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Making Connections

  1. The literature of this period grappled with the rapid modernization of American society, with its technological innovations and the changes it brought for good or ill to everyday life. Literature from between the world wars that dealt, often antagonistically, with technology includes Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—;” Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro;” T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land; and Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”  Earlier works that had retreated before encroaching science and technology include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark;” Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; and Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. Later works that continue to react to the inhuman effects of some technological advances are Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Thomas Pynchon’s “Entropy;” and Sherman Alexie’s “Do Not Go Gentle.”
  2. Two hallmarks of modernist writing are difficulty and ambition; the harder the text, the less instructive or persuasive one would expect it to be, though some authors did not accept that. Examples of works that expected a mass following despite the elite readership they were guaranteed by their difficulty are T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land; Ezra Pound’s Cantos; Wallace Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry;” Jean Toomer’s Cane; Marianne Moore’s “Poetry;” and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Later works that take up the challenge of modernist difficulty include Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; John Ashbery’s “Illustrations;” and Jorie Graham’s “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.”
  3. The Harlem Renaissance marked a full flowering of African American writing. Prompted by the personal encouragement of W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as by his Souls of Black Folk; Harlem–based artists like the poets Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen employed modernist formal and thematic experimentation to represent the opportunities and characteristic features of Harlem. Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” signals an extreme artistic focus, possibly at the expense of social awareness and activism; Hurston was taken to task, for example, by Richard Wright for her stylistic excesses in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” which makes a good counterpoint to her short essay.  Earlier texts with affinities to the Harlem Renaissance’s preoccupations include Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, both of which testify to their authors’ desires to think of themselves as Enlightenment persons as well as African Americans; and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life ; Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life; Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery; and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, which all shared the Harlem Renaissance’s mostly white audience looking for exoticism and a chance to judge African Americans. Fruitful pairings of Harlem Renaissance works with later pieces include Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” with Lucille Clifton’s “the mississippi river empties into the gulf;” Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” with Robert Hayden’s “Homage to the Empress of the Blues;” and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” with Rita Dove’s “Adolescence I and II.”
  4. Between the wars, American drama comes of age as a genre, thanks in large part to the efforts of Susan Glaspell (Trifles) and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night) to promote independent theater away from the lights of Broadway. Later plays that show the influences of these two playwrights include Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
  5. Since this part of the anthology is heavily informed by two massive military conflicts, instructive comparisons can be made to writings from other wars throughout American history. Works from 1914 to 1945 that make such references include T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” and The Waste Land; Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro;” and Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” More explicit works from before and after the modernist period include Mary Rowlandson’s account of King Philip’s War in her Narrative; Walt Whitman’s “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” and “The Wound-Dresser;” Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and War Is Kind; Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith;” and Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”