A Historical Overview of American Literature Brett Aberle

Beginning to 1700

Columbus’s voyage to the Americas began the exploitation of Native populations by European imperial powers. Europeans conquered the New World with help from diseases. Africans were imported as slaves. Natives, Europeans, and Africans lived in complex relationship with one another. The New World has a large variety of languages, social customs, creative expression, and had oral tradition. Colonial settlements by opposing European powers wanting to gain the riches of the New World, mostly the French, Spanish, Portugal, the Dutch, and later the English. Puritans and Calvinists settled in New England for the purpose of religion (religious freedom) instead of exploitation.

Benjamin Butterworth’s letter of manumission for Sall Black, when she reached eighteen.

Native Americans relied on an oral tradition of chants, songs, and spoken narrative for artistic and literary expression. Translation into a written language leaves out a lot. The writing by the colonists and explorers mainly served to influence policymakers in Europe, justifying actions without written permission from government overseas, or making a chronicle of the conquest of the Americas. Many written records were briefs. Early American literature was mostly English because of the mostly religious literary output and the printing press. However, there were many pockets of different languages in colonial culture. There was a total of about 250 literary works.

The landing of Christopher Columbus, which opened the New World to exploitation by the European powers.

Important People

  • Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, Pedro Álvares Cabral – discovered and explored the America’s for European countries.
  • Diego Colon – a Taino Indian who was trained as a translator
  • Ferdinand and Isabella – king and queen of Spain the funded Columbus’s voyages
  • Hernan Cortes – conquered the Aztec people
  • Montezuma – leader of the Aztecs
  • Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher – leaders of failed expeditions for the English
  • Jacques Carter and Samuel de Champlain – explored and settled Canada
  • Diego de Castillo and John Smith – scribes born into the European underclass
  • John Winthrop – arrived in the New World leading Calvinist dissenters from England

Important Authors and Works

  • Cotton Mather – recorded the late-century war between New England and France and its Indian allies, write a series of biographies (in the Magnalia Christi Americana) of American religious “saints”, and conduct guides for ministers and servants.
  • Samuel Sewall – write the antislavery tract The Selling of Joseph (1700)

1700 - 1820

• This period showed religious, intellectual, and economic expansion of the thirteen colonies. The Age of the Enlightenment emphasized the ability for individuals to understand the universe and placed premium on mutual sentiment. This caused greater social mobility and cultural acceptance of different ideals. Economic expansion in agriculture and shipping and population expansion of the colonies that led to cosmopolitan comforts and wealth. Indentured slaves and indentured servants worked on the plantations. A colonial settlers expanded, Indian communities disappeared. The religion of Deism was introduced, as well as the idea that people were basically good. In response to the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening encouraged people to return to the Calvinist faith. The Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and its intention to break from England. Eventually the U.S. Constitution declared the basis for government. Native Americans and African Americans gained nothing during this time period.

The American Continental Army was an army formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America.

This period was characterized by the waning influence of Puritan theocentrism and the rise of scientific and philosophic writings. The Enlightenment was an uneasy mixture of scientific and philosophical investigations and traditional scripture. Readers were more eager to read the accounts of ordinary individuals. Imperial politics and the American Revolution dominated the writings of the late eighteenth century. Revolutionary writings used enlightenment and antimonarchy ideals to support the rebellion. The importance of newspapers grew. Political writings were used to support the Constitution. Periodicals were used to attach politics and claim women’s rights.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Important People and Works

  • Isaac Newton - scientific and philosophical writing
  • John Locke - natural rights
  • Benjamin Franklin - Autobiography; involved in many important documents of the time.
  • George Whitefield - great Methodist orator during the Great Awakening
  • Johnathan Edwards - Calvinist preacher
  • Thomas Jefferson - Declaration of Independence
  • Thomas Paine - wrote Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  • Hamilton and Jay and Madison - Federalist Papers that successfully argued for the Adoption of the US Constitution
  • Philip Freneau - poet
  • John Winthrop - Model of Christian Charity (1630)
  • John Adams - president of the United States
  • Judith Sargent Murray and Sarah Wentworth Murray - used pseudonymous publications in periodicals to claim their right as women to engage in the political sphere
  • Susannah Rowson and Hannah Webster Foster - novelists
  • US Constitution - established the form of government for the new nation

1820 - 1865

This period was characterized by instabilities over territorial boundaries within the growing country and unresolved conflicts over issues such as slavery, tariffs, and federal works projects. Cities grew and canals and railroads made travel easier. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first national suffrage meeting for women. The Civil War between the North and South emancipated the slaves.

The American Civil War between the Confederate (South) and the Union (North)

The years between 1820 and the Civil War represented a first flowering of American literary talent. The writers helped to forge a stable national literary perspective and greatly influenced writers after them. They built on the work of those who preceded them and shaped the work of future writers. Writers wanted literature to reflect independence from Britain. There were different ideas on how American literature should define its culture because of sectional conflicts within the emerging nation. There was an increase in publication of books and periodicals as the market for printed materials expanded. Copyright laws and traditional role of men and women made creative writing financially insecure. Many writers used the ability to reach a larger and more literate audience to argue for reform. The energy for reform derived from literatures ability to cause readers to sympathize with other people’s plights. Women writers rose to prominence through abolitionist and urban reform efforts, along with voting and equality between men and women. There was a rise in the popularity of women’s temperance and antislavery literature, which reminded their readers of the unrealized potential of the Declaration of Independence. American renaissance writers responded to the same pressing issues and stayed in conversation through their writings. There was a desire to root the writings of the renaissance in nationalist historical tradition.

Railroads made travel easier

Important People and Works

  • Herman Melville – writer
  • Walt Whitman – writer
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – writings argued for the creative power of the imagination and implied an agency for the individual in rethinking their role in society. Influenced other authors.
  • Henry David Thoreau – writer; wrote speech “Slavery in Massachusetts” that objected to the hypocrisy of northern state abolition laws
  • Andrew Jackson – president and won Battle of New Orleans to end the War of 1812
  • Hawthorne
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe – write Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Margaret Fuller – argued in ”The Great Lawsuit” that the Declaration of Independence implied the right of women to vote

1865 - 1914

Between 1865 and 1914, the United States transformed from a country just emerging from a destructive Civil War to an Imperial Nation with overseas possessions and coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific. The transcontinental railroad opened up the interior to settlement. Innovations such as the telegraph, telephone, and electricity spurred settlement in the West and a burst of industrialization. There was a massive influx of immigrants seeking jobs came from Europe and China. Americans turned their attentions overseas in an attempt to join European Empires in the world stage. There were increasing class divisions between the wealthy and the working/low classes. As a result of the Westward expansion, Native Americans in the Great Plains were disrupted. Much of the Native American's land was taken through the Homestead Act of 1892 and by railroad companies, leaving them with only small reservations. The corporate power of different industries were focused in the hands of powerful men. Workers were in a bad position because of inhumane working conditions, low wages, and corrupt government officials. This resulted in efforts to form unions, which usually ended violently.

The United States became an emerging world power

The literature of the time period shows the dramatic diversification of the American Experience. There was a movement among authors to combat social inequities from the rapid growth. Immigration caused a more diverse population, which caused specific ethnic and regional literature to flourish. This gave the ability to depict underrepresented and marginalized people. This challenge to the American character caused unease and pitted different groups of people against each other. Muckrakers were journalists that exposed dangers of the city and evils of monopoly. Literature brought the spirit of reform to sociology, philosophy, and economics. Authors attempted to represent life as they saw it through the use of details. Naturalist writers concentrated on the lower class and marginalized people. Other writers tried to represent life scientifically while local color or regionalist writing tried to capture the culture of an area before it was erased by industrialization.

Important People and Works

  • Fredrick Jackson Turner – declared the frontier closed
  • J.P. Morgan – an American financier and banker who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation
  • John Rockefeller – an American oil industry business magnate and philanthropist
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt – an American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping
  • Andrew Carnegie – a Scottish American industrialist who led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century
  • Abraham Cahan – started Jewish Daily Forward which catered to the Yiddish-speaking New York Reader
  • Overland Express – periodical that featured Western-themed fiction and journalism
  • Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris - muckrakers that took on the railroad monopoly on behalf of small farmers
  • Lincoln Steffens – exposed corruption of officials such as Boss Tweed
  • Helen Hunt Jackson – wrote A Century of Dishonor (1881) which attacked injustice against Native Americans
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman – wrote Women and Economics (1898) which explored wealth and women’s rights
  • Thorstein Veblen – wrote Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) which examined the “conspicuous consumption” of the super wealthy
  • Booker T. Washington – wrote Up from Slavery (1900) which responded to racial injustices by challenging white audiences to work toward political solutions
  • W. E. B. Du Bois – wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) which responded to racial injustices by challenging white audiences to work toward political solutions
Mark Twain was a realist write who wrote Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
  • Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, and Gustave Flaubert – European authors who practiced realism
  • William Dean Howells – advanced a type of realism that affectionately described the ordinary, middle class characters
  • Henry James and Edith Wharton – their writings focused on refined mental states
  • Mark Twain – author used accurate dialects and humor to depict characters in his books; wrote Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
  • Charles Darwin – wrote Origin of Species (1859) to explain revolution
  • Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London – their writings tried to represent life scientifically
  • Stephen Crane – wrote The Open Boat which emphasized the frailties of its protagonists
  • Bret Harte, Twain, and Owen Wister – writings that romanticized the cowboy and frontiersmen
  • Sarah Winnemucca – Native American writer that offered a Native alternative
  • Hamlin Garland – his writings used local description to show real plight of the farmers
  • Sarah Orne Jewett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary Austin – challenged readers to attune themselves to women’s thoughts and rethink the privileging of men
  • Kate Chopin – wrote The Awakening which demands respect for the feminine perspective
Child labor in factories

1914 - 1945

Between 1914 and 1945, the United States engaged in two world wars and emerged as a modern nation and a major world power. Exclusionary immigration was measured in response to the “Red Scare” of suspicion about foreign control over labor union activities. There was a newly favorable currency exchange rate. The United States participated in World War One and African Americans wanted the rights they gained in the war to stay. Some people were inspired by Communist movement to agitate for fairer pay and conditions. The stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States sank into the Great Depression. This caused social tensions that lasted until World War Two. Through the NAACP and journals, Du Bois and others argued for the intellectual and cultural achievements of African Americans. The trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti demonstrated the resistance to social change. Rapid advances in science and technology contributed to the modernization of America, resulting in pop culture. New inventions served to standardize American cultural tastes. The invention of the automobile created new industries and a large network of roads. The new scientific breakthroughs and theories threatened traditional role of science and became a method of interpreting reality. The United States became involved in World War II as fascist dictators rose to power overseas.

World War II

During this period, the dominant literary aesthetic was modernism, in response to the contradictions and pressures of everyday life. Writers struggled to make American themes international. Many writers were sympathetic to the Communist cause, but eventually soured to the idea when Stalin and Hitler came to power. The literary aesthetic of high modernism represented the ways the modern world was transforming national culture by altering literary styles and forms. Modernist poetry was mostly short, precise, subjective, and suggestive. The poetry was fragmented, favored questions, and rejected the artificial literary order. There was an emphasis on individual experience over objective truth and elements of popular culture were incorporated. Modernism was used to promote literary and political ambitions and was subtly used for political ends. American drama matured into shows such as Broadway. There were also experiments, which incorporated earlier songs and dances with new styles. As many modernists realized the potential of plays to speak to a larger audience, drama moved into the literary mainstream.

War Plane

Important People and Works

  • Sigmund Freud – sexual and psychological theories; developed the idea of the unconscious which created a more permissive attitude toward sexual freedom
  • W.E.B. Du Bois – contributed social and racial writings; wrote The Souls of Black Folks which identified the black psyche as a double conscious of them as Americans and their racial stereotypes.
  • Karl Marx – economic and political program; encouraged workers to reject individualistic ethos in favor of collective action, inspired the Russian Revolution of 1921
  • Albert Einstein – scientist; theories of relativity
  • Heisenberg – uncertainty principle
  • Franklin Roosevelt – president; proposed New Deal which offered a pragmatic solution to the failure of free market capitalism
  • Joseph Stalin – Russian dictator
  • Adolph Hitler – dictator of Germany
  • T. S. Eliot – wrote Waste Land which referred to classical narratives through allusion and contained a self-reflective search for meaning.
  • Ernest Hemmingway – commercially successful writer
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald – commercially successful writer
  • Kay Boyle and Raymond Chandler – blurred the divide between middlebrow culture and high art.
  • Armory Show of Cubist Paintings
  • StravinskyThe Rite of Spring
William Faulkner was an American author
  • Hart Crane – wrote The Bridge which employed modernist principles to write ambitious American works
  • William Carlos William – wrote Paterson which employed modernist principles to write ambitious American works
  • John Dos Passos – wrote USA trilogy in prose
  • Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather – brought modernism to bear on regional concerns
  • Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston – incorporated blues rhythms and folk culture into their texts
  • Marianne Moore, H.D., Katherine Anne Porter, and Nella Larsen – depicted women's thoughts without explicitly advocating for feminist positions
  • Susan Glaspell – formed Provincetown players with others to premier small, experimental works
  • O’Neill – elements of German Expressionism
  • Maxwell Anderson – blank verse
  • Rogers and Hammerstein – musical comedies
Breadlines during the Great Depression

Since 1945

After World War II, the United States emerged as the strongest world power and assumed the role of speaking on behalf of liberal democratic ideals. The US built on its success in the conflict, while the empires of Britain and France dissolved. The Cold War was an ideological struggle of communism vs. capitalism between the US and Russia. Both sides tried to deter their enemies economically. America won, but only after battles in Korea and Vietnam. This period was characterized by cultural conformity and nationalist ambition, cultural introspection, and consolidated the progress made in previous years. American society became fascinated with cultural homogeneity and political unity. Women wanted to keep the jobs they had during the war, while African Americans wanted to keep the status they gained. American competition with the Soviet Union took the form of political containment of the Russians and Chinese through international organizations. These organizations included the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The managerial class was created and began to prosper. John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960. The assassination of Kennedy began a cultural revolution in which unrest over the Vietnam War resulted in urban violence and movements for the betterment of blacks, women, and Native Americans. The Vietnam war escalated under Johnson and Nixon, which resulted in riots. The feminist movement and the civil rights movement expanded. Ronald Raegan was elected as president and presided over demise of Soviet Union. Under presidents Raegan and Clinton, industries downsized and were made more efficient. There were terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Vietnam War

The literature of this time reflects the cultural preoccupations of stability and conformity. Artists sought to depict what they saw as good for all. Fiction writers realized novelistic conventions were inadequate to represent America. Novels were dependent on stable assumptions about character, plot development, and symbolism. Poets began to experiment with formal openness and thematic inclusiveness of non-mainstream perspectives. The confessional poetry of the 1960’s stressed distinctiveness rather than the representativeness of the lyric voice. The political divisions, disruptions, and uncertainties of the 1960’s was mirrored in the literature. The Death of the Novel emphasized the fragility of language, while the school of deconstruction examined how any statement depends on unspoken assumptions. Large platforms allowed authors to render experiences without feeling they speak for their race. Critical writings were used to supplement the creative works by Native authors. Writers worked to broaden the cultural achievements of the 1960’s. Through the internet, writing became to exist in an open-ended and interactive relationship with its readers.

Modern Cities

Important People and Works

  • Ernest Hemmingway – challenge to write the “Great American Novel”
  • William Faulkner – inspired novelists to use regional specify
  • Philip Roth – novelist who was skeptical that novels were dependent on stable assumptions about character, plot development, and symbolism
  • Allen Ginsberg – wrote Howl which symbolized poetry’s break with modernist form
  • Robert Lowell – wrote life studies which symbolized poetry’s break with modernist form
  • John F. Kennedy – president; challenged the prosperous to provide for the underprivileged.
  • Lyndon Johnson – realized Kennedy’s civil and voting rights proposals as part of his “Great Society”
Toni Morrison
  • John Updike, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz – remained committed to realism and traditional connections.
  • GuinnAdrienne Rich, Ursula Le Guin – powerful women writers
  • Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove - African American women who wrote in national, racial, and ethnic terms
  • Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich – wrote in tradition of Native American literature
  • Maxine Hong Kingston and Jhumpa Lahiri – augmented national dialogues of assimilation and ethnic identity
  • Bill Clinton and Ronald Raegan - United States presidents
The Future of Literature
Created By
Brett Aberle


Created with images by Simon Cocks - "Reading a book at the beach" • skeeze - "ship tall frigate" • conservativemajority - "Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.