The first European attempt to exploit North America was when the London Company sent out its expedition to begin colonizing Virginia on December 20, 1606. Meanwhile, Basque, English, and French fishing fleets became regular visitors to the coasts from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. Some of these fishing fleets set up camps on the coasts to trade with local Indians, exchanging furs for manufactured goods. For the next two decades, Europeans’ presence in North America was limited to these incursions.
In the 1580s, the English tried to plant a permanent colony on Roanoke Island (on the coast of present-day North Carolina), but their effort did not last.
In the early 1600s, in rapid succession, the English settled in Jamestown, Chesapeake Bay, in 1607, the French built Quebec in 1608, and the Dutch began their interest in the region that is now New York.
Afterwards, English, French and Dutch trade companies sent thousands of colonists, including families, to North America. The interest in North America started to mean contest among European powers to exploit these lands.
The European colonization and settlement of North America was an invasion of territory where Native Americans had been living for centuries. Indian groups perceived the Europeans’ arrival as an intrusion and tried to resist that invasion. But they were then defeated and chased both because of European diseases and of superior force of arms.
The third group of people that played an active role in the European invasion is the Africans..
From the very beginning, Europeans had problems in their attempts to establish colonies because of the lack of labourers to do the hard work of colony-building.
The process of European colonization of America was a complex one, as the members of these very diverse peoples confronted situations that they had not chosen.
Until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, colonists in British America obtained many benefits from the British imperial system at low costs. Indeed, until the early 1760s, the British mostly left their American colonies alone. The victory of the English in the Seven Years’ War (known in America as the French and Indian War) cost a lot: a great war debt influenced British policy in colonies over the next decade. The English reinforced tax laws, and placed troops in America. This situation led directly to conflict with colonists and, by the mid-1770s, relations between Americans and the British administration had become tense and hostile.
The so called American War of Independence burst out in April 1775. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces around Boston was cautious; he did not wish to provoke the Americans. In April, however, Gage received orders to arrest several patriot leaders near Lexington.
When the British arrived in Lexington, however, colonial militia were waiting for them. American opinion was split: some wanted to declare independence immediately; others hoped for a quick reconciliation. In June 1775, the Continental Congress created, on paper, a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander. Washington’s first task, when he arrived in Boston, was to create an army in fact. During the first two years of the Revolutionary War, most of the fighting between the patriots and British took place in the north. At first, the British generally showed their superiority on the sea until France signed treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States.
Between 1778 and 1781, British military operations focused on the south because the British thought that a large percentage of Southerners could help them submit the other part of the new continent. The Americans and their French allies together defeated the British in Yorktown
The Americans and British signed the final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, on September 10, 1783. The treaty was generally quite favourable to America in terms of national boundaries and other concessions. Even so, British violations of the agreement would become an almost constant source of irritation between the two nations far into the future
After winning their independence, Americans governed themselves under the Articles of Confederation. But some influential groups found the Confederation government inadequate. Representatives of these groups came together in Philadelphia to create a newer form of government, a new constitution. The ratification of the document produced many disagreements as not all Americans embraced this new Constitution. However, the Constitution was ratified, and the Americans once again turned to George Washington for leadership, this time as President of the new republic.
Under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) America nearly doubled its size by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France.
Jefferson’s successor as President, James Madison (1809-1817), one of authors of the constitution, led the new nation through another war with Great Britain, the unpopular War of 1812 that ended in 1815 and established the role of America in the world.
Americans began to develop a culture and way of life that was truly their own and no longer that of mere colonials.
During this period, the small republic founded by George Washington’s generation became the world’s largest democracy. All adult, white males received the right to vote. The period also saw the emergence of a number of significant political parties, including the Democratic, the Whig, the American, the Free Soil, and the Republican Parties.
Meanwhile, the young republic expanded geographically from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Texas, Oregon, California, and the Southwest became part of the Union. This new expansion, on one hand, gave many white settlers new opportunities in the West; on the other hand their settlement displaced other groups including Indian tribes and Mexicans. In addition, territorial expansion increased the number of African-American slaves and subsequently led to the conflict between North and South.
Democracy and territorial expansion focussed most Americans’ attention on social reforms such as the creation of public school systems, the improvement of the treatment of prisoners, the insane, and the poor, the abolition of slavery, and the request of equal rights for women.
The political climate supporting reform declined in the 1850s, as conflict grew between the North and South over the slavery question.
In 1861, the United States faced their first great crisis. The North had become increasingly industrial and commercial while the South had remained largely agricultural.
More important than these differences, however, was African-American slavery.
Northerners generally wanted to limit the spread of slavery; some wanted to abolish it altogether. Southerners generally wanted to maintain and even expand the institution. Thus, slavery became the focal point of a political crisis.
When the Republican Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860, 11 southern states seceded from the Federal Union in 1861. They wanted to establish an independent Confederacy of states in which slavery would be maintained. Northern Unionists, on the other hand, were ready to use military force to keep the South in the Union.
The result was a costly and bloody civil war.
After four years of fighting, the Union was restored through the force of arms. As most of the war was fought in the South, the region was devastated physically and economically.
The most immediate and difficult problems were to help ex-slaves and to create state governments loyal to the Union
In the decades following the Civil War, the United States emerged as an industrial giant. Old industries expanded and many new ones, including petroleum refining, steel manufacturing, and electrical power, emerged. Railroads expanded significantly, connecting remote parts of the country into a national market economy.
The industrial growth produced a new class of wealthy industrialists, a prosperous middle class and a vastly expanded proletarian working class.
Millions of newly arrived immigrants and even larger numbers of migrants from rural areas formed the new labour force.
American society became was radically changing.
Of course not everyone shared in the economic prosperity of this period. Many workers were unemployed at least part of the year and the wages were relatively low so many workers to support and join labour unions
Farmers had to face hard times as technology and increasing production led to more competition and falling prices for farm products.
Many young people to move to rapidly growing cities in search of better job opportunities.
The industrial revolution radically changed the ways millions of people worked and where they lived.
The early 20th century was an era of business expansion and progressive reform in the United States.
The so called progressives hoped to make the world a more democratic place.
In the U.S. this meant expanding the right to vote to women and a number of election reforms such as the recall, referendum, and direct election of Senators. Abroad, it meant trying to make the world safe for democracy.
In 1917, the United States joined Great Britain and France in their war against autocratic Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In the 1920s, also known as the “roaring twenties” or “the new era,” America continued its economic growth and prosperity. The numeber of immigrants increased along with those of middle class and wealthier Americans. The major growth industry was automobile manufacturing. The automobile radically changed the American way of life.
On the other hand, the 1920s saw the decline of many reforms that had been so widespread after 1900.
The great prosperity of the 1920s ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929 and the great economic depression that followed.
The depression had consequences on people’s jobs, savings, and even their homes and farms. Over one-quarter of the American workers became unemployed.
The New Deal, as the first two terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency were called, became a time of hope and optimism. Although the economic depression continued throughout the New Deal era, the darkest hours of despair seemed to have passed.
Unfortunately, the economic troubles of the 1930s led to economic instability and consequently to political instability in many parts of the world. This situation gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler’s in Germany and the military’s in Japan, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and in Italy.
These regimes pushed the world to war in the 1930s.
When Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States found itself in the war it had tried to avoid for more than two years.
The entry of the United States into World War II cured the depression: millions of men and women joined the armed forces and others went to work in defence jobs causing millions more Americans to move to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts and see place otherwise they could not know.
When World War II ended, the United States was in better economic condition than any other country in the world.
Public policy, like the so-called GI Bill of Rights passed in 1944, provided money for veterans to attend college, to purchase homes, and to buy farms.
Unfortunately groups as African Americans, Hispano Americans, and American women were still excluded from the American Dream and became more aggressive in trying to win their full freedoms and civil rights as guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution during the post-war era.
The post-war world also presented Americans with a number of problems and issues.
By 1948, a new form of international tension had emerged–Cold War–between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, a war that lasted almost 20 years.
After the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam in the mid-1960s a strident debate among American about the Vietnam War started.
The end of the Vietnam War helped to end debates about that war.
The Iran Hostage Crisis and the failure of the Presidency of Jimmy Carter helped Americans to realize the dangers of the Islamic world and the how dependent they had become on foreign oil.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency the Cold War saw its end
George Bush moved a war to helped to liberate the nation of Kuwait from the Iraqi aggression in 1990-1991.
President Clinton was the promoter of a successful economy.
As the 21st century was born, the United States came to realize that battling Islamic terrorism, at home and abroad, was their newest raison d’être.
From the beginning America was unique in the diversity of its inhabitants arrived from all parts of the world. However English quickly became the language of America and regional and ethnic dialects enriched its literature.
When European explorers first came to North America, Native American cultures had rich forms of oral literature passed down from generation to generation. Some of them were translated into English, but most disappeared with the destruction of Native American cultures that followed white settlements of the continent.
Native American mythology has a very rich cultural history: it was a way to keep Indian culture alive. They were not only stories, they represented their beliefs, their ways, and their lives. They were – and sometimes still are – almost sacred for many groups of people.
These stories are divided into categories. There are the “hero stories” about people who made something special and are immortalized. There are “trickster stories”, about figures who were both helpful and dangerous for their tribes. There are tales that warn people and teach them how to behave. There are stories that could be called religious: they tell about their Gods and their Nature.
Some examples of sacred animals that inspired and were the protagonists of legends.
The eagles were very important animals for Native American people. Their feathers composed the war-flags and war bonnets , their image was carved in wood, their stuffed skin surmounted the council lodges For some tribes they were deities and with their feathers – which represent the four winds – they invoked the rain-god. Indeed, it was venerated by practically every tribe in North America.
The owls represented wisdom. Some tribes used stuffed owls as symbols carried by medicine men or on the stones of their council lodges.
Until the 19th century American poetry took inspiration from works written in British. They were set in a new physical environment and took into account the evolving culture of the colonies.
The Puritans who settled in New England were the first poets of the American colonies. For most of them poetry was the literary form that allowed pious believers to express divine lessons. Puritan poets grew up in England during a period when Christian epic poetry by John Milton was considered the highest literary achievement and, once in America, they maintained their cultural faithfulness to Britain.
Anne Bradstreet (1612-72), come to Massachusetts from Britain at the age 18, was the first poet in America to publish a volume of poetry; The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, published in England in 1650. The poems, even if imitations of British forms and themes, reveal her attraction to the new world, and the problems he met while facing a new life and the wilderness. Further, she showed early ideas of female reaction to women situation (The Prologue, 1650).
Edward Taylor (1642-1729), wrote powerful meditative poems inspired by poets George Herbert and John Donne. In God’s Determinations Touching His Elect (1680?), he celebrates God’s power in the triumph of good over evil in the human soul.
According to the Puritan tradition, poetry was to be read mainly in family and with closest friends, while public poetry was more didactic or instructive and often involved the transformation into verse of important biblical lessons that guided Puritan belief.
Other great inspirers for poetry were Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips, both masters of pastoral and of satirical verse. Initially, this satiric tone was more prevalent in the southern colonies than in New England.
Two poets from the Maryland Colony, Ebenezer Cook and Richard Lewis, wrote accomplished satirical poems in which they mock British pastoral models..
Long before settlers arrived in America, explorers reported on their voyages to the continent. The earliest literature about America consists of impressions of America recorded by European explorers after they returned home.
The writings of the explorer Captain John Smith (A Description of New England ,1616) are the first accounts that deal both with the terrors of the unknown, and with sense of novelty in front of the new land and people.
Another important historian of early America was Thomas Morton, who, in New English Canaan (1634-1635) used humour in portraying what he considered being the intolerant qualities of the Puritans.
Sermons and other religious writings dominated literature in America in the 1600s. Histories of early America, especially in New England, were filled with references to the Bible and to God’s will.
Increase Mather, a prominent theologians, wrote a history of the first conflict between Native Americans and colonial settlers. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God … A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson (1682) is an account by a colonist who was taken captive by Narragansett Indians during King Philip’s War.
This story became the model for a new genre, the captivity narratives, and still provides material for American fiction.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 was another dark period in early American history: in a Massachusetts’s town 14 women and 6 men were executed for witchcraft. One of the most famous report of these facts, Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689), indicates a growing interest in the occult on the part of religious leaders.
As the settlements were sparse and living conditions were arduous in the American colonies, little theatrical activity took place before the mid-18th century.
The first-known English-language play from the colonies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb (1665), is lost. The play’s existence is known because of the controversy in the Virginia Colony, where it was not performed because of the strict puritan laws against stage
From the beginning America was unique in the diversity of its inhabitants arrived from all parts of the world. Although English quickly became the language of America, regional and ethnic dialects had enriched the country’s literature almost from the start.
When European explorers first North America, Native American cultures had rich, legends, folktales, myths about the beginnings of the universe and of humankind and other forms of literature preserved in oral form and passed down from generation to generation. Much of this literature disappeared with the destruction of Native American cultures that followed white settlements of the continent.
During the 1700s, American poetry moved towards its independence from British verses.
A group of poets, David Humphreys, John Trumbull, and Joel Barlow, called the Connecticut Wits (or Hartford Wits) continued the tradition of satire. They, along with other writers, produced The Anarchiad (1786-1787), a mock epic poem warning against the chaos that would develop if a strong central government, as supported by the Federalists, was not put into practice in the United States. American poets used the British literary model of the mock epic to satirize and criticize British culture.
Some poets felt the necessity to produce a serious national poetry to celebrate their democratic ideals and America as the future culmination of civilization..
One of the most important example of this poetry is Philip Freneau’s The Rising Glory of America (1772) about America’s future greatness; The Wild Honey Suckle (1786) and On a Honey Bee (1809), that can be seen as the first expressions of a deep spiritual engagement with nature. The clarity of expression of his verses made him a very popular poet, the first poet who spoke for the entire country.
Another typically American topic was slavery, a great contradiction in a nation that affirmed in its Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”. African American poets wrote about American Revolution, liberty, independence, equality, and identity. Just as the white Americans experienced the division between their new American identity and their European past, the African Americans, looked always to their African past and to their problematic American present.
In the so called Age of Enlightenment also prose underwent great changes in form, theme, and purpose. American thinkers expressed their thoughts chiefly through political discourse. They asserted the supremacy of reason over church doctrine and emphasized the importance of the individual and freedom above established authorities and institutions. These ideas were spread by newspapers like the Boston News-Letter, (1704) and the Boston Gazette (1719
In 1721, the New-England Courant, started by James Franklin, became the first newspaper to include literary entertainment. Franklin’s younger brother Benjamin Franklin published humorous social commentary under the pen name of Silence Dogood, the widow of a minister. Besides, in 1727 he, with a group of friends, established a men’s reading club in Philadelphia called the Junto, started his own printing house and published the Pennsylvania Gazette in which Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded by British author Samuel Richardson appeared for the first time in America .
Franklin’s writings (pen name Richard Saunders) advocated hard work as the key to success. He expressed his views in maxims, proverbs, and simple wisdom that filled his Poor Richard’s Almanack, published annually from 1733 to 1758.
His Autobiography , published 78 years after his death; it is considered a classic because of its portrait of American life during his time.
Other America’s great Enlightenment writers were Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson who supported the American Revolution. They, together with a committee made up of Franklin John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. wrote The Declaration of Independence (1787), an important realization in both politics and American prose.
In the document there were key statements of American freedom, but they necessitated compromises to satisfy all of their authors. One of the most significant compromises was the absence of any mention of slavery for the sake of unity with the Southern colonies, whose economy was rooted in slavery.
American fiction saw his real establishment only after the American Revolution. With the travel narrative and the first feminist writings in which women asked for the right to vote.
The oldest surviving American play is the political satire Androborus by Robert Hunter (1714), the New York Colony’s governor who published the play as an attack on his political enemies.
Before more American plays had appeared, a company of British professional actors established a touring circuit in the 1750s with an all-British repertory. By the early 1760s this group was known as The American Company and American writers occasionally submitted plays to the actors. In 1767 The American Company staged The Prince of Parthia, a tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, in Philadelphia. This is usually considered the first professional production of a play written by an American different from imitations of the works of William Shakespeare.
Satirical plays were written as propaganda during the war, either supporting British control of the colonies or attacking it like The Blockade (1775), written by British General John Burgoyne, that depicts British soldiers as so terrified of the Americans that they dirt themselves rather than go outside to use the latrine.
In the mid-1780s professional actors were touring in America again. In 1787
Royall Tyler wrote The Contrast, a five-act comedy that owes much to The School for Scandal (1777) by Richard Sheridan as it is a comedy of manners that satirizes the upper classes. It appreciates American fashions and values like patriotism over British duplicity and artificiality.
In this peiod appeared the first American play written by a woman. The melodramatic comedy Slaves in Algiers (1794) by Susanna Rowson reflects troubles with pirates along North Africa’s Barbary Coast who interfered with shipping and ran a white slave trade that involved selling girls and women into prostitution.
Early 19th century
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, romanticism was the dominant literary mode in Europe. In reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason, romanticism stressed emotion, imagination, and subjectivity of approach.
Until about 1870 romanticism influences the major forms of American prose: transcendentalist writings, historical fiction, and sentimental fiction.
William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier formed a group sometimes called the Fireside Poets because they frequently used the fireplace as an image of comfort and unity, a place where families stayed together to learn and tell stories. They also wrote abolitionist and slavery poems.
Longfellow, the most famous of the group, turned colourful aspects of the Americans into romance and myth. His poetic narratives included Evangeline (1847), about two lovers separated during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), inspired by Native American folklore. He was the only American poet to be honoured with a bust in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, England.
During the 19th century, black and white poets wrote about the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves. The most famous were the ex slave George Moses Horton; Joshua McCarter Simpson writer of memorable songs then turned into tunes; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper an early feminist poet and James M. Whitfield , whose poems criticize America for its failure to live up to its ideals.
Black poets used the language of the white but show how songs of liberty and freedom sound from the perspective of ones considered different.
They often expressed themselves with irony and ambiguity to give different intonations and meanings to their poems.
In New England, an intellectual movement known as transcendentalism developed as an American version of romanticism. The movement began in Concord, Massachusetts, and was led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transcendentalists rejected 18th-century rationalism, referred to Puritan religion and celebrated the power of the human imagination to communicate with the universe and transcend the limitations of the material world. Their chief source of inspiration was nature. Emerson’s essay Nature (1836) was the first major document of the transcendental ideas. His other works include The American Scholar (1837), a volume in which he addressed the intellectual’s duty to culture, and Self-Reliance (1841), an essay on the importance of being true to one’s own nature.
Henry David Thoreau, a friend of Emerson’s, put transcendentalist ideas into action. Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) is the report of his two years spent living simply and without any help in a small hut that he built on the shores of Walden Pond, near Concord. In his essay Civil Disobedience (1849) the writer declares that everyone indirectly supports the wrongs of a nation such as slavery or war, simply by paying taxes and voting for government representatives. Passive resistance, or non-violent protest are ways to express disapproval of government policies.
Another influential transcendentalist was Margaret Fuller, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was a major early work of American feminism. Together with Emerson and reformer George Ripley, Fuller founded The Dial in 1840 a periodical that published the verse and philosophical writings of the transcendentalists
The self-confidence and nationalism of the newly created United States of America gave a new energy to prose. Among the first manifestations of nationhood was the recognition that America had its own language and that American English differed from British English.
The lexicographer Noah Webster published his first American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 giving the definition of words based not only on traditional English usage but also on American variations (Americanisms).
Local histories were also of interest in the early part of the century. History of New York (1809), by Washington Irving with his famous comic creation, the Dutch American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker, offers a satire on the exaggeration and gravity of common local histories. Among Irving’s best-known legends is Rip Van Winkle, in which a man from New York’s Catskill Mountains falls asleep before the beginning of the Revolution and wakes up after it is over to find his world happily transformed. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a headless horseman drives an embarrassed and naive schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane from his small New York town.
Literary magazines proliferate in the early 1800s. From 1807 to 1808 Irving and James Kirke Paulding publish the literary magazine Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, devoted to satirical writings.
The development of the historical novel was due also to the influence of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and the subjects were inspired by the first generations of Puritans in New England, the Salem witchcraft trials, white conflicts with Native Americans, and the American Revolution.
Biography and autobiography helped to create the new nation’s sense of history and its need for heroes in the 1800s. Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834), attributed to Crockett himself, mythologizes an early frontier hero. Daniel Boone was another legendary figure introduced by Timothy Flint that later developed his character in Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone (1833). Boone is a hero similar to the fictional character Natty Bumppo, created by James Fenimore Cooper in The Leather-Stocking Tales (1821). The hero bridges Native American and white cultures through his friendships, depicting the consequences of further white settlement for Native Americans.
Nathaniel Hawthorne dealt with the history of Puritan New England. Descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, his works were imbued with deep ethical concern about sin, and punishment. The Scarlet Letter (1850), a story of rebellion within an severe Puritan society, is undoubtedly a masterpiece in its powerful psychological insights. Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) collects some of his best short stories and sketches, including “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “Young Goodman Brown.”
While transcendentalism was fundamentally optimistic, celebrating human creativity and the beauty of nature, Hawthorne and Poe demonstrated that the nature of the universe could reveal the darker side of life and show hints of immeasurable evil.
In his disturbing prose and poetry, Edgar Allan Poe explored the nature of humanity and frightened readers with what he found. His tales are obsessed with death, madness, and violence. Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) represent the triumphs of romantic horror. Poe also invented the detective story with such works as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). In Poe’s longest story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), a sea journey to the South Pole suggests other, more primal journeys—to the center of the mind, to the source of all evil, and toward an all-encompassing void. As a poet Poe demonstrated his love of rhyming and his use of varying rhythm (The Raven, 1845).
In the United States as in Britain, many plays reflected the influence of romanticism. Melodrama, with its outburst of emotion, was the most prevalent dramatic form in the 19th century. Gothic melodramas, which emphasized horror, mystery, and the supernatural, and melodramas with tragic endings appeared regularly in American theatres from the 1790s on—in many cases adapted or translated from German, French, and British plays.
The first prolific writer of melodramas was William Dunlap, who adapted Revolutionary War history in André (1798), an account of the final days of British spy Major John André. In 1803 Dunlap reshaped the play as a musical, Glory of Columbia. American melodrama represented details of scenery, dialects, and gestures representative of specific locations; contemporary slang; and historical incidents. In She Would Be a Soldier (1819) Mordecai Noah depicts the military spectacle of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain and tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a soldier to help the American cause and join the man she loves.
James Nelson Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) was the first professionally produced play to explore Native American characters and themes. It tells the story of Pocahontas, a Native American who married an English colonist.
American romantic plays took various forms. But without a subject matter typically American, it would be difficult to distinguish these plays from British melodrama and romantic tragedy. What may be the best American play of the time, Francesca da Rimini (1855), is a romantic verse tragedy by George Henry Boker about an Italian noblewoman of the 14th century. It presents a villainous fool, a forbidden love affair, and a grotesque hunchback in the role of the protagonist.
Second half of the 19th century
Over the course of the 19th century the country progressed from an agricultural economy concentrated on the Eastern coast to an industrialized nation all over the continent. This new situation provoked changes and the country faced the problem of creating its own literature based on American issues and imaginations.
A newspaper reporter and editor, Walt Whitman, in the early 1850s began experimenting with a mixture of the colloquial diction and prose rhythms of journalism; the repetitions and catalogues of the Bible; and the musicality and drama of popular opera. He wanted to write a democratic poetry, that gave voice to all the variety of 19th-century American culture. In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the book he will revised and expanded for the rest of his life. The first edition contained only 12 untitled poems. The longest poem, “Song of Myself,” is one of the most discussed poems in all of American poetry. In it Whitman constructs a democratic “I,” a voice that celebrates itself and its senses experiencing the world. “I” represents the creative potential of every individual in a democratic society. Emerging from a working class family, Whitman was one of the first working-class American poets and one of the first writers to compose poetry that draws its energy from the busy, crowded, varied streets of the city.
Whitman later added poems about affection between men and about the experiences and sufferings of soldiers in the Civil War (1861-1865).
Whitman’s work was initially more successful in Britain than in the United States. An influential 1872 anthology, American Poems, published in England and edited by English literary critic William Michael Rossetti, was dedicated to Whitman.
Emily Dickinson, along with Whitman, was one of the most original poets in American literature. Living her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson composed nearly 2,000 short, untitled poems. Despite her productivity, only few of Dickinson’s poems were published before her death in 1886. Dickinson used images and experienced different variations within her simple form. She used imperfect rhymes, subtle breaks of rhythm, and personal syntax and punctuation to create fascinating word puzzles, which are still producing contradictory interpretations.
She was fascinated by a variety of subjects and emotions: death, and afterlife, faith in God and disillusionment. Many of her poems record moments of bitter paralysis that could be death, pain, doubt, fear, or love. She remains one of the most private and cryptic voices in American literature.
Fiction developed following the new trends already emerged at the beginning of the century. The adventure novels were enriched with symbols and became allegories of the eternal man’s struggle towrds the truth.
Herman Melville based several novels, like Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), on his first voyages and experiences as a sailor on a number of ships after his father’s financial ruin and death.. His masterpiece is Moby Dick (1851), an adventure novel rich with symbols and images.
He also worked on several whaling ships and witnessed the violence of life at sea. These tales of exotic travel adventures brought Melville early success. Ironically, Melville’s popularity dropped after the publication of the book now considered a masterpiece of American fiction, Moby Dick (1851). Moby Dick was dedicated to Hawthorne, and like Hawthorne’s work was darkly metaphysical, symbolic, and complex. The story of the captain of a whaling boat, Ahab, and his inexorable hunt for one whale, Moby Dick is also about the mysterious forces of the universe that overwhelm the individual who tries to confront and struggle against them. Written in a powerful and varied narrative style, the book includes a magnificent sermon delivered before the ship’s sailing, soliloquies by the ships’ mates, and passages of a technical nature, such as a chapter about whales.
Melville, better known as a novelist, showed his powerful poetry in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)about the Civil War. Later he wrote a long and mysterious poem, Clarel (1876), about his search for faith, his struggle with doubt, and his anxiety about the decline of civilization.
In the period of the civil war numerous writing about slavery started being published written by black people, now freemen.
The first African American novels are William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859). In their works they point out the distance between American ideals of liberty and the actual living conditions of American black people, and focus on the injustices faced by free blacks in the North.
The sentimental novel was born as a response of white writers to the abuses of slavery. The most famous and historically most significant work of American sentimental fiction is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sentimental fiction aimed to arouse pity for the oppressed and offered a natural form for novelists writing about the evils of slavery. In Stowe’s novel and in novels that followed in this tradition, pity for the oppressed did not necessitate revolutionary change but evidenced “Christian” sympathy demonstrating how the slave system violated the most basic bonds of humanity, such as that between mother and child.
President Abraham Lincoln described Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin was powerful as propaganda and expressed the deep antislavery feelings of the North. Lincoln himself was among the greatest American orators of the 19th century and can be included among the significant American writers. Moved to despair by the tragic conflict of the Civil War (1861-1865), he used inspirational simplicity in his 1863 Gettysburg Address and in his second inaugural address in 1865. Few other American public figures have equalled Lincoln’s command of forceful, precise, and inspiring prose.
Two movements became increasingly important in American fiction after the Civil War: regionalism and realism.
As the country expanded in area and population, regional differences became more apparent while increasing urbanization and the expansion of the railroads made more of the country accessible.
Realism emerged as a literary movement in Europe in the 1850s. In reaction to romanticism, it emphasized the everyday and through detailed description re-created specific locations, incidents, and social classes.
Toward mid-century, regional voices had emerged from newly settled territories in the South and to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. In many of these works local dialects, sayings, and spellings were used for humorous effect.
Mary Wilkins Freeman, best known for A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891), and Sarah Orne Jewett, best known for Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), both wrote about rural northern New England.
Tales of the West also became a popular form of regional writing and created frontier outlaws and heroes, such as Billy the Kid. These tales were especially suited to the short-story form.
Foremost among writers who contributed to legends about the West was Bret Harte, especially in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870), a collection of stories about California.
Beginning in 1860 the publishing house of Beadle and Adams introduced dime novels—inexpensive tales with exciting plots intended for popular consumption.. Dime novels may be seen as precursors of the Western, a genre that would reach the height of its popularity in the first half of the 20th century.
In the second half of the 19th century, issues specific to the industrial city also engaged writers of fiction, who portrayed the sometimes hidden struggles of city life.
Kate Chopin built her reputation on regionalist stories of Louisiana, for example, in the collection Bayou Folk (1894). She is, however, best remembered for writing one of the first important feminist novels, The Awakening (1899). The book realistically depicts Creole life in Louisiana as it tells the story of a young woman in a suffocating marriage who discovers a new sense of self when she takes a lover.
Realism entered American literature after the Civil War, soon followed by naturalism, an extreme form of realism. Naturalism added to realism a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is sometimes considered a regionalist for his vivid portrayals of Southern character and dialect. But he is surely among the great American realists because his works include many sides of life and human nature. He published from 1865 until 1910, but his literary fame was firmly rooted in the 19th century with its problems of racism, class conflicts, and poverty. Twain’s works also include some of the best American humor, starting with the short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was published in a newspaper in 1865. Twain’s best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), are apparently simple stories that show corruption at all levels of society. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer celebrated boyhood and revealed the workings of small-town America—small-minded at times, generous in spirit at other times. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered Twain’s masterpiece. In it, the boy Huck Finn learns about human nature’s evil side as well as its kind side. As a result of his close friendship with a black man who is escaping slavery, Huck also must confront the conflict between individual intuition about what is right and the prevailing views of society on the subject.
Psychology and moral development are characteristics also of Little Women (1868-1869), a novel by Louisa May Alcott that records the moral and intellectual coming of age of four young women. Alcott was the daughter of transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. Her still-popular novel is one of a series of works that show her serious concern with childhood and adolescence.
William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris are other notable late-19th-century writers in the realist or naturalist traditions.
Howells, a noted literary critic and novelist, was a friend of Twain’s and along with him pioneered realism in American literature. The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is the study of a self-made businessman who is ruined financially by his determination not to compromise his integrity.
Despite an early death at the age of 29, Crane published several brilliant although grim stories. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the story of a young woman’s life in a New York City slum, is so sad that Crane had difficulty finding a publisher. His second work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), is an intense examination of the psychology of fear and the state of the human mind during war; it met with immediate success.
Norris‘s best-known works were McTeague (1899), a portrait of the effects of greed, and The Octopus (1901), which depicts the conflict between farmers and the railroad over land and power in California. His works reflect his concern with social and economic forces and their effect on human lives.
A less well-known writer in the realist tradition at the end of the century was Frances E. W. Harper, an African American woman born free in the former slave state of Maryland. An early black activist, Harper was a successful and frequent public speaker on behalf of the rights of blacks and of women. Her novel Iola Leroy, or The Shadows Uplifted (1892) tells the story of a woman of mixed racial ancestry who is freed from slavery, serves as a nurse during the Civil War, and is eventually reunited with her family after the war.
Henry James was a key figure in American literature’s transition from the 1800s to the 1900s. Although more of his novels were published before 1900, his style is characterized by psychological realism, and his themes seem a long way from much of 19th-century American literature. He uses American and European subject matter and perspectives, and perceives the complexities of both individual and cultural history. Like many of his characters, Henry James lived an international life, and his novels moved away from American settings. A sort of complex conflict between the attraction of the old European culture and the young American idealism animates many of his novels. This interplay is present in such novels as The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). In his later novels, such as The Golden Bowl (1904), he became increasingly concerned with the mysteries of human passion.
Edith Wharton was another key figure at the turn- of-the-century. Many of her novels take place among the wealthy and worldly elite of New York City and focus on social definition and convention. Two of her best-known works, The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), examine these conventions and their tragic consequences. In the love story Ethan Frome (1911), written from a man’s perspective in a severe, rural New England, Wharton studied the mental and emotional traps that limit people’s desire and ability to change.
A vogue for so-called Indian plays began in the 1820s and continued through the 1840s. Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) by John Augustus Stone written for the American actor Edwin Forrest, is a melodrama set in an earlier period of frontier history (the 1670s). Metamora is viewed as natural but uncivilized; he lives in harmony with nature but is unfamiliar with European civilization. Metamora’s death is inevitable as he is the representative of a displaced race that cannot survive with the white man.
By mid-century the importance of Indian plays started declining as it is shown in Metamora, or the Last of the Pollywogs by Irish-born playwright John Brougham (1847). It is a musical burlesque that makes fun of the idealized and earnest original.
Also in the 1820s an African American acting troupe called the African Theatre was organized in New York City by dramatist William Henry Brown. The troupe produced plays by Shakespeare as well as African American plays, including The Drama f King Shotaway (1823) written by Brown. but no copies survive
Early 20th century
In the last decades of the 19th century, American literature entered a period of regionalism, exploring the stories, dialects, and idiosyncrasies of the many regions of the United States.
Edwin Arlington Robinson explores the lives of New Englanders in his dramatic monologues of Tilbury Town where the rhythm of everyday speech reflects a Puritan sense of moral corruption and Edgar Lee Masters, from Kansas, who achieves success with Spoon River Anthology (1915). His poetic commemorations capture the hidden passions and hopes of Midwesterners buried in the imaginary Spoon River cemetery.
Robert Frost reserved, humorous, and simple, gives voice to modern psychological constructions of identity without ever losing its focus on the local and the specific. Frost gives his poems the rhythms of natural speech using the standard meter of blank verse (lines with five stresses)
The huge industrial expansion with its culture based on business led some writers to exile themselves in cultures that seemed more favourable to art, while others decided to stay and resist through their poetry the growing materialistic culture.
The major modernist poets who left the United States and wrote most of their poetry as expatriates in Europe were Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (who wrote under the pen name H. D.), T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein.
William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, and Robinson Jeffers. stayed in America and wrote poems aimed at developing a democracy.
Carl Sandburg celebrated the power of a free, democratic working class and focussed on the idea of social identity, idea that culminated in his Depression-era book, The People, Yes (1936).
Vachel Lindsay travelled around America, exchanging poems for food. His purpose was to build a sort of mass participatory poetry, “the higher vaudeville” as he called it, performances in which he led large groups of people in chanting his poetry.
Langston Hughes, one of the century’s most important black writers, wrote socially conscious poems about the black experience using the rhythmic structure of blues music and the improvisational rhythms of jazz.
Michael Gold, born and raised in New York City slums, wrote impassioned chants to American workers, often invoking Whitman.
William Carlos Williams, a physician from industrial New Jersey, declared he wrote his poems after listening to Americans talk on the streets and its rhythm Williams used brief lines that focussed attention on the concrete reality in front of the poet: “No ideas but in things,” he says. His five volume poem Paterson (1946-58), is an epic about Paterson, New Jersey.
Ezra Pound led a group called the imagists. Pound, Williams, and Doolittle all from the University of Pennsylvania, based their poems on new rhythms, clear and simple images, free choice of subject matter, concentrated or compressed poetic expression, and use of common speech.
The poets apply this credo differently: Williams found his new rhythms in everyday speech, while Pound’s Personae (1909) demonstrates his extraordinary ability to write intense, beautiful experimental verse, echoing poems from other languages such as Chinese, Greek and Provencal. His brief imagist poems were collected into a collage that eventually became a massive long poem, The Cantos. Pound believes that the poet should be a citizen of the world and a contemporary of all the ages; true art can come only by encounters with the distant and the past, the lost and forgotten. His Cantos move through time, languages, and cultures—leading Pound eventually to a flirtation with fascism, which he embraces while in Italy during World War II (1939-1945).
Pound introduces the poetry of Hilda Doolittle as the model of imagism, and her chiselled and often-erotic Sea Garden poems (1916) became the movement’s signature book. In her trilogy, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946) she turns to Egyptian mythology, ancient history, and Christian tradition as a response to the violence of the War.
H. D., Pound, and Williams left imagism behind, but it continued to influence some poets for a number of years under the leadership of Amy Lowell, a descendant of James Russell Lowell.
An important result of Pound’s example to build long poems out of imagist fragments was his editing of The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot, a work that found many followers in America.
Hart Crane viewed his epic-length The Bridge (1930) as an answer to Eliot. Crane saw a bridge between the American past and a productive American future and revealed the wasteland of the present as a necessary passage to that future. The Bridge is a difficult poem, written in highly symbolic language and rich in imagery, taken from American myth, legend, and history.
Other modernist poets go on experimenting with language and form and show the influence of dada and surrealism, European movements that mock the value and traditions of art.
E. E. Cummings wrote highly experimental poetry that parodied the banality of what he called the unworld, a sterile modern world that seemed to him to spoil human beings of their humanity. Using puns, unorthodox typography—words divided and spread out letter by letter across a page— he created a playful yet serious, highly individual poetic voice.
One of the most radical innovators of modern poetry was Gertrude Stein, although a lot of her poetry was not published until after her death. Her work shows that language ultimately refers only to itself, not to things of the world, and she experiments with multiple, shifting speaking voices.
Marianne Moore also wrote experimental poems, but she imposed on herself a discipline of precise syllable counts and elaborate structures. She observed animals and other objects and described them using a witty, precise language and surprising metaphors. An incessant reviser of her poetry, Moore produced a small but intricately complex body of work.
Wallace Stevens created a cerebral, philosophical poetry, abstract and often difficult. Stevens believed things emerged from ideas, and that without thought, there are no things that language can embrace.
An influential group of modernist poets came from the South and initially their poetry had a regional basis. These poets—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—created poems ironic, and often indirect or obscure. Their work was afterwards defined as New Criticism, a way of reading poems and other literature that tended to value work that was difficult, ambiguous, and that transcended its personal, historical, and cultural surroundings. The goal was a poem that could survive on its own as a perfected work of art.
After the great poems by the modernists, American poetry paused. Many poets imitated what had been innovative a few decades and by the 1950s there was neither innovative work nor interest in leading a poetic revolution.
The new forms of communication-pictures, radio, and television amusement and new modes of transportation made American society more and more mobile. Every literary voice could reach a national audience and, at the same time, American fiction writers began to influence world literature.
Even in fiction the 20th century saw the emergence of modernism.
James and Wharton had examined the complex psychology of America’s elite, in the 20th century other writers turned to the psychological and physical reality of the working classes, that included a great number of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel about the unsanitary and miserable working conditions in the stockyards of Chicago, Illinois. The book led to an investigation by the federal government and the subsequent passage of pure food laws.
The novels of Theodore Dreiser dealt with the brutal injustices of social class, and they represent a magnificent example of American naturalism. Sister Carrie (1900) depicts the downfall of a young woman who moves from small-town America to Chicago and then to New York City. An American Tragedy (1925) shows the downfall of a weak young man who tries to rise from poverty into fascinating society.
Jack London was another 20th-century naturalist. His writings depict the force-often violent-of nature and of human nature, combining realism with idealist views on human betterment. The Call of the Wild (1903) describes how a domesticated creature turns to a primitive state in order to survive.
Other writers who worked in the mode of social realism were Sinclair Lewis and Josephine Herbst.
Lewis focused on the American middle class, replacing traditional notions of its self-satisfaction with a vision that was harsh and at times bitter. In both Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), Lewis satirically portrayed the monotony and emotional, spiritual, and intellectual poverty of American middle-class life.
Herbst’s Pity is Not Enough (1933) was the first in a trilogy that traced the development of American society by tying one family’s history to larger social and historical events.
A period of disillusion and cynicism followed World War I (1914-1918)and found expression in the writings of a group of Americans living in Paris who became known as the Lost Generation. The group never formed a cohesive literary movement, but the writers shared bitterness about the war, a sense of rootlessness, and dissatisfaction with American society. The most influential American writers of this generation include novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, dramatist Thornton Wilder, and poets Archibald MacLeish and Hart Crane.
The term lost generation was first used by writer Gertrude Stein in her preface to Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) to characterize Hemingway and his circle of expatriate friends in Paris.
Both The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms (1929) are set in Europe during and after the war and portray the emotional exhaustion and the vain search for meaning and value in life of this generation.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is a tragic tale about the disillusion of the American dream; his works often reflect the material and emotional excesses of America in the 1920s, a period he called the Jazz Age.
In Paris (1903) Getrude Stein gathered around her a large group of painters and writers. Her own writing is noted for innovations in narrative style, such as simplification and fragmentation of plot and the use of unconventional syntax and punctuation. Stein’s fiction includes Three Lives (1909), a character study of three women, and The Making of Americans (1925), a novel dealing with her family’s social and cultural history.
Another innovative American writer was John Dos Passos, who wrote bitter, and impressionistic novels that attacked the hypocrisy and materialism of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. His Manhattan Transfer (1925), a panorama of life in New York City between 1890 and 1925, introduced his “newsreel” technique of inserting fragments of popular songs and news headlines into his text. It also introduced his “camera eye” technique: he provids his own point of view in short, poetic narratives.
The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s centred in Harlem. The poets, novelists, political essayists, and dramatists all wanted to give artistic expression to the African American experience and to improve the social and economic situation of blacks. Major prose writers in the movement were historian and sociologist such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who was best known for his non-fiction. Jean Toomer in his novel Cane (1923) gives voice to the conditions of black poors. Zora Neale Hurston in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) tells the story of a Southern black woman in search for her true identity.
The excess of the Jazz Age end with the 1929 stock market crash, and the angry decade of the 30s begins. Now many novels echoed the despair of the Great Depression. During the Depression a federal agency, known first as the Works Progress Administration and later as the Works Projects Administration (WPA), was created to put unemployed Americans to work on public projects. A branch of it was the Federal Writers Project (FWP; 1935 to 1941). The FWP employed writers to produce travel guides, local histories, nature studies, and other books and it also provided training for some exceptional authors, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both of whom went on to write about tensions between races and social classes.
Wright’s Native Son (1940) explores the extreme psychological pressures that drive a young urban black man to violence. Wright’s work influences younger writers, including James Baldwin. Whose first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), depicts Harlem in the 1930s.
Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952) is the story of an unnamed young black man in searching for his place in the world and confronts the idea that American society consciously turns a blind eye to its black members.
The 1920s was the most prolific decade for professionally produced plays on the New York City stage. During the 1920s and early 1930s audiences saw incisive and exciting American drama. What Price Glory (1924) by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, set in France during World War I, portrays two soldiers’ behaviour and satirizes the romanticized vision of warfare.
During this period Eugene O’Neill reached success with vast five-hour plays in which the playwright investigates on the human condition and the forces that plague humankind. In Strange Interlude (1928), a nine-act play, the leading female character explored the way in which hidden psychological processes affect outward actions. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1928. Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), a trilogy, was a powerful adaptation of three ancient Greek tragedies by Aeschylus that told the story of Orestes and are known as the Oresteia. Set in New England after the Civil War (which replaces the Trojan War of the Oresteia), Mourning Becomes Electra analyses the moral, emotional, and physical destruction of two generations of the Mannon family, and emphasizes the consequences of adultery, incest, jealousy, and vengeance. In 1936 O’Neill became the first American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature.
African American characters became more visible in plays of this period. In the play In Abraham’s Bosom (1926) by Paul Green, the main character, whose father is white and mother is black, works to help his black community but is defeated by the racial prejudice of both whites and blacks. The play won 1927 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Black playwrights, however, remained on the margins of the theatre world until the 1950s.
Even the musical was renewed during the 1920s and early 1930s. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome Kern create Show Boat (1927), a musical production adapted from a novel of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. This was the first American musical to integrate a musical score with meaningful and consistent dialogue and lyrics.
American theatre sees a decline in the 1930s and after both because of the new motion pictures and as a result of the economic collapse of the Great Depression that closed many theatres permanently. The austerity of the 1930s inspired a new wave of drama that deals with economic suffering, left-wing political ideologies, fascism, and fears of another world war. The most famous of these plays is Waiting for Lefty (1935) by Clifford Odets. In the play taxi drivers decide to go on strike, but the theme of the play is a more abstract debate over the pros and cons of capitalism.
Langston Hughes paved the way for acceptance of African American drama with his successful play Mulatto (1935), about the complexity of race relations.
Robert Sherwood wrote a satirical attack on weapons manufacturers and predicted the tragedy of World War II in Idiot’s Delight (1936) that was awarded the 1936 Pulitzer Prize.
During World War II (1939-1945) the plays deal with the themes of escapism or of wartime propaganda. With the end of hostilities, however, two playwrights emerged who would dominate dramatic activity for the next 15 years or so: Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Arthur Miller combined realistic characters and social ideas in modern tragedies like Death of a Salesman (1949), a tale of the life and death of the ordinary workingman Willy Loman. Miller’s The Crucible (1953), about the Salem witch trials of the 17th-century, was a parable for a hunt for Communists in the 1950s led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Tennessee Williams wrote many plays about social rebels and outsiders. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a neurotic, impoverished woman of the south fights to maintain her illusions of decorum, but she is forced to confront the truth about her life by her sister’s husband, working-class man. Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, also focused on pretence and and destruction in an unhappy family.
In the 1940s the collaboration between librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers launched light-hearted musicals, most notably with the love story Oklahoma! (1943) which was successfully performed until 1960s.
Realism continued strongly in the 1950s with character studies of society’s forgotten people. Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) by William Inge told the story of the unhappy lives of an alcoholic doctor and his wife. O’Neill wrote in 1956 his painful autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), probably his masterpiece. It chronicles a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during which family members inexorably confront one another’s mistakes and failures.
In the late 1950s African American playwriting get a great success with the highly acclaimed Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry, the story of a black family and how they handle a financial windfall. It was the first Broadway production to be directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards.
Also at the end of the 1950s the semi-absurdist plays of Edward Albee attracted the American public with their intelligent dialogue. The most famous is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) that depicts the destructive relationship of a married couple primarily through their verbal abuse.
Second half of 20th century
By the 1950s most of the major modernists were still alive but they seldom produced innovative work.
A middle generation of 20th-century American poets emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them born in the second decade of the century. Many became very famous, including Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, and Delmore Schwartz. They came to be known as confessional poets because of their use of modernist techniques to explore their own psychology and their lives. These techniques included irony, collage, and allusions.
Confessional poetry broke away from modernism’s dedication to impersonality and reopened poetry to intense self-exploration and frank revelation of personal experiences.
The confessional poets also became the first generation to teach the writing of poetry in America and developed poetry as a subject of some American colleges and universities. Anne Sexton in All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Sylvia Plath in Ariel (1966) followed their examples for deeper self-examinations. These poems are the description of the poets’ psychological breakdowns influenced by Freudian analysis and imagery. Both Sexton and Plath, committed suicide. Their poetry explored tortured family relationships and examined the female psyche, body, and the dynamics of mother-daughter interactions. Sexton’s and Plath’s poetry influenced the development of feminist poetry, by questioning the traditional roles society assigned to females opposing the prevailing mood of the 1950s and 1960s, that presented family as the source of stability and happiness.
Also important to the development of feminist poetry and in political investigation is Muriel Rukeyser; his poetry looks at labour problems and larger class issues. Another important female poet is Elizabeth Bishop. She was an intense observer of exotic and common things, always rendered in an uncommon language.
Rukeyser and Bishop served as sources for the poetry of Adrienne Rich, one of the most important poets of the second half of the 20th century. She offers a deep examination of motherhood and of what it means to be a woman in America in a remarkable series of books starting with her first collection, A Change of World, in 1951. However, she applies her anger not to self-destruction but to critique of society.
Poetry is now opening up to more experimental rhythms and more radical social thoughts. Some poets, including Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, and Anthony Hecht, devote their entire careers to writing elegantly structured poems.. Others respond to radical political change by opening up their own work to new forms and structures.
W. S. Merwin writes poetry in traditional forms in the 1950s. Then, in The Moving Target (1963) he suddenly abandons punctuation and creates a new prophetic voice, free of conventional techniques. In later books such as The Lice (1967), he addresses societal ills, including ecological disasters as a result of human irresponsibility.
American poetry became less formal and more political, during the 1960s, when it faces the social turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War (1959-1975).
This break from new formalism traces back to Black Mountain College, an experimental school in North Carolina., where Olson taught, and where poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and others studied in the early 1950s
Charles Olson’s great work was The Maximus Poems (1953-1975), focussed on his hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts. He develops a theory of poetry called projective verse, a return to an organic basis for open form, to a poetic line controlled by the poet’s breathing instead of by pre-set meter. His sudents describe the experience of reading and writing the new poetry as an “opening of the field,” the entering of a poetic space where one could wander and explore instead of being led along predetermined pathways. Olson’s example is followed by many groups.
The most famous is known as the Beats, so named for their opposition to American materialism after World War II and their faith in a coming beatification, a new spiritual America. They communicated their profound alienation in contemporary society through their unconventional writings and lifestyle. The movement attracted poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. It begins with a reading in San Francisco in 1955, when the greatest poet of the movement, Allen Ginsberg, reads his free-flowing, surrealistic Howl, the poem now considered the hallmark of the movement.
Their sources are Whitman and Williams that Ginsberg celebrates as his poetic progenitors and follows in their tradition as an essentially urban poet.
Snyder turns to the wilderness tradition in American literature and combines Zen Buddhism, Native American mythology, and deep ecological awareness in poetry that speaks eloquently of the human responsibility to the natural world.
[In fiction William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac’s writings had an improvisational quality, liberated from formal plot, often based on personal experience. One of the best-known Beat novel is Kerouac’s semiautobiographical On the Road (1957), which celebrates direct personal experience and freedom from everyday responsibilities.]
From about 1960 an explosive new plurality of poetry prospers in America. Poets begin to explore the ways poetry to combine politics, sexuality, autobiography, and spirituality in an improvisational, jazzy mode.
One direction is a black arts movement during the 1960s. Influenced by the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s, black poetry is written in support of social revolution .
Gwendolyn Brooks writes poems about the Chicago slums since 1945, and in 1950 she becomes the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She writes more directly for a black audience, becoming, more “non-compromising.” LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, is a central figure in the movement. He specifically rejects the modernists and embraces the chanting, rebellious voices of Whitman, Williams, and the Beats. The new black poetry turns to the streets of the black communities for its language and to the powerful traditions of African American jazz, blues, and rock music for its rhythms. It also aligns itself with the poetry of oppressed people in other countries, particularly developing countries around the world.
– the image poetry, a name given to the work of Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, and others born in the 1920s. These poets turn to what Bly calls a “deep inwardness,” looking to internal spiritual sources that lie deep within the self and taking leaps into the unconscious to retrieve mysterious, disturbing, and often healing images.
the New York School, a group of artists, writers, and musicians in which John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara represented poetry. Ashbery and O’Hara wrote wildly experimental poetry that derived from dada and from an embrace of Whitman’s open-road aesthetic—namely a desire to keep moving and to celebrate change, instability, and chance. The resulting poems provide verbal trips through landscapes of shifting discourse with no centre and no fixed voice: modes of speech alternate rapidly, high diction is mixed with street slang, and moments from different realms of experience are juxtaposed. This work influenced Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and others who are known as Language poets. This group attacks the idea of a unified voice and, through collaborative work, disguises or erases the distinctions between individual poets. In doing so, the Language poets work to undermine all the institutions that are built on America’s infatuation with individualism, including much of American poetry itself.
It is impossible to name the myriad schools and movements in American poetry that flourished near the turn of the century, when vigorous and unbridled variety marked the poetic scene more than ever. Philip Levine, Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and many other poets were developing the confessional poem in surprising ways, focusing autobiographical examination in more intense lyric forms than earlier confessional poets had. C. K. Williams added to the confessional poem a sometimes brutal narrative edge as he extended the possibilities (and the length) of the long line favored by Whitman and Ginsberg. Jorie Graham extended the poetic line as well, developing Stevens’s philosophical poetry through fascinating labyrinths of speculation and imagery that cross and juxtapose the multiple cultures of her experience.
In the last decades of the 20th century American poetry gained much of its energy from a melding of America’s many distinct cultural traditions. For example, Asian American writers—themselves part of a diverse and multicultured community—turned increasingly to poetry as a means of exploring both their integration into American culture and their growing sense of distinctive ethnic identity within that culture. Garrett Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, John Yau, and Cathy Song are just a few of the recent and remarkable poets whose work expands the definition of Asian American poetry.
Chicano and Chicana poetry also has a long history in America, much of it centered in New Mexico, where Victor Bernal published intricate lyrics in the early 20th century. But the amount of poetry increased dramatically after 1967, when Quinto Sol Publications was founded to publish Chicano and Chicana work. José Montoya, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherrie Moraga, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Gary Soto are among the innovative Chicano and Chicana writers. Much of their work blends poetry and prose, Spanish and English, and oral and written traditions.
Native Americans, of course, have the longest sustained tradition of poetry in North America, and many of the powerful Native American writers at work today ground their work in the long-standing traditions and oral cultures of their peoples. As with Chicano and Chicana writers, some Native American poets wrote in English early in the nation’s history. But most Native American poetry in English is of relatively recent origin. The highly original group of writers at work at the close of the 20th century included N. Scott Momaday (of the Kiowa people), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Simon Ortiz (Acoma), Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Carroll Arnett (Cherokee), Roberta Hill (Oneida), Wendy Rose (Hopi), James Welch (Blackfeet), Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna), Linda Hogan (Chicasaw), Joy Harjo (Creek), and Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie).
Two of the most impressive novels about World War II were From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones and The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer, both about the adaptation of the individual to the restrictions of military life. Two novelists who began their successful careers with war books were James A. Michener and Irwin Shaw. Michener’s career began with a collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific (1947); Shaw’s novel The Young Lions (1948) is about the war in Europe.
John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944) is a humoristic story about the occupation of an Italian town by U.S. Army forces. Thomas Heggen’s work Mr. Roberts (1946) is a bittersweet story about the U.S. Navy enriched with humour.
The protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s give origin to works that revealed the experiences of blacks and women.
Amiri Baraka investigates racial questions in his Home: Social Essays (1966) and Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971).
Eldridge Cleaver writes significant essays on American society in Soul on Ice (1967).
Black nationalist leader Malcolm X writes his influential work The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) with Alex Haley, who later becomes famous as the author of the best-selling work Roots (1976), an account of Haley’s family history from its African beginnings to the present.
Maya Angelou, a poet-novelist and children’s author, writes several books that represent a powerful record of her life, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), a description of her childhood in the South.
Modern American feminist writing can be divided into three categories, or waves.
In the first category are the writings, which show how roles and behaviours considered acceptable and appropriate for women limit their opportunities. A pioneering work in this category is The Feminine Mystique (1963) in which the writer Betty Friedan contrasts the notion that women can find realization only as wives and mothers, and, in so doing, women’s competition with men is obstacled.
The second category of feminist writing support the formation of groups to represent and promote women’s interests politically and socially. Two representative works of activist feminist writing, both published in 1970, are Sexual Politics by Kate Millett and The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution by Shulamith Firestone.
The third and most recent trend, termed cultural feminism, focuses more on the establishment of women’s cultures, re-considering subjects as literature, politics, and art from a specifically female viewpoint One of its early and influential spokespersons was Robin Morgan, whose essays are collected in Going Too Far (1978).
Another trend that gets notice in the 1960s is associated with the environment, and is characterized by a deep interest in the natural world as a physical, emotional, and spiritual resource. Environmental writing in American literature is often said to date back to the work by Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) supports a belief in nature’s intrinsic value. Later writers of the 19th and early 20th century encourage environmental conservation and protection of environmental resources, including naturalists and explorers. In 1949, A Sand County Almanac, by conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold, offers a simple formula for a balanced relationship between humankind and the land, which he calls the land ethic. It holds that each person must become a guardian of the land, and of the natural world. In the 1960s biologist Rachel Carson illustrates and discusses the extensive and irreversible damage caused by chemical pesticides, acid rain, and nuclear waste in Silent Spring (1964). This book reaches a large readership and advances the political cause of environmental protection. Environmental literature in the later 20th century includes a wide range of viewpoints. In Desert Solitaire (1968) and Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989), Edward Abbey emphasizes the need for direct action by individuals on behalf of the environment.
The works of Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo represent the experimentation in style and form that began in the 1950s and has continued to the present.
Nabokov, although Russian-born, becomes one of the greatest masters of English prose. Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962), novels with American settings, are tragicomedy that question about the standard categories for prose.
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is at once humorous and terrifying in its precise portrayal of rebellious adolescence.
Catch-22 (1961) is a darkly comic and wildly inventive novel by Joseph Heller about the insanity of war and the absurdity of military authority.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Pynchon is a sort of wild goose chase, with irrelevant clues to solve an impossible mystery.
Vonnegut bases his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) on his experiences in a German prison camp during World War II. The narrative is multilevel and alternates between the camp and a fictional planet, incorporating elements of science fiction in the process.
Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), about his experiences at peace marches, explicitly gives real events the dramatic approach of a novel.
DeLillo’s work faces various topics: the world of American football players; the role of the media in society; the effects of popular culture on the psychology of every man. His White Noise (1985) is a complex and often humorous study of nuclear age America.
Novelists John Cheever and John Updike explore upper-middle-class suburban life in a somewhat detached and satirical sryle.
Cheever’s novel The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) is a relatively benign story of an eccentric family; The Falconer (1977) is a depressing tale of fratricide.
Updike is famous for his series of four novels written between 1960 and 1990, the first book is Rabbit, Run (1960) about a man fleeing from life’s responsibilities and his own disillusion.
Joyce Carol Oates ‘s novels – A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Bellefleur (1980), and What I Lived For (1994)- combine strong naturalism with Gothic horror.
The works of Bernard Malamud; Canadian-born Saul Bellow, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976; and Philip Roth witness the importance of the Jewish tradition in American fiction, which dates to the 1920s and 1930s.
Malamud’s The Fixer (1966) tells of the suffering of a Russian Jew who, accused of ritual murder of a child, refuses to succumb to bitterness.
Bellow’s works revolve around Jewish intellectuals and their quest for self-knowledge. His novel Herzog (1961) portrays a middle-aged man’s existential crisis after his wife leaves him.
Roth’s first success came with Goodbye, Columbus (1959). His American Pastoral (1997) that follows the psychological deterioration of an American family over several generations is a comment on the ills of American society in the late 20th century.
After the 1970s several African American female writers appeared in American literature.
Toni Morrison’s works – The Bluest Eye (1970), Beloved (1988) and Paradise (1998)- are on slavery and offer hope, particularly in the strong bonds among women. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993.
Other African American women whose prose enriched late 20th-century literature were Alice Walker, best known for The Color Purple (1982), and Gloria Naylor, who received a National Book Award for her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1982).
The second half of the century sees the rise of Native American novels.
House Made of Dawn (1968) by N. Scott Momaday is one of the first 20th-century works to discuss the contemporary Native American experience. Ceremony (1977) by is the story of a young man of mixed Native American and white ancestry who seeks to recover from the terrifying violence of his world. James Welch’s Fools Crow (1986) returns to 1870, a time of catastrophic change for the Blackfeet Native Americans of Montana. Louise Erdrich, whose novels include Love Medicine (1984) and Tales of Burning Love (1996), was another writer who took a hard look at Native American culture in the late 20th century.
Hispanic American and Asian American authors brought strong voices to American literature after the 1960s. The Mexican Rudolfo Anaya, author of the novels Bless Me, Ultima (1972) and Alburquerque (1994), and Sandra Cisneros, author of the novel The House on Mango Street (1983), have written about language, identity, cultural change, and other struggles of Hispanic American life.
Asian American literature deals mostly with the conflicts experienced by those who bridge two cultures.
Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men (1980), by Maxine Hong Kingston, is about the theme of the contraposition between the traditional culture of the elders and modern Americanisation of the younger generations in an interweaving of legend and narration.
The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), by Amy Tan, dramatize conflicts between Chinese immigrants and their American-born children.
Public Affairs and History
At the beginning of the 20th century historians present traditional views of American history and account, but the fiction that comes out of World War II (1939-1945) does not have the desire to shock peculiar to previous war novels, on the contrary the writers seem to regard armed conflict with great philosophical detachment. After the explosion of the first atomic bomb at the end of the war, America and the world enter a new era during which the possibility of mass destruction weighs heavily on the collective consciousness. The idea of individuality—its negative consequences as well as transcendent powers—becomes a unifying principle of American literature following World War II.
The protest movements of the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement- change, to varying degrees American culture.
A political issue that becomes the subject of extensive analysis by American writers during and after the 1960s is the Vietnam War (1959-1975). My Lai 4 (1970) by Seymour M. Hersh details a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American troops in 1968. Frances FitzGerald wrote Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).
Some writers of fiction turn to non-fiction during the post-war period. Truman Capote invents what he calls the “non-fiction novel” with In Cold Blood (1966), a traumatic account of the murder of a Kansas family based on interviews with the murderers. Norman Mailer’s books The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, both published in 1968 lucidly describe and interpret political protest.
One of the sharpest literary critics and theorists in 20th-century America is Edmund Wilson. Erudite yet never pedantic, he is detached from any formal school of criticism. Axel’s Castle (1931) ascertains his literary intelligence, and later critical works, such as The Wound and the Bow (1941) and The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (1965), confirm his stature.
In the 1970s literary theory flourishes at Yale University, where Harold Bloom is concerned with the anxiety and the creative stimulus from literary influence and with the desirability of academic consensus on which literary works were truly important. He expressed these views in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994).
Based on the academic movement known as deconstruction, originated by literary critic Jacques Derrida, other Yale scholars assert that there are various levels of interpretation layers of meaning in a text.
In the 1980s and 1990s many literary theorists turn their attention toward culture and history, analysing the ways in which literature shapes and is characterized by the world in which it is written.
The civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the mid-1960s produce an explosion in American drama and many new dramatists emerge. Experimental theatre companies, including the Living Theater and the Open Theater place performers and audience members in the same physical space. The Serpent (1968) by Jean-Claude Van Itallie eliminates physical barriers between actors and audience and recreates Biblical stories through prendere spunto modern events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Megan Terry’s Calm Down Mother (1965) one actor plays multiple roles.
Small-scale musicals and comedies are also popular during this decade. These include the modern romance The Fantasticks (1960), written by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt, and the antiwar rock musical Hair (1967), by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Both are long-running hits and continue to influence plays into the late 20th century. Neil Simon emerges as a major playwright of comedies in the 1960s with such works as Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965).
A number of playwrights of the time present different points of view, giving voice to traditionally disenfranchised members of American culture. Many African American dramatic voices of the 1960s had a confrontational edge. In his violent play Dutchman (1964), Amiri Baraka portrays white society’s fear and hatred of an educated black protagonist. The autobiographical Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) by Adrienne Kennedy addresses the difficulties of being an American of mixed racial ancestry.
The 1970s and 1980s
Sam Shepard and David Mamet emerge in the 1970s and 1980s.
Shepard’s bitter drama explores the American family and the often-destructive myths of the American West in Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980).
Mamet creates a darkly comic style that imitates the fragmented speech of the mumbling.
Mamet’s American Buffalo (1975) uses a Chicago rubbish shop as a symbol of American capitalism, and his winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), that wins the Pulitzer-Prize, depicts the moral decay brought about by the win-at-all-costs ethic of the American salesman.
Beginning in the 1970s the movement known as postmodernism found expression in the American theatre. This came primarily through staging and direction, rather than in the subject matter of the plays themselves. Postmodern staging and design tended toward the minimal and sometimes incorporated images from earlier plays and productions, while postmodern directors sought to uncover multiple layers of meaning in a play. In particular, these approaches were effectively used by feminist playwrights such as Maria Irene Fornés and Wendy Wasserstein. In Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and The Conduct of Life (1985), Fornés employed spatial experiments such as moving the audience from room to room instead of changing stage scenery. Wasserstein explored the complex social issues raised by the women’s movement in Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and The Heidi Chronicles (1988), which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
In the late 1970s Lanford Wilson had success with realistic ensemble pieces, which had large casts and no one central character. His works, such as The Fifth of July (1978), perpetuated the ensemble tradition of Williams, Clifford Odets, and William Inge. American musicals also enjoyed experimental developments in the work of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His romantic A Little Night Music (1973) was written entirely in three-four time, and his Into the Woods (1987) refashioned traditional fairy tales for adults.
By the 1980s many American playwrights found themselves tied to topics of current interest. ‘Night Mother (1983) by Marsha Norman discussed the question of when suicide might be justifiable. The Normal Heart (1985) by Larry Kramer confronted the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic. In his M. Butterfly (1988) David Henry Hwang artfully used the famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904), by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, to examine the ways in which Western civilization feminizes Eastern civilization.
During this time two new playwrights took audiences into new territory while expressing themselves in language as different as their subject matter.
Eric Overmyer harnessed sophisticated language, satire, and vibrant theatricality to dissect a corrupt social and political infrastructure in On the Verge (1986) and In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe (1988).
August Wilson was another American playwright who came to prominence in the 1980s. Wilson uses African American vernacular English in his narrowly focused domestic dramas, each of which is set in a different decade of the 20th century. Among the best of these are Fences (1985), portraying the conflicts between a father and son, and The Piano Lesson (1987), which focus on the dispute between a brother and sister over selling a family heirloom to buy the land that their ancestors worked as slaves. Both plays won the Pulitzer Prize.
The 21st century
With the growth and reach of modern technology such as the Internet, American poetry in the 21st century has entered what is perhaps its most prolific period. Thousands of new poets are available to anyone who cares to read it. The Internet and its electronic environment are also altering the forms of poetry. Poets today experiment with kinetic structures in which words shift, alter, and transform themselves in innovative new ways, often combining with visual images and sound tracks. Hundreds of online poetry journals have emerged, making both traditional and radically new kinds of poetic expression possible. This work is sometimes grouped under the category of “new media poetry.” Some of this new poetry uses interactive software to actually involve the reader in the creation of the work.
already in the 20th century the development of mass recording technology—such as the phonograph (record player)—allowed the easy distribution of songs, which began to fill the lyric needs of the culture as poetry once did. In the last several decades, songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Bruce Springsteen have gained notice as much for their poetic lyrics as for their catchy melodies. Harkening back to the jazz accompaniments of many Beat poetry readings, artists such as Ani DiFranco, Laurie Anderson, and Sekou Sundiata have blended poetry, music, performance, and visuals to create a hybrid and still unnamed new genre.
In recent years new forms continue to emerge that further connect poetry with its early oral roots. David Antin has been described as a “talk poet” whose performances mix comedy, storytelling, and poetry in intriguing ways. Poetry “slams” feature poets reciting their verse in competitions before boisterous audiences. Modern rap music artists produce dazzling works employing rhyme and rhythm, building on a largely African American tradition of urban poetry linked to black music. All of these developments show how the words of many poems today are not written on a page, but are sung, recited, improvised, cast into motion, and otherwise actively performed.
“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1855. His challenge remains valid today: thousands of poets produce new work every year, all of them trying to connect with an audience. The demands on poetry audiences continue to increase as the range of poetic expression widens.
American literature at the beginning of the 21st century is exceptionally diverse, with multicultural influences as new voices continue to emerge within the Native American, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American communities and other minorities not yet represented.
The concept of cultural hybridity, in which an individual’s physical self and cultural self can be two different halves of the same whole, is a uniquely American phenomenon. Asian American authors such as Chang-Rae Lee and Eric Liu are among the most active in developing this theme. Bilingualism is also a popular theme among many American authors, reflecting both the alienation and the strong cultural identity that comes from being a non-native English speaker in the United States. Gender issues remain major topics in 21st century American literature, and more gay and lesbian authors are publishing their work and bringing their community and concerns into focus.
In addition to these new cultural voices, American prose experiences revitalization within previously established traditions. Writers such as Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, 2001) and Nicholson Baker (Box of Matches, 2003) are offering ambitious new models for the novel that also incorporate traditional forms.
As the literature of the new century takes shape, American authors as a group still share common ground in responding to the important issues of their country and the world at large. While creating unique worlds for various distinct communities, America’s diverse literary voices continue to reflect the unique characteristics of its land, people, and culture.