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American literature is the written or literary work produced in the area of the United States and its preceding colonies. For more specific discussions of poetry and theater, see Poetry of the United States and Theater in the United States. During its early history, America was a series of British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its literary tradition begins as linked to the broader tradition of English literature. However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production usually now cause it to be considered a separate path and tradition.


Beginning of American Literature

While the New England colonies have often been regarded as the centerpiece of early American literature, the first North American settlements had been founded elsewhere many years earlier. Many towns are older than Boston, such as Saint Augustine, Jamestown, Santa Fe, Albany, and New York. Furthermore, English was not the only language in which early North American texts were written. The eventual emergence of the English language was hardly inevitable. [1] The large initial immigration to Boston in the 1630s, the high articulation of Puritan cultural ideals, and the early establishment of a college and a printing press in Cambridge all gave New England a substantial edge. However, political events eventually would make English the lingua franca for the colonies at large as well as the literary medium of choice. One such event is the conquering of New Amsterdam by the English in 1664, which was renamed New York. The first item printed in Pennsylvania was in German although it issued from the press established by an immigrant Englishman, and was the largest book printed in any of the colonies before the American Revolution. [2]

The printing press was active in many areas, from Cambridge and Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and Annapolis. From 1696 to 1700, only about 250 separate items were issued in all these places combined. This is a small number compared to the output of the printers in London at the time. However, printing was established in the American colonies before it was allowed in most of England. In England restrictive laws had long confined printing to four locations: London, York, Oxford, and Cambridge. Because of this, the colonies ventured into the modern world earlier than their provincial English counterparts. [3]

Colonial literature

Some of the earliest forms of American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonist audience. Captain John Smith could be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of ... Virginia ... (1608) and The General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other writers of this manner included Daniel Denton, Thomas Ashe, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.

The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were also topics of early writing. A journal written by John Winthrop discussed the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower's arrival. Other religiously influenced writers included Increase Mather and William Bradford, author of the journal published as a History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–47. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation.

Some poetry also existed. Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor are especially noted. Michael Wigglesworth wrote a best-selling poem, The Day of Doom, describing the time of judgment. Nicholas Noyes was also known for his doggerel verse.

Other late writings described conflicts and interaction with the Indians, as seen in writings by Daniel Gookin, Alexander Whitaker, John Mason, Benjamin Church, and Mary Rowlandson. John Eliot translated the Bible into the Algonquin language.

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield represented the Great Awakening, a religious revival in the early 18th century that asserted strict Calvinism. Other Puritan and religious writers include Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, John Wise, and Samuel Willard. Less strict and serious writers included Samuel Sewall, Sarah Kemble Knight, and William Byrd.

The revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway, a loyalist to the crown. Two key figures were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin are esteemed works with their wit and influence toward the formation of a budding American identity. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense and The American Crisis writings are seen as playing a key role in influencing the political tone of the period.

During the revolution itself, poems and songs such as "Yankee Doodle" and "Nathan Hale" were popular. Major satirists included John Trumbull and Francis Hopkinson. Philip Morin Freneau also wrote poems about the war's course.

During the eighteenth century, writing shifted focus from the Puritanical ideals of Winthrop and Bradford to the power of the human mind and rational thought. The belief that human and natural occurrences were messages from God no longer fit with the new human centered world. Many intellectuals believed that the human mind could comprehend the universe through the laws of physics as described by Isaac Newton. The enormous scientific, economic, social, and philosophical, changes of the eighteenth century, called the Enlightenment, impacted the authority of clergyman and scripture, making way for democratic principles. The increase in population helped account for the greater diversity of opinion in religious and political life as seen in the literature of this time. In 1670, the population of the colonies numbered approximately 111,000. Thirty years later it was more than 250.000. By 1760, it reached 1,600,000. [4] The growth of communities and therefore social life lead people to become more interested in the progress of individuals and their shared experience on the colonies. These new ideals are accounted for in the widespread popularity of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘’Autobiography.’’


In the post-war period, Thomas Jefferson's United States Declaration of Independence, his influence on the American Constitution, his autobiography, the Notes on the State of Virginia, and his many letters solidify his spot as one of the most talented early American writers. The Federalist essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay presented a significant historical discussion of American government organization and republican values. Fisher Ames, James Otis, and Patrick Henry are also valued for their political writings and orations.

Much of the early literature of the new nation struggled to find a uniquely American voice in existing literary genre, and this tendency was also reflected in novels. European forms and styles were often transferred to new locales and critics often saw them as inferior.

First American Novels

It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the nation’s first novels were published. These fictions were too lengthy to be printed as manuscript or public reading. Publishers took a chance on these works in hopes they would become steady sellers and need to be reprinted. This was a good bet as literacy rates soared in this period among both men and women. The first American novel is William Hill Brown’s ‘’The Power of Sympathy’’ published in 1789. [5] In the next decade important women writers also published novels. Susannah Rowson is best known for her novel, ‘’Charlotte: A Tale of Truth’’, published in London in 1791. [6] In 1794 the novel was reissued in Philadelphia under the title, ‘’Charlotte Temple.’’ ‘’Charlotte Temple’’ is a seduction tale, written in the third person, which warns against listening to the voice of love and counsels resistance. In addition to this best selling novel, she wrote nine novels, six theatrical works, two collections of poetry, six textbooks, and countless songs. [7] Reaching more than a million and a half readers over a century and a half, ‘’Charlotte Temple’’ was the biggest seller of the nineteenth century before Stowe’s ‘’Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’’ Although Rowson was extremely popular in her time and is often acknowledged in accounts of the development of the early American novel, ‘’Charlotte Temple’’ is often criticized as a sentimental novel of seduction. Hannah Webster Foster’s ‘’The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton’’ was published in 1797 and was also extremely popular. [8] Told from Foster’s point of view and based on the real life of Eliza Whitman, this novel is about a woman who is seduced and abandoned. She gives birth to an illegitimate stillborn child at an inn and is then charged with arrogance because she had refused marriage until she could find someone to be her intellectual companion. ‘’The Coquette’’ is praised for its demonstration of this era’s contradictory ideals of womanhood. [9] Both ‘’The Coquette’’ and ‘’Charlotte Temple’’ are novels that treat the right of women to live as equals as the new democratic experiment. These novels are of the Sentimental genre, characterized by overindulgence in emotion and an optimistic overemphasis on the goodness of humanity. Sentimentalism is often thought to be a reaction against the Calvinistic belief in the depravity of human nature. [10] While many of these novels were popular, the economic infrastructure of the time did not allow these writers to make a living through their writing alone. [11] The first author to be able to support himself through the income generated by his publications alone was Washington Irving. He completed his first major book in 1809 entitled ‘’A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.’’ [12] Charles Brockden Brown is another early American novelist, publishing ‘’Wieland’’ in 1798, ‘’Ormond’’ in 1799, and ‘’Edgar Huntly’’ in 1799. These novels are of the Gothic genre. Of the Picturesque genre, Hugh Henry Brackenridge published ‘’Modern Chivalry’’ in 1792-1815; Tabitha Gilman Tenney wrote ‘’Female Quixotism: Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventure of Dorcasina Sheldon’’ in 1801; Carlotte Lennox wrote ‘’The Female Quixote’’ in 1752, and Royall Tyler wrote ‘’The Algerine Captive’’ in 1797. [13] Other notable others include William Gilmore Simms, who wrote ‘’Martin Faber’’ in 1833, ‘’Guy Rivers’’ in 1834, and ‘’The Yemassee’’ in 1835. Lydia Maria Child wrote ‘’Hobomok’’ in 1824 and ‘’The Rebels’’ in 1825. John Neal wrote ‘’Logan, A Family History’’ in 1822, ‘’Rachel Dyer’’ in 1828, and ‘’The Down-Eaters’’ in 1833. Catherine Maria Sedgwick wrote ‘’A New England Tale’’ in 1822, ‘’Redwood’’ in 1824, ‘’Hope Leslie’’ in 1827, and ‘’The Linwoods” in 1835. James Kirke Paulding wrote ‘’The Lion of the West’’ in 1830, ‘’The Dutchman’s Fireside’’ in 1831, and ‘’Westward Ho!’’ in 1832. Robert Montgomery Bird wrote ‘’Calavar’’ in 1834 and ‘’Nick of the Woods’’ in 1837. James Fenimore Cooper was also a notable author best known for his novel, ‘’The Last of the Mohicans” written in 1826. [14]

Unique American style

With the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American literature and culture, a number of key new literary figures emerged, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving, often considered the first writer to develop a unique American style[citation needed] (although this has been debated) wrote humorous works in Salmagundi and the well-known satire A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Bryant wrote early romantic and nature-inspired poetry, which evolved away from their European origins. In 1832, 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. Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales about Natty Bumppo (which includes The Last of the Mohicans) were popular both in the new country and abroad.

Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin P. Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.

The New England Brahmins were a group of writers connected to Harvard University and its seat in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The core included James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

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

Emerson's most gifted fellow-thinker was perhaps Henry David Thoreau (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 radical writings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character. Other writers influenced by Transcendentalism were Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very.[15]

The political conflict surrounding Abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator, along with poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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 write full-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 her community for committing adultery.

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Hawthorne's fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819-1891), who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic and sensational sea narrative novels. Inspired by Hawthorne's focus on allegories and dark psychology, Melville went on to write romances replete with philosophical speculation. In Moby-Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements. In another fine work, the short novel Billy Budd, Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades of the 20th century.

Anti-transcendental works from Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe all comprise the Dark Romanticism subgenre of literature popular during this time.

American poetry

Walt Whitman, 1856.

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 Leaves of Grass, in which he uses a free-flowing verse and lines of irregular length to depict the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. Taking that motif one step further, the poet equates the vast range of American experience with himself without being egotistical. For example, in Song of Myself, the long, central poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and 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, the English novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote that Whitman "was the first to smash the 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 unmarried woman in small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. Within its formal structure, her poetry is ingenious, witty, exquisitely wrought, and psychologically penetrating. Her work was unconventional for its day, and little of it was published during her lifetime.

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

American poetry arguably reached its peak in the early to mid 20th century, with such noted writers as Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Stephen Vincent Benet, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Robinson Jeffers, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and Sherman Alexie; as well as many others.

Realism, Twain and James

Mark Twain, 1907.

Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) was the first major American 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, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently humorous – changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents. Other writers interested in regional differences and dialect were George W. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock), Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Henry Cuyler Bunner, and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).

William Dean Howells also represented the realist tradition through his novels, including The Rise of Silas Lapham and his work as editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

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 its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional and psychological nuance, James's fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller, about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw, an enigmatic ghost story.

Turn of the century

Ernest Hemingway in World War I uniform.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction's social spectrum to encompass both high and low life and sometimes connected to the naturalist school of realism. 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 a conventional, 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 of Courage, depicted the life of New York City prostitutes in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And in Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) portrayed a country girl who moves to Chicago and becomes a kept woman. Hamlin Garland and Frank Norris wrote about the problems of American farmers and other social issues from a naturalist perspective.

More directly political writings discussed social issues and power of corporations. Some like Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward outlined other possible political and social frameworks. Upton Sinclair, most famous for his meat-packing novel The Jungle, advocated socialism. Other political writers of the period included Edwin Markham, William Vaughn Moody. Journalistic critics, including Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens were labeled The Muckrakers. Henry Brooks Adams' literate autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams also depicted a stinging description of the education system and modern life.

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 Three Lives, an innovative work of fiction influenced by her familiarity with cubism, jazz, and other movements in contemporary art and music. Stein labeled a group of American literary notables who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s as the "Lost Generation."

The poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was born in Idaho but spent much of his adult life in Europe. 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 I society 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 The Great Gatsby, is the tendency of youth's golden dreams to dissolve in failure and disappointment. Fitzgerald also elucidates the collapse of some key American Ideals, set out in the Declaration of Independence, such as liberty, social unity, good governance and peace, features which were severely threatened by the pressures of modern early 20th century society. Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson also wrote novels with critical depictions of American life. John Dos Passos wrote about the war and also the U.S.A. trilogy which extended into the Depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, photographed by Carl van Vechten, 1937.

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

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 County, a Mississippian region of his own invention. He recorded his characters' seemingly unedited ramblings in order to represent their inner states, a technique called "stream of consciousness." (In fact, these passages are carefully crafted, and their seemingly chaotic structure conceals multiple layers of meaning.) He also jumbled time sequences to show how the past – especially the slave-holding era of the Deep South – endures in the present. Among his great works are The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and The Unvanquished.

Depression-era literature

Depression era literature was blunt and direct in its social criticism. John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California, where he set many of his stories. His style was simple and evocative, winning him the favor of the readers but not of the critics. Steinbeck often wrote about poor, working-class people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life. The Grapes of Wrath, considered his masterpiece, is a strong, socially-oriented novel that tells the story of the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma and their journey to California in search of a better life. Other popular novels include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Steinbeck's contemporary, Nathanael West's two most famous short novels, Miss Lonelyhearts, which plumbs the life of its eponymous antihero, a reluctant (and, to comic effect, male) advice columnist, and the effects the tragic letters exert on it, and The Day of the Locust, about the unconscious struggle of American society to conform to the mold held up by Hollywood, have come to be avowed classics of American literature.

Henry Miller assumed a unique place in American Literature in the 1930s when his semi-autobiographical novels, written and published in Paris, were banned from the US. Although his major works, which include Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, would not be cleared for American sale and publication until 1962, their themes and stylistic innovations had already exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of American writers.

Post-World War II

Norman Mailer, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1948

The period in time from the end of World War II up until, roughly, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the publication of some of the most popular works in American history such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The last few of the more realistic modernists along with the wildly Romantic beatniks largely dominated the period, while the direct respondents to America's involvement in World War II contributed in their notable influence.

Though born in Canada, Chicago-raised Saul Bellow would become one of the most influential novelists in America in the decades directly following World War II. In works like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, Bellow painted vivid portraits of the American city and the distinctive characters that peopled it. Bellow went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

From J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, the perceived madness of the state of affairs in America was brought to the forefront of the nation's literary expression. Émigré authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, with Lolita, forged on with the theme, and, at almost the same time, the beatniks took a concerted step away from their Lost Generation predecessors, developing a style and tone of their own by drawing on Eastern theology and experimenting with recreational drugs.

The poetry and fiction of the "Beat Generation," largely born of a circle of intellects formed in New York City around Columbia University and established more officially some time later in San Francisco, came of age. The term Beat referred, all at the same time, to the countercultural rhythm of the Jazz scene, to a sense of rebellion regarding the conservative stress of post-war society, and to an interest in new forms of spiritual experience through drugs, alcohol, philosophy, and religion, and specifically through Zen Buddhism. Allen Ginsberg set the tone of the movement in his poem Howl, a Whitmanesque work that began: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ..." At the same time, his good friend Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) celebrated the Beats' rollicking, spontaneous, and vagrant life-style in, among many other works, his masterful and most popular novel On the Road.

Regarding the war novel specifically, there was a literary explosion in America during the post-World War II era. Some of the best known of the works produced included Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). MacBird, written by Barbara Garson, was another well-received work exposing the absurdity of war. The Moviegoer (1962), by Southern author Walker Percy, winner of the National Book Award, was his attempt at exploring "the dislocation of man in the modern age."[16]

In contrast, John Updike approached American life from a more reflective but no less subversive perspective. His 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, the first of four chronicling the rising and falling fortunes of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom over the course of four decades against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century, broke new ground on its release in its characterization and detail of the American middle class and frank discussion of taboo topics such as adultery. Notable among Updike's characteristic innovations was his use of present-tense narration, his rich, stylized language, and his attention to sensual detail. His work is also deeply imbued with Christian themes. The two final installments of the Rabbit series, Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), were both awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other notable works include the Henry Bech novels (1970-98), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), Roger's Version (1986) and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), which literary critic Michiko Kakutani called "arguably his finest."[17]

Frequently linked with Updike is the novelist Philip Roth. Roth vigorously explores Jewish identity in American society, especially in the postwar era and the early 21st century. Frequently set in Newark, New Jersey, Roth's work is known to be highly autobiographical, and many of Roth's main characters, most famously the Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman, are thought to be alter egos of Roth. With these techniques, and armed with his articulate and fast-paced style, Roth explores the distinction between reality and fiction in literature while provocatively examining American culture. His most famous work includes the Zuckerman novels, the controversial Portnoy's Complaint (1969), and Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Among the most decorated American writers of his generation, he has won every major American literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize for his major novel American Pastoral (1997).

Ralph Ellison's 1953 novel Invisible Man was instantly recognized as among the most powerful and sensational works of the immediate post-war years. The story of a black man in the urban north, the novel laid bare the often repressed racial tension still prevailing in the nation while also succeeding as an existential character study.

Flannery O'Connor (b. March 25, 1925 in Georgia – d. August 3, 1964 in Georgia) also explored and developed the theme of 'the South' in American literature that was dear to Mark Twain and other leading authors of American literary history (Wise Blood 1952; The Violent Bear It Away 1960; Everything That Rises Must Converge, her best-known short story, and an eponymous collection published posthumously in 1965).

1970 - 2000

Though its exact parameters remain debatable, from the early 1970s to the present day the most salient literary movement has been postmodernism. Thomas Pynchon, a seminal practitioner of the postmodern style, drawing on modernist fixtures such as temporal distortion, unreliable narrators and internal monologue and coupling them with distinctly postmodern techniques such as metafiction, absurdist humor and a subversive commingling of high and low culture, in 1973 published one of the seminal works of postmodernism, Gravity's Rainbow. His other important works include The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Mason & Dixon (1997).

Toni Morrison at the Miami Book Fair International of 1986

Toni Morrison, the most recent American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, writing in the realist tradition in a distinctive poetic and deeply evocative prose style, published her controversial debut novel, The Bluest Eye, to widespread critical acclaim in 1970. Coming on the heels of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the novel includes a description of incestuous rape and explores the conventions of beauty established by a historically racist society, painting a portrait of a self-immolating black family in search of beauty in whiteness. Among her best-known novels are Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987). The latter was chosen in a 2006 survey conducted by the New York Times as the most important work of fiction of the last 25 years.[18]

Writing in a lyrical, flowing style that eschews excessive use of the comma and semicolon and recalls William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway in equal measure, rich with metaphor and polysyndeton, Cormac McCarthy is an author whose oeuvre seizes on the literary traditions of several regions in the United States and spans multiple genres. He writes in the Southern Gothic aesthetic in his distinctly Faulknerian 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper; in the literary vein of Melville, blending dark humor with lorn tragedy and a keen attention to American realism replete with colloquial speech, social commentary and regional imagery in Suttree (1979); in the western tradition in Blood Meridian (1985), which critic Harold Bloom styled "the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying," calling the character of Judge Holden "short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature"[19]; in a much more pastoral tone in his celebrated Border Trilogy (1992-98), including All the Pretty Horses (1992), winner of the National Book Award; and in the post-apocalyptic genre in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road (2007). His novels are noted for achieving both commercial and literary success, several of his works having been adapted to film.

Don DeLillo, who rose to literary prominence with the publication of his 1985 novel, White Noise, a work broaching the subjects of death and consumerism and doubling as a piece of social criticism, began his writing career in 1971 with Americana. He is listed by Harold Bloom as being among the preeminent contemporary American writers, in the company of such giants as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon.[19] His 1997 novel Underworld, a gargantuan work chronicling American life through and immediately after the Cold War and examining with equal depth subjects as various as baseball and nuclear weapons, is generally agreed upon to be his masterpiece and was the runner-up in a survey asking writers to identify the most important work of fiction of the last 25 years.[18] Among his other important novels are Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Falling Man (2007).

Among the younger generation of contemporary American writers, Paul Auster, like Thomas Pynchon an acolyte of postmodernism, stands out. Known for his experimentation with fragmented narratives, unreliable narrators, metafiction, intertextuality and multiple points of view, Auster marries absurdism with elements of crime fiction. A former translator of French literature, he brings to American letters a distinct pool of influences, among them those of Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Paul Sartre on the one hand and pulp fiction writer Dashiell Hammett on the other. Among his most critically successful works are The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), Leviathan (1992) and Oracle Night (2004). Richard Ford, writing in a much more realist style reminiscent of John Updike and Walker Percy, rose to literary prominence in 1986 with the publication of the acclaimed The Sportswriter, the first of a trio of novels to feature his memorable everyman character Frank Bascombe. The second, Independence Day (1995), would win Ford the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the third, The Lay of the Land, was published to critical acclaim in 2006.

Millennial and Immigrant literature

At the turn of the twenty-first century, several new writers surfaced, drawing on immigrant experiences in an ever more culturally diverse American landscape. Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and went on to write a well-received novel, The Namesake (2003), which was shortly adapted to film in 2007. In her second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, released to widespread commercial and critical success, Lahiri shifts focus and treats the experiences of the second and third generation.

Chinese-American author Ha Jin in 1999 won the National Book Award for his second novel, Waiting, about a Chinese soldier in the Revolutionary Army who has to wait 18 years to divorce his wife for another woman, all the while having to worry about persecution for his protracted affair, and twice won the PEN/Faulkner Award, in 2000 for Waiting and in 2005 for War Trash. Other notable Asian-American novelists include Amy Tan, best known for her novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), tracing the lives of four immigrant families brought together by the game of Mahjong; and Maxine Hong Kingston, best known for her memoir, The Woman Warrior (1976), and debut novel, China Men (1980). Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, spurred to writing by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros, an icon of an emerging Chicano literature whose 1984 bildungsroman The House on Mango Street is taught in schools across the United States, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which tells the story of an overweight Dominican boy growing up as a social outcast in Paterson, New Jersey.

Other notable writers of the turn of the century include David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest, a futuristic portrait of America and a withering critique of the media-saturated nature of American existence, has been consistently ranked among the most important works of the twentieth century[20]; Michael Chabon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) tells the story of two friends, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, as they rise through the ranks of the comics industry in its heyday; Jonathan Franzen, whose 2001 novel The Corrections, a tragicomedy about the disintegrating Lambert family, won the National Book Award; Richard Russo, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls (2002), a novel laying bare the mysteries and legacies of the flagging logging and textile industries in the fictional Maine town of Empire Falls; and Marilynne Robinson, whose 2004 novel Gilead, a family saga centered around religion and set during the Civil War, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

See also


Minority focuses in American literature

Additional genres


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


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  3. ^ Baym, Nina, ed. ‘’The Norton Anthology of American Literature.’’ New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
  4. ^ Baym, Nina, ed. ‘’The Norton Anthology of American Literature.’’ New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.
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  13. ^ Campbell, Donna M. "The Early American Novel: Introductory Notes." ‘’Literary Movements.’’ 14 July 2008. 1 March 2010.
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  15. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 7–8. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  16. ^ Kimball, Roger Existentialism, Semiotics and Iced Tea, Review of Conversations with Walker Percy New York Times, August 4, 1985, Accessed September 24, 2006
  17. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (January 12, 1996). "Seeking Salvation On the Silver Screen". New York Times. Retrieved December 3, 2009. 
  18. ^ a b "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?". New York Times. May 21, 2006. Retrieved December 4, 2009. 
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  20. ^ "All-Time 100 Novels: The Complete List". Time Magazine. Retrieved December 4, 2009. 

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