Literature of America

American literature refers to written or literary work produced in the area of the United States and Colonial America. For more specific discussions of poetry and theater, see Poetry of the United States and Theater in the United States.
During its early history, America was a series of British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its literary tradition begins as linked to the broader tradition of English literature. However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production usually now cause it to be considered a separate path and tradition.
Some of the earliest forms of American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonist audience. Captain John Smith could be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of … Virginia … (1608) and The General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other writers of this manner included Daniel Denton, Thomas Ashe, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, John Hammond, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.
The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were also topics of early writing. A journal written by John Winthrop discussed the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower’s arrival. Other religiously influenced writers included Increase Mather and William Bradford, author of the journal published as a History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–47. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation.
The revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway, a loyalist to the crown. Two key figures were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin are esteemed works with their wit and influence toward the formation of a budding American identity. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense and The American Crisis writings are seen as playing a key role in influencing the political tone of the period.
During the revolution itself, poems and songs such as Yankee Doodle and Nathan Hale were popular. Major satirists included John Trumbull and Francis Hopkinson. Philip Morin Freneau also wrote poems about the war’s course.
Unique American style – With the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American work, a number of key new literary figures appeared, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving, often considered the first writer to develop a unique American style (although this is debated) wrote humorous works in Salmagundi and the well-known satire A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Bryant wrote early romantic and nature-inspired poetry, which evolved away from their European origins. In 1832, Poe began writing short stories — including The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue — that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy. Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales about Natty Bumppo were popular both in the new country and abroad.
Humorous writers were also popular and included Seba Smith and Benjamin P. Shillaber in New England and Davy Crockett, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson J. Hooper, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Joseph G. Baldwin, and George Washington Harris writing about the American frontier.
At the beginning of the 20th century, American novelists were expanding fiction’s social spectrum to encompass both high and low life and sometimes connected to the naturalist school of realism. In her stories and novels, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) scrutinized the upper-class, Eastern-seaboard society in which she had grown up. One of her finest books, The Age of Innocence, centers on a man who chooses to marry a conventional, socially acceptable woman rather than a fascinating outsider.
From roughly the early 1970s until present day, the most well known literary category, though often contested as a proper title, has been Postmodernism. Notable, intellectually well-received writers of the period have included Thomas Pynchon, Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Dillard. Authors typically labeled Postmodern have dealt with and are today dealing directly with many of the ways that popular culture and mass media have influenced the average American’s perception and experience of the world, which is quite often criticized along with the American government, and, in many cases, with America’s history, but especially with the average American’s perception of his or her own history.
Many Postmodern authors are also well known for setting scenes in fast food restaurants, on subways, or in shopping malls; they write about drugs, plastic surgery, and television commercials. Sometimes, these depictions look almost like celebrations. But simultaneously, writers in this school take a knowing, self-conscious, sarcastic, and (some critics would say) condescending attitude towards their subjects. Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Foster Wallace are, perhaps, most well known for these particular tendencies.