20th Century Literature and Despair

Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the 20th century we see an overwhelming shift from the early America’s writings of possibility and optimism to writings of despair and depravity. There is a loss of the sort of innocence that dominated the pre-modern era. You no longer find the inspiring and inspirational writings that came from the likes of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and others. Instead we find authors such as T.S Eliot, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Allen Ginsberg dominating the writing world and projecting their worldview onto the American nation, and it is a dismal one. Blackness, decline, lack of meaning, and overall depression and despair seem to be the favorite themes of the modern era writer. Happiness and meaning in life seem to be distant unattainable objects to many of the modern writers. Just as the teenager who is struggling to find himself or herself and understand life and discover its truer meanings, the 20th century of America marks the painful process of self-discovery for a nation.

In 1922, T.S Eliot released his vision of the modern world and its progression in the form of the widely known and cited poem “The Waste Land.” The poem, hailed by many to be, “a swooping blade that forever severed modern literature from all that had gone before,” gives a very insightful and perceptive view of the state of society and culture following the First World War. Employing many technical and creative techniques, shifting from prophecy to satire, using unannounced changes of speaker, and calling upon a myriad of cultures and literatures, Eliot effectively describes what he perceived as the decline of civilization and the loss of the meaning in life and the impossibility of recovering it. The opening line of the poem, “April is the cruelest month,” seems to illustrate not only the overall tone of the poem but also the tone of the nation. With this one line, Eliot draws the illusion of a month, or a nation, of hope and new beginnings to now be cast in the shadowed darkness of cruelty and despair.

Eliot, however is not the only modernist writer, or even person, to have felt this luminous shadow of darkness and despair. In the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” we find that this general feeling of inadequacy and depravity not only affects the nation as a whole, but also affects the individuals within the nation. Causing within them feelings “Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/âÂ?¦/Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 6-9). People seemed lost not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally; they seemed to be missing a vital part of their lives. Not so unlike a teenager struggling to find out who they are, we find the nation meandering through the “tedious streets” and trying to fill in the missing parts of their souls with “one-night cheap hotels.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald let the world get a glimpse of his world vision in “Babylon Revisited” when he talks about this feeling of loss and wandering, of searching for something to give life meaning. He talks about how Charlie and his wife had been in Europe during the twenties, going to parties, drinking, and frolicking, all in an effort to drown the feelings of despair and desolation Eliot had described in “The Waste Land” as enfolding the nation following the First World War. Fitzgerald also provides us with an interesting comparison in “Babylon Revisited,” he contrasts Charlie’s dull, lifeless, and colorless “sober” outlook on life with that of two very different types of people, Honoria his daughter, and his still-drinking friends Lorraine and Duncan. However, the interesting part to note is that while his daughter and his drinking friends are fundamentally different, they share something that Charlie has lost. They share a sort of blind innocence and still seem to see the world as wonderful and full of possibilities. Charlie, on the other hand, realizes that:

[A]ll the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word ‘dissipate’ – to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion. He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.

Charlie, in this moment, accurately describes the 20th century outlook on life in one word – Dissipate. He is faced with the reality that he has taken all he had held dear and thrown it all away, just as he had thrown the valuable franc notes at the orchestra and doormen, he has thrown away all that he has found to be truly valuable, thereby limiting himself in his possibilities for happiness and a meaningful life. He is like the teenager who has spent all his teen years partying and drinking only to find at the end of it all he has found nothing of the completeness he was looking for.

This pattern was not only limited to a few persons however, but as mentioned seemed to overwhelm the entire nation. People, disheartened and depressed from the harrowing affects of the First World War, detached themselves from reality, and like Charlie tried to put happiness and meaning back into their lives by drinking and partying. However, this sort of behavior only brings temporary satisfaction, and just as with Charlie, actually ends up worsening the problem rather than helping it. With the stock market crash of 1929, and the dust bowl drought of the early thirties, reality came crashing back in for people, removing the veil of drunken and illusionary happiness and meaning in life, laying bare once again the feelings of depression and disillusionment that had been suppressed and hidden for a time in the fast and loose lifestyle of the twenties.

The thirties were marked by the great depression, and although it was one of the hardest eras of the nations history we find glimmers of hope and change, especially in writing such as “The Grapes of Wrath.” Following the thirties and the Second World War in the forties we find, not the depressing and gloomy America of Fitzgerald and Eliot, but we the “golden era” of the fifties, in which it seems meaning was restored to life, and hope and prosperity where again the lifeblood of the American nation. However, in retrospect we find that in all reality the fifties could easily be likened to the twenties as an age after an atrocious war where a nation racked with the despair of such destruction tries to hide themselves behind a gilded vale of happiness, refusing to see or accept the reality of what was really happening. Caught it would appear in almost a limbo devoid of feeling, deeper meaning, and ultimately life. Passing as if almost a dream being “âÂ?¦neither / Living nor dead, and [knowing] nothing / Looking into the heart of light, the silence” (The Waste Land, 39-41). Waiting in an almost apprehensive silence for life to come crashing back in, and with it bring all the despair and depravity that life encompasses.

That crash came in the form of Allen Ginsberg. Shattering the gilded and delicately constructed lace fence of the Eisenhower years, in his hauntingly perceptive “Howl,” Ginsberg lays bare to the world, in the same way that Eliot did with “The Waste Land,” the dark, dreary, and lonesome as he laments for the fallen condition of America. With the telling opening lines of “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” Ginsberg quickly and forcibly reminds us that all is not well within America. He reminds us that things aren’t as pretty as they may seem and that under all the glided gold, there is a world filled with despair, disease, addiction and death.

The twentieth century is one marked by growth and learning. Of expansion and self-realization. In many ways it could almost be considered the teen years of the nations life, and as such it was filled with pain and sorrow, mixed with moments of elation and euphoria. However, over it all, as with the teen years of anyone, it was marked by growth, and the realization of self, and as anyone who has passed through the teen years, it is full of bouts of depression and despair. Of uncertainness and fear. Of questioning and doubt. Questions of who am I? What is my purpose? What do I want to become, all mark the growing progression in the teen years of life, and during the 20th century America as a nation was forced to deal with such questions. Of trying to cope with the reality of things and the projected image of how things “should be.”

This struggle of self-identity is expressed by the writers of the age, all the pain, suffering, and depression that accompanies the self-realization that you maybe aren’t as great as you once thought. That the world isn’t as good as Sesame Street made it seem. That superman is not so super. That your favorite fairytale is really a tragedy. All these realizations are painful in their own way, and each writer described and illustrated these realizations in their writings, as they tried to capture these feelings of this new national self-awareness that maybe America isn’t so perfect after all. And so we cry, we drink, we party, and finally we howl.

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