The values that helped the colonists to build a government
and stable society were applied to the fields of science, literature,
cinema and music. As a result, the social and economic life of the people
in the US grew richer. In the field of literature, the U.S. has given
the world writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Walt
Whitman and Robert Frost.
American literature like any other country’s literature
reflected the socio-economic conditions and the struggles and aspirations
of the nation. Thus, during the colonial period, the literature consisted
of accounts and histories of the early English settlements in the new
land. "A True Relation of Virginia" (1608) written by
Captain John Smith and The History and Present state of Virginia
(1705) by Robert Beverly are some of the finest examples of
the literature produced during this period. The "History of Plymouth
Plantation" written by William Bradford and "Magnalia
Christi Americana" written by perhaps one of the greatest puritan
American historian - Cotton Mather are some more remarkable works
of this time.
Apart from the classic work "Common Sense"
of Thomas Paine during the Revolutionary period, there were new
writers experimenting with new techniques who published their works as
the young nation of U.S. was born out the Revolutionary war. In "The
Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" (1819- 1820), the author Washington
Irving combines the style of essay and sketch to create the first
short stories in American literature. This book includes stories of "Rip
Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
Similarly, the poet, William Cullen Bryant adapted English romantic
poetry to describe American landscape and to find moral significance in
natural beauty. His ’Thanatopsis’ (1817), ’To a Waterfowl’ (1818) reflect
Bryant’s admiration of nature.
The mid 1800s saw the appearance of the sentimental novel
in the U.S. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-’52)
is a classic example of such a novel. The 1800s also saw several historical
romances written. For instance, James Fenimore Cooper’s The
Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deer Slayer (1841) are
fine examples of the historical romance written during this period.
Besides, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used the romance
to study the depths of human nature. His book: The Scarlet Letter
(1850) set in Puritan New England depicted the suffering caused by the
concealing sin. Herman Melville’s classic: Moby Dick (1851)
is another example of the American romance. Edgar Allen Poe was the best
exponent of Gothic fiction. His works were called ’Gothic’ because of
the gloomy setting and atmosphere of the stories.
The 1830s and 1840s in America witnessed a literary and
philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. It was developed
in New England. Transcendentalists believed that god was present in nature
and that human beings intuitively know the ’truth.’ So the transcendental
philosophers stressed on self-reliance and individualism. Some of the
well-known transcendentalist writers were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry
David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Browson Alcott.
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the popular poets
of the 19. The latter’s collection of poems: ’Leaves of Grass’ (1855)
depicts the best and worst of American life.
The late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed
the appearance of the Naturalists who depicted their characters as people
completely controlled by economic, social or biological factors. Upton
Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) is a powerful novel exposing the
animal-like working conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. The
book had such an impact that, the Roosevelt Government was forced to sit
up and pass federal regulations. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge
of Courage and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie are
the other representatives of the naturalist style of writing.
Perhaps the greatest novelists of the late 19th century
in America were Mark Twain and Henry James. The well-known
works of Twain are Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Henry James wrote the Novel of Manners
and later The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In both the works, James
traced in detail the psychological and moral problems of his characters.
Besides, many women writers like Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton
appeared on the literary scene. Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1899),
portraying a women’s psychological and sexual development received such
hostile reaction, that it put an end to her career. Today, feminists approach
her with a lot of respect.
The World Wars and the depression saw the rise of modernist
writers and writers of realist fiction. The moving saga of farmers in
Oklahoma during the depression is brilliantly portrayed in John Steinbeck’s
work: The Grapes of Wrath. While Steinbeck is one of the greatest
realist writers of America, William Faulkner’s The Sound and
the Fury (1929) and As I lay Dying (1930) saw the dawn of the
modernist novel in America. The Post-war period saw the continuation of
realist fiction. Some of these writers were James Jones, Irwin Shaw,
J. D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others.
The motion pictures in the U.S. has had a tremendous
impact on the social and cultural life of not just the U.S. They have
influenced the values of people throughout the world. Tracing the history
of motion pictures in the U.S. one can go back to the first movie made
in the U.S. a silent movie - ’The Great Train Robbery’ (1903),
directed by Edwin S. Porter. Porter’s film with its story telling
technique paved the way for a major breakthrough in the Exhibition of
films. From around 1905, several ’nickelodeon’ theaters (which were shops
with a screen and folding chairs) opened in several areas of the country.
These theaters became the prime spots of entertainment for the American
public. Initially, directors worked in several cities of the U.S. to make
a movie. As the movie industry developed, film makers began working more
in Southern California due to the suitable climatic conditions. And by
the outbreak of World War I, a number of movie companies set up studios
in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles. By the end of 1918, the name
Hollywood represented the heart of American entertainment. In 1911,
the Nestor Company built the first Studio in Hollywood. As the movie industry
grew with its capital in Hollywood, new techniques in direction were introduced.
Historians credit D.W. Griffith an American director
for developing basic film making techniques. Before his time, directors
kept the camera in a fixed position and used only one for the entire picture.
Griffith introduced the use of additional camera angles and broke up scenes
into several shots to improve editing.
The Silent era of films featured several comic
performers like Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Mary
Dressler, who all worked for the Canadian Mark Sennet at his Keystone
Studio in Los Angeles. With Sennet, came the era of Silent Comedies which
were known for brilliant photography and emphasis on precise timing.
The Talkies: In the 1920s, motion pictures began
using sound. In the mid ’20s Bell Telephone Laboratories developed
a system that helped co-ordinate sound on records with the movie projector.
In 1926, Warner Bros. used this system, (vita phone) in their silent film
’Don Juan’ with music and sound effects. Later in 1927, Warner
Bros. produced the ’The Jazz Singer’ starring Al Johnson -
where the actor for the first time spoke a few times. ’The Jazz Singer’,
thus ushered in the era of the Talkies in the U.S.
It is said that the best pieces of Art, be it music,
literature or painting have been produced out of pain and suffering. Mozart
suffered various travails in his life. Van Gogh led a life of sheer poverty,
but produced brilliant works like the World renowned "Sunflowers."
Similarly, in the U.S., music has come to be synonymous
with the Afro-Americans. Perhaps, it was due to their suffering and hardship
(faced over the years due to racial discrimination and oppression) that
they have a peculiar sensitivity capable of creating some of the finest
works in music and the arts. Whether it is Jazz, or Reggae and Rap, black
Americans like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Miles
Davis and Bob Marley have become legendary names in the American
history of music.
Special mention ought to be given to Jazz which has its
roots in the folk songs and plantation dance music of black Americans.
For it was in the 1920s that Jazz became extremely popular. The twenties
decade came to be called the golden age of Jazz. The ’20s featured live
performance by several Jazz artistes.
Rock’n Roll: Another trend which become the symbol
of teenage rebellion and developed into a distinct counter-culture in
the ’60s affecting reflecting the mood of the young, was Rock’n Roll.
Rock’n Roll has its source in the ’Rhythm and Blues’,
an idiom popular among black audiences. Rhythm and Blues was a combination
of the Blues (in the structure of the song, vocal style and use of amplified
guitar), Gospel music accompanied by Piano and Jazz (with the Saxophone).
Rhythm and Blues had become extremely popular in the ’40s. In 1951, D.
J. Alan Freed attracted several white youth to this music by using
the term Rock’n Roll. Rock’n Roll’s first Superstar was Elvis Presley.
He led the way for the others. He shocked the conservative adults with
his suggestive hip gyrations. But his dance and music delighted the youth
all over America. Elvis Presley, with his huge fan
following brought the cult of personalities into ’Rock’n
Roll.’ The other popular figures of this music were Chuck Berry
and Jerry Lee Lewis. But by the late ’50s, Rock’n Roll had become
extremely formula ridden. It was in the 60s, that Rock’n Roll got a fresh
lease of life with the Beatles. The ’70s saw the fragmentation
of Rock into Hard Rock, and mellow Rock. While folk and Country rock retained
the character of folk and country music, Reggae emerged (From Jamaica
in 1972) was an combination of rock, soul, Calypso and other Latin rhythms.
The Jamaican composer Bob Marley made Reggae popular in the U.S. With
his band - the Wailers, he made Reggae music well known throughout the
world. Bob Marley gave new meaning to music by espousing the cause of
black Civil Rights in songs such as: "Get up, stand up ... "
Even today, the music scene (with honorable exceptions)
in the U.S. is largely dominated by the Afro-Americans. But sadly, music
like all other forms of art and even sports in the U.S. is affected by
the cult of personalities. Michael Jackson, the ’King of Pop’ is
a prime example of the domination of cult figures in American music today.