Over the course of the semester we have read and dissected a plethora of stories ranging from various literary periods. These literary periods encompass Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and finally the Modernism period. While reading these various works we have been focused on characterization. Specifically, seeing the world through the eyes of the character and as we learn more about the story we began to sympathize with what our protagonist is going through, and hope they find a resolution to what they are dealing with. Over these different periods there has been a common theme that has been discussed or hinted at within each story, that being the theme of slavery and oppression.
Foremost, in order to gain an understanding of how cultural and historical situations had an effect on these literary periods we have to have some sort of a background as to what was going on through each of these time periods. The first era we’ll be talking about will be the Romanticism period. This literary movement gained traction in the United States around the early 1820s until 1860. Romanticism encompassed both the high of highs and the low of lows. Many of the authors during this time period focused on things that directly shaped American culture, such as the ideas of being an individual and the celebration of nature. This time period also discusses some of the dark side of human nature. One writer who played a large role in helping see the irony within American Romantic movement was Walt Whitman. Whitman had various controversial writings and spoke out when it came to the subject of slavery. In the second half of the song of myself Whitman talks about a time he gave help to a runaway slave, this led to his views on the abolishment of slavery, however Whitman believed that this debate would be too controversial for the time period and interfere with the time period. Whitman believed that we must all come together as a whole first in order for the democracy system to work. Another author I wanted to discuss in this time period was the works of Kate Chopin, the awakening has various qualities that could classify this as a Romanticism story. Our main character Edna Pontellier plays both the wife and mother, however she wants to reject the preconceived notions within this time period and expand the traditional “Victorian woman” idea that their lives revolved around home, husband, and children. It is through this self-discovery that Edna begins to feel as if she is awakening and helps her learn on the idea to focus on things that she values encompasses the Romanticism idea of being an individual.
Moving forward into the late 1800s this time period was coming off of the Civil war ending. This war was initially a result over the enslavement of African-Americans. This was the bloodiest war in American history with an estimated 500,000 Americans dying from this conflict. During this time period American literature was made up of two major styles of writing, this being Realism and Naturalism. Realism was a literary movement that aimed to depict real life situations utilizing ordinary characters. Realism was primarily focused on the middle-class. In William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” we get to see some of the major components of Realism displayed throughout the story. The first being that our protagonist Sarty comes from a poor African-American family, and we also see the regional dialect with the story taking place within the south. In many Realism stories they tended to portray the location that they were in through the dialect and customs of that time period. We are given very vivid imagery of what the south looks like after the civil-war through Faulkner’s choice of language. We also see Realism through the eyes of Sarty’s father Abner. Abner has a conflict with the upper-class and this leads to him burning down their barns. Naturalism is similar to Realism meaning that it focuses on a real story, however it tries show people being determined by the environment that they live in. Naturalism is also concerned more with the lower-class. August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is a story that is an excellent example of this with the Realism with the conflict between Bernice and Boy Willie over what they each want to do with the piano. However, the Naturalism point of view comes in with seeing how the characters are introduced. Boy Willie is lower-class and comes from the south, he is trying to sell this piano in order to purchase the plot of land that his family once lived on as slaves. The Realism aspect comes back into play, but this time looking more to invoke a perspective on the reader with that being would Boy Willie have really been able to purchase this land during the time period? Although there are differences in both Naturalism and Realism they each discuss the life and hardships of your average American. This movement helped Americans realize that their lives would not center around the optimistic views that many Romantic authors had at the time. Both these stories give us examples and show us what life would be like in this time period, and the various struggles that each of our characters would face. They also do an amazing job at providing the imagery of how the world looked during these two very different time periods.
Moreover, moving into the final literary period that we discussed in depth that being the Modernism literary period. This literary period began during the early 1900s and ended around the late 1900s. Many Modernist authors took an approach that was seen as different for their time period, that being only telling parts of their story and starting to incorporate a stream of consciousness, or utilizing multiple different points of view. In the 1920s there was “The Great Migration” which consisted of African-Americans moving to the North. For the first time African-Americans had begun to catch the attention of a white audience for the first time through speakeasies that were popping up all throughout urban areas throughout the community. The main theme around these speakeasies were to show African-Americans within the best light possible, and they would do this by electing Educated African-American men as leaders during this time. The 1920s also had other changes, such as giving women the right to vote, and alcoholic beverages being illegal to sell. Langston Hughes focused on the theme of “double-consciousness”. In his literary work “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” He uses the polymerizes the writing style of Walt Whitman with Negro spirituals. Doing this he shows the similarities of both Caucasian Americans and African-Americans. He portrayed the “New Negro” as someone who is a survivor of both the injustices that have been put before them and it highlights the adversity and how they overcame racial hardships. The last story I want to discuss it Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” which discuss the modernist way of thinking versus The Old South.
Tennessee Williams does an excellent job of utilizing the stream of consciousness, with our main character Blanche living in a reality that she creates in her mind. Blanche has a superiority complex from having old money, she would end up losing her plantation and knows there is no way back to the high society life that she used to have, so she clings onto her past and continues to live in this falsehood by wearing her white suit, and pearl earrings. Stanley is seen as low society to Blanche, and she believes that Stella married beneath her class. Throughout Blanche trying to show that she is ready for the modern world and understands what the role of Women is throughout the story it is proven she doesn’t truly grasp the concept. The oppression in this story comes in with Stanley. There is a part of this story in which he beats his wife, and it is not seem out of the normal for this time period. Stanley also goes on to humiliate Blanche for being a prostitute and uses his male dominance in a way to play over the women in his life.
In conclusion, over the course of this semester we have gotten to analyze various stories and discuss the ramifications of each of them. Prior to taking this course I had knowledge on some of the historical events and how they have shaped the present. However, I thought it was amazing to get more of an understanding how social events really shaped American Literature. The writers during these various time periods had been influenced by the world around them and we see how it directly correlated to the works that they had. We can see this evidently throughout each time period how every story we read the writers centered it around what was going on at the time. I also found it interesting the vast nature in which we discussed literature and how we did not take the grade school approach by just reading the story, but we analyzed playwrights, auto-biographies, poems, and both fiction and non-fiction tests. It can also be seen through the difference in the writing styles; Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism. Utilizing the cultural lens of slavery and oppression I hope to have provided you with various examples of how I saw the text as it related to each of these. I have realized the importance of how American Literature has been shaped and how the writers were able to give us views and insight as to how they saw the world at the time that we could not get from our average story.