American Literary Movements

How are the novels of Ernest Hemingway different from the short stories of Edger Allen Poe? What do Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman have in common? In addressing these questions, it is crucial to understand the difference between movements in American literature. For a relatively young country, the United States is home to a wealth of important literature representing a diverse array of writers and literary movements. Studying these movements will help you understand the development of American literature as well as the influences and relationships among writers.

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Table of contents

    Timeline of American Literary Movements:

    The following timeline shows the period of each American literary movement and its duration.

    What is an American Literary Movement?

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    American Literary Movements Assorted books on a shelf StudySmarterAssorted classic books, pixabay

    The term American literary movement refers to the periods of evolution in American literature and the characteristics that literature from different time periods shares. Factors that unify literature within a particular movement might include the style of the authors' writing, common themes or ideas, and the influence of the era’s social and political climate.

    History of American Literary Movements

    The following is a brief history of American literary movements.

    Native American Literature - Early National Literature (Pre-colonial-1830)

    The first recognizable American literary movement is, of course, the pre-colonial period of Native American literature. Before the arrival of Europeans in what is now the United States, Native Americans had a vibrant literary tradition with a strong focus on oral storytelling. These stories were of high cultural value, including creation stories and other myths and folktales.

    With the arrival of European settlers, the first period of English language literature began. As Puritans settled in New England, they used literature, not for entertainment, but rather to explore religious themes and biblical teachings. Puritan literature was generally non-fiction and included letters, diary entries, and other details of daily activities.

    At the same time, Colonial literature was also developing in America. Like Puritan literature, the literature of the Colonial period was mostly non-fiction and geared towards descriptions of daily life. The major difference, however, was the religious content of Puritan literature, while Colonial writers like Captain John Smith focused on describing the process of colonization for those back home in Europe and Great Britain.

    The American Revolution in 1775 marked the start of the Revolutionary and Early National literary movements. As you might guess, this literary movement was strongly influenced by the development of the new nation and the fight for independence. As a result, much of the literature from this period was political in nature. These texts included political essays discussing the formation of the new government as well as propaganda pamphlets supporting the revolutionaries’ cause.

    Some of the most important writers of this period were also well-known political figures, such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804).

    Influenced by the Enlightenment in Europe, American authors in the Revolutionary and Early National periods also embraced the literary movement of Rationalism. A preference for rational thought and deductive reasoning shaped texts of the era, including The Declaration of Independence (1776) and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1794)

    American Romanticism and Naturalism (1830-1914)

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    American Literary Movements Painting of a cannon in front of a lake view  StudySmarterAmerican Romanticism, pixabay

    The year 1830 marks the beginning of American Romanticism. This is arguably the first uniquely American literary movement and gave rise to some of the most important authors in the history of American literature. With the American Revolution behind them, authors in the United States had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the process of nation-building by creating truly American literature.

    This was the first time American authors tried to separate themselves from the literary traditions of Europe and Great Britain. Authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville wrote novels and poetry inspired by the American landscape and the ideals of freedom and individuality.

    Some of the great American Romantic writers include Edger Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickenson.

    American Romanticism was also the first literary movement in the United States that split into several sub-movements. These sub-movements included Transcendentalism, Dark Romanticism, American Gothic, and the poetry of the Fireside Poets.

    Towards the middle of the 19th century, American literature began to move away from Romanticism as authors embraced the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism. The horrors of the Civil War had changed the mood of the country and the idealism of Romanticism was no longer applicable.

    Instead, American authors such as Stephen Crane and Mark Twain sought to depict life as it really was, even the parts that might have been ugly or unpleasant. This movement was also exemplified in the proliferation of slave narratives that were published in the wake of the Civil War, including Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs.

    Towards the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain became one of the most important writers associated with the literary movement known as regionalism or local color fiction. His novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin (1884) paid special attention to regional specifics, including dialect, landscape, and customs.

    Can you think of some reasons why slave narratives would be classified as Naturalist literature?

    Modernism, Experimentation, and the Modern Era (1914-Present)

    At the beginning of the 20th century, American literature moved into the Modernist literary movement. Authors like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway began to focus more on the structure and style of writing, making a conscious effort to break long-established literary conventions. This evolved into the even more unconventional movement of Experimental literature, as well as individual groups of writers, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Lost Generation.

    The term "Lost Generation" was coined by American writer Gertrude Stein to describe the generation reaching young adulthood during World War I. The term was also applied more specifically to describe the group of expatriate writers and artists living in Paris in the 1920s, including Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.

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    Following World War II, Modernism began to shift into Postmodernism, a literary movement that eschewed meaning and embraced disorder and fragmentation. Postmodern authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick wrote playful, distorted texts that often relied heavily on metafiction and intertextuality.

    By the mid to late 20th century, American literature had begun to resemble the diverse body of work that we see today. American drama grew in importance, with the first performances of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). American poets as diverse as Sylvia Plath and Allan Ginsberg established a variety of literary movements including the San Francisco Renaissance, New Formalism, the Confessional Poets, and the Beat Generation.

    The urge towards experimentation and the breaking of literary conventions that began during the Modernist and Experimental periods continue to influence American literature, which represents a broad variety of literary themes, styles, and genres.

    What common themes or styles can you identify in contemporary American literature?

    Characteristics of American Literary Movements

    The following list explains some of the key characteristics of each American literary movement.

    Native American Literary Movement

    • Focus on oral storytelling traditions, songs, and poetry.
    • Themes included creation stories, myths, and folktales.
    • Examples include trickster myths, often featuring a coyote as the troublemaker, and creation myths to explain how various aspects of the world came into being.

    Puritan Literature (1620-1750):

    • Focus usually on religious subject matter.
    • Non-fiction materials, including journal and diary entries or letters. Literature was not for entertainment but for religious instruction.
    • Examples include Of Plymouth Plantation (1651) by William Bradford and the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.

    Colonial Literature (1607-1775)

    • Focused on describing the process of colonization and daily life in the colonies.
    • Non-fiction materials that included journal and diary entries or letters.
    • Examples include A True Relation of Virginia (1608) and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) by John Smith.

    Revolutionary Age (1775-1783)

    • Focus on political ideology and the use of literature to further the cause of independence.
    • Popular literary forms included political essays and propaganda pamphlets.
    • Examples include The American Crisis (1776-1783) by Thomas Paine and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1773).

    Early National Literature (1775-1830)

    • Focus on political ideology and the use of literature to build national identity.
    • Popular literary forms included political essays and most literature remained non-fiction in nature.
    • Examples include the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) and The Declaration of Independence (1776).

    American Romanticism (1830-1865)

    Transcendentalism

    • Focus on the inherent goodness of the individual.
    • Individuals can “transcend” the world around them.
    • Examples include Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau and the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819-1892).

    Dark Romanticism

    • Focus on the fallibility of the individual and the tendency towards self-destruction.
    • Opposite of Transcendentalism: the individual cannot transcend the world around them.
    • Examples include Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville and The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

    American Gothic

    Fireside Poets:

    • Focus on themes of domesticity and national identity.
    • Used poetic conventions that made their work easy to memorize.
    • Examples include William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).

    Naturalism (1865-1914)

    • Related to Realism and the use of literature to depict everyday life.
    • Focus on determinism, including the effects of environment and circumstance on characters.
    • Examples include Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) by Stephen Crane and To Build a Fire (1902) by Jack London.

    Slave Narratives

    • Accounts that were written by enslaved Africans detailing their experiences.
    • Focus on simple language to realistically and matter-of-factly portray the horrors of slavery.
    • Examples include A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) by Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs.

    Modernism and Experimentation (1914-1940)

    • Emphasis on style and how a story is told.
    • Experimentation with structure and point of view in both poetry and prose.
    • Sub-movements within Modernism and Experimentation include the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation.

    The Harlem Renaissance:

    • Focus on the African American experience.

    • Experimentation with style and structure.

    • Examples include the poetry of Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston.

    The Lost Generation:

    • Rebellion against established American cultural ideals.
    • Themes of disillusionment and critiques of the American Dream.
    • Examples include The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    Modern American Prose

    • Novels and essays that were published after World War II.
    • Authors employ a wide variety of themes and styles to describe the experience of the contemporary world, usually following the themes and arguments seen in Postmodernism.
    • Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee and Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison.

    Modern American Drama

    • Emphasis on plays with realistic settings.
    • Focus on the depiction of American life and society.
    • Examples include A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams and Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller.

    Modern American Poetry

    San Francisco Renaissance

    • Avant-garde poetry movement based in San Francisco.
    • Shunning the poetic mainstream.
    • Examples include the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) and William Everson (1912-1994).

    New Formalism

    • Poetry movement that sought to re-embrace poetic conventions of the past.
    • Poets rejected free verse and instead returned to traditional forms of rhyme, meter, and verse.
    • Examples include the poetry of Charles Martin (1942-present) and Molly Peacock (1947-present).

    Confessional Poetry

    • Poetry movement centered on personal poetry.
    • Focus on private, intimate themes and personal history.
    • Examples include the poetry of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974).

    New York School

    • Poetry movement based in Manhattan.
    • Focus on depicting everyday life while embracing humor and references to popular culture.
    • Examples include the poetry of John Ashbery (1927-2017) and Alice Notley (1945-present).

    Beat Generation

    • Poetry movement related to the San Francisco Renaissance.
    • Focus on questioning social conformity and challenging traditional literary conventions.
    • Examples include the poetry of Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969).

    Black Mountain Poets

    • Avant-garde poetry movement based at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
    • Focus on the use of conversational language and turning away from poetic conventions of the past.
    • Examples include the poetry of Charles Owen (1910-1970) and Larry Eigner (1927-1996).

    Poetry Slam

    • Poetry movement that explores the performance of poetry.
    • Focus on competition and high-energy performances.
    • Examples include the poetry of Taylor Mali (1965-present) and Anis Mojgani (1977-present).

    American Literary Movements - Key takeaways

    • The first American literary movement was pre-Colonial Native American literature.
    • Puritan literature focused on religious teachings and non-fiction accounts of daily life.
    • Writers of Colonial literature described life in the colonies for those back home in Europe and Great Britain.
    • Revolutionary and Early National authors focused on political ideas.
    • Romanticism was the first truly American literary movement.
    • In the period following the Civil War, Romanticism gave way to Realism and Naturalism.
    • Authors of the Modernism and Experimentation periods focused on style and point of view in their writing.
    • Modern-day American literature is not defined by any single literary movement.
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Literary Movements

    What are the major movements in American literature?

    Some of the major movements in American literature are Romanticism, Naturalism, and Modernism.

    How many literary movements are in American literature?

    There are eight identifiable literary movements in American literature ranging from pre-colonial Native American literature to the modern era. There have also been numerous sub-movements within these movements. For example, Transcendentalism is considered a sub-movement of Romanticism.

    What was the name of the American literary movement?

    Each American literary movement has its own name to distinguish it from others. These include large movements, such as American Romanticism or Naturalism, and smaller movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance.

    What movement in American literature is experimental?

    During the Modernist and Experimental literary movements in the early- to mid-20th century, authors experimented with the structure of their writing. They considered the way the story was told to be the most important part of writing. Therefore, these writers experimented with style, structure, and point of view.

    What makes the difference in American literary movements?

    There are many components that separate the different American literary movements. These include writing style, themes, and the impact of the social and political situation of the era.


    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which was NOT a sub-movement of American Romanticism?

    Which century was most significant for American Drama?

    Who was a major figure in the origins of Transcendentalism

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