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.
Stephen Crane is proof positive that the energizing faith of the Puritans is dead in American literature. The Christlike Arthur Dimmesdale is replaced by the whinny naturalist Henry Fleming who discards all semblance of idealism for cold, cynical realism. His God, if there is one, doesn’t care about him one iota and, therefore, his heroism is a sublime act of cynicism, some would say, cowardice.
Frederick Douglass is truly a great American. His profound faith drove his education and his education drove his acute sense of social justice. His narratives are full of inspiring biblical allusions to Christian virtue.
Walt Whitman, like his contemporary Emily Dickinson, was the first truly modern American poet. He wrapped up his theistic morality in blank verse and earthy metaphors. In the final analysis, though, Whitman produced far more human goodness than spiritual veracity. The Negro spirituals, however, are a rich metaphor of biblical metaphors and narratives.
Herman Melville was a great author who tries to preserve the essence of Christianity without embracing its dogma. In other words, Melville articulated a sort of modernism that presages the cynicism of later naturalism. Perhaps the best way to understand Melville is to understand the pathetic chaplain who met with Billy Budd the night before Budd was executed. The poor man was neither a lucid theologian nor a capable counselor. But he had good intentions. For years Melville fraternized with his Christian friend Nathaniel Hawthorne with no clear results but the disappearing whisper of Judeo-Christian symbolism and morality.