Forschungsarbeit: Literaturgeschichte der USA

Literaturgeschichte der USA

Ein sozialgeschichtlicher Überblick

Studien zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, volume 13

Hamburg , 188 pages

ISBN 978-3-8300-3938-9 (print)
ISBN 978-3-339-03938-5 (eBook)


[…] will provide a useful tool for advanced students studying for exams, instructors in need of short texts to introduce a period, and for all readers interested in a quick refresher in American literary history.
in: Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, ZAA 58 (2010) 1

about this book deutsch english

Each of the ten chronological chapters in this book is systematically subdivided into six sections:

(1) Population of the USA

(2) Readership

(3) Media

(4) Forms

(5) Authorship

(6) Criticism of the national literature.

The book identifies the reading part (2) of the national population (1), then looks at the media (3) that bring the literary forms (4) to them, and finally moves to the authors (5) and critics (6) who produce and define US literature. In other words, it tries to relate literary forms to their social context. Instead of following chapters I. (1607 - 1763) to X. (1968 - 1999), this abstract will follow the six sections:

(1) Population

Population growth and territorial expansion, both fed by immigration and deportation, have shaped US social history since its colonial beginnings. Together they created major ethnic changes in its main periods and regions, changes that led to conflicts and wars that also shaped US literature: the War of Independence, the wars against the Indians, the Civil War and the participation in both World Wars. The dominant regional (and ethnic) conflicts were between the slavery system of the South, the farmers in the West against the Indians, and the industrializing Northeast with its immigrant working class. The major economic periods were agricultural (from the colonial beginnings to the Civil War), industrial (up to World War II), and a postindustrial, service-based economy after 1945. Politically, the USA began as a series of English settler colonies, expanded into a unified continental empire until the end of the ninetenth century, and began its rise as a naval world power in the 1890s, soon surpassing Great Britain. All these tendencies and conflicts left their traces in a national literature which often tried to Americanize the immigrants and to offer its readers changing models for an American empire and its national character.

(2) Readership

Although literacy was rather high in the colonies and the agricultural USA, it took many decades to enlarge the percentage of readers perusing or buying books. Bible reading dominated until 1750. Only after 1800 private organizations began to expand primary education, state by state, build networks of public libraries, win new readers through lecture tours, sell books from door to door etc. Reading secularized. We can distinguish three major extensions of the readership during the nineteenth century: one to women and children reading fiction and magazines especially written for them; the second to soldiers, juveniles and workers through cheap serial fiction („dime novels“), and third to a large audience reading mass-produced fiction („pulp fiction“) in cheap magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. The increasing mass production started from the newspapers (1830s), moved on to magazines (1870s) and reached the book in the 1890s. It went hand in hand with an increasing stratification of readers by class, ethnic origin, income and education. Regions also played an important part. A fourth extension of readership happened after World War II with the arrival of cheap paperbacks, which simply used the national distribution system for magazines and bypassed the relatively few bookstores. These four extensions interacted with changing reading habits: the first turned readers from intensive to extensive reading, from family reading to solitary, and from reading aloud to silent reading. The second extension used newspaper sensationalism and illustrations together with formula writing, the third added little but colors and addictive reading of weekly continuations. Comic books were only a further side branch. Paperbacks, finally, took over where pulp fiction ended, sensational covers helped to sell formula fiction as well as Hemingway or Faulkner.

This last mixture had to do with the growth of a secondary and finally higher system of education. After 1870 the number of readers who had completed high school grew steadily, and after 1945 readers who had gone to college rapidly increased to over 40% of the population. Manmy of these students were trained in intensive reading, and through „interpretation“ they were able to follow more complicated, non-formulaic structures in poetry, fiction, and also in non-fictional prose. Reading literature had become an educational tool.

Drama followed roughly the same steps of industrializing production and carving out different audiences according to income, class, ethnic origin, education. Theaters placed their audiences in different tiers and often segregated them racially. Soon larger cities built more theaters, specializing in opera, melodrama, vaudeville, and mixed spectacles like circus, horse operas, minstrel shows, naval battles etc .Syndicates began to stratify the audiences nation-wide. The division into high and low culture seemed to have spread to all cultural consumption.

But theaters suffered more radically than the print media from the new competition in film, radio, and television. They lost their audiences to the new media, and they either had to find smaller audiences through contents not (yet) available in the electronic media, or had to fall back on the growing educational service-industries: college-theater as an educational tool. Reading and theatre-going had to share leisure time with other new entertainment industries, adding, towards the end of the twentieth century, the internet. This development reflected a far more widespread segmentation of culture consumers into special consumer groups who recombined reading and viewing in their segment with other consumer habits. Ultimately, this mix of culture consumption would also change reading habits as the former extensions of readings had already done.

(3) Media

Magazines, books, theaters, and newspapers were the most important literary media until 1920. After that film, radio, television and internet began to take over larger segments of the literary public.

The print media developed after independence from England. Local printers often served as publishers and booksellers at the same time. Book printing remained a risky business, and distribution worked mainly through barter between booksellers in different cities. England and the colonial governors tried to control print through censorship, taxes and monopolies. Only after independence, national media could begin to substitute English importation of books and magazines by productions of their own. Still, wide-spread piracy of English texts in the USA hampered the development of a national literary production. Newspapers became mass media after 1830; magazines began to take off after the Civil War. Book production lagged far behind, lacking an efficient distribution system. Publishers tried to cheapen books, used fiction to raise sales, introduced writers in their magazines, serialized successful authors in several media, but only the international copyright in 1892 permanently established a bestseller system for books. Also textbooks for schools became a major industry. Literary production concentrated in a dozen of major publishing houses. Theaters relied on English plays and actors until the twentieth century, but they grew in number and seats until 1920, when they were overtaken by film theaters. For several decades three syndicates had controlled play production all over the USA. After 1930, profits declined, the syndicates and theater chains were broken up, and many theaters had to be subsidized. All four media concentrated in New York for most of their history. Until 1930 the magazine was the most important medium for US literature. After 1945, both paperbacks and television took over some of the magazine functions. Paperback production also aimed at an academic market, the reading of fiction, plays and poetry in classrooms, and would finally outstrip that of hard back books. Generally, the print media and theaters went through three phases: foundation and competition (1830-75), concentration and market control (1875-1920), competition and absorption by the new electronic media (1970-2000). The new media thoroughly overturned the traditional hierarchies, and took the lead in fiction and drama production, often using older scripts from the stage or the print media. They began to market literature like films through a “blockbuster” system, using multiple channels of distribution. Books were sold through supermarkets, chain stores and through the internet.

During the continuous concentration of ownership, new publishers, authors, and sponsors created alternatives like little theaters or magazines, and small publishing houses to challenge the major companies that controlled literary reproduction and distribution to a large degree. Much of the modern literature since the 1920s has been published by small publishers, and many of the modern plays have been produced off Broadway, either in bars, cafes, in clubs and community centers or in the colleges, schools and universities outside New York. Some playwrights had to find theaters outside the USA. Since 1900 literary media had served dual markets: mass audiences and readerships or minority groups.

(4) Forms

Fiction, poetry, drama writing were embedded in many other forms like the essay, biography or travel writing. And all forms contributed to shape and debate the dominant values and myths.

The colonial period was dominated by the Bible and its myths of the Chosen People, the Promised Land, and the Exodus. God had a plan for the colonists and their history would reflect his providence. There was little time before the War of Independence for fiction or drama. Sermons and tracts spread the core values and their alternatives. Other prose forms like the slave narratives and the providences prepared for later fiction.

Propaganda writers for the American Revolution secularized the core values. The Declaration of Independence formulated them and writers used all literary forms to create a national ideology. The new literary nationalism translated the civil religion around the Constitution into national characters that would embody the republican values. The dominant forms were the historical novel and national history writing. The agrarian mythology, celebrating the American Adam in the New World, marked two boundaries: one in the Western frontier against the Native Americans, the other against Europe and the Old World. The frontier novel and the encounter with Europeans became standard subjects to test and develop the National Character. Men read more adventure novels, women preferred domestic novels, but novelists took to the family saga to combine domestic and historical novel. Both increasingly regionalized, shifted from obvious romance patterns to more realistic community studies. The small-town novel would gradually lead to more urban approaches in which the new immigrants challenged the old agrarian myths. Writers of national history replaced God’s providence with progress. They also changed from a romantic and heroic form to a more realistic regional and social description, increasingly coming under the influence of evolutionism. The frontier myth continued to play an important role. Poets and dramatists supported this national myth-making with romances, dialect poetry, and, in the case of Whitman, with a free verse celebration of America as the model Democracy. Melodramas and farces devided the National Character into regional types like the Yankee, the pioneer, or the aristocratic planter. Biographers and humorists also supported these trends. Only very few writers in the nineteenth century challenged this literary nationalism. All forms followed the European transition from Romantic through Realistic to Naturalistic conventions, sometimes with a considerable time lag.

During the 1890s, the challenge to American nationalism, which was changing into insular imperialism, became stronger. Realists and naturalists, soon joined by a younger modernist generation, turned to the cities, abandoned the old agrarian myths, and advocated reform. Socialists, communists, and later existentialists openly challenged the American Dream and the progress it promised. Both, fiction and history writing became more critical, replaced the heroic versions of a national character with outsiders and victims of US society. Immigrants and minorities used the autobiography to present a double consciousness, taking a distanced look at American nationalism. Short story writers experimented with new forms of representing experience, and showed the darker side of both, the Western and the European confrontations. Poets and dramatists also experimented with shorter forms to express an increasing alienation with American society and its values. Both World Wars and the Cold War propaganda sharpened the crisis. Advertising and propaganda had wasted the older myths and values, had even corrupted the very language by manipulation. More and more writers took to a radical deconstruction of myth, language and value systems. Minority writers, Jewish, Mexican American, Asian American added new myths and confronted them with the old. Forms themselves began to blur, and autobiographical writing invaded almost all: poetry, fiction, and the essay. Pastiche and parody dominated in many forms; they reconstructed the historical and the domestic novel. The older forms of the nineteenth century continued as mass-produced fiction-, film- and television series. After 1900, more and more writers took an oppositional stand to the dominant myths and forms of “America”.

(5) Authorship

Writers had to choose a position in this powerful field of media. They wrote for magazines or book publishers; they worked as journalists to make a living; they chose Broadway, off-Broadway or the street for their plays. Sometimes they combined these practices into a trajectory, moving from poetry to essay or short story to reach the novel or the full length play.

Colonial writers came from the upper class of governors, planters or priests, often allied through regional family networks. They paid printers for their publications. After independence a secularized republic of letters developed: writers met in coffee houses, taverns or formed local circles of their own, often allied to the major parties. With the rise of book and magazine work, more and more women entered the trade, and new arrangements between publishers and writers came into place. Magazine publishers paid on delivery of the manuscript, and book publishers sometimes paid a sum in advance, if the writer seemed to have a market. A new generation of professional writers, often supported by lectures, children’s books or newspaper work, came into being after 1830. They began to lobby for a national copy right, they negotiated royalties for their books, and used various media for their texts. Their new formations grew beyond the social clubs into groups organized around a magazine, recruiting themselves from universities, and helping each other to breaking into print. As New York became the dominant media center after 1865, writers from the West and the South submitted to serialization, syndicalization, or contracts to write for one publisher exclusively. As the control of the leading media owners increased after 1875, writers took to literary agents who negotiated their contracts, or began to form professional associations to look after their rights. Others refused, and took to Bohemian life or founded little magazines of their own, regional, ethnical, or political. After 1900 a number of writers also took socialist, anti imperialist or feminist positions in the literary field. As copyright had offered them new ways of gaining a living, they specialized in certain types of subjects, media or regions, to position themselves. Others drew on their ethnic background to establish themselves as writers with German, Jewish, or Norwegian backgrounds.

But the narrowness of the literary field, dependent on a few major publishing houses and theater syndicates forced many writers to go abroad and to write in Paris, London, Spain, Italy or elsewhere. Modernist writers had a hard time finding publishers or stages in the USA. Their new formations wee international and often included painters, artists, and sponsors that kept them afloat. The Great Depression and World War II ended that phase, and writers had to fall back on government programs, foundations and the educational service industry. They entered a postmarket phase. The incorporation of writers into larger institutions included gradually more women, African Americans, Mexican Americans and other groups. Attempts in the 1960s to create independent formations outside these institutions were short lived. The increasing Academization of writers, and of their recruitment, led to new postmodern formations of writer-critics who could organize nationally and internationally through the institutions they worked in. Their trajectories depended more and more on such incorporation.

(6) Criticism.

Critics in the early republic took on the tasks of creating, shaping and defining a new object: “American Literature.” Political independence in 1782 raised the problem: how to create a national literature in the language of the former colonizer? Early callers for literary independence still used the concepts of English classicism, purging it of monarchical traits. They retained the hierarchy of genres, and called for a national epic. Epic and tragedy ranked above pastoral, comedy or satire. With the rise of magazines and newspapers, critics began to review plays and books on a weekly or daily basis. First they applied the classicist rules of composition, subject and versification. Since the 1840s they also evaluated the originality, power, and imagination of a literary work. Some attempted literary history, portraying earlier writers, and thus laying the foundations for a national tradition. Cooper, Irving, and Bryant were taken to represent the first generation of literary authors. Reviewers and essayists continued to support literary independence by calling for “American” subjects and an “American” language. Emerson, Poe, Whitman and others introduced theories of symbolism and upset the hierarchy of genres by raising the poem and the short story to major works of art. After the Civil War, the editors of the leading literary magazines created and shaped a genteel tradition of major writers that would stay in place until the 1920s. These critics tried to fend off European trends of naturalism, especially Flaubert, Ibsen and Zola. The same genteel tradition also excluded the new mass-produced literature in the USA. But towards the end of the nineteenth century, colleges and universities began to introduce courses in American literature, and academics gradually took over the writing of literary histories, thus laying the ground for teaching a national canon of accepted writers. In spite of several anti-academic revolts, the universities gained increasing control over the literary past, defined its major themes, genres and periods, and their values in detailed interpretations. Only the last major revolt so far, the student movement of the 1960s showed the omissions from this selective tradition, and began to open the canon for woman writers, immigrants and other minorities. New critics applied the tools of interpretation to film, television and popular culture. Academics reacted with literary theories in the 1980s at challenged all distinctions, also that of high and low literature, deconstructing terms like canon, genre, period, or even that of “American literature.”

This German book is itself a blueprint for a longer social history of literature, which I have been working on for several years. The six sections are chapters in that version, and they are framed by a methodological introduction and a synthetic final chapter called "Organization". The categories in both versions, the short German one and the long English one, come from Raymond Williams.

I plan to publish draft versions of these chapters on this website soon.

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