American Literary Time Periods

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Last updated: May 3, 2019

COLONIAL/Puritianism(1620-1750)
Sermons, diaries, personal narratives Sermons written in plain style rather than ornateReligious poetryFocuses on daily life, moral attitudes, and political unrest Literature is instructive, reinforces authority of the Bible and churchPredestination: fate determined by God All are sinful and must be saved by Christ”Puritan” began as an insult by traditional Anglicans to those who criticized or wished to “purify” the Church of England.Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation Bradstreet’s “Upon the Burning of Our House”Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”Though not written during Puritan times, The Crucible & The Scarlet Letter depict life during the time when Puritan theocracy prevailed (1692, Salem Witch Trials).

REVOLUTIONARY(1750-1800)
Political pamphletsTravel writingPersuasive writingLiterature instills pride, spurs patriotism, and common agreementNational mission and the American characterEncourages support for the Revolutionary WarWritings of Jefferson, Paine, Henry Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac and “The Autobiography”

ROMANTICISM(1800-1860)
PoetryShort storiesCelebrates the individual, nature, imagination & emotionsValue intuition over reasoning Flee corruption of civilization and limits of rational thought toward the integrity of nature and freedom of the imaginationInstill proper gender behavior for men & womenRe-imagine the American pastExpansion of magazines, newspapers, and book publishing Industrial revolution leads questioning the “old ways” (English ways) of doing thingsSlavery debatesCivil War (1861-1865) is pivotalIrving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”Melville’s Moby Dick and Billy BuddWhitman’s Leaves of GrassDickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”(Some say these founders of American poetry also belong to Realism and Modernism.)

TRANSCENDENTAL -ISM(1830-1880)**Some historians refer to the years of 1850-1855 as the American Renaissance because so many writers of great importance recorded the events of this time.(“Renaissance” = a period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity)
PoetryEssaysShort StoriesNovelsTranscendental: True reality is spiritualIntuition leads us to the indwelling God or is the better guide to truth than the senses or logical reason is.Self-reliance & individualism Today in literature we still read of people seeking beauty in life and in nature, the belief in true love and contentmentEmerson’s Nature and “Self-Reliance”Thoreau’s Walden Inspired the concept of civil disobedience that influenced Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gothic1830-1800
(Some consider the anti-transcendentalists to be the “dark” romantics or gothic)Characterized bySin, pain, evilContains elements of gloom, mystery, the grotesquesupernaturalWe still see portrayals of antagonists whose evil characteristics appeal to one’s sense of aweNathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”Poe’s “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”Edgar Allen Poe “The Raven”Mary Shelley “Frankenstein”

REALISM(1850-1900)
Novels and short stories No supernatural interventionRealism: Examines realities of life, human frailty, local color Depiction of ordinary people in everyday lifeObjective narratorDoes not tell reader how to interpret storyCivil War (1861-1865) brings demand for a “truer” type of literature that does not idealize people or placesDialogue includes regional Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage & “The Open Boat”The Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassIncidents in the Life of A Slave Girl -Harriet JacobsAn Occurence At Owl Creek Bridge- Ambrose Bierce

Regionalism/ Naturalism1850-1900
An outgrowth of RealismPeople are hapless victims of immutable natural lawsSetting is very importantlocal color-customs-dialectTwain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (some say 1st modern novel)Jack London “Call of the Wild”, “The Law of Life”Regional works like Chopin’s The Awakening, Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and Cather’s My Antonia (some say modern)

MODERNISM(1900-1950)
Novels PlaysPoetry (resurgence after deaths of W & D)Experimental as writers seek a unique styleUse of interior monologue & stream of consciousnessThe pursuit of the American Dream America as the land of EdenSoon that optimism and a belief in the importance of the individual is overwhelmed byThemes of alienation and disillusionmentWWI and WWIIWriters reflect the ideas of Darwin (survival of fittest) and Karl Marx (how money & class structure control a nation) Overwhelming technological changes of the 20th CenturyHarlem RenaissanceSteinbeck’s The Grapes of WrathEliot’s The WastelandFitzgerald’s The Great GatsbyHemingway’s A Farewell to ArmsWilliams’ The Glass MenagerieMiller’s The Death of a Salesman (some say Postmodern)

HARLEM RENAISSANCE(1920sPart of Modernism)
Allusions to African-American spirituals Uses structure of blues songs in poetry (repetition)Superficial stereotypes revealed to be complex charactersGave birth to “gospel music” Blues and jazz transmitted across American via radio and phonographsMass African-American migration to Northern urban centers African-Americans have more access to media and publishing outlets after they move northHansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Wright’s Native Son Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching GodHughes’ “Theme for English B,” “What Did I Do…?”Ellison’s Invisible Man

POSTMODERNISM(1950 to presentMany critics merge this with Contemporary)
Narratives: both fiction and nonfictionMetafictionMagic realismMixing of fantasy with nonfiction; blurs lines of reality for reader No heroesUsually humorlessConcern with individual in isolationSocial issues as writers align with feminist & ethnic groupsErodes distinctions between classes of people Insists that values are not permanent but only “local” or “historical”Post-World War II prosperity Media culture interprets valuesFeminist & Social Issue poets: Plath, Rich, Sexton, Levertov, AngelouCapote’s In Cold BloodStories of Bradbury & VonnegutSalinger’s Catcher in the RyeBeat poets: Kerouac, Burroughs & GinsbergKesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

POSTMODERNISM(1950 to presentMany critics merge this with Contemporary)
Narratives: both fiction and nonfiction Autobiographical essaysAnti-heroesEmotion-provokingHumorous ironyConcern with connections between peopleBeginning a new centuryMedia culture interprets valuesPoetry of Dove, Cisneros, Soto & AlexieWalker’s The Color Purple, Haley’s Roots & Morrison’s BelovedNonfiction by Didion, White, Dillard & KrakauerO’Brien’s The Things They CarriedMegastars: King, Crichton, Grisham, Clancy

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