Monday, August 13, 2018

The American Scene in Literature

There was a lively movement in the visual arts in the United States in the mid-twentieth century called The American Scene. This celebration of North American culture, landscapes, social life, and work reached its peak around 1930 with such paintings as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, the jazz-age cityscapes of Archibald Motley, and the Midwestern regional canvases of John Steuart Curry. The paintings and sculptures of this period boldly celebrated American life in a realistic style.

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1943 (detail)
There were parallel developments in all the other arts in North America, and literature was definitely part of this movement. But this artistic focus on the New World was something of a revolt against what had previously prevailed in U.S. art. Again, literature was very much involved in this rebellion.

Before the rise of American Scene writers, literature in the United States was very much dominated by the sensibility that all that was typically North American was provincial, backward, and conservative. In novels such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, everything that is Continental is sophisticated and forward-looking, while everything American is backward and narrow-minded. 

Henry James and Edith Wharton

Undoubtedly James and Wharton were accurately portraying the Puritanical sensibility they found in bourgeois American life. But the only alternative they could envision to that chauvinism and small-mindedness was the Old World sophistication of Europe.

The visual artists of The American Scene, on the other hand, were inspired by the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who embraced the imagery and revolutionary history of their country over the abstractions of modernism.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, Detroit Institute of Arts (detail)

A parallel surfaced in North America writing, where authors began finding complexity and depth in local stories and in uses of language that were distinctively American. This movement was sparked by Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of coastal Maine in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); and by Willa Cather’s earliest novels of the Midwest, including O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). African American writers began celebrating the music of Black English and the beauty of Black culture, initially in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose volumes of poetry, notably Majors and Minors in 1895, were some of the key works in this movement to celebrate North American life.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

So what do these literary currents mean for writers today? These two movements seem like polar opposites: the one exposes North American provincialism in favor of European savoir faire (Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc.), and the other lifts up specific U.S. regions and cultures (Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, etc.). But in some ways these currents that flow in opposite directions bubble from the same source. Both are seeking authenticity and freedom. The pro-European-sophistication writers seek these values by rejecting the narrow-mindedness of the Puritan worldview. The American Scene writers are praising more or less the same qualities in what is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As writers and literature enthusiasts today, we can appreciate both the revolt against provincialism by James and Wharton, and the truths and dynamism of regional and multicultural expressions in the writing of Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, and those who came after them.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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