In this article, we try to get the key points of the historical background of American English literature from the 19th century to the 20th century. Especially, these notes are very useful for the BA English Honours students of Semester 6. The Notes are based on the syllabus of BBMKU University Dhanbad and VBU University of Hazaribag.
American Literature 19th to 20th Century
American literature refers to literature that was written or created by the United States and its preceding colonies. Before the establishment of the United States, the British colonies along the eastern coast of the current United States were heavily influenced by English literature. This American literary tradition was thus born in the larger history, that was, English literature.
The Revolutionary Age (1765–1790) is notable for the political writings of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was highlighted as a key American writer after the publication of United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. Nation’s first novels were published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for example William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy published in 1791.
With the growing desire to create unique American literature, Some prominent writers emerged like Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson started an influential movement known as Transcendentalism. Inspired by that movement, Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, which celebrates individualism and nature and urges resistance to the dictates of organized society. The political conflict over abolitionism inspired the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her famous novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narratives such as Frederick Douglas’s Narattive of the life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave.
In the mid-19th century, Nathalie Hawthorne published his Magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter, a novel about adultery. Hawthorne influenced Herman Melville, who is notable for the book Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. Some great poets of America during the 19th Century are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson. Henry James put American literature on the international map with novels like The Portrait of a Lady. At the turn of the 20th century, a strong naturalist movement emerged that comprised writers such as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London.
American writers expressed their discontent in the aftermath of World War I. The novels and short stories from F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood of the 1920s. John Dos Passos wrote too about the conflict. Ernest Hemingway becomes famous with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.
William Faulkner became a famous American writer with the novels The Sound and the Fury. In world war I, American poetry reached a peak with such writers as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pond. American Drama gained international status at the time with the works of Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize. The mid-20th century of American Drama was heavily influenced by the playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as the growth in music in the American musical.
Depression-era writers, including John Steinbeck, notable for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Miller assumed a specific place in American Literature in the 1930s when his Tropic of Cancer (1934) novels were banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, many popular works in modern American literature were produced, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. America’s involvement in World War 2 influenced works such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The main literary movement since the 1970s has been postmodernism, and since the late twentieth century, ethnic and minority literature has sharply increased.