Capturing America - Mark Lawson's History Of Modern American Literature

Mark Lawson tells the story of how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century, telling the nation's stories of money, power, sex, religion and war.

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01Fighters And Writers2010021120160410 (BBC7)

How a group of young writers returning from WWII turned the US into a literary superpower.

Mark traces the way a group of young Americans returning from WWII turned the US into a literary superpower.

Contributors include Philip Roth, Toni Morrison and Edward Albee as well as Norman Mailer, John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, the last three recorded in the final major interviews of their lives.

Drawing on interviews with dozens of key writers and critics, Mark Lawson examines the role of authors in capturing the nature of the US and explores the successes and controversies of America's literary output.

He shows how differences of race, region and gender informed and expanded the stories being told.

And he nominates his candidate for the title of the most unfairly neglected great American novelist.

How a group of young writers returning from WWII turned the US into a literary superpower.

02The Crucible Of Capitalism2010021820160416 (BBC7)

The radicalism of US playwrights who questioned the optimistic rhetoric of politicians.

Mark Lawson explores how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century, telling the nation's stories of money, power, sex, religion and war.

Mark considers how America's post-war playwrights - from Tennessee Williams to David Mamet - have challenged political rhetoric about the triumph of capitalism in the USA.

Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reveals his candidate for 'the best American play'. Other interviewees include Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, and the late August Wilson, whose sequence of ten plays about the African-American experience is typical of the structural ambition and political questioning found in so many of the major post-war American plays.

Through the theatres of Broadway, the programme also explores the commercial pressures in America's largely-unsubsidised theatre culture, which have led to several of the nation's greatest playwrights - including Albee, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams - facing long periods of neglect.

Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reveals his candidate for 'the best American play'.

Other interviewees include Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, and the late August Wilson, whose sequence of ten plays about the African-American experience is typical of the structural ambition and political questioning found in so many of the major post-war American plays.

03Divided States20100225

Each American president ends speeches by asking God to bless 'these United States'.

But in a nation born through war - and later almost split by civil conflict - there remain deep divisions of colour and opportunity.

Mark Lawson explores the way in which this legacy of division and violence has been explored by the nation's authors.

He talks to writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, James Ellroy and Walter Mosley and literary critic Professor Harold Bloom, who nominates Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian as the greatest modern American novel because it deals with the violence at the heart of American life.

Mark Lawson traces how American writers have explored violent divisions in their society.

04Landscapes, Interiors, Underworlds *20100304

John Updike, author of the Rabbit quartet of novels, always remembered being inspired by the 1960s Pop Art of Andy Warhol and others: an attempt to catch the visual reality of modern America.

Updike responded by trying to achieve something similar in fiction, depicting the lives of people from places and backgrounds which had often been ignored.

Richard Ford (The Sportswriter trilogy), John Irving (The Cider House Rules), Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) also reflect on this mission to describe the external and internal nature of life in the United States in all its regional and personal variety.

Writers have captured the texture of everyday life in America's different regions.

05Making Sex Safe *20100311

From the 1950s the phrase 'scandalous bestseller' began to appear on the covers of paperbacks such as Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, Couples by John Updike and Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.

And in spite of a widespread belief that America had become unshockable, there continued to be bursts of controversy over works of literature dealing with sex, including Tony Kushner's Angels in America - subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes - Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, Susanna Moore's In the Cut and Patricia Cornwell's introduction of the first lesbian character in a mainstream crime series.

The programme also features Nicholson Baker's response to discovering - in the Starr Report - that his erotically explicit book Vox was one of the love gifts given by Monica Lewinsky to President Clinton.

How a historically Puritan country was challenged by novels exploring sexual expression.

06Small Wars20100318

As America enjoyed the peace and wealth resulting from victory in a Second World War which had affected its homeland security directly only at Pearl Harbour, the Pentagon and the State Department constructed a new foreign policy: major international conflicts would in future be avoided by 'small' or 'proxy' wars or 'police actions', aimed at neutralising ideological threats abroad.

Vietnam combatants David Rabe and Tobias Wolff dramatised their experiences on stage and in fiction, while EL Doctorow used historical parallels to reflect on recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former CIA man Charles McCarry used his time in deep cover as material for a series of espionage masterpieces, and Jay Mcinerney - who had chronicled the wealthy recklessness of boom-time 1980s New York in books including Bright Lights, Big City - now turned to the very different mood of the city after 9/11.

Authors including Norman Mailer, Jay Mcinerney, Jonathan Safran Foer and EL Doctorow discuss the way American literature reflected these decades of theoretically small wars, and Mark Lawson reveals his candidate for the most unfairly neglected modern American writer.

How authors have reflected US foreign policy from Vietnam to 9/11.

07The Celebrity Tour *20100325

Among the millions of words written by modern American authors, one of the most important is 'I'.

The autobiographical, first-person story - featuring authors in light disguise or even under their own names - has become an increasingly significant literary genre.

Philip Roth and John Updike wrote long sequences of stories about fictional famous American authors - Nathan Zuckerman and Henry Bech - who can be read as versions of their own histories.

Later, Roth went further, with several books including characters with his own name, just as Norman Mailer would refer to himself in non-fiction books as 'Mailer'.

This is one of the devices of the 'New Journalism', developed by Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson, which put the reporter at the heart of the story.

Conversely, some authors, including JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, were so appalled by the prospect of the publicity circuit that they preferred to vanish completely.

Beginning on 'The Philip Roth Tour' of Newark, New Jersey, in which Liz Del Tufo takes tourists to sites featured in the author's work, Mark Lawson reflects on the way in which a celebrity culture has made writers play with their public personalities, talking to Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay Mcinerney, Dave Eggers and Professor Diane Roberts.

Mark Lawson reflects on literary celebrity.

08 LASTGoodbye Soldiers, Hello Everyone *20100401

Mark Lawson completes his tour of modern American literature with a story of departures and arrivals and the cultural pressures which writers face in the 21st century.

The great post-Second World War generation of authors - Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr - and their surviving contemporaries such as Gore Vidal and Philip Roth often expressed gloom about the future of serious novels and plays, fearing they would be pushed out by a pressure towards more commercial and personal stories.

The rise of confessional writing" - from the poetry of Sylvia Plath and others in the 60s to the modern "misery memoir" - has seemed to call into question the validity of imagination and invention.

Lawson argues that an underlying change in the status of the literary novel is epitomised by the fact that wheareas in the 1960s John Updike was featured on the cover of Time magazine, more recently it was Dan Brown.

However a new wave of so-called "hyphenated"' writers - Indian-American, Korean-American, Dominican-American - has been renewing U.S libraries in the way they always had been: through immigration.

Taking final stock Mark Lawson reflects on whether American Literature has reached a full stop or perhaps achieved a new dash.

He talks to authors including John Ashbery, Rita Dove, Chang-rae Lee, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Walter Mosley and James Patterson.

How American fiction is being renewed by writers from different backgrounds.".