How American Literature Has Changed

The study of literature seeks to understand how a set of written works within any period can offer insights into the dynamics of society, be they a personal reflection on the state of things from an individual viewpoint, or an examination of global events, race, gender, class, science, religion, and so much more. 

American literature has been the subject of much debate, including which works should be taught, how they should be examined, and whether there is any usefulness to the study in the real world, especially with America being such a young country with so many diverse voices and viewpoints.

While the discussion of how to approach literature is ongoing, there seem to be some consensus that literature can be placed in broader categories that reflect the time in which they were written.

Here is a brief breakdown of some of these periods.

Colonial Literature 

Colonial literature includes the earliest works written after the settling of North America by Europeans in the early 1600s. These works are characterized as being derivative of those published in Europe. They are seen as practical in nature, nonfiction, and straightforward. 

Noteworthy authors of the period include: 

  • John Smith
  • Anne Bradstreet
  • Jonathan Edwards
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Thomas Paine

Enlightenment and Revolution

The enlightenment and revolution period of literature took on a patriotic tone as America moved closer to independence. This period of literature is found in the mid-to later 1700s, and could be combined with the colonial period, but remains distinct enough to recognize on its own.

The “Federalist Papers” written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay; and “The Power of Sympathy” by William Hill Brown are two of the most widely recognized and important works from this period.

American Gothic

American Gothic was a literary movement that sought to encapsulate the ideals of darkness and evil that were expressed through extremes such as personal destruction, terror, torment, morbidity, madness, and the supernatural.

American Gothic was unique in that it drew upon the fears of society beginning in the 1800s. There was a sense of unease about what would happen to America following its independence, including the fall of slavery in the south, and further abandonment of European ideals in favor of new laws and moral systems. This literary movement has evolved and grown to give us many talented writers who continue to scare us, including:

  • Edger Alan Poe
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Jane Austen
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Philip K. Dick
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Bram Stoker
  • Stephen King

Romanticism and Transcendentalism

The romantic period of literature was born in Europe in the 1800s and made its way to America shortly after. The idea of individual destiny, freedom, and the exploration of the natural world would come into play in the literary works written during this period. 

This era of literature also gave way to transcendentalism, a greater intellectual movement that promoted the idea of inherent goodness in nature, self-reliance, and what would later become a larger movement of civil disobedience in the mid-1900s.

This period gave us authors, such as:

  • Herman Melville
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 
  • Walt Whitman
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson

Literary Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism

Literary realism, naturalism, and modernism can be thought of as the antithesis to American gothic literature. In these works, written between the 1860s and 1940s, authors took a more pragmatic approach to the characters and themes. Meaning that stories sought to show things as they are, with more realism and relatability. However, these works should not be thought of as necessarily nonfiction or journalistic.

Authors of this period include:

  • Mark Twain
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Gertrude Stein
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Henry James

Contemporary and Postmodern

The contemporary and postmodern movement followed World War II during a period of economic resurgence and strong American values that were built to protect against the strengthening Soviet Union and communism. At the same time, deep inequalities within American were being brought to bear, with the civil rights and women’s movements in the 50s and 60s. This was an intense shift away from American literature up until that point that some have described as being about white male dominance, white masculinity, and the interior drama of these same white men. 

This period continues to this day, and has given up many noteworthy authors, including:

  • James Baldwin
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Toni Morrison
  • Haruki Murakami
  • John Updike

Closing Thought

Literature is often a reflection of the time it was written. America has gone through many changes in its 244-year history, and looking into the future, with the growing divide between urban and rural, and growing acceptance of different lifestyles, literature will continue to evolve and give us greater and more interesting stories.