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Week Seven Lecture
American Literature in the Twentieth Century
1900 – 1945
Short Stories
The short stories and drama published during this period reflect many
of the same themes from earlier periods. Writers reacted to the
massive political, social, and cultural changes that were taking place
as America dealt with the effects of two World Wars, the Great
Depression, and racial prejudice.
Earlier in the class, we read several short stories that were written in
the nineteenth century. Since we will focus on short stories again, let
us begin by thinking about the literary genre of the short story. As
many of you know, the word “genre” means a type of literature. The
four main genres that we use to classify contemporary works of
literature are poetry, drama, the short story, and the novel.
Short stories are brief works of prose fiction that can be read in one
sitting. Short stories gained popularity in America during the
nineteenth century with Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. These authors published collections
of short stories that were widely successful and introduced the
American public to the pleasure of reading short stories. While the
limitation of space prevents the same level of development in plot and
character that readers find in a novel, short stories are, in some ways,
more accessible. They require much less of a time commitment on the
part of the reader, and they are frequently
published in popular periodicals. Periodicals such
as the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker,
and Atlantic have been important markets for
writers to display their talents.
Modern American Short Story Authors
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley near
Winchester, Virginia, though her family moved to Red
Cloud, Nebraska when she was nine. She was educated
first at home by her grandmother, and later by a storekeeper who
taught her to read Greek and Latin. After high school, she went to
college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studied journalism.
Later she moved to Pittsburgh and taught high school for several
years, eventually moving to New York to work at McClure’s Magazine,
where she remained until publishing her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge
In 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged her writing;
Jewett’s own stories, which featured Maine as the setting, prompted
Cather to feature the Nebraska region in more of her works, such as O
Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), two of her most well-known
novels. The immigrants who settled the American frontier, many of
them her neighbors in Nebraska, became prominent in Cather’s novels
and stories. Her works display a strong sense of place, connecting her
to the earlier Regionalists, and whether she writes about the Nebraska
Plains or the American Southwest, as she did in her novel, Death
Comes for the Archbishop (1927), the landscapes resonate almost as
strongly as the characters.
Cather spent the last forty years of her life in New York City with her
companion, Edith Lewis, and continued writing until she died in 1947.
Scholars are divided about how to categorize her sexuality, but it is
clear that she had close female friendships. She never wrote openly
about any of them and requested that upon her death her letters
should be burned, leaving little written evidence about her personal
life. Known more for her depiction of European immigrants, Cather
captures their essence and emblematizes their presence on the
American landscape.
“Neighbor Rosicky” (1930)
This six-part story seems long at first, though it is actually easy to
read. The characters are engaging and the setting, beautiful. Notice
that most of the story is told through the point of view of Anton
Rosicky, the main character, though in short passages the point of
view shifts to one or more of the other characters.
What is the effect of these brief shifts?
Cather captures the essence of this immigrant Czechoslovakian family
through their speech. How does that enhance the story? The main
character is such a good man that we cannot help but be drawn in by
his compassion, generosity (notice that he buys candy for his wife at
the general merchandise store), and wisdom. The story really
contains no antagonists or “villains.” Instead, Rosicky’s heart
condition provides the conflict, as well as does Rosicky’s sense that
something might be wrong in the marriage of Rudolph and Polly, his
son and daughter-in-law.
Trace Rosicky’s past. What difficulties has he endured? Why did he
come to the west to be a farmer? What kinds of experiences did he
have in London? In New York? Also, trace the progression of Polly’s
state of mind when she first appears in the story and then at the end,
after she has had an “awakening.” What do you think of her? Why
does her father-in-law’s experience and character affect her so much?
What does she seem to learn through his example? Also, notice the
rich family life that Rosicky and Mary have together. There is just a
hint of tension with Rudolph, who feels that his father may be doing
something wrong because he has not achieved more financial success.
How do Rosicky’s thoughts counter this idea? Another aspect of this
story is its beautiful description of the land, which plays a large role in
the character’s perspective about his life.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Perhaps the most widely recognized writer of his
generation, Ernest Hemingway’s fiction is often
overshadowed by his reputation as a macho man of action who
enjoyed drinking, big game hunting, bull fighting, deep sea fishing,
amateur boxing, and womanizing. It is true that Hemingway enjoyed
all of these things and that he led a very interesting life. If you are
interested in learning more about his life and the way that his
experiences affected his fiction, I recommend that you check out a
Hemingway biography. Carlos Baker, Scott Donaldson, and Charles M.
Oliver have written especially good biographies of Hemingway, and I
think that you will enjoy them.
Hemingway was the son of a doctor, known for his devotion to hunting
and fishing, and a mother, known for her bossy and overbearing ways.
In 1929, Hemingway’s father committed suicide by shooting himself in
the head.
Hemingway served in World War I as an ambulance
driver for the Red Cross. He was injured in Italy, just
before his nineteenth birthday. While recovering in a
hospital in Milan, he fell in love with his nurse. These
experiences were the inspiration for his popular novel, A
Farewell to Arms (1929).
While living as an American expatriate in Paris, Hemingway associated
closely with the major writers and artists of the Modernist movement:
Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, T.S.
Eliot, Pablo Picasso and others. He also traveled widely and lived for
extended periods in Spain, Africa, and Cuba. Finally he settled in
Ketchum, Idaho with his fourth wife. Depressed and in poor health, he
died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“Big Two-Hearted River” (1925)
This story, from Hemingway’s first published work of fiction, In Our
Time, published in 1925, is a collection that depicts “the lost
generation’s” search for meaning in the modern, post World War
world. Stories about a young man named Nick Adams alternate with
brief, powerful vignettes of contemporary violence and war. In Our
Time is a collection of short stories that is thematically unified around
the spiritual plight of modern humanity. In Nick Adams, Hemingway
develops the myth of the returning veteran, profoundly changed by
experiences denied to his innocent contemporaries at home.
To some Hemingway’s style might seem refreshingly
simple, maybe even childish. His training as a
journalist and his desire to avoid the “nausea” that
comes from exaggeration compel him to “write
simple true sentences.” He felt that old sentimental attitudes, old
codes of moral value, and old attitudes of honor and patriotism
collapsed during the war, thus demanding a new kind of writing that
was less romantic and sentimental, more specific, and closer to
experience. “Ironic understatement” is a phrase that is often used to
describe Hemingway’s prose style. He uses simple, declarative
sentences; he avoids elaborate descriptions; and he allows exact
physical details to suggest the implications of his stories. He does not
describe his protagonist’s thoughts and feelings; quite simply, he
prefers to let the action speak for itself.
Parts I and II of “The Big Two-Hearted River” are the
final two stories in the collection. Nick Adams has
returned to Michigan to an area he frequented as a
child. Part of a series of stories, more information is
learned from reading the entire collection, but suffice it
to say that Nick has returned from the war and seeks to
avoid the resulting inner trauma. He camps, fishes, notices the trout,
and the grasshoppers, as well as changes in the landscape. The story
depicts a man trying not to think about anything but the natural world
around him.
The chronologically ordered, mechanical movements
that Hemingway describes with great precision represent Nick’s
attempt to bring control and order to his life.
In Nick we see a prototype of the “wounded Hemingway hero” who
maintains “grace under pressure.” His fishing trip may be viewed as
the archetypal American quest for spiritual renewal in solitary contact
with nature.
Material in this lecture has been drawn from multiple sources, including the Concise Anthology of
American Literature, Sixth Edition, McMichael and Leonard, The Heath Anthology of American Literature,
Third Edition, Lauter, et al, The American Tradition in Literature, Shorter Edition in One Volume, Eleventh
Edition, including Instructor’s Manual and Ariel CD, Perkins & Perkins, The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Fifth Edition, V. 1, Baym, PAL: Perspectives in American Literature, A Research and Reference
Guide at URL:, and MAPS: Modern American Poetry at