American literature

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  1. COLONIAL LITERATURE (1608 – 1750)

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. ( Europe: Humanism, Renaissance and Classicism, Enlightenment)

1492 – Christopher Columbus discovers America

1607 – Jamestown, the first English colony was founded

1620 – Pilgrims came to America from England on the ship called Mayflower ,they were helped by Native Americans – Indians - Thanksgiving

In this period, there were only settlers and so not many pieces were written. If any were, it was usually on an European topic and about European issues. The first printing press appeared in 1763.

For this period were typical histories, religious writings and colonial poetry.

Captain John Smith – an English soldier and sailor

  • is credited with initiating American literature

A True Relation (1608) – about the first setlement in Jamestown in 1607 of which was leader
Pocahontas (1624) – a story about a Native American girl, who married an Englishman


Benjamin Franklin – a scientist, diplomat, writer, painter

  • he wrote essays (Historical Review of Pennsylvania)

Thomas Jefferson – the author of the Declaration of Independence (1776)

  • one of the Founding Fathers, later the third president of theUSA

  • a political philosofer

Thomas Paine – born in England, was the greatest political – pamphlet writer of the American Revolution. His radical writings greatly influenced the political thinking of the leaders of the Revolutionary War in America.
Common sense (1776) – pamphlet, which quickly united American feelings against England.

  1. 19 th CENTURY

Nationalism (1800 – 1830)
James Fenimore Cooper – a novelist ( sea – stories and historical romances)

The Last of the Mohycans

The Deerslayer – books about Indians, their conflicts with whites. Cooper became the first author to seriously portray American scenes and characters.
The Transcendentalists - a movement based on feelings rather than on a system of philosophy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau
American Renaissence (1850 – 1865, Civil war)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864)

His heroes are often troubled by pride,envy, or desire for revenge. He created tales similar to Gothic novelists with a degree of the supernatural.He set many stories against the backgound of Puritan New England.

The Scarlet Letter – gained him international fame. It is a drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery.

Herman Melville – (1819 – 1891) -Hawthorne’s friend, influenced by him.

His experiences in his youth as a sailor had a profound influence on his life and writings. They became the most important material for his books and short stories.

Moby Dick - one of the greatest American novels. Describes the voyage of the whaling ship, led by captain Ahab, who leads his crew on a hunt for the whale Moby Dick. The language of the book is highly symbolic. Captain Ahab has a light and a dark side that fight against each other. In the end, the dark side wins. Moby Dick is killed, and Ahab’s ship ( including the captain) is destroyed.

Edgar Allan Poe – (1809 – 1849) – he made important contributions to American literature in four areas: the short story, detective fiction, literary criticism, and poetry.

His parents died when he was three years old, he lived with their foster parents and was educated in the UK. Later was forced to enter the army, but expelled from West Point for breaking numerous minor rules. He had problems with alcohol and drugs. Poe married his cousin, but his wife died quite young of tuberculosis. Poe himself died in Baltimore in 1849 and his death remains a mystery.

The Raven and other poems – in ich – form, about a lonely man with fever thinking about a dead girl Lenora. He is woken by a mysterious raven at midnight, the man asks him questions and the raven replies „ nevermore“, the man starts panicking and is horrified. Poe experimented with the rhythm and sound of his poems, giving less importance to the message. The rythm of the poem allows the reader to hear the bird’s beak hitting the door.
His two collections of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and Tales include such titles as „ The Fall of theHouse of Usher „ , The Masque of the Red Death“, „ The Pit and the Pendulum“, „ The Black Cat“.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue – detective stories
American Guilded Age

( 1850 – 1890) – real American authors appeared – dealt with American topics and issues

Walt Whitman- ( 1819 – 1892) – saw himself as the poet of the body and the poet of the soul. He wrote without the usual poetic ornaments, in plain style, so that ordinary people could read him. His poetry was idealistic and romantic.
Leaves of Grass – a collection of poems, free – flowing verse of irregular length. It is an autobiography in verse and it was intended to show the ideas, beliefs, emotions and experiences of the common man in the US. The poems sing the praises of the US and of democracy.
Mark Twain - (1835-1910) – pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, considered the greatest humorist in American literature. He dealt with slavery. His style was influenced by journalism.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – about Tom’s boyhood, early adult experiences of life and friendships in Missouri.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – take place before the Civil War. It chronicles the adventures of HF and the runaway slave Jim. They flee south on the Mississippi river. During the journey the pair has a series of adventures that bring them closer to each other. The book is about a small boy and his relation to an escaped slave.
The Prince and the Pauper

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The 1 000 000 Bank Note and Other Stories

Realism and Naturalism
Stephen Crane – (1871 – 1900) – the first American Naturalist
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets – pictures a young poor girl betrayed ty family and friends who is finally driven to prostitution.
The Red Badge of Courage – about a soldier in the Civil War who through chance and circumstances beyond his control appears either like a hero or a coward.
Jack London – (1876 – 1916) – The Call of the Wild – an animal story

  1. 20th CENTURY

Social critics – novels attacted the growing power of business and the increasing corruption of government

Upton Sinclair (1878 – 1968) - The Jungle - described terrible conditions in Chicago’s meat – packing industry
Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951) - Babbit - focuses on a typical small city businessman
John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) – became famous for his novels about poor, oppressed California farmers and labourers.

The Grapes of Wrath – he told the story of a great national tragedy through experiences of one family. His description of this social injustice shocked the nation.

Other works of Steinbeck include – East of Eaden – a modern parallel of the Bible story about Cain and Abel

Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice And Men

In 1962 Steinbeck won Nobel Prize for Literature

The Lost Generation – the writer Gertrude Stein began a new literary movement when she told Ernest Hemingway: „ You are all a lost generation“ She spoke about young Americans who lost their ideals, their faith and their purpose after World War I.
Ernest Hemingway ( 1899 – 1961) – a novelist, short –story writer and journalist, received the Nobel Prize

-took part in WWI as a member of Red Cross, travelled a lot, later lived in Cuba, committed suicide

The Sun Also Rises – describes life of lost generation in France and Spain, their travels, parties

A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway joined a volunteer ambulance unit in Italy in WWI, was wounded and in hospital fell in love with a nurse- this gave a basis for a famous novel about tragic love

Death in the Afternoon

The Green Hills of Africa

To Whom the Bells Toll

The Old Man and the Sea – it is about an old Cuban fisherman Santiago, who catches a giant marlin after weeks of dissapointments, as he returns to the harbour th sharks eat the fish.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald – (1896 – 1940) – an author of novels and short stories

  • he came from a wealthy family, received a prestigious education and his writings made him famous and successful early in life.

  • The Great Gatsby – Gatsby, the main hero of the story believes, that money can buy love and happiness, the story ends tragically and his hopes aren’t fulfilled.

William Faulkner - ( 1897-1962) – a very prolific writer, wrote novels and short stories, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
Absolom! Absolom! – about a racial prejudice – a young man is rejected by his father and brother because of his mixed blood

The beat generation - a group of writers ni the latter half of the 50s.

They were antagonistic against middle – class values, commercialism and conformity.

Allen Ginsberg – ( 1926 –1997) - a poet, Howl and other Poems

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – (1919) - a poet

Jack Kerouac – ( 1922 –1969) - On The Road

William Burroughs ( 1914 – 1997)

After WWII

Joseph Heller – (1923 – 1999) - Catch –22 - anyone who wants to avoid combat is not really crazy.He used comedy to show absurdities in warfare and large military organizations.

William Styron – (1925 – 2006) - Sophie´s Choice

Norman Mailer (1923 –2007) – an influential writer in the post – war world.
Social – Criticsm

Jerome David Salinger (1919 - 2010) – The Catcher in the Rye – deals sensitively with problems of teenagers

Truman Capote (1924 – 1984)– In Cold Blood – non- fictional novel – a terrifying story of the brutal murder by two youths of a Kansas farm family.

John Updike (1932 - 2009) - American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic and literary critic

Most famous are his rabbit series – describes life of middle class in America – Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich.

Saul Below, John Irving

Tennessee Williams ( 1911 – 1983) – A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Arthur Miller ( 1915 – 2005) – Death of a Salesmen

Eugene O´Neill (1888 – 1953) – considered America’s greatest playwright. He pictures society in realistic terms, not avoiding even the ugly, such as death, drunkenness, cheap hotels and sailor’s bars.The mood of his plays is always dark and heavy.

Mourning Becomes Electra

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Edward Albee – (1928) – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story
Post-Modernism – time is not the leading issue

Vladimir Nabokov ( 1899 – 1977) – Lolita

Kurt Vonnegut –( 1922- 2007) – popular writer of black humor

Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, e.e.cummings, Sylvia Plath

Carl Sandburg
Science-Fiction: Rav Bradbury (1920) - 451°F

Issac Asimov (1920 – 1992)

Detective Stories: Raymond Chandler (1888 – 1959)

Horror Fiction: Stephen King (1947)

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