Discover the Rich History of American Literature



9 Questions

What is American literature?

Which period in American literature is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson?

Who is the earliest American novelist whose works are still commonly read?

Which literary movement in America was characterized by a focus on emotion, individualism, and the beauty of nature?

Which writer is known for advocating for socialism in his works?

Which writer's style changed the way Americans write their language?

Which post-World War II novel explores personal, racial, and ethnic themes?

Who is known for writing in multiple genres, including Southern Gothic, Western, and post-apocalyptic?

Which American playwright is credited with bringing American drama to international status?


American Literature: A Brief Overview

  • American literature is literature written or produced in the United States of America and in the colonies that preceded it.

  • The American literary tradition is part of the broader tradition of English-language literature but also includes literature of other traditions produced in the United States and in other immigrant languages.

  • A rich tradition of oral storytelling exists amongst Native Americans.

  • The American Revolutionary Period (1775–1783) is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

  • Following World War I, modernist literature rejected nineteenth-century forms and values.

  • In the mid-twentieth century, drama was dominated by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as the musical theatre.

  • In late 20th century and early 21st century there has been increased popular and academic acceptance of the literature written by immigrant, ethnic, Native American, and LGBT writers, and of writings in other languages than English.

  • The first work by a Native American in English, A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian, by Samson Occom, from the Mohegan tribe, was published in 1771 and went through 19 editions.

  • The Thirteen Colonies have often been regarded as the center of early American literature, but the first European settlements in North America had been founded elsewhere many years earlier.

  • The Revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway, the last being a loyalist to the crown.

  • In the post-war period, Thomas Jefferson established his place in American literature through his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his influence on the U.S. Constitution, his autobiography, his Notes on the State of Virginia, and his many letters.

  • In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first American novels were published, including Thomas Attwood Digges's Adventures of Alonso and William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy.American Literature: A Brief History

  • Charlotte Temple was the biggest seller of the 19th century before Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

  • The Coquette is praised for its demonstration of the era's contradictory ideas of womanhood.

  • The economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone.

  • Charles Brockden Brown is the earliest American novelist whose works are still commonly read.

  • Washington Irving completed his first major book in 1809 titled A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

  • Ethnic, African-American, and Native American writers began to publish fiction.

  • Mark Twain's style changed the way Americans write their language.

  • Other writers interested in regional differences and dialect were George W. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock), Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Henry Cuyler Bunner, and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).

  • Henry James confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it.

  • Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward (1888) was concerned with political and social issues.

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction to encompass both high and low life.

  • Social issues and the power of corporations was the central concern of some writers.A Brief History of American Literature

  • American literature began with the oral traditions of Native American cultures.

  • The first European settlers in America brought with them a literary tradition that included poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

  • The Romantic movement in America was characterized by a focus on emotion, individualism, and the beauty of nature.

  • The Civil War had a profound impact on American literature, with writers such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson exploring themes of death, loss, and identity.

  • The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of realism, with writers such as Mark Twain and Henry James exploring the complexities of modern life and society.

  • The early 20th century was marked by a focus on social justice, with writers such as Upton Sinclair and Jack London advocating for socialism.

  • The 1920s brought experimentation in style and form, with writers such as Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot contributing to a flourishing international literary scene.

  • The 1930s, during the Depression era, saw blunt social criticism in literature, with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath considered a masterpiece.

  • Post-World War II fiction saw the rise of realism and the exploration of personal, racial, and ethnic themes, with notable works including Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and William Gaddis's The Recognitions.

  • The postwar period also saw a flourishing of the short story, with writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver developing distinctive styles.

  • Contemporary American literature is characterized by postmodernism, with writers such as Thomas Pynchon exploring temporal distortion, metafiction, and postcolonial themes.

  • American literature continues to be diverse and evolving, with writers from a range of backgrounds and perspectives contributing to the ongoing literary conversation.American Literature: A Brief Overview

  • American literature has a rich history, with notable authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.

  • Cormac McCarthy is known for writing in multiple genres, including Southern Gothic, Western, and post-apocalyptic.

  • Toni Morrison's works explore the conventions of beauty established by a historically racist society and the self-immolating black family in search of beauty in whiteness.

  • Don DeLillo's works are characterized by his satirical take on American culture and his use of postmodern techniques.

  • David Foster Wallace's works employ postmodern techniques, including digression, narrative fragmentation, and elaborate symbolism, and often explore the media-saturated nature of American life.

  • Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay tells the story of two friends as they rise through the ranks of the comics industry in its heyday.

  • Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, a novel about falsified intelligence during Vietnam, won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

  • Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves and The Round House examine the tribal experience set against the backdrop of murder in North Dakota.

  • The Fireside Poets were some of America's first major poets domestically and internationally, known for their adherence to poetic form and working with distinctly American themes.

  • Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass uses free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy.

  • Emily Dickinson's poetry is ingenious, witty, and penetrating and often dwells on the topic of death.

  • Eugene O'Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize, is credited with bringing American drama to international status.

  • American playwrights created several long-lasting American character types, especially the "Yankee", the "Negro", and the "Indian", exemplified by the characters of Jonathan, Sambo, and Metamora.


Test your knowledge of American literature with this brief overview quiz! From the oral traditions of Native Americans to the postmodern works of contemporary authors, this quiz covers the major movements, themes, and notable writers in American literature. Challenge yourself and discover new insights into the rich and diverse history of American literary tradition.

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