Tennessee Williams, a controversial 20th century playwright, creates a timeless microcosm of world view mayhem. Christian theism, romanticism, naturalism, & realism they all clash in urban Depression era America. Readers, especially Christian readers, are inspired, discouraged, angered, and bemused by characters, especially Tom, who claim to no most everything but, it turns out, know very little about anything! They fumble, tumble, and fantasize through life and ultimately harm both themselves and those around them. At the end, readers all wonder, “What if Jesus was Lord of this home?” What a different story it would be!
Eugene Gladsone O’Neill, perhaps best 20th century playwright, perhaps without his knowledge, writes a Christian moral expose of the effect of unforgiveness. Brutus Jones is both the perpetrator and the victim of his woes, which, after all, is a metaphor of modern man. Modern Americans wandered into the cultural mayhem at the end of the 20th century, but, they also caused it. Readers will continually wish to stop the action and to join the play with encouraging words to this lost soul.
Steinbeck is a naturalist who wrote with an acidic pen. All his novels had a political agenda, and, many times, his lost protagonists alternately resemble the doomed existentialists in French novelist Albert Camus’ novels and the bizarre Christian theists in Flannery O’Connor’s novellas. Steinbeck, a conflicted, desperately unhappy man, with great talent, offers dramatic irony with painful effect. Still, because Steinbeck’s characters are so real, and contemporary, readers will gain glimpses into the soul of modern America and will no doubt harvest important prayer points.
William Faulkner, like the South, the region in which he wrote and loved so ferevently, is a mixed bag. Bayard, his protagonist, is clearly a theist, as are all the most admired characters in this novel (e.g., Granny). Goodness, mercy, grace–all Judeo-Christian values–are damaged in translation because, regardless of Faulkner’s able stewardship, these precious gifts cannot be fully transmitted through tradition and good intentions. Judeo-Christian morality, without biblical underpinnings, are shallow, maudlin traveling companions. Faulkner and other contemporaries–e.g., Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald–all learn that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too: one cannot live and believe like a godless Philistine and worship the God at Shiloh.
Zora Neale Hurston is a welcome interlude–but only that–in a long, depressing naturalistic drama that is 20th century American literature. Hurston’s protagonist, like Hurston herself, do have eyes that see God, but one only wishes that one will embrace that God! Using a frame story, more popular in 19th century that it is in 20th century prose, Hurston tells a multi-layer of love and hope in a time when both were desperately needed in America. This tale is made even more poignant by the fact that African-American Hurston, working for the WPA, was relying on the largesse of a country that disenfranchised her. Nonetheless, Hurston does not give into hatred and scorn, like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, and readers are the better for it.
The author once asked his daughter to write a Christian ending to A Farewell to Arms and she did: nothing changed. The wages of sin is death. Yet, in the fiery cauldron of this torrid, sinful love affair, readers glimpse some hope. These are decent people who are captured by the throes of existentialism (self-love). Existentialism, as the modern world knows all too well, does not mix well with the stark realities or an unsaved, naturalistic world. The Good News is that God so loved the world that He sent His only Begotten Son to die for it. One hopes that on the horizon there will be an American author who gets it.
Twentieth Century American poetry is a beautifully written testimony to the state of American modernistic culture. Strongly naturalistic, it is like a ferris wheel. Awesome to behold, this mechanical marvel entertains the mind but teases the soul, and, ultimately, goes no where. One is on a ride, really, in a circle, only to return to where one began.
Edith Wharton, herself captured in an unhappy marriage, explores the same in her masterpiece Ethan Frome. This realistic novel is naturalistic in its tone and world view. Nonetheless, this modern novel, that rivals the stream of consciousness of a Dostoevsky, arrests our attention. Readers find themselves hoping that Maddie and Ethan will miss the true. One hopes that Frome, and Mrs. Wharton, discover that only Christ can make us victorious over difficult, even hopeless situation, but, in our heart, we know that this just did not occur, not yet, not in this novel.
Chopin, Harte, et al., are new songs of the same genre. Now, in hopeless abandon, American readers are inundated with poor lost souls who have lost their way in a nihilistic universe. Why is it, in a nation that was founded on biblical principles, that we could have evolved to this level? While the despotic regimes of Russia are feasting on robust, rich Christian characters–Sonya for instance in Crime and Punishment–Americans are presented with the paltry offerings of the naturalists.