Two phases: The Age of Faith from 1607 until 1750
and The Age of Reason from 1750 until 1800

I. The Age of Faith (1607-1750)

Historical Context

  • Puritans and Pilgrims
  • Separated from the Anglican church of England
  • Aligned with a religion that dominated their lives and writings
  • Work ethic - belief in hard work and simple, no-frills living


  • Sermons, diaries, personal narratives, slave narratives
  • Instructive
  • Plain style

Major Writers

  • Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
    First published American poet
    "To My Dear and Loving Husband"
    "Upon the Burning of Our House”

  • Edward Taylor (1645-1729)
    Minister considered the finest Puritan poet
    "Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete"

  • Jonathan Edwards
    "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
    View of God as punitive and distant and view of man as basically evil

  • John Smith (1580-1631)
    General History of Virginia
    Pocahontas legend
    Adventurer and writer

II. The Age of Reason (1750-1800)

Historical context

  • American Revolution; growth of patriotism
  • Development of American character/democracy
  • Use of reason as opposed to faith alone


  • Political pamphlets, essays, travel writing, speeches, documents
  • Instructive in values; highly ornate writing style

Major Writers

  • Ben Franklin
    Autobiography and Poor Richard's Almanac
    Symbol of success gained by hard work and common sense:
    "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
    "God helps them that help themselves."
    "Haste makes waste."

  • Thomas Jefferson
    Declaration of Independence
    Considered the finest writer of the era
    "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…"

  • Thomas Paine
    "The American Crisis" helped propel colonies into war
    Remains a model of effective propaganda:
    "These are the times that try men's souls."

ROMANTICISM (1800-1855)

Historical context

  • Expansion of book publishing, magazines, newspapers
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Abolitionist movement


  • Short stories, novels, poetry
  • Imagination over reason; intuition over fact
  • Focused on the fantastic of human experience
  • Writing that can be interpreted two ways: surface and in depth
  • Focus on inner feelings
  • Gothic literature (sub-genre of Romanticism)
    Use of the supernatural
    Characters with both evil and good characteristics
    Dark landscapes; depressed characters

Major Writers

  • Washington Irving (1789-1851)
    First famous American writer; called "Father of American Lit"
    Wrote short stories, travel books, satires
    "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" terrified generations of children
    "Rip Van Winkle" and the antihero
    "Devil and Tom Walker": an encounter-with-the-devil tale

  • Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849)
    Created the modern short story and detective story
    Short stories such as "Fall of the House of Usher," "Pit and the Pendulum,"
    Inspired future detective/horror stories Poems: "The Raven," "Bells, "Annabel Lee" Attacked two long-standing conventions: a poem has to be long, and a poem must teach a lesson

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
    Wrote about sin and guilt; consequences of pride, selfishness
    The Scarlet Letter
    Short stories ("The Minister's Black Veil")

  • Herman Melville (1819-1891)
    Ranked as one of America's top novelists, but recognized by few in his own time
    Moby Dick: did not sell – only his friend Hawthorne liked it, now considered America's greatest prose epic

  • William Cullen Bryant

  • "Fireside Poets"
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    Oliver Wendell Holmes
    James Russell Lowell
    John Greenleaf Whittier

Transcendentalism (1840 - 1855)

Stressed individualism, intuition, nature, self-reliance


Essays, journals, speeches, poetry

Major Writers

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

  • Established the philosophy of individualism:
  • Now an idea deeply embedded in American culture
  • "Nature"
  • "Self-Reliance"

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

  • Resisted materialism; chose simplicity, individualism
  • "Civil Disobedience": a primer for nonviolent protest
  • Lived on Walden Pond for two-plus years
  • Walden – a metaphorical guidebook for life, showing how to live wisely in
    a world designed to make wise living impossible

New Poetic Forms

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

  • Rejected conventional themes, forms, subjects
  • Used long lines to capture the rhythm of natural speech, free verse
  • Use everyday vocabularyin free verse
  • "Song of Myself," "I Hear America Singing," "O Captain My Captain"

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

  • Her poetry broke with convention: did not “look right,” did not rhyme
  • In her time, her poetry considered too bold, too radical
  • Concrete imagery, forceful language, unique style
  • Wrote 1775 poems, published only seven in her life
  • "Because I could not stop for Death--"
    “My life closed twice before its close—"
    “The Soul selects her own Society—"

REALISM (1865-1915)

Historical context

  • Civil War brings demand for a "truer" literature that does not idealize people or places
  • People in society became defined by "class" as a result of materialism
  • Reflection of ideas of Darwin (survival of the fittest) and Marx (how money and class
    structure control a nation)


  • Realism: a reaction against romanticism
  • Focus on lives of ordinary people; rejected heroic and adventurous
  • Anti-materialism rejected the new "class" system
  • View of nature as a powerful and indifferent force beyond man's control
  • Naturalism (sub-genre of Realism)
    Like Realism but a darker view of the world
    The universe is unpredictable; fate is determined by chance; free will is an illusion
    Characters' lives are shaped by forces they can't understand or control
    Novels, short stories
    Often aims to change a specific social problem
    Dominant themes: survival, fate, violence, nature as an indifferent force

Major Writers

The Civil War (1855-1865)

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
    The most famous woman of her day
    Uncle Tom's Cabin: most influential book of the nineteenth century
    First American book to sell one million copies
    One of the most effective documents of propaganda
    Was said to have helped fuel the Civil War
  • Frederick Douglas (1817-1895)
    An escaped slave; one of the most effective orators of his day
    Influential newspaper writer; militant abolitionist; diplomat
    Autobiography an instant and enduring classic of courage

The Frontier (1865-1915)

  • Mark Twain (1835-1910)
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens widely thought to be the greatest American humorist
    Used vernacular, exaggeration, deadpan narrator to create humor
    “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    Adventures of HuckleberryFinn Life on the Mississippi (a memoir)

  • Stephen Crane (1871-1900) (Naturalist)
    Crane attacked patriotism, individualism, organized religion; confronted the meaninglessness of the world; writing known for its images and symbolism
    Red Badge of Courage (most famous work; set in Civil War)
    “The Open Boat” (man vs. Nature's indifference)
    “An Episode of War” (short story)

  • Jack London
    Pushed Naturalism to its limits
    Call of the Wild (tame dog forced to revert to his original primitive state)
    “To Build a Fire” (survival of the fittest)

The Local Colorists (1865-1930)
Regional writers tried to capture the essence of a particular area, or its "local color"

  • Bret Harte (1836-1902)
    Old West
    “Outcasts of Poker Flat”
  • Kate Chopin (1851-1904)
    Louisiana bayou
    The Awakening
  • Willa Cather (1873-1947)
    Life on the Nebraska prairie
    Pulitzer Prize winner

New Poetic Forms

  • Edwin Arlington Robinson
  • Edgar Lee Masters
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar

MODERNISM (1915-1945)

Historical context

  • Overwhelming technological changes
  • World War I first war of mass destruction
  • Grief over loss of past; fear of eroding traditions
  • Rise of youth culture


  • Dominant mood: alienation/disconnection
  • Writers see to create a unique style
  • Writing highly experimental: use of fragments, stream of consciousness, interior dialogue

Major Writers

  • Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
    Writing style: concise, direct, spare, objective, precise, rhythmic
    Major works include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea
    Larger than life hero; big game hunter; sport fisherman; headliner
    Won Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
    The Great Gatsby (ironic and tragic treatment of the American success myth)
    His work and life illustrate American culture of the 1920's

  • William Faulkner (1897-1962)
    As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury (his masterpiece)
    The most original writer of his time
    Primary subject was his heritage: Southern memory, reality, myth

  • John Steinbeck
    Of Mice and Men and The Pearl
    Belief in the need for social justice; hope people learn from the suffering of others
    Grapes of Wrath (combined naturalism and symbolism to express outrage and compassion for the plight of the farmers displaced by the Depression and Dustbowl)

    Sherwood Anderson
    Katherine Anne Porter
    Eudora Welty
    Thornton Wilder


Historical context

  • Media saturated culture
  • People observe life as media presents it rather than experiencing life directly
  • Insistence that values are not permanent but only "local" or "historical"
  • Media culture interprets values
  • Post WWII prosperity
  • People now in a new century, a new millennium
  • Social protest


  • Lines of reality blurred; mix of fantasy and nonfiction
  • No heroes/anti-heroes
  • Concern with individual in isolation
  • Detached, unemotional, usually humorless
  • Emergence of ethnic and women writers

Major Writers

  • Beat writers (pre-hippie, highly intellectual, anti-tradition)
  • Countered the hidden despair of the 50's with wildly exuberant language/behavior
  • Confessional poets: Used anguish of own lives to explore America's hidden despair
  • J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, symbol for a generation of disaffected youth
  • Flannery O'Conner (Southern Gothic)
  • James Thurber (America's most popular humorist in 30's and 40's)
  • Multicultural Literature
    Jewish American literature (50's and 60's)
    African American literature (black militancy/civil rights movement in 50's 60's) Native American Latino-American literature
    Asian-American literature
  • New Frontiers
    John Updike and Truman Capote
  • Arthur Miller's The Crucible