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Modern American Prose

Modern American Prose

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With the end of World War II in 1945, American literature entered a new era. Building off the tendency towards experimentation and the abandonment of literary conventions established during the modernist literary movement, authors of modern American prose continued to break the rules and defy expectations. The modern era saw the development of American literature into the diverse body of work we enjoy today.

Modern American Prose: A Definition

Modern American prose is generally defined as novels, short stories, and essays written in English by American authors after the end of World War II. Authors of modern American prose employ various styles and literary techniques; however, prose remains separated from poetry because it follows grammatical patterns found in speech and common language.

Modern American prose includes some of American literature's best-known novels and essays, including Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee (1926-2016), and Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison (1931-2019).

The Development of Modern American Prose

The start of the modern literary period is marked by the end of World War II in 1945.

Early in the 20th century, Modernism was the predominant literary movement in Europe and the United States.

Modernism was a literary movement defined by breaking with past literary conventions and styles. Modernist writers played with their work's form, style, and structure.

American Modernist writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Richard Wright (1908-1960), William Faulkner (1897-1962), and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) were known for their sense of disillusionment and critiques of American society and societal expectations. Stylistically, these writers experimented with form and structure, rejecting literary conventions of the past.

It's important to clarify that the literary movement of Modernism is associated with literature from 1914-1940, whereas so-called modern literature began in 1945. Another, more accurate word to describe modern literature might be "contemporary."

Modern American prose, World War II plane, StudySmarterFig. 1: Modern American prose began with the end of World War II in 1945.

Modernism paved the way for modern American prose by breaking the mold of traditional literature and opening the door to innovation and experimentation. Thus, the modern era of American prose is marked by the diversification of American literature without a predominant, overarching literary style or movement.

Great modernist writers like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner continued to publish after World War II, but their new works did not garner the success they previously enjoyed. One notable exception was Hemingways's novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which is regarded as one of his best works. Both Faulkner and Hemingway were honored with the Nobel Prize in the post-war years.

World War II itself was an important topic for many writers and the subject of several key 20th-century novels, including Joseph Heller's (1923-1999) Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut's (1922-2007) Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

The mid-20th century was a time of great change and cultural upheaval in the United States, and this is reflected in the period's literature. The 1950s, 60s, and 70s saw social movements like the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, and the Chicano movement, which introduced a new diversity to American literature. African American writers such as James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) rose to prominence. More female writers, such as Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) and Harper Lee, gained widespread acclaim. Chicano writers, including Rudolfo Anaya (1937-present) and Sandra Cisneros (1954-present), achieved national recognition.

Modern American prose, Martin Luther King statue, StudySmarterFig. 2: Changes to American society brought on by movements like the civil rights movement are also reflected in modern American prose.

The Modernism of the first half of the century also began to transform into Postmodernism, which constituted a further disintegration of literary conventions in which authors abandoned meaning in favor of absurdity, disorder, and fragmentation.

Authors such as Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) and Kurt Vonnegut wrote texts that were playful and absurd and often used techniques like metafiction and intertextuality.

Postmodernism was a literary movement that was particularly prominent in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. Postmodern writers often explored historical or political subject matter in a way that challenged authority and undermined traditional literary conventions. Many works of postmodern literature are playful or even absurd, and writers use various techniques, including metafiction, intertextuality, dark humor, and fragmentation, to draw attention to the often meaninglessness of existence. Some notable postmodern American novels include Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon.

However, for each postmodern, absurdist work from writers like Dick and Vonnegut, there was a sincere, realistic work from authors like James Baldwin or Harper Lee. In short, American literature came to resemble the diverse body of work seen today, and this trend towards diversification continues to this day.

Examples of Modern American Prose

There are many important examples of modern American prose. This selection helps to illustrate the breadth and variety of prose produced in the United States.

Early Modern American Prose

Some examples of modern American prose from 1945 to 1970 include:

Late 20th Century American Prose

In the late 20th century, American prose continued to diversify and included more African American, Latinx, and Asian American writers. Some examples include:

Contemporary American Prose

Contemporary American prose includes a wide variety of authors and topics. Some examples include:

  • American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman (1960-present)
  • Everything is Illuminated (2002) by Jonathan Safran Foer (1977-present)
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie (1966-present)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz (1968-present)
  • The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich (1954-present)
  • The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen (1971-present)
  • The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead (1969-present)
  • On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (2019) by Ocean Vuong (1988-present)

The Significance of Modern American Prose in English Literature

Modern American prose includes some of the most significant works of English literature, and a number of authors of modern American prose have been internationally recognized for their achievements and contributions. Several have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, including John Steinbeck (1902-1968) in 1962, Saul Bellow in 1976, and Toni Morrison in 1993.

These authors, along with many others, have helped to map the changes and developments in American society over the last three-quarters of a century. They have also contributed to those developments and to the collective sense of American identity by telling the story of the nation and its inhabitants.

The Characteristics of Modern American Prose

Writing for The Atlantic, Canadian writer J.D. Logan offered the following description of American prose:

American prose, again, even in its characteristic humor at its best, has a high seriousness; it is rich in ideas, devoid of mere visions and mysticism; it has sometimes grace and ease, sometimes dignity and noble simplicity, sometimes sonority and exaltation; it has self-reliance and a natural cheerfulness. American prose, in short, is thoroughly sane, human, social." -J.D. Logan (1901)1

Although Logan wrote this at the start of the 20th century, before the start of contemporary American literature, his description highlights the multiplicity of American prose, a trend that has only intensified in the modern era. Modern American prose contains such a broad array of work that it is often difficult to identify common characteristics outside of proximity in time and space.

Modern American prose, cracking American flag, StudySmarterFig. 3: Modern American prose can be divided into many different categories.

Most generally, all modern American prose is written by American authors, usually in English, between 1945 and the present day. Works can include novels, short stories, essays, and works of creative nonfiction.

Modern American prose has also been marked by the proliferation of popular and genre literature. Genre literature generally refers to prose that falls into specific genres, for example, science fiction, mystery, horror, romance, or young adult. In contrast with more literary prose, sometimes referred to as "high" literature, genre and popular literature are usually read for entertainment purposes and do not carry the sort of profound messages we might expect from a literary novel. To this end, popular novels are often more plot-driven than their literary counterparts, which tend to be character-driven, sometimes with little to no plot. Furthermore, works of genre fiction frequently rely on specific conventions, archetypes, and formulas, whereas literary fiction tends to be more experimental.

Like all modern American prose, however, there are no hard and fast rules. Some literary novels have also become very popular, such as Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See (2014), and some works of genre fiction have great literary merit, such as Octavia Butler's time-bending Kindred (1979).

Here, however, is where most of the common characteristics stop. Instead, modern American prose is known for its variety and refusal to adhere to any one literary category or set of rules. The diverse array of modern American authors captures the diversity of the social, human American experience with their assortment of styles, structures, and literary forms.

Modern American Prose - Key takeaways

  • Modern American prose includes novels, short stories, and essays written in the United States after 1945.
  • Modern American prose was greatly influenced by modernist writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
  • The many important social movements of the mid-20th century resulted in a diversification of the voices present in American literature.
  • Some influential writers of modern American prose are Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Flannery O'Connor.
  • Modern American prose shares few common characteristics and instead is known for its refusal to adhere to any one literary style or movement.

1J. D. Logan. "American Prose Style." The Atlantic. 1901.

Frequently Asked Questions about Modern American Prose

Modern American prose shares few common characteristics and instead is known for its refusal to adhere to any one literary style or movement.

Just a few examples of modern American prose include Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

Modern American prose was greatly influenced by the modernist writers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

Modern American prose consists of novels, essays, and short stories written in the United States after 1945.

Modern American prose developed after the modernist literary movement and was heavily influenced by the many cultural and social changes that took place in the mid-20th century.

Final Modern American Prose Quiz

Modern American Prose Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What year did modern American prose begin?

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What literary movement preceded modern American prose?

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What events and social movements influenced the development of modern American prose?

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Social movements like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the Chicano movement introduced a new diversity to American literature.

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Which modern American writer did NOT win a Nobel Prize for Literature?

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James Baldwin

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True or false? Works of modern American prose share many common characteristics.

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Which American author is NOT associated with the literary movement of postmodernism?

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Toni Morrison

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What is modern American prose?

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Modern American prose consists of novels, essays, and short stories written in the United States after 1945.

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Which is NOT an example of modern American prose?

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Ariel by Silvia Plath

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How has American literature changed in the modern era?

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It has diversified and become more difficult to categorize.

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American prose is known for its ______.

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variety and refusal to adhere to any one literary category or set of rules.

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