American Literature: Prose
American Literature: Prose, fiction and nonfiction of the American colonies and the United States, written in the English language from about 1600 to the present. This literature captures America’s quest to understand and define itself. From the beginning America was unique in the diversity of its inhabitants; over time they arrived from all parts of the world. Although English quickly became the language of America, regional and ethnic dialects have enlivened and enriched the country’s literature almost from the start. Today American prose encompasses a variety of traditions and voices that share a common context: the geographical region now known as the United States. Native American literatures, which were largely oral at the time of colonial settlement, stand apart as a separate tradition that is itself strong and varied.
For its first 200 years American prose reflected the settlement and growth of the American colonies, largely through histories, religious writings, and expedition and travel narratives. Biography also played an important role, especially in America’s search for native heroes. Fiction appeared only after the colonies gained independence, when the clamor for a uniquely American literature brought forth novels based on events in America’s past. With a flowering of prose in the mid-1800s, the young nation found its own voice. By then fiction had become the dominant literary genre in America. In the 20th century, American literature took its place on the world stage and began to exert influence on other literatures. For a discussion of American drama or poetry, see American Literature: Drama and American Literature: Poetry.
II BEGINNINGS: THE 1500S AND 1600S
When European explorers first saw North America, Native American cultures had rich, established literatures. Legends, folktales, and other forms of literature were preserved in oral form and passed down from one generation to the next through ceremonies and other community gatherings, as well as within family groups and other informal settings. Much of this literature disappeared with the destruction of Native American cultures that followed white settlement of the continent. Among the richest set of Native American stories that survive are creation myths, descriptions of the beginnings of the universe and the world and of the origin of humankind. In Native American cultures, these myths served purposes similar to those served in Judeo-Christian cultures by the stories in the biblical book of Genesis. The creation myths of Native American cultures share with the Genesis accounts a concern with relationships among the divine, the human, and the world of animals and plants; the reasons behind those relationships; and the saga of the universe before the advent of humanity.
Long before settlers arrived in America, explorers reported on their voyages to the continent. Through the 1600s American literature grew from exploration narratives to include histories of settlement—both natural histories of the land and social histories of the people. Religious writings expressed the values and beliefs of American colonists.
A Exploration Narratives
The earliest literature about America consists of impressions of America recorded by European explorers after they returned home. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci provided some of the earliest European descriptions of the American continent in letters and maps from an expedition in 1499 and 1500; these had appeared in print by 1505. In 1507 German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published Cosmographiae introductio, a collection of documents that included letters written by Italian-Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus to his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Such texts were circulated among explorers and high-ranking political officials who made decisions about funding further expeditions.
The first works published in English about America also recorded discoveries and solicited support for new voyages. Before 1600 Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Harriot, and John White had published accounts of discoveries. Although Raleigh's narratives focused on the land now called Venezuela, he became a key figure in the history of the British in North America when he founded the first English colony in America, the Roanoke Colony, in 1585 under the sponsorship of Queen Elizabeth I, on an island off the coast of what is now North Carolina.
In support of Raleigh, Thomas Harriot wrote A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), primarily to encourage the queen's continued support of the Roanoke Colony, whose first settlement had just failed. Harriot's text included descriptions of the native population as well as observations of plant and animal life near the colony. Richard Hakluyt never traveled to America, but his writing was instrumental in encouraging the queen to invest more money in voyages of exploration. He collected diaries, letters, ships’ logs, and commercial reports, mostly from his English compatriots but also from Portuguese, Spanish, and French voyages. Hakluyt published these writings in Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America (1582) and Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589-1590). In these compilations, Hakluyt made grand statements about British imperialism and for the first time claimed America as properly belonging to England.
A later compilation by Hakluyt included The Fifth Voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and Parts of America called Virginia, in the Year 1590 (1593), which had been written by John White. White’s work centered on a great mystery. He had led a group of colonists who founded a second colony on Roanoke Island, and after the birth of the first British child in the Americas, White’s granddaughter Virginia Dare, he returned to England for supplies. Upon his return to Roanoke, all signs of the colony were gone. The fate of the colony remains a mystery to this day.
The writings of Captain John Smith, an explorer whose travels took him up and down the eastern seaboard of America, represent a shift from exploration narrative toward early history. Exploration narratives typically record the thrills and terrors of encountering the unknown, and early histories of America also capture this sense of novelty. Early histories, however, were written primarily by settlers rather than by explorers. They generally sought religious explanations—finding them chiefly in what they believed to be God’s will—for the dangers and challenges of colonial life. Although Smith still wrote to gain funding for further voyages, he had begun to record his observations as a historian in A Description of New England (1616).
William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote his History of Plymouth Plantation from 1630 to 1647, although it was not published until 1856. Earlier accounts published in England—Good News from New England (1624) by Edward Winslow and Mourt's Relation (1622) by an unknown author—provided extensive source material for Bradford when he recalled the earliest years of his colony. John Winthrop, who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1649, kept extensive journals that were published nearly 200 years later as History of New England from 1630 to 1649 (1825-1826). Another important historian of early America was Thomas Morton, whose New English Canaan (1634-1635) used humor in portraying what he considered to be the overbearing and intolerant qualities of the Puritans.
C Religious Writings
Histories of early America, especially in New England, were filled with references to the Bible and to God's will. Nearly all events could be explained from this religious perspective: Storms and sicknesses might represent God's wrath; a bountiful harvest might signify God's blessing. Given the Puritans’ sense of a direct relationship with God, it is not surprising that sermons and other religious writings dominated literature in America in the 1600s. John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop were among the most prominent theologians in the first generation of settlers. They were followed by the Mather family—Richard Mather, his son Increase Mather, and Increase's son Cotton Mather—in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Religious writings recorded strenuous debates about church doctrine, such as the role of free-will and good works in an individual’s salvation, although certain issues discussed by the theologians went beyond religion. Williams’s A Key into the Language of America (1643), for example, was remarkable for its efforts to understand America's indigenous peoples.
Other contact between natives and settlers was less friendly. Increase Mather wrote a history of the first sustained conflict between Native Americans and colonial settlers, known as King Philip's War (after a Wampanoag chief, Metacomet, whom the colonists called Philip). In A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England (1676), Mather urged his community to reform so that God would not subject them to more trials of that sort.
Mather was also instrumental in bringing to press The Sovereignty and Goodness of God … A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson (1682). This work is a firsthand account by a colonist who was taken captive by Narragansett Indians during King Philip’s War. It presents a dramatic tale of suffering and of Rowlandson's efforts to make sense of that suffering. Her story became the model for a new genre of early American literature: captivity narratives. Such accounts became staples of American prose and eventually provided material for American fiction. While still religious in tone and purpose, captivity narratives emphasized the experiences of individuals rather than the progress of nations. They also incorporated many of the fundamentals of fiction, making use of sympathetic characters, dramatic action and setting, and vividly portrayed sources of evil in stereotypic renditions of Indian savagery.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 constituted another dark period in early American history, as accusations of witchcraft in a Massachusetts town resulted in the execution of 14 women and 6 men. Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689), although written before the Salem trials, indicated a growing interest in the occult on the part of religious leaders. Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) documented the events of the witch trials. Robert Calef's More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700) offered a biting response to Mather and the hysteria of religious leaders involved in the Salem witch-hunt. As a result of his interest in witchcraft and of Calef's scathing accusations, Cotton Mather tends to be remembered as a witch-hunter, although his own writings suggest a relatively moderate stance on the subject.
III TOWARD INDEPENDENCE: THE 1700S
During the 1700s, American prose underwent tremendous changes in form, theme, and purpose as the colonies moved toward declaring their independence from Great Britain. As the century began, prose remained primarily religious in its endeavors to make sense of what still seemed a decidedly new world. As the century wore on, political thought—especially regarding the relationship between the colonies and the mother country—increasingly occupied American writers.
A Religious Writings
American religious writing in the 1700s reached a height of drama in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), the best-known sermon by clergyman Jonathan Edwards. The strength of this appeal to religious fear left his congregation in tears. A powerful orator, Edwards led a revival movement known as the Great Awakening to revitalize religious practice in the colonies. Edwards's ideas were a complicated mix, shaped not only by his study and love of the Puritans but also by 17th- and 18th-century European philosophy. Some of Edwards's best religious works were also philosophical investigations. In A Careful and Strict Enquiry into … Notions of … Freedom of Will … (1754), Edwards argues that human actions are predetermined by God, thus negating the notion of free will.
Cotton Mather remained an important literary figure in the 18th century. His Magnalia Christi Americana (The Great Works of Christ in America, 1702) is an epic history of New England that celebrates the founding generation of Puritans. Like his earlier works, it is profoundly religious; however, its size, scope, and interest in the human side of the Puritan founders marked a new achievement in American literary history. Mather's prolific career included writings on science and medicine as well as theology and history. His Sentiments on the Small Pox Inoculated (1721) was instrumental in introducing the smallpox vaccine to New England.
As Mather's career indicates, the scope of American prose began to broaden after 1700. In The Negro Christianized (1706), Mather also became one of the first Americans to address issues of race by arguing that Africans should receive Christian education and be allowed to join the church. Slavery had been introduced to the American colonies in the early 17th century. By the early 18th century, antislavery sentiments were rising. In 1700 New England judge Samuel Sewall published a strong antislavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, which drew on both legal and biblical references.
B Travel Narratives
A new genre for American writers, the travel narrative, would become especially influential late in the 1700s. One of the first was written by a schoolteacher, Sarah Kemble Knight. The Journal of Madam Knight, written in 1704 although not published until 1825, gives a lively account of her journey through hostile Indian territory. Knight was less interested in religious explanations for her experience than Rowlandson had been some 20 years earlier, and more concerned with conveying the actual dangers of her day-to-day existence. Her journal is one of a long line of travel narratives that includes Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778) by Jonathan Carver and Travels Through North and South Carolina … (1791) by William Bartram. Travel stories often blended observations on nature and landscape with tales of personal courage and achievement.
A book similar to the travel journal in its descriptions of experiences in a new land was Letters from an American Farmer (1782) by French writer Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur. This work also anticipated American fiction, particularly in the creation of its distinctive first-person narrator, Farmer James. Written toward the end of the American Revolution, Letters from an American Farmer was an interesting effort to describe and define what it meant to be an American.
The first successful American newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, was founded in 1704; it was joined by the Boston Gazette in 1719. At a time when newspaper journalism was concerned primarily with reporting political events, the New-England Courant, started by James Franklin in 1721, became the first newspaper to include literary entertainment. Franklin’s younger brother Benjamin Franklin published humorous social commentary in the Courant under the pen name and persona of Silence Dogood, the widow of a minister. Magazines also appeared for the first time in the colonies during the mid-1700s. Before 1800 magazines were concerned primarily with measuring America’s developing culture against the British model.
During the 1700s Boston and Philadelphia became centers of publishing in addition to being political and commercial hubs. Benjamin Franklin was a key figure in establishing a vibrant intellectual community in Philadelphia. In 1727 he and a group of friends established a men’s reading club in Philadelphia called the Junto. Members shared printed works and discussed topics of the day. Such reading and discussion clubs became an important part of American literary culture, particularly at colleges, but Franklin’s was especially influential because it evolved into a prototype for the lending library. By 1729 Franklin had started his own printing house and was editing and publishing a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the 1740s his press released the first novel published in America, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded by British author Samuel Richardson.
Women organized literary circles in the 1750s and 1760s. These groups, known as salons, resembled men’s reading clubs. They also encouraged members to compose their own work, mainly poetry. Some of these writings have been preserved or recovered but many of the manuscripts, largely unpublished, have been lost or remain to be found.
D Political Writing
By the mid-1700s American prose was first and foremost political. Many 18th-century thinkers believed in the ability of reason to control human destiny and improve the human condition, an enormous change from the belief in predestination that broadly speaking characterized the 17th century. In America as well as in Western Europe, the 18th century was known as the Age of Enlightenment. In the American colonies Enlightenment thought was expressed chiefly through political discourse. American thinkers asserted a growing belief in the supremacy of reason over church doctrine; they also emphasized the importance of the individual and freedom over and above established authorities and institutions. America's great Enlightenment writers—Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—also played major roles in the American Revolution.
Franklin began his literary career as a publisher but made his greatest contribution to American literature as a writer. In his writing Franklin advocated hard work as the key to success. His views come across clearly in the maxims, proverbs, and homespun wisdom that filled his Poor Richard's Almanack, which was published annually from 1733 to 1758 under the pen name Richard Saunders. Franklin’s almanac sayings were collected in The Way to Wealth (1757) in the form of a speech by a character named Father Abraham. It is one of Franklin’s great statements on the self-made man. Like much of Franklin's writing, the work reached an enormous audience through translations into European languages. Franklin’s Autobiography was first published in full in 1868, 78 years after his death; it is considered an American classic because of its portrait of Franklin and American life during his time.
Thomas Paine became a leading figure in the cause of American independence with the pamphlet Common Sense (1776). This enormously popular political document asserted that the American colonies received no advantage from Great Britain and that every consideration of common sense called for them to establish an independent republican government. Written in a straightforward style using the language of the common person, Common Sense was published six months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. At that point, most colonists still believed that their grievances with Great Britain could be settled peaceably. Paine profoundly shook this belief, insisting that there was no turning back and making his readers feel that each person had the power and responsibility to participate in the cause of revolution.
Although it lacked the searing rhetoric of Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence was a crucial achievement in both politics and American prose. It was structured in the form of an assertion that was then proven through specific examples. The declaration was written by a committee made up of Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, though Jefferson was ultimately responsible for most of the phrasing. The declaration and the Constitution of the United States (1787) were key statements of American freedom, but as collaborative documents they necessitated compromises to satisfy all of their authors. One of the most significant compromises was the absence of any mention of slavery. Slavery was antithetical to the ideals of the American Revolution, but for the sake of unity with the Southern colonies, whose economy was rooted in slavery, no protest was made against it as a social evil.
A final flurry of political writing at the close of the century arose from the debate over ratification of the Constitution. Federalists supported the strong central government outlined in the Constitution, while an anti-Federalist faction opposed it. A series of essays supporting ratification was published in 1787 and 1788 and circulated in pamphlets. The essays, later published as The Federalist, were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
E Voices Outside the Mainstream
While the debate on individual rights and government powers went on, some whose rights were not under debate spoke up. From 1774 to 1783 Abigail Adams conducted an extensive correspondence with her husband, John Adams, while they were separated during the Revolution and its aftermath. These letters, which were published as Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife, Abigail (1876), describe in detail everyday life in the young nation. Remarkably, in letters written during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, she asked that women's rights and status be considered as part of this statement of human rights. Her requests were not radical by today's standards, but they constituted bold steps for her day. Judith Sargent Murray, a Boston writer, vigorously argued against the notion that women were not equipped for work in the public sphere. Her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” was published in 1790 in the Massachusetts Magazine.
Slave narratives recorded another side of life in America. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789) has long been considered a primary African American text. The title alone made a significant statement: Equiano reclaimed the priority of his African identity (Olaudah Equiano) and subordinated the slave name (Gustavus Vassa) he was given by his captors. Scholars today are unsure as to Equiano’s birthplace and life history, and the text may be an early example of the autobiographical slave narrative or possibly a blend of experience and fiction. Either way, the work was highly influential as slavery became a prominent topic of political discussion in the 19th century.
Conversion to Christianity provided a focus for several early American autobiographies, including Equiano's and the first-known Native American autobiography in English. “A Short Narrative of My Life” was written in 1768 by Samson Occum, a member of the Mohegan tribe who became a Presbyterian minister. The work was not published in its entirety until 1982.
F The First American Fiction
American fiction became formally established only after the American Revolution. The Power of Sympathy (1789), a tragic love story by William Hill Brown, is generally considered the first American novel. Charles Brockden Brown is among the best-remembered novelists of the period. His Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798) is a cleverly plotted horror story that emphasizes dark, supernatural visions. Other notable novels of the time include Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791), a tragic romance that involves a young woman’s journey from England to the colonies during the Revolution; Gilbert Imlay's The Emigrants (1793), the story of an English family whose life improves in America; and Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797), a novel in the form of letters.
IV NATIONHOOD: THE 1800S
In the early 1800s America faced a difficult challenge: how to create its own culture. The religious and political writers of the 17th and 18th centuries offered some guidance. Cotton Mather, for example, had argued for the uniqueness of America's mission. But none of those writers could satisfy the growing American appetite for prose fiction focused on American issues and grown from American imaginations. Calls for an American literature began during the Revolution and became more frequent and urgent as independence was assured.
Over the course of the 19th century the country progressed from an agricultural economy concentrated on the Eastern seaboard to an industrialized nation that spanned the continent. With the dramatic changes in the nation came dramatic changes in its literature. When the century opened, only a handful of novels had been written, but by mid-century American fiction rivaled the best in the world. Biography and history remained strong; religious writing, on the other hand, had substantially declined in importance.
A Manifestations of Nationhood
Among the first manifestations of nationhood was the recognition that America had its own language and that American English differed from British English. Pioneering lexicographer Noah Webster led a call for uniquely American traditions in language and literature, and he undertook the massive project of developing an American dictionary. He had already advocated changes in American spellings of English words in such writings as Dissertations on the English Language (1789). Webster published his first dictionary in 1806. The first edition of his major work, American Dictionary of the English Language, came out in 1828. What made this work radical was his insistence on defining words based not only on traditional English usage but also on American variations in usage, called Americanisms, and his inclusion of at least 5000 new words not previously recognized by English dictionaries.
Gaining independence also provided the United States with a history of its own. Samuel Miller’s A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803) and Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) were both substantial histories of 18th-century America, including the Revolution. Many of the histories of America from the early and mid-1800s achieved additional drama through their authors’ interpretations of the growing greatness of the nation. Foremost among these patriotic and romantic histories was the monumental ten-volume History of the United States (1834-1876) by George Bancroft, who is often called the father of American history.
A2 Early Fiction: Irving
Local histories, like general histories, were also of interest in the early part of the century. History of New York (1809), by Washington Irving but ostensibly written by Irving's famous comic creation, the Dutch American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker, offered a surprising twist on standard local history. A satire on the exaggeration and earnestness often found in local histories, this work seemed to reflect America's desire to break away from established forms of writing and to engage more fully in the world of imaginative literature.
Literary magazines proliferated in the early 1800s, bearing witness in yet another way to a public appetite for fiction. Port Folio was founded in Philadelphia in 1801 and discussed both politics and literature. From 1807 to 1808 Irving and James Kirke Paulding published the literary magazine Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, which was devoted to satirical writings.
Through his satires, sketches, and short stories, Irving was one of the most influential American authors of the first half of the 19th century. Among Irving’s best-known legends is “Rip Van Winkle,” in which a man from New York’s Catskill Mountains falls asleep before the beginning of the Revolution and wakes up after it is over to find his world happily transformed. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an awkward and naive schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane is driven from his small New York town by a faked headless horseman. First published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), this story and others like it provided American legends and helped shape an American folklore.
A3 Westward Expansion
Travel narratives became increasingly popular, especially as the country expanded westward. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States took possession of a vast, unmapped territory. Early accounts of expeditions made in the name of future national expansion include Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana (1810) by explorer Zebulon Pike, and History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri (1814). The latter work, which emphasizes the idea of the explorer as hero, was compiled by diplomat Nicholas Biddle from the notes of the expedition.
America’s westward expansion also generated a sizable collection of political prose, especially in light of manifest destiny—a belief that the country’s territorial expansion was not only inevitable but also divinely ordained. The term manifest destiny was coined by writer John Louis O'Sullivan in "Annexation," an article that argued for the annexation of Texas and appeared in the July-August 1845 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. Other articles in that issue acknowledged that as the United States expanded, Native American cultures were being lost.
With westward expansion came displacement of Native Americans. From the early 1800s on, anguished speeches were presented by Native American leaders who faced a bleak future. Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee prophet, delivered one such speech to the Iroquois nation in 1806. Other speeches addressed to American officials in Washington, D.C., pointed to the destruction of Native American cultures as the United States expanded.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and geologist, preserved a great deal of information about Native Americans in the Great Lakes region. He married a Native American, immersed himself in Native American cultures, and studied several tribal languages. From the 1820s to the 1850s Schoolcraft wrote at length on Native Americans. Although his writings gave a white man’s views of native peoples, they preserved many materials, including a collection of Ojibwa and Ottawa legends and myths in Algic Researches (1839). One of Schoolcraft’s most important works was the monumental study Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (6 volumes, 1851-1857), which later writers used as source material about Native Americans.
Biography and autobiography served the new nation’s sense of its history and its need for heroes in the 1800s. In some cases these genres worked explicitly, as did some histories, to develop a mythic stature for American heroes, and biography began to merge with legend. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were favorite figures for legendary biography. Boone was introduced to audiences by John Filson's history, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, in 1784. His character was further developed by Timothy Flint, whose Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone (1833) portrayed Boone as a hero similar to the fictional character Natty Bumppo, created by James Fenimore Cooper. Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834), attributed to Crockett, mythologized another early frontier hero.
The Native American experience also began to be told in autobiography. William Apes was the first Native American to produce extensive writings in English. In A Son of the Forest (1829) he described his conversion to Christianity and his participation in the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain.
The greatest development in 19th-century American biography was the slave narrative. The tensions produced by slavery in America had already become apparent by the Revolution, but they heightened considerably in the 1800s, right up until the American Civil War (1861-1865). Frederick Douglass created a masterpiece of the genre with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), a work that he revised and enlarged several times for later editions. While describing his life as a slave and his struggle toward freedom, Douglass emphasized the primary role that literacy played in opening opportunities for African Americans. He represented his ability to write his own story as the ultimate act of a free man.
Harriet Jacobs offered a different but no less horrifying portrayal of the evils of slavery in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). In the book, Jacobs told of the sexual abuse experienced by young female slaves. Prior to the Civil War, former slaves who wished to tell their stories found access to publishers through connections with white abolitionists. Douglass's text included a preface, written by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, that encouraged the reader to trust the author. Another important work about the situation of black Americans was The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) by Martin Robison Delany. In this work Delany argued for a separatist state for blacks; some historians now consider him to be the first black nationalist.
B American Romanticism
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary mode in Europe. In reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason, romanticism stressed emotion, the imagination, and subjectivity of approach. Until about 1870 romanticism influenced the major forms of American prose: transcendentalist writings, historical fiction, and sentimental fiction.
In New England, an intellectual movement known as transcendentalism developed as an American version of romanticism. The movement began among an influential set of authors based in Concord, Massachusetts, and was led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like romanticism, transcendentalism rejected both 18th-century rationalism and established religion, which for the transcendentalists meant the Puritan tradition in particular. Instead, the transcendentalists celebrated the power of the human imagination to commune with the universe and transcend the limitations of the material world. The transcendentalists found their chief source of inspiration in nature. Emerson’s essay Nature (1836) was the first major document of the transcendental school and stated the ideas that were to remain central to it. His other key transcendentalist works include The American Scholar (1837), a volume in which he addressed the intellectual’s duty to culture, and "Self-Reliance" (1841), an essay in which he asserted the importance of being true to one’s own nature.
Henry David Thoreau, a friend and protégé of Emerson’s, put transcendentalist ideas into action. Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) is his journal of a two-year experiment in living as simply and self-reliantly as possible in a small hut that he built on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord. His essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) is a statement against government coercion that records his short stay in jail after he refused to pay a tax in support of the Mexican War (1846-1848). In this essay Thoreau asserted that each individual indirectly supported the wrongs of a nation—for example, slavery or war—simply by paying taxes and voting for government representatives. To express disapproval of government policies, he advocated passive resistance, or nonviolent protest through noncompliance.
Other influential transcendentalists included educator and philosopher Bronson Alcott, whose interests centered on education reform, and social reformer Margaret Fuller, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was a major early work of American feminism. Along with Emerson and critic and reformer George Ripley, Fuller founded The Dial in 1840. This periodical was dedicated to publishing the verse and philosophical writings of the transcendentalists.
B2 Historical Fiction: Cooper, Hawthorne, and Others
The self-confidence and nationalism of the newly created United States of America energized fiction as well as nonfiction. Historical fiction took off first, influenced by Sir Walter Scott, an enormously popular British writer who established the genre. Historical fiction was an expression of romanticism in its probings of human nature and emotions and its romanticizing of the American past and the American frontier. The first generations of Puritans in New England, the Salem witchcraft trials, white conflicts with Native Americans, and the American Revolution provided popular subjects for American historical fiction. One of the earliest examples of the genre was Samuel Woodworth's The Champions of Freedom (1816). James Fenimore Cooper was the first American master of the form, however.
In Cooper's first published novel, Precaution (1820), he consciously imitated British fiction of the time, especially the novels of Jane Austen. With The Spy (1821), however, Cooper began his career as a specifically American novelist. This best-seller is set in New York during the American Revolution and has as its main character a spy working for General George Washington. The Pioneers (1823) is one of a series of five novels called the Leather-Stocking Tales. Over the course of the Leather-Stocking Tales, Cooper developed one of America's first fictional heroes, the white frontiersman Natty Bumppo. In the tales, Bumppo bridges Native American and white cultures through his friendships, while articulating the consequences of further white settlement for Native Americans. Staking a claim for the importance of American history and landscape as an imaginative resource, Cooper continued to write until his death in 1851, profoundly influencing the direction of American prose. Another author who contributed to American historical fiction before mid-century was Lydia Maria Child. Her novel Hobomok (1824) focuses on the relationship between a white woman and a Native American man.
New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was also a master of historical fiction. Influenced to some extent by transcendentalism, Hawthorne’s views of the movement were mixed. His novel The Blithedale Romance (1852) is loosely based on a transcendentalist experiment in communal living at Brook Farm. Still, Hawthorne’s work, with its deep ethical concern about sin, punishment, and atonement, is less optimistic than most transcendental writing. Hawthorne was a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, and he set many of his works in Puritan New England and during early crises in American history. The Scarlet Letter (1850), a story of rebellion within an emotionally constricted Puritan society, is an undisputed masterpiece in its powerful psychological insights. Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) collects some of his best short stories and sketches, including “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “Young Goodman Brown.”
The first African American known to have published a novel was William Wells Brown, who combined historical fiction, national legend, and the increasingly divisive subject of race. His novel Clotel (1853) is the fictional account of a child born to Thomas Jefferson and a slave. It was intended to point out the distance between American ideals of liberty and the actual living conditions of American slaves, who also were sons and daughters of that promised liberty.
Harriet E. Wilson was long considered the first African American woman to publish a novel, Our Nig (1859), which focuses on the injustices faced by free blacks in the North. In recent years, however, scholars discovered an earlier novel, The Bondswoman’s Narrative, written by Hannah Crafts. According to research, this unpublished work was written no later than 1853.
B3 Good and Evil: Melville and Poe
Herman Melville became a close friend of Hawthorne’s after Melville moved to Massachusetts in 1850. Melville, who was born in New York City, worked on a number of ships after his father's financial ruin and death and based several novels on his voyages. Redburn (1849) was inspired by his first voyage as a cabin boy on a ship to Liverpool, England, and White-Jacket (1850) by his last voyage. He also worked on several whaling ships and witnessed the violence of life at sea. These tales of exotic travel adventures brought Melville early success. Ironically, Melville's popularity dropped after the publication of the book now considered a masterpiece of American fiction, Moby Dick (1851). Far removed from his earlier travel narratives, Moby Dick was dedicated to Hawthorne, and like Hawthorne's work was darkly metaphysical, symbolic, and complex. The story of the captain of a whaling boat, Ahab, and his relentless hunt for one whale, Moby Dick is also about the mysterious forces of the universe that overwhelm the individual who seeks to confront and struggle against them. Written in a powerful and varied narrative style, the book includes a magnificent sermon delivered before the ship’s sailing, soliloquies by the ships’ mates, and passages of a technical nature, such as a chapter about whales.
While transcendentalism was fundamentally optimistic, celebrating human creativity and the beauty of nature, Hawthorne and Melville demonstrated that asking questions about the nature of the universe could lead to answers illuminating the darker side of life. In the depths of the imagination, they saw hints of unfathomable evil rather than rays of divine light. Edgar Allan Poe was another writer who inverted transcendentalist promises. In his disturbing prose and poetry, Poe explored the nature of humanity and frightened readers with what he found. His tales are obsessed with death, madness, and violence. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) ranks among the triumphs of romantic horror. Poe also invented the detective story with such works as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). In Poe’s longest story, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” (1838), a sea journey to the South Pole suggests other, more primal journeys—to the center of the mind, to the source of all evil, and toward an all-encompassing void.
B4 Sentimental Fiction: Stowe
The sentimental novel is a major form of American fiction that grew out of the responses of white writers to the abuses of slavery. The most famous and historically most significant work of American sentimental fiction is Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sentimental fiction aimed to arouse pity for the oppressed and offered a natural form for novelists writing about the evils of slavery. In Stowe's novel and in novels that followed in this tradition, pity for the oppressed did not necessitate revolutionary change but rather called for an outpouring of Christian love. Sentimental fiction elicited this “Christian” sympathy from Northern white women in particular by demonstrating how the slave system violated the most basic bonds of humanity, such as that between mother and child.
Some sentimental fiction focused on gender by showing the dangers faced by young women, who might be driven to compromise their morals as a result of extreme poverty or the loss of their family and subsequent loss of social position. One such novel was Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850).
C The Civil War and After
President Abraham Lincoln is credited with having humorously described Stowe as "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." Uncle Tom’s Cabin was powerful as propaganda and expressed the deep antislavery feelings of the North. Lincoln himself was among the greatest American orators of the 19th century and can be included in the roster of significant American writers because of the measured succinctness of his prose. Moved to despair by the tragic conflict of the Civil War (1861-1865), he turned American oratory away from the ornate rhetoric of statesman Daniel Webster to the inspirational simplicity of his 1863 Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address in 1865. Few other American public figures have equaled Lincoln's command of forceful, precise, and inspiring prose.
Two movements became increasingly important in American fiction after the Civil War: regionalism and realism. As the country expanded in area and population, regional differences became more apparent and of greater interest, especially to people in the established cultural centers of the East. Increasing urbanization and the expansion of the railroads had made more of the country accessible. Regional literature would do the same. Realism emerged as a literary movement in Europe in the 1850s. In reaction to romanticism, it emphasized the everyday and through detailed description re-created specific locations, incidents, and social classes. Like regionalism, it reveled in the particular.
Post-Civil War America was large and diverse enough to sense its own local differences. With increasing urbanization and more accessible transportation, small, rural communities became a subject of literary interest. As early as 1820 America had developed a taste for fiction with specific, localized settings and topics. Toward mid-century, regional voices had emerged from newly settled territories in the South and to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. In many of these works local dialects, sayings, and spellings were used for humorous effect. Among the successful publications of early regionalists were Georgia Scenes (1835) by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, an anthology called The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Sketches (1845), and Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845) by Johnson Hooper, which was set in Alabama.
Mary Wilkins Freeman, best known for A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), and Sarah Orne Jewett, best known for Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), both wrote about rural northern New England. The first audiences for their stories were not their own communities, however. The stories found their readership among the urbane readers of New York City’s Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Boston’s Atlantic Monthly magazine.
Tales of the West also became a popular form of regional writing and created frontier outlaws and heroes, such as Billy the Kid. These tales were especially suited to the short-story form. Foremost among writers who contributed to legends about the West was Bret Harte, especially in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870), a collection of stories about California. Beginning in 1860 the publishing house of Beadle and Adams introduced dime novels—inexpensive tales with exciting plots intended for popular consumption. The first dime novels were set during key events of early American history such as the Revolutionary War, but plots soon incorporated frontier lore, conflicts between cowboys and Indians, and the taming of the West for white settlement. Dime novels may be seen as precursors of the Western, a genre that would reach the height of its popularity in the first half of the 20th century.
In the second half of the 19th century, issues specific to the industrial city also engaged writers of fiction, who portrayed the sometimes hidden struggles of city life. “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861. It was an important early realist representation of the long hours, drudgery, and bleak future of factory workers. Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy compared an egalitarian and socialist vision of America as it might be in the year 2000 to the very real miseries of urban life in the 1880s.
Kate Chopin built her reputation on regionalist stories of Louisiana, for example, in the collection Bayou Folk (1894). She is, however, best remembered for writing one of the first important feminist novels, The Awakening (1899). The book realistically depicts Creole life in Louisiana as it tells the story of a young woman in a stultifying marriage who discovers a new sense of self when she takes a lover.
C2 Realism and Naturalism: Twain, Crane, and Others
Realism entered American literature after the Civil War, soon followed by naturalism, an extreme form of realism. Naturalism had an outlook often bleaker than that of realism, and it added a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, is sometimes called a regionalist for his vivid portrayals of Southern character and dialect. However, he also ranks among the great American realists because he scrupulously included so many sides of life in his works and refused to make the horrifying look palatable. He published from 1865 until 1910, but his literary fame was firmly rooted in the 19th century and its crises of racism, class conflicts, and poverty. Twain's works also include some of the best American humor, starting with the short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was published in a newspaper in 1865. Twain’s best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), are seemingly simple stories that also offer searing indictments of corruption at all levels of society. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer celebrated boyhood at the same time that it cleverly revealed the workings of small-town America—small-minded at times, generous in spirit at other times. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered Twain’s masterpiece. In it, the boy Huck Finn learns about human nature’s evil side as well as its kind side. As a result of his close friendship with a black man who is escaping slavery, Huck also must confront the conflict between individual intuition about what is right and the prevailing views of society on the subject.
In both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Twain's genius comes through in his realistic depiction of the psychology and the moral development of his two young characters. Both works are similar in this way to Little Women (1868-1869), a novel by Louisa May Alcott that records the moral and intellectual coming of age of four young women. Alcott was the daughter of transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. Her still-popular novel is one of a series of works that show her serious concern with childhood and adolescence.
In addition to Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris are notable late-19th-century American writers in the realist or naturalist traditions. Howells, a noted literary critic and novelist, was a friend of Twain’s and along with him pioneered realism in American literature. The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Howells’s best known novel, is the study of a self-made businessman who is ultimately ruined financially by his determination not to compromise his integrity.
Despite an early death at the age of 29, Crane published several brilliant although grim stories. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the story of a doomed young woman’s life in a New York City slum, is so bleak that Crane had difficulty finding a publisher. His second work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), is an intense examination of the psychology of fear and the state of the human mind during war; it met with immediate success. Norris's best-known works were McTeague (1899), a portrait of the effects of greed, and The Octopus (1901), which depicts the conflict between farmers and the railroad over land and power in California. His works reflect his concern with social and economic forces and their effect on human lives.
A less well-known writer in the realist tradition at the end of the century was Frances E. W. Harper, an African American woman born free in the former slave state of Maryland. An early black activist, Harper was a successful and frequent public speaker on behalf of the rights of blacks and of women. Her novel Iola Leroy, or The Shadows Uplifted (1892) tells the story of a woman of mixed racial ancestry who is freed from slavery, serves as a nurse during the Civil War, and is eventually reunited with her family after the war.
V MODERNISM: THE 1900S
During the 20th century a communications revolution that introduced motion pictures, radio, and television brought the world into view—and eventually into the living room. The new forms of communication competed with books as sources of amusement and enlightenment. New forms of communication and new modes of transportation made American society increasingly mobile and familiar with many more regions of the country. Literary voices from even the remotest corners could reach a national audience. At the same time, American writers—particularly writers of fiction—began to influence world literature.
A Fiction: 1900 to 1945
The 20th century saw the emergence of modernism. Modernism responded to the world’s complexity by asserting that the individual had the potential to achieve a broader perspective than that offered by any one society or its history. Although realism, naturalism, and regionalism were still viable modes of expression, they reflected the increasingly complex reality of 20th-century society. Immigration and industrialization led to increasing urbanization, and, in turn, to class stratification. At the beginning of the 19th century, American authors struggled to convince the world that they had a history; by the 20th century, American authors, like European authors, had to grapple with more than enough history.
A1 Psychological Realism
Henry James was a key figure in American literature’s transition from the 1800s to the 1900s. Although more of his novels were published before 1900 than after, his style, which was characterized by psychological rather than physical realism, and his themes seemed a long way from much of 19th-century American literature. James’s use of American and European subject matter and perspectives, as well as his sense of the complexities of both individual and cultural history, make him a modernist and a writer the 20th century can claim as one of its literary representatives. Like many of his characters, Henry James lived an international life, and his novels moved away from the 19th century’s concern with American settings. Instead, many of his novels are animated by a complex interplay and at times conflict between the appeal of an older European culture and a younger American idealism. This interplay is present in such novels as The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). Over time James moved toward ever greater subtlety of insight and precision of statement, and his later novels, such as The Golden Bowl (1904), became increasingly concerned with the mysteries of human passion.
Edith Wharton, whose works show the influence of James, was another key turn-of-the-century figure. Many of her novels take place among the wealthy and worldly elite of New York City and focus on the restrictions imposed on individuals by social definition and convention. Two of her best-known works, The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), examine these conventions and their tragic consequences. In the emotionally wrenching love story Ethan Frome (1911), which is written from a man’s perspective in a bleak, rural New England setting, Wharton studied the mental and emotional traps that limit people’s desire and ability to change.
A2 Social Realism and Naturalism
As James and Wharton examined the sometimes complex psychology of America’s elite, other writers turned to the psychological and physical reality of the laboring classes, whose ranks continued to swell with high rates of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several American authors who are sometimes known as social realists looked at working conditions, often for the purpose of social reform. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel that exposed the unsanitary and miserable working conditions in the stockyards of Chicago, Illinois. The book led to an investigation by the federal government and the subsequent passage of pure food laws.
The novels of Theodore Dreiser were deeply imbued with an understanding of the brutal injustices of social class, and they rank as magnificent examples of 20th-century American naturalism. Sister Carrie (1900) depicts the downfall of a young woman who moves from small-town America to Chicago and then to New York City. An American Tragedy (1925) shows the downfall of a weak young man who tries to rise from poverty into glamorous society. Jack London was another 20th-century naturalist. His writings depict the force—often violent—of nature and of human nature, combining realism with idealist views on human betterment. The Call of the Wild (1903) describes how a domesticated creature reverts to a primitive state in order to survive.
Other writers who worked in the mode of social realism were Sinclair Lewis and Josephine Herbst. Lewis focused on the American middle class, replacing traditional notions of its complacency with a vision that was far harsher and at times bitter. In both Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), Lewis satirically portrayed the monotony and emotional, spiritual, and intellectual poverty of American middle-class life. Herbst’s Pity is Not Enough (1933) was the first in a trilogy that tracked the development of American society by tying one family’s history to larger social and historical events.
As the popularity of social realism implied, the reading audience of the United States changed as social and economic realities changed. Immigrant populations added great variety to 20th-century American fiction. Among the first to record their experiences were Jewish immigrants. Abraham Cahan came to the United States from Russia in the 1880s and helped form a Jewish literary community in New York City. He was a cofounder of the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper, in 1897. Cahan’s fiction included The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto (1898) and the novel The Rise of Devid Levinsky (1917), which was an early depiction of the Americanization of a Jewish immigrant.
Later writers to focus on the Jewish experience in America included Russian-born Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth. Yezierska’s most acclaimed novel was Bread Givers (1925), about a Jewish woman’s struggle to resolve the conflicts between her religion and her search for self. Roth’s Call it Sleep (1934) chronicles several years in the childhood of a young Jewish boy. Told from the boy’s perspective, the novel often follows his stream of consciousness.
A3 The Lost Generation
A period of disillusion and cynicism that followed World War I (1914-1918) found expression in the writings of a group of Americans living in Paris who became known as the Lost Generation. Although the group never formed a cohesive literary movement, those associated with it shared a bitterness about the war, a sense of rootlessness, and dissatisfaction with American society. The most influential American writers of this generation include novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, dramatist Thornton Wilder, and poets Archibald MacLeish and Hart Crane. The term lost generation was first used by writer Gertrude Stein in her preface to Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) to characterize Hemingway and his circle of expatriate friends in Paris.
In The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms (1929), both set in Europe during and after the war, Hemingway portrayed the emotional exhaustion of this generation and their seemingly vain search for meaning and value in life. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is an exquisitely beautiful and tragic tale of the state of the American dream; his works often reflected the material and emotional excesses of America in the 1920s, a period he called the Jazz Age.
A4 Experimental Writers
Stein had moved to Paris in 1903, and she gathered around her a large group of painters and writers. She offered both advice and support to the Lost Generation writers, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Her own writing is noted for innovations in narrative style, such as simplification and fragmentation of plot and the use of unconventional syntax and punctuation. Stein’s fiction includes Three Lives (1909), a character study of three women, and The Making of Americans (1925), a novel dealing with her family’s social and cultural history.
Another innovative American writer was John Dos Passos, whose bitter, highly impressionistic novels attacked the hypocrisy and materialism of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. His Manhattan Transfer (1925), a panorama of life in New York City between 1890 and 1925, introduced his “newsreel” technique of inserting fragments of popular songs and news headlines into his text. It also introduced his “camera eye” technique of providing his own point of view in short, poetic narratives.
A5 The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s that was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. It marked the first time that African American literature attracted significant attention. No common style or ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance, but the poets, novelists, political essayists, and dramatists who participated in the endeavor shared a commitment to giving artistic expression to the African American experience. They also shared a strong sense of racial pride and a desire to better the social and economic situation of blacks. Major prose writers in the movement were historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who was best known for his nonfiction, and Jean Toomer, whose novel Cane (1923) voiced a theme of the Harlem Renaissance in its identification with the lives of the black poor. Zora Neale Hurston, another important member of the Renaissance, tracked a Southern black woman's search for her true identity in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
A6 The Great Depression and Its Legacy
The glitter and excess of the Jazz Age ended with the 1929 stock market crash, which ushered in the so-called angry decade of the 1930s. Many novels of the decade echoed the despair of the Great Depression. During the Depression a federal agency, known first as the Works Progress Administration and later as the Works Projects Administration (WPA), was created to put unemployed Americans to work on public projects. One arm of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project (FWP), which ran from 1935 to 1941. The FWP employed writers to produce travel guides, local histories, nature studies, and other books. The FWP not only produced interesting material, it also provided training for some exceptional authors, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both of whom went on to write about tensions between races and social classes. Wright’s Native Son (1940) explores the extreme psychological pressures that drive a young urban black man to violence. It established Wright as the leading African American author of the 1940s and as a key influence on younger writers, including James Baldwin. Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), depicts Harlem in the 1930s. Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952) is often cited as one of the great American novels of the 20th century. In this account of an unnamed young black man’s search for his place in the world, Ellison confronts the idea that American society consciously turns a blind eye to its black members.
The vastness of the United States and the great diversity of its people have always been reflected in its literature. This was especially true in the 20th century, which witnessed the blossoming of strong regional traditions in the West and the South.
B1 The West
Frontier life was still new enough to raise invigorating questions at the turn of the 20th century, when a genre known as the Western developed. Westerns were rooted in the physical reality of the West as well as in the history and mythology of its settlement by whites. The novel The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister set the standard for many later Westerns. It depicts a soft-spoken, well-mannered Southerner who works as a ranch hand in Wyoming and discovers nobility and heroism in the cowboy’s code of ethics. Zane Grey, best known for Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), later wrote many more Westerns, becoming one of the foremost authors of the genre.
The works of Willa Cather drew upon the landscape of the Nebraska plains and the experiences of immigrant farmers in the Nebraska community of her youth. Some of Cather’s finest works feature strong female characters and include idealized visions of past or passing worlds. My Ántonia (1918) follows the life of a young girl of Czech ancestry in rural Nebraska and depicts the dignity of immigrant farm families. In Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a Roman Catholic missionary recalls his experiences among the Native Americans of New Mexico.
Many of the works of John Steinbeck focus on the overwhelming forces of nature and on issues of class. However, they are also about the American West, particularly California. His novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) offers a stark portrait of the sufferings of migrant farm laborers who trekked to California during the Great Depression. One of his later works, East of Eden (1952), is a family history on a grand scale, suggestive of primal struggles between good and evil.
B2 The South
The South was home to a variety of remarkable 20th-century American prose writers. Common to many of these writers was a consuming interest in depicting the life and social interactions of small towns and their inhabitants, who are often shown as eccentric or even grotesque. Ironically, this subject matter, which has become almost a stereotype for Southern fiction, owes much to a Midwestern writer, Sherwood Anderson. His Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was an influential collection of short stories that centers on psychologically twisted, frozen, or otherwise exaggerated characters, all of whom live in one small Midwestern town.
William Faulkner, a friend of Anderson’s, is a preeminent figure in 20th-century American literature, known for his novels about the conflict between the old, pre-Civil War South and the new South. His characters inherit a terrifying set of passions—anger, hatred, obsession, and the will to power—that make his works mythic statements on the determining aspects of identity. Faulkner is known also for the complexity of his style, which includes multiple points of view, inversions of time, and stream-of-consciousness narrative. The Sound and the Fury (1929), the novel that introduced many of his breakthroughs in style, is fragmented by four narrative voices. Several of Faulkner's greatest novels, including Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), intertwine his themes of memory and inheritance with paralyzing and poisonous myths of racial difference.
In style and subject, North Carolina author Reynolds Price is considered among those most influenced by Faulkner. Price's trilogy of The Surface of Earth (1975), The Source of Light (1981), and The Promise of Rest (1995) is a Faulknerian epic of one family's history.
The South was also rich in women writers during the 20th century. Gone With the Wind (1936), by Margaret Mitchell, offers a romantic picture of Southern life during the Civil War. Ellen Glasgow investigated the constraints of aristocratic Southern society and the abuses and inevitable decay of that society in such novels as In This Our Life (1941). The novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and The Member of the Wedding (1946) by Carson McCullers gain much of their atmosphere from their settings in small Southern towns.
Flannery O’Connor mixed Southern Gothic—the tradition of Faulkner—with evangelistic Roman Catholicism in writing about the South in her novels Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960) and her short story collections, such as A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The characters of Eudora Welty also incorporate qualities of the grotesque. Many of them are trapped in time, refusing to acknowledge something essential about themselves, as in her acclaimed novel The Optimist's Daughter (1972).
C Fiction: 1945 to the Present
The fiction that arose out of World War II (1939-1945) lacked the desire to shock that had energized previous war novels, and writers seemed able to regard armed conflict with greater philosophical detachment. After the explosion of the first atomic bomb at the end of the war, America and the world entered a new era during which the possibility of mass destruction weighed heavily on the collective consciousness. The idea of individuality—its negative consequences as well as transcendent powers—became a unifying principle of American literature following World War II.
Protest movements of the 1960s led to a remarkable diversification of perspective and expression in American literature later in the century. Among the forces for social change were the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement. Each, to varying degrees, changed American culture. Although a few voices outside of the mainstream—by virtue of style or perspective—had always played some role in American literature, after the 1960s it became increasingly difficult even to define a mainstream.
C1 War Narratives
Two of the most impressive novels about World War II were From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones and The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer. Both were hard-edged and concerned with the adaptation of the individual to the restrictions of military life. Two novelists who began their successful careers with war books were James A. Michener and Irwin Shaw. Michener’s career began with a collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific (1947); Shaw’s novel The Young Lions (1948) is about the war in Europe. Humor, a recurring feature of American writing, enlivened such novels as A Bell for Adano (1944), in which John Hersey dealt with the occupation of an Italian town by U.S. Army forces. Thomas Heggen’s work Mr. Roberts (1946) is a bittersweet story about the U.S. Navy that also incorporates humor.
C2 Beat Generation
After the war a group of American writers referred to as the Beat Generation communicated their profound disaffection with contemporary society through their unconventional writings and lifestyle. Notable writers associated with the group included novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Their writing was characterized by a raw, improvisational quality as they liberated writing from formal concerns and plot, often drawing on personal experience. Perhaps the best-known Beat novel is Kerouac’s semiautobiographical On the Road (1957), which celebrates direct sensory experience and freedom from everyday responsibilities.
The works of Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo represent the experimentation in style and form that began in the 1950s and has continued to the present. Nabokov, although Russian-born, became one of the greatest masters of English prose. Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), novels with American settings, are remarkable examples of tragicomedy that make readers question the standard categories for prose. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is at once humorous and terrifying in its precise portrayal of rebellious adolescence; written in 1951, it remains enormously popular. So too does Catch-22 (1961), a darkly comic and wildly inventive novel by Joseph Heller about the insanity of war and the absurdity of military authority.
In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Pynchon leads his characters (and his readers) on a wild goose chase, marking the path with seemingly significant, but actually irrelevant, clues to an impossible mystery. Vonnegut based his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) on his experiences in a German prison camp during World War II. The setting of this multilevel narrative alternates between the camp and a fictional planet, incorporating elements of science fiction in the process. Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about his experiences at peace marches, explicitly challenges the presumed distinction between history and fiction by giving actual events the drama of a novel. DeLillo’s work draws on a broad range of topics, from the world of American football players to the role of the media in society, to explore the effects of popular culture on the psychology of the individual. His White Noise (1985) is a complex and often humorous study of nuclear age America—from its new family structures to its new academic disciplines.
Novelists John Cheever and John Updike exhibited similar concerns and approaches in their somewhat detached, sometimes satirical explorations of upper-middle-class suburban life in the Northeast. Cheever's novels range from a relatively benign story of an eccentric family in The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) to a bleak tale of fratricide in Falconer (1977). Updike is perhaps best known for his series of four novels written between 1960 and 1990. The series begins with Rabbit, Run (1960), which is about a man fleeing from life’s responsibilities and his own disillusion.
Joyce Carol Oates, who first received widespread notice in the 1960s, remained one of the most prolific American writers in the ensuing decades. Many of her novels combine strong naturalism with Gothic horror, including A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Bellefleur (1980), and What I Lived For (1994).
The Jewish tradition in American fiction, which dates to the 1920s and 1930s, remained strong in later decades. This is evident in the works of Bernard Malamud; Canadian-born Saul Bellow, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976; and Philip Roth. Malamud’s The Fixer (1966) tells of the suffering of a Russian Jew who is accused of ritual murder of a child but refuses to succumb to bitterness. Many of Bellow’s works revolve around Jewish intellectuals and their quest for self-knowledge. His novel Herzog (1961) portrays a middle-aged man’s existential crisis after his wife leaves him. Roth’s first success came with Goodbye, Columbus (1959). His American Pastoral (1997) follows the psychological deterioration of an American family over several generations, and comments more broadly on the ills of American society in the late 20th century.
After the 1970s several African American female writers appeared at the forefront of American literature. From her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), through Beloved (1988) and Paradise (1998), Toni Morrison cast an unblinking eye on slavery and its legacies while also offering hope, particularly in the strength of bonds among women. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Other African American women whose prose enriched late 20th-century literature were Alice Walker, best known for The Color Purple (1982), and Gloria Naylor, who received a National Book Award for her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1982).
In the second half of the century Native American novelists began reassessing the experience of their cultures. House Made of Dawn (1968) by N. Scott Momaday was one of the first 20th-century works to discuss the contemporary Native American experience. Ceremony (1977) by is the story of a young man of mixed Native American and white ancestry who seeks to recover from the terrifying violence of his world. James Welch's Fools Crow (1986) returns to 1870, a time of catastrophic change for the Blackfeet Native Americans of Montana. Louise Erdrich, whose novels include Love Medicine (1984) and Tales of Burning Love (1996), was another writer who took a hard look at Native American culture in the late 20th century.
Hispanic American and Asian American authors brought strong voices to American literature after the 1960s. Mexican American literature had informed the earliest American Westerns, and Hispanic folk ballads and legends of the vaquero (cowboy) had been staples in the tall tales of the frontier. More recently, Rudolfo Anaya, author of the novels Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and Alburquerque (1994), and Sandra Cisneros, author of the novel The House on Mango Street (1983), have written about language, identity, cultural change, and other struggles of Hispanic American life.
Much of Asian American literature deals with the inevitable conflicts experienced by those who bridge two cultures. Modernity and Americanization are typically the realm of youth, while traditional culture and history remain the dying province of their elders. Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980), by Maxine Hong Kingston, blend the old and new in an interweaving of legend and narration. The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), by Amy Tan, dramatize conflicts between Chinese immigrants and their American-born children.
Twentieth-century American nonfiction included so many varied and profound contributions to current affairs, history, and science that it is impossible to touch on more than a few. What American writers had long sought came true in the 1900s: America’s literary traditions had fully matured.
D1 Public Affairs and History
Theodore Roosevelt, United States president from 1901 to 1909, left a long record of his personal philosophy in The Rough Riders (1899) and in other writings such as travel adventures, history, biography, and politics. Roosevelt’s narratives emphasize the strength of nature and of humans and reflect the influence of the scientific theories of British scientist Charles Darwin.
Magazines and newspapers, whose arrival had represented a great achievement for the young colonies, proliferated in the 20th century, in multiple languages. Foreign language publications addressed specific communities, especially immigrant communities, which usually shared political interests as well as language. Some journals, such as The Masses (founded in 1911) and The Liberator (founded in 1918), were voices of radicalism. The Crisis, a journal published from 1910 to 1934, was dedicated to racial equality and edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, an influential intellectual and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. His finest nonfiction prose includes the essay collection The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn (1940).
Much American political reporting and analysis achieved brilliance in the 1930s. Among the books that helped prepare perplexed Americans for World War II were Inside Europe (1936) by journalist John Gunther, The Life and Death of a Spanish Town (1937) by novelist Elliot Harold Paul, and Not Peace but a Sword (1939) by foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean. After the war, John Hersey's landmark report Hiroshima (1946; reissued with an update in 1985) described the devastation brought by the first atomic bomb (see Hiroshima).
Traditional views of American history were presented by historians Charles Austin Beard and Mary Ritter Beard in The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Samuel Eliot Morison in The Oxford History of the American People (1965), and Henry Steele Commager in The Search for a Usable Past (1967). Accounts of specific trends and eras include Anti-Intellectualism in America (1963) by Richard Hofstadter, a study of the effects of conservatism, and The Guns of August (1962) by Barbara Tuchman, about the beginnings of World War I.
A political issue that became the subject of extensive analysis by American writers during and after the 1960s was the Vietnam War (1959-1975). My Lai 4 (1970) by Seymour M. Hersh details a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American troops in 1968. Frances FitzGerald wrote Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).
Some writers of fiction turned to nonfiction during the postwar period. Truman Capote invented what he called the “nonfiction novel” with In Cold Blood (1966), a harrowing account of the murder of a Kansas family based on interviews with the murderers. Norman Mailer's books The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, both published in 1968, vividly describe and interpret headline-making political protest.
D2 The Black Experience
Out of the protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s came many writers whose works revealed the experiences of blacks and women. Amiri Baraka probed racial issues in his Home: Social Essays (1966) and Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971). Eldridge Cleaver contributed significant essays on American society in Soul on Ice (1967). Black nationalist leader Malcolm X wrote his influential work The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) with Alex Haley, who later became famous as the author of the best-selling work Roots (1976), a semifictional account of Haley's family history from its African beginnings to the present. Maya Angelou, a poet-novelist and children's author, wrote several books constituting a powerful memoir of her life, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which describes her childhood in the South.
D3 Women’s Experience
Modern American feminist writing can be divided into three broad categories, or waves. Writings in the first category endeavored to show that the roles and behaviors believed to be acceptable and appropriate for women had also entrapped them and limited their opportunities. A pioneering work in this category was The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan, which challenged several long-established American attitudes, especially the notion that women could find fulfillment only as wives and mothers. Friedan's phrase feminine mystique refers to the idealization of the traditional female role of wife and mother; Friedan contended that this idealization constituted a conspiracy to prevent women from competing with men. The second category of feminist writing focused on direct social action, such as protesting against male-dominated institutions and forming advocacy groups to represent and promote women’s interests politically and socially. Two representative works of activist feminist writing, both published in 1970, are Sexual Politics by Kate Millett and The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution by Shulamith Firestone. The third and most recent trend in feminist writing focuses less on criticisms of society and more on the establishment of full, flourishing women’s cultures, where such subjects as literature, politics, and art are reassessed from a specifically female viewpoint or ideological framework. This movement has been termed cultural feminism; one of its early and influential spokespersons was Robin Morgan, whose essays were collected in Going Too Far (1978).
D4 The Environment
Another trend in writing to gain notice in the 1960s was associated with the environment, although it had its start much earlier. Writing in this genre is generally characterized by a deep and sustained interest in the natural world as a physical, emotional, and spiritual resource. Environmental writing in American literature is often said to have started with Henry David Thoreau, whose writings supported a belief in nature’s intrinsic value, a view that was still new when Walden; or, Life in the Woods was published in 1854. Later writers of the 19th and early 20th century encouraged environmental conservation, including naturalist John Burroughs in such works as Wake-Robin (1871) and Accepting the Universe (1920). Writings by explorer and naturalist John Muir, including his first book, The Mountains of California (1894), reflected his spiritual view of nature and his belief in the need for political protection of environmental resources.
In the 20th century, A Sand County Almanac (1949), by conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold, offered a simple formula for a balanced relationship between humankind and the land, which he called the land ethic. It held that each person must become a steward of the land, and that personal ethics should extend to the natural world. In the 1960s biologist Rachel Carson drew attention to new hazards to the environment. In Silent Spring (1964) she discusses the widespread and irreversible damage caused by chemical pesticides, acid rain, and nuclear waste. This book, which reached a large readership and advanced the political cause of environmental protection, is considered one of the most important works in the movement.
Environmental literature in the later 20th century includes a wide range of viewpoints. In Desert Solitaire (1968) and Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989), Edward Abbey emphasized the need for direct action by individuals on behalf of the environment. Other additions to the growing tradition of environmental literature are personal essays, reflections, and travelogues by Annie Dillard, including A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), and by William Least Heat-Moon, including Blue Highways (1982) and Prairyerth (1991).
D5 Literary Criticism
Literary criticism in the 20th century began with the neohumanists, who upheld classical traditions and called for a firmer ethical basis for art. These theories were expounded by such critics as Paul Elmer More in Shelburne Essays (11 volumes, 1904-1921), William Crary Brownell in American Prose Masters (1909), and Irving Babbitt in The New Laokoön (1910).
The appraisal of American writing as a distinct national literature began in the 1920s with the groundbreaking Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) by English novelist D. H. Lawrence. American scholar Vernon Louis Parrington provided a sociopolitical interpretation of American literature in his treatise Main Currents in American Thought (3 volumes, 1927-1930). A survey of American letters more suited to the general reader was contributed by literary historian Van Wyck Brooks in a multivolume series that began with The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (1936). At about the same time, H. L. Mencken unleashed a direct assault on the contemporary tastes and prejudices of what he called the American “booboisie.” Mencken’s literary reviews appeared from 1924 to 1933 in the magazine American Mercury.
Between the late 1930s and 1945 a critical approach known as New Criticism developed. Taking its name from a 1941 essay by John Crowe Ransom, it emphasized close analysis of text and structure rather than analysis of social or biographical contexts. Critics expounding this approach included Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Several other literary scholars were less doctrinaire. Among them were Joseph Wood Krutch, whose essays were collected in The Modern Temper (1929) and The Measure of Man (1954), and Lionel Trilling, author of one of the most influential of modern critical essays, The Liberal Imagination (1950). Also noteworthy were Malcolm Cowley, author of Exile's Return (1934); Alfred Kazin, author of On Native Grounds (1942) and The Inmost Leaf (1955); and Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) provided a new interpretation of certain American themes and approaches.
One of the most rounded literary critics and theorists in 20th-century America was Edmund Wilson. Erudite yet never pedantic, he remained unaligned with any formal school of criticism. Axel's Castle (1931) established his literary intelligence, and later critical works, such as The Wound and the Bow (1941) and The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (1965), confirmed his stature.
In the 1970s literary theory flourished at Yale University, where Harold Bloom was concerned with the anxiety and the creative stimulus stemming from literary influence and with the desirability of academic consensus on which literary works were truly important. He expressed these views in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). Based on the academic movement known as deconstruction, originated by literary critic Jacques Derrida, other Yale scholars challenged the idea that a text has a single, unchanging meaning. They argued that interpretation “deconstructs” multiple layers of meaning in a text. In the 1980s and 1990s many literary theorists turned their attention toward culture and history, analyzing the ways in which literature shapes and is shaped by the world in which it is written.
VI CURRENT TRENDS
American literature at the beginning of the 21st century is exceptionally diverse, with rapidly growing multicultural influences. New voices continue to emerge within the Native American, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American communities, even as writers in previously unrepresented ethnic minorities join their ranks.
The concept of cultural hybridity, in which an individual’s physical self and cultural self can be two different halves of the same whole, is a uniquely American phenomenon. Asian American authors such as Chang-Rae Lee and Eric Liu have been among the most active in developing this theme. Bilingualism is also a popular theme among many American authors, reflecting both the alienation and the strong cultural identity that comes from being a nonnative English speaker in the United States. Gender issues remain major topics in 21st century American literature, and more gay and lesbian authors are publishing their work and bringing their community and concerns into focus.
In addition to these new cultural voices, American prose has also experienced revitalization within previously established traditions. Writers such as Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, 2001) and Nicholson Baker (Box of Matches, 2003) are offering ambitious new models for the novel that also incorporate traditional forms.
As the literature of the new century takes shape, American authors as a group still share common ground in responding to the important issues of their country and the world at large. While creating unique worlds for various distinct communities, America’s diverse literary voices continue to reflect the unique characteristics of its land, people, and culture.