America became a subject for literature after the Revolutionary War, when writers began the exploration of themes and motifs distinctly American. Continuing the Puritan belief in America as the New Eden, writers stressed the millennial nature of settlement and progress. Each milestone in improvement and enlargement marked a national movement toward spiritually sanctioned political dominion. Geographic, industrial, and social changes found justification in America’s mythic vision of itself independent of England and free of European hierarchy.
A complex and often contradictory ethos emerged based on tensions in American dualities: Calvinistic sin and predestination opposed to romantic optimism; determinism opposed to free will; idealism versus materialism; European aristocracy opposed to democracy; capitalistic prosperity versus economic struggles. As the United States expanded, such dichotomies were complicated by tensions between long-settled areas in New England, the genteel South, the expansive plains states, and the wide open West. These contrary and interlocking forces created variety and crosscurrents in American fiction.
The original Puritan experiment lasted less than one hundred years but indelibly marked American thought and expression. Emphasis on a godly life and personal motives shapes the journals of colonial governors William Bradford (1590-1649) and John Winthrop (1588- 1694). Their documents reveal harsh dealings with merchandisers who invaded the colonies only to reap the wealth of the New World. The diaries of Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) and Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) endorse the same catalog of virtues Benjamin Franklin lists in his Autobiography (1791). Puritan temperance, order, frugality, industry, and justice also suited the rational, moral sensibility of Franklin’s Enlightenment God, the deistic Watchmaker-Creator who let the world tick on unhindered.
Though Edwards’s harsh God had been replaced by a nearly indifferent craftsman, America’s habit of thought was focused on the quest for personal identity and spiritual journeys central to Puritan self-examination. The search for identity and meaning articulated in Puritan journals appears in many guises in America’s long-fiction tradition. Herman Melville’s (1819-1891) Ishmael (Moby Dick, 1851), Kate Chopin’s (1851-1904) Edna Pontillier (The Awakening, 1899), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896- 1940) Amory Blaine (This Side of Paradise, 1920), and Toni Morrison’s (1931-2019) Milkman (Song of Solomon, 1977) all struggle with the context and significance of their lives.
Puritan practice shaped American novels metaphorically long after the Spartan spiritual regimen weakened. Puritan preachers reveled in comparisons between the biblical world and their own. Pairing events across time created a deeper sense of significance for American life. Moses’s prophetic leadership made him a model for Puritan patriarchs. As men of God, their calling and authority mimicked that of Moses. Puritans were encouraged to see life’s events as spiritual lessons designed to increase piety and faith or express God’s nurturing. Persistent comparison made the nature of life metaphoric. Events in real time were seen as images of biblical experiences and were symbolically interpreted.
Overt transference of symbolism to fiction is clear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) The Scarlet Letter (1850), in which protagonist Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter A marks her as a symbol of fallen womanhood. The whale in Moby Dick, a massive symbol of evil, exhibits a subtle turn by making the evil force white rather than black. Modernists, following in the wake of late nineteenth century realists and naturalists, capitalized on this penchant for symbols, but their main figures were literary, not biblical. Ernest Hemingway’s (1899-1961) code heroes rely on knowledge of traditional heroes to be effective. Jake Barnes’s depressed wandering in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) makes a hollow warrior’s quest. He is an Odysseus without honorable men to lead or a homeland to reclaim.
Moving beyond storytelling to the theory of narrative, Gertrude Stein’s (1874-1946) experiments with repetition of words and phrases invite skepticism about language and its reliability as an interpretive tool. In “Melanctha” (Three Lives, 1909), her use of the word “love” causes readers to constantly redefine it. Stein moved beyond the Puritan equation, comparing two objects or people to question the process and means of comparison. Contemporary use of metaphoric construction influenced E. Annie Proulx’s (born 1935) The Shipping News (1993), in which chapters are headed by the names of particular nautical knots, and the sea around Nova Scotia is ever-present as a force and locus of possibility in the character Quoyle’s life. The ties for Proulx are elliptical and suggestive; readers must decide for themselves the significance and the connections.
Unlike the Puritans, contemporary American novelists draw no absolute lines between symbols and moral values or truths. The reader, not a minister, defines the significance of events. The novel itself, rather than Puritan beliefs or biblical passages, provides codes for translation. Still, the search for meaning requires cross-references between text and life—a Puritan strategy of interpretation.
Material prosperity fueled by the Industrial Revolution increased after the American Civil War, and the effect of money on American moral fiber became a dominant theme in fiction. Mark Twain (1835-1910) satirized the greed and hypocrisy in The Gilded Age (1873). William Dean Howells (1837-1920), one of the creators and promoters of American realism, reflected on acquisition and class structure in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), about a man who inherits and exploits a paint factory in New England. The Laphams attempt to enter Boston society, but, being nouveau riche, they know none of the behavior codes that signal breeding; they are never accepted by the upper class. Silas’s moral compass is corrupted by market forces, as he wins material rewards through speculation and investment, not by his own labor. Only renunciation of wealth restores his moral stature.
The Twentieth Century Novel in America
The effects of speculation and class aspirations on American moral character persisted into early twentieth century novels. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) portrayed the painful significance of class and wealth in a woman’s life in The House of Mirth (1905). Her work explores the dislocation and struggle of people caught in social forces beyond their control. The post-Civil War transition to industrial strength and expansion left New England’s shipping industry and economy weakened, signaling the end of America’s cycle of origination and settlement. Writers Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852- 1930) and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) recorded the details of village life and change in Pembroke (1894) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), respectively, examining the lives of those who remained when those such as Howells’s Silas Lapham migrated to the city. Unlike Silas, Jewett’s Mrs. Todd Maine is not liable to be corrupted. Freeman’s characters do not fare as well.
Although Freeman’s novel’s central dilemma seems romantic, the sources of tension and tragedy for the inhabitants of Pembroke are the versions of Puritan theology and moral strategies that control village households. Unlike later critics who marginalized the women as quaint, regional authors, Howells lauded their veracity in depicting American life, publishing them as his peers when he was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Their frank look at economic and social changes makes them authoritative American voices.
The focus on capitalism’s effect on American life was not always negative, however. Horatio Alger exploited the “rags-to-riches” myth in more than one hundred novels in which material success was, paradoxically, both the cause of and reward for moral virtue. Edwards’s and Franklin’s programs, now expunged entirely of sectarian doctrine, became a new “way to wealth.” Alger’s vastly popular novel Ragged Dick (1867), modeled in part on the life of American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, offered hope to thousands of trapped stock boys, shop girls, and factory workers. Many of them were part of the waves of immigration that began in the late nineteenth century. Their stories came into view when early twentieth century America’s authors mined their own lives for writing material. In The Bread Givers (1925), Polish Russian Anzia Yezierska’s (1885-1970) narrator, Sara, relates the poverty and need for education that urban Jewish immigrants felt so keenly in New York ghettos. Yezierska used a phonetic facsimile of Yiddish dialect to heighten the pathos of the immigrant struggle.
Willa Cather’s (1873-1947) stories of frontier life recorded the American Dream unfolding in the West. Alexandra of O Pioneers! (1913) and the immigrants cast in My Ántonia (1918) foreground the frontier’s freedom for women and the opportunity Europeans experienced in America’s western territories. Other immigrant groups found voices. O. E. Rölvaag’s (1876-1931) Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1927) tells an eloquent saga of isolation, backbreaking labor, and temporary madness set in the Dakotas. Dutch truck farmers pursue their chance to rise socially through hard work on their farms south of Chicago in Edna Ferber’s (1887-1968) Pulitzer Prize-winning novel So Big (1924).
The Harlem Renaissance
The flowering of culture and identity known as the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom during the 1920’s, at the same time the novels of immigrant experience were appearing. Langston Hughes’s (1902-1967) stories, poetry, and plays, along with Claude McKay’s (1889-1948) Home to Harlem (1928), presented all aspects of African American life. McKay’s work introduced the urban experience of working-class blacks that many black intellectuals chose to downplay. Later, Ann Petry’s (1908-1997) The Street (1946) took another hard look at black urban life, portraying the pressures on a single mother trying to raise her son in Harlem, their lives beset by poverty and the temptations of the street.
Immigrant and African American experiences narrated in novels of the 1920’s showed aspects of the American Dream that Alger overlooked in his optimistic portrayal of opportunity for most whites. However, McKay’s cynical Ray and Cather’s optimistic Alexandra still strove to enter the mainstream. They aspired to knowledge or property as a measure of success, adopting a version of the Puritan work ethic, even with backgrounds far from New England. Insistence on personal independence and the ability to affect one’s destiny is a primary theme in early twentieth century novels.
Morality in American Fiction
The theme of testing moral formulas for material success was present in the stories of mainstream white America as well. The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrates the ironic coexistence of great wealth and moral carelessness. Like Silas Lapham, Jay Gatsby cannot rise in old-money society. The two characters replace the unifying moral framework of Ben Franklin’s schema with faith in a tangible world of goods. For Fitzgerald, relational morality and context changes are emblems of modern society.
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) deals overtly with appearance and reality in Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Sinclair Lewis’s (1885-1951) Elmer Gantry (1927) combines several American strains in the adventure of a rogue evangelist whose commodity is religion. E. L. Doctorow’s (1931 – 2015) Ragtime (1975) explores the interplay of public events and private lives as characters grapple with restless shifts in the American way of life after 1900. John Updike’s (1932-2009) Rabbit series (1960-1990) chronicles striving in the span of one man’s life and milieu. That Night (1987), by Alice McDermott (born 1953), measures love, loss, and success in post- World War II suburban neighborhood life. Finally, Wallace Stegner’s (1909-1993) The Spectator Bird (1976) offers a retrospective on how one man’s professional and private lives coincide in contemporary times. American characters ceaselessly question who they are and how they have arrived at their particular dilemmas and epiphanies.
The conflict between free will and determinism that informs American fiction can also be traced to the Puritan era. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803-1882) early defection from Puritanism’s angry God to transcendental self-reliance (in Essays: First Series, 1841) set the stage for America’s doctrine of manifest destiny. Emerson’s themes fed a harmonic vision of America’s purpose, as Americans set out to dominate a new continent and succeeded in a remarkably short time. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, personal, political, and religious activity devoted to progress and westward expansion had a redemptive purpose. All effort and experience took on spiritual significance for white Americans, which encouraged expansion as it provided the philosophic rationale for abuses of power leveled against the environment and American Indian cultures.
By the close of the nineteenth century America’s central paradoxes also included the increasing duality of urban and rural lifestyles and the impact of Darwinism on the moral philosophies at the basis of human society. William James’s (1842-1910) The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Henry Adams’s (1838-1918) The Education of Henry Adams (1907, 1918) explore the spiritual, educational, and behavioral bases on which modern life was founded. Adams in particular worried about how moral sensibility would keep pace with technological advances.
In fiction, Stephen Crane’s (1871-1900) Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s (1871- 1945) Sister Carrie (1900), and Frank Norris’s (1870- 1902) TheOctopus (1901) exemplify the naturalist movement. Their novels, like those of the Frenchman Émile Zola (1840-1902), stress that the forces at work in nature work in humans as well. Transcendence was a myth.
The relentless effect of portraying life as a process controlled by indifferent natural forces put an end to the sentimental romantic tradition that had begun with Washington Irving (1783-1859). The fantastic quality of Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and his folk figure in “Rip Van Winkle” (both from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820) feature American landscapes and the phenomenal effects of the Hudson River Valley light but have no relationship to real events. James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) work is an amalgam of American democratic ideas, Rousseauian philosophy, and Cooper’s fascination with aristocratic England. His Leatherstocking Tales, produced between 1823 and 1841, romanticize Natty Bumppo as a knightlike figure who rights wrongs and is aided by the noble savage Chingachgook. Despite his aristocratic tendencies and the foolishness of some of his scenarios, Cooper’s work remains popular because it promotes the mythic belief Americans have in individual determination, as well as their earlier romantic vision of the American wilderness as a place that could engender the highest ideals in people.
The pervasive optimism of American devotion to personal success accounts for other bridging novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Novels of local color or of regionalism capture the essence of different geographic areas of American life, which were beginning to erode as the United States was bound together by transportation and communication.
Critics tend to group all local-color writers in a quaint or nostalgic subgenre. In fact, there are distinct differences among the local colorists. The stories of Bret Harte(1836-1902) in the West, George Washington Cable (1844-1925) in Creole Louisiana, Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) in the South, and Mark Twain in the Midwest capture the rambunctious character of life in these regions with dialect and flamboyance. New England’s local-color female writers, discussed previously, pay serious attention to social structure and the business of daily life. Their use of parochial dialect and event portrays one area’s character without claiming superiority. Their work also tends to avoid the irony and satire that pervade most literature produced by men in this school.
Willa Cather’s fiction embodies the serious attention to local detail these women engendered in their view of New England’s rapidly shifting economic landscape. Although written later, her novels O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia chronicle events of an earlier time that all depend on the character of frontier life. Even later, Eudora Welty (1909-2001) and William Faulkner (1897-1962) molded their southern heritage into stories and novels that captured the gothic quality of southern life, which had seeped into the twentieth century. Faulkner created his mythic Yoknapatawpha County as an archetypal southern context. Contemporary African American writers Alice Walker (born 1944), in The Color Purple (1982), and Morrison, in Beloved (1987), focus on African American southern life with clarity and compassion, bringing local color’s emphasis on region and cultural diversity into later twentieth century fiction.
Muckrakers are known for their crusading vision, as typified by Upton Sinclair’s (1878-1968) The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry that prompted enactment of the first pure food and drug laws. Such effort is a version of the Puritan quest for a new Eden.
Although not preoccupied with social change per se, other American novelists called attention to America’s problems and their costs. Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) wrote Vein of Iron (1935), the story of an Appalachian woman’s struggle during the Great Depression. Character Ada Fincastle’s Scotch-Irish immigrant history and gritty determination enable her to survive as she molds a new working identity for herself. John Steinbeck’s (1902-1968) Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) laid bare the vulnerability of the Joad family, caught, like a sea of other Americans, in the grip of big money and farmers who exploit migrant workers.Tillie Olsen’s (1913-2007) heart-wrenching Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974) was begun in the 1930’s and tells the story of illiterate Anna and Jim Holbrook, who barely survive with their children. Hanging on to hope by the merest thread, they finally settle in a shack near slaughterhouses, where the stench and heat overwhelm them. These two books examine the desperate plight of workers denied the basic requirements of food and decent living conditions, as well as education for their children.
Utopian novels offered another alternative to naturalism’s grim paradigms between 1889 and 1900. The most famous, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy(1850-1898), influenced social philosophers such as John Dewey. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), an author and lecturer for social reform, wrote three utopian novels. Herland (1915 serial, 1979 book) posits a society free of men that functions perfectly, even on the reproductive level. Her use of humor and the plight of three men stranded in the strange land show just how gender-driven life is in Western society. All the utopian novels explore the interaction of context and culture. Far from the rigid Puritan dogmas, they investigate how to fashion a better world for oneself and society, a dilemma that has plagued Americans since their appearance on the continent.
From the earliest days of derivative sentimental and gothic novels, the creators of American literature sought an indigenous art and culture. They sought to establish aesthetic standards of their own on a par with the standards set by English and other European masters. This often led to consideration of the European preoccupation with hereditary class distinction and how Americans fit into such society, a theme raised to its highest form by Henry James (1843-1916). In The American (1876- 1877), Daisy Miller (1878), and The Ambassadors (1903), he showed the dangers inherent in New World sensibilities braving European society, where moral superiority cannot measure up to European style and cultural sophistication. James’s narrative style gave rise to an introspective novel that paved the way for later interior monologues.
The Lost Generation
In the 1920’s, European and American values collided in the works of the lost generation, a group of expatriate artists, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller (1891-1980), and Gertrude Stein. These writers fled the United States for the openness and sophistication of the Old World, though the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) corrupted their idealistic beliefs.
Hemingway produced novels that explore individual male quests for masculinity and identity via the odd amalgam of free love, decadent travel, self-indulgence, and foreign civil wars. He filled the epic novel form with American expatriates looking for ultimate reality and self-expression among societies their immigrant forebears and settlers had abandoned. The character Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, finds no way to exert himself for his own or anyone else’s happiness. In 1925, while F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Europe, The Great Gatsby was published, detailing, again, the sad hero’s tragic search for meaning in the material world. In exile, these writers expressed a hopelessness and a cynicism that replaced the faith and vision that had propelled earlier Americans across the Atlantic. Ironically, their works ask more questions about individual worth and possibilities than they answer. The chief values of a European sojourn were cheaper living costs and proximity to new aesthetic trends.
The effect of European forms on American experience can also be seen in the development of the gothic genre in American literature. Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809- 1849) legacy lived on in the southern traditions fed by genteel aristocratic customs that exploited slaves, where graceful manners coexisted with the violence of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. Faulkner’s broken perspective in The Sound and the Fury (1929) creates dislocation in reader and narrative progression. Carson McCullers’s (1917-1967) novels furnish a cast of unconventional characters who long for safety. Flannery O’Connor’s (1925-1964) tortured Catholics clutch at a faith that offers only torment. Harper Lee’s (1926-2016) protagonist, Atticus, in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as well as plain-spoken characters from Welty’s southern novels, counteract the gothic mutations. Their compassionate portrayals offer a South tolerant of eccentricity, a region trying to comprehend the effect of changing times on tradition and decorum.
American modernism, launched by the 1913 Armory Show in New York, prefigured the collapse of spirit after World War I that led to the cynicism and materialism of the Jazz Age. Modernism’s emphasis on the unpredictability of narrative time and voice echoed uncertainties about the permanence of values and life’s possibilities. Doubt altered the form and emphasis of modern American novels. The search for identity became acutely personal in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), as well as in Jack Kerouac’s (1922-1969) Beat classic, On the Road (1957). The protagonists of Saul Bellow’s (1915-2005) Herzog (1964) and John Irving’s (born 1942) The World According to Garp (1978) search endlessly for meaning in a jumbled context. No underlying dogma but the certainty of change supports contemporary American expectations and the vision of society set in motion by pre-World War I modernist writers.
John Barth’s (born 1930) experiments in discontinuity and narrative games that began in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) are examples of contemporary fiction’s exploration of its own form. Barth strips away conventional plot lines and chronology. Readers are forced to accept his books on terms dictated by form, not expectation. More and more, novel form began to echo the fragmented perspectives of contemporary life, with chapters or sections offering competing views of the same events and people.
A vibrant mix of ethnicity and place dominates contemporary fiction. Leslie Marmon Silko’s (born 1948) Ceremony (1977) is set after World War II, when disillusioned American Indian war veterans return to their reservations and encounter even more discrimination from white America. Toni Morrison’s (1931-2019) Song of Solomon considers the conflict between races during the 1960’s, as well as the conflicting annals of two black families. Her cautionary tale warns of the dangers of forgetting one’s past and the risk of worshiping commercial success. Alice McDermott’s (born 1953) Irish American Brooklyn family seen through the eyes of a child in At Weddings and Wakes (1992) evokes the urban neighborhood of the 1940’s and 1950’s, along with the suffocating closeness that is the legacy of immigrant communities.
Characters in all these novels search for meaning and identity within their cultural traditions, similar to Puritan introspection. However, they have no homogeneous social or religious codes like those that unified early Americans. Cormac McCarthy’s (born 1933) John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses (1992) may head for unknown lands, but he returns unsatisfied. Partial and very personal answers are merely implied. Ultimately, the vision of American identities is shaped by landscapes— literal, political, and social—but the contemporary sense of the field is more fluid and strives to be more inclusive than in times past. American novels continue to reveal people as they are.
Analysis of 150+ American Novelists
Adamson, Lynda G. Thematic Guide to the American Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Crane, Gregg. The Cambridge Introduction to the Nineteenth- Century American Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Deneen, Patrick J., and Joseph Romance, eds. Democracy’s Literature: Politics and Fiction in America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Elliott, Emory, et al., eds. The Columbia History of the American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession: The Major American Writers from 1830 to 1930, the Crucial Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
Lauret, Maria. Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Minter, David L. A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner. New ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Mid-Century American Novel, 1935-1965. New York: Twayne, 1997.