Early in this thread (which seems to have generated mostly angst rather than light-hearted commentary), Moose and I briefly exchanged some thoughts about an admittedly arbitrary dividing line between modern and "old" American literature. I was the one that created the arbitrary distinction, noting that, to my way of thinking, there seemed to be a big change in the way literature was done sometime around the 1920s or so, yeilding more in the way of social commentary reflecting the author's "angst." Moose, who is a learned quadruped, chimed in and noted that some of the "old stuff" also had expressions of social commentary and author's angst.
I thought about this alot over the next few days, because I listen to the Moose. Ultimately, though, I think the angst of the '20s (and sometimes a decade or two earlier) was much different than that which took place before.
Beginning in the '20s (or thereabouts), authors began using exaggeration that bordered on the ridiculous and sometimes even cruel to present their social commentary. There were books like Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, which radically misrepresented southern share croppers, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which did much the same, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, which does the same to religion, and, as Chickenboy pointed out above, Upton Sinclairs The Jungle, which painted a rather distorted picture of the meat-packing industry.
Of course, many modern American authors weren't into social commentary, but nevertheless, the era did produce a profound movement in that regard. Many preeminent authors wrote some of the era's most famous books in this way. The phenomenon even gained a name - the American proletarian movement. Here is a description of the movement from
"Proletarian literature was a literary movement that emerged in the early 1930s to become a central current in American culture. Affiliated, sometimes directly and often more indirectly, with the Communist Party U.S.A., proletarian literature represented a sharp politicizing of American literature. The movement radicalized established writers and promoted the work of a newer generation of writers, many drawn from the American working-class....Though proletarian literature lost its avant garde status and energies after 1935, its forms and themes lived on well past the 1930s - - for instance, in the kind of social democratic realism of writers like John Steinbeck, Meyer Levin, and Irwin Shaw, and in "low" literary genres like hard-boiled and urban noir."
Prior to that era, as Moose points out, some writers did write with an "angst." You might think of Crane's feelings about war, Twain's sympathetic portrayal of Jim the slave, and the adulteress in Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter. An important difference is that these authors did not exaggerate in order to make a point. They simply asked readers to step into the shoes of a soldier, a slave, an adulteress, to see what they experienced in reality.
Moose made me think, so it was interesting to delve further into this to do the research to see if my thoughts that there was a big change in literature in the early 20th century was accurate.
Certainly WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution caused artists in many fileds and many nations to look at the way the world was going. But I think you underserve the novel specifically if you say that novels before the 1920s did not exagerate in order to poke fun at governments, social mores, and religion. I would serve up "Candide", "Gulliver's Travels", "Moby Dick" (there are lots of Christian and anti-Christian allegories), "Prince and the Pauper", and "Don Quixote."