The birth and origins of American Literature can be traced back to the folk-lore of the indigenous Indian tribes. But, American Literature as we know it today has much to do with the history of colonization and birth of America as a nation. Early European settlers, pirates, adventurers and explorers left behind journals, diaries, memoirs and other writings which collectively formed the very first archives of written literary material. Owing to its content, American Literature also came to be known as the “Literature of Exploration”. The contribution of American Literature in English Literature is second only to that of British Literature. It would not be incorrect to say that the former branched out of the latter but over time, evolved and bloomed into a separate and distinct entity- similar in some ways and different in others from its British counterpart.
The Puritans were one of the earliest European settlers in “New England” (now America) and their writing made up what is perhaps the first well-defined genre in the history of American Literature. The Puritans denounced the sinful ways of the “old world” and extensively used prose to express piety, virtue and devotion to God. They however, looked down upon poetry as vile and futile- anything that was embellished and not austere was considered a frivolity.
The variety and diversity of American poetry is evident in the works of two greatest American poets- Walt Whitman and Emily Dickson. While Whitman’s poetry was pregnant with startling realism and built around lives of common people, Dickson’s works were immersed in lofty thoughts and idealistic introspection. Modern age poets too have presented a rich panorama of colors in their works- Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and “Birches” depict his love for nature; Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” reflect his devotion towards art; Ezra Pounds poems deal with political, social and literary perspectives and Adrienne Rich struggles to make a strong feminist statement in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger’s” and “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law.
American novelists have also contributed in giving the world some of the best literary classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain, and “Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mark Twain will always be remembered for his memorable characters and his unique employment of local and regional dialect. Twain’s satirical style and dark humor in his novel are reflective of his opposition of slavery and racism while Hawthorne responds in his own way to the conservative ideologies of the puritans. These classic novels are still enthusiastically read by readers and will never go “out of style”. The newest classical American novelist happens to be an African-American woman- Toni Morrison whose novel “The Bluest Eye” shot her to fame in the late twentieth century. African American writing is as integral to American Literature as African-American culture is to America. These works are poignant reflections of racism, poverty and gender discrimination in a society which is a part of America, yet is ages away from it.
Evergreen stories like “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum are an important part of high school curriculum and have given us some of the most delightful Hollywood movies ever made.
Another tradition born out of American Literature is that of the Short story. Washington Irving, of the “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of the Sleeping Hollow” fame was the first to regard the short-story as a separate genre in literature. It was however Edgar Allan Poe who later laid the “guidelines” and proposed theories for the development of the short-story. Modern age writers like O.Henry, Bret Hart and Stephen Crane contributed to the richness of the genre in their own unique style. Earnest Hemingway’s “A Clear Well Lighted Place” and William Faulkner’s “The Bear” present the freshness and novelty in the tradition of short-story telling. These two writers re-defined the concept of character development, economy of words, plot construction and narration- all of which are equally significant in today’s short-story arena.
New articles on American literature and updates can be obtained from the Duke University Press Online Journal, The Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory or The Oxford Journals on American Literary History.