Literature and theatre of the USA
The literature of the USA: colonial literature, unique american style and lyric. Realism, Twain, and James, postmodernism, modern humorist literature. Postcolonial poetry, Whitman and Dickinson, modernism. Proto-comic books. Superman and superheroes.
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- The Literature of the United States
- Colonial literature
- Early U.S. literature
- Unique American style
- American lyric
- Realism, Twain, and James
- Turn of the century
- Post-World War II
- Modern humorist literature
- Southern literature
- African American literature
- Jewish American literature
- Other ethnic, minority, and immigrant literatures
- Other genres
- The Poetry of the United States
- Poetry in the colonies
- Postcolonial poetry
- Whitman and Dickinson
- Modernism and after
- World War II and after
- American poetry now
- Academy of American Poets
- Awards given by the academy
- Chicano poetry
- Pioneers and forerunners
- Unifying concepts
- Theater in the United States
- Early history
- The 19th century
- The 20th century
- American theater today
- American comic book
- Proto-comic books
- Famous Funnies and New Fun Comics
- Superman and superheroes
- The Comics Code
- Silver Age of Comic Books
- Underground comics
- Bronze Age of Comic Books
- The Modern Age
- Prestige format
- Independent and alternative comics
- Artist recognition
- The superhero
- The List of Literature & Web-sites
The Literature of the United States
During its early history, America was a series of British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its literary tradition begins as linked to the broader tradition of English literature. However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production usually now cause it to be considered a separate path and tradition.
Some of the earliest American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonist audience. John Smith of Jamestown could be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of ... Virginia ... (1608) and The General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other writers of this manner included Daniel Denton, Thomas Ashe, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, John Hammond, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.
The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were also topics of early writing. A journal written by John Winthrop discussed the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower's arrival. Other religiously influenced writers included Increase Mather and William Bradford, author of the journal published as a History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-47. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation.
Some poetry also existed. Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor are especially noted. Michael Wigglesworth wrote a best-selling poem, The Day of Doom, describing the time of judgement. Nicholas Noyes was also known for his doggerel verse.
Other early writings described conflicts and interaction with the Indians, as seen in writings by Daniel Gookin, Alexander Whitaker, John Mason, Benjamin Church, and Mary Rowlandson. John Eliot translated the Bible into the Algonquin language.
Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather represented the Great Awakening, a religious revival in the early 18th century that asserted strict Calvinism. Other Puritan and religious writers include Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Uriah Oakes, John Wise, and Samuel Willard. Less strict and serious writers included Samuel Sewall, Sarah Kemble Knight, and William Byrd.
The revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway, a loyalist to the crown. Two key figures were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin are esteemed works with their wit and influence toward the formation of a budding American identity. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense and The American Crisis writings are seen as playing a key role in influencing the political tone of the period.
During the revolution itself, poems and songs such as "Yankee Doodle" and "Nathan Hale" were popular. Major satirists included John Trumbull and Francis Hopkinson. Philip Morin Freneau also wrote important poems about the war's course.
Early U.S. literature
The first American novel is sometimes considered to be William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789). Much of the early literature of the new nation struggled to find a uniquely American voice. European forms and styles were often transferred to new locales and critics often saw them as inferior. For example, Wieland and other novels by Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) are often seen as imitations of the Gothic novels then being written in England.
Unique American style
With the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American work, a number of key new literary figures appeared, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving, often considered the first writer to develop a unique American style (although this is debated) wrote humorous works in Salmagundi and the well-known satire A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Bryant wrote early romantic and nature-inspired poetry, which evolved away from their European origins. In 1835, Poe began writing short stories -- including The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue -- that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy. Cooper's Leatherstocking tales about Natty Bumppo were popular both in the new country and abroad.
Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin P. Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.
The New England Brahmins were a group of writers connected to Harvard University and its seat in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The core included James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an ex-minister, published a startling nonfiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers who gathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism, but also the public, who heard him lecture.
Emerson's most gifted fellow-thinker was perhaps Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), a resolute nonconformist. After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden, a book-length memoir that urges resistance to the meddlesome dictates of organized society. His radical writings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character. Other writers influenced by Transcendentalism were Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very.
The political conflict surrounding Abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom's Cabin.
In 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales, a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to write full-length "romances," quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, is the stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery. History of modern literature
Hawthorne's fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819-1891), who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic novels. Inspired by Hawthorne's example, Melville went on to write novels rich in philosophical speculation. In Moby Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements. In another fine work, the short novel Billy Budd, Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades of the 20th century.
Anti-transcendental works from Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe all comprise the Dark Romanticism subgenre of literature popular during this time.
America's two greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War (1861-1865), and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself without being egotistical. For example, in Song of Myself, the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me...."
Whitman was also a poet of the body -- "the body electric," as he called it. In Studies in Classic American Literature, the English novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman "was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something `superior' and `above' the flesh."
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.
Many of her poems dwell on death, often with a mischievous twist. "Because I could not stop for Death," one begins, "He kindly stopped for me." The opening of another Dickinson poem toys with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society and an unrecognized poet: "I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?"
Realism, Twain, and James
Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast - in the border state of Missouri. His regional masterpieces were the memoir Life on the Mississippi and the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain's style - influenced by journalism, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently funny - changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents. Other writers interested in regional differences and dialect were George W. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock), Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Henry Cuyler Bunner, and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).
William Dean Howells also represented the realist tradition through his novels, including The Rise of Silas Lapham and his work as editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
Henry James (1843-1916) confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. Although born in New York City, he spent most of his adult years in England. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. With its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional and psychological nuance, James's fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller, about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw, an enigmatic ghost story.
Turn of the century
Ernest Hemingway in World War I uniform.
At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction's social spectrum to encompass both high and low life and sometimes connected to the naturalist school of realism. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up. One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence, centers on a man who chooses to marry a conventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider. At about the same time, Stephen Crane (1871-1900), best known for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, depicted the life of New York City prostitutes in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And in Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman. Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris wrote about the problems of American farmers and other social issues from a naturalist perspective.
More directly political writings discussed social issues and power of corporations. Some like Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward outlined other possible political and social frameworks. Upton Sinclair, most famous for his meat-packing novel The Jungle, advocated socialism. Other political writers of the period included Edwin Markham, William Vaughn Moody. Journalistic critics, including Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens were labelled the The Muckrakers. Henry Adams' literate autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams also depicted a stinging description of the education system and modern life.
Experimentation in style and form soon joined the new freedom in subject matter. In 1909, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), by then an expatriate in Paris, published Three Lives, an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements in contemporary art and music. Stein labelled a group of American literary notables who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as the "Lost Generation".
The poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life in Europe. His work is complex, sometimes obscure, with multiple references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature, both Western and Eastern. He influenced many other poets, notably T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), another expatriate. Eliot wrote spare, cerebral poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. In "The Waste Land" he embodied a jaundiced vision of post-World War I society in fragmented, haunted images. Like Pound's, Eliot's poetry could be highly allusive, and some editions of The Waste Land come with footnotes supplied by the poet. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
American writers also expressed the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald's characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth's golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson also wrote novels with critical depictions of American life. John Dos Passos wrote about the war and also the U.S.A. trilogy which extended into the Depression. Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) saw violence and death first-hand as an ambulance driver in World War I, and the carnage persuaded him that abstract language was mostly empty and misleading. He cut out unnecessary words from his writing, simplified the sentence structure, and concentrated on concrete objects and actions. He adhered to a moral code that emphasized grace under pressure, and his protagonists were strong, silent men who often dealt awkwardly with women. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are generally considered his best novels; in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Five years before Hemingway, another American novelist had won the Nobel Prize: William Faulkner (1897-1962). Faulkner managed to encompass an enormous range of humanity in Yoknapatawpha County, a Mississippian region of his own invention. He recorded his characters' seemingly unedited ramblings in order to represent their inner states, a technique called "stream of consciousness." (In fact, these passages are carefully crafted, and their seemingly chaotic structure conceals multiple layers of meaning.) He also jumbled time sequences to show how the past -- especially the slave-holding era of the Deep South -- endures in the present. Among his great works are The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and The Unvanquished.
Depression era literature was blunt and direct in its social criticism. John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California, where he set many of his stories. His style was simple and evocative, winning him the favor of the readers but not of the critics. Steinbeck often wrote about poor, working-class people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life; he was probably the most socially aware writer of his period. The Grapes of Wrath, considered his masterpiece, is a strong, socially-oriented novel that tells the story of the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma and their journey to California in search of a better life. Other popular novels include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Other writers sometimes considered part of the proletarian school include Nathanael West, Fielding Burke, Jack Conroy, Tom Kromer, Robert Cantwell, Albert Halper, and Edward Anderson.
In addition to fiction, the 1920s and 1930s were a rich period for drama. There had not been an important American dramatist until Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) began to write his plays. The 1936 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, O'Neill drew upon classical mythology, the Bible, and the new science of psychology to explore inner life. He wrote frankly about sex and family quarrels, but his preoccupation was with the individual's search for identity. One of his greatest works is Long Day's Journey Into Night, a harrowing drama, small in scale but large in theme, based largely on his own family.
Another strikingly original American playwright was Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), who expressed his southern heritage in poetic yet sensational plays, usually about a sensitive woman trapped in a brutish environment. Several of his plays have been made into films, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Other playwrights of the period were Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, Elmer Rice, Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan.
Post-World War II
There were a number of major American war novels written in the wake of World War II. Some of the most well known included Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), novels by Irwin Shaw and James Jones, and later Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Slaughterhouse-Five).
In the 1950s the West Coast spawned a literary movement, the poetry and fiction of the "Beat Generation," a name that referred simultaneously to the rhythm of jazz music, to a sense that post-war society was worn out, and to an interest in new forms of experience through drugs, alcohol, and Eastern mysticism. Poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) set the tone of social protest and visionary ecstasy in Howl, a Whitmanesque work that begins: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness....". Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) celebrated the Beats' rollicking, spontaneous, and vagrant life-style in his masterful and vibrant novel On the Road.
Other writers of the period like J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath were starkly individual and cannot be easily classified.
From the early 1960s through the late 1980s, an important literary movement was postmodernism. Important writers, here, are Thomas Pynchon, author of V. and Gravity's Rainbow, among other things, and Don Delillo, who wrote White Noise. Postmodern writers dealt directly with the way that popular culture and mass media influence the average American's perception and experience of the world. They would set scenes in fast food restaurants, on subways, or in shopping malls; they wrote about drugs, plastic surgery, and television commercials. Sometimes, these depictions look almost like celebrations. But simultaneously, writers in this school take a knowing, self-conscious, sarcastic, and (some critics would say) condescending attitude towards their subjects.
Modern humorist literature
From Irving and Hawthorne to the present day, the short story has been a favorite American form. One of its 20th-century masters was John Cheever (1912-1982), who brought yet another facet of American life into the realm of literature: the affluent suburbs that have grown up around most major cities. Cheever was long associated with The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its wit and sophistication. John Updike also continued Cheever's tradition and is best known for his Rabbit series which began with Rabbit Run.
Faulkner was part of a southern literary renaissance that also included such figures as Truman Capote (1924-1984) and Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). Although Capote wrote short stories and novels, fiction and nonfiction, his masterpiece was In Cold Blood, a factual account of a multiple murder and its aftermath, which fused dogged reporting with a novelist's penetrating psychology and crystalline prose. Another practitioner of the "nonfiction novel," Tom Wolfe (1931- ) was one of the founders of "New Journalism," who honed his art in such essays as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Radical Chic before he moved on to book-length efforts, such as his history of the American manned space program The Right Stuff and probably his best-known novel Bonfire of the Vanities. Other writers steeped in the Southern tradition include John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) and Tom Robbins (1936- ).
Flannery O'Connor was a Catholic, and thus an outsider in the heavily Protestant South in which she grew up. Her characters are Protestant fundamentalists obsessed with both God and Satan. She is best known for her tragicomic short stories.
African American literature
African American literature is literature written by, about, and sometimes specifically for African-Americans. The genre began during the 18th and 19th centuries with writers such as poet Phillis Wheatley and orator Frederick Douglass. Among the themes and issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African American culture, racism, slavery, and equality.
Before the American Civil War, African American literature primarily focused on the issue of slavery, as indicated by the popular subgenre of slave narratives. At the turn of the 20th century, books by authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated whether to confront or appease racist attitudes in the United States.
African American literature saw a surge during the 1920s with the rise of an artistic Black community in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. The period called the Harlem Renaissance produced such gifted poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Countee Cullen (1903-1946), and Claude McKay (1889-1948). The novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) combined a gift for storytelling with the study of anthropology to write vivid stories from the African-American oral tradition. Through such books as the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God -- about the life and marriages of a light-skinned African-American woman -- Hurston influenced a later generation of black women novelists.
After World War II, a new receptivity to diverse voices brought black writers into the mainstream of American literature. James Baldwin (1924-1987) expressed his disdain for racism and his celebration of sexuality in Giovanni's Room. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) linked the plight of African Americans, whose race can render them all but invisible to the majority white culture, with the larger theme of the human search for identity in the modern world.
Today, African American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books in the genre, such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, achieving both best-selling and award-winning status. In addition, African American authors such as Nobel Prize winning Toni Morrison are ranked among the top writers in the world.
Jewish American literature
The United States has had a community and tradition of writing by Jewish immigrants and their descendants for a long time, although many writers have objected to being reduced to "Jewish" writers alone. Key modern writers with Jewish origins are Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Potok, Isaac Asimov, Wendy Wasserstein, and Woody Allen, among others. The New Yorker has been especially instrumental in exposing many Jewish-American writers to a wider reading public.
Other ethnic, minority, and immigrant literatures
Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko (1948- ) uses colloquial language and traditional stories to fashion haunting, lyrical poems such as In Cold Storm Light. Amy Tan (1952- ), of Chinese descent, has described her parents' early struggles in California in The Joy Luck Club. Oscar Hijuelos (1951- ), a writer with roots in Cuba, won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In a series of novels beginning with A Boy's Own Story, Edmund White (1940- ) has captured the anguish and comedy of growing up gay in America.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler pioneered gritty detective fiction that has had great influence on other genres and in other countries.
Stephen King has been especially successful internationally with his horror fiction.
The United States has also played a key role in the development of science fiction with authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and many others.
Jerome David Salinger (born January 1, 1919) is an American author best known for The Catcher in the Rye, a classic novel that has enjoyed enduring popularity since its publication in 1951. A major theme in Salinger's work is the strong yet delicate mind of "disturbed" adolescents, and the redemptive capacity of children in the lives of such young men. Salinger is also known for his reclusive nature; he has not given an interview since 1980, and has not made a public appearance, nor published any new work (at least under his own name), since 1965.
In the mid 1990s, there was a flurry of excitement when a small publisher announced a deal with Salinger to bring out the first book version of his final published story, "Hapworth 16, 1924," but amid the ensuing publicity, Salinger quickly withdrew from the arrangement.
Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan, New York, to Sol Salinger, a Jewish father of Polish origin who worked for a meat importer, and Marie Jillich, a half-Scottish, half-Irish mother. When they married, Salinger's mother changed her name to Miriam and passed as Jewish; J. D. did not find out that his mother was not Jewish until just after his bar mitzvah. Jerome David was the couple's second child; his only sibling, Doris, was born in 1911.
The young Salinger attended public schools on the West Side, the private McBurney School in ninth and tenth grades, and then was happy to get away from the over-protectiveness of his mother by entering the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He started his freshman year at New York University (NYU), but dropped out the next spring to work on a cruise ship. The next fall, he was prevailed upon to learn the meat-importing business and was sent to work at the company in Vienna, where he could also perfect his French and German skills. He left Austria only a month or so before the country fell to Hitler, on March 12, 1938. That fall, he attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, but for only one semester. Salinger attended Columbia University evening writing class in 1939. The teacher was Whit Burnett, longtime editor of Story Magazine. During the second semester of the class, Burnett saw some degree of talent in the young author. In the March-April 1940 issue of Story, Burnett published Salinger's debut short story, a vignette of several aimless youths, entitled "The Young Folks."
World War II
In 1941, Salinger started dating Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill, writing long daily letters to her. This ended when Oona began a relationship with Charlie Chaplin. Salinger was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he saw combat with the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment in some of the fiercest fighting of World War II, including action on Utah Beach on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. During the campaign from Normandy into Germany, he met and corresponded with Ernest Hemingway, then a war correspondent, in Paris. After reading Salinger's writing, Hemingway remarked, "Jesus, he has a helluva talent."
Salinger was assigned to Counter-Intelligence, in which he interrogated prisoners of war, putting his foreign language skills to use. He was among the first soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp. He told his daughter later, "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live." His experiences, perhaps, affected him emotionally (he was hospitalized for a few weeks for combat stress reaction after Germany was defeated), and it is likely that he drew upon his wartime experiences in several stories, such as "For Esmй with Love and Squalor," which is narrated by a traumatized soldier. He continued to publish stories in magazines, such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, during and after his war experience.
After the defeat of Germany, he signed up for a six-month period of "de-Nazification" duty in Germany. Among those Nazis he arrested was a low-level official, Sylvia, whom he married in 1945 and brought back to the States. The marriage fell apart after a few months and Sylvia returned to Germany. The marriage was not finalized until 1956. (In 1972, his daughter Margaret was with her father when he received a letter from Sylvia. He looked at the envelope, tore it up, and discarded it, unread. He said that that was the first time he had heard from her since she left, but "when he was finished with a person, he was through with them.")
From The New Yorker to novels
By 1948, with the publication of a critically acclaimed short story entitled "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Salinger began to publish almost exclusively in The New Yorker. "Bananafish" was one of the most popular stories ever published in the magazine, and he quickly became one of the publication's best-known authors. It was not his first experience with the magazine; in 1942, Salinger had received his first acceptance from The New Yorker for a story entitled "Slight Rebellion off Madison," which featured a semi-autobiographical character named Holden Caulfield. The story was held from publication until 1946 because of the war. "Slight Rebellion" was related to several other stories featuring the Caulfield family, but perspective shifted from older brother Vince to Holden.
Salinger had confided to several people that he felt Holden deserved a novel, and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951. It was an immediate success, although early critical reactions were mixed. While never confirmed by Salinger himself, it is believed that several of the events in the novel are semi-autobiographical. A novel driven by the nuanced, intricate character of Holden, the plot is quite simple. The book became famous for Salinger's extensive and exceptional eye for subtle complexity, detail, description, ironic humor, and the depressing and desperate atmosphere of New York City. The novel was banned in some countries, and some U.S. schools, because of its bold and (to some) offensive use of language; "goddam" appears 255 times, and a handful of "fuck"s (which the would-be censors seldom notice he was trying to erase from a museum bathroom stall.), plus a few seamy incidents such as the encounter with a prostitute (even though it was a chaste encounter). The book is still widely read, particularly in the United States, where it is considered an especially skillful depiction of teenage angst. It is not unusual to see The Catcher in the Rye on a "required reading" list for American high school students. As of 2004, the novel sells about 250,000 copies per year, "with total worldwide sales over - probably way over - 10 million."
In July 1951, his friend and New Yorker editor William Maxwell in Book of the Month Club News asked Salinger about his literary influences. Salinger said, “A writer, when he's asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Proust, O'Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontл, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won't name any living writers. I don't think it's right."
In 1953, Salinger published a collection of seven short stories in The New Yorker ("Bananafish" among them), as well as two that they had rejected. The collection was published as Nine Stories in the United States, and For Esmй with Love and Squalor in the UK (after one of the most beloved stories). It was also very successful, although Salinger had already begun to tightly regulate publicity. He would not allow publishers to illustrate the dust jacket, so that his readers would have no preconceived notion of how the characters looked.
Withdrawal from public life
After the notoriety of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger gradually withdrew into himself. In 1953, he moved from New York to Cornish, New Hampshire. Early in his time in Cornish he was relatively sociable, particularly with the high school students who treated him as one of their own. However, after one interview for the high school newspaper ended up in the city paper, Salinger felt betrayed. Salinger withdrew from the high schoolers entirely and was seen less frequently around the town, only seeing one close friend regularly, jurist Learned Hand.
In June 1955, when he was 36, he married Claire Douglas, a Radcliffe student. Their daughter Margaret was born that December, and their son, Matt, was born in 1960. Salinger insisted that Claire drop out of school, only four months shy of graduation, and live with him, which she did. Certain elements of the story "Franny", published in January, 1955, are based on Claire, including the fact that Claire had the book The Way of the Pilgrim. Due to their isolated location and Salinger's proclivities, they hardly saw other people for long stretches of time. Margaret reports that her mother Claire admits living with Salinger was not easy, due to the isolation and his controlling nature; as well as the jealousy of Margaret replacing her (Claire) in Salinger's affection.
The infant Margaret was sick much of the time, but Salinger refused to take her to a doctor as he had embraced Christian Science. In later years, Claire confessed to Margaret that she (Claire) went "over the edge;" she had made plans to murder the thirteen-month-old Margaret and then commit suicide. It was to happen during a trip to New York with her husband. "It would be she, Claire, not the fictional Seymour, who'd go bananas and leave guts spattered across the hotel room for the horrified spouse to witness." Instead, Claire, when in the hotel, acted on a sudden impulse to take the child and run away, but after a few months was persuaded by Salinger to return to Cornish, NH.
Salinger published Franny and Zooey in 1961, and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. Each contained a pair of related short stories or novellas which had been published in The New Yorker in the fifties.
Despite the fact that, in 1961, Time magazine reported that the Glass family series "is nowhere near completion....Salinger intends to write a Glass trilogy," Salinger has, to date, only published one story since. His last published work was "Hapworth 16, 1924," an epistolary novella in the form of a long letter from seven-year-old Seymour Glass from summer camp, that took up most of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. Around this time, Salinger's isolation of Claire, making her, Margaret Salinger later wrote, "a virtual prisoner" from friends and relatives, led Claire to separate from him in September 1966. Their divorce was finalized in October 1967.
In 1972, when Salinger was 53, he had a year-long relationship with 18-year old writer Joyce Maynard, already an experienced writer for Seventeen magazine. The New York Times had asked Maynard to write an article for them which, when published as "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life" on April 23, 1972, made her a celebrity-of-the-moment. Salinger wrote a letter to her warning her about living with fame. After exchanging 25 letters, Maynard moved in with Salinger the summer after her freshman year at Yale University. Maynard did not return to Yale that fall, and spent ten months as a guest in Salinger's Cornish home; the relationship ended, he told his teenaged daughter Margaret at a family outing, because Maynard wanted children, and he felt he could not stand the reality of children again (as opposed to the fantasy children in his writings.)
Salinger continued to write in a disciplined fashion, a few hours every morning; in a rare 1974 interview with The New York Times, he explained, "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing....I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." It is said that, on several occasions in the 1970s, he was on the verge of publishing another work but decided against it at the last minute. In 1978, Newsweek reported that Salinger, while attending a banquet in an army friend's honor, said he had recently finished "a long, romantic book set in World War II," but no further details are known about that book. In her memoir, Margaret Salinger described the detailed filing system her father had for his unpublished manuscripts: "A red mark meant, if I die before I finish my work, publish this 'as is,' blue meant publish but edit first, and so on."
Later years and instances of exposure
Salinger tried to escape public exposure and attention as much as possible ("A writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him," he wrote.) However, he continued to struggle with the unwanted attention he received as a popular-culture figure. Dozens of students and readers would drive to Cornish to get a glimpse of Salinger. Some writers would leave manuscripts. In the 1970s and 1980s, the reclusive writer Franz Douskey, who lived near Salinger on Dingleton Hill, would misdirect tourists down a series of dirt roads that led them away from Salinger's house into nearby towns.
Upon learning in the early eighties of the intent of British writer Ian Hamilton to publish In Search of J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life (1935-65), a biography including letters Salinger had written to other authors and friends, Salinger sued to stop the book's publication. The book was finally published with the letters' contents paraphrased. The court ruled that, though a person may own a letter physically, the language within it belongs to the author. An unintended consequence of the lawsuit was that many details of Salinger's private life, including that he had written two novels and many stories but left them unpublished, became public in the form of court transcripts.
For "a few years all the way through the middle eighties," Salinger was romantically involved with television actress Elaine Joyce. The relationship ended when he met Colleen O'Neill (b. June 11, 1959), a nurse and quiltmaker, who he married around 1988. O'Neill, who is forty years the author's junior, told Margaret Salinger that she and Salinger were trying to have a child.
In a surprising move, in 1997 Salinger gave a small publisher, Orchises Press, permission to publish "Hapworth 16, 1924," the previously uncollected novella; it was to be published that year, and listings for it appeared on Amazon.com and other book-sellers. However, the publication date was pushed back several times, the last time to 2002. It was not published and no new date has been set. In 1999, twenty-five years after the end of their relationship, Joyce Maynard put up for auction a series of letters Salinger had written to her. The sale helped to publicize a memoir of Maynard's, At Home in the World : A Memoir, published the same year. Among other indiscretions, the book described how Maynard's mother had consulted with her on how to appeal to the aging author, and described Maynard's relationship with the author at length. In the ensuing controversy over both the memoir and the letters, Maynard claimed that she was forced to auction the letters for financial reasons; she would have preferred to donate them to Beinecke Library. Software developer Peter Norton bought the letters for $156,000 and announced his intention to return them to Salinger.
A year later, Salinger's daughter Margaret Salinger, by his second wife, Claire Douglas, published Dream Catcher: A Memoir. In her "tell-all" book, Ms. Salinger dispelled many of the Salinger myths established by Ian Hamilton's book. One of Hamilton's arguments was that Salinger's experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder left him psychologically scarred, and that he was unable to deal with the traumatic nature of his war service. Ms. Salinger, however painted a picture of J. D. as a man immensely proud of his service record, maintaining his military haircut, service jacket, and moving about his compound (and town) in an old Jeep. Ms. Salinger offered many insights into other Salinger myths, including her father's supposed long-time interest in macrobiotics and involvement with what is today known as "alternative medicine" and Eastern philosophies.
Religious and philosophical beliefs
In the late forties, Salinger was an avid follower of Zen Buddhism, to the point that he "gave reading lists on the subject to his dates" and met Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki. Then, as described in Som P. Ranchan's book, An Adventure in Vedanta: J. D. Salinger's the Glass Family, the writer became a life-long student of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. Sri Ramakrishna and his student Vivekananda were important contemporary figures he studied. In this tradition, celibacy and detachment from human responsibilities such as family are emphasized for those seeking enlightenment. Margaret Salinger says that she might have never been born if her father had not read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda who brought the possibility of enlightenment to those following the path of the "householder" (i.e., married person with children).
J. D. and Claire were initiated into this path of Kriya yoga in a small store-front Hindu temple in a lower-middle class neighborhood of Washington, DC. They received a mantra and breathing exercises that they were to practice for ten minutes twice a day. Salinger had sudden jumps of enthusiasm for different belief-systems that he then insisted Claire also follow. Salinger tried Dianetics (later called Scientology), even meeting L. Ron Hubbard himself, according to Claire.
This was followed by a number of spiritual/medical/nutritional belief systems including Christian Science, teachings of Edgar Cayce, homeopathy, acupuncture, macrobiotics, fasting, megadoses of Vitamin C, vomiting to remove impurities, solar reflectors for tanning, drinking one's own urine (this is part of the folk-medicine of several cultures around the world; see urine therapy), "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia) which he learned at a Charismatic church, and sitting in a Reichian "orgone box" to accumulate "orgone energy."
Relationship with Hollywood
In a 1942 letter to Whit Burnett, Salinger wrote with fervor, "I wanted to sell some stuff to the movies, through the mags. Gotta make a killing, so I can go away to work after the war." After being disappointed, according to Ian Hamilton, when "rumblings from Hollywood" over his 1943 short story "The Varioni Brothers" came to nothing, Salinger was unhesitant when independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn offered to buy the film rights to his 1948 short story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut." Though Salinger sold his story with the hope, in the words of his agent Dorothy Olding, that "they would make a good movie," the film version of "Wiggly" was critically lambasted upon its 1949 release. Renamed My Foolish Heart and starring Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward, the melodramatic film departed to such an extent from Salinger's short story that Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg referred to it as a “bastardization.”
Salinger would never relinquish control of his work to Hollywood filmmakers after that, even though, when The Catcher in the Rye was released in 1951, numerous offers were made to adapt it for the screen (Samuel Goldwyn among them.) Since its publication, there has been sustained interest in the novel among filmmakers, with Billy Wilder, Harvey Weinstein, and Steven Spielberg among those seeking to secure the rights. Actors ranging from Jack Nicholson to Tobey Maguire have made bids to play Holden Caulfield, and Salinger has said that "Jerry Lewis tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden." The author has repeatedly demurred, though, and in 1999, the writer Joyce Maynard definitively concluded, "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger."
In 1995, Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui made Pari, an unauthorized "loose" film adaptation of Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Though the film could be distributed legally in Iran since the country has no official copyright relations with the United States, Salinger had his lawyers block a planned screening of the film at Lincoln Center in 1998. Mehrjui called Salinger's action "bewildering," explaining that he saw his film as "a kind of cultural exchange."
Despite his issues with film versions of his work, Salinger has been described as a devoted film buff, his favorite films including Gigi, The Lady Vanishes, and The Lost Weekend, along with the films of the Marx Brothers. Predating VCRs, Salinger had an extensive collection of classic movies from the 1940s in 16 mm prints. Maynard wrote that "he loves movies, not films," and his daughter went so far as to write that her father's "worldview is, essentially, a product of the movies of his day. To my father, all Spanish speakers are Puerto Rican washerwomen, or the toothless, grinning gypsy types in a Marx Brothers movie."
The Poetry of the United States
The poetry of the United States naturally arose first during its beginnings as the Constitutionally-unified thirteen colonies (although prior to this, a strong oral tradition resemblant of poetry existed among Native American societies). Unsurprisingly, most of the early colonists' work relied on contemporary British models of poetic form, diction, and theme. However, in the 19th century, a distinctive American idiom began to emerge. By the later part of that century, when Walt Whitman was winning an enthusiastic audience abroad, poets from the United States had begun to take their place at the forefront of the English-language avant-garde.
This position was sustained into the 20th century to the extent that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were perhaps the most influential English-language poets in the period during World War I. By the 1960s, the young poets of the British Poetry Revival looked to their American contemporaries and predecessors as models for the kind of poetry they wanted to write. Toward the end of the millennium, consideration of American poetry had diversified, as scholars placed an increased emphasis on poetry by women, African Americans, Hispanics, Chicanos and other subcultural groupings. Poetry, and creative writing in general, also tended to become more professionalized with the growth of creative writing programs in the English studies departments of campuses across the country.
Poetry in the colonies
One of the first recorded poets of the British colonies was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), who remains one of the earliest known women poets in English. Her poems are untypically tender evocations of home and family life and of her love for her husband. In marked contrast, Edward Taylor (1645-1729) wrote poems expounding Puritan virtues in a highly wrought metaphysical style that can be seen as typical of the early colonial period. This narrow focus on the Puritan ethic was, understandably, the dominant note of most of the poetry written in the colonies during the 17th and early 18th centuries.
Another distinctly American lyric voice of the colonial period was Phillis Wheatley, a slave whose book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. She was one of the best-known poets of her day, at least in the colonies, and her poems were typical of New England culture at the time, meditating on religious and classical ideas.
The 18th century saw an increasing emphasis on America as fit subject matter for its poets. This trend is most evident in the works of Philip Freneau (1752-1832), who is also notable for the unusually sympathetic attitude to Native Americans shown in his writings. However, as might be expected from what was essentially provincial writing, this late colonial poetry is generally technically somewhat old-fashioned, deploying the means and methods of Pope and Gray in the era of Blake and Burns.
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