earlier Australian novel about bushrangers and bushranging, Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood (1889).
Hopalong Cassidy, a gunslinging hero who wore a black hat rather than the traditional white hat for good guys, was created in 1904 by Clarence Mulford.
Of the novels written about this character by Mulford, Tex (1922), Black Buttes (1923) and The Round-Up (1933) rate as exceptionally good.
Of the Hopolong Cassidy novels written by the talented western writer Lois L'Amour the stand out would be The Trail to Seven Pines (1951). Here we have a stagecoach robbery, a brewing ranch war and a crazed gunman.
Of the writers of Westerns, Zane Grey sits might tall in the metaphorical saddle. With this particular writer it is difficult to pick the best of because of the general quality of his work.
I will mention here The Last Trail (1909) and The Code of the West (1934). Western buffs will naturally have their favorites. Perhaps it should here be noted that the fictional Character Colonel Sherman T. Potter of the television series MASH was a big Zane Grey fan.
One of the most influential of Westerns and unarguably a triumph of the form was Jack Schaefer's Shane (1949). This work is much heralded as a masterpiece and definitely takes the Western to the halls of accepted literature worldwide.
After this book came out and then the movie in 1953 women were so taken with the main character, a gunslinger who would like to lead a different life but whose past and whose abilities with the quick draw make it impossible, that a great many sons born in this period were named Shane. This happened in the USA but it also happened in Australia.
As for today, both novel and movie stand up well and remain top entertainment with that extra something that makes a novel or a movie not just good but great.
In the 1970s the best western novel which touched upon the native American role in the West was The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing by Marilyn Durham.
The 20th Century was also a period marked by great strides in science. The iron horse may have been invented and developed in the 19th Century but it became a streamlined form of travel in the 20th and there were luxury trains that were indeed luxurious. Gas lights were giving way to electricity.
By the end of the 19th century cities like New York that could no longer expand sideways were reaching more and more for the sky. The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 during the depression, stood and still stands as a symbol for the future. It is art deco at its most brilliant. It makes one think of speed and of rockets shooting into outer space.
Writers, editors and publishers felt the need from the beginning of the 20th Century on to express their views on where progress was taking humanity.
Certainly from the late 19th Century and well into the 1930s British and French writers such as H. G. Wells (The Invisible Man) and Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) were at the forefront of Science Fiction.
American publishers at first were mostly content to republish, usually in serial form in pulp magazines, the best the British and the French (translated into English of course) had to offer. Before long, however, the hunt for Americans who could write science fiction was on.
Tarzan may not seem to have much to do with science fiction until you think in terms of a social experiment. A male child of royal blood is brought up by apes in a jungle yet his birthright shines through in that he comes to rule over the jungle.
This view seems to be in contrast to Charles Dickens' view in his novel Oliver Twist (1838) where the people who run a workhouse know Oliver Twist as an orphan and if there is a drop of royal blood in him it isn't visible to them.
Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character Tarzan first appeared in serial form in All-Story magazine (1912). It was the serialization of the novel Tarzan of the Apes which first appeared in complete book form in 1914.
Characters that touch more firmly upon what we understand to be science fiction can be found in the Burroughs adventures of John Carter on Mars. John Carter first appeared in A Princess of Mars (1912). In this work Carter, a Confederate American Civil War Veteran, is transported to the red planet where he meets up with green warriors who have four arms.
A memorable work of American science fiction from the 1920s is The Color Out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft (1927). It has elements of dark fiction and horror but since it does involve a menace that came from 'out there' it is science fiction. The horror, the terror began with a meteorite.
Isaac Asimov started creating science fiction in the 1930s. He was not only a science fiction writer but also a scientist. Some of the things he theorized about in his early short stories were later realized in real life.In one of his 1930s stories, for example, he came up with the idea that without gravity to give the spaceman in his spacesuit a sense of up from down that such a man venturing outside his capsule and into outer space might well experience vertigo. It made scientific sense to him.
Decades later when men were stepping out of capsules and into outer space this feeling of vertigo became a reality for at least one astronaut. There is much good writing that can be accredited to Asimov including I, Robot (1950), a marvelous collection of robot stories.
One of the giants of American science fiction was Robert A. Heinlein. His best known and respected works include Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
Probably the strangest and grimmest of American science fiction writers is Robert Silvergerg. His novels include The Planet Killers (1959) and Lost Race of Mars (1960).
Possibly his most complex and intricate work is At Winters End (1988) in which the exploration of the ruins of a past city and indeed a past world reveal more to a young sensitive than may be good to know. Koshmar's tribe survived the great cataclysm and have found what remains of the city of Vengiboneeza but what does that mean and who did build this city in the first place? A novel full of triumph, tragedy, wonder and dreaming. A superb effort.
It can be said that Americans in the 20th Century were inundated with many forms of entertainment which have encompassed both elements of the Western and elements of science fiction. The American style comic book came into its own in the 1930s and, just as the world was gearing up for a major war, the superhero appeared.
Now it can be said that the forerunner of the superhero was the costumed pulp hero. The costumed pulp heroes from 1912 to the 1950s include Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, The Spider, The Shadow, and Doc Savage. Many of these characters were either born on radio and moved to the pulps and then to other forms of entertainment or were a pure pulp creation. Regardless, for many of them there were science fiction elements involved in who they were, what they did and how they did it.
Doc Savage, for example, was a master scientist with masters of many fields at his beck and call as part of his team of adventurers. He was, however, only a superman in the sense that he had trained his mind and body to where he was the best humanity had to offer.
Superman was the first of the genuine superheroes in that he was much stronger than a normal man. In fact, he was an alien from a planet that no longer exists.
With Superman a success story there was a great deal of interest in creating superheroes.
Soon Captain America, created by artists and writers from a rival company to the one pushing Superman, took up arms against the Nazi and Jap threat. Other superheroes also took up arms. At least for the superhero comic book/movie serial arm of science fiction WW2 proved to be beneficial. Superheroes could be very patriotic.
The 20th Century in American literature wasn't just about the Western or science fiction. The Jazz Age is best remembered through the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934) are the best examples of his work.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger came out in 1951 and remains controversial in its use of language. Basically it is about teenage angst and sexuality. It was slammed time and time again by censorship.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller came out in 1961. It is one of the strangest and yet most compelling of anti-war novels. Some of the characters are quite insane and some of the names just as mad. For example there is a character who was christened Major Major Marjor. When he joined up for WW2 he became Private Major Major Major. Due to a computer error, when he went overseas he was made into Major Major Major Major and given an office.
Weird and very funny Catch 22 it is a landmark in American satirical writing. In one book Heller managed to become America's answer to the Irish writer Jonathan Swift, the man responsible for Gulliver's Travels (1726).
Certainly I have only barely touched upon American literature even though this is part two. I have yet to look at the war novel in any detail or at the detective novel. Perhaps I will do so in a future part.
It can be successfully argued that with American literature there is a lot of territory that can and no doubt should be covered. I hope you have enjoyed the read so far.
More by this Author
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