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Contemporary Literature and the Events That Influenced It

     In the last forty years there have been some key people and events that have shaped history and in turn have influenced the works of some of literature’s most prolific writers. During this time period some of the most powerful speeches, poems, and literary protests were written. These works of literature were sometimes written out of necessity for the times and spoke out to all that read them. It all started in 1960 when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon, become one of the youngest men ever to hold the office of president; in the eyes of many this event began a new era in history.

     When John F. Kennedy was elected he inherited the task of taking over a nation that was in the middle of many tragic events. Kennedy’s ideas and dreams were summed up in this famous line from his election speech when he stated “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was only in his third year as president, the young, well liked president was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president in the wake of the assassination (Davidson 672-675). That same year Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. In this speech he spoke out against racism and pushed towards the future, saying “I have a dream… that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Two years later in 1965 President Johnson made the decision that affected the United States and all U.S. citizens more than any other event during that time. He officially sent U.S. troops into Vietnam, beginning the massacre known as the Vietnam War. (Karnow)

During the Vietnam War in the United States young men and women started to protest mainly against the war, but also against the Establishment—the values, tradition, and views of their parents. Those who rejected the Establishment became hippies, dropping out of society to live together in communes. “Make love, not war,” they demanded and “never trust anyone over thirty.” For the first time in society, drug use became widespread and young people experimented with new freedoms.

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This new found freedom started the sexual revolution that depleted the former idea of marriage and family that had shaped American life for decades. Many books, movies, records, and plays broke social rules. (Barr 49-66) The largest protest of the Vietnam War and of society at the time took place in Woodstock, New York. The Woodstock music festival took place in 1969 at the height of the war. The festival included some of the biggest stars in rock-n-roll history, such as Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, and Crosby, Stills, Nash. Woodstock is seen by a lot of people as one of the most important events in history. A lot of the music was heavily inspired by the war and brought out the emotions of all who attended and those who wished they could have. (Pascal 76-113)

     Another revolution and movement that was in affect in the sixties was the civil rights movement. Blacks and other minority groups demanded the same rights enjoyed by whites. These demands led to violent confrontations between white people and black people. Race riots broke out in many American cities. Black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X lead the way of the civil rights movement, but in 1965 the same year that “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was published, Malcolm X was killed. In 1968, three years after Malcolm X was killed, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in his prime, just as John F. Kennedy was five years earlier. (Encarta Encyclopedia)

     At the end of the sixties in 1969, one of the dreams of John F. Kennedy came true Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, took his first step on the moon. On the night of July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world watched as Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., stepped onto the surface of the moon for the first time. Throughout the World the phrase “the Eagle has landed” echoed. The Space program was initiated by John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961 and led the way for many other explorations that followed. This event ended the turbulent sixties and led the way for the seventies and eighties. (Encarta Encyclopedia)

In 1973 the Vietnam War came to an end, still to this day the Vietnam War is classified by many as the war nobody won. When the bullet fire finally stopped on both sides, there were more than 58,000 American’s killed or missing and 153,300 wounded. An additional 1.7 million Vietnamese people were killed. The war also left the United States in debt after nearly 150 billion dollars was spent in war; this created economic problems for years to come. The affects of this war can still be seen today. If you visit Washington, D.C. you can stop by the Vietnam Memorial and remember those who fought for this country. The Memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1982, almost a decade after the United States withdrew from the war. The dedication was attended by thousands of veterans, many of who were bitter at having been ignored when they returned home from the war. (Karnow 613)

In 1974, after the Vietnam War had come to an end, another dark event in United States history took place. Following charges of a coverup of improperties during the 1972 election campaign, including a break-in at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC, President Richard Nixon resigned, saying in his resignation speech on August 8, 1974 “I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.... By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” Richard Nixon was the first United States president in history to resign from office. The continuing Watergate scandal and the likelihood of impeachment led Nixon to resign, although he never admitted to any wrongdoing. He was eventually pardoned for all possible crimes by his successor, President Gerald Ford. (Encarta Encyclopedia)

Although the Ford Administration did not face as many problems as past campaigns, they did face some economic problems. The largest economic problem was an oil embargo during the Yom Kippur War that caused fuel prices to soar. Ford lost the 1976 election campaign to Jimmy Carter of Georgia. The Carter Administration followed policy of promoting human rights in the Middle East. However, domestic economic troubles and the inability to deal with the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which Islamic fundamentalists in Tehran, Iran, took over the American Embassy and held occupants hostage, led to Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. (Cangemi 384)

     During his two terms in office, Ronald Reagan increased defense spending of excessive funds, which greatly boosted the country’s budget deficit and helped to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. This collapse occurred during the administration of George Bush, Reagan’s vice-president and successor. Bush was highly affected by the economic problems and was later defeated for reelection by Bill Clinton, despite success at the end of the Gulf War. (Davidson 699-701)

     After the election of President Clinton in November 1992 the United States has made major strides in many areas. President Clinton has greatly improved the economy and the budget, he and his administration have also made many positive steps in the war on drugs and gun control. Clinton’s administration has also helped gain allies and improve foreign relations over his two terms in office. Presently, in the year 2000 the country seems to be in fairly good shape, growing nearer to a new election and a new administration. In the year 2000 and years beyond, it will be the job of the new administration to work towards the future and continue on the present trend of improvement.

     American literature during this contemporary era has had many great works that have contributed and influenced the United States. In the sixties, many radical forms of literature and expressions took place, leading the way for performance art and other literary forms (Contemporary Literature 785). Despite the many influential works during the contemporary era, including such present-day authors as Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancey, the so-called “classics” that will be studied for years to come have not yet been determined. The Contemporary Era is still in progress and is still advancing in literature. The continuation of this era may produce historic authors that will be remembered and studied forever such as William Shakespeare was to the Renaissance Era. Like the historic works of Civil War authors, the writers of the Contemporary Era will be remembered most for how it influenced the literary works and what will inspire those who read them in the future.

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