American literature covers a period of more than four centuries. It is divided into five eras: the colonial and primitive national period, the romantic period, realism and naturalism, the modernist period and the contemporary period.
The Colonial Period explores the emotions and feelings described by the first settlers to North America. Their story was simple. As they were not exposed to any form of literature, they expressed their innate emotions with simplicity. This perhaps became the basis of the literature that emerged from North America around this time. The settlers shared true stories based on their experiences. For example, John Smith, an English soldier and explorer after arriving in North America, wrote about the history of Virginia, the region he colonized. Likewise, Nathaniel Ward and John Winthrop used religion as the theme of their books. Religion was a subject of great interest and attraction in colonial America. In 1650, Anne Bradstreet wrote a collection of poems about America titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. It is considered to be one of the first poems about America. In 1776, when the United States gained independence, writers began to focus on the future of the country. It was about realism and a renewed faith in progress. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography shared the story of an American’s life – shaping Americans as seen by foreigners. It was around this time that William Hill Brown published The Power of Sympathy in 1789, considered the first American novel.
During the Romantic period, writers expressed their emotions about reason. Edgar Allan Poe’s vibrant portrayal of a romantic individual spawned more literary ideas which were later adopted by writers of this era. Poe’s The Morgue Street Murders is considered to be the first detective novel in which the narrator presents a commentary on the nature and practice of analytical reasoning. Likewise, Poe’s The Raven is a narrative poem about lost love. James Russell Lowell, an American romantic poet, used dialect and humor in his writings – both in prose and poetry.
In the days of realism and naturalism, writers discussed the harsh realities of life as the country went through the animosity of Civil War. Mark Twain’s novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are the most notable of this period.
The modernist period explored the writer’s quest to break with the past and embrace the present and the future. F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby showed the life of Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire. He seeks to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy young woman with whom he was in love in his youth. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway shows the love story between emigrant Henry and Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. It takes place in the context of the First World War.
The contemporary period began from World War II. Topics about the lives of African Americans in the United States were discussed quite openly during this time. Richard Wright’s Autobiography Black Boy expressed an honest description of racism in America. Some of the eminent authors of this era are Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou.
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