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American literature

Literature written or related to the United States

Top 10 American literature related articles

Main reading room at the Library of Congress

American literature is literature predominantly written or produced in English[1][2] in the United States of America and its preceding colonies. Before the founding of the United States, the Thirteen Colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States were heavily influenced by British literature. The American literary tradition thus began as part of the broader tradition of English-language literature. However, a small amount of literature exists in other immigrant languages and Native American tribes have a rich tradition of oral storytelling.[3]

The American Revolutionary Period (1775–83) is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. An early novel is William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy published in 1791.

Writer and critic John Neal in the early-mid nineteenth century helped advance America's progress toward a unique literature and culture, by criticizing predecessors like Washington Irving for imitating their British counterparts and influencing others like Edgar Allan Poe.[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson pioneered the influential Transcendentalism movement; Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, was influenced by this movement. The political conflict surrounding abolitionism inspired the writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe. These efforts were supported by the continuation of slave narratives.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) is an early American classic novel and Hawthorne influenced Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (1851). Major American poets of the nineteenth century include Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Edgar Allan Poe was another significant writer who greatly influenced later authors. Mark Twain was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast. Henry James achieved international recognition with novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

American writers expressed both disillusionment and nostalgia following World War I. The short stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood of the 1920s, and John Dos Passos wrote about the war. Ernest Hemingway became famous with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms; in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. William Faulkner was another major novelist. American poets also included international figures: Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and E. E. Cummings. Playwright Eugene O'Neill won the Nobel Prize. In the mid-twentieth century, drama was dominated by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as the musical theatre.

Depression era writers included John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath (1939). America's involvement in World War II influenced works such as Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

One of the developments in late 20th century and early 21st century has been an increase in the literature written by ethnic, Native American, and LGBT writers; Postmodernism has also been important during the same period.

American literature Intro articles: 54

Colonial literature

Captain John Smith's A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia... (1608) can be considered America's first work of literature.

The Thirteen 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, and the dominance of the English language in American culture was not yet apparent.[5] The first item printed in Pennsylvania was in German and was the largest book printed in any of the colonies before the American Revolution.[5] Spanish and French had two of the strongest colonial literary traditions in the areas that now comprise the United States, and discussions of early American literature commonly include texts by Samuel de Champlain alongside English-language texts by Thomas Harriot and Captain John Smith. Moreover, a wealth of oral literary traditions existed on the continent among the numerous different Native American tribes. Political events, however, would eventually make English the lingua franca as well as the literary language of choice for the colonies at large. Such events included the English capture of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1664, with the English renaming it New York and changing the administrative language from Dutch to English.[6]

From 1696 to 1700, only about 250 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. 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.[5]

Back then, some of the American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonial audience. Captain John Smith could be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia... (1608) and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other writers of this manner included Daniel Denton, Thomas Ashe, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.

Topics of early prose

Letters from an American Farmer is one of the first in the canon of American literature, and has influenced a diverse range of subsequent works.

The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were important topics of early American literature. A journal written by John Winthrop, The History of New England, discussed the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower's arrival. "A modell of Christian Charity" by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, was a Sermon preached on the Arbella (the flagship of the Winthrop Fleet) in 1630. 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, 1620–47. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation. Others, such as Thomas Morton, cared little for the church; Morton's The New English Canaan mocked the Puritans and declared that the local Native Americans were better people than them.[7]

Other late writings described conflicts and interaction with the Indians, as seen in writings by Daniel Gookin, Alexander Whitaker, John Mason, Benjamin Church, and Daniel J. Tan. John Eliot translated the Bible into the Algonquin language (1663) as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God.[8] It was the first complete Bible printed in the Western hemisphere; Stephen Daye printed 1,000 copies on the first printing press in the American colonies.[9]

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. His best-known works include the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), the Wonders of the Invisible World and The Biblia Americana.

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield represented the Great Awakening, a religious revival in the early 18th century that emphasized Calvinist thought. Other Puritan and religious writers include Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, John Wise, and Samuel Willard. Less strict and serious writers included Samuel Sewall (who wrote a diary revealing the daily life of the late 17th century),[7] and Sarah Kemble Knight.

New England was not the only area in the colonies with a literature: southern literature was also growing at this time. The diary of planter William Byrd and his The History of the Dividing Line (1728) 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.[7] In a similar book, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West, William Bartram described the Southern landscape and the Indian tribes he encountered; Bartram's book was popular in Europe, being translated into German, French and Dutch.[7]

As the colonies moved toward independence from Britain, an important discussion of American culture and identity came from the French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, whose Letters from an American Farmer (1782) addresses the question "What is an American?" by moving between praise for the opportunities and peace offered in the new society and recognition that the solid life of the farmer must rest uneasily between the oppressive aspects of the urban life and the lawless aspects of the frontier, where the lack of social structures leads to the loss of civilized living.[7]

This same period saw the beginning of African-American literature, through the poet Phillis Wheatley and the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). At this time American Indian literature also began to flourish. Samson Occom published his A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul and a popular hymnbook, Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, "the first Indian best-seller".[10]

Revolutionary period

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.

During the Revolutionary War, poems and songs such as "Nathan Hale" were popular. 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 budding anthropocentric culture. 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 first book published in North America that promoted Newton and natural theology was Mather's The Christian Philosopher (1721). 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 1670, the population of the colonies numbered approximately 111,000. Thirty years later it was more than 250,000. By 1760, it reached 1,600,000.[5] The growth of communities and therefore social life led people to become more interested in the progress of individuals and their shared experience in the colonies. These new ideas can be seen in the popularity of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.

Even earlier than Franklin was Cadwallader Colden (1689 - 1776), whose book The History of the Five Indian Nations, published in 1727 was one of the first texts published on Iroquois history.[11] Colden also wrote a book on botany, which attracted the attention of Carl Linnaeus, and he maintained a long term correspondence with Benjamin Franklin.[12][13]

American literature Colonial literature articles: 82

Post-independence

The opening of the original printing of the Declaration, printed on July 4, 1776, under Jefferson's supervision.[14]

In the post-war period, Thomas Jefferson established his place in American literature through his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his influence on the U.S. 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.

The First American Novel

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. Among the first American novels are Thomas Attwood Digges's Adventures of Alonso, published in London in 1775 and William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy published in 1789. 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 1791.[15] In 1794 the novel was reissued in Philadelphia under the title, Charlotte Temple. 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.[15] Reaching more than a million and a half readers over a century and a half, Charlotte Temple was the biggest seller of the 19th century before Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged in accounts of the development of the early American novel, Charlotte Temple often is criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction.

Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton was published in 1797 and was extremely popular.[16] Told from Foster's point of view and based on the real life of Eliza Whitman, the novel is about a woman who is seduced and abandoned. Eliza is a "coquette" who is courted by two very different men: a clergyman who offers her a comfortable domestic life and a noted libertine. 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.[17] even as it has been criticized for delegitimizing protest against women's subordination.[18]

Washington Irving and his friends at Sunnyside

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.[19] While many of these novels were popular, the economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone.[20]

Charles Brockden Brown is the earliest American novelist whose works are still commonly read. He published Wieland in 1798, and in 1799 published Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn. 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. He completed his first major book in 1809 titled A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.[21]

Of the picaresque genre, Hugh Henry Brackenridge published Modern Chivalry in 1792-1815; Tabitha Gilman Tenney wrote Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventure of Dorcasina Sheldon in 1801; Royall Tyler wrote The Algerine Captive in 1797.[19]

Other notable authors include William Gilmore Simms, who wrote Martin Faber in 1833, Guy Rivers in 1834, and The Yemassee in 1835. Lydia Maria Child wrote Hobomok in 1824 and The Rebels in 1825. John Neal wrote Keep Cool in 1817, Logan, A Family History in 1822, Seventy-Six in 1823, Randolph in 1823, Errata in 1823, Brother Jonathan in 1825, and Rachel Dyer (earliest use of the Salem witch trials as the basis for a novel[22]) in 1828. Catherine Maria Sedgwick wrote A New England Tale in 1822, Redwood in 1824, Hope Leslie in 1827, and The Linwoods in 1835. James Kirke Paulding wrote The Lion of the West in 1830, The Dutchman's Fireside in 1831, and Westward Ho! in 1832. Omar ibn Said, a Muslim slave in the Carolinas, wrote an autobiography in Arabic in 1831, considered an early example of African-American literature.[23][24][25] Robert Montgomery Bird wrote Calavar in 1834 and Nick of the Woods in 1837. James Fenimore Cooper was a notable author best known for his novel The Last of the Mohicans written in 1826.[19] George Tucker produced in 1824 the first fiction of Virginia colonial life with The Valley of Shenandoah. He followed in 1827 with one of the country's first science fictions: A Voyage to the Moon: With Some Account of the Manners and Customs, Science and Philosophy, of the People of Morosofia, and Other Lunarians.

American literature Post-independence articles: 34

19th century – Unique American style

After the War of 1812, 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. Irving wrote humorous works in Salmagundi and the satire A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). 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, 1826) were popular both in the new country and abroad.

John Neal's early works in the 1810s and 1820s played a formidable role in the developing American style of literature.[26] He criticised Irving and Cooper for relying on old British conventions of authorship to frame American phenomena,[27] arguing that “to succeed...[the American writer] must resemble nobody…[he] must be unlike all that have gone before [him]” and issue “another Declaration of Independence, in the great Republic of Letters.”[28] As a pioneer of the literary device he alternately referred to as “talk[ing] on paper”[29] or "natural writing,"[30] Neal was “the first in America to be natural in his diction”[31] and his work represents “the first deviation from...Irvingesque graciousness.”[32]

In 1832, 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.

Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.

The New England Brahmins were a group of writers connected to Harvard University and Cambridge, Massachusetts. They included James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

In 1836, 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. After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden (1854), a memoir that urges resistance to the dictates of society. Thoreau's writings demonstrate a strong American tendency toward individualism. Other Transcendentalists included Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very.[33]

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 (1836&1840)described his travels through the young nation, making observations about the relations between American politics, individualism, and community.

The political conflict surrounding abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narrative autobiography.

In 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) 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 (1850), 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 (1819–1891), 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 (1851), 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.

Ethnic, African American and Native American writers

Slave narrative autobiography from this period include Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). At this time, American Indian autobiography develops, most notably in William Apess's A Son of the Forest (1829) and George Copway's The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847). Moreover, minority authors were beginning to publish fiction, as in William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends, (1857) Martin Delany's Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–62 and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) as early African American novels, and John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), which is considered the first Native American novel but which also is an early story about Mexican American issues.

American literature 19th century – Unique American style articles: 54