A Brief History of American Literature

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American drama attained international status at the time with the works of Eugene O'Neill , who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize.


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In the mid-twentieth century, American drama was dominated by the work of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller , as well as by the maturation of the American musical. Henry Miller assumed a distinct place in American Literature in the s when his semi-autobiographical novels were banned from the US. The main literary movement since the s has been postmodernism , and since the late twentieth century ethnic and minority literature has sharply increased. Because of the large immigration to Boston in the s, the articulation of Puritan ideals, and the early establishment of a college and a printing press in Cambridge , the New England colonies have often been regarded as the center of early American literature.

However, the first European settlements in North America had been founded elsewhere many years earlier. During the colonial period, the printing press was active in many areas, from Cambridge and Boston to New York , Philadelphia , and Annapolis. The dominance of the English language was not inevitable. Moreover, we are now aware of the wealth of oral literary traditions already existing on the continent among the numerous different Native American groups. Political events, however, would eventually make English the lingua franca for the colonies at large as well as the literary language of choice.

For instance, when the English conquered New Amsterdam in , they renamed it New York and changed the administrative language from Dutch to English. From to , only about separate items were issued from the major printing presses in the American colonies. This is a small number compared to the output of the printers in London at the time. London printers published materials written by New England authors, so the body of American literature was larger than what was published in North America. However, printing was established in the American colonies before it was allowed in most of England.

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In England, restrictive laws had long confined printing to four locations, where the government could monitor what was published: London, York, Oxford, and Cambridge. Because of this, the colonies ventured into the modern world earlier than their provincial English counterparts. Back then, some of the American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonist audience. Captain John Smith could be considered the first American author with his works: The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were important topics of early American literature.

Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower 's arrival.

American literature | Timeline, History, & Facts | eywaapps.dk

This work outlined the ideal society that he and the other Separatists would build in an attempt to realize a "Puritan utopia". Other religious writers included Increase Mather and William Bradford , author of the journal published as a History of Plymouth Plantation, — Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation. And still others, like Thomas Morton , cared little for the church; Morton's The New English Canaan mocked the religious settlers and declared that the Native Americans were actually better people than the British.

Puritan poetry was highly religious, and one of the earliest books of poetry published was the Bay Psalm Book , a set of translations of the biblical Psalms ; however, the translators' intention was not to create literature, but to create hymns that could be used in worship.

Nicholas Noyes was also known for his doggerel verse. John Eliot translated the Bible into the Algonquin language. Of the second generation of New England settlers, Cotton Mather stands out as a theologian and historian, who wrote the history of the colonies with a view to God's activity in their midst and to connecting the Puritan leaders with the great heroes of the Christian faith.

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield represented the Great Awakening , a religious revival in the early 18th century that emphasized Calvinism. Less strict and serious writers included Samuel Sewall who wrote a diary revealing the daily life of the late 17th century , [2] and Sarah Kemble Knight. New England was not the only area in the colonies with a literature: The diary of William Byrd and The History of the Dividing Line described the expedition to survey the swamp between Virginia and North Carolina but also comments on the differences between American Indians and the white settlers in the area.

As the colonies moved toward independence from Britain, an important discussion of American culture and identity came from the French immigrant J. This same period saw the beginning of black literature, through the poet Phillis Wheatley and the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano , The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. At this time American Indian literature also began to flourish. The Revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams , Josiah Quincy , John Dickinson , and Joseph Galloway , the last being a loyalist to the crown.

Two key figures were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin are esteemed works with their wit and influence toward the formation of a budding American identity. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense and The American Crisis writings are seen as playing a key role in influencing the political tone of the time. Major satirists included John Trumbull and Francis Hopkinson.

Philip Morin Freneau also wrote poems about the War. During the 18th century, writing shifted from the Puritanism of Winthrop and Bradford to Enlightenment ideas of reason. The belief that human and natural occurrences were messages from God no longer fit with the new human-centered world.

Many intellectuals believed that the human mind could comprehend the universe through the laws of physics as described by Isaac Newton. One of these was Cotton Mather. The enormous scientific, economic, social, and philosophical, changes of the 18th century, called the Enlightenment , impacted the authority of clergyman and scripture, making way for democratic principles. The increase in population helped account for the greater diversity of opinion in religious and political life as seen in the literature of this time.

In , the population of the colonies numbered approximately , Thirty years later it was more than , By , it reached 1,, These new ideas can be seen in the popularity of Benjamin Franklin 's Autobiography.

Even earlier than Franklin was Cadwallader Colden - , whose book The History of the Five Indian Nations , published in was one of the first texts critical of the treatment of the Iroquois in upstate New York by the English. Colden also wrote a book on botany, which attracted the attention of Linnaeus, and he maintained a long term correspondence with Benjamin Franklin.

In the post-war period, Thomas Jefferson established his place in American literature through his authorship of the United States Declaration of Independence , his influence on the United States Constitution , his autobiography, his Notes on the State of Virginia , and his many letters. The Federalist essays by Alexander Hamilton , James Madison , and John Jay presented a significant historical discussion of American government organization and republican values. Fisher Ames , James Otis , and Patrick Henry are also valued for their political writings and orations.

Early American literature struggled to find a unique voice in existing literary genre, and this tendency was reflected in novels. European styles were frequently imitated, but critics usually considered the imitations inferior. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first American novels were published. These fictions were too lengthy to be printed as manuscript or public reading. Publishers took a chance on these works in hopes they would become steady sellers and need to be reprinted. This scheme was ultimately successful because male and female literacy rates were increasing at the time.

Brown's novel depicts a tragic love story between siblings who fell in love without knowing they were related. In the next decade important women writers also published novels. Susanna Rowson is best known for her novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth , published in London in Charlotte Temple is a seduction tale, written in the third person, which warns against listening to the voice of love and counsels resistance.

She also wrote nine novels, six theatrical works, two collections of poetry, six textbooks, and countless songs. Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged in accounts of the development of the early American novel, Charlotte Temple is often criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction. Hannah Webster Foster 's The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton was published in and was also extremely popular. Eliza is a "coquette" who is courted by two very different men: Unable to choose between them, she finds herself single when both men get married.

She eventually yields to the artful libertine and gives birth to an illegitimate stillborn child at an inn. The Coquette is praised for its demonstration of the era's contradictory ideas of womanhood. Both The Coquette and Charlotte Temple are novels that treat the right of women to live as equals as the new democratic experiment. These novels are of the Sentimental genre, characterized by overindulgence in emotion, an invitation to listen to the voice of reason against misleading passions, as well as an optimistic overemphasis on the essential goodness of humanity.

Sentimentalism is often thought to be a reaction against the Calvinistic belief in the depravity of human nature. Charles Brockden Brown is the earliest American novelist whose works are still commonly read. These novels are of the Gothic genre. The first writer to be able to support himself through the income generated by his publications alone was Washington Irving. James Fenimore Cooper was also a notable author best known for his novel, The Last of the Mohicans written in He followed in with one of the country's first science fictions, A Voyage to the Moon: After the War of , there was an increasing desire to produce a uniquely American literature and culture, and a number of literary figures emerged, among them Washington Irving , William Cullen Bryant , and James Fenimore Cooper.

Bryant wrote early romantic and nature-inspired poetry, which evolved away from their European origins. Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales about Natty Bumppo which includes The Last of the Mohicans were popular both in the new country and abroad. In , Edgar Allan Poe began writing short stories — including " The Masque of the Red Death ", " The Pit and the Pendulum ", " The Fall of the House of Usher ", and " The Murders in the Rue Morgue " — that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy.

In , Ralph Waldo Emerson , a former minister, published his essay Nature , which argued that men should dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and interacting with the natural world. Emerson's work influenced the writers who formed the movement now known as Transcendentalism , while Emerson also influenced the public through his lectures.

Among the leaders of the Transcendental movement was Henry David Thoreau , a nonconformist and a close friend of Emerson.

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After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden , a memoir that urges resistance to the dictates of society. Thoreau's writings demonstrate a strong American tendency toward individualism. As one of the great works of the Revolutionary period was written by a Frenchman, so too was a work about America from this generation. Alexis de Tocqueville 's two-volume Democracy in America described his travels through the young nation, making observations about the relations between American politics, individualism, and community.

These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narrative autobiography, of which the best known examples from this period include Frederick Douglass 's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs 's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Celebrated California Bandit , which is considered the first Native American novel but which also is an early story about Mexican American issues. In , the young Nathaniel Hawthorne — collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales , a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents.

Hawthorne went on to write full-length "romances", quasi-allegorical novels that explore the themes of guilt, pride, and emotional repression in New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter , is a drama about a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery. Hawthorne's fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville — , who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic sea narrative novels. Inspired by Hawthorne's focus on allegories and psychology, Melville went on to write romances replete with philosophical speculation.

In Moby-Dick , an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements. In the short novel Billy Budd , Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early 20th century. Anti-transcendental works from Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe all comprise the Dark Romanticism sub-genre of popular literature at this time.

American dramatic literature, by contrast, remained dependent on European models, although many playwrights did attempt to apply these forms to American topics and themes, such as immigrants, westward expansion, temperance, etc. At the same time, American playwrights created several long-lasting American character types, especially the "Yankee", the "Negro" and the "Indian", exemplified by the characters of Jonathan , Sambo and Metamora.

In addition, new dramatic forms were created in the Tom Shows , the showboat theater and the minstrel show. The Fireside Poets also known as the Schoolroom or Household Poets were some of America's first major poets domestically and internationally. They were known for their poems being easy to memorize due to their general adherence to poetic form standard forms , regular meter , and rhymed stanzas and were often recited in the home hence the name as well as in school such as " Paul Revere's Ride " , as well as working with distinctly American themes, including some political issues such as abolition.

Longfellow achieved the highest level of acclaim and is often considered the first internationally acclaimed American poet, being the first American poet given a bust in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. Walt Whitman — and Emily Dickinson — , two of America's greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style.

Walt Whitman was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War — , and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leaves of Grass , in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself without being egotistical. In his words Whitman was a poet of "the body electric".

Lawrence wrote that Whitman "was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something 'superior' and 'above' the flesh. By contrast, Emily Dickinson lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is ingenious, witty, and penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime. Many of her poems dwell on the topic of death, often with a mischievous twist.

One, " Because I could not stop for Death ", begins, "He kindly stopped for me. American poetry arguably reached its peak in the early-to-midth century, with such noted writers as Wallace Stevens and his Harmonium and The Auroras of Autumn , T. Cummings , Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes , in addition to many others. Mark Twain the pen name used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens , — was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast — in the border state of Missouri. Twain's style — influenced by journalism, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently humorous — changed the way Americans write their language.

His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents.

History of American literature

Other writers interested in regional differences and dialect were George W. A version of local color regionalism that focused on minority experiences can be seen in the works of Charles W. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe.

American literature

With its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional and psychological nuance, James's fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller , about an American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw , a ghost story. Realism began to influence American drama, partly through Howells, but also through Europeans such as Ibsen and Zola. Although realism was most influential in set design and staging—audiences loved the special effects offered up by the popular melodramas—and in the growth of local color plays, it also showed up in the more subdued, less romantic tone that reflected the effects of the Civil War and continued social turmoil on the American psyche.

The most ambitious attempt at bringing modern realism into the drama was James Herne 's Margaret Fleming , which addressed issues of social determinism through realistic dialogue, psychological insight, and symbolism. The play was not successful, and both critics and audiences thought it dwelt too much on unseemly topics and included improper scenes, such as the main character nursing her husband's illegitimate child onstage.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction to encompass both high and low life and sometimes connected to the naturalist school of realism. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton — scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up.

One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence , centers on a man who chooses to marry a conventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider. A Girl of the Streets. And in Sister Carrie , Theodore Dreiser — portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman.

Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris wrote about the problems of American farmers and other social issues from a naturalist perspective. Political writings discussed social issues and the power of corporations. Edward Bellamy 's Looking Backward outlined other possible political and social orders, and Upton Sinclair , most famous for his muck-raking novel The Jungle , advocated socialism. Journalistic critics, including Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens , were labeled "The Muckrakers".

Henry Brooks Adams 's literate autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams also depicted a stinging description of the education system and modern life. Race was a common issue as well, as seen in the work of Pauline Hopkins , who published five influential works from to The s brought sharp changes to American literature. Many writers had direct experience of the First World War, and they used it to frame their writings. Experimentation in style and form soon joined the new freedom in subject matter. In , Gertrude Stein — , by then an expatriate in Paris, published Three Lives , an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements in contemporary art and music.

Stein labeled a group of American literary notables who lived in Paris in the s and s the " Lost Generation ". The poet Ezra Pound — was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life in Europe. His work is complex, sometimes obscure, with multiple references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature, both Western and Eastern.

Eliot — , another expatriate. Eliot wrote spare, cerebral poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. Like Pound's, Eliot's poetry could be highly allusive, and some editions of The Waste Land come with footnotes supplied by the poet. In , Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Henry James, Stein, Pound, and Eliot demonstrate the growth of an international perspective in American literature. American writers had long looked to European models for inspiration, but whereas the literary breakthroughs of the midth century came from finding distinctly American styles and themes, writers from this period were finding ways of contributing to a flourishing international literary scene, not as imitators but as equals.

Something similar was happening back in the States, as Jewish writers such as Abraham Cahan used the English language to reach an international Jewish audience. American writers also expressed the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald — capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the s. Fitzgerald's characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in The Great Gatsby , is the tendency of youth's golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. The Outlandish Companion Volume Two: Writings, Images, and Songs. The Outlandish Companion Revised and Updated: Companion to Outlander, Dragonfly i Review "This is a wonderful book.

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