Native American American Literature begins with the myths, legends, tales, and lyrics of Indian cultures. These stories glow with reverence for nature as a spiritual as well as a physical mother. Nature is alive and endowed with spiritual forces. Don’t forget, the Native American tradition also values both sides of “good” and “bad” equally. The Native American literary tradition as a whole is one of the richest and least explored topics of American studies.
Since early Native American literature was in the oral tradition, you will need to choose as author who recorded their tradition. There are many different regions and time periods that are completely unique, thus a list here would be difficult. If this is an area you are interested in, please take some time to visit with me concerning your plans.
Colonial Period The literature of this period paints America in glowing colors as the land of riches and opportunity. The exploration of Raonoke was carefully recorded by Thomas Hariot. Jamestown’s main record, the writings of Captain John Smith, is the opposite of Hariot’s accurate, scientific account. Smith is believed to have embellished his adventures, but we do owe the famous story of the Indian maiden, Pocahontas, which is now ingrained in the American historical imagination, to Smith.
Replacing the early literature of exploration, made up of diaries, letters, travel journals, ships’ logs, and reports to the explorers financial backer, was the literature of the Puritans. The Puritans were very educated, and their idea of good writing emphasized the importance of worshiping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced on earth. 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. The Puritan ideal was ambition, hard work, and an intense striving for success. Puritans tended to feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth and status were sought not only for themselves, but as reassurance of spiritual health and promises of eternal life.
The Age of Revolution (1750-1800) During this time Americans were painfully aware of their excessive dependence on English literary models. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. But cultural revolutions, unlike their recently successful military revolutions, cannot be successfully imposed but must grow from the soil of shared experience. The challenges of building a new nation attracted talented and educated people to politics, law, and diplomacy. These pursuits brought honor, glory, and wealth; consequently, the writers separated from England were left with no publishers, no audience, and no legal protection. The American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of monarchy.
Benjamin Franklin Patrick Henry
Hector St. John de Crevecoeur Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Paine Abigail Smith Adams
Philip Freneau Philip Freneau
Charles Brockden Brown Also works with the Romantics:
James Fennimore Cooper
The Romantic Tradition (1800-1850) 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. 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 novelists did, the Romantics shaped heroic figures larger than life, burning with mythic significance. The typical protagonists of the American Romance are haunted, alienated individuals. One reason for this fictional exploration into the hidden recesses of the soul is the absence of settled, traditional community life in America. American novelists were faced with a history of strife and revolution, a geography of vast wilderness, and a fluid and relatively classless democratic society. Romantic novels frequently reveal a revolutionary absence of tradition. The Romance form is dark and forbidding, indicating how difficult it is to create an identity without a stable society.
The Transcendentalists exemplified everything the Knickerbocker Romantics expounded, but they brought ideas centered around art as inspiration, the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of nature, and metaphors of organic growth. Art, rather than science, could best express universal truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most influential writer of the Romantic era, asserts:
For all men live by truth, and stand in need for 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 is a major theme. 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. The Transcendental authors stressed individualism, affirmed the value of the common person, and looked to the inspired imagination. The Transcendentalist movement was based on the fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God; the soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world. Yet, they insisted on individual differences. – on the unique viewpoint of the individual.
Realism (1860-1914) The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a watershed in American history. After the war, the innocent optimism of the democratic nation gave way to a period of exhaustion. American idealism was rechanneled to idealizing progress and the self-made man. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator. Darwin’s evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon.
In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half of the population was concentrated in 12 cities. This urbanization and industrialization led to: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay (wage slavery), difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business. This shift of population also led to a shift. The farmer gradually became an object of ridicule, lampooned as an unsophisticated “hick” or “rube.” The eastern banks tightly controlled mortgages and credit vital to western development. The “common man” found himself struggling against the money interests of the East and the robber barons, yet the ideal American remained the millionaire.
As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. The characters were survivors who endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality. For the writers of this movement, Realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Thus it was profoundly liberating and potentially at odds with society.
Frontier humor and realism, local colorists, mid-western realism, cosmopolitan novelists, and naturalism and muckraking all grew from this time of realism. Two forces shaped the economic and social character: industrialization and expansion west of the Mississippi. It was a time to be crass and materialistic, a time when the American dream seemed less a dream and more a possibility. This was also a time of change: the California gold rush, pony express, telegraph, stage coach, and transcontinental railroad. But this change offered, for the first time, a national audience; consequently, writers, like Walt Whitman, expressed the spirit of nationalism, envisioning a nation of individuals united by a common tragedy and inspiring a hope for the future. At the same tome there was a new awareness of American diversity, a regional identification that found its expression in realism. Local color writers portrayed the customs, attitudes, characters, situations, and dialects of their regions with the realist’s eye for accurate detail.
Modernism and Experimentation (1914-1945) Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States’ traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement was relatively brief and its casualties many fewer than those of its European allies and foes. Still, shocked and permanently changed, Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence or their roots. After experiencing the world many now yearned for a modern, urban life. Farmers were poor; workers were poor. Crop prices and urban wages were kept low by Eastern business interests. President Coolidge proclaimed that, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
It was true that in the postwar boom, business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. In the 1920s college enrollment doubled, the middle-class prospered, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol – the automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the hours with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine. America approved of these machines because they were modern and because most were American inventions and American-made.
American of the “Roaring Twenties” fell in love with dancing, movie going, automobile touring, and radio. American women, in particular, felt liberated. Many had left farms and villages for homefront duty in American cities during WW I, and had become Modern. They cut their hair and dresses short and gloried in the right to vote.
Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism (like earlier Darwinian theory of evolution), implied a “godless” world view and contributed to the breakdown of traditional values. American abroad absorbed these views and brought them back to the United States where they took root, firing the imagination of young writers and artists. Virtually all serious American fiction writers after WW I employed Freudian elements in their work.
Despite outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation.” Without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity. The secure, supportive family life; the familiar, settled community; the natural and eternal rhythms of nature that guide the planting and harvesting on a farm; the sustaining sense of patriotism; moral values inculcated by religious beliefs and observations – all seemed undermined by WW I and its aftermath. Writing reflected this by symbolizing western civilization with a bleak desert in desperate need of rain (spiritual renewal).
The world depression of the 1930s affected most of the population of the United States. Many saw the Depression as a punishment for sins of excessive materialism and loose living. The dust storms that blackened the Midwestern sky, they believed, constituted an Old Testament judgment: the “whirlwind by day and the darkness at noon.” The Depression turned the world upside down. The New Deal programs helped, but only the industrial build-up of WW II renewed prosperity.
Americans rode the cultural wave of Modernism, expressing 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. Writers embraced these changes, and meaning 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-WW 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. 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.
Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the modernist novel. No longer was it sufficient to write a straightforward third-person narrative or use a pointlessly intrusive narrator. The way the story was told became as important as the story itself. Writers experimented with fictional points of view (some still do). 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.”
Realism and Experimentation (1945-1990) Narrative in the decades following WW II resists generalization: It was extremely various and multifaceted. It was vitalized by international currents such a sexistentialism and magical realism, while the electronic era brought the global village. The spoken word on television gave new life to the oral tradition. Oral genres, media, and popular culture increasingly influenced narrative.
In the past, elite culture influenced popular culture through its status and example; the reverse seems true in the United States in the postwar years. Serious novelists borrowed from and commented on comics, movies, fashions, songs, and oral history. To say this is not to trivialize this literature; writers in the United States were asking serious questions, many of them of a metaphysical nature. Writers became highly innovative and self-aware, or reflexive. Often they found traditional modes ineffective and sought vitality in more widely popular material. To put it another way, American writers in the postwar decades developed a postmodern sensibility. Modernist restructurings point of view no longer sufficed for them; rather, the context of vision had to me made new.
The Realist Legacy and the Late 1940s
WW II offered prime material. Writers like Norman Mailer and James Jones were two writers employed realism verging on grim naturalism; both took pains not to glorify combat. Many of these writers showed that human foibles were as evident in wartime as in civilian life. Later Joseph Heller cast WW II in satirical and absurdist terms arguing that war is laced with insanity. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. became the shining light of the counterculture with his antiwar novel. The 1940s saw a flourish of new writers, including Robert Penn Warren, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty. All explored the fate of the individual within the family or community and focused on the balance between personal growth and responsibility to the group.
The 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life. WW II lifted the United States out of the Depression and provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. The corporate world seemed to offer the good life in the ‘burbs’ with its real and symbolic marks of success – house, car, television, and home appliances.
Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme for many writers; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype and generalized American alienation came under scrutiny. Most writers supported the assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. They criticized citizens for losing the frontier individualism and becoming too conformist or advising people to become members of the “New Class” that technology and leisure time created.
In literary terms, the 1950s was a decade of subtle and pervasive unease. Novels explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed. Some writers went further by focusing on characters who dropped out of the mainstream society.
John O’Hara Flannery O’Connor
James Baldwin Bernard Bellow
Ralph Ellison Isaac Bashevis Singer
John Cheever Vladimir Nabokob
John Updike Jack Kerouac
Arthur Miller Philip Roth
Saul Bellow Ralph Ellison
Lorraine Hansberry J.D. Salinger
Turbulent but Creative 1960s
The alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the civil rights movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked through American society. Notable political and social works include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan, and Norman Mailer.
The 1960s were marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage that has carried through the present day. Writers like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Kesey were notable practitioners.
This time period also yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical with writers like Thomas Pynconn, John Barth, and Donald Bartheleme. This new mode came to be called metafiction – self-conscious or reflexive fiction that calls attention to its own technique. Such “fiction about fiction” emphasizes language and style, and departs from the conventions of realism such as rounded characters, a believable plot enabling a character’s development, and appropriate settings. In metafiction, the writer’s style attracts the reader’s attention. The true subject is not the characters, but rather the writer’s own consciousness.
The 1970s and 1980s = consolidation
By the mid-1970s, an era of consolidation had begun. In literature, old currents remained, but the force behind pure experimentation dwindled. Stylistically brilliant novels emerged to portray moving human dramas. Concern with setting, character, and themes associated with realism returned, along with renewed interest in history. Realism, abandoned by experimental writers crept back, often mingled with bold original elements – a daring structure like a novel within a novel or black American dialect. Minority Literature began to flourish.