S ince the 1890s, an undercurrent of social protest had coursed through American literature, welling up in the naturalism of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser and in the clear messages of the muckraking novelists. Later socially engaged authors included Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and the dramatist Clifford Odets. They were linked to the 1930s in their concern for the welfare of the common citizen and their focus on groups of people -- the professions, as in Sinclair Lewis's archetypal Arrowsmith (a physician) or Babbitt (a local businessman); families, as in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath; or urban masses, as Dos Passos accomplishes through his 11 major characters in his U.S.A. trilogy.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and graduated from Yale University. He took time off from school to work at a socialist community, Helicon Home Colony, financed by muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair. Lewis's Main Street (1920) satirized monotonous, hypocritical small-town life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. His incisive presentation of American life and his criticism of American materialism, narrowness, and hypocrisy brought him national and international recognition. In 1926, he was offered and declined a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925), a novel tracing a doctor's efforts to maintain his medical ethics amid greed and corruption. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lewis's other major novels include Babbitt (1922). George Babbitt is an ordinary businessman living and working in Zenith, an ordinary American town. Babbitt is moral and enterprising, and a believer in business as the new scientific approach to modern life. Becoming restless, he seeks fulfillment but is disillusioned by an affair with a bohemian woman, returns to his wife, and accepts his lot. The novel added a new word to the American language -- "babbittry," meaning narrow-minded, complacent, bourgeois ways. Elmer Gantry (1927) exposes revivalist religion in the United States, while Cass Timberlane (1945) studies the stresses that develop within the marriage of an older judge and his young wife.
John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Like Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos began as a left-wing radical but moved to the right as he aged. Dos Passos wrote realistically, in line with the doctrine of socialist realism. His best work achieves a scientific objectivism and almost documentary effect. Dos Passos developed an experimental collage technique for his masterwork U.S.A., consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). This sprawling collection covers the social history of the United States from 1900 to 1930 and exposes the moral corruption of materialistic American society through the lives of its characters.
Dos Passos's new techniques included "newsreel" sections taken from contemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as "biographies" briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period, such as inventor Thomas Edison, labor organizer Eugene Debs, film star Rudolph Valentino, financier J.P. Morgan, and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos's novels a documentary value; a third technique, the "camera eye," consists of stream of consciousness prose poems that offer a subjective response to the events described in the books.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Like Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck is held in higher critical esteem outside the United States than in it today, largely because he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963 and the international fame it confers. In both cases, the Nobel Committee selected liberal American writers noted for their social criticism.
Steinbeck, a Californian, set much of his writing in the Salinas Valley near San Francisco. His best known work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which follows the travails of a poor Oklahoma family that loses its farm during the Depression and travels to California to seek work. Family members suffer conditions of feudal oppression by rich landowners. Other works set in California include Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952).
Steinbeck combines realism with a primitivist romanticism that finds virtue in poor farmers who live close to the land. His fiction demonstrates the vulnerability of such people, who can be uprooted by droughts and are the first to suffer in periods of political unrest and economic depression.