American history and literature are intertwined and are reflective of one another. Both the starting and ending points of this time period reveal America overcoming a severe crisis. American history since 1865greatly influenced the literature that came after it. In 1865, the Civil War had finally ended and the country was exhausted and war-weary. At the beginning of Roosevelt’s term, there was a similar situation as the country was recovering from the Great Depression.
In both cases, there is a period of relative tranquility to follow; Reconstruction in the South after the War and later, Roosevelt’s “New Deal" before the build-up to the Great War. This period of time saw great advances in technology and industry and such shifts had a drastic effect on population, society, and culture. It is also important to note that this half-century saw an increase in the demand for rights by women, African Americans, workers, and other groups who were beginning to understand that they desired input about how their country should operate.
The moral impact of the Civil War cannot be underestimated. With hundreds of thousands of causalities and the breakdown of the South, there was a great sense of despair, especially in the decade immediately after the conflict. Even with heavy hearts, however, the course of progress continued and the first transcontinental railroad was completed and in use by 1869. This is one of the most importantdevelopments of the post-Civil War period as it not allowed more efficient transport of goods across vast distances, but this fact in turn encouraged greater levels of production and industrialization. From 1869 and the railroad’s urging on of industry, there was a shift from the rural towns and agricultural settlements to an urban migration. Steam engines and other machinations had been developed to increase the output capacity of factories and cities such as Chicago became important industrial as well as cultural centers.
More people were from the rural areas were migrating to cities and this fact was compounded by the large numbers of immigrants arriving in such urban places with a hope for work. Construction and industrialization were booming shortly after the arrival of the railroad and these centers offered not only work, but the possibility for immigrants and “country folk" to live the American dream. There was more of everything during this period; more industry, more machines, more communication (telephones had been developed 1876) and the country, despite the wounds that remained exposed after the Civil War, was humming along at a rapid pace.
The era after the Civil War also held new possibilities for African Americans as they left their roles as an enslaved people and sought out new opportunities, most often in the large cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland (the latter two cities had seen railroad connections of their own only a few years after the first one had been developed). This new population not only began dispersing throughout the country, but writing and organizing as well. Authors such as W.E.B. Dubois were vocal about the status of African Americans and this tradition of the written word as instrument of change continued well past the term of Roosevelt. From the Jim Crow laws that were instituted shortly after the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, it is important to recognize how crucial this time period was for the emergence of a distinct African American voice. With the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance around 1920, there was a significant artistic presence of African Americans that countered the still-codified segregation of much of America and sought to express discontent in a non-violent and symbolic way.
The movement of African-Americans and the increasing demand for recognition was mirrored by the women’s suffrage movement, which began in 1869 (along with the development of the railroad) gradually gained momentum throughout the half-decade and branched out to include other issues of women’s rights as well. From Emily Dickinson at the beginning of this period, all the way up to Zora Neale Huston, it was becoming clear that women were communicating and organizing in new ways and allowing them to be heard for the first time. The 1920s and ushered in a new age of feminism and the bonds of Victorian ideals of femininity were gradually being shed. Icons of the female political movement such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton were gaining widespread popularity among women and the first inkling of organized feminism was emerging and is reflected in critical works of fiction such as Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening" andHurston’s “Sweat" which criticized the injustices of being under a man’s control.
Many injustices were being explored at this period, not just in terms of gender and racial equality, but for workers as well. The rapid industrialization caused a few monopolies such as that of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, which produced new legislation to deal with large companies and more importantly, caused the average worker to see the importance of unifying and relying on the strength of their numbers to ensure fairness and rights. In 1905, the organization, Industrial Workers of the World was formed and forged a model for further labor movements. Also, it is important to point out that the Ford Motor Company began producing automobiles shortly after the turn of century, where not only opportunities for relatively inexpensive transportation, but employment was created. Workers understood that there could be success in industry but that it would be a constant battle to ensure their needs.
The Great Depression brought the progress of the early part of the century to a halt. While the Great War had terrible social impacts (think of Owen’s poem “Dolce Decorum Est" for example) the economic benefits of war drove the economy. The Depression reminded people that they were still vulnerable, even with all the new modern benefits many enjoyed such as electricity and radios. Many people suffered greatly and lost what wealth they had accumulated and much of the momentum had just been gained back at the end of Roosevelt’s term when already, it was time again to prepare for a second war.
America at this crucial period between centuries was complex and the literature of the time reflected this. Realism in American literature had begun in the early part of the nineteenth century yet still persisted in new forms. It no longer seemed reasonable to cling to notions of romanticism and many of the traces of the movement had been erased by the turn of the century. Realism was invested in revealing everyday life with a clear and focused purpose to record life as it really was. This seems fitting, especially for those in the urban centers since life, despite any of the more genteel convictions of the Victorians and those writing theVictorian period in American literature, was very real indeed—overcrowding, unemployment, dirty and unsafe working conditions were only a few problems confronting a typical working class man or woman at the turn of the century and realism captured this sensation perfectly. Even when one considers the works ofHenry James or Mark Twain, both writers of the period in question, there is a definite attempt, even through fiction, to present a reality that is not embellished with the ornaments of romanticism and instead seeks to represent a “slice of life" instead of painting a pretty picture. It should also be mentioned that regional writing gained literary ground as Mark Twain and Kate Chopin revealed, in realistic detail, the minutia of their hometowns or created spaces imagined from the everyday. One can posit the theory that regional writing came about in response the loss of boundaries brought about the railroad and other communication networks—that somehow regional writing could preserve, in realistic detail, the perfection of a place.