Inevitably There is Change
Early 20th Century US Flag
As still one of the youngest nations in the world, America has yet to see many changes. Although it seems she is already wise beyond her years, America has seen war, political upheaval and literary genius with many more aspects of life yet to experience. One of the more tumultuous eras during America’s growth was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This set of 50 years saw the change of an era, the change of world power and so much more. The written word is elemental in documenting change, whether it is intended to be historical, entertaining or controversial. This article will examine four pieces of American literature written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describing merely a few of these key changes.
To begin, one early American author was Samuel Clemens, more well known as Mark Twain, who was noted for being not only a realist but also a regionalist. He often reverted to his years growing up in the American Midwest to find inspiration for characters, theme and even his controversy. One such short story is “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” This short story was written by Twain during the end of the American Civil War when it wasn’t only slavery that was an issue. It quite literally was man against man and who was better. Twain exaggerated this American trait writing, “…he was the most curious man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody to bet on the other side…” (105). Not only did Twain use his contemporary authorship using the local vernacular of a region but he also brought to light the humor of the American ego.
The Yellow Wallpaper
Once American men settled down, American women took up the literary torch and began to enlighten readers with a feminine perspective. This included their subjugation, their freedom of spirit and their original sin. One such writer was Charlotte Perkins Gilman whose short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” ignites controversy to this day. Gilman adamantly refused to acknowledge the defined social strata between women and men and this story illustrates the effect such strata had on the times of the era. Even at the story’s onset Gilman writes, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (809). This statement indicated how dominant a man was over a woman’s own thoughts during the 19th and 20th centuries. Early American literature reminded readers that change…that progress had yet to endure in American society.
The new century saw a continued echo of the Industrial Revolution and this is apparent in many of the literary works that were produced during its early decades. One such creator being Robert Frost who emanated the modernist ideal of reverting to the rural roots upon which America was founded. The exponential expansion of industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries became synonymous with the death of one life and the beginning of another. Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” is the perfect literary piece to compliment this theme. He writes, “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” (1403). The obvious shade of apocalyptic overtones may allow a reader to interpret Frost's poem as the literal fire from which American industry was forged evolving into its climatic and rapid cooling fall.
Finally, American literature saw the controversy of war in its 50 years between 1890 and 1940. The sheer rawness of human nature that became apparent inspired writers of all genres to philosophize on it. One of these writers was F. Scott Fitzgerald who, in his story “Babylon Revisited,” expounded on many different aspects of human nature to include judgment, remorse and even hope. The very last paragraph of this story concludes, “He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever” (1853). Similar to other writers of his time, Fitzgerald ambiguously implies that life will transform and people will do so with it. Human nature ebbs and flows with time as adjustment molds it and early American writers did not hesitate to remind their audience of that very aspect.
The saying goes, “resistance is futile” and when it comes to change, that truly is the case. Often it’s difficult to ascertain whether ripping off the bandage is better or if baby steps should be the way forward. No matter which America chooses, she will always have authors to detail her progress...her transformation...her change.