American Literature major movements and terms

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American Literature
major movements and terms

Native American – The dates for this period are very unclear because we have absolutely no idea when they started. Much of the literature of that period were myths, and, of course, the Native Americans still write today. Most of what our text calls Native American myths were written long before Europeans settled in North America.

Puritan – (1472-1750) – Most of this is histories, journals, personal poems, sermons, and diaries. Most of this literature is utilitarian, very personal, or religious. We call it Puritan because the majority of the writers during this period were strongly influenced by Puritan ideals and values. Jonathan Edwards continues to be recognized from this period.  

Enlightenment – (1750-1800) – Called the Enlightenment period due to the influence of science and logic, this period is marked in US literature by political writings. Genres included political documents, speeches, and letters. Benjamin Franklin is typical of this period. There is a lack of emphasis and dependence on the Bible and more use of common sense (logic) and science. There was not a divorce from the Bible but an adding to or expanding of the truths found there.  

Romanticism – (1800-1840) - Romanticism was a literary and artistic movement of the nineteenth century that arose in reaction against eighteenth-century Neoclassicism and placed a premium on fancy, imagination, emotion, nature, individuality, and exotica. There’s a movement here from personal and political documents to entertaining ones. Purely American topics were introduced such as frontier life. Romantic elements can be found in the works of American writers as diverse as Cooper, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Romanticism is particularly evident in the works of the New England Transcendentalists.  

Transcendentalism – (1840-1855) -Transcendentalism was an American literary and philosophical movement of the nineteenth century. The Transcendentalists, who were based in New England, believed that intuition and the individual conscience “transcend” experience and thus are better guides to truth than are the senses and logical reason. Influenced by Romanticism, the Transcendentalists respected the individual spirit and the natural world, believing that divinity was present everywhere, in nature and in each person. The Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, W.H. Channing, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody. The anti-Transcendentalist (Hawthorne and Melville) rebelled against the philosophy that man is basically good. A third group, the Fireside poets, wrote about more practical aspects of life such as dying and patriotism.


Realism – (1865-1915) - Realism is the presentation in art of the details of actual life. Realism was also a literary movement that began during the nineteenth century and stressed the actual as opposed to the imagined or the fanciful. The Realists tried to write truthfully and objectively about ordinary characters in ordinary situations. They reacted against Romanticism, rejecting heroic, adventurous, unusual, or unfamiliar subjects. The Realists, in turn, were followed by the Naturalists, who traced the effects of heredity and environment on people helpless to change their situations. American realism grew from the work of local-color writers such as Bret Harte and Sarah Orne Jewett and is evident in the writings of major figures such as Mark Twain and Henry James.  

Naturalism – An outgrowth of Realism, Naturalism was a literary movement among novelists at the end of the nineteenth century and during the early decades of the twentieth century. The Naturalists tended to view people as hapless victims of immutable natural laws. Early exponents of Naturalism included Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser.  

Regionalism – Another outgrowth of Realism, Regionalism in literature is the tendency among certain authors to write about specific geographical areas. Regional writers like Willa Cather and William Faulkner, present the distinct culture of an area, including its speech, customs, beliefs, and history. Local-color writing may be considered a type of Regionalism, but Regionalists, like the southern writers of the 1920’s, usually go beyond mere presentation of cultural idiosyncrasies and attempt, instead, a sophisticated sociological or anthropological treatment of the culture of a region.  

ImagismImagism was a literary movement that flourished between 1912 and 1927. Led by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, the Imagist poets rejected nineteenth-century poetic forms and language. Instead, they wrote short poems that used ordinary language and free verse to create sharp, exact, concentrated pictures.  

Modern Age – (1915-1946) – An age of disillusionment and confusion—just look at what was happening in history in the US during these dates—this period brought us perhaps our best writers. The authors during this period raised all the great questions of life…but offered no answers. Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Frost are all examples.  

Harlem Renaissance – Part of the Modern Age, The Harlem Renaissance, which occurred during the 1920’s, was a time of African American artistic creativity centered in Harlem, in New York City. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance include Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps.  

Contemporary – (1946-present) – great stuff, but not a clear philosophy.


Other terms to know:

 ClassicismClassicism is an approach to literature and the other arts that stresses reason, balance, clarity, ideal beauty, and orderly form in imitation of the arts of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicism is often contrasted with Romanticism, which stresses imagination, emotion, and individualism. Classicism also differs from Realism, which stresses the actual rather than the ideal.

 Local ColorLocal Color is the use in a literary work of characters and details unique to a particular geographic area. Local color can be created by the use of dialect and by descriptions of customs, clothing, manners, attitudes, scenery, and landscape. Local-color stories were especially popular after the Civil War, bringing readers the West of Bret harte, the Mississippi River of Mark Twain, and the New England of Sarah Orne Jewett.

GothicGothic refers to the use of primitive medieval, wild, or mysterious elements in literature. Gothic elements offended eighteenth-century classical writers but appealed to the Romantic writers who followed them. Gothic novels feature places like mysterious and gloomy castles, where horrifying, supernatural events take place. Their influence on Edgar Allan Poe is evident in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

GrotesqueGrotesque refers to the use of bizarre, absurd, or fantastic elements in literature. The grotesque is generally characterized by distortions or striking incongruities. Grotesque characters, like those in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” are characters who have become ludicrous or bizarre through their obsession with an idea or value, or as a result of an emotional problem.

American Literature Timeline: Featured authors and works
Description: It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans. Between 1630 and 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New England, as in the mother country -- an astounding fact when one considers that most educated people of the time were aristocrats who were unwilling to risk their lives in wilderness conditions. The self-made and often self-educated Puritans were notable exceptions. They wanted education to understand and execute God's will as they established their colonies throughout New England.

The Puritan definition of good writing was that which brought home a full awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced on Earth. Puritan style varied enormously -- from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals and crushingly pedantic religious history. Whatever the style or genre, certain themes remained constant. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. This world was an arena of constant battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, a formidable enemy with many disguises. Many Puritans excitedly awaited the "millennium," when Jesus would return to Earth, end human misery, and inaugurate 1,000 years of peace and prosperity.

Scholars have long pointed out the link between Puritanism and capitalism: Both rest on ambition, hard work, and an intense striving for success. Although individual Puritans could not know, in strict theological terms, whether they were "saved" and among the elect who would go to heaven, Puritans tended to feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth and status were sought not only for themselves, but as welcome reassurances of spiritual health and promises of eternal life.

Moreover, the concept of stewardship encouraged success. The Puritans interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper spiritual meanings, and felt that in advancing their own profit and their community's well-being, they were also furthering God's plans. They did not draw lines of distinction between the secular and religious spheres: All of life was an expression of the divine will -- a belief that later resurfaces in Transcendentalism.

In recording ordinary events to reveal their spiritual meaning, Puritan authors commonly cited the Bible, chapter and verse. History was a symbolic religious panorama leading to the Puritan triumph over the New World and to God's kingdom on Earth.

The first Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the seriousness of Reformation Christianity. Known as the "Pilgrims," they were a small group of believers who had migrated from England to Holland -- even then known for its religious tolerance -- in 1608, during a time of persecutions.

Like most Puritans, they interpreted the Bible literally. They read and acted on the text of the Second Book of Corinthians -- "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." Despairing of purifying the Church of England from within, "Separatists" formed underground "covenanted" churches that swore loyalty to the group instead of the king. Seen as traitors to the king as well as heretics damned to hell, they were often persecuted. Their separation took them ultimately to the New World
1612 - 1672 Anne Bradstreet was born in England but moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony when she was 18 years old. Despite a number of illnesses and the pressures of a rigorous domestic and religious life, she soon began writing poetry about her everyday experiences, including "the simple events in a woman's life" (Adrienne Rich). She is regarded as the first notable poet in the American colonies.

• Some prominent works: • The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (collected poems, 1650) • "To My Dear and Loving Husband" • "Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666"

• Related literary movements: Puritanism

• Key themes and features: • personal matters and daily experiences • religious outlook (focus on God's will and the path to salvation)

1663 - 1728 Cotton Mather was a diligent scholar who entered Harvard at the age of 12, an accomplished writer who published more than 400 separate works, and a Boston pastor who devoted himself to doing good works from his early 20's until he died. He is remembered as a "skillful preacher and an eminent theologian," as well as a historian who movingly described "the hopes of the first generation of Puritans" and who called upon his readers "to defend the old order of church authority against the encroachment of an increasingly secular world" (Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I: 216). "As an apologist for the 'old New England way' . . . Mather left himself open to attack [and even became] a scapegoat for the worst in Puritan culture. . . . Mather saw the Devil's presence in Salem as a final effort to undermine and destroy religious community" (Norton 217).

• Some prominent works: "Wonders of the Invisible World" (1692)

• Related literary movements: Puritanism

• Key themes and features: • defense of church authority vs. secularism

• warnings against the Devil's invisible but real presence in the world
1703 – 1758 Jonathan Edwards was one of the leaders of the Great Awakening revival movement in New England (1734-1750). Born in Connecticut, he wrote a study of the behavior of spiders called "Of Insects" when he was 11, entered Yale University when he was 12, and became increasingly devoted to ministry following a conversion experience when he was a graduate student. Edwards is best known for his searing sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which aimed to "fright persons away from hell" and convince them to become "born again" believers in Jesus Christ. Eventually Edwards was dismissed from his post as pastor of the Northampton church. He moved to Stockbridge where he became a missionary to the Housatonic Indians and later died from a reaction to a smallpox vaccination.

• Some prominent works: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (sermon)

• Related literary movements: Puritanism, Revivalism

• Key themes and features: • the imminent dangers of hell • conversion of "natural men" to "born again" believers • comparison of human beings to wretched insects in an effort to convince them of their lowly, fragile, and precarious condition as sinners utterly reliant on God's grace




The hard-fought American Revolution against Britain (1775-1783) was the first modern war of liberation against a colonial power. The triumph of American independence seemed to many at the time a divine sign that America and her people were destined for greatness. Military victory fanned nationalistic hopes for a great new literature. Yet with the exception of outstanding political writing, few works of note appeared during or soon after the Revolution.

American books were harshly reviewed in England. Americans were painfully aware of their excessive dependence on English literary models. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. As one American magazine editor wrote, around 1816, "Dependence is a state of degradation fraught with disgrace, and to be dependent on a foreign mind for what we can ourselves produce is to add to the crime of indolence the weakness of stupidity."

Cultural revolutions, unlike military revolutions, cannot be successfully imposed but must grow from the soil of shared experience. Revolutions are expressions of the heart of the people; they grow gradually out of new sensibilities and wealth of experience. It would take 50 years of accumulated history for America to earn its cultural independence and to produce the first great generation of American writers: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. America's literary independence was slowed by a lingering identification with England, an excessive imitation of English or classical literary models, and difficult economic and political conditions that hampered publishing.

Revolutionary writers, despite their genuine patriotism, were of necessity self-conscious, and they could never find roots in their American sensibilities. Colonial writers of the revolutionary generation had been born English, had grown to maturity as English citizens, and had cultivated English modes of thought and English fashions in dress and behavior. Their parents and grandparents were English (or European), as were all their friends. Added to this, American awareness of literary fashion still lagged behind the English, and this time lag intensified American imitation. Fifty years after their fame in England, English neoclassic writers such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson were still eagerly imitated in America.

Moreover, the heady challenges of building a new nation attracted talented and educated people to politics, law, and diplomacy. These pursuits brought honor, glory, and financial security. Writing, on the other hand, did not pay. Early American writers, now separated from England, effectively had no modern publishers, no audience, and no adequate legal protection. Editorial assistance, distribution, and publicity were rudimentary.

Until 1825, most American authors paid printers to publish their work. Obviously only the leisured and independently wealthy, like Washington Irving and the New York Knickerbocker group, or the group of Connecticut poets known as the Hartford Wits, could afford to indulge their interest in writing. The exception, Benjamin Franklin, though from a poor family, was a printer by trade and could publish his own work.

Charles Brockden Brown was more typical. The author of several interesting Gothic romances, Brown was the first American author to attempt to live from his writing. But his short life ended in poverty.

The lack of an audience was another problem. The small cultivated audience in America wanted well-known European authors, partly out of the exaggerated respect with which former colonies regarded their previous rulers. This preference for English works was not entirely unreasonable, considering the inferiority of American output, but it worsened the situation by depriving American authors of an audience. Only journalism offered financial remuneration, but the mass audience wanted light, undemanding verse and short topical essays -- not long or experimental work.

The absence of adequate copyright laws was perhaps the clearest cause of literary stagnation. American printers pirating English best-sellers understandably were unwilling to pay an American author for unknown material. The unauthorized reprinting of foreign books was originally seen as a service to the colonies as well as a source of profit for printers like Franklin, who reprinted works of the classics and great European books to educate the American public.

Printers everywhere in America followed his lead. There are notorious examples of pirating. Matthew Carey, an important American publisher, paid a London agent -- a sort of literary spy -- to send copies of unbound pages, or even proofs, to him in fast ships that could sail to America in a month. Carey's men would sail out to meet the incoming ships in the harbor and speed the pirated books into print using typesetters who divided the book into sections and worked in shifts around the clock. Such a pirated English book could be reprinted in a day and placed on the shelves for sale in American bookstores almost as fast as in England.

Because imported authorized editions were more expensive and could not compete with pirated ones, the copyright situation damaged foreign authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, along with American authors. But at least the foreign authors had already been paid by their original publishers and were already well known. Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper not only failed to receive adequate payment, but they had to suffer seeing their works pirated under their noses. Cooper's first successful book, The Spy (1821), was pirated by four different printers within a month of its appearance.

Ironically, the copyright law of 1790, which allowed pirating, was nationalistic in intent. Drafted by Noah Webster, the great lexicographer who later compiled an American dictionary, the law protected only the work of American authors; it was felt that English writers should look out for themselves.

Bad as the law was, none of the early publishers were willing to have it changed because it proved profitable for them. Piracy starved the first generation of revolutionary American writers; not surprisingly, the generation after them produced even less work of merit. The high point of piracy, in 1815, corresponds with the low point of American writing. Nevertheless, the cheap and plentiful supply of pirated foreign books and classics in the first 50 years of the new country did educate Americans, including the first great writers, who began to make their appearance around 1825.

1706 – 1790 Benjamin Franklin

• Some prominent works: Poor Richard’s Almanack

• Related literary movements: The American Enlightenment

1737-1809 Thomas Paine

• Some prominent works:

• Literary contributions: The Political Pamphlet
c. 1753 - 1784 Phillis Wheatley
1743 - 1826 Thomas Jefferson

1783 – 1859 Washington Irving



Essays and Poetry: The Romantic movement, which originated in Germany but quickly spread to England, France, and beyond, reached America around the year 1820, some 20 years after William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had revolutionized English poetry by publishing Lyrical Ballads. In America as in Europe, fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles. Yet there was an important difference: Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. The solidification of a national identity and the surging idealism and passion of Romanticism nurtured the masterpieces of "the American Renaissance."

Romantic ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, Romantics argued, could best express universal truth. The Romantics underscored the importance of expressive art for the individual and society. In his essay "The Poet" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era, asserts:

For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. If, according to Romantic theory, self and nature were one, self-awareness was not a selfish dead end but a mode of knowledge opening up the universe. If one's self were one with all humanity, then the individual had a moral duty to reform social inequalities and relieve human suffering. The idea of "self" -- which suggested selfishness to earlier generations -- was redefined. New compound words with positive meanings emerged: "self-realization," "self-expression," "self-reliance."

As the unique, subjective self became important, so did the realm of psychology. Exceptional artistic effects and techniques were developed to evoke heightened psychological states. The "sublime" -- an effect of beauty in grandeur (for example, a view from a mountaintop) -- produced feelings of awe, reverence, vastness, and a power beyond human comprehension.

Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayists. America's vast mountains, deserts, and tropics embodied the sublime.

The Romantic spirit seemed particularly suited to American democracy: It stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination for its aesthetic and ethical values. Certainly the New England Transcendentalists -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and their associates -- were inspired to a new optimistic affirmation by the Romantic movement. In New England, Romanticism fell upon fertile soil.
Fiction: Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and the Transcendentalists represent the first great literary generation produced in the United States. In the case of the novelists, the Romantic vision tended to express itself in the form Hawthorne called the "Romance," a heightened, emotional, and symbolic form of the novel. Romances were not love stories, but serious novels that used special techniques to communicate complex and subtle meanings.

Instead of carefully defining realistic characters through a wealth of detail, as most English or continental novelists did, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Melville's Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the many isolated and obsessed characters of Poe's tales are lonely protagonists pitted against unknowable, dark fates that, in some mysterious way, grow out of their deepest unconscious selves. The symbolic plots reveal hidden actions of the anguished spirit.

One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul is the absence of settled, traditional community life in America. English novelists -- Jane Austen, Charles Dickens (the great favorite), Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, William Thackeray -- lived in a complex, well-articulated, traditional society and shared with their readers attitudes that informed their realistic fiction. American novelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluid and relatively classless democratic society. American novels frequently reveal a revolutionary absence of tradition. Many English novels show a poor main character rising on the economic and social ladder, perhaps because of a good marriage or the discovery of a hidden aristocratic past. But this buried plot does not challenge the aristocratic social structure of England. On the contrary, it confirms it. The rise of the main character satisfies the wish fulfillment of the mainly middle-class readers.

In contrast, the American novelist had to depend on his or her own devices. America was, in part, an undefined, constantly moving frontier populated by immigrants speaking foreign languages and following strange and crude ways of life. Thus the main character in American literature might find himself alone among cannibal tribes, as in Melville's Typee, or exploring a wilderness like James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, or witnessing lonely visions from the grave, like Poe's solitary individuals, or meeting the devil walking in the forest, like Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. Virtually all the great American protagonists have been "loners." The democratic American individual had, as it were, to invent himself.

The serious American novelist had to invent new forms as well hence the sprawling, idiosyncratic shape of Melville's novel Moby-Dick and Poe's dreamlike, wandering Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Few American novels achieve formal perfection, even today. Instead of borrowing tested literary methods, Americans tend to invent new creative techniques. In America, it is not enough to be a traditional and definable social unit, for the old and traditional gets left behind; the new, innovative force is the center of attention.
1851 – 1904 Ralph Waldo Emerson

• Some prominent works: "Self-Reliance" (essays, lectures)

• Related literary movements: Transcendentalism

• Key themes and features: • belief in non-conformity, individuality, trust in one's own intuition • Nature as reflection of divinity, goodness in everyone and everything • optimism • democratic ideals • aphorisms

1817 - 1862 Henry David Thoreau

• Some prominent works: Walden (personal essays)

• Related literary movements: Transcendentalism

• Key themes and features: • first-person account of life in Nature, away from civilization • non-conformity • individuality • "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" • rich sensory detail, figurative language

1809 - 1849 Edgar Allan Poe

• Some prominent works: Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (short stories, 1840), The Raven (poetry, 1845), "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher"

• Related literary movements: American Gothic

• Key themes and features: • the dark side of human imagination • examination of human nature in terrifying circumstances • macabre tales of horror and mystery • irony

1804 - 1864 Nathaniel Hawthorne

• Some prominent works: Twice Told Tales (short stories), The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables

• Related literary movements: American Gothic, Transcendentalism

• Key themes and features: • early American settings and Puritan characters • dark, eerie, gothic mood • allegorical explorations of good and evil, redemption and damnation • moralistic examinations of American history and conscience

1819 - 1892 Walt Whitman

• Some prominent works: Leaves of Grass (poetry)

• Related literary movements: Transcendentalism

• Key themes and features: • individualism and self-celebration • patriotism, democracy • overflowing lines of verse with no strict meter • unconventional punctuation • often first-person voice • ordinary scenes from American life

1830 - 1886 Emily Dickinson

• Some prominent works:

• Related literary movements: Transcendentalism
1811-1896 Harriet Beecher Stowe


1817-1895 Frederick Douglass


THE RISE OF REALISM (Naturalism) 1865-1914


The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a watershed in American history. The innocent optimism of the young democratic nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. American idealism remained but was rechanneled. Before the war, idealists championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, when Darwinian evolution and the "survival of the fittest" seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon.

Business boomed after the war. War production had boosted industry in the North and given it prestige and political clout. It also gave industrial leaders valuable experience in the management of men and machines. The enormous natural resources -- iron, coal, oil, gold, and silver -- of the American land benefitted business. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. Over 23 million foreigners -- German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter -- flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino contract laborers were imported by Hawaiian plantation owners, railroad companies, and other American business interests on the West Coast.

In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in about 12 cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay (called "wage slavery"), difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business. Labor unions grew, and strikes brought the plight of working people to national awareness. Farmers, too, saw themselves struggling against the "money interests" of the East, the so-called robber barons like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Their eastern banks tightly controlled mortgages and credit so vital to western development and agriculture, while railroad companies charged high prices to transport farm products to the cities. The farmer gradually became an object of ridicule, lampooned as an unsophisticated "hick" or "rube." The ideal American of the post-Civil War period became the millionaire. In 1860, there were fewer than 100 millionaires; by 1875, there were more than 1,000.

From 1860 to 1914, the United States was transformed from a small, young, agricultural ex-colony to a huge, modern, industrial nation. A debtor nation in 1860, by 1914 it had become the world's wealthiest state, with a population that had more than doubled, rising from 31 million in 1860 to 76 million in 1900. By World War I, the United States had become a major world power.

As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London's Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain's Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London's The Sea-Wolf, and Dreiser's opportunistic Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality.

1835 - 1910 Mark Twain

• Related literary movements: Realism

• Key themes and features: Satire, Local Color

1843 – 1916 Henry James

• Related literary movements: Realism, Naturalism

1862 - 1937 Edith Wharton

• Related literary movements: Realism, Naturalism

1851 - 1904 Kate Chopin

• Some prominent works: The Awakening, Story of an Hour

• Related literary movements: Realism
1876-1916 Jack London Naturalism
1871-1945 Theodore Dreiser Naturalism

Description: The large cultural wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization's classical traditions. Modern life seemed radically different from traditional life -- more scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced these changes.

In literature, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) developed an analogue to modern art. A resident of Paris and an art collector (she and her brother Leo purchased works of the artists Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and many others), Stein once explained that she and Picasso were doing the same thing, he in art and she in writing. Using simple, concrete words as counters, she developed an abstract, experimental prose poetry. The childlike quality of Stein's simple vocabulary recalls the bright, primary colors of modern art, while her repetitions echo the repeated shapes of abstract visual compositions. By dislocating grammar and punctuation, she achieved new "abstract" meanings as in her influential collection Tender Buttons (1914), which views objects from different angles, as in a cubist painting:

A Table A Table means does it not my
dear it means a whole steadiness.
Is it likely that a change. A table
means more than a glass even a
looking glass is tall.
Meaning, in Stein's work, was often subordinated to technique, just as subject was less important than shape in abstract visual art. Subject and technique became inseparable in both the visual and literary art of the period. The idea of form as the equivalent of content, a cornerstone of post-World War II art and literature, crystallized in this period.

Technological innovation in the world of factories and machines inspired new attentiveness to technique in the arts. To take one example: Light, particularly electrical light, fascinated modern artists and writers. Posters and advertisements of the period are full of images of floodlit skyscrapers and light rays shooting out from automobile headlights, moviehouses, and watchtowers to illumine a forbidding outer darkness suggesting ignorance and old-fashioned tradition.

Photography began to assume the status of a fine art allied with the latest scientific developments. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz opened a salon in New York City, and by 1908 he was showing the latest European works, including pieces by Picasso and other European friends of Gertrude Stein. Stieglitz's salon influenced numerous writers and artists, including William Carlos Williams, who was one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. Williams cultivated a photographic clarity of image; his aesthetic dictum was "no ideas but in things."

Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the modernist novel as well. No longer was it sufficient to write a straightforward third-person narrative or (worse yet) use a pointlessly intrusive narrator. The way the story was told became as important as the story itself.

Henry James, William Faulkner, and many other American writers experimented with fictional points of view (some are still doing so). James often restricted the information in the novel to what a single character would have known. Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) breaks up the narrative into four sections, each giving the viewpoint of a different character (including a mentally retarded boy).

To analyze such modernist novels and poetry, a school of "new criticism" arose in the United States, with a new critical vocabulary. New critics hunted the "epiphany" (moment in which a character suddenly sees the transcendent truth of a situation, a term derived from a holy saint's appearance to mortals); they "examined" and "clarified" a work, hoping to "shed light" upon it through their "insights."


Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Ezra Pound was one of the most influential American poets of this century. From 1908 to 1920, he resided in London, where he associated with many writers, including William Butler Yeats, for whom he worked as a secretary, and T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land he drastically edited and improved. He was a link between the United States and Britain, acting as contributing editor to Harriet Monroe's important Chicago magazine Poetry and spearheading the new school of poetry known as Imagism, which advocated a clear, highly visual presentation. After Imagism, he championed various poetic approaches. He eventually moved to Italy, where he became caught up in Italian Fascism.

Pound furthered Imagism in letters, essays, and an anthology. In a letter to Monroe in 1915, he argues for a modern-sounding, visual poetry that avoids "clichés and set phrases." In "A Few Don'ts of an Imagiste" (1913), he defined "image" as something that "presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." Pound's 1914 anthology of 10 poets, Des Imagistes, offered examples of Imagist poetry by outstanding poets, including William Carlos Williams, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Amy Lowell.

Pound's interests and reading were universal. His adaptations and brilliant, if sometimes flawed, translations introduced new literary possibilities from many cultures to modern writers. His life-work was The Cantos, which he wrote and published until his death. They contain brilliant passages, but their allusions to works of literature and art from many eras and cultures make them difficult. Pound's poetry is best known for its clear, visual images, fresh rhythms, and muscular, intelligent, unusual lines, such as, in Canto LXXXI, "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world," or in poems inspired by Japanese haiku, such as "In a Station of the Metro" (1916):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.
1874 - 1946 Gertrude Stein
1888 - 1965 T. S. Eliot

1874 – 1963 Robert Frost
1883 - 1963 William Carlos Williams
1899 - 1961 Ernest Hemingway

• Some prominent works: The Sun Also Rises

1896 - 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald

• Some prominent works: The Great Gatsby

• Related literary movements: Modernism, American Realism
1892 - 1980 William Faulkner

• Some prominent works: Absalom! Absolam!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August

1902-1968 John Steinbeck

• Some prominent works: The Red Pony, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden

The HARLEM RENAISSANCE 1919-1937 (also a part of Modernism)
1908 - 1960 Richard Wright was born on a Mississippi plantation. As an adult he lived in Chicago and New York, where he became an influential writer, speaker, and member of the Communist party. He was the first black writer to reach a large audience.

• Some prominent works: • Uncle Tom's Children (1938) • Native Son (1940)

• Black Boy (1945)

• Related literary movements: Naturalism, Modernism, Harlem Renaissance

• Key themes and features: • "American hunger" • strength through struggle • autonomy, equality, and individuality • communist ideals
Countee Cullen
1902 – 1967 Langston Hughes

• Some prominent works: • The Weary Blues

1891 – 1960 Zora Neale Hurston

• Some prominent works: • Their Eyes Were Watching God • Mules and Men • Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography)

• Key themes and features: • dialect & colloquialisms drawn from folklore • hyperbole • humor • identity development, journey toward self-awareness


1888-1953 Eugene O'Neill

1897-1975 Thornton Wilder


Shirley Jackson

Eudora Welty

1919 - J. D. Salinger gained tremendous popularity through a limited body of work --one novel and thirty-five published short stories. Born and raised in Manhattan, New York, Salinger has said that his own childhood was much like that of his famous teenage character, Holden Caulfield: "he was restless in fashionable prep schools, and he was finally sent to Valley Forge Military Academy," a model for Pencey prep in his novel (Stevick, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 102, 258-65). In college he contributed to literary magazines and wrote movie reviews. Soon afterward he took a class in short-story writing at Columbia University, which led to his first published works in magazines such as Story Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and The New Yorker. During World War II, he was involved in the invasion of Normandy and other battles that exposed him to the horrors of war. Salinger has been married and divorced twice and has become increasingly reclusive over the years. He said to a New York Times correspondent in 1974, "I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." He now lives in New England.

• Some prominent works: The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey

• Key themes and features: • psychological battles and self-destructive tendencies of characters in crisis • search for connectedness • unique narrative voice and use of idiom -- especially skillful imitation of teenage slang in Catcher • "wry but persistent hopefulness" (Updike) • blend of comedy and tragedy
Arthur Miller
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) Tennessee Williams

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) Katherine Anne Porter

James Baldwin (1924-1987) James Baldwin

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) Flannery O'Connor

John Updike

Thomas Pynchon

Toni Morrison

Alice Walker

Some poets to investigate:
A. R. Ammons

John Berryman

Elizabeth Bishop

Robert Creeley

James Dickey

Richard Hugo

Philip Levine

Robert Lowell

Sylvia Plath

Adrienne Rich

Theodore Roethke

Anne Sexton

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