Revealing Introduction to Early American Literature

Early American Literature

All literary works created in the United States and the preceding colonies form American literature. Studying it is important since it helps people learn more about the history, culture, and other aspects of life in the United States.

The courses in American literature that are taught in foreign countries are essential as well since they give non-citizens a wonderful opportunity to find out more about great American literary masterpieces and their authors. Students are often assigned to write different kinds of papers in the introduction to early American literature since such a course is usually taught in the majority of educational institutions. The purpose of the tasks given in this academic discipline is to improve students’ writing skills and knowledge and see whether they can properly understand different pieces of literature. Since not everyone has talent for writing, such assignments often cause serious problems to a large number of students.

American literature has a long history which can be divided into five main periods. Each of them has its peculiarities, eminent authors, and works that can be called chef d’oeuvres.

Introduction to Early American Literature (17 century till 1830)

The first settlers in North America started writing about their life in the 1600s. This period is regarded as the earliest in American literature. The literary works produced during that time can be characterized as clear, thorough, and concentrated on the future.

During the stated period of time, the works produced by British settlers, who lived in the colonies that would then transform into the USA, formed the biggest part of American literature.

Being the president of the Jamestown Colony and explorer, John Smith created the stories of Virginia. Those pieces of writing that were published in 1608 and 1624 belong to early Native American literature.

John Winthrop and Nathaniel Ward wrote books about religion, the subject that was considered an acute issue in the colonies.

Anne Bradstreet is known as the author of the earliest collection of poems. It was created in America, but published in England.

Other Early American Literature Authors and Their Works

John Hector St. John - Letters from an American Farmer

Bartolome de Las Casas - Account of the Destruction of the Indies

William Byrd – Secret History

William Shakespeare – The Tempest

William Bradford – Of Plymouth Plantation

Edward Taylor — Poems

Samuel de Champlain – Voyages

Daniel Defoe — Robinson Crusoe

Christopher Columbus — Collected Letters

Jonathan Edwards — Personal Narrative

The Early Republic (1776-1865)

In 1776, when the USA declared its independence, a new literary era began. A lot of new literary works concentrated on the future of the USA appeared. Fiction stories and poems were mainly written as an example of the literary pieces published in Great Britain. Numerous literary works provided to Americans originated from Great Britain.

The Federalist Papers written by Hamilton A., Madison J., and Jay J. impacted the political directions of the USA considerably.

Franklin’s Autobiography that was produced during the period between the 1770s and ’80s was a perfect example of the American life story.

Wheatley P., an African woman who was enslaved in Boston, produced the first African-American collection of poems. Freneau P. was one more prominent poet of that time.

In 1789, the first American novel written by William Hill Brown was published.

The autobiography of Olaudah Equiano belonged to the first narratives composed by a slave and was regarded as a powerful argument to end slavery.

Other Literary Works of This Era

Parkman F. - The Oregon Trail and other history books

Foster H. – The Coquette

Jefferson T. – Autobiography

Poe E. – all stories and poems

Irving W. - The Sketch-Book

Wheatley P. – Poems

Whitman W. - Leaves of Grass

Bartram W. – Travels

Apess W. - The Son of the Forest

Turner N. – Confessions

Tanner J. - The Falcon

Douglass F. - The Life of Frederick Douglass

Tyler R. - The Algerine Captive

Warner S. - The Wide Wide World

Thoreau H. D. – Walden

Brackenridge H. H. - Modern Chivalry

Longfellow H. W. – Poems

Melville H. – The Whale

Fuller M. - Summer by the Lakes

Brown C. B. - Edgar Huntley

Davis R. H. - Life on the Iron Mills

Hawthorne N. – stories and novels

Paine T. - Common Sense

Simms W. G. - The Yemassee

Whittier J. G. – Poems

Truth S. – Narrative

Barlow J. - The Vision of Columbus

Emerson R. W. – Nature

The Period of Romanticism (1830-1890)

Romanticism is the movement or style that gives priority to an individual rather than a group. It considers subjective more important than objective, and states that emotions are more significant than reasoning. According to this style, the wild nature of something or someone should be valued more than the rational order. The peak of Romanticism in Western Europe dates back to the late 18th century, and in the early years of the 19th century, it became popular among American writers.

The role of a romantic person was vividly described by a well-known writer Edgar Allan Poe. He was considered a brilliant author who was fighting against conventionalism. He started depicting Romanticism in his literary works from the 1830s till his death, which was rather strange, in 1849.

By the way, a modern detective story was devised by Poe. One of his famous works is a short story called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841.

The poem composed by Poe in 1845 “The Raven” is devoted to the lost love. Its tone is rather gloomy and sad. The rhyme and meter are used to make its depressing tone even more mysterious.

Poe’s short stories “The Cask of Amontillado” published in 1846 and “The Fall of the House of Usher” published in 1839 can be characterized as attention-grabbing stories filled with horror.

After 1830, a few different groups of thinkers and writers appeared in New England. Each of them explored individual experiences of people in different layers of the society of the United States.

The writer James Russell Lowell was one of those who described daily life in the Northeast with the help of dialects and humor. He composed his literary works both in verse and prose.

Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were the most famous among the upper-class Brahmins. They described life in America referring to European models of describing emotions and feelings in literature.

A specific philosophy in literature was developed by the Transcendentalists. They believed that everything that was created made a unity. For example, Emerson R. W. created powerful essays and Thoreau H.D. produced Walden - the book published in 1854 that described his life. An American journalist Margaret Fuller was an editor of an influential Transcendentalist magazine called The Dial.

During the period of Romanticism, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman started publishing poems, novels, and short stories. Their literary works became one of the most memorable masterpieces of American literature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne started publishing short stories while he was a young man. The most prominent among them is the allegorical story titled “Young Goodman Brown” which was published in 1835. In the 1840s, before the writer began creating his two remarkable novels - The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Scarlet Letter (1850) - he met the Transcendentalists.

Herman Melville was one of Hawthorne’s neighbors and friends. Nathaniel Hawthorne had a great impact on Melville’s novel called “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” which was published in 1851. This literary work was the peak of Melville’s life.

An American poet, Walt Whitman, composed poems that depicted his home, i.e. New York City. Instead of using rhymes and meter, he created his poems in free verse a good example of which is a poetry collection called “Leaves of Grass” published in 1855. The way he described the subject, his sincerity, and tone of writing helped him resist the criticism of some critics. The mentioned collection, which was edited many times, became a milepost of American poetry. It represents the ideas and values of Romanticism.

During the 1850s, the period when the United States was on its way to the civil war, the number of stories created by and about both enslaved and free African Americans increased considerably.

In 1853, William Wells Brown published the literary work called “Clotel” which is regarded to be the first black American novel. Additionally, in 1858, he composed “The Escape” - the first African American play.

The first black women who started publishing fiction stories in the United States in 1859 were Harriet E. Wilson and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

The novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” created by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852 was a profound literary work aimed at changing the attitude towards slavery.

Other Literary Pieces Related to This Epoch

Alcott L. M. — Little Women

Lanier S. — Poems

Cable G.W. — The Grandissmes

Dickinson E. — Poems

Harte B. — western stories

Riis J. — How the Other Half Lives

Twain M. — all works

Howells W.D. — The Rise of Silas Lapham

James H.  — any of the created novels

Wheeler E. — Deadwood Dick and other novels

Early American Literature Example

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Literature refers to a form of language, written or spoken, that serves to intensify normal language. It covers such aspects as drama, poetry, and fictional works. Literature is subject to change over time. Something that might be of little significance at one point may later be considered literary genius.

American literature dates back to the 1600s with authors such as John Smith, William Penn and George Percy regarded as the pioneers. Most American literature writers preferred short stories as their main form of expression. These touched on human psychology, mystery and fantasy. American literature is usually centered on the themes of moral aspects and the values that make up American culture. The ideals expressed include a person’s rights to freedom, justice, liberty, love, and belonging. The literature speaks of American characters and their experiences in life as they interact with one another and with their environment. Minor themes in American literature included political conflict, equality, and individualism.

Literary canons are the various classifications of literature. They usually refer to a group of literary works, which are considered as yardsticks of a certain region or period. Canons outline literary works that influence a society, region, or country. The society employs canons in trying to understand the most influential aspects of the respective society. Canons also guide the society when carrying out research of some unclear aspects of the society. Literary canons also make it easier to group works of literature that were previously unclassified. Since canons explain the most influential literary works of a certain community, they make it easier for a visitor to a community to learn and understand the culture of that community.

The term “American ethnic literature” describes works composed and prepared by citizens of the United States who have different native origins. These include works done by and not limited to African Americans, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans. Such ethnic writers experience various challenges, which are mainly due to their ethnic backgrounds. American literature explains the values and beliefs of the country. As a result, the ethnic writers are faced with the challenge of putting aside their opinions of the American culture, and adopting a more positive outlook to the culture. To some extent, the ethnic writers are not free to express their beliefs about certain aspects of the American culture, which they deem to be either inferior or negative. They must take the time to research and establish why some things considered as taboos or vices are viewed differently in the American setting. The ethnic writer must learn to appreciate that there are differences in ideals among various cultures, and he should not use his culture to judge other cultures. This in effect abolishes, to some extent, the individuality of an ethnic writer in the American setting. They are challenged to try to view the world in the American native’s eyes, and adopt the American mindset. 

Ethnic writers define literature as pieces of art that talk about the values and ideals of human life. Traditional American literature, on the other hand, identifies and details the lives and the aims that human beings strive to achieve in their day to day lives. Ethnic writers look toward a certain ancient society as a source of their stories. These stories describe the values, ideals, beliefs, and practices of the society, while touching on topics such as loyalty, leadership, oppression, freedom, and triumph. The society involved in the stories is usually the writer’s ethnic community, because he is conversant with their practices. The stories have a main character, whose life the ethnic writer explicitly explains, giving the details about how the character lives and how he sees the world around him (his country). The writer explores the character’s attitudes, beliefs, his sense of belonging to his community (ethnic identity) and circumstances such as being a minority in a certain society, which lead to denial of chance in decision-making and feelings of inferiority and powerlessness, or sometimes feelings of superiority. The writer may also explore topics such as prejudice and stereotyping. On the other hand, traditional American literature outlines the experiences of the Americans as a people, outlining their history and their struggles in pursuit of their dreams. The main character in traditional American literature embodies the cultural beliefs of the Native American community and uses those beliefs as a lens through which he views and interacts with the world around him. Topics such as prejudice and feelings of minority are usually lacking in the traditional literature. The traditional American literary works in general have positive topics, meaning that they are motivational in nature. This is unlike the ethnic literature works where the character struggles to overcome the various challenges in his immediate environment.

In terms of socio-political and cultural aspects in literature, ethnic writers concentrate on demystifying stereotypes of their people, by writing extensively about them. This aims at enabling other cultures to understand the writer’s beliefs. The ethnic writer recounts historical events as seen from the eyes of his community. Topics such as political and social oppression are common in ethical literature, where the writer outlines the various struggles his community go through in a foreign society. The writers also write extensively about prejudice and challenges of living as a minority group in a certain country. They explore their fight against those who form judgments about others based on race or religion that is not similar to their own. Other topics of interest to ethnic writers include inter-racial and inter-religion relationships, marriages, and friendships. Under this theme, the writers explore the possibility of such situations happening and the consequences that follow the situations aforementioned. The results could be excommunication from a certain community, or the parties involved could initiate a new way of thinking which the society may adopt. The ethnic writers encourage integration of the various communities to assimilate each other and live as one. They encourage acceptance among different ethnicities.

Traditional American literature covers completely different themes, which in general involve the journey of struggle by the American ancestors to achieve the American dream. It outlines what aspirations they had for their country, the standards they set and the time frame within which the aspirations should have been achieved. Values such as unity of the American people, with common beliefs aiming to achieve a common goal, are evident in these literary works. The traditional American literature aims to preserve the traditions of the ancient society, encouraging traditional structures, relationship, self-reliance, and prosperity. It does not encourage adoption of values of other societies, but limits its scope to the accepted values of its society. These values include the right to freedom and happiness and pursuit of liberty by all the citizens.

In ethnic literature, the themes of liberty, opportunity, and equality are addressed in terms of struggle through various adversities to victory. The end result is attainment of freedom, liberty and happiness. In addition, the minority group also gets to enjoy the opportunities available. The ethnic writer explores how a certain individual or group struggles against their oppressors to gain freedom, liberty, and equal opportunities.