Literature is an art form that provides insight into the lives of Americans during important eras of American history. Author Willa Cather told the story of Americans who lived on the Great Plains in books like O Pioneer and My Antonia.

The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck, was written during the Great Depression. The novel described the experience of the Joad family, migrant farm workers who lost everything as a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

image of a book cover of the Grapes of Wrath

Source: Book Cover, Grapes of Wrath, Library of Congress

There are other important novels that describe the experience of different groups in American society.

The Men of the Harlem Renaissance Image of five men standing in a line. Langston Hughes is in the front.

Source: Migration, In Motion American Migration

Literature, just like art and music, played a vital part of the cultural movement in U.S. history. Millions of African Americans headed north during the Great Migration of the early 1900s, and those who moved to Harlem in New York experienced the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance was the result of talented writers, poets, and musicians who emerged with work that reflected the African-American experience from various perspectives in the early 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance ended in the late 1920s as America began to suffer with the economic and social issues surrounding the Great Depression.

Langston Hughes (far left in the picture above) was one of the most famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Analyzing the Poem - Poetry can be interpreted in different ways. How can Hughes's poem be interpreted? What dream is Langston Hughes referring to in his poem?

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One way the poem can be interpreted is that unfulfilled dreams can lead to an unhappy and unsatisfied life. Hughes may be referring to what could happen to African Americans who were continually denied access to the American dream. Close Pop Up

Another literary and cultural movement came about during the 1950s. The Beat Generation was a group of writers who became prominent at the end of World War II. The postwar economic boom in the United States afforded more Americans economic success than ever before as a result of the GI Bill and the country’s new status as a world leader. College students across the nation, however, became dissatisfied with traditional American values and extreme consumerism.

These students developed another culture, founded by several students at Columbia University. By the 1950s, the movement had extended to poets, writers, and musicians, all of whom created literature and music that shocked the mainstream and defied the traditional customs and values of American society.

Allen Ginsberg Image of Allen Ginsberg seated holding a box on his lap

Source: Allenginsberg, MDArchives, Wikimedia

One of the most famous literary works from the Beat Generation is "Howl," a poem written by Allen Ginsberg. This poem describes the underground of American society, such as drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. The poem sparked much outrage. Ginsberg was even charged with obscenity and forced to defend himself in court; Ginsberg won the case.

Lesson Summary

Throughout U.S. history, literature, art, and music have shaped the American culture. Art reflects events and issues from a particular time and provides access to what makes the United States a unique country with contributions from people from all segments of society.