1600 and 1700: prose…
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries literature was mainly based on prose writings that described historical events, geographical discoveries and on religious sermons.
After the War of Independence the literary debate moved towards the topic of the constitution of the new nation. As to poetry, the poems dealt mainly with elegies, epitaphs on dead relatives or on religious matters, and, in the late years of the century, with verses about the war (the anonymous popular ballad Yankee Doodle Dandy was written in 1775).
The most famous poets were a group called The Connecticut Wits and Philip Freneau (1752-1832). The former proposed a series of reforms to give more independence to the American way of writing whereas the latter wrote verses supporting the American independence and the democratic ideals following Pope’s way of writing satire.
1800: spreading of culture
Only in the nineteenth century, with the democratic developments, culture spread more rapidly and the first newspapers were printed: The new York Sun (1833), The New York Herald (1835) and the literary monthly The Knickerbockers (1833).
Schools were opened and a campaign for the education of girls started.
The movement westward and the Civil War determined the social and cultural identity of the U. S. and produced a new national literature. Even though the English writers continued to exercise an influence on some authors (infact English Romantic models adhered to the South point of view and ideas), earlier prose writers showed a growing awareness of an American reality, in their origins, in the adventures in the frontiers and in the abolition of slavery.
The most important writers of the period, besides Edgar Allan Poe were Washington Irving (1783-1859)and Fennimore Cooper (1789-1851).
I. Washington started as a journalist from New York writing satirical publications such as Salmagundi Papers and A History of New York. After a journey in Europe and an encounter with Sir Walter Scott, he wrote more romantic works the most famous of which are The Sketch Book, Rip Van- Wrinkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow , this last based on old German folk- tales.
Even J. F. Cooper followed Sir Walter Scott as a model and wrote tales based on Romantic themes and adventures. His Leatherstocking Novels (The Deer slayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and The Prairie) are based on the adventures of the pioneer and hunter Natty Bampoo and describe life in the frontier who represented the essence of America both at home and abroad: he tries to win on evil forces in the hostile but attractive wilderness.
New England writers
After 1830 American fiction and non-fiction developed mostly in the area of New England.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) in his novels revealed his Puritan upbringing and the Calvinistic New England inheritance dealing with the themes of good, evil, sin and guilt both in individuals and in communities. He combined organized plot with symbolical meanings and emblematic characters led and overwhelmed by moral values. His masterpiece is The Scarlat Letter (1850) set in the Puritan Boston of the 17th century, but his ability in handling form is also well shown in the tales whose symmetrical structure create unity of action without digressions.
Also Herman Melville’s (1819-1891)books are mainly symbolic and allegorical dealing with the vision of man who lives in the “malevolence of Universe”. He gathered the material for his novels during his travels on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and in fact his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851) describes the whale hunt with realism. But the struggle between Captain Ahab and the white sperm whale is, at a deeper reading, representative of the conflict between man and the inscrutable force that frustrate the individual will.
During the same years New England, Concord in particular, was the focus also of another more optimistic literary movement, Trscendentalism, based on the Neoplatonic ideas and influenced by the English Romantic poets. They exhalted the spiritual world of feeling and intuition against the false reality of the material world: the spirit is the true reality and the means by which to understand life.
Society and the established Church are obstacles on the way to reach self-consciousness. Under this point of view (different from the Puritan vision) Man is good and needs self-reliance to reach absolute spiritual reality.
The spokeman of this literary activity was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who wrote his essays in the attempt to “help the young souls add energy, inspire hope and blow the coals into a useful flame”. One of the most influential among Emerson’s followers was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) that pointed out the importance of personal freedom and individual identity.
The Cambridge Poets
As to poetry, New England gave birth to a group strictly connected with the University of Harvard and Cambridge, Massachussetts, whose works were rooted in the European culture, the “new England Brahamins” or “Cambridge Poets”.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) and J. Russel Lowell (1819-1891) ‘s poems dominated the literary current speaking about contemporary politics and anti-slavery problems.
But the writers that mainly dealt with this sort of topics belonged to the Western and Southern parts of the U. S.. A group of regional colourists set out to write novels – fiction was at the time the most lively genre – which offered authentic glimpses of local manners, traditions and dialects, depicting on newspapers and journals the idiosyncrasies of provincial America using sometimes a touch of humour and sometimes a note of nostalgia.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), the pen -name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, excelled in the description of life on the Mississippi river and left unforgettable visions of it in his best works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Life on the Mississippi (1883).