Primary Source Archives
Gale Primary Sources offers American literature collections that include journal articles and additional manuscripts and periodicals that provide researchers with firsthand material.
Study the field of American literature, which is the body of written works produced in the United States, including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, biographies/autobiographies, works of history, essays, and literary criticism.
Some of the earliest works of American literature go back to the seventeenth century, when America still consisted of colonies of British subjects. The prominent writing from this period and into the eighteenth century was primarily nonfiction due to a general societal prejudice against fiction, with a focus on religion, history, biographies, and philosophy. As the colonists moved toward independence from Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century, political writing became prominent—particularly the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
Following independence, American political writing addressed the country’s future, while the prominent works of poetry and fiction either came from Britain or were modeled on British literature. This trend began to change in the first decades of the nineteenth century as American writers sought to create a uniquely American literature. Writers such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper wrote stories that depicted American society and its landscape.
Between 1830 and 1870 writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman typified what became known as the Romantic Period, in which writings tended to value the individual above the group, the subjective over the objective, emotion over reason, and nature over man-made order. During this same time period, both free and enslaved African Americans (e.g., William Wells Brown) published fiction and slave narratives.
The national suffering that resulted from the Civil War (1861–1865) also shaped the literature of the period immediately following, as the twin trends of realism and naturalism presented a realistic view of the world—often with a focus on the urban middle and working classes—between 1870 and 1910. Celebrated writers of this style of literature include Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Writers of the Modernist Period (1910–1945) were influenced by the upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century, which was marked by two world wars and a global economic depression counter-balanced by sweeping progress ushered in by advances in science and technology. Writers responded to these contradictory impulses by creating works that were a complete break from past and marked by a profound sense of loss and disillusionment. Prominent writers from this period include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, and John Steinbeck. This was also a period of the ascendance of American drama, with Eugene O’Neill being the most prominent figure. This period also witnessed a wealth of African American literature from the cultural movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, including the works of Langston Hughes. African American writing in the post-war period focused on racism and the need for social change, as embodied in the writings of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Overall, the era of American literature after World War II is marked by amazing diversity in form and style. While some literary movements, such as the Beat movement of the 1950s (represented foremost by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s (embodied in the work of Amiri Baraka) can be identified, there is little else that binds American writers together beyond their geographic and chronological proximity. Prominent contemporary writers include the novelists Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth; the poets Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Rita Dove; and the playwrights David Mamet and August Wilson.
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