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American literature generally refers to English literature produced in the United States. Moreover, a small amount of literature from the US is written in other languages than English, especially in Spanish.
The history of American literary tradition began initially as part of a broader English literature in the colonies along the East Coast of what is now the U.S.A. Since the late 18th century, the literary outcome of the former colonies gradually found its own unique 'American' voice and formed its own literary tradition.
Some early forms of American literature like pamphlets and other texts were meant to glorify the colonies for European readers but the writers who really laid the foundation of American literature where the Puritans William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, and the Puritan adventurer John Smith. Captain John Smith may be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note As Hath Happened in Virginia,(1608) and The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624). Other similar writers were Daniel Denton (Brief Description of New York) - 1670, Thomas Asche (Carolina) - 1682, William Penn (Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania) - 1682, George Percy, William Strachey, John Hammond, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas and John Lawson.
Religious issues and disputes were frequent literary topics during the early years of colonization. John Winthrop's diary treated the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also kept a diary in which he described the first years after the arrival of the Mayflower. An important cleric and writer of that period was Increase Mather. Governor William Bradford is best known for his book about the adventures of the Pilgrims, Of Plymouth Plantation, that he wrote between 1620 and 1647. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward advocated a more rigorous separation of church and state.
There was also activity in all fields of poetry: with, among others, Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Another source of inspiration for literary writings were the encounters with Indians and the conflicts that they engendered: Daniel Gookin, Alexander Whitaker, John Mason, Benjamin Church and Mary Rowlandson wrote about this subject. The Puritan John Eliot even translated the Bible into the Massachusett-language for the Indians. In this revolutionary period the production of political writings - including those of Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson and the royalist Joseph Galloway - flourished.
Prominent literary figures from this period were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Politically influential were Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and The Autobiography, and Paine's famous pamphlet Common Sense. The early 18th century in North America was dedicated to the First Great Awakening. The literature of this period consists mainly of written sermons. Important (mostly Puritan) clerics and writers of sermons are Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, John Wise and Samuel Willard. Other contemporaries included judge Samuel Sewall who wrote the essay The Selling of Joseph, the teacher and businesswoman Sarah Kemble Knight whose diary became well-known, and the plantation owner and writer William Byrd II. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) a total of 2000 political pamphlets was published, among them the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson and the Federalist Papers. The American poets of the time - such as John Trumbull, the satirist Francis Hopkinson and Philip Freneau, were primarily politically motivated, what can also be said of the novel Modern Chivalry by Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence of the United States some nationalist novels were published, like The Conquest of Canaan by Timothy Dwight and The Vision of Columbus by Joel Barlow. William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789) is sometimes called 'the first true American novel'. Gradually, American literature found its own voice and distinguished itself from European forms and styles. Of course there were still plenty of imitations; Susanna Rowson wrote her bestsellcer Charlotte Temple in 1791 in the tradition of Samuel Richardson, and Wieland and other novels of Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) were clearly inspired by the gothic novel in England. Many early critics judged 'Wieland' as a novel full of contradictions and ambiguities. The work was considered unsophisticated and too dependent on the conventions of gothic and sentimental novels. More modern critics, however, now often regard these ambiguities as deliberate strategies of the author. During the 18th century, the European ideas of the Enlightenment also reached North America. In this period, the population in the colonies increased significantly and was around 1.6 million in 1760, which might account for the increase of religious and political opinions stated. In American literature, the focus shifted from Puritan ideals to the power of the human mind and rational thought. Many intellectuals believed that man with the laws described by Isaac Newton was now able to understand the entire universe.
For nearly 200 years, American readers who wished for other reading material than the Bible, almanacs, newspapers and magazines had to fall back totally on books written in Europe. The Scottish writer Robert Burns and the English writers Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley an John Keats were very popular in the New World while Shakespeare was also still widely read. These books were printed in pirate versions and were very cheap, and this made it difficult for genuine American writers to publish and sell their own books. But in the 19th century things began to change. The readers longed for home-grown writers and books about American themes with a distinct American style and voice. Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, both New Yorkers, put England's former colony on the literary map and at the same time made New York the center of American literature and culture.
Washington Irving, who gained world fame with his short stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,", also wrote historical biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and Muhammad. William Cullen Bryant wrote early romantic poetry and nature poetry. In 1832, Edgar Allan Poe began writing short stories including "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", mysterious stories exploring psychological depths in the human psyche previously remained untouched. In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) started writing the non-fiction work "Nature", in which he pleaded for a unorganized religion by means of a kind of spiritual communion with nature. His work marked the beginning of a movement known as transcendentalism. His non-conformist friend Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), told in his book "Walden" how he spent two years in solitude in a little hut at Walden Pond. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1896) with "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) made a strong plea for the abolition of slavery. Another abolitionist, Walt Whitman, (1819-1892) was a laborer who in the American Civil War (1861-1865) served as an orderly. His magnum opus "Leaves of Grass" heralded a renewal of poetry by means of free-flowing verses of irregular length and the worship of a strong physicality and connection with nature. D.H. Lawrence would say about him: (paraphrased:) "Whitman was the first who broke with the old moral concept of the superiority of the soul over the body." In contrast, Emily Dickinson's (1830-1886) poetry was conventional but very witty, elaborate and psychologically strong. Much of her poetry is about death, but with a strange twist, like her famous poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death". Mark Twain's (1835-1910) style was greatly influenced by his journalistic work. Like Henry James he wrote in an unadorned, direct style, about ordinary life and ordinary people who spoke in their own dialect.
Major literary figures of the era include James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, Seba Smith, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson.
Sources and references
- The Norton Anthology of American Literature - Third edition Vol. I and II