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American Literature and History: 1880–1940

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    The 1880s

    At the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, this period of the Gilded Age was characterised by economic growth and significant technological advancements. The skyscraper was introduced along with the Statue of Liberty. A surge of immigration led to the US having fifty million inhabitants, with white Europeans as the dominant group. By the late nineteenth century, the US became a leading global industrial power.
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    Realism

    The devastating Civil War had hundreds of thousands of casualties and following its end, a new type of literature emerged that presented a detailed and unexaggerated view of the world, which was the essence of realism. Naturalism was an intensified form of this. Notable realist and naturalist authors include Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser. Henry James's writing showed features of realism and the next popular genre, modernism.
  • Publication of 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'

    Mark Twain's novel was one of the first in American literature to be written throughout in vernacular English. It was widely criticised upon its release for its coarse language and was banned and censored numerous times following it. Despite this, the novel is commonly named as a Great American Novel.
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    The 1890s

    In the US, the 1890s were marked by a severe economic depression that ended the Gilded Age and coincided with riots and several strikes in the industrial sector. The USA's victory in the Spanish-American War resulted in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines being ceded to the US and Cuba gaining independence.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson

    The US Supreme Court approved racial segregation under the 'separate but equal' doctrine, which went on to legitimise further racial segregation laws made in the country.
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    The 1900s

    The 1900s saw mass production of the automobile and the introduction of the typewriter. During this part of the Progressive Era, many states enacted laws to improve people's living and working conditions. The first movie theatre was opened and the first modern-day hamburger was served.
  • Wright Flyer's success

    The Wright brothers made the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered heavier-than-air aircraft with their Wright Flyer in 1903. Their theoretical achievements in doing so were influential in the development of aviation.
  • Introduction of the Ford Model T

    The Model T's introduction revolutionised transportation and American industry and it is generally regarded as the first affordable automobile which enabled middle-class Americans to travel via car. It was named the most influential car of the 20th century and became a powerful symbol of the USA's age of modernisation.
  • Establishment of the NAACP

    Following the significant increase in lynchings of black people, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was formed as an interracial endeavour to advance justice for African-Americans.
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    The 1910s

    The most significant event of the decade was the First World War, spanning from 1914 to 1918 and causing millions of casualties. From 1918, a pandemic of the Spanish influenza infected 500 million people and killed at least about 20 million people. The first jazz music was recorded, and the first American feature film was released. Hollywood became the centre of the movie industry.
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    Modernism

    The dissonance between the scientific and technological advancements of the time and the suffering caused by WW1 and the Great Depression are seen in modernism, which is defined as a radical break from the past. It caused a lack of faith in traditional structures in beliefs. This period was one of the richest in American literature, featuring F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and many more authors.
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    World War I

    The US declared war on Germany in April 1917, three years after the start of WWI, and majorly contributed to the war with supplies and raw materials. For the first time in American history, women took traditionally "male" jobs, such as working on factories' assembly lines. American children were taught patriotism and were asked to encourage war support. No financial or educational benefits were offered to veterans after the war, and 1919 saw rising unemployment, strikes, and race riots.
  • Release of 'The Birth of a Nation'

    The film has been called the most controversial and racist film ever made in the United States. Its depiction of black people led to numerous protests from African-Americans and attempts to get the film banned. The film's glorification of the Ku Klux Klan influenced the group's revival months later. It is a landmark of film history for being the first 12-reel film made, and its use of a musical score, hundreds of extras, a battle sequence, close-ups, and fade-outs.
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    Harlem Renaissance

    The Harlem Renaissance spanned the 1920s and 30s. Its revival of African-American arts, music, theatre, fashion, and politics redefined how the country viewed them, and encouraged an appreciation for black life and culture. Alain Locke's anthology 'The New Negro' was considered to be a cornerstone of the Renaissance.
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    The 1920s

    Also referred to as the Roaring Twenties or Jazz Age (the latter term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald), the 1920s were a period of economic prosperity in the US. The decade saw a novel break from tradition, seen in women becoming 'flappers' who danced, wore shorter dresses, drank, smoked, and voted. Jazz music and dance clubs were enormously popular, and with the prohibition of alcohol, so were illegal speakeasies. This came to an end with the devastating Wall Street crash in 1929.
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    Prohibition

    Producing, importing, transporting, and selling alcoholic beverages became illegal in 1920. This arguably led to a major boost in organised crime through "rum-running". Prohibition was highly controversial and for every year it was in action, it lost supporters. By the late 1920s, there was a strong nationwide opposition to it. It was eventually repealed in 1933.
  • Women's suffrage

    After a long period of agitation, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote in all state and federal elections.
  • Tulsa Race Massacre

    Taking place from 31 May–1 June, mobs of white residents attacked black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time it was one of the wealthiest black communities in the country, known as 'Black Wall Street'. The event is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, killing 36, injuring more than 800, and leaving about 10,000 black people homeless.
  • Immigration Act of 1924

    The act became federal law in 1924, limiting 'the immigration of aliens into the United States'. This replaced earlier attempts to effectively ban all immigration from Asia (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and also placed severe restrictions on immigration from countries outside the Western Hemisphere. This severely affected Italians, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews, among other groups.
  • Publication of 'The Great Gatsby'

    F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel received generally favourable reviews upon its release, but was a commercial failure compared to his previous work. After his death in 1940, it experienced a surge in popularity amid WW2 and became a core part of American popular culture and high school curricula. The novel is still popular today, and widely considered to be a contender for the title of Great American Novel.
  • Publication of 'The Sun Also Rises'

    Despite receiving mixed reviews upon publication, the novel is seen as Hemingway's greatest and most important work. He popularised Gertrude Stein's term 'the Lost Generation' with this novel. It was seen as an iconic modernist novel, and was a model for 20th century American literature. Young people began to look up to both Hemingway and his characters.
  • The Wall Street Crash of 1929

    Share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in what was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, signalling the beginning of the Great Depression.
  • Publication of 'A Farewell to Arms'

    Hemingway's experience in the First World War formed the basis of this novel, which became his first best-seller. It is considered one of his best literary works, and is praised for its realistic depiction of war. Along with his earlier novel 'The Sun Also Rises', it features the disillusionment of the 'Lost Generation'.
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    The 1930s

    The 1930s were defined by a global economic and political crisis that arguably resulted in the Second World War. The Great Depression brought severe unemployment and poverty to the US, and led to a loss of confidence in the economic future. The depression caused major political changes, and shaped modern theories of economics along with modern American literature. It was only eased by the USA entering WW2, as the need for new workers and soldiers brought unemployment below 2% in 1943.
  • Publication of 'The Grapes of Wrath'

    John Steinbeck's novel was controversial upon its release and was publicly banned and burned by citizens. Despite this, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and received multiple awards, becoming 'the most discussed novel of 20th century American literature'. It is frequently featured in American education and is considered a Great American Novel.
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    World War II

    The US declared war on Japan in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbour, bringing the country into WW2. Wartime production brought about millions of new jobs. To replace men who were at war, women took on jobs in traditionally male sectors like manufacture, and Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of this. From 1942 to 1945, about 120,000 Japanese Americans in the west were forcibly incarcerated in concentration camps. A baby boom and economic prosperity followed the Allies' victory in 1945.