The version of America people arefamiliar with today is the direct result of the development and evolution of itspolitical and social attributes. The content and progression of Americanliterature has been directly impacted by the change in beliefs, experiences,and cultural mixtures of the people during each stage of America’s history. Americanliterature can be broken into distinct classifications, includingPre-Settlement, Puritanism, Age of Reason, Romanticism, Transcendentalism,Realism/Naturalism, Modernism, Harlem Renaissance, and Post-Modernism, basedupon content and style. The first notable instance of Americanliterature originated prior to the formal discovery of the New World byEuropeans. Creation myths, songs, epic poetry, and most importantly, oraltraditions originated from thousands of distinct cultural groups, collectivelyreferred to as Native Americans. Though not recognized as real literature untilthe 1960s-1970s, oral tradition has a strong foundation and is one of the finestartifacts of Native Americans.
Due to traditional participatory democracy,strong speaking skills were revered and utilized to pass on beliefs about thenature of the physical world, which were strongly linked to nature and spirits(Clay). Following the discovery of the NewWorld, people began sailing across oceans in search of a new lifestyle. Amongthe first groups to successfully colonize America were the Puritans, fleeing Europeto escape religious persecution, in the 1600s-1800s. They sought to ‘purify’the Church of England and explored their lives for biblical connections (Ray). Livingmoderately, they valued hard work and self-reliance. Their plain, clear writingstyle was recorded in diaries, journals, metaphysical poetry, meticulousreligious histories, and letters back to England. During the majority of the 1700s, writersmade a sharp shift from trying to understand the world through religion toseeking answers through logic and reason. The writers of the time wereprimarily philosophers and scientists, which composed logical and sometimes satiricalarguments, rather than tales of fantasy (Blair).
The Age of Reason coincidedwith America’s political evolution; the creation of the modern republic (Sage). Between 1800 and 1860, Romanticswere known for their intuition, faith in inner experience, idealism, andimagination. Poetry was valued as the highest form of expression during theRomantic Era (Ray). Writers focused on nature, history, and beauty to enticeemotion out of the reader. Romanticism, like other eras, did havesubcategories. Literary works from the Dark Romantics contained grotesque subjectmatter or gothic themes (Reuben). Also, within the Romantic era was Transcendentalism(1840-1860).
According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, “Transcendentalismwas never really a formalized movement”, but its principals were the inspirationfor the works of many great authors. Writers advocated self-reliance andindividualism over institutional conformity. By this time, there was an arrayof magazines available to publish the prose, poetry, and reviews of Transcendentalists(Goodman). Following the Civil War, between 1850and 1900, feelings of disillusionment arose within the Realism Era. Literatureparted from the idealistic subject matter found in Romanticism and beganattempting to accurately depict the average life of Americans (Campbell). Dueto their favor for accurate representations, Realists lacked sentimentality infavor of blunt honesty. Unlike Realism, Naturalism assumes that human life isdetermined by biology and sociology and humans have no control over what happensto them. Influenced by scientific discovery, writers took a calculated approachto writing during the Realism era (Lynch).
According to The Norton Anthology ofAmerican Literature, America became a modern nation between the two World Wars(1914-1945). Social codes became less restrictive, women gained voting rights,and racial minorities gained some civil liberties. African American culturebegan to flourish and gave life to the Harlem Renaissance. Literature was inspiredby jazz lyrics and common slang, and helped initiate the beginnings of modernrap music. Modernism gave a voice to those advocating for equality throughintellectual and artistic debate. American literature has been in thePost-Modern era since 1950. With technological advances, literature is createdand dispersed among the masses with ease.
There is little new subject matter tocreate so Post-Modernists have foregone originality in favor of recreating pre-existingideas and styles. Plot, character, theme, and setting are now creatively reworkedand literature is focused on media, language and technology (Matos). These literary eras are just some ofthe most prominent eras of American literature.
Each era is likely to havesubcategories that concentrate more closely on the experiences and beliefs ofsmaller groups. Overall, the tone of America and the content of its literaturehave followed political and social progress closely, from yet to be discoveredland, through its growth and development during colonization, industrialization,and urbanization, and onward through the technological boom.