Fitzgerald, Lewis, Wharton, Anderson, and individual-community conflict in the 1920 American novel.
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Schaefer, Eric C.
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1920 saw an eruption of significant American novels portraying conflicts between individuals and community norms. These tensions between individuals and their families, churches, social classes, and towns, for example, conveyed the Progressive-era antagonisms toward civil society. In their constructivist approach to society, Progressives believed that "they could reshape character by reshaping the environment," writes historian Michael McGerr (81). They favored national, disinterested, and enlightened solutions to the economic and social problems associated with Gilded Age industrialism, and criticized local and traditional authority structures for being provincial, pecuniary, and conformist. Contemporary critic Carl Van Doren referred to the outburst of literature on this theme as "The Revolt from the Village," for its criticism of "[t]he traditions which once might have governed" and "no longer hold" (412). Among these works were F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. Characters in these novels are alienated from groups like family, church, class, and village. Such communities are considered intermediate associations because they intervene between individuals and government power. Sociologist Robert Nisbet highlighted their importance for the well being of individuals and society in his book The Quest for Community (1953). He stated, "The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free; but on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accompanied not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation" (7). Indeed, to the degree the characters in these works disengage from the moral influence of social bonds, their senses of belonging and purpose are diminished. In contrast, the characters that become more interdependent in their traditional communities are consistently well adjusted with regard to their individuality and objectives. This dissertation examines the Progressive-era milieu of these works that engendered opposition toward civil society. It then traces the correspondence between the communal interdependency and moral development of characters in these novels to demonstrate the importance of intermediate associations for a free and good society.