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When we speak about American Literature, we are speaking about written works that were produced in America geographically or politically. Apart from English writers the American writers also proved their worth in creating literature such as is able to be recognized as one the best masterpieces of the English works.
The genre of novel gave the novelists a medium to speak freely to the world seeking comfort and knowledge contrasted to the other genres of literature in which apart from creativity a writer has to seek many other techniques of writing which sometimes hurdle the writer to express his or her true meaning. The category is as wide as 'poetry': novels are long prose fictions, including every kind of Plot (tragic, comic), all styles and manners of dealing with their material (from the satiric to rhapsodic) and showing a capacity to cover every imaginative subject matter from all points of view. They range from the popular Thriller to the most esoteric literary artifice. The capacity of the form to absorb other literary styles, its freedom to develop in any direction and its flexibility, have made the novel the major modern literary form.(Gray, 198).
There are many reasons which show the absence of cultural voices in the early American novel. First of all there was no authentic American language or medium of expression avaiable for literary purpose. Americans were in a process to coin new style of language that could be considered as the American language distinguished from the English style or Englsih writing style. There was also lack of cultural support for the Americans to create new ideas or creative efforts. America due to the impact of colonialism was not in a strong position to depict its utmost culture in its works of literature. American culture tended to be parochial and generally distrustful of any written expression that was not didactic. For example, clergy such as Janathan Edwards taught that reading novels was an indulgence leading to moral decline.
Due to an unstable society, there could be no stable "American" genre of the novel. Cathy Davidson and others have argued that some novels tried to attain an ideological status (Revolution and the Word, 1986) which is a critique of the existing order, and that the more popular the genre became, the more those vested with cultural authority worried over their loss of dominance. This was especially true because novels, unlike sermons, required no intermediaries for interpretation.
"The early American novel, as a genre, tended to proclaim a society egalitarian message. It spoke forâ€¦orphans, beggar girls, factory girls, or other unfortunates, and it repeatedly advocated the general need for 'female education'". (Davidson,73).
The genre of novel can be classified as sentimental, picaresque, gothic and the novels of nostalgia or reclamation which unifies the spirit of the nation for example James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Spy (1821).
Sentimental novel or novel of sensibility reflects the sentimentalism of the 18th century which is reflected in sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy. The term 'Sentimentalism' bears two meanings, first the overindulgence in emotion especially for the pleasure that this feeling provides, secondly the optimistic overemphasis on the goodness of humanity (sensibility), signifying in part a reaction against Calvinism, which regarded human nature as depraved. Pamela was the beginning of the style; although Fielding's more realistic Tom Jones was written in protest. There are also examples of 18th century sentimental novel: Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760-67). Sensibility is a term for reliance on feelings as guides to the truth and not on reasoning and law. The term is concerned with primitivism, sentimentalism, the nature movement, and other aspects of romanticism. The high value that the eighteenth century put on sensibility was a feedback against the stoicism of the 17th century and the theories progressed by Hobbes and others that human beings were inspired primarily by self-interest.
Picaresque began in sixteenth century as a counterpoise to the chivalric romance. It includes a gallery of human types drawn from all societal classes. It sorts lower class protagonists who survive by treachery and malleability. Hero is both a swindler and a victim. It also features a encounter between the hero's craving to survive and his natural itches to side with truth and goodness. Picaresque novel uses subsidiary characters, like Sancho Panza, who assist the hero. This genre also emphasizes liberty and emission from limits of conservative society and lastly it also features panoramic scenes. The purpose of this genre is that it contains different types of discourse: philosophical reflection, travel essay, political disquisition, it also parodies other traditional literary forms, such as poetry and the romance. It is also suitable for observation on politics of republicanism. Its dimness is its uneven point of views-not a problem in Huck Finn, though. Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792-1815), Tabitha Gilman Tenney's Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinion and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), and Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797) are a few examples of picaresque novels.
The conventions of Gothic are mad monks, castles, ruined abbeys-and also superstitions and delusion, hidden corruption and human anxieties, mazelike pathways, haunted minds masked by apparently normal outward lives. Gothic conventions became a form for expressing fears of the conflicting claims of authority and liberty in American society-self-made, self-improved, self-confident men abusing power or undermining the social order. Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798), Ormond (1789), and Edgar Huntly (1799) are the examples of Gothic genre.
So far as American literature is concerned Captain John Smith is considered to be the first American author due to his work: A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginiaâ€¦(1608). This kinds of works are known as the colonial literature. Smith's other works are The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other colonial writers of this manner are Daniel Denton, Thomas Ashe, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.
During 18th century the focus of all the phenomena were shifted from religion to the reasoning with the advent of era of science and inventions. All the happenings were observed with the laws of Physics as were given by Sir Isaac Newton and thus religion and the rules of clergy were demolished. There happened a great shift from the Holy Scriptures towards the human reasoning as to say. This era is known as the Enlightenment of 18th century which strongly impacted the authority of churchmen hence making the way for democratic principles. There also increase in population in the British colonies which helped account for the greater diversity of opinion in religion as well as political life which is seen in the literature of this time.
The American post-independence era gave rise to many pieces of writing concerning American State, comprising notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson and his many letters solidify his place as one of the most trained early American writers.
So far as the first American novels are concerned, they were first published during late 18th and early 19th century. These works of fiction were too lengthy to be printed for pubic reading, but the publishers took the chance to public having hope that they would become steady sellers and hence need to be printed.
Among the first American novels are Thomas Attwood Digges' "Adventures of Alonso", which was published in London in 1775, and William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy published in 1791. Brown's novel shows a tragic love story between siblings who fell in love without knowing that they were related. This epistolary novel is related to the Sentimental novel tradition. During the next decade many novels were published which were written by many female writers. Susanna Rowso is known very well for her novel, Charlotte Temple, which is a tale of seduction and written in third person warning against listening to the voice of passionate love and counsels resistance as well.
Another female novelist, Hannah Forster wrote The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton which was published in 1797 and it was also an extremely popular novel. This being told from Hannah Forster's point of view and secondly based on the life of Eliza Whitman, this another epistolary novel is concerned with a woman who is seduced and abandoned. Eliza is a coquette who is courted by two very very different men: a clergyman who is offering her the comfort and regularity of domestic life, and a noted and specified libertine.
Both novels that is The Coquette and Charlotte are considered to be those novel which speak about the rights of women. In this way these novels can be rendered as the Feminist novels or works of American literature. These novels are also known as the democratic ones as they speak of equal rights of women. The novels are classified under the term as sentimental novels or sentimental genre, characterised by over indulgence in emotion. They are an open invitation to listen to the voice of reasoning against misleading passions and they are also an optimistic over-emphasis about the necessary goodness of humanity. Although these novels were very popular, yet the economic infrastructure of that time did not allow these writers to make their ways living easier.
It was in 1809 when an American author, Washington Irving, was able to publish his work entitled A History of New-York from Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty and he became able to support himself from the income generated by his publications. Charles Brockden Brown is another American novelist who published Wieland in 1798, Ormond in 1799 and Edgar Huntlyin in 1799 which were of the Gothic genre. Hugh Henry Brackenridge published Modern Chivalry in 1792 which was of the picaresque genre. Tabitha Gilman Tenney wrote Female Quixotism, Charlotte Lennox wrote The Female Quixote in 1752. Royall Tyler, William Gillmore Simms, Lydia Maria Child, John Neal and Catherine Maira are the porminent figures of American novelists.
17th Century: Puritanism is a movement created by extreme Calvinist Protestants who sought to purify religion and society. They believed God would cleanse their feelings through "grace" eliminating envy, vanity, and lust. Puritans valued plainness in all things including their writing. "Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford, and speech "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards
Classicism/ The Age of Reason 18th Century:
The Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, is an intellectual movement which began in Europe. Writers during this time believed the goals of rational individuals were knowledge, freedom, and happiness. The literary movement which coincided with the Age of Reason was Classicism, based on the study of and adherence to the ancient classic works of Greece and Rome. Classicists valued clarity, order, balance, and reason instead of imagination. They believed nature was like a machine with fixed, unchanging laws. The following works are examples:
Poor Richard's Almanack -Benjamin Franklin
"Speech in the Virginia Convention" - Patrick Henry
"The Crisis, Number 1" - Thomas Paine
"The Declaration of Independence" - Thomas Jefferson
"To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth" - Phillis Wheatly
Nationalism in Literature
Late 18th Century to Early 19th Century: Nationalism developed from pride, patriotism, and the desire to be distinctly different from the Europeans. American writers tried to write stories and poems unlike European Romantic writers, but they largely failed in their efforts. "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving and The Deerslayer - James Fennimore Cooper
19th Century: Romanticism is the movement that rebelled against Classicism in favor of the imagination and emotions. Romantic writers favored intuition over reason and were more concerned with the individual than the whole society. They saw art as an imaginative expression of an individual's essence. Romantics viewed nature as a beautiful mystery, and source of moral and spiritual lessons, not a machine. Many American Romantic writers were also Nationalists who used American history and legends as their subject matter. "Rip Van Winkle" - Washington Irving, The Deerslayer by James Fennimore Cooper, "Masque of the Red Death" and "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne are the exemplary wroks.
American Renaissance/ New England Renaissance
Mid 19th Century: The American Renaissance is a flourishing of literature dominated by two groups: the Brahmins (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and the Transcendentalists (based primarily in Concord, Massachusetts). The Brahmins/Fireside Poets were Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, and Holmes, Harvard professors who promoted a second attempt at creating a literature which, though based on European models, is distinctly American in character. The Transcendentalists, led by Emerson, were philosophers, social reformers, and writers. The Southerner Poe as well as the Anti-Transcendentalists, Hawthorne and Melville (more Massachusetts residents) are also frequently associated with this movement. "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Old Ironsides" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau and "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne are a few works.
19th Century: American Transcendentalism was created by Emerson who borrowed his ideas from German Transcendentalism and Indian religion to develop a new philosophy. Transcendentalists believe that the basic truths of the universe transcend the physical world and lie beyond the knowledge that can be obtained from the senses. They feel that every individual has the ability to experience God firsthand in his/her intuition. They value nature and believe in the spiritual unity of all life, stating God, humanity, and nature share a universal soul. They feel that nothing in nature is trivial or insignificant; all is symbolic and important. They also promoted the belief that every human being is born inherently good. "Self Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller are prominent works.
19th Century: Anti-Transcendentalism (like Transcendentalism) is a subsection of Romanticism. Hawthorne and Melville were far less optimistic than Emerson and his fellow philosophers. The Anti-Transcendentalists believed good and evil coexist in the world and that intuition could lead a person to evil just as easily as it could lead to good. The Scarlett Letter, "The Birthmark", "The Minster's Black Veil" by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Moby Dick by Herman Melville are few examples.
Local Color and Regionalism
Late 19th Century to Early 20th Century: Local color writers identify with a particular place or region of the country. They emphasized distinctive and "colorful" regional traits (speech patterns and dialects, local customs and folkways, character types, etc.). These writers promoted the objective observation of social facts as well as the sentimental treatment of human emotion and motivation."The White Heron" by Sarah Orne Jewett and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain are the major works.
Late 19th Century to Early 20th Century: Realism, unlike Romanticism, places less emphasis on the imagination and more on observed fact. These writers viewed the world and human behavior scientifically, mirroring realities without softening or idealizing them. This movement is often considered a rebellion against Romanticism. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and My Antonia by Willa Cather show realism.
Late 19th Century to Early 20th Century: Naturalism was a significant offshoot of Realism. Many American authors were influenced by this movement. Naturalism demands that writers penetrate the surface of life and human character. It focuses on inherited traits and environmental conditions (nature and nurture). Naturalism usually explores the negative aspects of society. These authors did not judge their characters' morality, but rather viewed them through a social Darwinist lens. Naturalists believed that chance exists but free will is rarely possible. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck are few examples of this era.
First half of the 20th Century: Modernism is a self-conscious break from traditional literary forms and subject matter and a search for a distinctly contemporary mode of expression. It was heavily influenced by the horrors and disillusionment of World War One. These writers are also referred to as "The Lost Generation". Their writing reflects isolation, alienation, and fragmentation. It places emphasis on individual perception, sensibility, and human consciousness. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" by Ernest Hemingway and The Crucible by Arthur Miller are the exemplary works.
Early 20th Century: Imagism is a subsection of Modernism that attempted to free poetry from stale conventions and florid language. It emphasized direct concentration on the precise image, the use of precise words and the language of common speech, new rhythms and the use of free verse, as well as complete freedom in the choice of subject."This is Just to Say" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams,"The Garden" by Ezra Pound and "Heat" by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) are the best examples of imagism.
Primarily the 1920's: The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, is a period of outstanding creativity among African American writers. Many of these works were sophisticated explorations of black life and culture that revealed and stimulated a new confidence and racial pride. The following are a few works of literature.
The Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
"Lift Every voice and Sing" - James Weldon Johnson
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Jurston
"Harlem: A Dream Deferred" - Langston Hughes
1930's and 40's: The Southern Renaissance is heavily influenced by traditional Southern humor (stories, sketches, tall tales, and folklore) as well as by the Local Color movement. This time period marked a sudden explosion of excellent Southern writers who emphasized regional speech patterns and dialects, local customs and folkways, as well as character types. The following are a few works of literature.
"A Worn Path" - Eudora Welty
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren
The 1950's: Centered in the bohemian or beatnik urban artists' communities, the Beat movement defines itself in its alienation from the conventional and its adaptation of the seedy and "hip", embracing jazz music, drugs, sex, and Buddhism. The following are a few works of literature.
Howl - Allen Ginsberg
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
20th century: Pluralism is a movement defined by diversity. During the 20th century American literature was no longer predominantly male, white, and Christian. Men and women of many cultures, races, religions, and ethnic groups began to be published. Many of these authors chose to use the first person point of view rather than the, previously popular, their person. Various voices shared their stories while addressing universal themes. The following are a few works of literature.
The Bell Jar - Silvia Plath
The color Purple - Alice Walker
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - Sherman Alexie
The Second half of the 20th Century: Magical Realism was created in Latin America but it has influenced many writers of the United States as well. This movement juxtaposes the ordinary and the magical, incorporating fantastic elements into otherwise realistic fiction. The following are a few works of literature.
Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquival
Beloved and Song of Soloman - Toni Morrison
Going After Cacciato - Tim O'Brien
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
The Second half of the 20th Century: Postmodernists believe that there is no single truth, but rather a variety of perspectives none of which is better or worse than another. This movement neither embraces nor resists the conventional. It accepts everything equally. Postmodern works are often eclectic, and anachronistic. Postmodernists make no distinction between "high art" and popular culture, can blur the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, and often sample other artists' work freelyâ€¦(very freely). The following are a few works of literature.
The Simpsons - Matt Groening
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson
Snow Falling on Cedar - David Guterson
Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vounnegut
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Edward Albee
The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Munk Kidd