A Brief Summary of The History of American Literature
“Each generation should produce at least one literary history of the United States, for each generation must define the past in its own terms.”
Influenced by literary current and movement of Europe and their own nation such as
ththNeo-Classicism, Industrial Revolution, American War of Independence in late 18 and early 19
ththcentury, the Civil War, Industrialization, Darwin’s evolutionary theory in late 19 and early 20
thcentury, World War I, Great Depression, World War II in 20 century, the Cold War, the Civil
thRights Movement, the Vietnam War in late 20 century, the history of American literature from
Romanticism to Post-modernism came into being in a context that was uniquely American.
we will have a further discussion on this period by dividing them into several parts: Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism and Post-modernism.
2. American Romanticism
thThe American Romantic period strectched from the end of the 18 century to the outbreak of
the Civil War. The literature of this period was crucial to the development of American literary traditions and the 55 years from 1810 to 1865 saw miraculous achievements in American literature.
3.1 Background and Reasons
thPolitically the time was ripe. The 18 century left a heritage of optimism about
man’s possibilities and perfectibility. The lofty ideals of democracy asserted the value of
individuals, regardless of class and education. Of course, these values primarily applied
to white males. In fact, tensions were building which cried out for creative release.
Inequality, not equality was the rule for many, especially women and slaves.
Meanwhile, the nation witnessed an incredible expansion, among which the most
influential one was westward expansion. The conquest of the new territories certaionly
opened new horizons, but the country was also torn by the risk of internal division,
which led to American Civil War.
Economically America had never been wealthier. But the rising materialism
affected by industralization and focus on business at the cost of the mind and the spirit
was spawning reform movements all over America. Over 150 intentional communities
— from the Shakers to Oneida to Brook Farm — were formed by people disillusioned
by the materialistic values and inequities of American society.
3.1.3 Cultural and Social Background
Culturally, American own value emerged. America’s mountains, deserts, and
tropics and most of all its unexplored vastness provided a setting for its fresh concepts
There were readers, often women eager to expand their minds. It was actually
possible to make a kind of living as a writer, although it was difficult and limited,
making these writers agonize over the problem of “vocation.”
Religion, always a basic concern for Americans, was also ripe for romanticism and
its kind of pantheistic religion.
ththRomanticism is a movement of the 18 and 19 centuries that marked the reaction in
literature, philosophy, art, religion, and politics against the neoclassicism and formal orthodoxy of the preceding period.
3.3 Formation and Development
American Romanticism shares many characteristics with British romanticism. It flourished in the flow of Wordsworth’s poetic encounter with nature in The Prelude.
However, developing as it did from the rhetoric of salvation, guilt, and providential visions of Puritanism, the wilderness reaches of the American continent, and the fiery thetoric of freedom and equality, the American brand of romanticism developed its own character, especially as these writers tried self-consiciously to be new and original. 3.4 Features and Styles
American romantic writers shared some common features with the English romanticists. In most of the American writings of the period there was a new emphasis upon the imaginative and emotional qualities of literature. Even though American romanticism exhibited from the very outset distinct features of its own. Here are some major principles:
1) Expressiveness: the romanticists held that the writers should express their emotions,
feelings, empressions, instinct, intuition, or their beliefs in their works instead of the
imitation of the classical writers.
3) Worship of nature: nature including human nature as a source of instruction,
delight, and nourishment for the soul; returen to nature as a source of inspiration and
4) Simiplicity: turned to the humble people and the everyday life, adopted the
3.4 Representitive Writers and Works
thBelletristic literature, or literature as fine art, finally emerged in the 19 century. The 50
year between 1815 and 1865 saw miraculous achievements in American literature. After a period of early romanticism that included Irning, Cooper and Bryant, there was a sudden outburst of creative power. Literary gaints such as Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville began producing works of great vitality and distinction. Soon, their achievements would be matched by those from Whitman and Dickinson, among others. In the half decade of 1850—1855 alone appeared Emerson’s Representative Men (1850), Hawthorne’s The
Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851);Melville’s Moby Dick
(1851) and Pierre (1852), Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), and
other noted literary works. Taken together, these zccomplishments suggest that American literatre matured.
3.5 Achievement and Influence
In literature Romanticism was America’s first great creative period, a full flowering of
the romantic impulse on American soil. The poetry was predominantly romantic in spirit and form united to a concept of democracy that was pervasivelyegalitarian. In essays and in lectures the New England transcendentalists carried the expression of philosophic and religious ideas to a high level. In the new nation’s search for a culturally independent identity,
romanticism also helped build the bridge between the past and present, and between America
and Europe It was a Renaissance in the sense of a flowering, full of excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego.
Romanticism and sentimantalism, as literary and cultural modes, have persisted in American culture. It may be argued in fact that the United States continues to be a Romantic
thculture whose fundamental values and symbols were shaped in the first half of the 19
3.6 Shortcomings and Decline
By the end of the Civil War a new nation had been born, and it was to demand and receive a new literature less idealistic and more practical, less exalted and more earthy, less consciously artistic and more honest than produced in the age when the American dream had glowed with greatest intensity and American writers had created a great literary period by capturing on their pages the enthusiasm and the optimism of that dream. Gradually, the
thRomanticism era in the United States was surpassed by the rise of Realism in the later 19
3. American Realism
4.1 The period ranging from 1865 to 1914 has been referred to as the Age of Realism in the
literary history of the United States, which is actually a movement or tendency that
dominated the spirit of American literature, especially American fiction, from the 1850s
Politically the Civil War affected both the social and the value system of the
country. America had transformed itself from a Jeffersonian afrarian community into an
industrialized and commercialized society.
The war also brought some noticeable changes to the American economy. It had
stimulated the technological development, and new methods of organization and
management were tested to adapt to industrial modernization on a large scale.
4.1.3 Cutural and Social background
As far as the ideology was concerned, people were on a shaking ground. The harsh
realities of life as well as the disillusion of heroism resulting from the dark memories of
the Civil War had set the nation against the romance.
ththRealism is a movement of the 19 and 20 centuries that marked the reaction in
literatural method, a philosophical and political attitude, and a particular kind of subject matter against Romanticism’s emphasis on intuition, imagination, a dreamy (or innocent)
sense of wonder, idealism, faith in nature, and general optimistic belief in the goodness of things and claim to seek truth that is verifiable by experience and has practical consequences. 4.3 Formation and Development
In American literature, the term “Realism” encompasses the period of time from the
thCivil War to the turn of the 20 century. American Realism, although influenced by English
and European authors, was basically native. Realism first appeared in the United States in the literature of local color, an amalgam of romantic plots and realistic descriptions of things immediately observable: the dialects, customs, sights, and sounds of regional America. 4.4 Features and Styles
As a new literature, Realism emerged for an age. Under the influence of the Civil War and industrialization, Realism surely formed its own features.
1) Realism aims at the description of the actualities of the life and free from
subjective prejudice, idealism or romantic color.
2) Realism focuses on commonness of the common people. The emphasis is on
ordinary people, settings and events
3) Life is presented as it is.
4) Use real characters, real incidents, real language and local dialects.
5) In matters of style, diction and sentence structure tend towards a plain style 4.5 Representative Writers and Works
The major realists who published their works in this period were Mark Twain, William Dean Howell, and Henry James. Mark Twain was one of America’s first and foremost realists
and humorists. William Dean Howells was the founder of American Realism and the most prominent critic of the entire realistic period. No American has done more to encourage realistic writings in the United States than he did. Henry James was an early psychological realist. His novels had much influence on modern American writers. So he is often called one of the fathers of the psychological novel.
One of the most significant trends of the period was the type of realism called local colorism. Prominent among these were Bret Harte, Mary E. Wilking Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and O. Henry. Harte’s region was the Far West. Ms. Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett
wrote short stories about the rural life in New England, while O. Henry was taking local color directly into New York City. The major realistic writer Mark Twain was a great local colorist too, who often wrote about life on and around the Mississippi River. his masterpieces, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are excellent
examples of Local Color Realism.
4.6 Achievement and Influence
thRealism in America emerged in the latter half of the 19 century as a reaction against
“the lie” of Romanticism and Sentimentalism. They also argued for a new set of conventions privileging the spoken language and fidelity to ordinary experience especially for Mark Twain. In American realist fiction, familiar aspects of contemporary life an everyday scenes are represented in a straightforward or matter-of-fact manner, in which characters from all social levels are examined in depth. It stresses truthful treatment of material. As a powerful impulse to mirror the unmitigated realities of life, realism expresses its concern for the world of experience, of the commplace, and for the familiar and the low.
Being a subordinate order of realism, Reginalism can be viewed as the expression of desire both to preserve distinctive ways of life before industrialization destroyed them and to come to terns with the harsh industrialized realities. Though often sffused with nostalgia, the best work of these regionalists both renders a convincing surface of a particular time and location and investigate psychological character traits from a more universal perspective. 4.7 Shortcomings and Decline
thIn the last decade of 19 centuty, the literary natualism was transplanted from France to the
United States and became a very important literary movement. It began in the 1890s as an
outgrowth and extension of realism and dominated American letters during the important era of
ththe 20 century, paving the way to Modernism.
After the Civil War, it seemed that overnight the rapid industrialization of
American society changed an agrarian nation into an industrial gaint. As the westward
expansion continued to push the frontier nearer the Pacific coast, the settlers found
themselves subject to the ruthless manipulation of forces including the railroad.
The rapid social changes caused by industrialization brought serious social
problems. While the captains of industry piled up huge persional fortunes, the ordinary
man became the victim of industrialization. Industrial proletariat were entirely at the
mercy of external forces beyond their control, living a life of insecurity, suffering, and
5.1.3 Cultural and Social Background
The harsh reality of the industrialization period changed man’s understanding
about himself and the world in which he lived in. living in a cold, indifferent, and
essentially Godless world, man was completely thrown upon himself for survival.
In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published. This book,
together with Darwin’s Descent of Man (1870) established a new theory of evolution
which offered a great challenge to the old idea of man being created by God. 5.2 Definition
thNaturalism was a literary movement of the late 19 century that yielded influence on
the twentieth. It was an extension of Realism, a reaction against the restrictions inherent in the realistic emphasis on the ordinary, as naturalists insisted that the extraordinary is real, too.
5.3 Formation and Development
Under the influence of European writers such as Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, American literary naturalism emerged in the 1890s as an outgrowth of American realism. Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893) was the first novel—designed, he wrote, “to show
that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless.”
Natualism also appears in the plays of Eufene O’Nell and the novels of James T. Farrell. In
other word, in American literature, Natualism had a blooming in the works of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and it reached its peak in the novels of Theodore Dreiser. 5.4 Features and Styles
In reaction against the conventional literature which avoided any reference to the “private parts” of the body, or any description of most bodily functions, the naturalists tended to dwell on these things, and on sexual desire, to emphasize man’s animal nature.
Furthermore, the young natualists were likely to write about the slums, or Negro quarters, or jobs which demanded great physical effort and hardship.
1) Characters in natualistic works are frequently, though not invariably, ill-educated
or lower-class characters whose lives are governed by the forces of heredity,
environment, chance, instinct, and passion. The term for this idea is “determinism”.
2) The setting in those novels is frequently an urban one, as in Frank Norris’s
McTeague. The naturalist usually uses carefully chosen surface detail to portray a
gloomy and depressing setting. They emphasized that the universe is cold, godless,
indifferent and hostile to human desires
3) They also claimed that the works produced in this school have tended to emphaszie
either a biological determinism or a socio-economic dterminism.
4) In theme, naturalists represent the lif of the lower classes truthfully and break into
such forbidden regions as violence, death, and sex; in technique, their works exhibit
honest skills and artistry. But they are evidently original and experimental in their
5.5 Representative Writers and Works
Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Jack London and Theodore Dreiser are the representatives of Naturalism. Norris’s McTeague is the manifesto of Ameridan naturalism. Crane’s Maggie:
A Girl of the Streets is the first American naturalism work. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is the work
in which natrualism attained maturity. These writers’ detailed description of the lives of the
downtrodden and the abnormal, their frank treatment of human passion and sexuality, and their portrayal of men and women overwhelmed by blind forces of nature still exert a powerful influence on modern writers.
5.6 Achievement and Influence
Although its origins were European, naturalism was an important movement in American literature from the 1890s to the 1920s. The American natualists lid stress on the helplessness of man, person’s insignificance in a world and a person’s lack of dignity. The
pessimism and determinism pervaded the works of many American writers at that time. 5.7 Shortcomings and Decline
American naturalistic writers were not as pessimistic about life as their French counterparts were, and none of them ever attained the completely naturalistic outlook any more than Aola himself. According to Lee Clark Mitchell, American literary Naturalists are bound together by historical context and philosophical determinism—a philosophy that on its
face suggests nothing of the range of possibilities available to the mode. Without satisfying people’s needs and reflecting social conditions, Naturalism the same as Realism no longer stood on the historical stage.
4. American Modernism
Between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II (1914—1945 ), the
United States became a “modern” nation, raven with internal fractures. Urbanization and
industrialization had altered national demographics of the 1920s. the era following World War I
gave rise to modernism.
6.1 Background and Reasons
The United States’ participation in the First World War marked a crucial stage in
the nation’s evolution to a world power. Since the war was not fought on the American
thsoil, by the second decade of the 20 century, the United States had become the most
powerful industrialized nation in the world, outstripping Britain and Germany in terms
of industrial production.
There was an economic boom and a deceptive affluence after the war. American
entered the era of big industry and big technology, a mechanized age that deprived
individuals of their sense of identity.
However, the economic crisis in America at the beginning of the 1930s left a mark
in the literary creations of this period.
6.1.3 Cultural and Social background
Along with the changes in the material landscape came the changes in the
non-material system of belief and behavior. The war destroyed not only the lives of
many promising young men, but also the early innocent beliefs of a whole generation,
casting them into an age of disorientation, alienation and dissent.
In addition, in Europe, there had been a big flush of new theories and new ideas in
both social and natural sciences, as well as in the field of art which played an
indispensable role in the conversion of American ideologies.
Modernism is a general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental
thand avant-garde trends in the literature of the early 20 century, including imagism,
symbolism, impressionism, expressionism, futurism, dada, constructivism, and surrealism. 6.3 Formation and Development
thModernism originated at the end of the 19 century. It was a complex and diverse
international movement in all creative arts: painting, novel, poem and play. It spread worldwide, particularly in the years following World War I. Towards the 1920s, these trends converged into a mighty torrent of modernist movement, which swept across the whole Europe and America. Modernist literature in America reached its peak in the 1920s up to the 1940s when this period ended.
6.4 Features and Styles
6.5 Representative Writers and Works
The most recognizable “modernist” figures in fiction are “the Lost Generation.” They
were permanent expatriates living in Europe such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Disillusioned and disgusted by the frivolous, greedy, and heedless way of life, they left America and formed a community of writers and artists in Paris.
Along with the greatest figures in “the Lost Generation” are famous poets such as Ezra
Pound, Thomas Stearns Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Frost. African Americans also made significant contributions to the American modernist movement. 6.6 Achievement and Influence
Literature of this period strggled 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.
thAmong them Realistic fiction is the best achievement of 20 century American
literature, which plays a significant role in stimulating the development of human psychology as well as the sense of conflict between inner and out worlds. And the Lost Generation also rebelled against former ideals and values. American Poetry began to utter the
ththvoice of its own in the mid-19 century. T.S Eliot led an intellectual reaction against the 19
century romantic. And as his following group Fugitive Group focus of the study of literary criticism and initiated the movement of New Criticism. African American writers also
contributed in vital ways to the heterogeneity of the literature during the interwar period and led to comparative economic improvement and an increase in personal freedom for African Americans.
6.7 Shortcomings and Decline
stPost-modernism, as it is perceived at the beginning of the 21 century, is regarded as a term
encompassing all the new critical theories since the late 1960s. It is, accordingly, more reflective
about what is subject, truth, metaphor, and human.
7.1 Background and Reasons
By 1945, America was a world power with huge international responsibilities. This
made Americans both proud and extremely uncomfortable.
After World War II, America entered an Age of Anxiety. The politics of America
were influenced by two great fears. First, there was the fear of the Bomb; many
Americans were sure there would be a war with the Soviet Union using atomic bombs.
Also, in the late forties and early fifties, fear of Communism became a national
The 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday
life, left over from the 1920s—the Great Depression. World War II brought the United
States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy
long-awaited material prosperity.
7.1.3 Cutural and Social Background
7.3 Formation and Development
Post-modernism is a literary experimentation focused mostly on fiction in the United States from the mid-1960s till about 1975. It became aligned with Post-structuralism and deconstruction between 1975-1985. Post-modernism became a general term for the cultural logic in post-industrialist society or the late stage of capitalism that is service-oriented and information-oriented.
7.4 Features and Styles
7.5 Representative Writers and Works
The term of Post-modernism is in fact not an inclusive description of all literature since the 1950s or 1960s, but is applied seclectively to those works in wide reference to fiction, including metafiction, black humour, and avant-pop literature, notably to the novels (or anti-novels) and stories of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynochon, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, William s. Burroughs, John Barth, Donald Garthelme, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.
Firstly, war novels become an important genre after World War II, represented by Norman Mailer. Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead has been held as the masterpiece of its
category. James Jones’ best novel From Here to Eternity is a powerful story of army life in
Hawaii just before the attack on the Pearl Harbour.
Secondly, metafiction as Chris Baldick puts it, is “more especially a kind of fiction that
openly comments on its own fictional status.” A notable modern example is John Fowles’
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Barth’s The Floating Opera, Barthelme’s Snow White,
7.6 Achievement and Influence
Post-modernism as a new development of literature was believed to be nothing (in the sense that it cannot save us from a world too corrupted by materialism), this group of postmodernists created some new rules for the game. For them, existentialist angst should not be what defines literature; instead literary imagination shows a virtual geography (which shockingly anticipated the virtual realities of the digital age today). 7.7 Shortcomings and Decline
8.1 Realism VS Naturalism
Broadly, according to nature, Naturalism, like Realism, is opposed to Idealism,
emphasizing things accessible to the senses in this world in contrast to permanent or
spiritual truths presumed to lie outside it.
Emphasis on the ordinary Emphasis also on the extraordinary
A mirror A lens
The observer The scientist
Moral or rational The accidental and physiological
8.2 Post-modernism VS Modernism
Post-modernism seems to grow or emerge from Modernism. Post-modernism involves not only a continuation, sometimes carried to an extreme, of the counter traditional experiments of modernism, but also diverse attempts to break away from modernist forms which had, inevitably, become in their turn conventional, as well as to overthrow the elitism of modernist “high art” by recourse to the models of “mass art”. In this regard,
Post-modernism is a movement against Modernism.