American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures



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American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. There was no written literature among the more than 500 different Indian languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, Native American oral literature is quite diverse.

  • American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. There was no written literature among the more than 500 different Indian languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, Native American oral literature is quite diverse.

Accounts of migrations and ancestors abound, as do vision or healing songs and tricksters' tales. Certain creation stories are particularly popular. In one well-known creation story, told with variations among many tribes, a turtle holds up the world. In a Cheyenne version, the creator, Maheo, has four chances to fashion the world from a watery universe.

  • Accounts of migrations and ancestors abound, as do vision or healing songs and tricksters' tales. Certain creation stories are particularly popular. In one well-known creation story, told with variations among many tribes, a turtle holds up the world. In a Cheyenne version, the creator, Maheo, has four chances to fashion the world from a watery universe.

It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans. The Puritan definition of good writing was that which brought home a full awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced on Earth.

  • It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans. The Puritan definition of good writing was that which brought home a full awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced on Earth.

Puritan style varied enormously – from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals and crushingly pedantic religious history. Whatever the style or genre, certain themes remained constant. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. The Puritans interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper spiritual meanings,

  • Puritan style varied enormously – from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals and crushingly pedantic religious history. Whatever the style or genre, certain themes remained constant. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. The Puritans interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper spiritual meanings,

The first Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the seriousness of Reformation Christianity.

  • The first Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the seriousness of Reformation Christianity.
  • Known as the "Pilgrims“
  • Puritans disapproved of such secular amusements as dancing and card-playing, which were associated with ungodly aristocrats and immoral living.
  • Writings focused on nonfiction and pious genres: poetry, sermons, theological tracts, and histories

Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-1672)

  • Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-1672)
  • To My Dear and Loving Husband
  • Edward Taylor (c. 1644-1729)
  • Metrical History of Christianity
  • Cotton Mather (1663-1728)
  • He wrote at length of New England in over 500 books and pamphlets. Mather's 1702 Magnalia Christi Americana (Ecclesiastical History of New England), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
  • Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (c. 1745-c. 1797)

  • Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (c. 1745-c. 1797)
  • Important black writers like Olaudah Equiano and Jupiter Hammon emerged during the colonial period. Equiano, an Ibo from Niger (West Africa), was the first black in America to write an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). In the book – an early example of the slave narrative genre – Equiano gives an account of his native land and the horrors and cruelties of his captivity and enslavement in the West Indies

The 18th-century American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man.

  • The 18th-century American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
  • Poor Richards Almanac
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
  • (The Political Pamphlet) The passion of Revolutionary literature is found in pamphlets, the most popular form of political literature of the day. Over 2,000 pamphlets were published during the Revolution. Washington Irving (1789-1859)
  • "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)

  • Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)
  • Wheatley's poetic themes are religious,
  • "On Being Brought from Africa to America"

Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature

  • Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature

The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society. In his essay "The Poet" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era

  • The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society. In his essay "The Poet" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era
  • The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the imagination for its values.

The Transcendentalist movement was a reaction against 18th century rationalism and a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th century thought. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world.

  • The Transcendentalist movement was a reaction against 18th century rationalism and a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of 19th century thought. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world.
  • The doctrine of self-reliance and individualism developed through the belief in the identification of the individual soul with God.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem commemorating the battle, "Concord Hymn," has one of the most famous opening stanzas in American literature:
  • By the rude bridge that arched the flood Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.

American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme. American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention. The American hero – like Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain's Huck Finn, or Edgar Allan Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym – typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)- Self Reliance

  • American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme. American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention. The American hero – like Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain's Huck Finn, or Edgar Allan Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym – typically faced risk, or even certain destruction, in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)- Self Reliance
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) - Walden
  • Walt Whitman (1819-1892) – Leaves in the Grass

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)
  • Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
  • A nonconformist, like Thoreau she often reversed meanings of words and phrases and used paradox to great effect. From 435:
  • Much Madness is divinest sense – To a discerning Eye – Much Sense – the starkest Madness – 'Tis the Majority In this, as All, prevail – Assent – and you are sane – Demur – you're straightway dangerous And handled with a chain –

he Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the "Romance," a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.

  • he Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the "Romance," a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.

The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville's Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe's tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.

  • The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville's Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe's tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
  • The Scarlet Letter (1850), has become the classic portrayal of Puritan America. It treated issues that were usually suppressed in 19th-century America, such as the impact of the new, liberating democratic experience on individual behavior, especially on sexual and religious freedom. Herman Melville (1819-1891)
  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville's masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its "ungodly, god-like man," Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale Moby-Dick leads the ship and its men to destruction. This work, a realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
  • He refined the short story genre and invented detective fiction. Many of his stories prefigure the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy so popular today. Abolitionist Lydia Child (1802-1880),
  • Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was the most popular American book of the 19th century.
  • Reasons for the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin are obvious. It reflected the idea that slavery in the United States, the nation that purportedly embodied democracy and equality for all, was an injustice of colossal proportions.
  • Harriet Jacobs (1818-1896)-Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • She escaped from her owner and started a rumor that she had fled North.
  • Terrified of being caught and sent back to slavery and punishment, she spent almost seven years hidden in her master's town, in the tiny dark attic of her grandmother's house. She was sustained by glimpses of her beloved children seen through holes that she drilled through the ceiling.
  • Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)

  • The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Before the war, idealists championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, when Darwinian evolution and the "survival of the fittest" seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. From 1860 to 1914, the United States was transformed from a small, young, agricultural ex-colony to a huge, modern, industrial nation. A debtor nation in 1860, by 1914 it had become the world's wealthiest state, with a population that had more than doubled, rising from 31 million in 1860 to 76 million in 1900. By World War I, the United States had become a major world power.

As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period — Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London's Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy — depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual.

  • As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period — Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London's Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy — depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual.

SAMUEL CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN) (1835-1910)

  • SAMUEL CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN) (1835-1910)
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • For Twain and other American writers of the late 19th century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Thus it was profoundly liberating and potentially at odds with society. The most well-known example is Huck Finn, a poor boy who decides to follow the voice of his conscience and help a Negro slave escape to freedom, even though Huck thinks this means that he will be damned to hell for breaking the law.

In the end, it is discovered that Miss Watson had already freed Jim, and a respectable family is taking care of the wild boy Huck. But Huck grows impatient with civilized society and plans to escape to "the territories" – Indian lands. The ending gives the reader the counter-version of the classic American success myth: the open road leading to the pristine wilderness, away from the morally corrupting influences of "civilization."

  • In the end, it is discovered that Miss Watson had already freed Jim, and a respectable family is taking care of the wild boy Huck. But Huck grows impatient with civilized society and plans to escape to "the territories" – Indian lands. The ending gives the reader the counter-version of the classic American success myth: the open road leading to the pristine wilderness, away from the morally corrupting influences of "civilization."

Two major literary currents in 19th-century America merged in Mark Twain: popular frontier humor and local color, or "regionalism." These related literary approaches began in the 1830s – and had even earlier roots in local oral traditions. In ragged frontier villages, on riverboats, in mining camps, and around cowboy campfires far from city amusements, storytelling flourished. Exaggeration, tall tales, incredible boasts, and comic workingmen heroes enlivened frontier literature.

  • Two major literary currents in 19th-century America merged in Mark Twain: popular frontier humor and local color, or "regionalism." These related literary approaches began in the 1830s – and had even earlier roots in local oral traditions. In ragged frontier villages, on riverboats, in mining camps, and around cowboy campfires far from city amusements, storytelling flourished. Exaggeration, tall tales, incredible boasts, and comic workingmen heroes enlivened frontier literature.

Henry James (1843-1916)

  • Henry James (1843-1916)
  • The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In The American, for example, Christopher Newman, a naïve but intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a bride. Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
  • Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
  • Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is one of the best, if not the earliest, naturalistic American novels. It is the harrowing story of a poor, sensitive young girl whose uneducated, alcoholic parents utterly fail her. In love and eager to escape her violent home life, she allows herself to be seduced into living with a young man, who soon deserts her. When her self-righteous mother rejects her, Maggie becomes a prostitute to survive, but soon commits suicide out of despair. Crane's earthy subject matter and his objective, scientific style, devoid of moralizing, earmark Maggie as a naturalist work.

Booker T. Washington Up From Slavery

  • Booker T. Washington Up From Slavery
  • W.E.B. Dubois The Souls of Black Folk
  • James Weldon Johnson Lift Every Voice and Sing

Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States' traumatic "coming of age," Shocked and permanently changed, Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence.

  • Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States' traumatic "coming of age," Shocked and permanently changed, Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence.

After experiencing the world, many now yearned for a modern, urban life. New farm machines such as planters, harvesters, and binders had drastically reduced the demand for farm jobs; yet despite their increased productivity, farmers were poor.

  • After experiencing the world, many now yearned for a modern, urban life. New farm machines such as planters, harvesters, and binders had drastically reduced the demand for farm jobs; yet despite their increased productivity, farmers were poor.

In the postwar "Big Boom," business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education – in the 1920s college enrollment doubled. The middle-class prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world's highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol – an automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the house with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine.

  • In the postwar "Big Boom," business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education – in the 1920s college enrollment doubled. The middle-class prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world's highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol – an automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the house with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine.

Dancing, moviegoing, automobile touring, and radio were national crazes. American women, in particular, felt liberated. Many had left farms and villages for homefront duty in American cities during World War I, and had become resolutely modern. They cut their hair short (“bobbed”), wore short “flapper” dresses, and gloried in the right to vote assured by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1920. They boldly spoke their mind and took public roles in society.

  • Dancing, moviegoing, automobile touring, and radio were national crazes. American women, in particular, felt liberated. Many had left farms and villages for homefront duty in American cities during World War I, and had become resolutely modern. They cut their hair short (“bobbed”), wore short “flapper” dresses, and gloried in the right to vote assured by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1920. They boldly spoke their mind and took public roles in society.

Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation” – so named by literary portraitist Gertrude Stein. Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity.

  • Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation” – so named by literary portraitist Gertrude Stein. Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity.

Numerous novels, notably Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation. In T.S. Eliot's influential long poem The Waste Land (1922), Western civilization is symbolized by a bleak desert in desperate need of rain (spiritual renewal).

  • Numerous novels, notably Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation. In T.S. Eliot's influential long poem The Waste Land (1922), Western civilization is symbolized by a bleak desert in desperate need of rain (spiritual renewal).
  • The world depression of the 1930s affected most of the population of the United States.

William Faulkner

  • William Faulkner
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Langston Hughes
  • William Carlos Williams
  • Robert Frost
  • T. S. Elliot
  • Ezra Pound

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

  • John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
  • His best known work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which follows the travails of a poor Oklahoma family that loses its farm during the Depression and travels to California to seek work. Family members suffer conditions of feudal oppression by rich landowners.

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

  • Richard Wright (1908-1960)
  • Richard Wright was born into a poor Mississippi sharecropping family that his father deserted when the boy was five. Wright was the first African-American novelist to reach a general audience, even though he had barely a ninth grade education. His harsh childhood is depicted in one of his best books, his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He later said that his sense of deprivation, due to racism, was so great that only reading kept him alive.



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