An Outline of American Literature Chapter one: Colonial Beginnings

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An Outline of American Literature
Chapter one: Colonial Beginnings
1. Time: the early 1600s

2. Content: the English exploration and colonization of the New World (America).

3. The southerners were slow to develop a literature of their own; imported books from England.

4. Due to the puritans, the culture and literature developed much faster than in the South.

5. The most interesting works of New England Puritan literature was histories: God’s plan; the Promised Land; struggle between Christ and Satan; also the difficult relations with the Indians.

6. “plain style”

7. The first Puritans were not very democratic. Everybody had to obey the harsh church laws.

8. The 1690s: the great witchcraft panic. In Salem, Massachusetts, young girls and old women were arrested and put on trial as witches and put to death of selling their soul to the Devil.

Chapter Two: The Birth of a Nation

  1. Revolution: 1775~1783: the most memorable writing was done by the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution of 1789. They were practical philosophers and their product was the political pamphlet.

  2. They shared the Enlightenment belief: human intelligence (or reason) could understand both nature and man, unlike the puritans who saw man as a sinful failure.

  3. Benjamin Franklin (1706~1790): showed the Enlightenment spirit. His only rea book: Autobiography.

  4. Thomas Paine (1737~1809): the greatest pamphlet-writer of the American Revolution. His most important work was Common Sense (1776): “There is something absurd in supposing a continent (America) to be perpetually governed by an island (Britain).”

  5. Thomas Jefferson (1743~1826): Declaration of Independence, beautifully written. He believed that man did not have to depend on God to improve the world, and should use his own wisdom to do the improving by himself. Humanity is naturally good.

  6. Poets of the Revolution era: imitated the “neoclassical” style of the themes of the great English writers. They wrote in couplets and experimented with blank verse.

  7. Drama developed very slowly in the English colonies, due to the Puritans.

Chapter Three: The Rise of a National Literature

  1. to express and describe the special character of the nation

  2. Novels were the first popular literature of the newly independent United States: Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones).

  3. Charles Brockden Brown (1771~1810): psychology of horror, which greatly influenced Hawthorne and Poe many years later.

  4. Washington Irving (1783~1859): The Sketch Book (1819), containing Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

  5. James Cooper (1789~1851): He described such American character types: the pioneer, the Indian, and the Yankee sailor.

  6. William Cullen Bryant (1794~1878): democratic and liberal; disliked the old neoclassical style, and agreed with the Romantic poets of Europe (Wordsworth).

Chapter Four: An American Renaissance

  1. Writers look at the western frontier for ideas for a literature about American life.

  2. In the east coast: the culture of Massachusetts and Virginia ought to be the models of national culture.

  3. The new spiritual era: the Transcendentalists. They tried to find the truth through feeling and intuition rather than through logic. Nature itself was their “Bible”. Birds, clouds, trees and snow had a special meaning for them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803~1882

  1. Emerson: Nature (1836). Man’s relationship with nature transcends the idea of usefulness.

Henry David Thoreau, 1817~1862

5. Thoreau, Walden (1854) / Concord / Boston: living through the visible to the invisible, through the temporal to the eternal…

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804`1864

  1. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850): the adultery of Hester Prynne and the Puritan minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. The theme: it is useless to hide guilt in order to avoid punishment.

Herman Melville (1819~1891)

  1. Melville, theme: good against evil, God against Satan, the head against the heart. Moby-Dick (1851): Captain Ahab and the white whale.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809~1849

  1. Poe: the short story, literary criticism, and poetry. Tales of horror: The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). Unity of effect is everything in short stories. One of the inventors of the Modern detective story.

Poetry, sound: The Raven (1845):
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a


As of someone gently rapping – rapping at my chamber door.
Criticism: Poe wanted to help develop a national literature, and he felt that intelligent criticism was the key. Many enemies.

Chapter Five: The Boston Brahmins (文人雅士)

  1. The Boston Brahmins: a group of aristocratic Boston writers, including Longfellow, Hawthorne, O.W. Holmes, J. G. Whittier, James Russell Lowell and 2 famous historians, Prescott and Motley.

  1. Longfellow (1807~1882): speaking directly to the hearts of ordinary Americans. His language is simple and easy to understand. He prefers to express the simple dreams of average humanity.

Hiawatha: Every human heart is human,

That in even savage bosoms

There are longings, yearnings, strivings,

For the good they comprehend not

  1. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809~1894):

Autocrat of the Breakfast Table: humorous, “Stupidity often saves a man from going mad.” Readers enjoy laughing with Homes at people they saw as less intelligent or cultured than themselves.
The Deacon’s Masterpiece (1858): a clever attack on Puritan Calvinism.

Calvinism (also called the Reformed tradition, the Reformed faith, or Reformed theology): the system is best known for its doctrines of predestination and total depravity, stressing the absolute sovereignty of God.

4. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807~1892):

Snow-Bound (1866): values highly the warmth of family affection.
he sun that brief December day

ose cheerless over hills of gray…

nd when the second morning shone,

e looked upon a world unknown.

universe of sky and snow!

he old familiar sights of ours

ook marvellous shapes…
it with me by the homestead hearth,

nd search the hands of memory forth

o warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze!

Chapter Six: The Civil War and the “Gilded Age”
The Civil War: 1861~1865

The Gilded Age: gold on the surface, but degeneration inside. Mark Tawain’s novel: The Gilded Age (1873).

  1. Walt Whitman (1819~1892):

Leaves of Grass: to define America, her athletic democracy.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer

grass, …
I am enamoured of growing out-doors,

Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or

Song of Myself: “ I celebrate myself and sing myself.” “Nothing, not God, is greater than the self is.” The “Over-Soul” “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the soul. He boldly brings sex within the area of poetry.

Poetic form: free verse, a clear rhythm, easy to read, about democracy.

  1. Emily Dickinson (1830~1886):

She led a quiet, very private life in a big old house in Amherst. She created a very personal and pure kind of poetry. She seldom lost sight of the grave:

I heard a fly buzz when I died.

. …

With blue, uncertain stumbling buzz,

Between the light and me;

And then the windows failed, and then

I could not see.

The search for faith; the possible as more important than the actual; pain of lonely people at night.

  1. Mark Twain (1835~1910):

The Gilded Age (1873): America’s loss of its old idealism. It describes a how a group of young people are morally destroyed by the dream of becoming rich.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): Tom and Finn are bad only because they fight against the stupidity of the adult. They win in the end.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): Huck learns about the evil of the world. He decides that the slave is a man, not a “thing”. He decides to break the law by setting Jim, the black slave, free.
General theme: the conflict between the ideals of Americans and their desire for money.

Chapter Seven: The Era of Realism and Naturalism
Realism: 1875, true-to-life description
William Dean Howells (1837~1920): a realist, insisting that “American novels should depict the more smiling aspects of life.” However, he began attacking the evils of American capitalism in 1890.

Naturalism (1890s): a term created by the French novelist, Emile Zola. He believed that people were not really “free”. Rather, their lives, opinions and morality were all controlled by social, economic and psychological causes.
Stephen Crane (1871~1900): the first American naturalist. Maggie: A Girl of the Street.

Poem collection: War Is Kind
These men were born to drill and die,” underscoring not only the brutal nature of war but of a society, a world, which programs human beings for particular malicious purposes. Crane believed that in large part human beings’ destinies are determined by biological as well as social determinants, and that free will plays only a small role in our lives.

Henry James (1843~1916):

An observer of the mind: his realism is was a special kind of psychological realism. The changing consciousness of the character is the real story. “Stream-of-consciousness”.

The Portrait of a Lady (1881): The most important part of the novel is where she realizes her mistake. There is great drama in his description of her “motionlessly seeing” the mistake she has made.

Chapter Nine: The Turning Point of American Literature

  1. Starting from 1915, a period of “self-criticism” was opened. The result was “new realism” which lasted up to the 1950s.

  2. Death of “Puritanism,” included the truth of sex, sexual desire.

  3. Sigmund Freud: a famous lecture series in 1919.

  1. Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945): a naturalist, who ignores puritanical moral code.

Sister Carrie (1900): accidental success and downfall due to fate; even money and success cannot bring happiness.

  1. Willa Cather (1873-1947):

My Antonio (1918): pioneer men and women of Nebraska, the “hardships of farm life” and the “great gift for life” (The heroine lives on, marries and raises a large family, a happy family.)

  1. Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941):

Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a serious of short episodes of small town characters: techniques of “modernism”: s simpler writing style, like ordinary spoken language; more emphasis on the form of the story than on its content; a special use of time (in which past, present and future are mixed together, as in a dream)

Example: Alice Hindman, she ran in a rainy night, naked, attempting to embrace another human being who happened to pass by. She wept sadly and asked “What is the matter with me?” She finally understood that “Many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

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