While the 1920’s were not remarkable for radical political changes or catastrophic natural phenomena, it is still a very significant period in the history of American cultural evolution. On the literary scene, two important but parallel movements took shape. The better known of these is the Roaring Twenties, a description that covers the whole literary works of the period written by White writers. While these works were widely circulated and popularly recognized, another literary movement in the form of African-American emancipation found voice among the new generation of Black writers. This is called the Harlem Renaissance. Both these have much in common. The written word provided a new found freedom for both white and black writers to express their criticisms, observations and opinions of the American society as they saw it. The point of view might have been different, but the genre is essentially the same – one of social critique and exposition. As a matter of fact, by picking a literary work from the period at random and reading it one cannot identify the race of the author, for writers from both races saw similar strengths and weaknesses in their societies. This fact moreover emphasizes the egalitarian provision of the written literary medium. A comparative analysis of literary characters from both categories will help highlight the similar themes governing them (Bercovitch, 232).
For instance, alongside Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and others, F. Scott Fitzgerald took the art of novel writing to a new level. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, is the account of the life and times of the novel’s protagonist Jay Gatsby. The story is about Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream, his achievement of that dream and the eventual disillusionment of the whole exercise. On a philosophical angle, the novel conveys the message that the cultural imperatives of the time – like accumulating wealth and power – might not lead to enduring happiness and peace. Interestingly, Fitzgerald’s own life followed the path of Gatsby’s. In this sense, The Great Gatsby has more reality in it than fictitious elements. The book was also a social documentary of the affluence and artistic splendor of the period. The poem “Heritage” written by Countee Cullen is equally reflective of the American conundrum of the time, albeit one of the African-American identity. The poem Heritage inquires about the racial ambiguity of black Americans, whose African origins induce much confusion regarding their true identity. Cullen’s pride and longing of the African way of life, a life inseparable from nature and all its bounties is captured lyrically in the last stanza of his poem: “All day long and all night through,/ One thing only must I do:/ Quench my pride and cool my blood,/ Lest I perish in the flood” (Bercovitch, 217). These lines epitomize the sentiments of black Americans of the time quite accurately. Cullen also implies that the American society of the 1920’s has failed to cater to the fundamental needs of its citizens, succumbing to the prejudices and orthodoxy of the period. In this sense, both the works (that of Fitzgerald and Cullen) depict the despair felt by Americans (whites and blacks alike), albeit for their own reasons. Both authors implicitly expose their disillusionment with the American society of the 1920’s.
Sacvan Bercovitch, The Cambridge History of American Literature, pages 212-240, Published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.