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The literature of the United States may be considered as belonging to English literature or as a distinct body of literature.


Early U.S. literature

Much early American literature is derivative: European forms and styles transferred to newlocales. For example, Wieland and other novels by Charles Brockden Brown ( 1771 - 1810 ) are energetic imitations of the Gothic novels then beingwritten in England . Even the well-wrought tales of Washington Irving ( 1783 - 1859 ), notably Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow , seem comfortablyEuropean despite their New World settings.

Becoming American

Perhaps the first American writer to produce boldly new fiction and poetry was Edgar Allan Poe ( 1809 - 1849 ). In 1835 , 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 --that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy.

Meanwhile, in 1837 , the young Nathaniel Hawthorne ( 1804 - 1864 ) collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales , a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to writefull-length "romances," quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England . His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter , is the stark drama of a woman cast out of hercommunity for committing adultery.

Hawthorne's fiction had a profound impact on his friend HermanMelville ( 1819 - 1891 ), who first made a name forhimself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic novels. Inspired by Hawthorne's example, Melville went on towrite novels rich in philosophical speculation. In Moby Dick , anadventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggleagainst the elements. In another fine work, the short novel BillyBudd , Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His moreprofound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades ofthe 20th century.

In 1836 , Ralph WaldoEmerson ( 1803 - 1882 ), an ex-minister, published astartling nonfiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion andreach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers whogathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism , but also the public, who heard him lecture.

Emerson's most gifted fellow-thinker was Henry DavidThoreau ( 1817 - 1862 ), a resolute nonconformist.After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden , a book-length memoir that urges resistance to the meddlesome dictates of organized society. His radicalwritings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character.

Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) was the first majorAmerican writer to be born away from the East Coast -- in the border state of Missouri . His regional masterpieces were the memoir Life on the Mississippi and the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . Twain's style -- influenced by journalism, weddedto the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently funny -- changed the way Americans write theirlanguage. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, andregional accents.

Henry James ( 1843 - 1916 ) confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. Although born in New York City , he spent most of his adult years in England . Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. With itsintricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional nuance, James's fiction can be daunting. Among his moreaccessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller , about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw , an enigmatic ghost story.

The American lyric

America's two greatest 19th-century poets could hardly have been more different in temperament and style. Walt Whitman ( 1819 - 1892 ) was a working man, a traveler, a self-appointed nurse during the American Civil War ( 1861 - 1865 ), and a poetic innovator. His magnum opus was Leavesof Grass , in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness ofAmerican democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself --and manages not to sound like a crass egotist. For example, in Song ofMyself , the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: "These are really the thoughts of all men in all agesand lands, they are not original with me...."

Whitman was also a poet of the body -- "the body electric," as he called it. In Studies in Classic American Literature, theEnglish novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman "was the first to smashthe old moral conception that the soul of man is something `superior' and `above' the flesh."

Emily Dickinson ( 1830 - 1886 ), on the other hand, lived the sheltered life of a genteel unmarriedwoman in small-town Massachusetts . Within its formal structure, herpoetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, andlittle of it was published during her lifetime.

Many of her poems dwell on death, often with a mischievous twist. "Because I could not stop for Death," one begins, "He kindlystopped for me." The opening of another Dickinson poem toys with her position as a woman in a male-dominated society and anunrecognized poet: "I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?"

Approaching the American century

At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction's social spectrum to encompass both high andlow life. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton ( 1862 - 1937 ) scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up. One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence , centers on a man who chooses to marry aconventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider. At about the same time, Stephen Crane ( 1871 - 1900 ),best known for his Civil War novel The Red Badge ofCourage , depicted the life of New York City prostitutes in Maggie: AGirl of the Streets . And in Sister Carrie , Theodore Dreiser ( 1871 - 1945 ) portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman.

Experimentation in style and form soon joined the new freedom in subject matter. In 1909 , Gertrude Stein ( 1874 - 1946 ), by then an expatriate in Paris , published ThreeLives , an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements incontemporary art and music.

The poet Ezra Pound ( 1885 - 1972 ) was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life inEurope. His work is complex, sometimes obscure, with multiple references to other art forms and to a vast range of literature,both Western and Eastern. He influenced many other poets, notably T.S. Eliot ( 1888 - 1965 ), another expatriate. Eliot wrote spare,cerebral poetry, carried by a dense structure of symbols. In "The Waste Land" he embodied a jaundiced vision of post-World War Isociety in fragmented, haunted images. Like Pound's, Eliot's poetry could be highly allusive, and some editions of The Waste Land come with footnotes supplied by the poet. In 1948 , Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature .

American writers also expressed the disillusionment following upon the war. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald ( 1896 -1940)capture the restless, pleasure-hungry, defiant mood of the 1920s. Fitzgerald's characteristic theme, expressed poignantly in TheGreat Gatsby, is the tendency of youth's golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment.

Ernest Hemingway ( 1899 - 1961 ) saw violence and death first-hand as an ambulance driver in World War I , and the senseless carnage persuaded him that abstract language wasmostly empty and misleading. He cut out unnecessary words from his writing, simplified the sentence structure, and concentratedon concrete objects and actions. He adhered to a moral code that emphasized courage under pressure, and his protagonists werestrong, silent men who often dealt awkwardly with women. TheSun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms aregenerally considered his best novels; in 1954 , he won the Nobel Prize in Literature .

A stage of their own

In addition to fiction, the 1920s were a rich period for drama. There had not been an important American dramatist until Eugene O'Neill ( 1888 - 1953 ) began to write his plays. The 1936 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature , O'Neill drew uponclassical mythology, the Bible, and the new science of psychology to explore inner life. He wrote frankly about sex and familyquarrels, but his preoccupation was with the individual's search for identity. One of his greatest works is Long Day's Journey Into Night , a harrowingdrama, small in scale but large in theme, based largely on his own family.

Another strikingly original American playwright was TennesseeWilliams ( 1911 - 1983 ), who expressed his southernheritage in poetic yet sensational plays, usually about a sensitive woman trapped in a brutish environment. Several of his playshave been made into films, including A StreetcarNamed Desire and Cat on a Hot TinRoof .

Southern voices

Five years before Hemingway, another American novelist had won the Nobel Prize: William Faulkner ( 1897 - 1962 ).Faulkner managed to encompass an enormous range of humanity in Yoknapatawpha, a Mississippi county of his own invention. He recorded his characters' seemingly unedited ramblings in order torepresent their inner states -- a technique called " stream of consciousness ." (In fact, these passages are carefully crafted, and their seemingrandomness is an illusion.) He also jumbled time sequences to show how the past -- especially the slave-holding era of the South-- endures in the present. Among his great works are The Sound and the Fury , Absalom, Absalom! , Go Down, Moses , and The Unvanquished .

Faulkner was part of a southern literary renaissance that also included such figures as Truman Capote ( 1924 - 1984 ) and Flannery O'Connor ( 1925 - 1964 ). Although Capote wrote short stories and novels, fiction andnonfiction, his masterpiece was In Cold Blood , a factual accountof a multiple murder and its aftermath, which fused dogged reporting with a novelist's penetrating psychology and crystallineprose. Other practitioners of the "nonfiction novel" have included NormanMailer ( 1923 - ), who wrote about an antiwar march on The Pentagon in Armies of the Night , and Tom Wolfe ( 1931 - ), who wrote about American astronauts in The Right Stuff .

Flannery O'Connor was a Catholic -- and thus an outsider in the heavilyProtestant South in which she grew up. Her characters areProtestant fundamentalists obsessed with both God and Satan . She is best known for her tragicomic short stories.

Text in black and white and color

The 1920s had seen the rise of an artistic black community inthe New York City neighborhood of Harlem . The period called the Harlem Renaissance produced such gifted poets as Langston Hughes ( 1902 - 1967 ), Countee Cullen ( 1903 - 1946 ), and Claude McKay ( 1889 - 1948 ). Thenovelist Zora Neale Hurston ( 1903 - 1960 ) combined a gift for storytelling with the study of anthropology towrite vivid stories from the African-American oral tradition. Through such books as the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God -- about the lifeand marriages of a light-skinned African-American woman -- Hurston influenced a later generation of black women novelists.

After World War II , a new receptivity to diverse voices brought blackwriters into the mainstream of American literature. James Baldwin ( 1924 - 1987 ) expressed his disdain for racism and hiscelebration of sexuality in Giovanni's Room . In Invisible Man , Ralph Ellison ( 1914 - 1994 ) linked the plight of African Americans, whose race can render them all but invisible to themajority white culture, with the larger theme of the human search for identity in the modern world.

The beat comes in

In the 1950s the West Coast spawned a literary movement, the poetry and fiction of the " Beat Generation ," a name that referred simultaneously to the rhythm of jazz music, to a sense that post-warsociety was worn out, and to an interest in new forms of experience through drugs, alcohol, and Eastern mysticism. Poet Allen Ginsberg ( 1926 - 1997 ) set the tone of social protest and visionary ecstasy in Howl , a Whitmanesque work that begins with this powerful line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyedby madness...." Jack Kerouac ( 1922 - 1969 ) celebrated the Beats' carefree, hedonistic life-style in his episodicnovel On the Road .

The soul of wit

From Irving and Hawthorne to the present day, the short story has been a favorite American form. One of its 20th-centurymasters was John Cheever ( 1912 - 1982 ), who brought yet another facet of American life into the realm ofliterature: the affluent suburbs that have grown up around most major cities. Cheever was long associated with The New Yorker , a magazine noted for its wit and sophistication.

Although trend-spotting in literature that is still being written can be dangerous, the recent emergence of fiction by membersof minority groups has been striking. Here are only a few examples. " The Catcher in the Rye ", J. D. Salinger achampion of the train of consciousness style of writing. NativeAmerican writer Leslie Marmon Silko ( 1948 - ) uses colloquial language and traditional stories to fashion haunting, lyrical poems such as In Cold Storm Light . Amy Tan ( 1952 - ), of Chinese descent, hasdescribed her parents' early struggles in California in The Joy Luck Club . Oscar Hijuelos ( 1951 - ), a writer with roots in Cuba , won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love . In a series of novels beginning with A Boy's OwnStory , Edmund White ( 1940 - ) has captured the anguish and comedy of growing up gay in America. Finally, African-American women have produced some of the most powerful fiction of recent decades. Oneof them, Toni Morrison ( 1931 - ),author of Beloved and other works, won the Nobel Prize for literature in1993, only the second American woman to be so honored.

Other figures of note

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler pioneered gritty detective fiction that has had great influence on other genres and inother countries.

Other noted American writers include John Steinbeck , Sinclair Lewis , Ayn Rand , Zora Neale Hurston , Henry David Thoreau , Rachel Carson , Richard Wright , Willa Cather , Paul Auster and Toni Morrison .

U.S. poets with international fame (or notoriety) include: T. S. Eliot , Allen Ginsberg , Ralph Waldo Emerson , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , John Greenleaf Whittier , Walt Whitman , Emily Dickinson , EzraPound , Charles Bukowski , Robert Lowell , Gwendolyn Brooks , Langston Hughes , OgdenNash , Shel Silverstein , William S. Burroughs , E. E. Cummings , Maya Angelou and RobertFrost .

See the article on digital poetry for links to contemporary Americanwork of the avant garde.

Related topics


  • New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to Our Multicultural Literary Heritage by Alpana SharmaKnippling (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996)
  • Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook by Emmanuel S. Nelson (Westport, CT: GreenwoodPress, 2000)

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