History of american Literature

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The Colonial Period (1650-1800) coincides with the Renaissance period in England . Writing of this period reflects the harshness of life in the New World and is primarily in the form of essays or journal accounts. There are few examples of poetry or fiction. Representative Works of the Period are:

  • Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin (rules for life)
  • Common Sense by Thomas Paine (political essay)
  • History of the Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford (journal)
  • “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards (sermon demonstrating the Puritan ethic)
  • “Upon the Burning of Our House” by Anne Bradstreet (poem about life in America )

The Age of Romanticism (1800-1865), which corresponds to the Victorian period in England , shows the same interest in novels but with a difference. The novelty of the frontier experience colors most of the writing of the time. There was also a body of oral literature developed by the slaves and uneducated. This literature will come to play a part in 20th century writing, but was basically unnoticed during this period. Representative Works of the Period are:


  • “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes (light verse)
  • Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (long narrative poem)
  • Snow Bound by John Greenleaf Whittier (folk traditions in verse)
  • Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant (introspective poem)

short stories

  • “The Cask of the Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (short story of terror)
  • Leatherstocking Tales by Washington Irving (tales of New York State)
  • novels
  • Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (tale of the frontier)
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville (tale of the sea)
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (tale of introspection)


  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau (essay on life)
  • “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (essays on life and transcendentalism)

The Age of Realism (1865-1915) was a time of growth and maturity in American literature. The change from rural life to urban was reflected in the writing as was the greater level of experimentation in writing. Writers attempted to show life as it “really” was. Representative Works of the Period are:


  • “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson (brief poem of insight)
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (poem of the people)
  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters (collection of poems about people)

short stories

  • “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte (local color short story)
  • Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry/William Sidney Porter (short story with a surprise ending)
  • Main Traveled Roads by Hamlin Garland (collection of tales about American life)
  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce (short story with biting commentary)


  • The American by Henry James (novel of alienation)
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London (tale of adventure)
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (story of small town life)
  • Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens (tales of the Mississippi and boyhood)
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (novel of family life)
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells (novel of manners and the middle class)
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (story about the reality of war)

The Modern period (1915-1960) was a time of introspection, regional literature, and diversity. Literature appeared in every corner of the nation and from every level of society. Representative Works of the Period are:


  • “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg (poem of the people)
  • “God’s Trombone“by James Weldon Johnson (black religious poem)
  • “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost (pastoral poem)

short stories

  • “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber (humorous short story)
  • Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson (short story about American life)


  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (novel about Southern politics)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (novel about the lower class)
  • Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (political novels)
  • Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (reformist novel)
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (novel about a teenager’s search for himself)
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok (Jewish novel about a boy’s struggle with life's questions)
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (novel of adventure)
  • Flowering Judas by Katharine Anne Porter
  • Giants in the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag (tale about Norwegian pioneers)
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (popular novel about the Civil War)
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (novel about China )
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (novel about the despair of the Great Depression)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel of the lost generation)
  • Hawaii by James Michener (popular adventure novel)
  • Herzog by Saul Bellow (acclaimed Jewish novel)
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
  • Lost Horizons by James Hilton (popular novel about Shangri-la)
  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (novel about middle class life)
  • Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (popular novel about a young Jewish girl)
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather (novel of early pioneers)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Rabbitt Run by John Updike (novel about alienation of individual)
  • Seventeen by Booth Tarkington (early young adult novel)
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (Southern novel about Yoknapatapaw County)


  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (dramatic tale of despair)
  • The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
  • Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury

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