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The American Canon

American literature is set apart from other literatures from around the

world because of the political and socioeconomically driven themes that are

unique to the United States. Regionalism is prevalent in the works of authors

such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck, who portray both

the successes and devastating failures of characters who are bound to their

land in rural America. Realism is also popular in American literature, and

African American authors Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston utilize

regional dialects to accurately and often painfully portray characters who are

oppressed and terrorized by racism and inequality. Mass immigration into

the United States provides a wealth of unique ethnic voices in American

Literature, with countless novels, plays, and poems being based on the

innumerable cultures that have been assimilated into American culture.

Allen Ginsberg employs Confessionalism in a radical departure from the

formerly strict rules of poetry and prose, to depict the horrors of the

marginalized in American society. Sylvia Plath is also a Confessionalist,

whose personal tragedies take center stage in poetry that tears down the

accepted stereotypes of women as merely mothers and nurturers, made so

popular in the American media, and reveals a personal pain that results from

the inability to conform to the American ideal of the perfect woman. Truman

Capote’s In Cold Blood departs from traditional non-fiction with the author’s

social, economical, and psychological investigation not merely of a crime but


of the criminals who commit them, with American society playing a pivotal

role in their transformation from men to murderers.

Regionalism and Dialect

The genius of William Faulkner lies in his ability to articulate the voices

of rural Americans who are set apart from Americans in other parts of the

country because of their distinct southern behaviors and dialect. As I Lay

Dying follows a family in their pursuit to bury their dead; crippled by poverty,

however, they are forced to live with the dead body through storms both

literal and metaphorical in scenes familiar to the poor and uneducated in the

Deep South. The Deep South is, in fact, an icon in American Literature. The

Civil War, slavery, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement, are all unique to

the American experience, and tales of life in the Deep South are featured in

countless novels in the American literary canon. The work of African

American author Richard Wright examines the terrors of racism in the Deep

South, with characters who are lynched, beaten, and burned to death, often

for crimes that they did not commit, but more accurately, simply because

they were black. In “The Man Who Was Almost A Man,” Wright presents the

reality of inequality in the American South for a young black boy who dreams

of achieving a semblance of power by owning a gun:

The first movement he made the following morning was to reach

under his pillow for the gun. In the gray light of dawn he held it

loosely, feeling a sense of power. Could kill a man with a gun


like
this. Kill anybody, black or white. And if he were holding his gun

in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to
respect

him

(Wright 2070-2071).

Richard Wright’s America is an infestation of cruelty and hatred where the

promise of freedom is all too often broken, and the future is as bleak as any

horror of the past.

Zora Neale Hurston, like Richard Wright, depicts black life in the

American South as a thing separate from any other American experience.

Hurston’s characters are equally poor and uneducated as any of Wright’s

characters, but she places her people in the all-black town of Eatonville,

Florida, where blacks rule their own community with little intrusion from

whites. In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston refuses to submit to the

racism that surrounds her:

“Besides the waters of the Hudson” I feel my race. Among a


thousand

white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and over-swept,


but

through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I


am;

and the ebb but reveals me again… At certain times

I have no race, I am me… I have no separate feeling about being


an

American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the


Great

Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or


wrong

(1711-1712).

Hurston and Wright, like Faulkner, equip their characters with regional

dialects that are instrumental to both the theme and tone of their work. The

African American Vernacular is vital to Hurston’s and Wright’s characters as

their speech makes known the vast differences between blacks and whites at

this time in America, and further identifies them as an oppressed people.

Racism and oppression abound in the American literary canon and they

are also prevalent in the works of Modernist poets Langston Hughes and

Countee Cullen; poets who are typically identified with the Harlem

Renaissance Movement. Hughes is well known for his use of jazz and the

blues in his poetry, both of which are American musical innovations created

by African Americans. Cullen is deeply political and his many protest-poems

focus on racism and injustice; in his poem “Incident,” the speaker of the

poem encounters racism while riding on a Baltimore bus:

Once riding in old Baltimore, / Heart-filled, head-filled with glee/

I saw a Baltimorian / Keep looking straight at me / Now I was

eight and very small / And he was no whit bigger / And so I

smiled, but he poked out / His tongue, and called me, “Nigger”

(Cullen 2061).

The poetry of Langston Hughes is rooted in the African American

experience; hardened by the memories of slavery and political oppression,

and colored with black culture forms of jazz, blues, and spirituals. Hughes,
like Cullen and Wright, exposes racism as an impenetrable evil that stalks

African Americans who dream of one day being free. “The Weary Blues” is

one of many Hughes poems that read like a song, with beats born from the

blues, and in a clear black voice that is distinctly American:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone / I heard that

Negro sing, that old piano moan / “Ain’t nobody in this world /

Ain’t got nobody but ma self / I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ /

And put mah troubles on de shelf”


(Hughes 2029).

In “Advanced, repressed, and popular: Langston Hughes during the Cold

War,” critic Jonathan Scott explores Hughes political views, especially his

links to Communism, to present not only his poetic methods, but also the

political purpose behind much of his writing. Scott’s assessment of Hughes’

literary methods reveals that, “he served as a Black national advocate for

international Socialism, mainly through his journalism and poetry, while as

an artist he asserted the international scale of the American national

struggle to abolish racial oppression, precisely by making his interventions at

the level of national popular culture and through the formation of national

popular aesthetic tastes and preferences” (Scott 39). Hughes’ America is

one wrought with political oppression and the struggle of black Americans to

tear down the boundaries that imprison them in segregation and Jim Crow

laws.

Oppression and the American Dream


Oppression in America is by no means limited to racism against African

Americans. Poverty and lack of education are the driving forces behind

oppression against all Americans and this is made painfully clear in John

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Joad family is forced off their land

and onto the American highway in the search of the American Dream in

California. Like the Deep South, the American Dream is a literary icon that

permeates the work of numerous American authors, including Steinbeck.

But the American Dream is typically an unattainable one, especially for the

impoverished and uneducated, and the road to success is paved with

hunger, death, and disappointment. The American West, like the Deep

South, is a character in itself, one that fails to keep its promises, whether of

gold or of glory. The Grapes of Wrath reveals the reality that the American

Dream is not simply up for grabs, a free-for-all, or a legal right. The Joad

family is duped by propaganda and they take to the road believing that the

land of California is bursting with economic opportunities. Of course, the

Joad’s realize early on in their journey that they have been deceived, but

they choose to move forward in their travels because they have nothing at

home for which to return. Steinbeck, having personally visited the migrant

camps, provides insight into the desperation and despair of the thousands of

Americans who left their dusty lands in search of the American Dream:

They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to

find a home, and they found only hatred… The owners hated
them.

And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had
no

money to spend… The town men, little bankers, hated Okies


because

there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing. And
the laboring

people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he


must

work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him


less

for his work; and then no one can get more


(Steinbeck 318).

The Joad family, like millions of Americans, will never see the American

Dream come to fruition, and they watch in terror as their dreams, like their

lands, turn to dust.

The short stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald often focus on the

American Dream. Fitzgerald, however, concentrates not on the difficulty of

achieving the American Dream, but rather the failure of morals in those

people who have, financially, realized this dream. Critic John F. Callahan

asserts that Fitzgerald’s ideal of the American Dream, “led to the

extravagant promise identified with America and the intense, devastating

loss felt when the dream fails in one or another of its guises” (Callahan 374).

Like Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s characters are often lacking in the personal

character that is required to sustain dignity and self-control in the face of

wild success. Like the author himself, Fitzgerald’s characters often succumb

to excess, in terms of financial irresponsibility and, occasionally, alcoholism.

In “Winter Dreams,” Judy Jones is a lonely child of tremendous wealth, whose


boredom with the life of a debutante results in base cruelties and usury of

numerous male companions. Judy Jones is a stock Fitzgerald female

character: she is beautiful and mesmerizing, and with few other qualities

which are deserving of affection:

She had inflicted on him the innumerable little slights and

indignities possible in such a case- as if revenge for having

ever cared for him at all. She had beckoned him and beckoned

him again and he had responded often with bitterness and


narrowed eyes. She had brought him ecstatic happiness and

intolerable agony of spirit.

(Fitzgerald 1833).

Fitzgerald’s women often slowly and painfully unravel the men who love

them, men who have achieved economic success, (the American Dream) but

who lack the ability to refuse the advances of beautiful women who are also

lacking in the area of dignity. These, like many of Hemingway’s characters,

are without aim or purpose. Women in American literature underwent a

transformation at the height of Modernism; she was no longer a cook, nurse,

and housekeeper, but a force to be reckoned with.

American Woman

The Grapes of Wrath presents the family matriarch as the soul of the

family unit; a woman who cannot be buried by the oppression of her husband

or her sons, and who leads her family on their journey west, in the hopes of

finding work amidst the hunger and desperation of the Dust Bowl migrations.
Ma Joad begins as a motherly figure, one who spends most of her time

cooking and caring for her family, yet she manages to take over the role that

her husband originated as leader of the family, as Pa Joad’s spirit weakens

from failure and the inhumane treatment his family receives from political

forces. The Joad family represents the stock Midwestern American family,

for whom education was forgone in favor of tilling their land, and family was

the heart and soul of every man, woman, and child.

The family matriarch is a staple of American literature as she survives

hardship after hardship and leads her family by powerful female intuition and

the unwavering love of a wife and mother. Critic Nellie Y. McKay examines

the role of the wife and mother in American literature. McKay contends that

Ma Joad represents the typical American woman, a woman who spends her

life catering to the emotional and physical needs of her husband and her

children, regardless of her own needs; she cooks, cleans, nurses, and

submits. McKay writes that the “equation of the American land with

women’s biological attributes did much to foster the widespread use of

literary images of women as one with the “natural” propensities of a

productive nurturing earth, and to erase, psychologically, the difference

between the biological and the social functions of women” (McKay 50).

McKay, however, fails to credit Ma Joad for her triumphant victory over the

will of her husband, as she demonstrates the ability to lead her family just as

well, if not more effectively, than Pa Joad. McKay states that, in the work of

Steinbeck, “women, without whom the men would have no world, have no
independent identity of their own” (50). In fact, Ma Joad, although driven by

the necessity to provide for her children, does indeed develop the identity of

a woman whose input is valuable, and whose guidance averts even further

catastrophe. Ma Joad arises from beyond the shadow of her husband, and

like many modern American women, refuses to be quieted.

Ma Joad cannot fully be considered to be an independent woman, but

Modernist authors embraced and further developed independent female

characters who were once unthinkable in male-dominated American

literature. Fitzgerald’s female characters, although often aloof and

manipulating, are commonly independent characters. The cunning Judy

Jones of “Winter Dreams” and the lead female characters in Tender is the

Night are, with few exceptions, both financially and emotionally independent

women who lead men by their sexual prowess and powers of manipulation.

This was a new idea in American Literature; gone were the days of the

kitchen slaves, forever bound by the strings of their aprons, who singularly

carried the burden of numerous children on their backs. In poetry, Sylvia

Plath defined what it meant to be a wife and a mother, and she did not

embrace, but rather rejected, the traditional roles of women.

Plath is a Confessional poet, a movement in American poetry

pioneered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, and she revealed to readers her

private pain and disappointment with leading the life of a wife and a mother.

Plath’s intellect, combined with artistic passions, was, in her own words,
asphyxiated by her matrimonial and motherly duties. In her poetry, Plath

removes the veil of what is deemed to be a natural inclination of motherly

love, and reveals that American women are, in fact, often unfulfilled by this

role. In “The Applicant,” Plath expresses resentment with the

marginalization of women: “To fill it and willing / To bring teacups and roll

away headaches / And do whatever you tell it / Will you marry it?” (Plath

2710, 11-14). Plath likens women to dolls who are playthings for men and

who must fulfill their roles as wives and mothers as they have been so long

trained by American society, and with images propagated by American

media: “…In twenty-five years she’ll be silver / In fifty, gold. / A living doll,

everywhere you look. / It can sew, it can cook / It can talk, talk, talk” (2710,

31-35). Plath’s intimate poems, in concert with her private and personal

pain, continuously challenged American ideals of femininity and grace, and

offered to American literature, a portrait of the modern American women.

The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is permeated with the social injustices

suffered by African Americans in the 20th Century, but it also offers poems

with feminine themes and, like Plath, she does not agree with or submit to

the American female ideal. In “the Mother,” Brooks’ brutal honesty about

the realities of abortion both defends women’s rights, and reveals the agony

that accompanies the decision to abort, as well as the psychological effects,

and the aftermath of making such a decision: “You will never neglect or

beat / Them, or silence or buy with a sweet / You will never wing up the

sucking-thumb / Or scuttle off ghosts that come” (Brooks 2411, 5-8). Brooks
and Plath share distaste for the expectancies of motherhood in America and

the constraints that it puts on modern women. Ultimately, these poets lift

the veil of domesticity and reveal the face of the modern woman, one who

has finally broken into the once male-dominated society of American

Literature.

Heroes, Hipsters, and Outlaws

Wrath’s Tom Joad represents, in a new fashion, the all-American hero.

But Tom Joad is not a soldier or a saint, he is a criminal who spent five years

in prison for second degree murder, and a man who refuses to be battered

by the system that not only placed him in prison, but also abuses his family

as well as thousands of others, who seek, but do not find, aid during the

mass migration. Tom Joad is an American hero in the spirit of Hemingway, a

man who fights, drinks, loves, and fails gracefully and without complaint.

Tom Joad, however, is not the only proud and fighting man in The Grapes of

Wrath, as there is no shortage of proud Americans men who are being

shoved off their land, and they articulate themselves in a distinctly

Midwestern American dialect:

“Oh! They talked pretty about it. You know what kinda years

we been havin’. Dust comin’ up and spoilin’ ever’thing so a man

didn’t get a crop to plug up an ant’s ass. An’ ever’body got bills

at the grocery. You know how it is… So they tractored all the
tenants

off the lan.’ All ‘cept me, an’ by God I ain’t goin’
(Steinbeck 64).

Tom Joad’s journey is a prevalent theme in American literature- the hero’s

journey that is accompanied by adversity, hunger, oppression, and the curse

of the luckless. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man,

Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the combined works of Jack Kerouac,

are “journey” themed novels. Visibly absent in these works is the chivalrous

gentleman, the wealthy romantic, and the sensitive Lord of British Literature.

The new American hero is often without financial stability, void of material

possessions, if not wholly apathetic to them, romantically unattached, and

oppressed for one reason or another. Hemingway and Kerouac’s characters

often share the vices of their authors, as alcohol-driven escapades abound in

their journey tales, and excesses physically exhaust their characters.

Kerouac’s Big Sur examines both the necessity of escaping the modern

American world, and also embracing the excitement of urban life in America:

… I can see him rubbing his hands in anticipation of another big wild
binge

with me like we had the year before when he drove me back to New
York

from the West Coast, with George Baso the little Japanese Zen master

hepcat sitting crosslegged on the back mattress of Dave’s Jeepster…

a terrific trip through Las Vegas, St. Louis, stopping off at expensive

motels and drinking nothing but the best Scotch out of the bottle all

the way—

(Kerouac 2449)

Kerouac is commonly referred to as the father of the so-called Beat


Generation, an artistic movement that was epitomized by freewheeling

artists that included Allen Ginsberg, and which flourished and was born out

of disillusionment with World War II. The Beat Generation shares features

with the Lost Generation of Hemingway’s time- a product of the disillusion

with the First World War, as characters travel aimlessly throughout the

United States and through Europe, engaging in casual sex, habitual drinking,

and searching, often listlessly, for a greater purpose in life. Hemingway’s

characters, like many of Kerouac’s, are overtly masculine, a typical

representation of the American male, as in the case of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad.

But Hemingway’s American male characters are often associated with World

War I, and this gives birth to male characters who have been both physically

and emotionally wounded in the war. Kerouac avoids tales of war, possibly

because of his aversion to it, but Hemingway embraces the subject of

American war in his work. What Kerouac and Hemingway have most in

common are characters who are always on the move, traveling and

exploring, and paying the price for their volatility. In “The Snows of

Kilimanjaro,” a man on the verge of death muses over a life wasted and

stunted by leisure and excess:

He had destroyed his talent himself… He had destroyed his talent by


not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by
drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by
laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook
and by crook

(Hemingway 1988).

The spiritual journey, manifested by extensive traveling throughout America


and beyond, is an American literary staple that examines the human

experience; restless wanderers seek, and often do not find, love, happiness,

and economic success. The traveling man is often painted as a hero; not

because he triumphs over the challenges on the road, but because he goes

on, and on, and on, and rarely stops to pity himself. Hemingway and

Kerouac’s characters are often a threat only to themselves, and their moral

compasses are not only misaligned, but rarely referred to for direction. The

indifference of these characters cause only minor harm, but the spiritually

lost in America are often dehumanized, as is made painfully clear in

Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and for some, indifference and emptiness results in

violence, as in the case of the morally and psychologically bankrupt in

Capote’s In Cold Blood.

American Tragedy

Ginsberg’s “Howl” is a literary assault on the tepid Eisenhower years.

The American suburb was illustrative of economic success and a pretty

portrait of the American family. This picture, however, did not reveal the

realities of American life outside of these suburbs. Racism was alive and well

in America as segregation continued to impinge on the basic human rights of

African Americans. Poverty, although largely ignored in light of the supposed

American dream being available to anyone who asked after World War II,

was rampant, and young people in America were frustrated and unsatisfied

with the American ideal that did not apply to them. In “Howl,” Ginsberg
reveals, often in horrific detail, those segments of society that are

marginalized and abused; this included homosexuals, blacks, Jews, and the

mentally ill. Like Eliot’s “Wasteland,” Ginsberg examines a world gone

wrong, corrupted, and nightmarish, and his portrait of American life is in

stark contrast to what white American’s believed it to be. Madness, drugs,

poverty, and hopelessness infected the “best minds of my generation”

(2756, 1) and “who sailed out of their windows in despair, fell out of the

subway window, jumped in the Passaic, leaped on Negroes, cried all over the

street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph

records… and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears

and the blast of colossal steamwhistles” (Ginsberg 2579-2580, 64-69).

Ginsberg’s America was not the fantasy propagated by the Eisenhower

administration, but rather was the terrible reality of American life that was

ignored by popular media. Ginsberg’s apocalyptic vision and representation

of the hidden streets and alleys of America is, in the words of critic Jason

Shnider, “[r]obust, rude, and tender, with provocatively rhythmic music, the

poem’s long-lined construct of visual imagery and repetitive altering phrases

was born out of the various influences of American jazz, blues and rock n’

roll, formalism and free verse…” (Shnider 1). Ginsberg’s telling of the

ignored and abandoned set the stage for the mass migration of young

people to San Francisco, where hippies, runaways, and artists followed in the

footsteps of Ginsberg, the poet-prophet who foresaw the disintegration of

American life in the 1960’s.


American life was dramatically altered in the 1960’s and American

authors responded to the breakdown in the traditional family and its values,

which often resulted in the corruption of the young; many of these young

people no longer believed in the American Dream, and they took matters

into their own hands, often in the form of violence. The death of the all-

American-family that was broken by divorce and childhood abuse, is at the

heart of the violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The brutal crime

committed on the Clutter family is the result of social and familial chaos.

Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two poor, uneducated, aimless, and heartless

criminals, shatter a quiet Mid-Western American town when they terrorize

and pointlessly murder and innocent family. Capote penetrates the

psychology of the two murderers and thoughtfully provides insight into the

minds of the criminals. Perry and Dick are humanized by Capote’s

examination of their backgrounds, particularly their childhoods, and,

unthinkable as it is, the reader has the potential to sympathize with these

murderers because it is clear that family and society plays a role in the

demise of the human conscience. Perry’s background is filled with

alcoholism, childhood neglect, and suicide. Dick, although from a seemingly

good family, may have been psychologically damaged by a near-fatal

automobile accident, and this disability leads to his criminal prowess. Critic

Roger Berger, in his discussion of In Cold Blood, asserts that “[t]hrough its

deployment of narrative realism, an unstinting verisimilitude, and the

presentation of documents, the novel renders invisible the links between the
criminal justice system and its part in producing the chronic delinquent”

(Berger 184). Capote’s ability to arise empathy in the hearts of readers also

brings to light the issue of Capital Punishment in the United States, a judicial

form of homicide that has long been an accepted form of punishment in the

United States.

Delinquent youth was on the rise in America at the writing of In Cold

Blood, and this was a direct result of the aftermath of war and the

breakdown of traditional American family values, as young people

increasingly rejected the American ideal of the hardworking family, and

sought out non-traditional forms of existence. Critic George Garrett

describes the changing attitudes of Americans in the 1960’s was “our

gradual change over from concerns for victims to fascination with

perpetrators” (Garrett 473). American life was indeed changing in the

1960’s and authors like Capote revealed that these changes were a product

of the death of family values, which then gave birth to delinquents and

murderers who often carried years of abuse and social abandonment with

them on the road to their crimes.

The American literary canon is easily identifiable from other world

literatures, and what makes American Literature most unique is the social

climate in which it was created. Slavery, the Civil War, racism, immigration,

the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and beyond; these are

monuments in American Literature and they inspired some of the most


enduring works in literature around the world.

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