By the end of the 19th century there rose in American life a consciousness of having come of age. Richard Harding Davis, Jack London, and O. Henry wrote completely without the "Brahmin's" interest in European culture. Encouraged by the example of the greatest American literary figure, Mark Twain, these local colorists and a host of writers without self-consciousness then created the most significant novels of the American scene. Most of these, nevertheless, still retain their Puritan inheritance -- a sense of social significance. In their methods they fluctuate between realism and naturalism, most being influenced by the prevailing methods in literary style of the American press. In 1915, Theodore Dreiser wrote The Genius, analyzing the egotistic selfishness of the romantic creative individualist. His An American Tragedy ( 1925) tells with the minutest detail of the way in which a crime may overtake almost anyone in modern society who is without a sense of direction. Sherwood Anderson in Dark Laughter shows the American businessman, who, like Thoreau, desires to escape social obligations.
Sinclair Lewis, like Dreiser essentially a news reporter, in Main Street and Babbitt shows the frustration caused in the human soul by provincialism, the demands of the race for material success, and inability of the American middle class to achieve spiritual freedom. Carol Kennicott in Main Street and George F. Babbitt in Babbitt were to see their isolationist world blasted by the World War, to witness their children in the jazz age from 1920 to 1930 find ing an illusion of freedom in the "speak-easy." Lewis, like most naturalists, gains an effect almost of caricature by carefully reporting many details. In Arrowsmith he portrays a young idealistic physician thwarted by commercialism, or industrialism, in his task of helping mankind. In the name character of Elmer Gantry, Lewis concentrates all the habits and attitudes of revivalist preachers. In It Can't Happen Here, he pictures the struggle of a patriotic newspaper editor against the American equivalent of a Fascist dictator.
Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country characterizes the ambitious young American woman without moral guidance; and in Ethan Frome Mrs. Wharton tells of New England's frustrated souls. In contrast, Willa Cather, living among the Norwegian pioneers of the Middle West, affirms in O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia the ability of the American woman's creative spirit to overcome the greatest handicaps. O. F. Rolvaag , in his Giants in the Earth and Peder Victorious, likewise tells of hardy Scandinavians pioneering in a new world.
In a vein akin to the spirit of these novelists is the poetic Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters, with its somewhat pessimistic revelation of unheroic American lives. Carl Sandburg deals boldly and gladly with American industry in Chicago, Corn Huskers, and Smoke and Steel. Vachel Lindsay, catching the rhythms of Negro life, of frontier camp meetings, and the industrial machine, creates an expressionist poetry in "GeneralWilliam Booth Enters into Heaven." "The Congo," and "The Kallyope Yell." For years Lindsay, like some inspired bard of the Middle Ages, wandered from town to town preaching a gospel of beauty and regeneration through art. Sandburg, too, with his guitar inspired those who heard him. Like Lindsay, Robert Frost describes farm life, but his scene is New England rather than the Middle West.
The period shortly before and immediately after the World War brought to the "Brahmins" an interest in Symbolism, expressionism, and introspective analysis which had earlier found its verse forms in the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, T. S. Eliot, and Edward Arlington Robinson carry introspective analysis further and approach the techniques of such stream-of-consciousness writers as E. E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein. All of these, like late English Romantics, the French Symbolists, and Edgar Allan Poe, have an interest in the effectiveness of words or rhythmical patterns for their own sake or as an aid to self-revelation. Most of them, cut off from the American Utopian vision or disillusioned by the apparent triumph of materialism during the war years, can be considered as thwarted individuals seeking an escape through their art.
After the war of 1917-1918, many Americans retreated into mysticism or nature worship. It is perhaps significant that a poem like Joyce Kilmer 's Trees became the favorite of Rotary and other social service clubs where American businessmen strove to recapture some vision of Utopia. The paradox of the American as revealed by his literary portrait is that he wants freedom from domination, wants escape from his loneliness, yet fears to take his place as a citizen of the world. Today he is being forced to see that he cannot escape wholly either the culture or the consequences of his background.
In his attempt to mature quickly after the World War, the American turned to many popular semiliterary accounts of scientific accomplishment, first pausing, with Gamaliel Bradford, to debunk his heroes, in thoughtful American Portraits. Edward Bok, Michael Pupin, and Mary Antin wrote autobiographies that told what the latest immigrants hoped to achieve in America. In Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull House are skillfully portrayed the problems of Americanization.
Always eager students, the average Americans turn to the idealistic Englishman H. G. Wells for a popular historical outline. Edwin E. Slosson 's Creative Chemistry, Paul deKruif's Microbe Hunters, Will Durant's Story of Philosophy, Harry Overstreet's About Ourselves, Lewis Mum ford 's Technics and Civilization, and the pseudoanthropological writings of Freud, Adler, and Jung take the place of Benjamin Franklin's humanist and Biblical backgrounds. For his economic and political theory the American depends too greatly upon the daily press and the radio. The actual drama of modern life has become so thrilling that the arts pale by comparison. In 1939 a radio drama telling of the invasion of this world by people from Mars appeared to be so real that many could not distinguish it from actual reports of armies in Europe about to destroy civilization.