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Forces that Shaped American Culture, Immigration and Diversity

center of music publishing, American patriotic songs, Scandinavian ancestry, Bix Beiderbecke, Countee Cullen

By the early 20th century, as the United States became an international power, its cultural self-identity became more complex. The United States was becoming more diverse as immigrants streamed into the country, settling especially in America’s growing urban areas. At this time, America's social diversity began to find significant expression in the arts and culture. American writers of German, Irish, Jewish, and Scandinavian ancestry began to find an audience, although some of the cultural elite resisted the works, considering them crude and unrefined.

Many of these writers focused on 20th-century city life and themes, such as poverty, efforts to assimilate into the United States, and family life in the new country. These ethnically diverse writers included Theodore Dreiser, of German ancestry; Henry Roth, a Jewish writer; and Eugene O'Neill and James Farrell, of Irish background. European influence now meant something very different than it once had: Artists changed the core of American experience by incorporating their various immigrant origins into its cultural vision. During the 1920s and 1930s, a host of African American poets and novelists added their voices to this new American vision. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, among others, gathered in New York City’s Harlem district. They began to write about their unique experiences, creating a movement called the Harlem Renaissance.

Visual artists of the early 20th century also began incorporating the many new sights and colors of the multiethnic America visible in these new city settings. Painters associated with a group known as The Eight (also called the Ashcan school), such as Robert Henri and John Sloan, portrayed the picturesque sights of the city. Later painters and photographers focused on the city’s squalid and seamier aspects. Although nature remained a significant dimension of American cultural self-expression, as the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe demonstrated, it was no longer at the heart of American culture. By the 1920s and 1930s few artists or writers considered nature the singular basis of American cultural identity.

In popular music too, the songs of many nations became American songs. Tin Pan Alley (Union Square in New York City, the center of music publishing at the turn of the 20th century) was full of immigrant talents who helped define American music, especially in the form of the Broadway musical. Some songwriters, such as Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, used their music to help define American patriotic songs and holiday traditions. During the 1920s musical forms such as the blues and jazz began to dominate the rhythms of American popular music. These forms had their roots in Africa as adapted in the American South and then in cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana; Kansas City, Missouri; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Black artists and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie became the instruments of a classic American sound. White composers such as George Gershwin and performers such as Bix Beiderbecke also incorporated jazz rhythms into their music, while instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman adopted jazz’s improvisational style to forge a racially blended American form called swing music.

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