AMERICAN LITERARY HISTORY
•THE NEW LAND (1500-1800)
• LITERARY NATIONALISM(AMERICAN CLASSIC) (1800-1870)
•NEW FORMS (1870-1915)
• THE INTERWAR PERIOD (1915-1945)
•MODERNISM (1945 –1980)
•POSTMODERNISM (1980 -)
THE NEW LAND (1500-1800)
• HISTORY:
• 1498 Columbus arrives > Spanish and English settlements:
• In the South and Southwest the Spanish established
settlements(Arizona, Florida, San Francisco, Los Angeles
etc. – came to be part of Mexico and were later lost to the
US in 1848)
• In the North East (’New England’)English Puritans (fled
religious persecution in Europe) their first settlement was
the infamous ’Jamestown Settlement’
• In the South East European aristocrats arrived. They
established large plantations requiring endless shiploads of
servants and slaves.
THE NEW LAND – VALUES AND
LITERARY THEMES
• Some common elements of the North American
experience:
a) Fascination with the wilderness (needed to civilize
the new land > ’the lonely hero’ who is able to survive
in the wilderness)
b) A devotion to fair government (the European
Americans did not want to reinstitute the feudal
system of Europe>e.g. large-scale banking made it
possible for middleclass people to establish their own
businesses)
c) A concern with practical affairs (needed to survive
while ’civilizing’ the new land)
THE NEW LAND – WRITERS AND THEIR
WORKS
• The Chronicles from the exploration of the New Land e.g. John
Smith’s Description of New England (1616) they were composed to
attract future settlers and provide news and information for the
curious back in England
• Moral writings in the North emphasizing Puritan virtues of practical
wisdom and self-discipline e.g. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
on how to attain ”Moral Perfection. Franklin’s plain speaking and
down-to-earth humor are considered by some critics to be the
keynotes of American Literature
• Political writings: serving to unify, explain and justify a new
American Nation. E.g. The Declaration of Independence by Thomas
Jefferson. In it is the core of American Identity.
In Hector de Crevecoeur’s What is an American? The riddle of
nationhood and identity is discussed - this would also become a
central theme for most American writers to come.
LITERARY NATIONALISM (1800-1870)
• HISTORY:
• The new nation saw the country expand both:
a) Physically/psychologically: The new settlers had
increased the nation by settling/civilizing an increasing
number of squaremiles and in the minds of people there
was always new land to be explored and settled. You were
always able to begin anew.
b) Culturally: America had been critized for not producing
’American Culture’ and it stung the national pride >
appearance of new distinctively American literature
appeared:
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LITERARY NATIONALISM(AMERICAN
CLASSICS) – WRITERS AND THEIR
WORKS
1
The Myth of the Frontiersman: e.g.James Fenimore Cooper’s The
Leatherstocking Tales and The Last of the Mohicans where he depicts his
romantic vision of the ’noble savage’, the heroic frontiersman, and the
beauty of the American wilderness.
The fireside writers: cosy reading for settlers sitting by ’the fireside’. E.g.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who tends to celebrate the common man
and communal solidarity
The Abolition of Slavery: e.g. David Walker’s Appeal for a black war of
independence and Black spirituals(songs)
(Edgar Allan Poe): was more acclaimed in Europe than in the US. Poe
argued that American literature should not imitate European literature,
but he was also concerned that it was becoming ’merely’ nationalistic as
opposed to universal in nature.
THEMES EXPLORED BY THE AUTHORS OF THIS PERIOD:
The frontier character/heroic action/The beauty of nature/The celebration
of the common/the humanitarian spirit
LITERARY NATIONALISM(AMERICAN
CLASSICS) – WRITERS AND THEIR
WORKS 2
• From puritanism to transcendentalism:
The Puritans’ belief in the notion of the original
sin and determinism were replaced by Emerson’s
transcendentalism. The new focus was upon the
beliefs in the basic goodness and innate free will
of the individual. The transcendent (or spiritual)
reality rather than the material world, is the
ultimate reality. Individualism and self-reliance
are important traits.
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LITERARY NATIONALISM(AMERICAN
CLASSICS) – WRITERS AND THEIR
WORKS
3
Transcendentalists:
a) Ralph Waldo Emerson is thought to have
discovered/invented transcendentalism e.g. Nature and
Self-reliance
b) Henry D. Thoreau was a good friend of Emerson’s and he
also opposed the conformity to values of society, when it
conflicted with his own values. Withdrawal and
contemplation of nature were his dogmas e.g. Walden and
Civil Disobedience (M. Gandhi was inspired by Thoreau
when developing his techniques of passive resistance)
• Other important authors of the time were: Nathaniel
Hawthorne(The Scarlet Letter) and Herman Melville(Moby
Dick)
NEW FORMS (1870-1915)
• HISTORY:
• The end of the Civil War – The South was exploited during the
reconstruction. The Afro-Americans tended to move North partly
due to suppresion in the South, but also due to>
• Industrialisation(production was needed to reconstruct the country
after the war) and accesible transportation:
• A) > increased wealth>increased gap between the rich and the
poor>increased immigration(to work in the new industry)
• CONSEQUENCES:
• Industrialisation + immigration laid the foundations of modern
American society and literature.
• The growth of a prosperous, literate middle class, who especially
thirsted for practical information and fiction representing ’real life’.
There was an increased focus on materialism as opposed to
spirituality.
NEW FORMS(1870-1915) – VALUES
AND LITERARY THEMES:
• America teemed with subjects and audiences.
Authors wanted to find a new point of
departure in theme, in content, in form and in
the use of language>
• Regionalism/realism/naturalism as opposed
to ’transcendentalism/romantic’ relationsship
with nature.
NEW FORMS(1870-1915) – WRITERS
AND THEIR WORKS:
• The Frontier: was still a theme that fascinated e.g. Huckleberry Finn and
other works by Samuel Clemens(=Mark Twain). Publishers began to
produce cowboy song books and dime novels romanticizing outlaws like
Jesse James etc.
• Civil War literature: e.g. Ambrose Bierce’s An Ocurrence at Owl Creek
Bridge
• Social Satire: The problems of materialism and poverty caused by the
industrialization aroused many writers to social satire and protest: e.g.
Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence where her world of New York high
society is satirized in its snobbery.
• Real life in general: Walt Whitman the self-proclaimed ’poet of America’
used bold images, colloquial speech, and symbols drawn from workaday
life to capture a truth of the American experience. Emily Dickinson in her
poetry drew on the small events of household life for her comments on
the inner self, on the self facing death and on conflicts between doubt and
religious faith.
THE INTERWAR PERIOD (1915-1945)
• HISTORY:
• This period was paradoxical with:
• a) Prosperity(1920s) ><poverty(1930s)
b) Peace><wars (World War I and II)
THE INTERWAR PERIOD(1915-1945) –
VALUES AND LITERARY THEMES:
• There is a focus on new techniques e.g.:
a) Rearranged time sequences
b) A focus on uneventful, but emotionally
crucial moments
c) Stream-of-consciousness narration (inspired
by new psychological studies)
• Imagism = a new style stressing the prescision
and emotional impact of carefully selected
images. Poems should be a visual experience.
THE INTERWAR PERIOD (1915-1945) –
WRITERS AND THEIR WORKS:
• The ’Lost generation’(1920s): e.g. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great
Gatsby(1925) about the lure and corruption of great wealth.
Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises(1926), which is a portrait of young
Americans wounded spiritually and physically by the war,
wandering aimlessly around Europe seeking both the pleasures of
the moment and meaning for their lives
• Black and Southern literature: e.g. Jean Toomer’s Cane(1923),
which explores varieties of black experience. William Faulkner used
stream-of-consciousness and poetic language to describe the
effects of modern ways on the identity and traditions of
Southerners, both black and white.
• The Proletarian sympathies(1930s): e.g. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of
Wrath(1939) describing a family’s struggle to survive the great
depression.
THE INTERWAR PERIOD(1915-1945) –
WRITERS AND THEIR WORKS:
POETRY:
• Poetry as art(imagism) especially in the 1920s, with at
focus on self-consciousness, world-weary
sophistication and complexeties of irony e.g. In Ezra
Pound and in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922).
VERSUS:
• Poetry as a medium for social comment: e.g.Langston
Hughes’: Let America be America Again, a cry for
change for the Afro-American. Others poets were
preoccupied with the social ills of the Depression and
the rise of fascism.
MODERNISM (1945-1980)
HISTORY:
• The 2nd World War was over and the world faced a bipolar division of the
world: Capitalism vs. Communism and the Cold War was a fact.
• In America the fear of a ’communist turn-over’ was immense>
McCarthyism>many writers took refuge in despair and cynicism(Faulkner’s
warning in his Noble Prize Address of 1950)>
• 1950s was a time of complacency, materialism, political apathy and
tension and suspicion caused by the Cold War politics.
• 1960s saw the rise of a ’counterculture’. The postwar boom gave birth to
an affluent society and millions of Americans entered the middle class for
the first time. Their children, the baby-boomers grew up taking prosperity
for granted. Society needed educated labor>young people entered the
universities>this increase in education + TV as a new unifying media > an
awareness of social injustice> fights for minority groups e.g. Blacks,
women, homosexuals etc..
MODERNISM(1945-80) LITERARY
VALUES AND THEMES:
• Modernism could be described as the experimentation and
fragmentation of the human experience, characterized by
deviations from the norms of society
• Poetry: intellectual objectivity, stylistic complexity, and
suppression of emotion or personal statement. Literature
must be studied without reference to either the life of its
authors or the time in which it was created (intellectual
detachment perfect in the 1950s since few writers were
willing to commit themselves to any stands> a shrinking
audience.
• Social critique analyzing, and satirizing the ‘plastic’ middleclass culture of status symbols e.g. Henry Miller’s The
Death of a Salesman(1949) Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the
Gray Flannel Suit (1955)
MODERNISM(1945-1980) – WRITERS
AND THEIR WORKS:
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War novels: e.g.Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Irwin Shaw’s The Young
Lions and Karl Shapiro V-Letter and Other Poems.
The Southern Renaissance: e.g. William Faulkner, Alice Walker, William Styron
whose themes reflect the effect on Southerners, both black and white, of new
social patterns and ways of thinking.
Rebellion: Baby-boomers became the first generation to ”drop out” of the
”system”e.g. Jack Keruac On the Road (1957) and Allan Ginsberg’s Howl. The Beats
cultivated ’cool’ - an attitude of ironic detachment from social conventions and
political concerns – their writing was personal, socially commited and written in
the language of the streets. They satirize the ’plastic’ society of suburbia.
’Critical conformity’: those in flight of alienation and apathy and in search of
ideals worthy of commitment found inspiration in JFK’s words: ”ask not what your
country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’>volonteers within
civil rights/Anti-war. E.g. James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates.
Reexamination of the American Identity: ’It was easier to become a recognized
author if you were from a minority group than if you were WASP in these days of
counterculture’> the rise of many new minority writers who reflect upon their
past. After the 60s and 70s they go beyond the political concerns and treat broad
universal themes. They tend to be reflective and introspective.
POSTMODERNISM(1980>)
HISTORY:
• This period saw the consequences of the disappearence of a ’center’. Until
now you if you were a Western WASP and male you were entitled to
decide what was considered culturally relevant. You wrote the history
books. The world had been relatively ethnocentric so far.
• The postcolonial period: The world was no longer ruled by the colonial
powers(France, England etc.) After the 2nd World War the former colonies
gained their independence>looking for a new and ’independent’ culture,
which would be in opposition to the former colonial rulers >many new
centers and a new acceptence of cultural relativism (one culture could be
as good as the next…)
• Minority groups(women, ethnic groups, homosexuals etc.) had entered
’the ruling class’ after the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. They
needed to ’rewrite’ history so that it included their view of the world.
POSTMODERNISM (1980>) – LITERARY
VALUES AND THEMES
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Postcolonialism after World War II contributed to the idea that one cannot have an
objectively superior lifestyle or belief. Philosophers argued that rationality was
neither as sure nor as clear as modernists asserted. Postmodernism seemed to be
the lack of belief in absolute truth or the idea of a reality constructed
Minority groups in the west had an urge to ‘rewrite’ history and reveal it as a
piece of fiction, which had been constructed in order to sustain a certain ideology.
Especially women and Afro-Americans needed a ‘new history’ to write themselves
into the American history(become part of ‘the rulers of ideology’)
Everything is constructed and postmodern authors are very aware of the ’author
as a creator’. They will use intertextuality to reveal the classics as a creation
produced within a certain ideological context.
There is not one truth/center/everything is relative: pop culture/elitist
culture/everything is equally good or bad – just a construction to satisfy our needs.
New journalism arose to underscore the fact that everything is constructed by an
author with a specific ideological platform.
POSTMODERNISM (1980>) – WRITERS
AND THEIR WORKS:
• The author as a creator: Paul Auster most often include a
meta-narrator or a character with his own personal traits,
to underscore the author’s place within the ideological
construction e.g. A New York Triology(1987)etc.
• The relative truth and lack of belief in universal rationality.
There is more than one culture, but postmodernists accept
that we all live in a homogenous consumer society e.g.
Generation X by Douglas Coupland and Brett Easton Ellis’
American Psycho
• History as an ideological construction: e.g. Toni Morrison’s
The Bluest Eye, which attacks the way blacks have been
treated and give voices to ordinary Afro-American (intrahistory><history of events)
POST 911???
• Global renaissance of religion?