The Contemporary Period in American Literature

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  • 0:05 Development from Modernism
  • 1:40 Effects of WWII
  • 2:19 Response to Conformity
  • 3:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lindsey Madison-Dunn

Lindsey has taught a variety of English courses in both secondary and post-secondary classrooms, and has a master's degree in Rhetoric.

Learn about how Contemporary literature developed and understand its fundamental characteristics. Find out how American history and cultural norms really defined and developed the Contemporary period in American literature.

Development From Modernism

Hemingway, Stein, and Eliot were leading Modernist writers.
Modernist Authors

In this lesson, we will learn about the Contemporary period in American literature, where it came from, and identify its basic characteristics. The Contemporary period in American literature begins at the end of World War II, and in order to understand this literature and how it developed, we need to look at where it came from. With writers like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot, the Modernist period (taking place between the 1920s and 40s) explored the ways that truth is not straightforward, rational or clearly defined, but rather how it is completely influenced by human perception. Their writing brought us deeper into the workings of the human mind as a means to get at reality.

In other words, Modernists believed that the characters' thoughts mattered more than the plot, and the way things are said - in terms of the rhythm and imagery - may communicate more about the character than what they are doing. Passages may not proceed in an ordered way, but may be more choppy or fragmented. The shift from working to objectively portray events and experiences in the world to the often nonsensical exploration of human psychology is a clear marker for Modern literature. It also brings a shift in how we see the world. By the end of WWII, the modernists had heightened our awareness that truth is merely a product of human perception. If truth is so influenced by human perception, then a clear, objective standard for truth isn't quite so clear-cut, and reality is, to some extent, what we make of it.

Effects of World War II

The massive trauma of WWII influenced Contemporary writers.
WWII Rescue Photo

So, depending on what kind of reality we were making, it might seem all fine and good to allow it to be determined by humans. But, the one we were making was not super fun. Throughout the end of Modernism, people were dealing with the horror of WWII. The bombs dropped on citizens in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki left the world traumatized, wondering if there was any point to human existence. Whereas Modernist writers really began to explore human consciousness as a primary mode of getting at truth, the Contemporary writers following the war also struggled to reconcile the irrational and violent actions taken by humans.

Response to Conformity

Not only were writers dealing with the beginnings of this sort of existential crisis of purpose and meaning, they were also confronting absolute and unquestioned patriotism, which continued in America after WWII. During the war, national pride had been galvanized in order to defeat the German and Japanese armies. After the war was over, media and popular culture identified the U.S. as the prime hero of the time. Americans were the good guys, and they could do no wrong.

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