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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Becoming Visible – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How did this diverse array of minority and ethnic voices enrich an American literary tradition that once was defined almost exclusively by white men?
  • What relationship can we see between innovations in twentieth-century popular culture, especially jazz and rock and roll, and experimentation in literary style?
  • How do the writers in this unit greatly expand the conventional definitions of what it means to be an American?
  • Several of these writers experienced moral, political, or psychological crises during the course of their lives and in the process became disillusioned with radical agendas and mass movements. How do these crises show in their work, and what similarities do you see between their experience with political movements and that of authors from earlier periods in American literature?
  • What experimental styles and strategies become apparent in the literary works featured in this unit?
  • Much of the literature in this unit responds to an age in which the pressures of conformity and assimilation led to a climate of political protest. What resemblances and differences do you see between the moral issues that these writers address and those confronted by earlier American writers?
  • What relationship is conveyed between each writer and his or her own communities–both the ethnic or racial community in which he or she grew up, and the larger society encountered as an adult? How might the complexity of this relationship give each text and writer a special importance?
  • The suburbs expanded in the 1950s and after, rivaling cities and rural settings as places for Americans to live. How do some writers from this unit represent the suburban experience?
  • Almost all of the works included in this unit focus on the problems and challenges of forging identity. How do they achieve a measure of relevance for a broad range of American readers?
  • What modern American aspirations, myths, and fears are present in the work of these writers, and how does each writer address them?
  • What myths about American family life were reinforced in the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s? How have those myths been challenged in literary works, and how have those myths endured or evolved today?

Video Activities

What is American literature? What are the distinctive voices and styles in American literature? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What changes in literary style are discussed in the video? Why did some Jewish American critics condemn Philip Roth’s novels as anti-Semitic while Ellison was charged with not “being black enough”? Why is N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain hard to classify?
Context Questions: What traditions influenced each of these writers? How are these writers’ ethnic traditions reflected in what and how they write?
Exploratory Questions: Ellison’s Invisible Man has been hailed as a classic novel of American literature. What makes a piece of literature a classic?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through this literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: How is the concept of “the American Dream” challenged in this unit? Why do so many people still think of the 1950s and 1960s as a wonderful, peaceful time, as envisioned in sitcoms like Happy Days or movies like American Graffiti? Who is excluded from these scenarios?
Context Questions: Ellison, Roth, and Momaday explore the role of minority Americans in the armed forces, particularly in World War II. How does this war inform the construction of the American hero during the 1950s and 1960s?
Exploratory Questions: What American myths do you associate with the 1950s and 1960s? Some possibilities might be the idyllic imaginary world that television provided in programs like Leave It to Beaver or My Three Sons. Others might include the notions that “popularity leads to success in life,” that “good always wins and evil always loses,” or that “everyone has a fair chance at success if they just try hard.” How do these myths relate to the authors and events covered in the video?

What is an American? How does literature create conceptions of the American experience and American identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: How do Roth, Ellison, and Momaday define America or Americans? Why does the Invisible Man leave the South? What is he looking for, and what does he find when he arrives in 1930s New York City? What does N. Scott Momaday mean when he describes his childhood as a “Pan-Indian experience”?
Context Questions: How do the themes and styles of these writers reflect economic, cultural, and political changes in American culture in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? Consider changes occurring with the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the social rebellion sparked by the Vietnam War that extended to the needs of women, gay and lesbian Americans, and members of other minority groups..
Exploratory Questions: Ellison, Roth, and Momaday use ethnic stereotypes. When is using stereotypes useful and when is it not?

Creative Response

  1. Journal and Letters: Study some of the stories of the Tuskegee airmen of World War II. Write a letter in the voice of an African American airman at Tuskegee to someone back home. Try to imagine what it was like for a black person who had risked his life in combat, only to encounter continued racism and segregation at the airbase in Alabama. What would the atmosphere have been like? What kinds of frustrations might these airmen have encountered? What would have surprised or pleased them?
  2. Journal: When in your life have you not fit in? How did you feel? What did you do about it? Conversely, think of instances in your life when you conformed to the expectations of society or close friends or family, without thinking about it too much. After having studied this unit, can you re-evaluate those moments of conformity? Were they mostly good or bad? Would you do the same thing again today?
  3. Journal: Write a story from the point of view of a young person waiting inside a bomb (fallout) shelter with his or her immediate family after a possible attack warning has been issued. What would life in the bomb shelter be like? What would your concerns be?
  4. Poet’s Corner: Reread Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” Choose a topic of your own and write a poem that imitates this style. Think about Brooks’s choice of subject matter. What does her language sound like? What are the features of her verse? After you’ve completed your poem, write a short paragraph analyzing what you have written. What characteristics of Brooks were you trying to capture?
  5. Poet’s Corner: Write a short poem that takes on the point of view of someone who remains culturally “invisible.” Perhaps the poem might show why the person actually wishes to remain invisible or perhaps it will be a lament to the ongoing invisibility.
  6. History: After reading Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain, put together a smaller project that unites your own culture, family history, and personal outlook. Use prose passages, poems, family histories and genealogies, photos, even stories from friends and anything else that helps you toward an understanding of your place within your family, your past, the places you’ve lived, the things you’ve done, and your culture.
  7. History: Interview family members who were adults or children during the 1950s and 1960s. How do they characterize their experiences? Did men and women respond differently to the threat of nuclear attack? How did children cope with the daily fear of annihilation? Did anyone in your family build a bomb shelter?
  8. History: Do some research on James Meredith, the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, in October 1962, and the resulting riot. Where did Meredith come from? Why did he put himself at so much personal risk to enroll at Ole Miss? How did the Kennedy administration get involved? How does this early desegregation contrast with the recent trend of resegregating many state universities?
  9. Multimedia: Using the American Passages archive, along with images available on the web (hint: use and click on the “/series/amerpass/unit14/images” tab), and slide show software, create a multimedia presentation of photos and paintings that illustrate the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Write a caption for each image, explaining how the image relates to the civil rights movement.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Much of this unit underscores the pressure that many people have felt to “fit in” and to “be an American”; it is ironic that a good portion of “an American’s” qualities include being individualistic and self-reliant. Imagine that you are part of a major advertising agency. Your firm needs to decide whether “conformity” or “independence” sells better. Research advertisements from the popular magazines of the 1950s (LifeNewsweekTime), and put together a presentation that either confirms the pressures of conformity or demonstrates a trend toward individualism.
  2. You are part of a team asked to make a presentation to the U.S. Congress. The United States has never established a “national language,” and today the country is recognized as being more multicultural than ever before. Still, every few years, politicians attempt to make English the “standard” legal language of the country. Prepare a presentation to be offered at a congressional subcommittee hearing that addresses this issue. Argue either for establishing English as the national language or for recommending that such a proposal be voted down.
  3. The year is 1961 and you have been sent to cover the Greensboro sit-ins as a reporter. Write a magazine article in which you describe the protests. Why were the demonstrators so upset? What were their arguments? What were the arguments of the store owners and the townspeople who disagreed with the protests? Now imagine that you must present both sides of the issue to different audiences. Rewrite the article so that you can sell it to a northern liberal pro- civil rights magazine; then rewrite the article so that you can sell it to a conservative small-town magazine with mostly southern white readers. What will you need to emphasize and de-emphasize? Are you able to present all the facts in both versions of the article? Why or why not?
  4. Debate has broken out among city council members because one of the oldest trees in the county, just inside the city limits, needs to be cut down for a developer to put in a parking lot. However, a contingent of African Americans want the tree preserved because it marks the location of a lynching that occurred there in the early 1940s. Research mid-century lynchings in the United States. Then write an essay that takes a stand on whether or not the tree should be kept. Be sure to draw on your research and to consider other points of view.

With Justice for All: From World War II to the Civil Rights Movement

[5079] NAACP, Sign Reading “Waiting Room for Colored Only, by Order Police Dept.” (1943), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120260 (b&w film copy neg.)]

From James Fenimore Cooper to Ernest Hemingway, American heroes have often been defined by their ability to defeat in battle those things and people considered “anti-American.” During World War II, many non-European and non-Christian Americans displayed their patriotism by enlisting in the armed forces. Not only was their enlisting a way to gain-or publicly display-citizenship, but it was also a way of resisting government proclamations about who “the enemy” was. Even as Japanese American families were being interned as “enemies of the state,” for example, Japanese American men were enlisting, fighting overseas, and being honored for their efforts. As these servicemen returned home, however, they were often recognized not so much as heroes but as racial “others.” These situations have been treated by writers like Philip Roth in “Defender of the Faith,” N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn, and Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man.

These diverse veterans of World War II had hoped that their loyalty and service to the country might demonstrate that the stereotypical and racist attitudes held by many white Americans were unfair and undeserved. As with the war years, the decades beyond the war continued to be a time of segregation and discrimination in the United States. It took a threatened coordinated march on Washington and other major cities by African Americans in June 1941 before Franklin Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 8802, mandating full and equitable participation in defense industries, without discrimination due to race, creed, color, or national origin. This order was, however, rarely enforced over the next few years. Even after the United States entered the war, the War Department refused to integrate military units “on the grounds that it would undermine the morale of white soldiers” (Oxford Companion to World War II 5). African Americans who did enlist early during the war were mostly forced into servile support roles in both the army and the navy. The Army Air Corps resisted accepting African Americans until compelled to do so. Eventually, the 99th Fighter Squadron, an African American unit based in Tuskegee, Alabama, would go on to gain fame in the Mediterranean. Many other such units and individuals distinguished themselves in service to their country. By the war’s end in 1945, great gains had been made in increased service and command opportunities for soldiers of color.

After the war was over, many minority veterans returned to the United States with expectations of social and cultural change, yet in instance after instance they encountered heavy resistance from whites who were determined to return race relations to a prewar state. Just as most of the women who worked in factories during the war were expected to give up their jobs and return to the home, African American workers were also expected to leave industrial jobs that had previously been held by whites who had gone off to war. Fights and riots related to these issues broke out in Detroit, New York, Mobile, and other cities and towns in the United States. Still, by the late 1940s, African Americans had, by working in industry, government, and military positions, made great strides economically, forming the beginnings of a black middle class. Also, in moving to northern, midwestern, and western urban areas to seek better jobs, they left many of the restrictions and the racist culture of the Jim Crow South behind. Many of these themes are seen in the works of Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks.

The 1950s would see African Americans and other minorities strive for even more gains on cultural, political, and economic fronts in the United States. In December 1955 Rosa Parks initiated a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and one year later the Supreme Court made bus segregation illegal. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of its public schools. In August 1957, Congress passed the Voting Rights Bill, attempting to ensure equal voting privileges for minorities. In early 1960, the Greensboro sit-ins began, with students protesting segregation policies at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Such protests spread to many other towns in the South. In the 1960s, mostly under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Rides in the South and marches on Washington helped make the civil rights movement one of the major cultural events of the twentieth century. Still, racial discord and strife continued throughout the 1960s.

World War II also had a major impact on Japanese Americans, especially those living and working in the western United States. With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. Fears about national security, especially on the West Coast, influenced by racial ideology, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. All persons of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and aliens, were ordered out of the Pacific military zone to inland internment camps. Roosevelt’s order affected 117,000 people, two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens of the United States. There was no distinction made between designated aliens from Japan, Japanese immigrants, and second-generation American-born citizens of Japanese descent. Many families lost their homes and possessions in the move, as they were unable to work in order to pay rents and mortgages. The struggling United States economy was greatly affected, as Japanese American farmers on the West Coast had been producing a significant amount of the country’s vegetables and fruits. The effects of the Executive Order were far-reaching. Medical and legal licenses were revoked, life insurance policies canceled, and bank accounts confiscated.

The inland internment camps were little more than primitive prisons, often located in remote areas. Multiple families were housed in quickly constructed and poorly made barracks with little or no privacy. Some have compared these places to European concentration camps. It took until 1945 for the order barring Japanese Americans from the West Coast to be terminated. Though many Japanese Americans were greatly angered by this treatment and some renounced their citizenship, a large number volunteered to serve in the armed forces.

It was decades before the United States government would admit to its error in this decision. In 1989, nearly fifty years after the fact, President George Bush signed the Internment Compensation Act, which awarded twenty thousand dollars to each surviving victim of the camps. A class-action lawsuit in 1993 also recognized that these citizens’ constitutional rights had been violated. Many nonfiction works have been written on the subject of Japanese American internment camps, such as Farewell to Manzanar (1973) by Jeanne Wakatsuki Huston. Fiction dealing with this subject includes works like Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey Home (1978) and Margaret Poynter’s A Time Too Swift (1990).



  1. Comprehension: Why do you think whites, especially in the South, were so reluctant to provide equal civil rights to minorities in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, even to veterans who had served their country well and returned home?
  2. Comprehension: Examine the archive image of the statue of Booker T. Washington, who founded the Tuskegee Institute for Colored Teachers in 1881 in Tuskegee, Alabama. More than 100,000 people were present when the statue was unveiled on Founder’s Day, April 5, 1921. Washington, the standing figure, is larger than life. The former slave next to him has an anvil and a plow. The lifting of the veil is said to represent Washington’s plan to educate recently freed slaves. How does this interpretation compare to Ralph Ellison’s treatment of the veil in Invisible Man, Chapter 2? Is the veil being lifted or lowered? Compare the veil in this statue to veil images used by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.
  3. Comprehension: Who might have benefited from Japanese Americans being placed in detention camps, which led to foreclosures on their homes and prevented them from continuing with their farming?
  4. Context: Besides racism, why might the U.S. government have considered Japanese Americans more of a threat than German or Italian Americans? Could something similar to the internment camps happen today? Why or why not? To whom do you think it could happen?
  5. Exploration: From the perspective of over fifty years, it is easy to look back and see that it was unjust to restrict the civil rights of certain groups. Looking back over the other units of American Passages, what do you see that was also obviously unfair? Fifty or sixty years from now, what might historians see as unjust about our society today?
  6. Exploration: Why is it that so much time has to pass before societies can recognize the mistakes of their past? How is the situation of Japanese Americans during World War II similar to what happened to Jewish people in Eastern Europe? How is it different? Can it be equated to the institution of slavery in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America? All three groups have recently used the legal and political systems to seek redress for these crimes. Why haven’t descendants of African American slaves been as successful as members of the other two groups?


[3035] Chicago Daily Defender, Newspaper Headline: “President Truman Wipes out Segregation in Armed Forces” (1948),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [microfilm 1057].
A major victory against segregation, Truman’s executive order eliminated segregation in the military after thousands of African American veterans threatened to march on Washington in protest. African American veterans found the return to life in Jim Crow America especially difficult after the relative freedom and enlightened racial attitudes they experienced in Europe during World War II. Many of these men became local leaders in civil rights struggles in the South.

[4087] Arthur S. Siegel, Baltimore, Maryland. Women Learning to Use (?) a Pantograph and Template for Cutting at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-028672-C].
In order to sustain the massive war production needed for fighting on both the European and the Pacific fronts, women were hired in many factory and heavy industry jobs-positions from which they had been previously excluded. Such independence and civic participation helped bolster women’s organizing after the war, including protests for equal rights and welfare reform.

[5079] NAACP, Sign Reading ‘Waiting Room for Colored Only, by Order Police Dept.’ (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120260 (b&w film copy neg.)]
Martin Luther King Jr. was a brilliant orator. His skill with language was one of his most powerful weapons in the fight for civil rights. King’s fight for equality was crucial to ending the “separate but equal” policy that had reigned in the southern states following Reconstruction.

[7865] Charles Keck, Statue of Booker T. Washington (1922),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103181].
“I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Ellison’s narrator’s comment reflects the debate over how African Americans should be educated. Born into slavery but freed after the Civil War, Booker T. Washington devoted his life to the advancement of African Americans. Although he was respected by both blacks and whites, Washington came under criticism for his willingness to trade social equality for economic opportunity.

[8522] Ansel Adams, Manzanar Relocation Center from Tower (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Ansel Adams Manzanar War Relocation Photographs [LOT 10479-2, no. 8].
In 1943 one of America’s best-known photographers, Ansel Adams, documented the daily life of the Japanese Americans interned at the Manzanar Relocation Center in the high desert of California.

[8523] Ansel Adams, Loading Bus, Leaving Manzanar for Relocation, Manzanar Relocation Center, CA (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Ansel Adams Manzanar Relocation Photographs [LOT 10479-2, no. 14].
The Manzanar Relocation Center was one of nine Japanese internment camps. In what would come to be seen as among the greatest mistakes made by the U.S. government during World War II, thousands of Japanese citizens were held in camps against their will.

[8598] War Relocation Authority, Relocation of Japanese Americans (1943),
courtesy of Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University.
On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed the Japanese Relocation Act and created the War Relocation Authority. The WRA removed and detained some 120,000 Japanese over the next four years. Over 60 percent of the internees were U.S. citizens; many others had resided in the country for decades.

[8600] Earl A. Harrison, Americans of Foreign Birth in the War Program for Victory (1942),
courtesy of special collections, Michigan State University Library.
Speech delivered in 1942 by Harrison to the American Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born addressing the special role of millions of non-native-born Americans in the war effort. The speech commends this group’s loyalty and help to their new country. Though non-U.S. citizens could not fight in the war, they helped “provide the armed forces and the military supplies to facilitate the development of a second military front on the battlefield of Europe to ensure the complete defeat of the Nazi army.”

Suburban Dreams: Levittown, New York

[3024] Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Levittown House of Mrs. Dorothy Aiskelly, Residence at 44 Sparrow Lane (1958), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G613-72794].

Levittown, New York, is an enormous middle-income housing development built during the late 1940s and early 1950s; it epitomizes the architecturally homogeneous towns and subdivisions that popped up across the United States during the Truman and Eisenhower years. When William Levitt began erecting low-cost Cape Cod houses on potato fields east of New York City in 1946, his planned community had a population of 450; by the late 1950s, its population was 60,000. Builders liked “housing developments” such as Levittown: their lack of distinctive style made them quick and cheap to construct. Families liked them too, and not just because of their affordability: living in a house allowed for more privacy than living in an apartment building, and certainly allowed more access to the outdoors. At the same time, living in a moderately populated, planned community like Levittown, with its yards opening one onto the other, fostered feelings of instant neighborhood and shared upward mobility.

Not surprisingly, these housing developments tended to contain only white middle-class families. Black families were not welcome, and the sameness of the homes enforced, at least outwardly, the sameness of the lives lived inside them. The explosion of areas like Levittown, and suburban areas outside core cities around the country, came in large part from returning World War II veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. The benefits of having served in the armed forces included money for a college education and a down payment on a new home. Federal Housing Administration mortgage policies and a better transportation infrastructure also helped accelerate the growth of suburbs. For these new homebuyers, many from lower- and middle-class backgrounds, obtaining such a home was partial fulfillment of the American Dream. Still, Levittown, social historians have said, was emblematic not only of the successes of the American Dream in the prosperous years following World War II, but also of its quieter, more insidious failures. As part of white flight from more ethnically diverse urban areas, suburban subdivisions became notorious for continuing and solidifying a trend of ethnic and class segregation across the entire nation, as well as the neglect of economically challenged and rapidly deteriorating city centers.

Intrigued and alarmed by the paradoxical nature of these communities, a handful of American writers in the 1950s and 1960s explored the ramifications of life within suburbia. Most were critical. While authors such as John Cheever and John Updike focused on upper-middle-class suburbs and the stifled emotional and intellectual milieu of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) within them, Jewish American writers looked at the suburbs from a different perspective: both in appreciation of the respite they afforded Jewish Americans striving to leave the chaotic, dirty cities and with concern about the consumerism and conformity that such communities seemed to promote. Most vexing for Jewish American writers was the move away from the expression of any distinctive religious and cultural identity that necessarily accompanied relocation into towns such as Levittown, Scarsdale, or Short Hills. Philip Roth in particular explored the uneasiness of such an assimilated Jewish American suburban family. In Goodbye, Columbus (1959), protagonist Neil Klugman, a Newark, New Jersey, resident, partakes enthusiastically of the tennis courts, houses, and country club girls of suburban New Jersey, only to find that that world contains as much hypocrisy and pain as the cramped apartments of the inner city. Published a decade later, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) harnesses the somewhat fond and lyrical observations of his earlier work to wickedly dissect the suburban American Dream. Portnoy’s Complaint satirizes the consumption and assimilation that had become the hallmark of the good Jew, especially the good Jew outside of the city. Touching directly on “cookie-cutter” communities such as Levittown, Alex Portnoy’s mother extols her nephew, the “biggest brain surgeon in the entire Western Hemisphere,” whose genius is confirmed by his possession of “six different split-level ranch type houses.” Granted, her annoying praise makes us laugh, but its comical partnering of enormous professional success with duplicate dull-as-dishwater house ownership points to some of the complexities of America’s suburban dream, complexities felt early in the remarkable attractions of Levittown. Issues such as the struggle over neighborhoods can be seen in other literary works, among them Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and Jo Sinclair’s The Changelings (1955).


  1. Comprehension: Why were these planned communities built close to highways?
  2. Comprehension: In what ways might a community in which all the dwellings are the same have allowed for more individualism than city dwelling?
  3. Comprehension: What significance do you see in the fact that fences between yards were not allowed during Levittown’s early years?
  4. Context: How might the heritage shared by those who grew up in suburban housing developments differ from that shared by people who grew up in other areas of the United States? Consider, for example, the way Ralph Ellison depicts the city in Invisible Man.
  5. Context: If Levittown and communities like it helped empty cities of the white middle class, what effect do you think they had on the areas in which they were built? What do you make of the fact that Levittown was built on fields that had once yielded huge potato crops? Consider the topic of “urban sprawl.” How does a story like Bellow’s “Looking for Mr. Green” reflect what happens in situations of “white flight” from urban centers?
  6. Exploration: How might writers of different ethnic backgrounds react to a place like Levittown, or any suburb? Read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and John Updike’s “Separating,” and compare their various visions of family life outside the city.
  7. Exploration: How do reruns of TV programs from the 1950s and 1960s, like Leave It to BeaverMy Three Sons, or Bewitched, reflect on suburban life? Are there any programs from this era that are set in locations other than the suburbs? Why or why not?

[2165] Ludwig Baumann, Home Furnishings Exhibit (1952),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-62235].
“Cookie-cutter” communities like Levittown spread rapidly in postwar America, characterized by not only homogeneous architecture but also homogeneous furniture and lifestyle. Writers like John Cheever, John Updike, and Arthur Miller critiqued suburban life.

[2749] John Collier, Store Dummy Displaying Daniel Boone Hat, Fur Trimming Detachable, Suitable for Auto Aerial Plume (Advertisement). Amsterdam, New York (1941),
courtesy of the Library of Congress. [LC-USF34-081569-E].
Suburban children in 1950s America were obsessed with cowboys and romanticized stories of the Wild West; one of their favorite games was “Cowboys and Indians,” and stores had a hard time keeping coonskin caps in stock.

[3024] Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Levittown House of Mrs. Dorothy Aiskelly, Residence at 44 Sparrow Lane (1958),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G613-72794].
The postwar generation saw the development of so-called “Levittowns,” homogeneous suburbs that were first conceptualized by William Levitt in response to the postwar housing crunch. These communities were typically middle-class and white. Jews, who were only recently being considered “white,” also flocked to the suburbs during this era. Philip Roth satirizes Jewish suburban life in Goodbye, Columbus, and Arthur Miller dramatizes the suburban plight of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

[3062] Carl Mydans, House on Laconia Street in a Suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio (1935),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-000658-D].
Suburban scene of houses, street, and sidewalk. This is an early example of the type of suburban neighborhood that flourished immediately following World War II.

[8844] Pancho Savery, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
Professor Pancho Savery discusses life in 1950s America.

Living with the Atomic Bomb: Native Americans and the Postwar Uranium Boom and Nuclear Reactions

[6635] Skeet McAuley, Fallout Shelter Directions (1984), courtesy of Sign Language, Contemporary Southwest Native America, Aperture Foundation, Inc.

The Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States created a new U.S. need for uranium to be used in the production of nuclear weapons. The Four Corners area of the Southwest, including Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, is rich in uranium, much of it on Navajo lands. Struggling economically after World War II, the Navajo people welcomed the jobs created by a new emphasis on uranium mining. The impact of this Cold War development for these Native Americans and their lands has, however, had devastating effects in the areas of health and environment. A significant number of the men who worked in these mines, most of them Navajos, breathed in uranium dust and were consequently exposed to small but constant amounts of radiation. Many of the mines, in their first years of operation, were very poorly ventilated. The mineworkers, unaware of the dangers, often ate and drank down in the mines. In addition, the men would often arrive at their homes after work coated in uranium dust, exposing their family members to small doses of radiation. Some of the radioactive rocks from the mines were used to rebuild houses in the villages. The mill tailings from the mines entered the local environment, contaminating ground water in the surrounding areas. According to UREO (Uranium and Radiation Education Outreach), today there are nearly 1,100 abandoned uranium mines in this region, with only around 450 having been reclaimed to some extent.

Much controversy surrounds the issues associated with uranium mining. Native Americans point out that the government did not tell the Navajos about the dangers of radiation sickness for the men working in the mines and with the tailings. While studies show that cancer rates among the Navajo living near the uranium mine tailings are much higher than the national average, some government studies from the 1980s denied that there was any widespread problem with radiation contamination. Native American writers, from Leslie Marmon Silko to Sherman Alexie, have documented the trouble caused by uranium mining, with many of these pieces collected in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice and Ecocriticism (2001).

Native Americans had other issues to address in the United States. By 1953, Native American unemployment was a major fact of reservation life. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) attempted to solve this problem by persuading large numbers of Indians to relocate into urban areas, using the lure of job training and housing brochures depicting Indian families leading a middle-class life. While the initial response was enthusiastic, within five years 50 percent of those who moved had returned to their reservations.

Ironically, as with many other minority groups, Native Americans played important roles in helping to win World War II, only to be relegated to their previous status after the war was over. The story of the Navajo code-talkers is a fascinating one. This top-secret project consisted of Navajo men who joined the Marine Corps to allow their language to act as a code in military communications. Classified information was able to be more readily communicated using the Navajo code-talkers than through previous encryption methods. Windtalkers, a 2002 movie, uses the history of the code-talkers for its underlying story.

The story of uranium usage and atomic power in the United States also touches on the cultural paranoia that was evoked by a fear of atomic weapons. As Paul Boyer puts it in By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985), “American culture had been profoundly affected by atomic fear, by a dizzying plethora of atomic panaceas and proposals, and by endless speculation on the social and ethical implications of the new reality.” The culture of the Cold War, with political adversaries such as the Soviet Union after World War II, and later communist China, convinced much of the American public that a homeland attack was not just a possibility but, indeed, a probability. The arms race became all the more serious after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949 and developed the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s. Americans and the world were all too familiar with the destructive power of nuclear weapons after they had been used against Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War II to an end. American policy on the use of atomic weapons wavered over the decades. Truman vowed never to use them again as a “first strike” weapon; but the Korean War caused reconsideration of this policy. Both Truman and Eisenhower maintained that a major stockpiling of atomic weapons was necessary in the face of an expanding communist threat.

The average American’s fear of a nuclear attack increased even more when the Soviet Union successfully pulled ahead of the United States in what was the beginning of the “space race” by launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Both countries had been improving their ability to launch and control rockets since World War II, and the success of Sputnik added to the fear that a Soviet attack could come from outer space itself.

The government and the popular press urged average Americans to construct their own backyard bomb shelters to protect against a nuclear attack. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Life ran articles about shelter designs and described how Americans could seek refuge from falling atomic bombs. Many public and government buildings were designated as nuclear fallout shelters, and schools and civic organizations regularly practiced defensive drills for a possible attack. In “Cultural Aspects of Atomic Anxiety,” Alan Filreis suggests that “the bomb generally made mid-century Americans fear more acutely what they always already feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled. Fragmentation was one fear. The loss of control was another. The bomb symbolized the two fears in one.” Fragmentation, disjunction, and broken verse were modernist innovations (e.g., the poetry of Gertrude Stein or the visual break-up in cubist paintings); however, the atomic bomb “took cultural or aesthetic aspects of modern life-a ‘modernism’ that could be safely imagined as something threatening but very far-off or at least contained, in Paris or New York-and seemed now to bring that incoherence dramatically home, or, indeed, into the home.”

In late 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the edge of an all-out nuclear conflict due to the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union had constructed a number of missile sites within Cuba, allowing for a much quicker first strike against the U.S. mainland. The United States demanded that these weapons be removed, and over the course of thirteen days of threats and negotiations, Americans prepared for a nuclear war. This incident marked perhaps the height of American fears of nuclear annihilation. Just a few years later, movies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Fail-safe (1964) demonstrated how these fears continued to be a part of the culture of the times. Interestingly, the documentary film The Atomic Café (1982) nostalgically explores the world of living with the atomic bomb during the 1950s and 1960s.



  1. Comprehension: Many U.S. citizens make sacrifices during times of war in order to support their country. What is unique about the situation of Native Americans and their support of the country during World War II and the Cold War?
  2. Comprehension: Why did Americans have such a fear of atomic destruction in the 1950s and 1960s?
  3. Context: How does knowing what we do about most Native American tribes’ relationship with the land shape our understanding of both the uranium mining and the relocation program?
  4. Context: How does the move of many Native Americans to urban areas compare to migration patterns of other minority groups during this era?
  5. Context: How honest was the American government with ordinary citizens in its approach to civil defense during the 1950s and 1960s? Could practicing “duck and cover” drills in schools, going to designated government basement bomb shelters, and building backyard shelters really have helped people during a nuclear attack? Why might the government have found this approach helpful? Could it have led to a suspicion of government, as might be seen in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the narrator ends up living in an underground “shelter” of sorts?
  6. Exploration: What problems were faced by African Americans, Native Americans, and Japanese Americans who remained in the United States during the war? How were those problems similar to and different from the problems faced by minority veterans when they returned? You might also want to compare the portrait of Native American veterans in Momaday’s fiction with that of Jewish military men in Roth’s short story “Defender of the Faith.”
  7. Exploration: John Hersey’s book Hiroshima depicts the horrific and altered lives of six individuals who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. This story was first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1946 as an extended article. The book was a best-seller. How might its publication have led to an increased dread of an atomic attack by the American public?

[5066] Anonymous, First 29 Navajo U.S. Marine Corps Code-Talker Recruits Being Sworn In at Fort Wingate, NM (n.d.),
courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
The Native American contribution to the Allied victory in World War II cannot be underestimated. Navajo “code-talkers” drew on their native language as a code for military communications; many Navajo words change meaning with their inflections, and to the untrained listener the language is incomprehensible.

[5656] Anonymous, Eight Indian Marine Fighters Serving with the Marine Signal Unit (1943),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Photograph of Native American soldiers. Despite significant and multifaceted contributions to the war effort, Native Americans continued to be mistreated by the United States government. Many Navajo men, struggling economically after the war, took jobs mining uranium in the 1950s, with no warning about the dangers associated with working in these mines. Writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie have documented the trouble caused by uranium mining.

[6467] U.S. Army, Frenchman’s Flat, Nev. Atomic Cannon Test (1953),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117031].
Atomic detonation and resulting fireball. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan during World War II, poets, novelists, and other artists began to explore the ethical issues surrounding the use of such weapons. John Hersey’s Hiroshima depicts the horrors of August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima.

[6635] Skeet McAuley, Fallout Shelter Directions (1984),
courtesy of “Sign Language, Contemporary Southwest Native America” Aperture Foundation, Inc.
Nuclear weapons have been tested in the Southwest for over half a century. For writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, weapons-testing is not respectful to the natural world and dims humanity’s hopes for renewal and regeneration.

Jazz Aesthetics

[3075] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947), courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0428 DLC].

Though twenty-first-century American youth may associate jazz with “easy listening,” it is important to consider jazz’s revolutionary influence on the literature and aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s. For American writers of this era, jazz referred not only to a musical style but also to a style of dance, literature, dress, and art. Jazz’s rebellion could be felt in the freedom of improvisation, as well as the ability to take old melodies, split them apart, and make them fit a new rhythm and a new worldview.

The history of jazz is rich and complex. As a musical art form, its roots go back to African and African American musical traditions, spanning tribal drumming, slavery field chants, gospel, ragtime, and the blues. Once it entered the mainstream, jazz and the blues, often referred to together, quickly became recognized as one of the first truly original American art forms. In the 1920s, a time known as the “Jazz Age,” and beyond, this musical form has enjoyed a widespread public popularity in the United States and Europe.

There are a variety of jazz styles, but most jazz is characterized by improvisation. Rhythmic jazz typically has a forward momentum called “swing” and uses “bent” or “blue” notes. Jazz often includes “call-and-response” patterns in which one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers another. Jazz musicians place a high value on finding their own sound and style, and that means, for example, that trumpeter Miles Davis sounds very different from trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Since jazz musicians play their songs in their own distinct styles and often improvise, a dozen different jazz recordings of the same song will each sound different.

The influences of jazz on the literature of the 1950s were extensive. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin were among the midcentury writers who incorporated jazz motifs into their works. The use of jazz may also apply more generally to postmodern notions of pastiche and rebellion. Visual artists, such as Romare Bearden, were also influenced by jazz and used it as a subject in their work.


  1. Comprehension: How might the “improvisation” of jazz have a direct bearing on the sense of improvisation that occurs in postmodern literature?
  2. Context: In Ellison’s Invisible Man, what “melodies” from literature, art, music, and culture does the narrator quote? How does he remake them? You may want to begin with his use of Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue,” or compare Ellison’s narrative style to other works of jazz, dance, or art.
  3. Exploration: One writer who continuously demonstrates the influences of jazz and the blues in his poetry is Langston Hughes. Read some of Hughes’s poems aloud and try to determine how this music influences his writing. Compare what Hughes does in his poetry to the prose styles of Ellison and Baldwin. Are there similarities?

[3071] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0285 DLC].
During the 1940s and 1950s, America was still a segregated nation, but jazz was one of the few areas where African Americans were accorded respect, and black and white musicians played together.

[3074] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0024 DLC].
Audiences and musicians have called Armstrong the greatest jazz musician of all time. Raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, Armstrong was a huge influence on jazz and on later trumpet players such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Equal parts great musician and performer, he was sometimes criticized for his shuffle-along down-South stage personality “Satchmo.” See “Note on Commercial Theatre” by Langston Hughes for a comment on the “whiting” of black culture. Jazz was crucial to the poetry of the Black Arts movement.

[3075] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0428 DLC].
Known as “Lady Day,” jazz legend Billie Holiday got her start in obscure Harlem nightclubs. The white gardenias in her hair in this photo were one of her trademarks. Gottlieb’s collection includes portraits of jazz greats such as singers Sarah Vaughan and Cab Calloway, guitarist Django Reinhardt, and pianist Art Tatum. For a depiction of female blues singers, see Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Queen of the Blues.”

[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977].
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz was an important theme in modernist writing and visual art. Jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow, nicknamed “Little Louis” due to her Armstrong-like playing style, is eulogized in Colleen McElroy’s poem “It Ain’t Blues That Blows an Ill Wind.”

[5479] Winold Reiss, Drawing in Two Colors (c. 1920),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5687].
Offset lithograph of African American man dancing. Also titled Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I. German-born Winold Reiss (1886-1953) studied in Munich before moving to New York in 1913. He is best known for his portraits of African Americans and Native Americans. Poets, novelists, and painters incorporated imagery and rhythms from jazz in their work. In 1924 Aaron Douglas began studying with Reiss: the style and colors of Douglas’s work reflect Reiss’s influence.

Baseball: An American Pastime

[8526] Ansel Adams, Baseball Game (1943), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Ansel Adams Manzanar War Relocation Photographs [LOT 10479-4, no. 22].

When Alexander Cartwright, founder of the New York Knickerbockers team, published rules for his baseball team in 1845, a new national pastime was born. The game of baseball gained popularity throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and was featured in Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. During the second half of the nineteenth century, playing baseball became an important symbolic activity in America, as teams tied together communities and defined a new way of belonging or not belonging. As early as the 1880s and 1890s, immigrants learned to play baseball in order to shed their greenhorn status and to show their enthusiasm for something truly American. This transformation is recounted in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967) and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925).

The turn of the century saw the creation of the American League and the two-league system that we are familiar with today. Though professional baseball players in the early part of the twentieth century were largely drawn from colleges, by the 1920s professional players were much more likely to come from the lower and middle classes. Sons of immigrants and midwestern farm boys could rise through the expanding professional farm system and eventually shine on the diamond. These rising stars in baseball helped solidify yet another version of the popular “rags to riches” story. In the 1950s, a number of teams finally moved west, to Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, making the sport more locally available to a wider audience. Baseball often mirrored society at large and reflected its overall attitudes, values, and trends. Organized baseball was racially segregated for decades after its creation. Many cities created their own separate Negro baseball teams that featured outstanding players such as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige.

World War II caused people to question segregation practices and led to the opening of the game to new types of players. One important wartime innovation was the All-Girls Professional Baseball League, in existence from 1943 to 1954. Since many professional male ballplayers and other young men were off serving in the military, women were recruited to play baseball on teams mostly located throughout the Midwest. However, these careers, too, reflected trends in society at large. The codes of conduct and rules of play for these women were much different than they were for male professional players. When the men returned from the war, women baseball players were expected to return to their previous professions and lives, as were the women who took over assembly-line work during the war.

In 1947 Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) became the first African American to officially play in the major leagues. His breaking of the color line was just the beginning of a long struggle for equal status and pay. Racist comments, hate mail, segregated housing, and death threats were to be an everyday part of the game for African American major league players for years to come. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, he too received racial slurs and death threats. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that African Americans entered the ranks of major league baseball management. The game of baseball tended to reflect in a highly visible public forum some of the backlash against the civil rights movement and the exclusion of people of color from other venues of society.

Jewish players had not been strictly prevented from playing baseball-Hank Greenberg played for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and made no effort to hide his religion-but Sandy Koufax, a pitcher for the Dodgers from 1955 to 1960, proved that Jews too could be sports heroes in American postwar culture. Other Jewish players also made a name for themselves. Buddy Myer, an infielder for the Senators, won the batting title in 1935. Al Rosen was a four-time All-Star third baseman for the Indians in the 1950s, and Steve Stone, pitching for Baltimore, won the 1980 Cy Young Award. Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen begins its investigation into the conflict between modern orthodox and Hasidic Jews with a baseball game played by teams from the two groups.

Baseball not only reflected changes in race relations in this country, but also brought the subject of labor relations into a much broader cultural context. The “reserve clause” in baseball basically bound a player to one team throughout his career. It took away any right of “free agency,” whereby a player could offer himself to the highest bidder. A Supreme Court ruling in November 1953 kept baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws in place and the reserve clause in effect. In 1964, players formed a union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and it took twenty-five more years before a form of “free agency” became available to major league players. These struggles between players and team owners reflect some of the conflict that occurred between labor unions and industry or powerful landowners that is discussed in Unit 12.

Not surprisingly, baseball functions as an important trope in the literature of this era. It stands as an icon for something truly “American.” It also, along with other sports, emphasizes the skills and importance of the individual along with the necessity of group organization and collaborative cooperation. Many major American writers have used baseball as subject matter, as exemplified by Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel.


  1. Comprehension: In what ways does the history of baseball in the United States play off the American Dream?
  2. Comprehension: How does baseball reflect other aspects of American culture?
  3. Comprehension: Baseball is an important symbol of American-ness in Invisible Man and Goodbye, Columbus. What made baseball such an important symbol of American culture?
  4. Context: How are the individual and collaborative aspects of baseball reflective of important elements of American society at large?
  5. Exploration: Baseball is just one example of America’s preoccupation with sports and entertainment. Why do you think American culture has this keen interest? What function do sports and entertainment play in your own life? How are sports and entertainment similar to and different from literature and the arts?

[1992] Anonymous, African American Baseball Players of Morris Brown College, with Boy and Another Man Standing at Door, Atlanta, Georgia (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-114266 DLC].
At this traditionally African American institution in Atlanta, baseball has a long and proud history. During the second half of the nineteenth century, playing baseball became an important symbolic activity in America, as teams tied to-gether communities and defined a new way of belonging. The sport was featured in novels such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

[5162] Dorothea Lange, Fourth of July, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-020010-E DLC].
Although baseball had been played widely throughout the United States, using local rules, since the early 1800s, it is said to have been “invented” when Alexander Cartwright formulated formal rules and regulations in 1845; by the 1860s it was widely thought of as America’s “national pastime.” People from all walks of life played baseball, from immigrants in the late nineteenth century to the depression-era men pictured here.

[6732] Kenji Kawano, Navajo Indian Boys Playing Baseball (2001),
courtesy of Kenji Kawano.
For over two centuries, baseball has been a popular American sport that has attracted players from a number of ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. It wasn’t until 1947, however, that major league baseball allowed non-white players.

[8500] Anonymous, Gary Works Baseball Team (1912),
courtesy of the Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest.
Members of the baseball team sponsored by the U.S. Gary Steel Works in Indiana. Workers tried out for such teams and practiced in their free time.

[8526] Ansel Adams, Baseball Game (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Ansel Adams Manzanar War Relocation Photographs [LOT 10479-4, no. 22].
Photograph of a baseball game in one of the Japanese internment camps. In spite of the discrimination against Japanese Americans during World War II, many claimed to wish for a chance to prove their loyalty.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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