In the twenty-one years between the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the economic, political, and social landscape changed forever. Unprecedented immigration irrevocably changed both the American landscape and American politics, and the colonial powers of nineteenth-century Europe began to lose their grip on their possessions and territories. American literature of the period reflected these changes.
In the United States, the northern and western migration that followed Reconstruction (the period between 1865 and 1877 when the Federal government set the conditions by which the states of the former Confederacy would be readmitted to full participation in the national government) caused such rapid growth in Northern cities that the municipal governments were strained to the breaking point as they rushed to deliver services to millions of residents in thousands of languages. In the West, waves of migration were rapidly filling in the plains and prairies; this population boom set up a clash of cultures that continues to have repercussions in contemporary politics. In less than twenty years, the United States marked two population milestones: the population of New York City exceeded five million persons for the first time and, in 1915, the total population of the United States topped one hundred million.
Many immigrants to the United States in this period were fleeing from the collapse of the ancient European monarchies and empires. When Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom died on January 22, 1901, more than half of the persons in the world owed her allegiance; by the outbreak of World War I, a new wave of self-governance had swept through Europe. The political consequences of this destabilization continue to be felt throughout the world today.
These two decades were also remarkable for American literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway were born within three years of each other, and they would collectively reshape the American literary landscape in the twentieth century. Literary contributions were not, however, restricted to white males. Although Mark Twain continued to hold court as the most famous author in the country, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather were also making literary and social headlines.
Our readings in this chapter may seem at first to be randomly selected. Not one of the authors mentioned in the previous paragraph appears here; in the case of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway, they had not yet made their mark on literary history. Gillman, Chopin, Wharton, and Cather, although they were writing steadily during this period, had not yet been given appropriate recognition for their literary achievements. Instead, the selections in this chapter speak to two particular aspects of turn-of-the-century American literature: the growth of African-American literary culture and a mythological fascination with the West.
The selections by Booker T. Washington (1901) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) both continue the tradition of African-American autobiography begun in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, and forge new ground as political and social manifestoes. In these works both authors advocated passionately, in the wake of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessey v. Ferguson, that the schools and municipal services provided to African-Americans were, in fact, not equal to those provided to the rest of the population. These works are not just autobiography, however: The Souls of Black Folk is often considered one of the earliest works in the field of sociology.
The second selection in this chapter, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), defined a literary genre and an American ideal. Although Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) is often considered the first Western in American fiction, the plot of The Virginian is a fairly typical romance that is set in the West. In Riders of the Purple Sage, Grey offers readers a new type of character: a rough, independent, introspective cowboy with a pragmatically American, and personal, code of conduct.
The last selection in this chapter, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1895), demonstrates the development of African-American narrative and autobiography. Unlike Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Washington struck a more conciliatory tone aimed at lifting African Americans out of poverty in exchange for lesser political and individual autonomy. In the following decades, the debates between Du Bois and Washington formed the backdrop for the struggle over African-American art and literature during the Harlem Renaissance.
The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed the first significant crisis of American identity since the end of the Civil War, and this time the crisis played out on the world stage. In the decades that followed World War I, the United States would undergo even more dramatic changes, and the most significant literary changes were yet to come.