American literature survey course – A summary of the literary trends

American literature
survey course –
A summary of literary
May 20, 2014
Colonial period
White, Anglo-Saxon-Protestant
Protestant culture
The Bible
Everyday life and literature
Similarities with the Jews – the Puritans are the Chosen People
of God
• Themes for literature: moral issues, sin, guilt, secrecy, inwardturning, soul-searching
• Work, thrift and diligence were cardinal Puritan virtues.
• William Bradford: Of Plymouth Plantation (”The Mayflower
• Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative
• Cotton Mather (religious sermons), Anne Bradstreet - poetry
The Great Awakening
Religious revival, spiritual renewal
Several waves
The first wave took place between 1730 and 1760
Religious enthusiasm – pre-revolutionary sentiments
Grand figures: Jonathan Edwards: ”Sinners in the hands of an
Angry God” (1733), George Whitefield from England – toured
the 13 colonies, James Davenport, Gilbert Tennent
The American Revolution,
The Age of Reason
Political upheaval, Britain’s criminal acts
Literary manifestation: polemical prose
Secular transformation – quest for salvation = pursuit of liberty
Thoughtful pamphlets, newspapers (Benjamin Franklin – ”The
first American”, published: Pennsylvania Chronicle, The
Pennsylvania Gazette
Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence
Thomas Paine: Common Sense
James Otis: The Rights of the British Colonies
A series of 85 articles and essays by Alexander Hamilton,
James Madison and John Jay: The Federalist Papers
• Crèvecoeur – describes the new man in Letters from an
American Farmer
• The Connecticut Wits
The Romantic Temper
• In the U.S. – from 1820
• Blended with the European trends it also focused on the
Manifest Destiny idea
• Aim: discover a distinctive American voice: The American
• Development of the self! Individuality
• Keywords: imagination, creativity, boundlessness,
individualism intuition
The Knickerbockers
New York City
The first half of the 19th century
The name was invented by
Washington Irving in the
comic masterpiece:
Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809)
Knickerbocker Magazine (1833-1865)
Sought to foster national literature
Other prominent writers: William Cullen Bryant, the romantic
nature poet, and the novelist, James Fenimore Cooper
• Pre-Civil War decades:
• non monolithic generation
• 1. The ’normal’ group:
H.W. Longfellow,, J.R. Lowell, O.W. Holmes, = Boston Brahmins
and J.G. Whittier (Quaker)– the poets of the tradition!, also
called the Fireside poets.
2. The creative group
The opposite of the ‚normal group’
Two sub-groups:
A. The yea-sayers
B. The nay-sayers
A. The yea-sayers
• Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman
• Believers and advocates of the tenets of Transcendentalism
• Emphasis on the self
B. The nay-sayers
The party of Darkness as opposed to
the party of Transcendence
Hawthorne, Melville
Poe and Dickinson as well
Their worlds created ”the blackness of darkness beyond”- or
Poets of the 19th Century
• The Boston Brahmins (Wadsworth, Longfellow, Holmes) + the
Quaker abolitionist Whittier
• Widely read
• Great metrical range, technical mastery
• Wide public acceptance
• Financially, emotionally stable
• National reputation
• Originality, novelty, variety are missing
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Best known and best loved American poet in the world
Adapted the meter of the Finnish fold epic „Kalevala”
A Victorian American
His poems reflect the optimistic sentiment and the love of a
good lesson that characterized the humanitarian spirit of the
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
• Raised the standard of American criticism
• His poetic theory: brevity, concentration on mood and freedom
from didacticism
• A respected fictionalist
• Pioneered in science fiction
• The founder of the modern detective story
1. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
2. Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Invented the free form of the hymn
She wrote in hymn meters all her life.
Her poetry articulates a life carefully hidden.
Invented the American Free verse
The universal self
A democrat
Leaves of Grass (first printed in 1855)
Realism and Naturalism
High cultural organization of literature =
A coherent national literary culture America has ever had.
American realism is the product of this high culture of letters.
Classic texts: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark
Twain), The Bostonian (Henry James), The Rise of Silas
Lapham (William Dean Howells
• William Dean Howells! – ”the dean of American
letters”, the chief spokesperson for realism.
• 1894. My First Visit to New England (a young artist
from the Midwest moves to Boston)
• The principles of realism: honesty, sincerity, decency,
common feelings of commonplace people.
Regional Realists
• Regions of the country are linked due to the growth of
communication and transportation
• Local color writings
• Illuminated unknown corners of 19th c. America
• Kate Chopin, George Washington Cable – Southern
phrasings and characteristic of the Creole and Cajuns
of Louisiana
• Frank Norris and Stephen Crane talked like those
• Mark Twain, Howells, Henry James – introduced
colloquial speech into their fiction.
• Charles W. Chesnutt – the first black literary writer,
A realism scientized and systematized
Man is not much more than a physical object
Émile Zola: Le roman expérimental (1879)
Causality, fatalism, determinism, heredity, environmental
forces and influences
• Social Darwinism
• Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer
Some features
A naturalist is amoral in his view of struggle
Frank and direct
Primitive, or inexperienced characters
Pessimistic view
• Narrower concept: from 1910 to the end of WWII
• Broader concept: from the mid-1870s to the end of the 20th
• Modernism is diverse, it has a non monolithic quality
• Summarizes artistic tendencies from roughly the turn of the
• It is the art of modern rootlessness
• Marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois sensibility
and morality
• Key terms: despair, disillusionment, discontinuity, dislocation,
decline, pessimism, disintegration
• The shapers (all expatriates):
• Gertrude Stein
• Ezra Pound
• T.S. Eliot
American representatives of the modern
Poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, E.E.
Cummings, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes
Fiction: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest
Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, John Dos Passos
Drama: Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Susan Glaspell
In all the generic classes: Gertrude Stein
Paradigm shifts:
Social, economic changes - industrialization
WWI traumas – loss of ontological ground
Changes in consciousness
• Modernist writing tends to be strongly indicative of
this sense of cultural dislocation!
• Modernism is viewed as a reaction against
realism and naturalism
American literature after WWII
• A large number of war novels
• The best novels belong to the naturalistic tradition
• Writers lost interest in Leftist ideology of the 30s (real horrors
of the Soviet State)
• America entered the Age of Anxiety (the bomb and
• Writers were rather interested in their own psychological
problems than in politics.
• E.g. John Hersey: Hiroshima (1946), Norman Mailer: The
Naked and the Dead (1948).
• The new writers of the South seem less modern. (still search
for the self)
• E.g. Eudora Welty: Delta Wedding (1946), creating a mythical,
fantasy world
• A collection of short stories: The Golden Apples (1949)
• Flannery O’Connor- Southern Gothic school of writing.
• A Good Man Is Hard to Find
A Northener, Mary McCarthy described the life of her
generation. The Company She Keeps (1942), The Group (1963)
Jewish-American novels: spiritual and psychological problems
of mid-20th c. life, created a new kind of humor: the humor of
• E.g. Saul Bellow: Dangling Man (1944) – the philosophy of
• The Victim (1947)
• J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
One of the most famous nonfiction novels:
• Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (1966)
The 50s: the ”the Beat” movement, the Beats were the new rebelheroes, they lived for the joy of the ”enormous present”.
!The writing style of Jack Kerouac is influenced by the Zen idea
of spontaneity : On The Road (1957)
• Postmodernism as an artistic movement started in the 60s.
• Questions the existing practices and beliefs in society.
• What is knowledge? What is truth? What is language? Is the
world knowable?
The individual has no direct access to his own mind! The world
is made up of concepts. There is no difference between fiction
and reality.
The postmodern criticizes the tenets of enlightenment, the
rational and the unity of the self, rejects the distinction between
high and low culture. While in modernism artists lamented and
mourned the chaotic state of the world, postmodernism does not
cry over fragmentation but celebrates that.
Some features of postmodernism
• ”Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives”. JeanFrancois Llyotard
• Rejection of totalizing theories
• Disunity
• Decentered self
• Skepticism
• Disruption of dominance of high culture by popular culture
• Hyperreality
• The celebreation of the ’copy’
• Androgyny, queer sexual identities
• Parody, irony
• Promiscuous genres
Black humor
Historiographic metafiction
Magical realism
Temporal distortion
Key figures and their works
John Barth: ”The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967)!
Lost in the Funhouse (short story collection) (1968)
Giles Goat Boy (1966)
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)
Don DeLillo: Libra (1988)
Robert Coover: Public Burning (1977)
Ishmael Reed: Mumbo Jumbo (1972)
Thomas Pyncheon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (1962)
Donald Barthelme: Snow White (1967)
Ethnic Voice:
African American Writing
The Harlem Renaissance
• The Harlem Renaissance
• An increase in output by African American artists,
writers and musicians in New York City
• Class, gender, race
• Black experience, the missing history
• Jazz, vernacular speech: folk tradition, the spiritual
• Black creativity and beauty, self-pride
Key figures of the Harlem Renaissance
• Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
• Alain Locke (1885-1954)
• James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
• Claude McKay (1889-1948)
• Jean Toomer (1894-1967)
• Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Some features
• Predominance of the picaresque and pastoral strains in modern
Afro-American writing
• The efficacy of Negro dialect in American poetry
• Uniqueness of African American culture
• ’Black journals’:
• The Crisis, Opportunity, The Southern Workman
• ’White journals’:
• Poetry, The New Masses and The Dial
• Musicians of the 1920s
• Relativism:
No truths are absolute, ”truths” are social constructions depending
especially on race, class, gender and generally power-status.
• Skepticism: objective knowledge is impossible.
(Postmodernism: ”The theory of rejecting theories.” – Tony Cliff)
John Barth: ”The Literature of Exhaustion”