Watching a child grow and develop is an interesting evolution to witness. The most intriguing development is observing how the child finds her voice. Cultures are the same way. Every culture, every political climate, each nation has a voice of its own, unique from every other. These voices don’t come naturally or easily. The discovery is a long arduous task. The American culture and tradition is no different. There is a distinct quality to the American voice, regardless of the current political name-calling and side-taking, regardless of the economic situation of the country. There is a voice, an attitude that sets American fiction and poetry apart from other Western literature. This voice wasn’t discovered over-night. Over the 95 years between 1820 and 1915, the American literary tradition moved from the Picaresque to the Romantic, from the Romantic to the Naturalist, from the Naturalist into the Realists, and from the Realist into the Modernist eras, carrying with it traditions from each era into the next, building upon one another to form a firm foundation and a sturdy framework to support the future generations of Post-Modernism and Absurdist to come. Through this evolution, scholars of the American literary tradition see the most growth in character development, plot structure, and thematic under-pining, as America the country, grows and develops its unique sound.
When America first learned to tell stories, the Picaresque approach was the mode du jour. It was in brief scenes with fantastical, over-the-top premises through which the plot was driven, and characters were usually flat, two-dimensional beings with no real outside motivations. One of the best examples of this form of novel writing is The Pioneers, by James Fennimore Cooper. The Pioneers, by today’s standards can only barely be classified as a novel. There is a very slight undercurrent moving the plot all the way through the book, however, for the most part, Cooper moves readers along by jumping from one scene to the other: first readers ride along with Judge Temple in his sleigh and they almost go off a cliff, then the Judge fires blindly into the woods, thinking he’s hit a deer, when he’s actually hit a person, we are moved through to a parlor scene, and a “turkey hunt” if one can call it that, all the while there is only the faintest breeze of continuity in the actual storyline, with dialogue that seems incredibly stilted and dry. Elizabeth, Judge Temple, Louisa, every character throughout The Pioneers is static, flat, and two-dimensional, seemingly without outside motivation for his or her actions, with the exception of Natty Bumppo. Yet, we even have a hard time rounding out Natty, despite the fact that his apparent modicum operandi is dictated by the laws of nature. because of its disparity with modern fiction, The Pioneers is a difficult read for the casual reader.
Fortunately, much in the same way a child’s ability to speak and communicate grows and blossoms, as the burgeoning country began to grow and flourish, American writers began finding a more effective way to of telling stories, and more complex methods to critiquing and commenting on American culture. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterful example of such. An American Romantic, Hawthorne employs tenets of the genre to cast a critical eye upon American society of the 1840s, all the while using the subterfuge of being critical of the Puritanical beliefs of the 1600s. Hawthorne seems to lambast the self-centredness of the American culture, using Hester Prynn’s short-sightedness in seeing how her actions affect others on the community, while at the same time fostering the idea of how crowd-sourcing is detrimental to the functioning of a society. Hawthorne does all this while employing a strong through-line in the plot, good (though not excellent) dialogue, and characters that are slightly closer to filling out and becoming three-dimensional. While modern readers might find the pacing of The Scarlet Letter a little slow, Hawthorne – a mere twenty-seven years after Cooper – employs modern writing techniques that most readers of today would be able to follow without much struggle.
The development of the American voice fully matured by the end of the nineteenth century, moving into the twentieth century. By the time World War I started in 1914, American Literature had moved through the clumsy adolescent phase, and became a tradition on-par with its much-older sibling, English Literature. Willa Cather best exemplifies how an author can use traditions of those who came before to craft a novel that is compelling, harrowing, insightful, and overall a delight to read. Cather’s book O Pioneers! is a work of fiction that masterfully incorporates ideas of the Romantic and Naturalist movements, while asking important questions of how best a society is to move forward, can conservation be a part of that forward-moving dialogue, and what the role of the individual is within society as a whole. Using a plot structure that drives all the way through the novel and incorporating new philosophies of the essence of time, Cather’s novel features well-rounded, fully-fleshed characters who struggle with staying rooted to their pasts and moving forward in a changing world. The character of Carl forces readers to question whether or not there is a place for the Romantic dreamer in a modernized society. The character of Ivar raises the question of whether conservation has a place in growing society, and calls to account whether a life rigidly adhering to the marking off of days and hours, can truly be a fulfilling life. Yet, it is through the protagonist, Alexandra, that readers find the balance. Alexandra is the embodiment of the spirit of America: she holds on to old ideas, while embracing the new; she doesn’t live her life counting the hours, instead choosing to make the hours and days count, and it is because of this she and her farm thrive, and it can be inferred that Cather meant the Alexandra character to resonate in this fashion.
American fiction continues to test out new voices and becomes firmer in its ideals as it ages, not always for the best. While American literary fiction is doing its best to uphold the traditions of those who preceded – pushing against the grain, asking the hard questions, combing the breadth of the soul – and attempting to grow, American popular fiction has moved away from the storytelling of old, focusing more on the quantity of the product, the earning potential, over the quality of the material. Has this become the gold standard for American culture, or is the literary tradition forcing a new standard? Whatever the case may be, American fiction will continue to change and grow with each passing generation. Our hope lies in those who will continue to listen to those who came before, taking what is passed down, much like a child receiving an inheritance, and who will create with it wonderful works that will continue the evolution of the American voice, and that will be used in the future to further the discussion of where we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.