Both the novel and the American society correspond to the beginning of a modern era. America is a direct consequence of the age of reason (18th century). Indeed, the first settlers intended to escape the tyrannical power of absolute monarchs.
The novel is also the result of a revolution :
- social revolution: when the middle-class asserted its cultural autonomy
- idealogical change that put the single individual at the centre of the world
Yet, there are profound contradictions:
- America did not offer favourable conditions for the birth of the novel. The notion of class, and love and marriage are central to the novel.
- the 18th century and 19th century novels are about chasing a husband.
- the European novel favours a plot with a domestic story and marriage E.g.: Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary.
- the American novel avoids treating passionate relationships, focuses on male characters, and turns away from Society to Nature. E.g. Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans.
American novels dream of the innocence with the first settlers bu Puritanism and the notion of guilt proved to be fundamental in American literature. This feeling of guilt included the rape of nature and the exploitation of the Natives.
The Lost Prairie
The early 19th century can be described as an American Epic. James Fenimore Cooper's The Leatherstocking Tales gave America legend and myth.
The two main themes are:
- the settlement: how pioneers got used to a new life in the American wilderness;
- the frontier, which can be described as an ideal boundary between two cultures: the "civilized and cultivated" society, and "wild and lawless" tribes. The frontier is also a limit pushed further westward.
Settlers and trappers and the Great Prairies
The central character found in Cooper's Tales is a trapper surviving by catching small animals: Natti Bumppo. He's a white man who has lived with the Natives and respects them. He's suspicious of progress. He's a typical American hero - a poor lonesome trapper.
The notion of solitude is significant. According to Alexis de Tocqueville's De la Démocratie en Amérique, democracy is about a world of lonesome men owing their allegiance to no none, men who are neither servants or bondsmen. Self-reliance is key although man is constantly watched by God's invisible eye (puritan view and the sense of guilt).
The Frontier is a virgin land, the New Eden, the biblical Promised Land. The utopian territory is soiled and tarnished, corrupted : by invading those new virgin lands, the conquerors brought along their greed for money, their lust for power, and their selfish appetite. As a consequence, their adventures are bound to damage what they most cherish, respect and admire.
The land is turned to a battlefield opposing white men against themselves and against Native populations. The dream of purity and innocence turns into a sanguinary and bloody battlefield.
East and West, North and South
The East represents industrialisation, urbanisation, corruption and sin while the West represents the last rampart against encroaching civilisation, the last space of innocence and purity.
The North is Yankee, modern and industrial while the South is Dixieland, with the colonial south, agricultural and colonial area with the cotton fields There is a clash between conservative (South) and modern/liberal (North).
We can see these oppositions in very famous pairs of characters: Cooper's Natty and Chingachgook, Melville's Ishmael and Qeequeg, and Twain's Huck and Jim.
The Prairie's posterity
Novels have often recounted a flight or escape towards a mystic and idealised West. In Grapes of Wrath, a bunch of dislocated farmers are making the same journey as their ancestors, their eldorado being California.
In the 1920's - 1930's, America had become a modern country and the far west was still very much synonymous of freedom and anarchy. American novelists are like their books, escaping their familiar environment (Huck escapes with a runaway slave for instance).
In the 1920's, American writers left America for Europe, they were the writers of the "Lost Generation": Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein all came to France to write about America.
In the 1950's, the writers of the "Beat Generation", such as Jack Kerouac, went to California : San Francisco was then identified as the ideal of freedom.
Yet, the journey is not always physical. It can be symbolic, a retreat from society by getting isolated: Emerson went to Concord, Thoreau went to Walden, at the fringe of society.
The realist jungle
Urban America was depicted in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.
America is going to deal with metropolis in a simplistic and manichean vision which opposes the Prairie, synonymous of innocence, with the City, a place of evil and corruption.
This innocence was destroyed by immigrants as men broke what has been their dream. The vision of the city reminds us of biblical references: buildings and skyscrapers are reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, their dreams of going beyond and transgressing human limitations.
Romance is the universe of the prairie whereas the novel, with its elements of realism, deals with the shabbiness and ugliness of the city.