Among the acknowledged aspects of American Literature, the body of work identified as Contemporary Literature generally includes those written and published or produced after the second World War, a time that bore significant social and ideological change, which ultimately prompted writers to discuss a number of issues through their art. The obsession for economic stability and opportunity, as well as ensuing inquiries about societal norms and practices, are some of the concepts that have found their way into this genre of literature, and are exemplified by the works of many legendary writers who had introduced their ideas early in the period.
John Cheever, Arthur Miller, and Sylvia Plath are all renowned literary icons; more than that, they were able to infuse their skill in craft and expression with the discussion of the American ideal in vogue during their respective eras.
II. Subjectivity and Past Glory: Depression in “Death of a Salesman”
Great American playwright Arthur Miller’s most famous and notable work was produced and published in 1949—right at the aftermath of the war. While Miller’s work is primarily recognized for his use of the technique of expressionism to communicate the subjective reality of salesman Willy Loman, the underlying message dwells on the traditional American dream, including its social values and pursuit of success.
Willy Loman is portrayed as an aging salesman whose parameters for life fulfillment lie within the security of education, money, and family. But everything that represents these dreams—his job, his sons, and his physical and mental state—have changed in ways far from what he perceived. Due to competition and lack of talent, his career as a salesman was slowly deteriorating; and his eldest son, for whom Willy had the highest expectations, did not turn out to be the upright and capable man he imagined. Because of his failure to accept reality, Willy formed his own by ‘visualizing’ conversations and events from his past, which proceeded to both comfort and disturb him. What is in effect here is a man’s refusal to let go of things that he believed was permanent, a stubborn resolve to avoid change. The picture of the ideal American family—accomplished father, supportive mother, bright and promising children—was foremost on Willy’s mind, and his later realization that this could no longer hold true for his own eventually led to his demise.
Contemporary literature, compared to its predecessors, is identified by narratives that reflect reality to a greater degree—and is apparent in Miller’s depiction of Willy Loman. Apart from the references to the concept of aging and death, Death of a Salesman may have also mirrored the author’s own family life; Miller’s father, once a successful shopkeeper, lost his business and wealth to the Great Depression.
III. Ambition and Excess: Disillusionment in “The Swimmer”
Novelist and short story writer John Cheever was known for his fondness for stories set in affluent Manhattan, as well as in the quaint New England of his youth. “The Swimmer”, one of his most popular and anthologized stories, was published in 1964 and centered on the rich and social environment of suburban New York, where residents were known to celebrate life to excessive degrees. The protagonist is middle-aged Neddy Merrill, whose quest to prove he remains strong and youthful led him to swim through the numerous swimming pools in his wealthy neighborhood. However, time mysteriously passed in large amounts during this activity, and ended with Neddy discovering that he no longer has the life he thought he had. As with Miller’s play, “The Swimmer” is abound with takes on surrealism that works as a technique to illustrate the materialistic and superficial values that had overcome suburban America of the time.
America, during this period, was going through a phase akin to the Reaganesque model of the 1980s; wealth was accessible, and a person’s happiness was often connected to it on different levels. By using the kind of community and lifestyles assigned in the story, Cheever managed to show how society and status can change in an instant—Neddy’s surprise in finding out that years, instead of hours, had actually passed during the course of his swim emphasizes the temporal nature of success, as well as the effects of the sole focus on wealth and consumption. Cheever’s story echoes the points raised in “Death of a Salesman”, albeit in a less explanatory fashion, that discussed the then-inseparable ideals of money and contentment.
“The Swimmer” is a valid representation of contemporary literature as it bravely took on the flipside of the idyllic American life, in which success and wealth were the most important factors for life fulfillment. Likewise, the loss of these same components rendered people irrelevant, obscure, and unwelcome.
IV. Irreverence, Patriarchy, and Imprisonment: Suicide in “Lady Lazarus”
The poet Sylvia Plath, best known for her stunning use of metaphor in expressing feminist thought, was also identified as being mentally unstable and disturbed. Her suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty somewhat affirmed this assumption, but her works were lauded and celebrated by literary communities worldwide. “Lady Lazarus”, written before her death, voiced out Plath’s objections to the roles handed to her as a woman, during this time of a still traditionalist and patriarchal society.
More than anything, the poem vividly illustrates the author’s attempts to end her life at various occasions, arguably about her negation of a woman’s expected functions of marriage, pregnancy, and submission—all of which applied to her situation. Male domination in traditionalist society and the issue of woman being of lesser value resonated distinctly in her poem, which used the metaphor of the biblical character Lazarus to connote seeming rebirth, but is actually to refer to death as the reason. Again, like the previous works discussed, this piece embodies the requirements of contemporary literature because of its presentation of a certain societal norm, including its perceived ill effects. Plath even went as far as to compare herself with Jews in a Nazi concentration camp—a real and disturbing image that had carved itself in history.
The three literary pieces in this discussion, all iconic in their own right, reflect the essence of contemporary literature in the sense that they all delved to articulate their era’s respective ideologies—as well as the corresponding realizations that affected the writers’ own truth. Expectation may breed depression, superficiality may result in disillusionment, and tradition may produce acts of suicide or helplessness. Miller, Cheever, and Plath, masters of craft and technique, were able to use their talents to contribute their own views of society and convention in literature that has been the standard to this day; for contemporary literature must differentiate itself from the past by featuring what is here and now, constantly evolving and changing.
Cheever, J. (1978) “The Swimmer”. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf.
Miller, A. “Death of a Salesman”. In DiYanni, Robert (1990, 1986). Literature: Reading
Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Plath, S. “Lady Lazarus”. In Poem Hunter. Accessed on 09 February 2009