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American Literature-Overview
I. American Literature to 1700
Notes

Christopher Columbus left Palos, Spain, on August 6, 1492 and sighted the shores of the
Bahamian island that he and his crew named San Salvador at two in the morning of October 12.

European colonists brought textiles, tools, and institutions of the church and state, such as
slavery, to the Americas.

Native American literatures originated in oral performance, which were offered to audiences as
dramatic events in time and language for the ear.

More than any European nation, Spain aggressively colonized the Americas.

Columbus’s letter to the court of Luis de Santagel, narrating his voyage to the “West Indies,”
became a means to stir individual imaginations and national ambitions in Europe, but “early
American writing” by Native Americans and European colonists served numerous other
purposes.

Although English later became a useful lingua franca for the thirteen British colonies and the
literary medium of choice, other languages remained actively in use for both mundane and
expressive purposes.

Texts that documented the cross-cultural relations of European colonists and Native Americans
were prolific.
Full Text
Christopher Columbus left Palos, Spain, on August 6, 1492 and sighted the shores of the Bahamian
island that he and his crew named San Salvador at two in the morning of October 12. There, he seized
seven Taino Indians and took them to Spain, where he renamed them and baptized them as Christians.
When Columbus returned to the Americas in November 1493, Diego Colón, one of the Taino Indians,
spoke of the “marvels” he had seen in Europe. Four others died during the voyage. Later, other
Europeans arrived to colonize the Americas, so that the fortresses, churches, horses, and new foods
about which Colón spoke soon became part of the landscape.
European colonists brought textiles, tools, and institutions of the church and state, such as slavery, to
the Americas. Europeans engaged in violence and warfare to seize land from Native American tribes
who, though they found the scale of such actions appalling, were quick to make use of them. African
slaves were brought to the Americas in the sixteenth century. Local populations died in large numbers
due to war, enslavement, brutal mistreatment, despair, and disease. The destruction of one people by
European colonists was invariably accompanied by the displacement and enslavement of another. On
the island of Hispaniola, African slaves displaced the indigenous population, who had mostly died of
disease by the middle of the sixteenth century. Other groups, however, were resourceful in resisting,
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American Literature-Overview
transforming, and exploiting the European cultures that were imposed upon them.
When the European colonists arrived in the Americas, Native Americans spoke hundreds of distinct
languages, engaged in different religious practices, and structured their cultures in extraordinarily
diverse economic and political forms. Native American literatures originated in oral performance, which
were offered to audiences as dramatic events in time and language for the ear. Unlike the Europeans,
most did not use a written alphabet. It was not until the early nineteenth century, with the advent of
Romanticism in Europe, that Native American verbal expression was recognized as literature from a
Western perspective.
Many European colonial settlements were ruined by in-fighting, including riots and mutinies among
greedy settlers. Amidst this disorder, European nations continued to expand their colonial presence in
the Americas. The Portuguese established colonies in Brazil, and the French explorer Jacques Cartier
sailed St. Lawrence River in present-day Canada. More than any European nation, Spain aggressively
colonized the Americas.
Columbus’s letter to the court of Luis de Santagel, narrating his voyage to the “West Indies,” became a
means to stir individual imaginations and national ambitions in Europe, but “early American writing” by
Native Americans and European colonists served numerous other purposes. Most Native Americans
maintained an oral culture that valued memory over documentation as a means of preserving texts.
Others, such as the Aztecs, made use of their written traditions to respond to European invasions and
colonization. European colonists used writing to defend actions taken in the Americas, influence official
policy in Europe, and reveal political intentions to European powers. In some cases, Europeans, such
as Bartolomé de las Casas, were outright critical of the ruthless destruction of Native Americans by
Europeans.
After leaving England and the Netherlands, the Pilgrims established Plymouth Plantation in
Massachusetts in 1620. The mythical import of their escape from religious persecution in Europe was
later used to divert attention from more prevalent economic and political reasons for colonizing the
Americas. Another fundamentalist religious group, the Puritans, who attempted to work within the
confines of the Church of England rather than separating themselves from it completely, established a
settlement north of Plymouth in 1630. Although English later became a useful lingua franca for the
thirteen British colonies and the literary medium of choice, other languages remained actively in use for
both mundane and expressive purposes.
Although printing was confined to four locations in England before 1693, it flourished without restrictive
laws in the British colonies. One of the most prolific writers was Cotton Mather, who wrote a wide
variety of titles that expanded the scope of early American writing from the religious writing of the
Puritans. Texts that documented the cross-cultural relations of European colonists and Native
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Americans were prolific. Some were of official importance, such as the “Propositions Made by the Five
Nations” to the governor of New York about the harassment of the Iroquois by Native American allies of
the French. Other texts combined piety, adventure, and exoticism to present less accurate, though
wildly popular, representations of Native Americans. Samuel Sewall published one of the earliest
antislavery tracts in North America.
II.American
Literature 1700-1820--Overview
Notes

While trade brought great wealth to planters and merchants in the British colonies, it also
created the world’s first multiethnic working class, as well as an underclass of slaves and other
exploited peoples.

Scientists and philosophers of the early eighteenth century struggled to resolve implicit conflicts
between their discoveries and traditionally held Christian truths.

Although some historians view the great number of religious revivals in England and America
between 1735 and 1750 as a result of desperate efforts to reassert outmoded Puritan values in
the face of new ideas, others have pointed out that they were directly inspired by the new cult of
feeling whose foundation was laid by John Locke.

During the revolutionary period newspapers and magazines flourished, and the cry for a
“national literature” (meaning anti-British) made careers in letters advantageous.

While social mobility was more possible in the United States than in Europe, in 1820 freedom did
not extend to everyone living in the newly independent country.
Full Text
The ways that colonialists viewed their world changed greatly in the eighteenth century due to
economic, social, and political developments. No longer looking toward religion alone, many
intellectuals embraced a belief in the power of the human mind to comprehend the universe, new
psychological paradigms that promulgated human sympathy—rather than supernatural grace—as the
basis for moral life, and a belief that each individual had the power to control his or her spiritual destiny.
Religion thus became one of many elements of the new “nation” of colonists in British North America.
Rapidly expanding trade linked the colonies to the “Atlantic Rim,” a region encompassing Europe,
Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. While trade brought great wealth to planters and merchants in
the British colonies, it also created the world’s first multiethnic working class, as well as an underclass
of slaves and other exploited peoples. The rhetoric of Christian charity and a “community” of mutually
helpful souls was challenged by increased bickering among the first settlers and newcomers over the
proper form and substance of worship, splinter groups who advocated the establishment of a “second”
church, land speculators who sold acreage at a high profit to newly arrived colonists, and a gradual
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awakening among colonists to the incongruity of slavery.
Scientists and philosophers of the early eighteenth century struggled to resolve implicit conflicts
between their discoveries and traditionally held Christian truths. As a result of such inquiries, the
universe came to be understood as more rational and benevolent than it had been according to Puritan
doctrine. Increasingly, people defined their highest duties in social, rather than spiritual, terms.
Although some historians view the great number of religious revivals in England and America between
1735 and 1750 as a result of desperate efforts to reassert outmoded Puritan values in the face of new
ideas, others have pointed out that they were directly inspired by the new cult of feeling whose
foundation was laid by John Locke. One of the most vocal revivalists was Jonathan Edwards, whose
name has become synonymous with the “Great Awakening” of the 1730s. Edwards began to
rejuvenate the basic tenets of Calvinism, some of which were difficult to reconcile with Enlightenment
principles. Opponents to the Awakening engaged in pamphlet wars with revivalists in order to win over
public opinion.
Moved by Richard Henry Lee’s statement that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free
and independent states” at the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, a committee was duly
appointed and prepared a declaration of independence, issued on July 4, for the United States of
America. Events such as the Boston “Tea Party” and pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s “Common
Sense” inspired colonists toward revolution. During the revolutionary period newspapers and
magazines flourished, and the cry for a “national literature” (meaning anti-British) made careers in
letters advantageous. Even women writers, who were obliged by conventions of the day to publish
anonymously, found eager audiences. The most significant writings of the period were political essays,
such as those by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Despite the proliferation of
American writing, the technological and economic infrastructure of the United States did not support a
truly national audience.
While social mobility was more possible in the United States than in Europe, in 1820 freedom did not
extend to everyone living in the newly independent country. Some of the country’s Founding Fathers,
like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners themselves. The right to vote was
restricted to male landowners. Not only were women not entitled to vote, but they were prohibited from
owning property, keeping any wages they might earn, and participating in public, intellectual life. Native
Americans were systematically displaced from their traditional territories. Americans agitated for an
extension of the principle of liberty codified by the Revolutionary generation, with writers such as
Freneau, Franklin, and de Crèvecoeur arguing that the transplanted European might learn something
about fellowship and manners from “the noble savages,” rather than rude white settlers, slave owners,
and backwoods pioneers.
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III. American Literature 1820-1865
Notes

In the early years of the new Republic, educated Americans were generally more familiar with
Greek and Roman history, European history, Greco-Roman classics, and British literature than
they were with the work of colonial and Revolutionary writers.

Although Christian Schussele’s reverential painting Washington Irving and His Literary Friends
at Sunnyside depicted a fictional encounter of many writers who had never met, it provides an
indication of the shifts to the canon of American writers since 1863.

As the country expanded, writers began to look beyond the eastern seaboard for inspiration and
subject matter, yet they still looked mostly to the east for their audiences.

Though writers often created characters who lived up to the myth of Yankee individualism, other
writers dismissed Americans as intolerant conformists.

In addition to general xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence at the hands of private citizens of
the United States, the government itself was responsible for “national sins” including the
near-genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and the
staged “Executive War” against Mexico, among others.

As scientists ventured off to distant parts of the world to study and conduct research, European
countries and the United States embarked on a ferocious quest for overseas colonies.
Full Text
In the early years of the new Republic, educated Americans were generally more familiar with Greek
and Roman history, European history, Greco-Roman classics, and British literature than they were with
the work of colonial and Revolutionary writers. Many works of American literature were simply not
accessible. By contrast, books, magazines, and literary quarterlies from England were frequently
republished or reprinted in the United States. Inexpensive postage for printed material further facilitated
the use of the British literary canon from Maine to Georgia. In terms of literary knowledge, gender
differences were often a greater determinant than regional differences. Women were denied a classical
education to protect them from the sexually frank writings in Greek and Latin, as well as from the “evil”
effects of novels. Many well-educated Americans advocated the need for a national poem; critics
encouraged aspiring writers to take up subjects such as the American Revolution, Native American
legends, and stories of colonial battles in order to celebrate the new country. Nonetheless, the
popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels altered early calls for a national literature. Personal
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American Literature-Overview
travel books were adaptable to different regional experiences of emerging American writers.
Although Christian Schussele’s reverential painting Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at
Sunnyside depicted a fictional encounter of many writers who had never met, it provides an indication
of the shifts to the canon of American writers since 1863. Most notably, the painting includes no women
writers of the period, such as Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe; nor does it include several
male writers who are currently considered the most important of the century, such as Edgar Allan Poe,
Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville. Despite the fictional encounter in
Schussele’s painting, many writers of the period knew each other, often intimately, or knew about each
other. Many male writers came together casually for drinking and dining in public houses, or formed
clubs, such as the Bread and Cheese Club and the Saturday Club.
Although the United States expanded with the acquisitions of Louisiana from France and the Southwest
from Mexico, most of the writers still read today lived their entire lives in the original thirteen states.
Improvements in transportation and the expansion of urban areas changed the mental topography of
the country. By the 1850s, travel between major cities, with the exception of San Francisco, which
became an instant metropolis in the Gold Rush of 1849, ceased to be hazardous. As the country
expanded, writers began to look beyond the eastern seaboard for inspiration and subject matter, yet
they still looked mostly to the east for their audiences.
While publishing centers developed along the eastern coastal cities of New York, Philadelphia, and
later Boston, the creation of a national book-buying market for American literature was long delayed. To
earn a living, many literary writers contributed columns and articles to newspapers or edited
magazines. Though writers often created characters who lived up to the myth of Yankee individualism,
other writers dismissed Americans as intolerant conformists. Differences in social status, such as
gender and class, were not uniformly addressed by all writers. Almost all major writers found
themselves at odds with Protestant Christianity, which exerted practical control over what could be
printed in books and magazines. In the late 1830s and 1840s, Transcendentalism was treated as a
national laughingstock or a menace to organized religion in most mainstream newspapers and
magazines.
Although conservative Protestants were threatened by Transcendentalism and other resistances to
Christian doctrine, they were more threatened by Catholic, Jewish, Asian, and Caribbean immigrants.
Refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, famine-struck Ireland, and Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia
met with anti-immigration propaganda and violence. The lives of thousands of immigrant laborers from
China, the Caribbean, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries were lost so that railroads
could be built quickly and cheaply. In addition to general xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence at the
hands of private citizens of the United States, the government itself was responsible for “national sins”
including the near-genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants,
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American Literature-Overview
and the staged “Executive War” against Mexico, among others. While many white writers actively
opposed slavery, one of the most powerful antislavery advocates was Frederick Douglass, who spoke
and wrote of his own enslavement.
Americans struggled to make sense of the profound political and social changes in Europe after the
French Revolution, which had been inspired partly by the American Revolution. Americans also
struggled with advances in scientific knowledge. Even before Charles Darwin published Origin of
Species in 1859, biologists were publishing evidence of plant and animal evolution. Geologists
presented evidence that challenged chronologies of the universe established by religion. As scientists
ventured off to distant parts of the world to study and conduct research, European countries and the
United States embarked on a ferocious quest for overseas colonies.
IV. American Literature 1865-1914
Notes

The second half of the nineteenth century in the United States saw many changes. The Civil War
transformed the nation—politically, economically, and socially.

The population of the United States also dramatically increased, largely due to immigration.

Before the Civil War and industrialization, workers, the poor, vagrants, and unheroic soldiers
were rarely the subjects of fiction.

As American writers began to grapple with the particularities of their nation, from the 1830s to
the end of the century, realism became an important aspect of the American literary aesthetic.

An intensification of realism, naturalism, particularly that practiced by Ambrose Bierce, Stephen
Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London, was informed by philosophical and scientific
developments in Europe and North America.

Regionalism and the desire to preserve expressions of modes of life before industrialization
became an important impulse in American writing.

Nonfictional realist works were also written to speak of the unsolved social problems of the time.

Changing social, economic, and political realities in the period following industrialization was
dealt with in imaginative and distinctive ways by authors of the period.
Full Text
The second half of the nineteenth century in the United States saw many changes. The Civil War
transformed the nation - politically, economically, and socially - devastating many parts of the South.
The war effort, however, also stimulated technological innovations, ushering in a new period of
industrialization. A significant feat of the era was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in
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American Literature-Overview
1869, enabled in large part by the labor of immigrants, especially Chinese Americans. With the
discovery of mineral deposits, increased agricultural productivity, and cheap labor the nation was able
to propel its own development. As it ceased to be politically or economically dependent on other
powers, the United States began its own imperialist expansion policy overseas following the
Spanish-American War of 1898.
The population of the United States also dramatically increased, largely due to immigration. Many
immigrants settled in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia and contributed in vital ways
to the economic rise of the United States. Immigration from 1865–1924 altered the ethnic composition
of the nation such that New Englanders ceased to be the most populous group by the turn of the
century. Native-born white people and white European immigrants viewed one another with hostility
and suspicion resulting in unprecedented levels of social unrest. But rampant industrialization and
urbanization, which benefited a few capitalists and entrepreneurs, also resulted in harsh living
conditions for many, especially farmers who were pushed off their lands by the workings of
monopolistic economic practices, whereby a few businessmen such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, J.P.
Morgan, and Vanderbilt, who controlled profitable industries, were able to become “captains of
industry.” These industrialists were able to accumulate high amounts of wealth and social, economic,
and political power because of low wages (due to labor oversupply), but also because laborers were
not organized and hence had little political power. Following the establishment of the American
Federation of Labor in the 1880s, laborers were able to agitate for more equitable treatment. Writers
such as Upton Sinclair were critical about urban life, comparing cities to jungles where only the strong
and lucky survive.
Before the Civil War and industrialization, workers, the poor, vagrants, and unheroic soldiers were
rarely the subjects of fiction. But changes in the marketplace, most notably in the publishing industry,
altered that. Newspapers became important spaces to disseminate political, social, and cultural ideas.
Many writers including Ambrose Bierce, Sui Sin Far, Abraham Cahan, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris,
Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and William Dean Howells began their careers as journalists. By the
mid-eighteenth century, monthly magazines showcasing a “distinctively” American culture emerged as
an important forum for writers.
As American writers began to grapple with the particularities of their nation, from the 1830s to the end
of the century, realism became an important aspect of the American literary aesthetic. Many writers
grappled with the “crisis of representation”—the notion that a gap exists between the literary
representation and that which is being represented. Edith Wharton combined particularities with satire,
reflecting more on human consciousness than on the settings or furnishings. Henry James and Mark
Twain understood language as an interpretation of the real, rather than the real thing itself.
An intensification of realism, naturalism, particularly that practiced by Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane,
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American Literature-Overview
Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London, was informed by philosophical and scientific developments in
Europe and North America. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, proposed the idea of human evolution
and some of his ideas were extended to account for human behavior in literary works. While
industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie extended this argument to explain why only a few individuals
would ever be able to be at the top of the “economic” ladder, few writers unquestioningly adopted a
vulgarly deterministic view of human behavior. Stephen Crane, for instance, hinted that biology,
psychology, and environment shaped, but did not wholly determine, human behavior.
Regionalism and the desire to preserve expressions of modes of life before industrialization became an
important impulse in American writing. Focusing on specific regions within the nation, writers such as
Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin captured the sensibilities of particular
places. Women writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Sui Sin Far, and
Constance Fenimore Woolson offered the additional perspective of women’s experiences. Instead of
merely lamenting the postwar economic and spiritual devastation of the nation, this new group of
women explored issues of relevance to women’s political, economic, and social conditions.
Nonfictional realist works were also written to speak of the unsolved social problems of the time.
Women’s rights, the devastation of nature, exploitation of labor, racial inequality, and corruption among
political and business leaders became important topics for nonfictional prose. Booker T. Washington’s
Up From Slavery and W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk became important works that focused on
racial inequality in the United States.
Many authors of the era did not separate aesthetics from politics. Changing social, economic, and
political realities in the period following industrialization was dealt with in imaginative and distinctive
ways by authors of the period. In sum, the enduring forms of fictional realism and nonfictional prose of
the era created a space for literature to reflect on the radical transformation of life.
V. American Literature between the Wars,1914-1945
Notes

Between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II (1914–1945), the
United States became a “modern” nation, riven with internal fractures.

Urbanization, industrialization, and immigration had altered national demographics of
the 1920s.

“Prohibition”—forbidding the manufacture, sale, or exchange of alcohol—gave rise to
organized crime and the “Gangster” phenomenon of the 1920s.

Despite facing racism and segregation in the North, African Americans became an
important part of the cultural fabric of the nation.
9
American Literature-Overview

Art to some writers, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William
Carlos Williams, offered an alternative way of understanding the world, eventually
giving rise to the idea of “two cultures”—science vs. letters.

The era following World War I, marked by tremendous social upheaval and economic
and political devastation, gave rise to modernism.

Because modernism was an international movement, it was seen by some to conflict
with American literary traditions.

During the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans such as Langston Hughes and Zora
Neale Hurston became prominent and applied modernist techniques to speak of the
realities of black cultural and political life.

Women writers also contributed in vital ways to the heterogeneity of the literature
during the interwar period.

A final, but significant, artistic development in the interwar period is in the realm of
drama.
Full Text
Between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II (1914–1945), the United
States became a “modern” nation, riven with internal fractures. Literature of the period
struggled to understand the new and diverse responses to the advent of modernity. Some
writers celebrated the changes; others lamented the loss of old ways of being. Some
imagined future utopias; others searched for new forms to speak of the new realities. In all,
writers inquired into the connection between art and politics. Some deemed it inappropriate
to link the two while others insisted that art could not be apolitical—because to be apolitical
was to assume a political position.
Urbanization, industrialization, and immigration had altered national demographics of the
1920s. Harsh conditions in cities was often blamed on new immigrants, and in 1924
Congress enacted the Exclusion Act, barring immigration from certain parts of the world,
notably Asia, as a way to control the racial and ethnic composition of the United States.
Following the crash of the stock market in 1929, a depression set in, causing unrest and
economic upheaval on a global scale. Europe saw the rise of fascist dictators and in the
United States, politics and economics became central concerns overriding questions of
individual freedom. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, liberal reforms aimed to cushion
the population from the effects of the depression and helped alleviate a potential civil war. In
addition, the apparent failure of capitalism and individualism, led to growing sympathies with
communism, especially because it opposed fascism. But in this period, previously silent and
disenfranchised groups, notably women and African Americans, began to write. Rampant
industrialization led many workers and those sympathetic with the plight of the laboring
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American Literature-Overview
classes to turn to the Marxist writings of Karl Marx. Marx’s ideas, which formed the basis of
communist philosophy, advanced the notion that liberty and justice should exist for all, and
not just for those who controlled the means of production. Such ideas became popular with
writers and intellectuals but were often deemed “un-American.”
The 1920s was a period marked by rampant social and economic change.
“Prohibition”—forbidding the manufacture, sale, or exchange of alcohol—gave rise to
organized crime and the “Gangster” phenomenon of the 1920s. In addition, the importance of
the work of Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, meant that Americans were reflecting more
on the nature of desire, the psyche, fears, and trauma. With the 19th amendment, women
became more politically enfranchised. Their roles in the private as well as public sphere
changed, as women began to advocate equality with men. Nonetheless certain writers,
including Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, maintained that authorship was a strictly
masculine vocation.
Following the Great Migration out of the South, and in direct response to the industrial needs
of World War I, African Americans began to take advantage of “opportunities” in the North.
Despite facing racism and segregation in the North, African Americans became an important
part of the cultural fabric of the nation. W. E. B. Dubois argued that African Americans had a
“double consciousness”—they were aware of being American and being black. Women
writers such as Nella Larsen also insisted that an awareness of gender made African
American women’s experiences different.
In the world of business and technology, rapid advances were made; the most notable
innovation was Henry Ford’s development of assembly-line automobile manufacturing that
made cars affordable and accessible to a wider segment of the population. The institution of
“big” science and more complex, and “rational” ways of thinking about space, time, matter,
and the universe also began to take place during this era, eventually creating rifts between
literary intellectuals and scientists. Art to some writers, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot,
Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, offered an alternative way of understanding
the world, eventually giving rise to the idea of “two cultures”—science vs. letters.
The era following World War I marked by tremendous social upheaval and economic and
political devastation, gave rise to modernism. Modernism began in Europe as a response to
the devastating effects of World War I. Broadly, it refers to literary work produced in the
interwar period; more specifically, it references the breakdown of traditional society under the
forces of modernity. At a formal level, works were constructed out of fragments and are
notable for what they omit. Works begin arbitrarily, unity is disrupted, and shifting
perspectives, voices, and tones are common. Symbols and images, rather than statements,
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American Literature-Overview
predominate with the effect of surprising, shocking, and challenging readers. Despite the
level of formal disunity, modernist works desire unity. In this way, it differs from
postmodernism, which does not strive to produce any form of coherence or unity.
Because modernism was an international movement, it was seen by some to conflict with
American literary traditions. But traditional Americanists, such as Hart Crane, William Carlos
Williams, or William Faulkner, also used “modernist” techniques, shaping the tradition to
account for the distinctiveness of the nation. “High” modernists, who were permanent
expatriates living in Europe such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D., and T. S. Eliot, left
the United States because of its perceived hostility to high culture. However, they all
maintained U.S. citizenship and viewed themselves as “ambassadors” of American culture in
Europe during the 1920s. Other writers rooted their works in specific regions of the United
States: Willa Cather in the Midwest, John Steinbeck and Carlos Bulosan in California and
Robert Frost in New England. The South in particular gave rise to a multiplicity of voices
including those of Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Toomer, and William Faulkner. John Dos
Passos, Hart Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams
attempted to speak for the nation as a whole.
African Americans made significant contributions to the American modernist movement.
During the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale
Hurston became prominent and applied modernist techniques to speak of the realities of
black cultural and political life. Influenced by modernism, Hughes incorporated blues rhythms
into his poetry and Hurston incorporated depictions of black folk life into her world. Largely
white audiences of Harlem Renaissance art and culture became attuned to the specificities of
cultural-political realities of African America.
Women writers also contributed in vital ways to the heterogeneity of the literature during the
interwar period. Authors like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, and Nella
Larsen were intent on depicting the thoughts and experiences of women. By demanding
cultural freedom for women, many of these authors began to also operate as public figures
that took positions on public issues from race to labor and women’s issues.
A final, but significant, artistic development in the interwar period is in the realm of drama.
After 1920, with the production of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, the United States
was able to claim that it had produced a world-class playwright. Though theatre itself was not
new, it expanded its presence in the nineteenth century. In New York in particular the few
blocks referred to as “Broadway” theatre became particularly important. Theatre also
developed in other areas and playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s were not united by a core
of common ideas, but by the assumption that drama should be an aspect of contemporary
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American Literature-Overview
literature. Playwrights, like authors and poets, experimented with form as well as content.
During this period, an “American” invention—the musical comedy—came into fruition with
works by Ira and George Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers in the
1950s. In the 1930s, when drama became incorporated into the U.S. literary mainstream,
fiction writers as well as poets wrote plays, often embedded with political and social critiques.
VI. American Prose since 1945
Notes

After the war, the United States and the Soviet Union expressed their mutually adversarial
stance through a Cold War, in which deterrence, rather than direct military intervention or actual
combat, served as a primary means.

In sharp contrast to the economic devastation and loss of human life of its allies Great Britain
and the Soviet Union, the U.S. emerged from World War II in excellent economic shape.
Continuity of the prewar and wartime growth and opportunity proved delusory, particularly for
female factory workers and African American veterans.

The 1960s were a decade of social conflict between conformity and individuality, tradition and
innovation, stability and disruption. By the 1970s, the counterculture had been assimilated with
mainstream U.S. culture; however, a call to tradition, which emerged not as a return to
community and self-sacrifice but as a pursuit of wealth, dominated the 1980s.

Between 1945 and the 1960s, the belief continued that literature could represent a “common
national essence,” an ideal formed in the 1950s as a patriot act to fight communism and
accumulate material possessions.

In response to the challenges of literary theory and the explosive growth of the information age,
two literary developments emerged: the nonfiction novel and metafiction.

From the late 1960s onward, American writing was also characterized by a shift in emphasis
from homogeneity as a national ideal to the celebration of diversity as a cultural reality.
Full Text
After the war, the United States and the Soviet Union expressed their mutually adversarial stance
through a Cold War, in which deterrence, rather than direct military intervention or actual combat,
served as a primary means. The U.S. attempted to contain Soviet-style communism and the USSR
attempted to contain American-style capitalism to respective “spheres of influence.” The U.S.-USSR
Cold War was not limited to ideological battles; both countries took advantage of their postwar
reconstruction loans to form military alliances in Europe. The continent was divided politically,
economically, and militarily by an Iron Curtain: western countries in alliance with the U.S. formed the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and eastern countries in alliance with the USSR formed the
Warsaw Pact. When the communists came to power in China in 1949, the polarizing effects of the Cold
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War began to be felt globally.
The postwar period can be characterized as an era during which the United States attained
unprecedented levels of political, economic, and military power on a global scale. Although the U.S.
military did not enter into the war until the last days of 1941, American industry had expanded
dramatically and profited handsomely by manufacturing and selling military equipment much earlier. In
sharp contrast to the economic devastation and loss of human life of its allies Great Britain and the
Soviet Union, the U.S. emerged from World War II in excellent economic shape. Continuity of the
prewar and wartime growth and opportunity proved delusory, particularly for female factory workers
and African American veterans. White men, however, did benefit from the new economy. The G.I. Bill
provided war veterans with a college education. Social critics found Americans increasingly dedicated
to a materialistic standard of living in the 1950s and early 1960s. Suburbs and corporations grew,
families became more mobile in search of better-paying jobs, and the center of the population moved
westward along newly constructed highways.
The 1960s were a decade of social conflict between conformity and individuality, tradition and
innovation, stability and disruption. The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as U.S. president seemed to
offer an energetic program of involvement to those neglected during the material prosperity of the
Eisenhower Era. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, took an activist approach towards desegregation. The
close of the decade was tumultuous because of active dissent against the U.S. war in Viet Nam,
resulting in the student deaths at Kent State and Jackson State universities, urban riots, as well as the
assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, civil rights
leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. By the 1970s, the counterculture had been
assimilated with mainstream U.S. culture; however, a call to tradition, which emerged not as a return to
community and self-sacrifice but as a pursuit of wealth, dominated the 1980s.
Literature in the second half of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes. Between 1945 and the
1960s, the belief continued that literature could represent a “common national essence,” an ideal
formed in the 1950s as a patriot act to fight communism and accumulate material possessions. Some
authors, responding to Ernest Hemingway’s notion of “going the distance,” attempted to write the “great
American novel,” a major work that would characterize the larger aspects of existence. Regional
literatures emerged, such as those from the American South. Dramatists wrote about everyday people,
such as the salesman in Arthur Miller’s play Death of A Salesman, as emblematic of the postwar
human experience.
The idea of literature met many challenges in the 1960s, such as the “death of the novel” controversy
and deconstruction, which emerged in critical movements. As deconstruction exposed truth to be
constructed by rhetoric rather than based on observation, writers began to adopt the point of view that
absolute objectivity did not exist; all works were partial and weighted with the author’s conscious and
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American Literature-Overview
unconscious thoughts and perceptions. In response to the challenges of literary theory and the
explosive growth of the information age, two literary developments emerged: the nonfiction novel and
metafiction.
From the late 1960s onward, American writing was also characterized by a shift in emphasis from
homogeneity as a national ideal to the celebration of diversity as a cultural reality. Many different
literary styles were employed by authors, and often language itself became the subject of a given work.
Writers of color—notably Asian, African, Latino, and Native Americans—began to experiment with
literary forms, inflecting languages with the cadences of their experiences and using literary works to
deal with the specifically racialized nature of their experiences as marginalized subjects in the U.S.
American prose since 1945, then, can be said to have moved away from a homogenetic ideal; instead,
American writing is marked by a sophisticated understanding of how literature plays an important role in
characterizing the heterogeneous, and often contradictory, nature of reality.
VII. American Poetry since 1945
Notes

In the decades following World War II, the form, style, aesthetics, content, and political
orientation of American poetry underwent significant changes.

Some poets such as Ginsburg, Berryman, and Plath found inspiration in artistic and literary
treasures of the past, as well as in the new confidence and technical sophistication of 1940s
poetry, but later transformed their aesthetics to include more exploratory reflections on sexuality
and the psyche.

As the doors to the world of poetry opened to new voices, poetry became more attuned to
political and social issues of the period such that it became impossible to think of poetry as
apolitical.

In the 1970s, the world of poetry was infused with energy from poets of color - primarily Latino,
Asian, and Native American - who had previously not had access to presses and publication.

Postmodern poetry, as it emerged, was skeptical of single versions of reality; instead, multiple
different realities coexist, throwing notions of universal unity and totality into question.
Full Text
In the decades following World War II, the form, style, aesthetics, content, and political orientation of
American poetry underwent significant changes. With Allen Ginsburg’s Howl (1956) and Robert
Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), postwar American poetry began on a trajectory of making poetry have a
more vital relationship to contemporary life. Poetry in the 1940s marked a new confidence in “native”
literary traditions. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated the literary scene, but the work of William
Carlos Williams, H. D., Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens also emerged as important figures,
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American Literature-Overview
offering an alternative to Eliot’s modernism. These earlier poets paved the way for newer poets to
emerge, but also cast a formidable shadow. Nevertheless, younger poets, including Gwendolyn
Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Berryman, emerged as important poets. Some poets, including
Charles Olson, published poetic manifestoes asserting their independence from their predecessors.
The 1950s and 1960s saw many changes in the world of American poetry. English literary activity
began to shift from Britain to the United States. During these years, poets became more visible in
American public life, offering public readings, workshops, and conferences. By the 1970s, poetry
readings were held in public spaces such as bookstores, coffeeshops, and auditoriums. In addition,
poets could now read, study, and write poetry in English literature classes, sometimes taught by poets.
Poets often studied traditional rather than contemporary poetry. While the short lyric emerged as an
important poetic form, there was no prescribed form for poetry in the 1950s. Poems were often
retrospective and intricately woven, and rarely used the first person. Some poets such as Ginsburg,
Berryman, and Plath found inspiration in artistic and literary treasures of the past, as well as in the new
confidence and technical sophistication of 1940s poetry, but later transformed their aesthetics to
include more exploratory reflections on sexuality and the psyche.
In the 1960s, poetry became more political. “The Beats” of the 1950s took Ginsburg’s Howl as their
manifesto and imagined underground alternatives to life in a mechanized society. “Beat” deliberately
puns downtrodden elements in society, including radicalism and homosexuality, as well as with the new
“Beatitude” based on Orientalizing cults around Eastern religions. Poets in the 1960s identified with
political causes such as the black power movement, women’s liberation, the antiwar movement, and
gay rights. Small presses devoted to showcasing the emerging work of new poetic constituencies
(Broadside Press for African Americans in the 1960s and Quinto Sol for Latinos in the 1970s) became
important clearinghouses for poets of color. As the doors to the world of poetry opened to new voices,
poetry became more attuned to political and social issues of the period such that it became impossible
to think of poetry as apolitical. Poetry also took new forms in the 1960s, emphasizing the importance of
exposing rather than composing the self. Poets demanded more open forms that were “organic,”
spontaneous, and fluid, moving away from more formal and stylized poetry. Charles Olson also hinted
that, in contrast to the 1940s notion that poems were complete and finished objects, all poetry was
provisional.
In the 1970s, the world of poetry was infused with energy from poets of color - primarily Latino, Asian,
and Native American - who had previously not had access to presses and publication. Poetry during
this period became increasingly pluralistic, and poets drew inspiration from minority, as well as
international cultural forms, in creating new poetic styles as well as new poetic content. The boundary
between prose and poetry also began to blur, and oral traditions increasingly became important
sources for poetry.
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American Literature-Overview
In the 1980s and 1990s poetry was influenced by prevailing attitudes about language and “reality.” The
influence of poststructuralism and deconstruction dismantled traditional boundaries between
philosophy, poetry, psychology, and linguistics. Postmodern poetry, as it emerged, was skeptical of
single versions of reality; instead, multiple different realities coexist, throwing notions of universal unity
and totality into question. In addition, poetry borrowed techniques from film and video technology such
as jump cuts, shifting angles, split screens, and open-endedness to create new poetic styles that
questioned the very categories of knowledge production. Poets also began looking overseas for poetic
inspiration. Many “American” poets such as Li Young Li and Alberto Rios grew up in Asia, the
Caribbean, and Latin America. Many poets, including Czeslaw Milosz, write in different languages, and
poets such as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney teach in the United States. Poetry, then, values its
heterogeneity. Indeed, the American poet laureateship—a one-year term—values that diversity, at the
same time that it leaves out certain poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Gwendolyn Brooks from its list of
honorees.
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