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American Literature

Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemmingway, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou; this is just a tiny handful of the great names in American literature. For a relatively young nation, the breadth and diversity of literature written in the United States are remarkable. It is home to some of the most important authors in the world and has spawned literary movements that have since spread around the globe. American literature also served to tell the story of the developing nation, creating a perpetual link between American identity and the country's literature.

What is American Literature?

American literature generally refers to literature from the United States that is written in English. This article will adhere to the aforementioned definition of American literature and briefly outline the history and trajectory of literature in the United States. However, it is important to note that some object to the term “American literature” to refer to English-language literature in the United States because the term erases literature from elsewhere in the Americas that is written in Spanish, Portuguese, French, or other languages.

American Literature, old American typewriter, StudySmarterOld American Typewriter, Pexels.

History of American Literature

The history of American literature is intertwined with the history of the United States itself, and many of the following facts illustrate that relationship.

Puritan and Colonial Literature (1472-1775)

American literature began as the first English-speaking colonists settled along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The purpose of these early texts was usually to explain the process of colonization and describe the United States to future immigrants back home in Europe.

British explorer John Smith (1580-1631 — yes, the same one from Pocahontas!) is sometimes credited as the first American author for his publications that include A True Relation of Virginia (1608) and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Like much literature from the colonial period, the format of these texts was non-fiction and utilitarian, focusing on the promotion of European colonization in America.

Revolutionary and Early National Literature (1775-1830)

During the American Revolution and the years of nation-building that followed, fiction writing was still uncommon in American literature. The fiction and poetry that was published remained heavily influenced by literary conventions established in Great Britain. In place of novels geared towards entertainment, writing was commonly used to further political agendas, namely the cause of independence.

Political essays emerged as one of the most important literary forms, and historical figures like Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Samuel Adams (1722-1803), and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) produced some of the most notable texts of the era. Propaganda pamphlets to influence the colonists’ cause also became an essential literary outlet. Poetry was likewise employed in the cause of the revolution. Lyrics of popular songs, such as Yankee Doodle, were often used to convey revolutionary ideas.

It can be difficult to generalize the features of American literature due to the breadth, variety, and diversity of American authors. However, many of the literature’s identifiable features can be linked and attributed to typical ideas of the American experience and American identity.

  • Early on, American literature was characterized by its self-conscious effort to break away from literary forms established in Great Britain and other European countries.
  • American authors, such as John Neal (1793-1876), were inspired to create their own literary style emphasizing the realities of American life, including the use of colloquial language and unmistakably American settings.
  • A sense of individualism and celebration of the individual experience is one of the central features of American literature.
  • American literature can also be characterized by its many forms of regional literature. These include Native American literature, African American literature, Chicano literature, and the literature of various diasporas.

American Literature, An old cart and wheels sunk under the dust, StudySmarterJohn Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath told the story of dust bow era migrants in the 1930s, pixabay.

Importance of American Literature

American literature has played a significant role in shaping the culture and identity of the United States as well as influencing the development of literature around the world. The novels, poetry, and short stories of writers such as Edger Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain have made an enormous contribution to the existence of literature as we know it today.

Did you know that Edger Allen Poe is credited with the creation of the modern-day horror genre and detective story?

American literature was also important in developing American identity by telling the story of the nation. The literature helped the new country establish itself as independent from past literary traditions hailing from Great Britain and the rest of Europe. Literature also helped to develop the nation by articulating ideas central to national identity.

Examples of American Literature

The following are some examples of important writers in American literature:

American Literature: Novelists

American Literature: Essayists

American Literature: Poets

  • Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
  • Emily Dickenson (1830-1886)
  • T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
  • Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

American Literature: Dramatists

  • Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
  • Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
  • Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
  • Edward Albee (1928-2016).

Some of these writers, such as James Baldwin, could be placed in any of these categories as they wrote novels, essays, poems, and plays!

American Literature: Books

The following are some examples of important books in American literature:

  • Moby Dick(1851) by Herman Melville
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain
  • The Great Gatsby(1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises(1926) by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Grapes of Wrath(1939) by John Steinbeck
  • Native Son(1940) by Richard Wright
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Beloved(1987) by Toni Morrison

American Literature - Key takeaways

  • Early American literature was often non-fiction, focusing instead on history, and describing the process of colonization.
  • During the American Revolution and Post-Revolutionary Period, the political essay was the dominant literary format.
  • The 19th century saw the formation of styles specific to American literature. The novel rose in prominence, and many important poets also became famous.
  • In the middle of the 19th century, the dominant literary style shifted from Romanticism to Realism.
  • Many texts from early 20th century American literature explore social commentary, critique, and disillusionment themes.
  • By the end of the 20th century, American literature had developed into the highly diversified and varied body of work that we see today.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Literature

American literature is generally defined as literature from the United States or its earlier colonies that is written in English.

Some of the characteristics of American literature include an emphasis on the importance of individuality, providing a strongly American sense of place, and embracing a diverse array of authors and styles.

Like many art forms, literature is a way for a culture to define and create its identity. It is at once a reflection of cultural identity and a way of perpetuating that identity. American literature exposes many aspects of American identity, such as an inclination towards independence and individuality. At the same time, it reinforces and constructs these qualities of American identity by solidifying and universalizing them in literature.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) is a classic example of American literature.

American literature has generated some of the most important and influential authors worldwide who have shaped literature into what we know today. It also played an important role in the development of the United States and American identity.


Final American Literature Quiz

Question

Who is NOT an example of an American author?

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Answer

Jane Austen

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Who is credited with writing the first American novel?

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Answer

William Hill Brown

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Who is the author of The Sun Also Rises?

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Ernest Hemmingway

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To which school of thought did writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson belong?

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Answer

Transcendentalism

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What were the most important literary forms during the American Revolution and Post-Revolutionary period?

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Answer

Political essays and propaganda pamphlets

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What was the given name of American author Mark Twain?

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Answer

Samuel Langhorne Clemens

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Which literary movement predominated American literature in the second half of the 19th century?

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Realism and Naturalism

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In what year was American author Earnest Hemingway awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

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1945

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Which writers are associated with the Harlem Renaissance?

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Answer

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston

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When did drama become an important literary form in American literature?

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Mid-20th century

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What style of verse is Walt Whitman referred to as “the father” of?

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Free verse

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Which author is an important American dramatist?

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Answer

Tennessee Williams

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Why did James Baldwin move to Paris?

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To escape the racial discrimination he experienced in the United States.

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What is the name of James Baldwin’s first novel?

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Go Tell It on the Mountain

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What American writer was initially Baldwin’s mentor but whose work he later criticized in multiple essays?


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Richard Wright

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Where was James Baldwin born?

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Harlem, New York City

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Which is NOT a novel written by James Baldwin?

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Answer

Native Son

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When did James Baldwin die?

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December 1, 1987

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When did James Baldwin return to the United States from Paris?


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1957

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Why was Giovanni’s Room controversial when it was published?

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Because of its homoerotic themes.

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What was the name of James Baldwin’s mother?

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Emma Berdis Jones

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From which New York City high school did Baldwin graduate?

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De Witt Clinton High School

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When did Ray Bradbury die?

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Ray Bradbury died on June 5, 2012

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What was Ray Bradbury's most popular book?

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Ray Bradbury's most popular book was Fahrenheit 451.

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What are common themes in Ray Bradbury's writing?

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Common themes in Ray Bradbury's writing are interconnectedness, the power of nature, and the dangers of innovation.

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Which genres did Ray Bradbury usually write in?

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Ray Bradbury usually wrote Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

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Who was Ray Bradbury?

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Ray Bradbury was a popular mid-century American author whose innovative writing style helped change the way Science Fiction was written.

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Which literary technique did Ray Bradbury rely heavily on?

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Ray Bradbury relied heavily on metaphor in his writing.

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How often did Ray Bradbury write?

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Ray Bradbury wrote every day.

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What advice is Ray Bradbury known for giving?

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Ray Bradbury is known for the advice he gave people to read and write every day.

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Why did Ray Bradbury write about time travel in "A Sound of Thunder?'

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Ray Bradbury wrote about time travel in "A Sound of Thunder" to illustrate humankind's effect on nature.

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Why didn't Ray Bradbury like television?

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Ray Bradbury didn't like television because he felt that watching television would replace reading literature.

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Who is Franz Kafka?

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Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a German-language author of short stories and novels, including "The Metamorphosis", The Trial, and "In the Penal Colony". He is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century given his wholly original style that touches on existentialism and absurdism.

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What did Franz Kafka write?

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Franz Kafka wrote many short stories and novels, including "The Metamorphosis", The Trial, and "In the Penal Colony". He published two short story collections, entitled Contemplations and A Country Doctor.

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What was Franz Kafka's philosophy?

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Kafka is compared with both existentialism and absurdism. His writing showcased chaotic worlds in which his characters navigated frightening, absurd situations. His works showcase the futility of trying to make sense of a senseless world.

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What does Kafkaesque mean?

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Kafkaesque refers to a piece of media or situation that has elements of Franz Kafka's writing. Kafkaesque generally contains the nightmarish, absurd qualities of Kafka's invented worlds.

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Where is Kafka from?

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Franz Kafka grew up in Prague in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now the modern-day capital of the Czech Republic

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How did Franz Kafka die?

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Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis; he had contracted the disease seven years previously and died in 1924.

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Who was Max Brod?

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Max Brod was a close friend and executor of Franz Kafka's literary estate. The two met in University and maintained a lifelong friendship. Brod is credited with Kafka's sustained influence given Brod was in charge of publishing Kafka's works.

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When was The Metamorphosis written?

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The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 by Franz Kafka, a German-language author, who began writing it in 1912.

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Who wrote The Metamorphosis?

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Franz Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis in 1912 and it was published in 1915

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What is The Metamorphosis about?

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The Metamorphosis follows Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, as he wakes up one day to find that he has transformed into a giant insect. What follows is a story that examines familial relationships, alienation, and transformation, all within the bounds of this absurdist setup.

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What are the themes in The Metamorphosis?

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The Metamorphosis touches upon themes of alienation, familial relationships, transformation, and absurdism.

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What type of story is Fahrenheit 451?

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Answer

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian Science Fiction novel.

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Why is Clarisse McClellan an important character?

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Answer

Clarisse McClellan is important because she reminds Montag about nature and questions his authority, both of which jar him into taking a closer look at the world around him.

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Who wrote Fahrenheit 451?

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Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451.

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When was Fahrenheit 451 written?

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Fahrenheit 451 was written in 1953.

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Why did Ray Bradbury write Fahrenheit 451?

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Answer

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in response to current events of his time and the growing popularity of television.

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What are some themes of Fahrenheit 451?

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Answer

Some of the themes in Fahrenheit 451 are censorship, humankind's need for connection, and the value of knowledge.

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What are some of the symbols in Fahrenheit 451?

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Answer

Some of the symbols in Fahrenheit 451 are technology, nature, and fire.

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