The United States may be a relatively young country by global standards, but American literary history stretches back centuries. Let’s take a dive into the history of the main American literary movements and what they say about the characteristics of American literature.
Native American Literature
Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, native people had their own rich culture. The Native American literary tradition comprises oral tradition, folktales, creation stories and other myths that survive in the traditions and stories told by modern-day Native Americans.
One common element in these stories is repetition of incidents in a culturally significant number, usually four (the cardinal directions) or seven (the cardinal directions plus skyward, earthward and center). These stories were told and retold by generations of storytellers across the many tribes, and the stories vary in the telling not just from storyteller to storyteller and tribe to tribe, but even across multiple tellings by the same narrator.
In the 1700s, the Reverend Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, was among the first Native Americans to publish writings in English. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zitkála-Šá, a Yankton Dakota writer, musician and activist, collected and published legends drawn from Native cultures for a widespread white, English-speaking readership — along with personal stories that explored her struggles with cultural identity and the tension between traditional and assimilation. Another iconic writer of the early 20th century was Charles Eastman, considered the first to write American history from the Native American point of view.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the Native American Renaissance saw a surge of Native American literature, including authors like James Welch and Paula Gunn Allen. Contemporary Native writers such as Eden Robinson and Sherman Alexie continue to be vital voices in the American literary tradition.
As the English colonies were established in the 17th century, the topics of literature among the colonists reflected their historical context. The earliest English works from the colonies ranged from practical accounts of colonial history and life written by leaders such as John Smith, to Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, likely the first collection of poetry written in and about America.
Since many of the colonies were founded due to religious divisions back in Great Britain, it should be no surprise that religious themes were common. Such works ranged from the Puritan writings of ministers such as Increase Mather, to Roger Williams’ arguments for separation of church and state, and even the anti-religious New English Canaan by Thomas Morton — a harsh critique of the Puritans’ customs and power structures.
Enlightenment and Revolution
Mid- to Late 1700s
In the years surrounding the American Revolution, literature likewise shifted to encompass the patriotic spirit that drove the nation toward independence. The iconic Federalist Papers in the realm of politics were matched by works by other authors in the realm of science and philosophy, such as Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.
1789 saw the publication of The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown. Widely recognized as the first American novel, Brown’s work was a cautionary tale about the dangers of seduction, advocating for rational thinking and moral education of women. Given its historical context, critics have viewed The Power of Sympathy as an exploration of virtues most needed by the new nation.
Not to be confused with the famous painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic literature draws on dark themes from the nation’s historical and contemporary challenges. The early Gothic writers drew on frontier anxiety and fear of the unknown; Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) is perhaps the most famous example.
As the nation grew and matured, the Gothic tradition matured with it, through the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Southern Gothic writers used the decaying plantations of the post-Civil War South in place of the castles of European Gothic literature, as in the works of William Faulkner. The contemporary works of authors like Stephen King, who draws on his own experiences in rural Maine in his stories, continue the long American Gothic tradition.
Romanticism and Transcendentalism
The romantic era began in Europe in the eighteenth century, but it arrived in America later, around 1820. American romantic writers explored themes of individualism, intuitive perception and the inherent goodness of the natural world. Among the best known American romantic novels are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), a dramatic story of a woman cast out of a Puritan community for committing adultery; and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), one of history’s most famous stories of man against the elements.
Emerging from romanticism later in the 1800s was perhaps the first notable American intellectual movement, transcendentalism, built on the belief in the inherent goodness of people, and the idea that self-reliance, transcending the corrupting influence of society, unlocks that goodness. We see these ideas in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and others. Perhaps the best-known transcendentalist book was Thoreau’s Walden, a reflection on his experience living independently near Walden Pond.
Since transcendental literature was in many respects the opposite of American Gothic, it should come as no surprise that prominent Gothic writers also penned critiques of transcendentalism, such as Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.
Literary Realism, Naturalism and Modernism
Following the Civil War, American literature was marked by a deep skepticism, understandable given the historical context. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American literary realism, in the works of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and others, was marked by attempts to present realistic things as they are, without supernatural or speculative elements. Twain’s vigorous, colloquial style in works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a shot across the bow at tired conventions. American naturalism, heavily influenced by the works of Frank Norris, stood in the middle ground between romanticism and realism; for instance, Stephen Crane’s short story The Open Boat, a naturalistic depiction of a group of shipwreck survivors, explores themes of the indifference of the universe.
From the same current as realism, literature progressed to American modernism in the interwar period, with some of the most famous works penned by the “Lost Generation” of expatriate writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Modernist works drew from the pain and loss of direction that this generation experienced in the wake of World War One, but it also contained themes of hope as individuals could change their surroundings.
Contemporary & Postmodern Literature
The postwar period saw the rise of a whole spectrum of innovative and subversive themes in literature, from the overtly counter-cultural works of the 1950s “Beat Generation” to John Updike’s reflective explorations of faith, personal turmoil and sensuality. Sexually frank content entered the mainstream in this period, as restrictions on obscenity were loosened and writers were empowered to speak freely about previously taboo topics.
Over the last several decades, American literature has seen an explosion of postmodernist themes such as unreliable narrators, internal monologue and temporal distortion. Contemporary writers have used literature to critique American culture, find connections across time and place and explore themes such as pluralism, relativism and self-consciousness.
The broader story of the American literary movements
American literature is about far more than just entertainment; it’s both a reflection of, and an influence upon, the moments in history and the changing human experience that shaped each movement. When you learn about the characteristics of American literature, you learn about what it is to be human, to struggle and succeed, to love and lose, to communicate and create. Get started with the fully online B.S./B.A. in English/Writing at Eastern Oregon University Online.