American Literature overview Rev FA11

A Timeline of
American Literature
Changing Times – Changing Voices
“Let America be America again.”
Langston Hughes
Native American Culture (from 40,000 BC)
Tribal, agricultural societies
Oral literature
Epic narratives
Creation myths
Used stories to teach moral lessons and
convey practical information
 Deep respect for nature and animals
 Cyclical world view
 Figurative language & parallelism
Examples of Native American
 The Earth on Turtle’s Back - Onondaga
 When Grizzlies Walked Upright - Modoc
 The Navajo Origin Legend - Navajo
 The Iroquois Constitution - Iroquois
“Before there were people on earth, the Chief of the
Sky Spirits grew tired of his home in the Above World.”
When Grizzlies Walked Upright
Puritanism (1600-1800)
Great Awakening; Salem Witch Trials
 Sought to “purify” the Church of England by
simplifying forms of worship and church
 Believed in “original sin” and that only the
“elect” would be saved
 Wrote mostly diaries and histories that
expressed the connection between
God and everyday life
 Used the plain style of writing
Examples of Puritan Writings
 To My Dear and Loving Husband –
Anne Bradstreet
 Huswifery – Edward Taylor
 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God –
Jonathan Edwards
“The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed
for the present; they increase more and more and rise
higher and higher.”
Jonathan Edwards - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Rationalism / The Age of Reason
(1750 – 1800)
Revolutionary War; U.S. Constitution; Founding
 Philosophers; scientists; politicians
 Believed that humans can arrive at the truth
by deductive reasoning rather than relying on
past authority
 Wrote speeches, pamphlets, editorials,
Examples of Rationalism
 Poor Richard’s Almanac – Benjamin Franklin
 The Declaration of Independence –
Thomas Jefferson
 Common Sense – Thomas Paine
 Speech in the Virginia Convention –
Patrick Henry
“I know not what course others may take; but as for me,
give me liberty or give me death.
Patrick Henry - Speech in the Virginia Convention
 Recorded experiences in journals, diaries,
autobiographies and memoirs
 First-hand accounts of history
 Authors: Olaudah Equiano (slave), William
Bradford (settler and farmer), Alvar Nunez
Cabeza de Vaca (explorer)
Romanticism (1800-1860)
Industrialization; War of 1812; California Gold Rush
 Valued intuition
 Placed faith in inner experience
 Shunned civilization and sought out nature as
the path to spirituality
 Championed individual freedoms
 Saw poetry as the highest expression of
 Dark (gothic) romances contained
supernatural elements
Examples of Romanticism
 The Devil and Tom Walker – Washington
 Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
 The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe
 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
 Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a
flirt and flutter, in there stepped a stately Raven
of the saintly days of yore.”
The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe
Transcendentalism (1840-1860)
“The American Renaissance”; Abolitionist;
Women’s Rights Movements
 Utopian outlook
 Everything in the world, including humans, is a
reflection of the “Divine Soul”
 People can use intuition to behold God’s spirit
as revealed in nature and their own souls
 Emphasized self-reliance and individualism
 Shunned external authority and
traditional conformity
Examples of Transcendentalism
Self-Reliance – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Song of Myself – Walt Whitman
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
and what I assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Song of Myself – Walt Whitman
Realism (1850-1900)
The Civil War; Reconstruction; the Gold Rush
 Feelings of disillusionment following war
 Sought to explain behavior (psychological /
 Common subjects: city slums; factories
replacing farmland; poor factory workers;
corrupt politicians
 Regionalism – Local Color
Examples of Realism
 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn –
Mark Twain
 To Build a Fire – Jack London
 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
 House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that
didn’t have no tail, only just a short stump like a
Mark Twain – The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Modernism (1900-1950)
World War I; the Roaring ’20s; Prohibition; the Great
Depression; World War II
 Sense of disillusionment and loss of faith in the
American Dream
 Emphasis on experimenting with writing style
 Interest in the inner workings of the mind
(stream of consciousness)
Examples of Modernism
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
A Rose for Emily – William Faulkner
The poetry of Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot
Death of a Salesman; The Crucible – Arthur
“I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done
everything…Sophisticated — God, I’m sophisticated!"
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
Harlem Renaissance (1920-1940)
Black cultural movement in Harlem, New York
 Birthplace of African American black heritage
and pride
 Street-talk diction
 Poetry rhymes based on cadence of jazz,
blues, and spirituals
 Extended metaphors used to express
feeling of black Americans
Examples of Harlem Renaissance
Dust Tracks in the Road – Zora Neale Hurston
The Weary Blues – Langston Hughes
The Tropics in New York – Claude McKay
A Black Man Talks of Reaping – Arna
 Native Son – James Baldwin
“Sure, call me any ugly name you choose –
The steel of freedom does not stain.”
Langston Hughes – Let America be America Again
Contemporary – Postmodernism (1950-present)
Korean War; Cold War; Vietnam War;
Civil Rights Movement; Women’s Movement
 Writing influenced by advances in electronic
media – radio, tv, film, internet
 Sense that little is unique; questioning
meaning of life
 Experimentation with written form
 Exploration of personal, ethnic, and
racial identity
Examples of Postmodernism
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
“The grenade made a popping noise – not soft but not
loud either . . . The young man seemed to jerk upward
as if pulled by invisible wires.”
Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried
21st Century - What Next?
9/11/2001; E-Commerce; War on Terrorism
Relevance to global events
Regional literature (remember local color?)
Graphic novels
Self publishing
Confessional memoirs
Experimental drama
What is Your Story?
Who are you?
What do you see?
Where do you come from?
What obstacles have you overcome in life?
What do you feel strongly about?
What will your voice say about your American