Love in the American literature of the 20th century24 min read

In questo saggio, Federica Bologna analizza il tema dell’amore in quattro classici della letteratura pubblicati a inizio ‘900: Spoon River Anthology, The Waste Land, The Great Gatsby e The Sun Also Rises.

Spoon River Anthology: love in the American small town
The Waste Land: love after WWI
The Great Gatsby: love in the economy of NYC
The Sun Also Rises: love in times of void


Spoon River Anthology: love in the American small town

«I who loved you, Spoon River,
And craved your love,
Withered before your eyes, Spoon River–
Thirsting, thirsting,
Voiceless from chasteness of soul to ask you for love, You who knew and saw me perish before you»1
from “Mabel Osborne”

The first thing to overwhelm me while reading Spoon River Anthology, it has been the feeling of solitude. In this masterpiece, Masters draws the reality of a common American small town, where people physically live side by side, but relate as being thousands miles apart. In this boundless place of desolation humans are condemned to walk alone for their entire existence with no one beside to reach out, separated by the inability to communicate and to comprehend, or, even worse, by deliberate indifference. Sometimes the characters do not even try to lend an ear or to speak up, they keep staying silent and closing their eyes. Furthermore, who is keen to help the others is forced to insensitivity by social conventions. As a result, Spoon River is more a place of intentional blindness and deafness than of incommunicability, where pity and compassion do not exist and everyone is abandoned to their own tragedy (“Jeremy Carlisle”, “Robert Davidson”).

Several are the victims of this attitude: Minerva, abandoned to her fate after having been raped and having got pregnant;

«Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up, Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice»1
from “Minerva Jones”

“Doctor Meyers”, accused of murdering Minerva while he was just trying to help her; Aner, considered a thief for stealing an apple when he was a boy and “forced” to be a smuggler because he could not get a proper job;

«“A thief,” “a thief,” “a thief,” wherever he goes. And he can’t get work, and he can’t get bread Without stealing it, why the boy will steal.
It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple That makes the boy what he is»1
from “Aner Clute”

Nellie, raped when she was a child and abandoned by her husband and the whole village when he found out;

«I was only eight years old;
And before I grew up and knew what it meant
I had no words for it, except
That I was frightened and told my Mother;
Then he considered himself cheated,
And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin»1
from “Nellie Clarke”

“Mrs Merritt” considered guilty of inducing her lover to kill her husband; and many more.

«To be judged by you,
The soul of me hidden from you,
With its wound gangrened
By love for a wife who made the wound»1
from “Harmon Whitney”

In addition, the idea of solitude is also conveyed by the use of the “false epitaph”. Commonly, the epitaph is a text regarding a dead person which results from a piece of collective memory. Whereas here, the concept is reversed and becomes a post mortem confession which reflects a personal experience. As a result, the point of view is switched from collective to individual and these poems seem solitary voices coming from the world of the dead.

Obviously, being the inhabitants of Spoon River so insensitive, there is no chance for them to be capable of loving. In fact, most of the times, love is represented as a disease, a shape-shifting monster. Love can become violence, loathe, death (“Flether McGee”, “Amanda Barker”):

«Their spirits beat upon mine
Like the wings of a thousand butterflies.
And they cried to me for life, life, life.
But in taking life for myself,
In seizing and crushing their souls,
As a child crushes grapes and drinks
From its palms the purple juice,
I came to this wingless void»1
from Benjamin Fraser

Love can be reduced to a cold comfort, a constraint (“Herbert Marshall”); it can be considered to have less value than a dowry or a house (“Lillian Stewart”, “Ida Frickey”):

«She thought they were amorous tears and smiled For thought of her conquest over me.
But my soul was three thousand miles away,
In the days when you taught me in Spoon River»1
from “Reuben Pantier”

However, the most fascinating thing about love in the Anthology is that the few people who are actually able to love suffer from mental or physical disease (“Francis Turner”). In other words, who is healthy unhealthily loves and who is unhealthy healthily loves: a metaphor to represent the distorted view of the inhabitants of Spoon River, according to whom, who feels and shows affection towards another human is “sick”. In these poems it also resounds the echo of the mythical bond between Eros and Thanatos, since love is often doomed to end because of death or suicide:

«There is something about Death
Like love itself!»1
from “William and Emily”

«And you left me alone in my room for a while,1 As you did when I was a bride, poor heart.
And I looked in the mirror and something said: “One should be all dead when one is half-dead—” Nor ever mock life, nor ever cheat love.”
And I did it»1
from “Pauline Barrett”

Spoon River, being dominated by the concept that it has no sense to build relationships if any profit cannot be made out of these, resembles the world that Bauman has analyzed in Liquid Love2: a place where every aspect of human life is remote-controlled by global economy and people are puppets on strings.

According to Bauman, modern markets cannot stand the life which reproduces itself without any money transaction, in other words: “moral economy”, which consists of sharing, helping, cooperating and all those instinctive actions which create durable human relationships and refuse self-interest. Despite the attacks of the market, the need for solidarity still survives, since the surrogates provided by stores can not entirely substitute human bonds: they are not able to fulfill the necessity for aggregation that only aggregation can satisfy.

Edgar Lee Masters canadausa.netThe “grey zones” that the market still has not conquered, are the communitas, places where moral economy exists. Unfortunately, their lives depend on the capability of accepting uncertainties: something that has been constantly tackled by the strategies of the market. Commercializing and mortifying moral economy, as well as the human being, who is now seen like an item without any intrinsic value, cause the destruction of social abilities: the average man is not able anymore to properly socialize, connect and create relationships or bonds with other humans. Therefore, Spoon River could be seen as the opposite of a communita: a primitive form of societa, an overly structured and hierarchic system, ruled by political, economic and juridical interests.

However, as said at the beginning of the text, the first thing of the Anthology to struck me, has been the uncanny sensation of solitude, which started to making me question myself about the kind of love I was surrounded by. Hence, I took this perception as an omen and decided to investigate how love is represented in the American literature of the first half of the twentieth century. As a result, I let this intuition guide me to another deserted place: The Waste Land by Eliot.


The Waste Land: love after WWI

Since the beginning of the poem, it is evident that in the Land love is impossible. «April is the cruelest month» as it is the time of the year when nature flourishes again and reminds the man about his own infertility, his inability to relate to other humans. The «Son of the man»3 «cannot say, or guess» anymore, for he knows «only/a heap of broken images»: in other words, the modern man has his soul fragmented, which leads to the impossibility of communicating and being fertile.

This concept is repeated many times in the first part of the poem. Firstly, through a quote from Tristan and Isolde, one of the most famous “impossible loves” of the western culture born in the Middle Age, when myths and legends still existed in collective memory and it was still possible to die for love, because men still had an identity built on eternal values: «Wo weilest du?» Where are you dwelling? In other words, where are you my love? We lost you. Secondly, with the explicit confession of an average modern man:

«I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing»3

And finally, quoting Dante’s Divina Commedia, another epic from the Middle Age: «I had not thought death had undone so many». The quote comes from the third canto and refers to a group of souls eternally running behind a flag: the ignavi, those who have never taken a choice, who have never committed themselves to a cause. In other words, those incapable of being passionate about something. It also has to be remarked, that being sent to hell in the Commedia implies the eternal death of the soul but not of the body, which will be returned after the apocalypse. This is the condition of the modern man: an envelope of flesh with a dead soul inside, not even a corpse that can be buried and can rest in peace.

«That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?»3

Indeed, modern men are just survivors of something horrendous, not living beings that cooperate to reproduce themselves for the continuation of the species. And what is the thing that has torn to pieces the modern man’s soul? That has infected him with sterility? In fact, in the Anthology a not-sick love is rare but at least is still possible. Whereas here indifference overcomes, floods and takes away any promising seed. What happened between 1915, the year the Anthology was published, and 1922, when The Waste Land was published? World War I, and its echo reaches the Land:

«He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will»3

From this dialogue between two women at the end of the second part, it can be deduced that after war love became a duty, a matter of entertaining someone else to making them forget the horror. In addition, if in Masters «all of us kill the children of love»1, here it is the opposite: “the children of love” kill us and creating life is now a threat against human life (she «nearly died of young George»3), and that’s why now she «bring it off»3.

TS Eliot Love Canadausa.netWhat is even more interesting is that both Masters in the Anthology and Eliot in the Land refer to the Greek myth of Tereus, Procne and Philomela to metaphorically tell the reader something about modern love, but they look at it from two different perspectives. If Masters focuses on the murder of Iti, Eliot focuses on the rape of Philomela and on her transmutation into a nightingale. He takes into consideration the fact that even after having been the victim of a brutal act of love, at least she could sing. Eliot is worried that men may not be able to “sing”, to communicate and love again, whereas Masters does not even question himself about it. He remarks that adults continue to exploit children for their own benefit. Indeed, as Bauman says2, if in the past they produced wealth and ensured the duration of the race, now they are mere «objects of emotional consumption»2 created to fulfill parents’ capricious desires:

«I had live and learned
How all of us kill the children of love, and all of us,
Knowing not what we do, devour their flesh»1
from “Thomas Trevelyan”

«The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice»3

Moving to third part of the poem, the reader finds an uncanny love scene:

«she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover»3

Here, over the concept of love as entertainment, a new shadow is casted: that of Vanity-Love4. As Stendhal says in De l’amour, this type of love is an artificial, conventional feeling, where every move is planned in detail and in advance, in order to raise the self-esteem of the individual and to satisfy his/her need for security. Evidence of this is the use of the term “vanity” and the fact that after the sexual intercourse the woman would rather look at herself in the mirror than saying goodbye to her lover, and then:

«Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand»3

In the final part of the poem, the reader finally meets two people walking «together»3 and one of them utters the only words that express concern and tenderness for another human. Sadly, these feelings are threatened by the disquieting presence of death:

«Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?»3

Now we should ask Eliot: how can we escape love’s death? Eventually, Eliot is not as pessimist as it could be imagined, since at the end of the Land, he, through the thunder’s voice, advises us to datta, dayadhvam and damyata: to give, to sympathize and to control ourselves. The thunder commands you, the reader, to “da”: da’ in Italian is the second person singular imperative of the verb dare, which in English means “to give”. In my view, taking into consideration the fact that Eliot knew Italian language perfectly, the extrapolation of “da” out of the three Sanskrit words is not a simple coincidence.

Eliot wants humans to learn to donate and to sacrifice themselves to breach the logic of the market based on self-interest and profit, which has been inculcated in our minds. Only by giving will we go back to what we used to be in Ancient Greece, when mythology was born, and in Middle Age, when Sanskrit, the Commedia and Tristan and Isolde were born: when we were still undivided and able to love.


The Great Gatsby: love in the economy of NYC

After the Land, the next stop might seem a not-waste place: The Great Gatsby, in which Fitzgerald describes the apparently shining New York City of the Roaring 20s, that is actually rather glittering. Evidence is found in the first page:

«“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”»5

At first, Nick’s father advice might seem magnanimous, but after Nick has contextualized it, looks more like detached indifference:

«Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope […] a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.»5

The environment in which these characters live resembles the economically hierarchical world described by Bauman2, in which the human being itself does not have intrinsic dignity anymore, since it is listed on the market even before birth. As a result, all the other values dependent on the concept of human dignity, such as the importance of human bonds, are discredited, and social abilities decay. After all, in a societa built on finance, decency is a hindrance, as it may lead men to love their neighbors, and so, to go against their self-interest: decency helps to switch from “survival instinct” to “morality”, the archenemy of the market.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald Love canadausa.netFitzgerald repeats this concept many times in the first chapter: when it is of fundamental importance to underline the difference between East and West Egg, which are identical apart from the wealth of their inhabitants; when Tom talks about the “white race”; when Daisy hopes for her daughter to be stupid so as she will not understand that she was born without the same privileges and opportunities of a boy; when Nick says that Daisy and Tom are «remotely rich»5, whereas Gatsby may be far, but close enough to notice that «he was trembling»5.

In fact, Gatsby was not born rich, but has become through an illegal business: smuggling. Even though high-society benefits from his work, it will never be grateful to him, nor will consider him more than a “second class rich”, member of that hateful “second generation of riches”. He will never be seen as something more worthy than a miserable amount of money, not even in Daisy’s eyes or in his own ones, which developed the ability to measure everything dependently on their monetary worth (he asks Nick if he made «much money»5 and describes Daisy’s voice as «full of money»5).

Thanks to his lack of dignity at birth, he is one of the only two characters who can actually love. In particular, he is able to love his neighbor as this passage shows:

«He smiled understandingly […] It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it […] [It] concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey»5

Both Nick and Gatsby have the capability to comprehend the others, as they are two observers, but, unlike Nick, Gatsby does not reserve judgements. On the contrary, he only makes positive ones, since he fully trusts anyone, thanks to his unwavering faith in human kind.

At the same time, being born without dignity makes him voraciously ambitious and addicted to “possessive-vanity-self-love”. Indeed, he forces Daisy to tell Tom «I never loved you»5, to obliterate 3 years of her life just because he wants to repeat his past and to finally recover the «orgastic future»5 he has imagined for himself when he first met her and that has dwelled in the green light for years. He desires her to love him so that he can heal his wounded self-esteem. But that future will never be able to dwell in Daisy.

As it might be imagined, Daisy is the other person capable of loving. Evidence is how she talks about her daughter, the fact that she and Gatsby are the only people to be described as «bright»5 and that she utters the only spontaneous declaration of love: «“You always look so cool”»5. Immediately after finishing reading the book, I asked myself: “why does Gatsby die and Daisy gets away with it?” Many would say because Daisy is rich, as also Nick suggests: «They were careless […] they smashed up things [..] and let other people clean up the mess»5. But in my opinion, it is because Daisy has a daughter, and this idea came up to me while I was looking at Soir bleu and New York Interior by Hopper.

Edward Hopper Soir Bleu Love

In the first painting, there is a bar crowded with people that do not look to each other. They are together so as not to feel lonely, They love others just to love themselves. On the contrary, in the second one, the dancer stays alone in her room without solitude to anguish her, since she is sewing, and thus accomplishing an act of love towards something other from herself: dance. She is loving otherness, the opposite of the self, without any self-interest: what Christ may have meant with “love your neighbor”.

Therefore, Daisy gets away with it because she has a baby to take care of and to love fully. She loves her daughter accepting the risks of loving, and she decides to give up on Gatsby and her own happiness to be part of her becoming.

Moving to the other characters, they could be part of Soir bleu since they are completely incapable of loving: Nick does not know what love is and whether he loves Jordan or not; Jordan looks for not-so-clever men to feel more confident; Myrtle has a lover to escape her prosaic life; Tom is so aware of the misery that surrounds him, that he will «drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence»5 just for the fun of it and to forget his condition.

In conclusion, even though the end of the book may not be the happiest, Fitzgerald has still hope in humanity and advises us to love the others in order to solve the lack of relations in our society.


The Sun Also Rises: love in times of void

Now is time to encounter the novel that gathers many of the topics already mentioned: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. In fact, in the first page Jake describes Robert: a man who has much in common with Gatsby, being a second class rich because of his origins and having suffered from «the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton»6 where he has been made «race-conscious»6. Hence, the setting is again dominated by the logic of the market and Robert is as addicted to “possessive-vanity-self-love” as Gatsby is because of his condition of inferiority.

However, being Robert a mediocre person, he is not able to love his neighbor. He had never been in love and did not know what love was before meeting Brett, he just married «the first girl who was nice to him»6, and even when he loves Brett his feeling is not spontaneous: he just takes the ideas «out of a book»6. He is a body without spirit which is not able to feel by himself and that extrapolates feelings from the environment. Therefore, he desires “triangularly” as many other characters in literature: Don Chisciotte, Mathilde de La Mole etc. What they have in common is being narcissists, not aware of the reality principle and convinced that their lives have to be epic to be worth living and fully lived.

This is why he wants to fall in love, because: «“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”»6. As a result, his love for Brett is “Vanity-love”: he believes theirs to be “the greatest love of all”, that they had a sexual intercourse because she loves him and that she is not going to marry Mike. But, as also Whitney Houston says, the greatest love of all is self-love. Indeed, he wants their love to be as romantic as he deserves in order to fulfill his vanity. This feeling is also possessive: in Pamplona he constantly follows her, even though they were together with Mike, her future husband, and Jake, Robert’s friend who is clearly in love with her.

On the other hand, Brett makes love to forget her solitude, just for the fun of it, for entertainment (as in the Land and like Myrtle and Tom), not for real desire. But as Bauman says2, after that instant of illusionary union, the feeling of estrangement is even more remarked. Also, she has sexual intercourses with many men as to use their body like substitutes for Jake’s, since he is the only one she loves (she doesn’t «joke him»6).

Ernest Hemingway Love canadausa.netAt the same time, Jake is the only one who cannot satisfy her love, being impotent. He is the prototype of the modern man made unfertile by “an incident at war”. After war «“Everybody’s sick. I’m sick, too.”»6, he says. At least, unlike the men of the Land, he still spiritually loves: he is the only character to pray, and so to have faith, which is essential to love. He is the opposite of Robert. He is also an aficionado: someone who has afición, who can feel more deeply than the others. Jake, Montoya, Romero are all aficionados but are also always unavoidably alone: even when they talk to each other about corrida, they cannot totally communicate and keep being surrounded by a halo of solitude, like a protective glass. In addition, the only true friendship of the book is the one between Jake and Bill, since they have both been to war.

However, Frances’ love for Robert is the worst of all, as she clearly loves him for self-interest: because he was a writer, he had money and to fulfill her caprices of getting married and have kids.

Another interesting thing is that, apart from Jake, Americans cannot be aficionados: not being able of creating sincere human bonds, how could they feel afición? Indeed, it is evident that the characters fake friendship and base their relationships on the exchange of goods and services: they stay together to amuse each other, and when a conversation is not as funny as expected, they say it out loud and then they either get drunk or get angry. The logic of market has been effectively inculcated into their minds:

«”You’re really about the best friend I have, Jake.” God help you, I thought.»6

«It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.»6

Furthermore, they consider France, where «Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France»6, «the simplest country to live in. […] If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money»6.

But the most fascinating and disquieting element of the novel is the presence of what is supremely absent: the nothing. Each page, dialogue or description, even the style itself, is contaminated by the sensation that something is missing. This anguishing lack is made more evident by the obsession of the characters with practical actions (Brett’s need for physical love), as also Calvino points out in ‘Hemingway and Ourselves’:

«Hemingway’s hero likes to identify with the actions that he carries out […] He tries not to have any other problems […] except that of knowing how to do something well […] But around him there is always […] a sense of the vanity of everything, of desperation, of defeat, of death. He clings to all that, because outside it is the void»7

Around neopositivism and behaviourism, the «bare lists of actions»7 and the «lines of brief dialogue»7, «is the horror vacui of existentialist nothingness»7. There is no space for hope or faith after the First World, which has made a waste land of the world: «reality is now seen as a huge massacre» and Hemingway refuses to join its side, but accepts it as «the natural scenario of contemporary man»7:

«Hemingway’s fundamental intuition was to have realized that war was the most accurate image, the everyday reality of the bourgeois world in the imperialist age.»7

Also, «Hemingway has understood […] how to be alone without anguish and how it is better to be in company than to be alone»7; which is something that we all should learn to do, as Hemingway does not see any way out of this deserted reality, where humans are doomed to be alone in facing the vacuum of the existence.




  1. Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology, 1915
  2. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, 2003
  3. Thomas Stearns Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922
  4. Stendhal, De l’amour, 1822
  5. Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
  6. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926
  7. Italo Calvino, ‘Hemingway and Ourselves’ from Why Read the Classics?, 1991
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By | 2017-10-31T17:46:20+00:00 settembre 15th, 2017|Saggi|0 Comments

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