For decades, humans have relied on different mediums to communicate with one another and to convey their stories. Only 4,000 years ago, humans began writing down their experiences, which sparked a fascinating voyage of human advancement. Today, the accomplishment is recognized as "literature." American literature is widely known among different types of literature for its unique and touching themes. It is a term broad enough to include everything from epic novels to profound contemporary poetry.
American literature involves all the literary works produced by authors from the American colonies and, later, the United States. This article explains every important aspect you should know about American literature.
What Does American Literature Focus On?
American literature is heavily influenced by British literary works. However, it has now become a separate course as it embodies various characteristics of American history.
What Is American Literature's History?
Being familiar with these periods is crucial if you want to enroll in the American literature class. Each period represents how American literature has evolved over the centuries.
Considering the population and diversity of the United States, its literature is divided into movements. Below explained are the most common periods of American literature from its beginning to the present.
- Colonial Period (1607-1775)
The colonial period refers to the time before the Revolutionary War. The literary pieces in this time were practical, religious, and historical in nature.
If you want to explore the characteristics of American literature of the Colonial periods, the following are some literary works that were written by the religious settlers and historical figures of that time;
- The first European settlers from North America in the US wrote about their experience in the early 1600s. It was the beginning stage of American literature, where the vocabulary and theme were straightforward and derived from the literature of Great Britain.
- John Smith effortlessly wrote about his experience as an English explorer. Moreover, he also wrote about the history of Virginia. These works are known to be the best and earliest works of American literature.
- Other personalities who shaped American literature were John Winthrop and Nathaniel Ward. The books were mainly focused on the religious context.
- On the other hand, Anne Bradstreet wrote the earliest and first collection of poetry, called the Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America. It was the first poetry to be written in and about America.
Some other great writers who contributed to the colonial period of American literature are;
- Cotton Mather
- Phillis Wheatley
- William Bradford
- Mary Rowlandson
During the early days of the colonial period, American literature was mostly non-fictional and historical. They were written by the British settlers who populated the communities that were to become the colonies of the United States.
- Revolutionary Period (1765–1790)
The revolutionary period of American literature began a decade before the revolutionary war and lasted for 25 years. American writers had explored and adopted the Puritan literary style by this time. Moreover, the religious and historical themes in literary pieces were distinctly centered on American experiences.
During the revolutionary period, the writers grew a liking for nature, science, innovation, and freedom, which showed in the literary works produced in this era.
This period is not called Revolutionary only because of the war, but – it was a period that standardized the authentic version of American literature. Some literary writers that contributed to American literature in this period are;
- James Madison
- Thomas Paine
- Alexander Hamilton
- Thomas Jefferson
- Noah Webster
- Benjamin Franklin
- The Early National Period (1775–1828)
The early national period of American literature features some notable and exquisite works of comedy stage and novels.
Independence, individualism, freedom, nationalism, and slavery were the prominent themes of this era. American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry also used similes and metaphors in their writings to show the American audience that independence from Great Britain was necessary.
Some literature pieces written by Patrick Henry are widely taught in American literature courses today. The notable works are "Federalist & the Anti-Federalist Paper" and "Swords of Freedom – Man of Honor."
Some remarkable literary achievements by Thomas Jefferson in this era are his only full-length book and notes called "The State of Virginia." On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence and his letter were noteworthy American literary achievements of that time.
Some more achievements in American literature during this period include;
- The first American comedy play was written and performed in this era, the early national period. The comedy stage play was written by Royal Tyler, called "The Contrast," in 1787.
- William Hill wrote the first American novel during this period, called "The Power of Sympathy," in 1789.
James Fenimore, Charles Brockden, and Washington Irving also made remarkable contributions to American literature by writing American fiction during this period. In addition to this, Edgar Allan Poe And William Cullen Bryant also produced poetry collections that showed a great difference from British poetry.
- The Romantic Period (1828–1865)
The romantic period, also known as the American Renaissance period, was the era of Transcendentalism. It is the first American literary movement. This period is accepted as the greatest time for American literature. Self-reliance and imagination were the main themes in literature of this period. Some other themes include nature, romance, and faith.
In this period, the symbolism was widely used by romantic authors, novelists, and writers. During the romantic era, love, fear, sorrow, and rebellion were woven into the literature, especially in the tales of Edgar Allen Poe.
Some famous writers who made considerable contributions to this period were Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller.
The significant contributions and achievements of American literature in this period are listed below;
- The collection of poetry, "The Voices of the Night," written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Short stories composed by Harriet Beecher, Melville, Hawthrone, and Poe
- During this period, the beginning of critique writing happened. It was initiated by James Russel Lowell, Poe, and William Gilmore Simms.
- Between 1853 and 1859, American novels such as Cotel by William Well Brown and "Our Nig” by Harriet E. Wilson were published.
- Realism and Naturalism (1870–1914)
The next period in the history of American literature is known as the realism and naturalism period. It resulted from the American Civil War, industrialism, and Reconstruction. The civil war in the US resulted in massive loss of Americans and bloodshed, making reality and nature the primary expressions of the literary works.
The romantic and imaginary notions that arose from the American Renaissance were replaced by harsh reality, loss of life, and a natural perspective of American life. The literary work of Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain are notable works of this period.
American writers such as Theodor Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris wrote some powerful and emotional novels during that time which are still read in American literature courses. The theme of this period was realism, frankness, tragedy, crudeness, and nature.
The realistic era of American literature started to fade by the 1900s. The time from the beginning of 1900 until 1914 marked the Naturalistic period of American literature. Unlike realism, the naturalistic period claimed to represent an accurate representation of human life. This period was also a post-Darwinian hypothesis. Hence many naturalistic writers took their inspiration from Darwin's theory and developed remarkable characters and storylines.
Notable works by the writers of that time include;
- Edith Wharton made remarkable contributions to this period by writing three classic and mind-blowing novels, including; "The House of Mirth" in 1905, "Ethan Frome" in 1911, and "The Custom of the Country" in 1913.
- Mark Twain was an acclaimed writer who deployed a combination of realism and humor in his writing. His notable works from this period are; "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (Novel – 1885), "Life on the Mississippi" (Travel Narrative – 1883), and "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" (Short Story – 1899)
- Another naturalist novel, "His Sister Carrie" (1900), by an American writer, Theodor Dreiser.
- Other novels that deeply and accurately depict the reality of life, nature, and capitalism in this period were "A Girl of the Streets" by Maggie in 1983, "The Pit" in 1903, and "The Octopus" in 1902, both by Frank Norris.
- The Modernism (1914–1945)
Modernism proved to be the second most influential and literature-rich age of American literature after the American Renaissance. The period is famous as Modernism because, by the middle of the 1900s, Americans welcomed innovation and technology. There were significant developments in the field of technology, machinery, and science that became a light of hope for America after the bloodshed and fear from the Civil War.
Modernism was an extension of realism but in a more profound way. Many writers in this period were deeply attracted to the World War and its bafflement. The novels, poems, and stories written during this period were characterized by boldness, optimism, and fear.
This period also marked the beginning of drama writing in American literature. Even though the drama was inspired by European theaters, it gained American expression with time. A few remarkable contributions by writers of this era are;
- Scott Fitzgerald wrote an additional piece, "The American Dream," for the Great Gatsby (1925)
- Zora Neale Hurston wrote an exceptional story about the three marriages of a black woman called "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937).
- Ernest Hemingway wrote two novels that profoundly portrayed the fear and disappointment of the Lost Generation of the US. These novels were "The Sun Also Rises" (1926) and "The Farewell to Arm" (1929)
- William Faulkner bid farewell to the standard techniques of the literature and used naturalistic monologues, stream-of-consciousness proses, and introduced experimental writing in his piece, "The Sound and The Fury," in 1929.
Why Study American Literature
Taking American literature courses opens up a gateway to inspiration and creativity while developing intellectual skills that are in demand in today's global world. American literature gives a chance to explore and understand how literature has played a huge role in America's history and how it has evolved from its former colonial times.
Here are some reasons why one should study American literature.
Enrolling in an American literature class can open up countless doors for learning and development. It expands our thinking horizon by giving us the critical thinking ability to see beyond our perception.
American literature is a great way to understand and know the past. You can learn about the history you didn't experience, traditions you are unfamiliar with, and customs you do not perform. Moreover, the prominent changes in American literature history ignite a spark of imagination, forcing you to out-of-the-box. It encourages your mind and knowledge to illustrate the experiences and times that boost our gestalt thinking.
American literature is filled with experiences, stories, and revolution. It ignites a spark that boosts curiosity, making you more vigilant about the past. Due to its rich history and diversity, many colleges and education institutions offer American literature courses and academic degrees.
How to Study American Literature
Studying American literature can be challenging if you do not have access to the right sources and guides. With so many periods to remember and countless themes to understand, it can be hard to remember or understand.
If you enroll in an American literature class, you will have the ability to explore and understand how literature shapes the world we live in through the art of words. Refer to the tips explained below to study the literature on America;
Step # 01 – Memorize the Historical Timeline
The first step to understanding what is American literature in college is to understand its historical timeline. The periodic timeline is integral as each period showcases how the literature in America has evolved.
|1600 – 1775||Colonial Period||Oral stories and folk songs|
|1765 – 1790||Revolutionary Period||Short and narrative stories|
|1775 – 1828||Early National Period||Historical writing|
|1829 – 1865||The Romantic Period||Pieces about love, freedom, and individuality|
|1870 – 1914||Realism & Naturalism||Realism, fear, boldness, and self-reliance|
|1914 – 1945||The Modernism||Technology and hope|
|1945– onwards||Contemporary Period||All in one|
Step # 02 – Understand the American Themes
The next step is to learn about different themes and expressions used in American literature throughout the timeline. The themes are classified as follows;
American Gothic –American Gothic literature is rooted in European Gothic literature. Anything literary piece that expresses the emotion of horror, irrationality, madness, and terror within the US borders are considered American Gothic. Moreover, it also combines other elements such as religious, racial tension, and wilderness.
Romanticism – Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement in America from 1830 to 1865. It refers to expressing a sense of freedom, independence, and spirituality.
Dark Romanticism – As a subgenre of romanticism, dark romanticism gained immense popularity between 1836 and 1840. This subgenre grew out of the period of Transcendentalism, where sin, evil, and hatred were on the rise.
Confessional Poetry – It focuses on real-life experiences and history. Poetry can include anything from autobiographical experiences to personal emotional traumas.
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American literature is a diverse and rich subject of narrative techniques, storytelling steps, and prose derived from different social and cultural values. If you want to become familiar with the rich history of the US, studying American literature is a great way.
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