This four-volume set covers American authors from many periods and genres, building a broad understanding of the various contexts - from the biographical to the literary to the historical - in which literature can be viewed. The Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature
allows a reader to analyze an author\'s work as a reflection of the heritage, traditions and experiences of the author\'s personal life and the beliefs, events, and lifestyles of the United States at the time, given such context as:
- Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs was interested in eugenics -- the study of methods to improve the human gene pool, and the same "science" that Hitler used to try to legitimize the Holocaust.
- Known mostly for her portrayal of her mental health issues, Sylvia Plath was also a feminist writer who channeled her frustration as a woman with a career during the conservative, post-World War II society.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson was instrumental in building an American culture of literature and arts distinct from the "parent culture" of England and Europe.
The nearly 500 entries also identify the significant literary devices and global themes that define a writer\'s style and place the author in a larger literary tradition as chronicled and evaluated by critics over time. For example:
- Kurt Vonnegut Jr. repeatedly featured characters in his fiction who fall into self-doubt when they lose work or social standing as his father did in the Depression and those who struggle with mental illness just as his mother did.
- The theme of the individual adrift in a corrupt and phony world in J. D. Salinger\'s fiction is said to have been influenced by his own experiences growing up and by F. Scott Fitzgerald\'s The Great Gatsby.
Critical thinking and activity prompts, in addition to images, further enhance the reader\'s own personal response to American literature.