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The United States and World Power

  • After the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, The United States emerged as the only world power with a strong economy.
  • The nation’s participation in World War II had reorganized the American economy in ways that changed the lifestyles and expectations of its citizens. Women and African Americans, in particular, broadened their expectations of economic and social opportunities after their participation in the war effort.
  • The United States exploded two atomic bombs in Japan in August 1945—the first and only atomic bombs that have ever been deployed. The effect was so horrific and catastrophic that the United States shifted to a policy of amassing military strength for deterrence rather than combat. This strategy was known as “cold war.”
  • America’s cold war was directed at containing the political, economic, military, and ideological influence of Communism around the globe. The Soviet Union and, eventually, China emerged as the main cold war adversaries of the United States.
  • Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, social critics perceived a stable conformity to American life, as well as a dedication to an increasingly materialistic standard of living enabled by the strong economy and by the abundance of job opportunities.
  • American life became increasingly mobile as the population began a westward shift and more and more people relied on automobiles. The interstate highway system was begun in 1955.
  • Conflicts within and resistance to this way of life purportedly based on stability and conformity emerged in the 1960s, or “the Sixties,” as this period is known. This tumultuous period of American history, beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, was characterized by its countercultural revolt against the status quo.
  • The Sixties ushered in a combative period in civil rights, climaxing with the most sustained and effective attempts to remedy the evils of racial discrimination since Reconstruction.
  • Women began to organize in the Sixties to pursue their legal, ethical, and cultural interests, a position now defined as “feminism.”
  • Active dissension within the culture emerged in response to military involvement in Vietnam.
  • The nation was shocked in 1974 by the Watergate scandal: a revelation of President Richard Nixon’s abuses of governmental privileges that led to his resignation.
  • By the end of the 1970s some characteristics that had seemed countercultural in the Sixties had been accepted in mainstream American culture, including informalities of dress, relaxation of social codes, and an increased respect for individual rights.
  • The 1980s witnessed a call for a return to traditional values, interpreted as a return not to community and self-sacrifice but to the pursuit of wealth. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency income disparities grew while taxes fell, and Americans began to focus on personal acquisition. The economy boomed but shifted away from manufacturing and into service and financial speculation.
  • The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 after American economic might had depleted its ability to compete.
  • The attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon by terrorists on September 11, 2001 shifted the nation’s political agenda to a seemingly open-ended conflict with revolutionary Islamic forces.

Literary Developments

  • The ideal of homogeneity and conformity so prominent in the 1950s and early 1960s led many writers to aspire to the creation of a single work—short story, novel, poem, or play—that could represent the experiences of an entire people, and that could attempt to represent a common national essence that lay beneath distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or region.
  • Novelists hoped to write the so-called “great American novel” that would characterize the larger aspects of the national experience. Playwrights, too, aspired to write plays that would be nationally representative, embracing otherwise mundane characters as universal types that could speak to monumental national issues.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s, poets acquired a new visibility in American life through writers’ conferences and workshops, recordings, and published and broadcast interviews and readings. Despite this increase in poetry’s visibility, its relatively marginal position in the nation’s culture, when compared to that of prose fiction, may have allowed it more diversity from the ideal of homogeneity.
  • In the 1950s, the poetic standard was a short lyric meditation on an object, landscape, or observed encounter that clarified or epitomized a feeling. The period also supported poets who gave voice to previously marginalized social groups and poets who experimented with new rhythms.
  • The notion that any single piece of literature could represent an entire people or nation fell out of favor in the Sixties, as the nation itself fractured over such issues as the uses of industrial and military power; the institutions of marriage and the family; the rights of racial minorities, women, and homosexuals; the use of drugs; and alternative states of consciousness.
  • Some writers felt that social reality had become too unstable to serve as a reliable anchor for their narratives, and some critics believed that fiction, and particularly the novel, was “dead,” having exhausted its formal possibilities.
  • Poetry was transformed by the appearance of two poems in the late 1950s: Allan Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), with its antiestablishment message, open, experimental form, and strong oral emphasis, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) with its directness and autobiographical intensity.
  • Technological advances such as the advent of television and air travel challenged boundaries of time and space and brought a global awareness that made the concept of all-encompassing expressions of the world through literature seem impossible.
  • “Confessional” poetry and literature in the 1960s—pieces that involved autobiographical revelations about difficult, personal subject matter such as sex, divorce, alcoholism, and insanity—began to focus on the distinctness of individual experience, not its representativeness.
  • “Deconstruction,” a literary theory first developed by French linguists and philosophers, questioned assumptions about the stability of language, the ability of words to represent reality, and the extent to which “facts” might be constructed by intellectual operations.
  • The idea of literature as a form of self-expression was complicated by deconstructionists’ skepticism about the very idea of a coherent or essential “self.”
  • The political dissent of the 1960s opened up spaces for a range of voices in literature representing, in new and varied ways, the experiences and views of African Americans, Southerners, Jews, feminists, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latina/Latino Americans, and others. This development produced a rich legacy in American literature.
  • The contemporary literary period values heterogeneity in its forms and pluralism in its cultural influences.
  • Contemporary literature is also increasingly preoccupied with questions about what constitutes “artificiality” and what constitutes “authenticity.”
  • A burgeoning genre known as “creative nonfiction” reflects contemporary literature’s impatience with the opposition between fact and fiction. Combining aspects of the essay, memoir, reportage, criticism, and autobiography, creative nonfiction uses the techniques of fiction to make a claim to the real.
  • The Internet has produced a contemporary literary culture that is keenly aware that reality is hybrid, with constant input from multiple sources. Contemporary literature reflects this insight with its proclivity for combining, editing, altering, and rearranging existing materials.