American Literature

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American Literature

First chapter – Early American and colonial period to 1776.

American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics of Indian cultures. The closest equivalents to Old World spiritual narratives are often accounts of shamans´ initiations and voyages. Apart from these, there are stories about culture heroes such as the Ojibwa tribe´s Manabozho or the Navajo tribe´s Coyote. Examples of almost every oral genre can be found in American Indian literature: lyrics, chants, myths, fairy tales, humorous anecdotes, incantations, riddles, proverbs, epics, and legendary histories. The literature of exploration:
The first European record of exploration in America is in a Scandinavian language. The old Norse Vinland Saga recounts how the adventurous Leif Ericson and a band of wandering Norsemen settled briefly somewhere on the north-east coast of America, in the first decade of the 11th century, almost 400 years before the next recorded European discovery of the New World. The first known and sustained contact between the Americas and the rest of the world, however, began with the famous voyage of an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus´s journal in his “Epistola” printed in 1493, recounts the trip´s drama – the terror of the men, who feared monsters and thought they might fall off the edge of the world. Bartolomé de las Casas is the richest source of information about the early contact between American Indians and Europeans. As a young priest he helped conquer Cuba. He transcribed Columbus´s journal, and late in life wrote a long vivid History of the Indians criticising their enslavement by the Spanish. The first colony was set up in 1585 at Roanoke and the second colony was more permanent Jamestown, established in 1607. The exploration of Roanoke was carefully recorded by Thomas Hariot in A Brief and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia. The Jamestown colony´s main record are the writings of Captain John Smith.
The colonial period in New England:
The first settlers who came to settle here were so called Puritans. They were seeking for political and religious freedom. 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. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. The Puritans interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper spiritual meaning, and left that in advancing their own profit and their community´s well-being, they were also furthering God´s plans. In recording ordinary events to reveal their spiritual meaning, Puritan authors commonly cited the Bible, chapter and verse. 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 than known for its religious tolerance – in 1608 during the time of persecutions. Like most Puritans, they interpreted the Bible literary. WILLIAM BRADFORD (1590 – 1657):
William Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony shortly after the Separatists landed. He was a deeply pious, self-educated man who had learned several languages. His history of Plymouth Plantation is a clear and compelling account of the colony´s beginning. His description of the first view of America is justly famous. Bradford also recorded the firs document of colonial self-governance. Puritan minds poured their tremendous energies into nonfiction and pious genres: poetry, sermons, theological tracts, and histories. Second chapter – Democratic origins and revolutionary writers.

The hard-fought American Revolution against Britain 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. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. 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. Colonial writers of the revolutionary generation had been born English. Fifty years after their fame in England, English neoclassic writers such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift were still eagerly imitated in America. 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 prinetrs to publish their work. The exception, Benjamin Franklin, though from a poor family, was a printer by trade and could publish his own work. The lack of an audience was another problem. The small cultivated audience in America wanted well-known European authors. Only journalism offered financial remuneration, but the mass audience wanted light, undemanding verse and short topical essays– not long or experimental work. The American enlightenment:
The 18th century 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. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706 – 1790):
He embodied the Enlightenment ideal of human rationality. Practical yet idealistic, hard-working and enormously successful, Franklin recorded his early life in his famous Autobiography. Writer, printer, publisher, scientist, philantropist, and diplomat, he was the most famous and respected private figure of his time. Self-educated but well read in John Locke and other Enlightenment writers, Franklin learned from them to apply reason to his own life and to break with tradition when it threatened to smother his ideals. While a youth, Franklin taught himself languages, read widely, and practised writing for the public. He also had the Puritan capacity for hard, careful work. Franklin´s Poor Richard´s Almanach begun in 1732 and published for many years, made Franklin prosperous and well-known throughout the colonies. In this annual book of useful encouragement, advice, and factual information, amusing characters such as old Father Abraham and Poor Richard exhort the reader in pithy, memorable sayings. Franklin´s Autobiography is in part another self-help book. Written to advise his son it covers only the early years.

The most famous section describes his scientific scheme of self-improvement. Franklin lists 1Franklin lists 13 virtues. To establish good habits, Franklin invented a reusable calendrical record book in which he worked on one virtue each week, recording each lapse with a black spot. Franklin saw early that writing could best advance his ideas, and he therefore deliberately perfected his supple prose style, not as an end it itself but as a tool.

Third chapter – the romantic period (essayist and poets).

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. The development of the self became a major theme; self-awareness a primary method. Romanticism was affirmative and appropriate for most American poets and creative essayist. 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 value.

The transcendentalism movement was a reaction against 18th century rationalism and a manifestation of the general humanitarian trend of the 19th century thought. The movement was based on a fundamental belief in the unity of the world and God. The soul of each individual was thought to be identical with the world – a microcosm of the world itself. The doctrine of self-reliance and individualism developed through the belief in the identification of the individual soul with God. The Transcendentalists published a quarterly magazine, The Dial, which lasted four years and was first edited by Margaret Fuller and later by Emerson. Unlike many European groups, the Transcendentalists never issued a manifesto. They insisted on individual differences – on the unique viewpoint of the individual. American Transcendental Romantics pushed radical individualism to the extreme, American writers often saw themselves as lonely explorers outside society and convention. The American hero – like Herman Melville´s Captain Ahab, or Mark Twain´s Huck Finn – typically faced risk or even certain destruction in the pursuit of metaphysical self-discovery. For the romantic American writer, nothing was a given.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803 – 1882):
Emerson´s philosophy has been called contradictory, and it is true that he consciously avoided building a logical intellectual system because such a rational system would have negated his romantic belief in intuition and flexibility. In his essay Self-reliance Emerson remarks: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Most of his major ideas – the need for a new national vision, the use of personal experience, the notion of the cosmic Over-Soul, and the doctrine of compensation – are suggested in his publication Nature. Other poem he wrote was called Brahma. This poem, published in the first number of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, confused readers unfamiliar with Brahma, the highest Hindu god, the eternal and infinite soul of the universe. Emerson had this advice for his readers: “Tell them to say Jehovah instead of Brahma”. Fourth chapter – the romantic period (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 novelist 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. 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. 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. American novelists 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. NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804 – 1864):
He was born in Salem, Massachusetts, a wealthy seaport north of Boston that specialized in East India trade. On his ancestors had been a judge in an earlier century, during trials in Salem of women accused of being witches.

Hawthorne used this idea of a curse on the family of an evil judge in his novel The House of the Seven Gables. Many of Hawthorne´s stories are set in Puritan New England, and his greatest novel The Scarlet Letter has become the classic portrayal of Puritan America. It tells of the passionate, forbidden love affair linking and sensitive, religious young man, the reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the sensuous, beautiful townsperson, Hester Prynne. Set in Boston around 1650 during early Puritan colonization, the novel highlights the Calvinistic obsession with morality, sexual repression, guilt and confession, and spiritual salvation. For its time, The Scarlet Letter was a daring and even subversive book. It uses allegory a technique the early Puritan colonists themselves practiced. Hawthorne´s reputation rests on his other novels and tales as well. In The House of the Seven Gables he again returns to New England´s history. The theme concerns an inherited curse and its resolution through love. Hawthorne´s last two novels were less successful. Both used modern settings, which hampered on the modern romance. The Blithedale Romance and The Marble Faun.

Fifth chapter – The rise of realism.

The U.S. Civil War 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 away. Before the war idealist championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealised progress and the self-made man. Business boomed after the war. War production had boosted industry in the North and given it prestige and political clout. 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. 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 urbanisation and industrialisation appeared. 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. He ideal American of the post-Civil War period became the millionaire. From 1860 to 1914 the United States was transformed from a small young agricultural ex-colony to a huge, modern industrial nation.

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 endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality.
JACK LONDON (1876 – 1916):
A poor, self-taught worker from California, the naturalist Jack London was catapulted from poverty to fame by his first collection of stories The Son of the Wolf, set largely in the Klondike region of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Other of his best-sellers, including The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf made him the highest paid writer in the United States of his time.
The autobiographical novel Martin Eden depicts the inner stress of the American dream as London experienced them during his meteoric rise from obscure poverty to wealth and fame. Eden, an impoverished but intelligent and hard working sailor and laborer, is determined to become a writer. Eventually his writing makes him rich and well-known but Eden realises that the woman he loves cares only for his money and fame. His despair over her inability to love causes him to lose faith in human nature. He also suffers from class alienation, for he no longer belongs to the working class, while he rejects the materialistic values of the wealthy whom he worked hard to join. He sails for the South Pacific and commits suicide by jumping into the sea. Like many of the best novels of its time, Martin Eden is an unsuccess story. It looks ahead to F.Scott Fitzgerald´s The Great Gatsby in its revelation of despair amid great wealth.

Sixth chapter – modernism and experimentation.

In the postwar Big Boom business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education – in the 1920s college enrollment doubled. The middleclass prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world´s highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol – an automobile. Western youths were rebelling, angry and disillusioned with the savage war, the older generation they held responsible, and difficult postwar economic conditions that, ironically allowed Americans with dollars to live abroad handsomely on very little money. Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism implied a godless world view and contributed to the breakdown of traditional values.

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 awell 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.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899 – 1961):
Like Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and many other fine novelists of the 20th century Hemingway came from the U.S. Midwest. Born in Illinois, Hemingway spent childhood vacations in Michigan on hunting and fishing trips. He volunteered for an ambulance unit in France during World WarI., but was wounded and hospitalized for six months. After the war as a war correspondent based in Paris he met expatriate American writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, influenced his spare style. After his novel The Sun Also Rises brought him fame, he covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II., and the fighting in China in 1940s. Hunting and sport fishing activities inspired some of his best work. The Old Man and the Sea a short poetic novel about a poor, old fisherman who heroically catches a huge fish devoured by sharks, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in 1954. Hemingway is arguably the most popular American novelist of this century. His simple style makes his novels easy to comprehend and they are often set in exotic surroundings. A believer in the cult of experience, Hemingway often involved his characters in dangerous situations in order to reveal their inner natures; in his later works, the danger sometimes becomes an occasion for masculine assertion. He wrote of war, death, and the lost generation of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers, but tough bullfighters, soldiers and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned.

Seventh chapter – American poetry since 1945: the anti-tradition.

It is not hard to find historical causes for this disassociated sensibility in the United States. World War II. itself, the rise of anonymity and consumerism in a mass urban society, the protest movements of the 1960s, the decade-long Vietnam conflict, the Cold War, enviromental threats – the catalog of shocks to American culture is long and varied. The change that has most transformed American society, however, ha been the rise of the mass media and mass culture. American poetry has been directly influenced by mass media and electronic technology.
Experimental poetry:
Experimental poetry was inspired by jazz and abstract expressionist painting.

They have tended to be bohemian, counter-culture intellectuals who disassociated themselves from universities and outspokenly critized bourgeois American society. Their poetry is daring, original and sometimes shocking. In its search for new values, it claims affinity with the archaic world of myth, legend, and traditional societies such as those of the American Indian.
Beat Poets:
They emerged in 1950s. Most of the important beatniks migrated to San Francisco from the east coast, gaining their initial national recognition in California. Major beat writers have included Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Beat poetry is oral, repetitive and immensely effective in readings, largely because it developed out of poetry readings in underground clubs. Beat poetry was the most antiestablishment form of literature in the United States, but beneath its shocking words lies a love of country. The poetry is a cry of pain and rage at what the poets see as the loss of America´s innocence and the tragic waste of its human and material resources. Poems like Allen Ginsberg´s Howl revolutionized traditional poetry.

Eight chapter – American prose since 1945: realism and

Narrative since World War II. resists generalization: It is extremely various and multifaceted. It has been vitalized by international currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism, while the electronic era has brought the global village. The spoken word on television has given new life to oral tradition. Writers in the United States are asking serious questions, many of them of a metaphysical nature. Writers have become highly innovate and self-aware or reflexive. Often they find traditional modes ineffective and seek vitality in more widely popular material.
J.D. Salinger has portrayed attempts to drop out of society- Born in New York City he achieved huge literary success with the publication of his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Centred on a sensitive 16-year-old boy, Holden Caufield, who flees his elite boarding school for the outside world of adulthood, only to become disillusioned by its materialism and phoniness. When asked what he would like to be, Caufield answers “the catcher in the rye” misquoting a poem by Robert Burns. In his vision, he is a modern version of a white knight, the sole preserver of innocence. He imagines a big field of rye so tall that a group of young children cannot see where they are running as they play their games. He is the only big person there.

Other works by this reclusive spare writer include: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters a collection of stories from The New Yorker.
JACK KEROUAC (1922 – 1969):
The son of an impoverished French-Canadian family, Jack Kerouac also questioned the values of middle-class life. He met members of the beat literary underground as an undergraduate at Columbia university in NYC. His fiction was much influenced by the loosely autobiographical work of southern novelist Thomas Wolfe. Kerouac´s best-known novel, On the Road describes beatniks wandering through America seeking an idealistic dream of communal life and beauty. The Dharma Bums also focuses on peripatetic counterculture intellectuals and their infatuation with Zen Buddhism. Kerouac also panned a book of poetry, Mexico City Blues and volumes about his life with such beatniks as experimental novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg.


 Abolitionism – active movement to end slavery in the U.S. North before the Civil War in the 1860s.
 Beatnik – artistic and literary rebellion against established society of the 1950s and early 1960s, associated with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others. Beat suggest holiness and suffering.
 Calvinism – strict theological doctrine of the French Protestant church reformer John Calvin and the basis of Puritan society. Calvin held that all humans were born sinful and only God´s grace could save a person from hell.
 Civil War – the war (1861 – 1865) between the northern U.S. states, which remained in the Union, and the southern states, which seceded and formed the Confederacy. The victory of the north ended slavery and preserved the Union.
 Enlightenment –an 18th-century movement that focused on the ideals of good sense, benevolence, and a belief in liberty, justice, and equality as the natural rights of man.
 Light literature – popular literature written for entertainment.
 Midwest – The central area of the United States, from the Ohio river to the Rocky Mountains, including the Prairie and Great Plains region.
 Myth – Legendary narrative, usually of gods and heroes, or a theme that expresses the ideology of a culture.
 Post-modernism – media-influenced aesthetic sensibility of the late 20th century characterized by open-end-endness and collage.
 Puritans – English religious and political reformers who fled their native land in search of religious freedom, and settled and colonised New England in the 17th century.
 Reflexive – self-referential.

A literary work is reflexive when it refers to itself.
 Revolutionary War – The War of Independence, 1775 – 1783, fought by the American colonies against Great Britain.
Transcendentalism – A broad, philosophical movement in New England during the Romantic era. It stressed the role of divinity in nature and the individual´s intuition, and exalted feeling over reason.

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