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American Writing Styles of the 1920s


As a transitional period for Americans, the 1920s were a time of enormous literary productivity. This decade, poised between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, was a time of disillusionment as well as social growth, prosperity and new hope for the future. As a result, the literature of the time is extraordinarily varied, with styles ranging from modernist works to gritty hard-boiled detective fiction.

Literary Modernism

The Modernist movement in literature, which lasted from end of the 19th century to around 1945, focused on distancing itself from the writing of the past by using experimental styles and challenging existing standards for literature. At the end of World War I, Modernism became darker and more cynical, frequently including social commentary and themes of alienation, hedonism and despair. Major American Modernist authors of this period include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway.

Weird Tales

"Weird Tales" was a pulp fiction magazine that launched in 1923 and specialized in fantasy, science fiction, horror and bizarre short stories. Although these styles of stories were popular in pulp fiction magazines (a term referring to a magazine's low quality of paper), "Weird Tales" attempted to produce higher quality stories that were well-written, intellectually challenging and aesthetically appealing. H.P. Lovecraft, the magazine's most famous writer, wrote regularly for "Weird Tales" and published the popular "Call of Cthulu" with the magazine in 1928.

Hard-Boiled Fiction

Another popular type of pulp fiction, the hard-boiled genre, depicted crime-solving private detectives. Hard-boiled detectives were typically solitary antiheroes, often morally ambiguous and engaging in illegal or violent behavior to solve cases. These stories focused more on the detective's relationship to the case and the difficulty in distinguishing between good and evil than on clues and problem solving as earlier detective fiction had. Popular hard-boiled writers included Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose novel "The Maltese Falcon" became one of the most iconic examples of the hard-boiled genre.

Social Change Through Literature

With the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, women in the United States earned the right to vote. At the same time, a growing socialist movement began to publicly promote attitudes of class and racial equality. These social changes sparked the Women's Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. The Women's Movement was marked by feminist short stories in magazines such as "Ladies' Home Journal" and the publication of literature such as "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton in 1920, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The Harlem Renaissance was born from a burst of activity from African-American artists and writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. DuBois. These writers worked to challenge stereotypes, explore the African-American experience and exercise artistic self-determination.

About the Author

Agatha Clark is from Portland, Ore., and has been writing about culture since 2001. She specializes in intercultural communication and is completing a Bachelor Arts at the University of Oregon with double majors in linguistics and Spanish. Clark is fascinated by expressions of human psychology and culture. Before refocusing her educational path toward language, she originally went to school to become an artist.

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