PART IX. THE HUMANITIES

 

Part IX unites the humanities with the natural and social sciences. Chapter 31 shows that trends in American literature can be analyzed  by the same methods and approaches used in the social sciences. American literature is best understood in terms of literary generations responding to the socio-political events of their times. The final chapter, Chapter 32, deals with religion. There is a definite need for a new spirituality, and this last chapter discusses several basic tenets that can be applied to all societies in the world today.

 

 

CHAPTER 31. THE ROLE OF THE ARTS

The purpose of this chapter is to show how the humanities can be analyzed with the same techniques as one analyzes other political and social events. Indeed, the humanities are subject to the same ecological and demographic forces as other areas in human thought, and, therefore, are part of the same overall unity of the liberal arts.

Obviously, there is not enough space in this small book to cover all the humanities. Therefore, this chapter concentrates on just one of the arts, namely American literature, in order to illustrate the way in which literature is most usefully analyzed, that is as reflecting socio-political trends. This chapter examines American literature within the total social and political context of the larger trends in American history.

To really understand the arts, they have to be seen as reflections of the political and social battles taking place within a society. These battles occur both in actions and in the world of ideas. Artists often see themselves on the side of those forces supporting liberal changes. Indeed, great artists help lead the way to social change. Artists are sensitive human beings who are less constrained by the desire for material gain. They often emphasize freedom and independence and go beyond the everyday concerns of the society to seek truths not bounded by economic and political concerns. This sets them off from the larger society with its constant demand for economic survival and conformity to the rules. (There are of course great commercial artists. But we do not give our highest respect to these people because they are so closely tied to economic interests.) These social rebels often have only a precarious relationship with the powers that be at any given time. Through their works, ideas, and life styles, the great artists break new pathways for humans. Even in periods of political retrenchment, artists often criticize the self-satisfaction of the era.

Howard M. Harper, Jr. in his book (1967:4) on modern literary figures notes that artists like to think they every work of art, especially their own, is unique. Nevertheless, each era has its own climate of ideas. The artists who live through this era gives his or her own personal twist to the era and thereby transforms that personal experience into a work of art. It is the response of the artist to the common problems facing the people of the same era that gives the work enduring interest to all. And it is these patterns of common problems which make it possible to delineate art and literature into artistic and literary movements.

American literary writers can be classified into generations. These generations are tied to the changes in the American political cycles described in the first volume of this anti-racist trilogy. In their literary works, the writers of the same generation engage in various political battles with many of the artists sympathizing with the political left. In activist periods of liberal change, the authors tend to be activists, and in passive periods of retrenchment, they still tend to be critical of the society, but much less activist in orientation. Writers tend to keep the same political opinions until actual events of life change so much that the views become untenable. Then the young mavericks, who are supportive of newer approaches, usurp attention from the older artists. (Even the so-called loners are subject to this type of analysis. Although lone wolves may not be consciously aware of it, their works often reflect current political battles or current theories of contemporary society.)

This type of generational change among artists is clearly visible in American literary history. In the early days of American literature, the members of the Thirteen Colonies did not have the resources or the time to support great art. The primary concern of life was mere survival and, in this world, art appeared somewhat frivolous and self-indulgent. Much of the painting and literature produced was of a religious nature. An example is Jonathan Edward's 1741 Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.

Even after the settlement period, attentions could not be turned substantially to art. The colonies disputed with France for control of the western territories. Following the defeat of France in this struggle, the colonies had to concentrate on the fight for American independence from Great Britain. Literature revolved around this fight for independence. Examples include Thomas Paine's 1776 Common Sense and Francis Hopkinson's 1778 "Battle of the Kegs."

Following the end of the war, the Federal period emphasized establishing a workable government. The years from 1790 to 1820 proved a relatively sterile period with writing primarily serving a public function. Such was the case with the Hartford Wits: Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, and John Trumbull. Barlow wrote one of the more outstanding works of the group, the poem "Columbiad," which celebrated the glories of America.

The first identifiable art and literature that was truly American arose in the Romantic period, a time that reflected the political goals of the new Jacksonian democracy. The Romantic movement arose in Europe, but Americans added a distinctive native flavor by emphasizing the pristine beauty of much of American nature. After all, Europe had destroyed most of its wild areas, while America had them in abundance. The great romantic works included William Cullen Bryant's 1817 "Thanatopsis," Washington Irving's 1820 Sketch Book, and James Fenimore Cooper's 1821 The Spy.

Soon after the appearance of these writing pioneers, there was a burst of literary activity in New England that has been called the flowering of New England. This flowering is best explained in terms of the rebellion of New England writers against the extreme constraints of the region's puritanism. The blooming of New England literature was a revolt against the stultification of life by puritanism. The regional writers that helped destroy old- fashioned puritanism included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Later writers in the romantic tradition included the poets Walt Whitman and Edgar Alan Poe, and the naturalist John Burroughs.

The South, of course, remained more traditional with Charleston, South Carolina serving as the center of Southern literature. One of the more outstanding Southern writers was William Gilmore Simms who wrote romantically of the South, as well as the Cherokee and Choctaw native Americans.

With the approach of civil war, realism slowly began to invade the works of American writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, which helped northerners organize the assault against slavery. Supporting the Republican presidential candidacy of John C. Fremont were such writers as Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, Irving, Bryant, and Whitman.

The Civil War brought the final blow to romanticism in America. It was hard to be romantic after the carnage of Shiloh and Antietam. In addition, the American interpretation of evolution brought forth the message that life was not romantic, but rather an all too realistic fight for survival. In American politics, the so-called robber barons dominated the age following the Civil War. These political events and new ideas brought forth a new crop of artists more attuned to realism. Among the authors in this vein were Herman Melville and Samuel Clemens (one of the many artists emphasizing local color). Other writers were Henry James with his 1881 Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and Hart Crane with his 1895 The Red Badge of Courage.

The primary leader of the realists was William Dean Howells, who came to Boston in 1866. He paved the way for realism with his interest in sociology. Disillusioned by the social ills associated with the outrages of the age of robber barons, he concentrated on the growing class division and increasing poverty. His novels gave the nation a veritable social history of the times in which he wrote. This social realism continued in the works of O'Henry, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane, who said he received his artistic education on the Bowery.

The social injustices of the age of robber barons were so horrific that super-realism began to supplant realism. Many of the writers in this style were called muckrakers, because they concentrated on showing the evils of unadulterated capitalism. The authors in this vein include Theodore Dreiser with his 1900 Sister Carrie, Jack London with his 1903 Call of the Wild, Frank Norris with his 1901 The Octopus and his 1903 The Pit, Lincoln Stefens with his 1904 The Shame of the Cities, and Upton Sinclair's 1906 The Jungle, which exposed the wage-slavery in the stockyard industry.

Resistance to the excesses of the robber barons took the largely unsuccessful forms of such movements as agrarian populism and tinkering with the national government (for instance, in the civil service reforms). A more successful approach came with the progressives, who demanded modifications in the excesses of the capitalist system itself. Following the 1901 assassination of President McKinley and the assumption of the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, the progressives came to the forefront of the nation.

During the progressive era, American writers sought new freedoms. European painters led the way with great experiments in modern art. For instance, Cubists artists displayed their work in Paris in 1908. Gertrude Stein became the father of American modern literature as her writings paralleled European trends. Her subjectless works mirrored Picasso's cubism. Her autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a virtual chronology of the modern art movement itself.

The progressive age ended with the disillusionment brought about by the war to end all wars, World War I. Symbolism represented a romantic reaction to the excesses of the previous period. T. S. Eliot came out with Poems in 1920 and The Waste Land in 1922. Also prominent at the time were the brutally realistic psychological plays of Eugene O'Neil and the Whitman- like poems of Carl Sandburg. The nation and its people turned inward to personal concerns and rampant self-indulgence. And yet, many artists criticized this self-satisfaction. One of the most significant criticisms was that of the author of the 1925 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The era that Fitzgerald satirized came to a crashing halt with the great stock market crash of 1929. During the period of hardships accompanying the Great Depression, many American artists flirted with various forms of leftist philosophies. They also attacked the social injustices of the time. Leftist authors included such writers as John Steinbeck with his 1935 Tortilla Flat, 1937 Of Mice and Men, and 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, along with John Dos Passos with his 1936 The Big Money. Many leftist artists thought that the Soviet Union was the only opponent of fascism and that it had a more humane society than that of the United States. Many of them held on to this belief until events forced them to change their attitudes. Such was the case when Soviet leader Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with the German fascist Adolf Hitler. Radical writing started to dry up and this was especially true after the United States entered the war.

Following the end of the Second World War, the American nation again turned into itself. And again there were authors available to criticize this self-indulgence. Many authors were especially critical of the pettiness and sameness created by corporate America. Norman Mailer with his The Naked and The Dead (1948) declared that Americans paid a high price for regimentation. In 1949 Arthur Miller published the play Death of a Salesman, which took a critical look at American materialism and conformism. Many Jewish and black writers wrote of their feelings of alienation in American culture and society (Bradbury 1984:131-132). The Jewish authors included Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, while the black authors included Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Writers such as these were caught between alienation and accommodation.

Starting in the 1950s with the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, attempts began to increase civil rights for blacks in the South. Along with this movement came the youth and feminist movements. During the 1960s, many authors felt a rebirth of freedom in the United States and they, like their predecessors, flirted with various leftist philosophies. Bradbury (1984:156) notes that the presidency of John F. Kennedy inspired many American writers, who then became drawn into the political realm. Included in this group was Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Joseph Heller.

The assassination of Kennedy in 1963 and the escalating Vietnam war meant that many writers felt betrayed by liberal dreams. One group of writers, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Jay Friedman, Terry Southern, and Stanley Elkin, began to emphasize the black humor concerning the absurdity of the modern age. Writers began to emphasize that fact was stranger than fiction, and thus began a trend to "hyper-realism" (Bradbury 1984:158-159). This naturally led to the journalistic novel. One of the earliest in this vein was Truman Capote with his 1966 In Cold Blood. Other writers in this vein were Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jimmy Breslin. As the Vietnam war raged on, writers began to identify more with the growing counterculture.

The backlash against the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests virtually buried the left under an avalanche of recrimination. The government also used its resources to harass leftists movements, forcing many out of existence and others underground. In the age of Reaganism, the "me-ism" of the narcicissitic 1980s came to dominate. Authors, of course, can not be happy with such a self-satisfied decade. The election of Bill Clinton to the presidency will undoubtedly serve as a stimulus for more activist writers to emerge on the national scene. Just how radical they can be, however, is in doubt given the still very conservative times.

 

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