American literature in 60 minutes
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American Literature in 60 Minutes. “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play?” – Sidney Smith, 1820

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American Literature in 60 Minutes

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American literature in 60 minutes

American Literature in 60 Minutes

“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play?” – Sidney Smith, 1820

“Some thinkers may object to this essay, that we are about to write of that which has, as yet, no existence.” –Margaret Fuller, in her 1846 essay “American Literature”

“Ah, yes, American Literature. I must take an afternoon and read it some time.”—Allan Carroll, former University of Tennessee English Dept. Chair and terminal Brithead

Tale of two smithies

John Smith’s 1608 “A True Relation”

Promotional Literature

Smith as 1st-person master negotiator

Indians: Savage but can be worked with

No Pocahontas Rescue story!

John Smith’s 1624 “Generall Historie”

Captivity Narrative

Smith as swashbuckling, 3rd-person hero

Indians: Savage but subduable

Pocahontas: Forest Fever

Tale of Two Smithies

Other promotional lit

Other Promotional Lit

  • Drayton’s “Ode”: “To get the pearl and gold/And ours to hold/Virginia,/Earth’s only Paradise.”

  • Point: to get settlers over to work the land and make it profitable for joint-stock companies

  • Promotional Literature begins long tradition of projecting on the idea of “America” whatever dreams/aspirations/desires an immigrant can imagine.

Other captivity narratives

Other Captivity Narratives

  • Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration… (1682) – basis, with Smith, of nearly all Indian captivity narratives to follow

  • Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative (1789)

  • Susanna Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers (1794)

  • Herman Melville’s Typee (1842)

  • Frederick Douglass’ Narrative (1845…)

  • Mocked in Huckleberry Finn (1880)

  • Captivity narratives

    • Gave an illicit peek at the “other” without fear of contamination

    • Helped establish racial categories and, later, attitudes toward slavery

    • The most popular type of adventure fiction in U.S. popular culture



  • Ed Ward, on Boston, from A Trip to New England, 1699: “The buildings, like their Women, being Neat and Handsome. And their Streets, like the Hearts of the Male Inhabitants, are Paved with Pebble.”

  • “A Captain of a Ship who had been on a long Voyage, happen’d to meet his Wife, and Kist her in the Street, for which he was Fin’d Ten Shillings, and was forc’d to pay the Money. What a Happiness, thought I, do we enjoy in Old-England, that cannot only Kiss our own wives, but other Men’s too without the danger of such a Penalty.”

So why care about them

So Why Care About Them?

  • Spiritual Autobiography

  • Jeremiad – 3-part sermon form that foreshadowed nearly all American political speeches – 1) listing of community sins; 2) threat of utter doom; 3) call to repentance and promise of future [return to] glory

  • Bradford, Taylor, and Mather (for the test)

  • Women Writers: Bradstreet and Rowlandson

William bradford

William Bradford

  • William Bradford – Of Plymouth Plantation (1647) – “The History of How Far We Have Fallen”; using Exodus as his style book, memorializes the first settlers:

    “Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by that which went before), they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less town torepair to, to seek for succour…. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject-to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, fall of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.”

Edward taylor

Edward Taylor

  • New England’s “metaphysical poet” – poems as meditations on Calvinist theology

  • “Huswifery” - Make me, O Lord, thy Spinning Wheele compleat;      Thy Holy Worde my Distaff make for mee. Make mine Affections thy Swift Flyers neate,      And make my Soule thy holy Spoole to bee.      My Conversation make to be thy Reele,      And reele the yarn thereon spun of thy Wheele.

  • “I Am the Living Bread” - In this sad state, Gods Tender Bowells run      Out streams of Grace: And he to end all strife The Purest Wheate in Heaven, his deare-dear Son      Grinds, and kneads up into this Bread of Life.      Which Bread of Life from Heaven down came and stands      Disht on thy Table up by Angells Hands.

Cotton mather

Cotton Mather

  • Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) and Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and about 450 other printed works.

  • From Wonders: “Samuel Preston testify'd, that about two years ago, having some Difference with Martha Carrier, he lost a Cow in a strange Preternatural unusual manner; and about a month after this, the said Carrier, having again some Difference with him, she told him, He had lately lost a Cow, and it should not be long before he Lost another! which accordingly came to Pass; for he had a Thriving and well-kept Cow, which without any known cause quickly fell down and Dy'd.”

Anne bradstreet

Anne Bradstreet

  • The Tenth Muse (1678)

    “Prologue”: “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits.”

    “The Author to Her Book”: I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,/And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw./I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.”

    “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House”: “Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store./The world no longer let me love;/My hope and Treasure lies above.”

    “In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth”: “She hath wip'd off th' aspersion of her Sex,/ That women wisdom lack to play the Rex….Let such as say our sex is void of reason/ Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason.” 

Mary rowlandson

Mary Rowlandson

  • Narrative (1682): “I can remember the time when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me…. Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it. When I lived in prosperity, having the comforts of the world about me, my relations by me, my heart cheerful, and taking little care for anything, and yet seeing many, whom I preferred before myself, under many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the world, I should be sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life, and that Scripture would come to my mind, "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth" (Hebrews 12.6). “

  • Compared often to the narratives (written by others, esp. Mather) of Hannah Dustan, who killed and scalped her captors.

Eighteenth century

Eighteenth Century

  • Enlightenment

  • Revolution

  • Post-Colonial Inferiority Complex

  • Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1771-90): rags to riches, program of moral perfection (actually a bagatelle)

  • Royall Tyler, The Contrast (1789)

  • Important Poets: Phyllis Wheatley, Philip Freneau (pre-Romantic)

  • Novelists you should know: Susanna Rowson (Charlotte Temple 1794), Charles Brockden Brown (Wieland 1798), Hannah Webster Foster (The Coquette 1797)

Nineteenth century literary movements as bumper stickers

Nineteenth Century Literary Movements as Bumper Stickers

  • Romanticism: Life is what you make of it!

  • Realism: Life is what it is.

  • Naturalism: Life sucks and then you die.

Early romantics mutability hence lots of death pantheism

Early Romantics – Mutability (hence lots of Death), Pantheism

  • Philip Freneau, poet, “The Wild Honeysuckle” (1785) : “If nothing once, you nothing lose,/ For when you die you are the same;/ The space between is but an hour,/The frail duration of flower.”

  • William Cullen Bryant, poet, “Thanatopsis” (1817): “The hills Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales/ Stretching in pensive quietness between; /The venerable woods—rivers that move/In majesty, and the complaining brooks /That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,/Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,— /Are but the solemn decorations all Of the great tomb of man!” NOTE: BRYANT INTRODUCES BLANK VERSE INTO AMERICAN LIT IN THIS POEM.

Early romantics in prose nature sensibility noble savage gothic fashion sense

Early Romantics in Prose – Nature, Sensibility, Noble Savage, Gothic, Fashion Sense

  • William Fenimore Cooper – The Leatherstocking Tales are a series of novels written between 1826 and 1841describing the adventures of Natty Bumppo, set in frontier communities west of the Allegheny Mountains: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder,The Prairie. Natty Bumppo is celebrated for his closeness to nature, and is the mouthpiece Cooper uses to decry “the wasty ways of man” and “the twisty ways of the law.”

  • Washington Irving – His The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819) contains his two most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In his dozens of other sketches, he celebrates the sentimental over the commercial and entertainment over didacticism. Invents the old English Christmas in his 5 “Christmas Sketches” and in “Philip of Pokanoket,” rewrites Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative from the Wampanoag point of view, calling them “a native band of untaught heroes.”

American renaissance

American Renaissance

  • Term coined by F. O. Matthiessen in his book of the same name in 1940. Established the following as canonical American writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman—Margaret Fuller has since been added to this list as major American writers.

Ralph waldo emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Famous for his essays: Nature (1836) was used as a launching pad for the Transcendentalist movement. Most famous for this image: “Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Henry david thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

  • Seen sometimes as the “legs” of the Transcendentalist movement—was more political than RWE. Most famous works are “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) and Walden (1854): “ I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

Margaret fuller

Margaret Fuller

  • Feminist journalist, essayist, travel writer, and transcendentalist thinker. Most famous work Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845): “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue.”

Edgar allan poe romantic quadruple threat but not a transcendentalist

Edgar Allan Poe – Romantic Quadruple Threat (but NOT a Transcendentalist)

  • Poet: “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,”

  • Horror Fiction writer: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death”—great with unreliable narrators

  • Detective Fiction “inventor” (Auguste Dupin): “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter”

  • Critic: “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle”—in his newspaper reviews of lit, earns nickname “The Hatchet Man”

Nathaniel hawthorne the typical romantic novelist

Nathaniel Hawthorne – THE typical Romantic novelist

  • Novels: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables

  • Short Stories: “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil” – like Poe, master of unreliable narration

Herman melville yarns on the high seas

Herman Melville – Yarns on the High Seas

  • Moby-Dick, of course, is his most famous novel, but his more popular novels were south-sea Island captivity/adventure tales Typee and Omoo.

  • Critic who, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” in 1850, sets the adoring critical tone others will follow: “What a mild moonlight of contemplative humor bathes that Old Manse!--the rich and rare distilment of a spicy and slowly-oozing heart. No rollicking rudeness, no gross fun fed on fat dinners, and bred in the lees of wine,--but a humor so spiritually gentle, so high, so deep, and yet so richly relishable, that it were hardly inappropriate in an angel. It is the very religion of mirth; for nothing so human but it may be advanced to that. “

  • Though he wrote what purports to be poetry, I’m not convinced.

Walt whitman a kosmos

Walt Whitman – a Kosmos

  • Leaves of Grass revised 8 times between 1855 and 1892. Major poems: “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking” “O Captain, My Captain,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

  • Democratic in subject matter, style (free verse), and theme: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body,/ And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,/ And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,/ And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud…Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)…. I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

Emily dickinson your easiest id on the exam

Emily Dickinson – Your Easiest ID on the Exam

  • Major poet more influential on modernists than in her own time—most of her work wasn’t published until the 1890s. Her work is very easy to spot:

  • Hymn meter—nearly all of her poems can be sung to the tunes of either “Amazing Grace” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas”

  • Slant Rhyme— “room” rhymed with “storm,” for ex.

  • Dashes—her signal punctuation: “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – / The Stillness in the Room /Was like the Stillness in the Air – / Between the Heaves of Storm – ”

  • Death is as overriding a theme in Dickinson’s poetry as Life is in Whitman’s



  • As a reaction against Romanticism, it aimed to depict life as it was, “ragged edges” and all.

  • Much of Realist fiction had a muck-raking, political impetus, like Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills (1861)

  • Some aimed at a realistic aesthetic in the depiction of persons, situations, and language, as Mark Twain indicates at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn (1880): “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

  • Doesn’t “end” with subsequent literary movements (Naturalism, Modernism), but informs them.

  • See this link for major concerns and texts:



  • Either a branch of realism or a reaction against it—some call it realism infused with determinisms.

  • Economic and Social Determinism – the work of Marx and condition of American working class informs works such as Stephen Crane’s Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900)

  • Psychological and Biological Determinism – the work of Freud and Darwin—our behavior controlled by our unconscious drives; plays on a fear of a de-evolutionary state; see Frank Norris’ McTeague (1899), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1900), and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1910)

Robert frost

Robert Frost

  • “Pre-Modern” poet

  • Public image vs. poetic actualities

  • “The Road Not Taken”

Modernism s


  • Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” is the slogan of all modernisms.

  • Marked by experimentation in form and content.

Modern poetry

Modern Poetry

  • Goals of Imagism – Ezra Pound, from “A Retrospect”: “1. Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective.2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”

  • Pound wanted to get the “Victorian slither” out of poetry.

Imagist examples

Pound: “In a Station of the Metro” (1913)

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; 

Petals on a wet, black bough.

(this is the entire poem, pared from a 36-line original)

William Carlos Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923)

so much dependsupon

a red wheelbarrow

glazed with rainwater

beside the whitechickens.

Imagist Examples

Other important modernist poets

Other Important Modernist Poets

  • T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay

20 th century poetry after the modernists

20th Century Poetry after the Modernists


New negro renaissance

New Negro Renaissance

  • Alain Locke, “The New Negro”

  • Schomburg Exhibition:

Modernist fiction

Modernist Fiction

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby (1925)

  • Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929)

  • William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light in August (1932)

20 th century fiction after modernism

20th Century Fiction after Modernism


20 th century drama

20th Century Drama

  • Eugene O’Neill and the Provincetown Players: The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Long Days Journey Into Night

  • Other dramatists: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks

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