A Chronological Outline Of American Literature English Literature Essay

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"All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease. Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest, and our writers have been great wanderers."
Carson McCullers [] 
The United States of America is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the countries in which diversity flourishes. Led by their motto, "E Pluribus Unum" ("From many, one"), the Americans succeeded in creating a nation so powerful yet so hospitable, a country considered by all the immigrants the land of all possibilities.
Even though the country itself was at first a colonial community of mixed origins, the people managed to unite under one flag and one name, proclaiming their independence and their new national identity. It is of no surprise that the first words that open the Constitution of the United States are: "We, the people."
But who are "we, the people"? The answer could be: We are Americans. Yet one might ask: What is an American? As Gordon Hutner frankly observes (Hutner, 1999:6), although an European immigrant left their country due to unfortunate circumstances such as poverty or family loss, this does not necessarily mean that they will develop some sort of attachment for their new country. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, who wrote under the pseudonym J. Hector St. John, seems to have the answer:
He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles....Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men. (qtd Ştefanovici, 2007:9)
Is it possible for a nation with such complex characteristics to create a national literature? Can they express their national identity, their canon and their issues regarding gender, national and class boundaries, race, genre, history and nature of writing? (Elliot, 1991: 513) How can we characterize today’s American literature?
In order to answer to all these questions and for a better understanding of the American experience, one must always return to history. As an inscription on the wall of the Chinatown History Project in New York states:
It is true that history cannot satisfy our appetite when we are hungry, nor keep us warm when the cold wind blows. But it is also true that if younger generations do not understand the hardships and triumphs of their elders, then we will be a people without a past. As such, we will be like water without a source, a tree without roots. (qtd Ştefanovici, 2007:86)
Only through history one can truly observe and understand the ways in which things and situations evolved and the factors that led to certain changes.
The Sixteenth Century According to Arthur Hobson Quinn (1951:3), the American colonial writing is the evidence of the colonists’ spiritual and intellectual transformation. These men mostly recorded their experiences as immigrants and how they fought in order to create a nation. It is quite difficult to talk about an American literature of the sixteenth century, due to the lack of aesthetic characteristics and the mediocrity of the subjects. But this was the best that could be done in that period of time. As Percy H. Boynton observes:
as a community, we must . . . be able to think clearly in terms of international relations, and . . . as a first step toward any clarity of thought" must have "a knowledge of the course of American thought as related to the thought of the world," we cheat ourselves if we draw the boundaries of literary history too narrowly. "When an American . . . wishes an intimate picture of American society"--past and present--"there can be no best book but an American book . . . even though it be immature, unsatisfactory, and inferior to that "'of other nations' from the strictly literary point of view. (qtd Quinn, 1951:4)
The Seventeenth Century The colonies found themselves caught in the middle of the cold war between Britain and Spain, between patriotism and religion, between Protestantism and Catholicism. The range of works written in the seventeenth century included sermons, biographies, some works of drama and fiction, poetry and accounts of voyages.  The preferred topics remained Christianity and explanations of the opportunities of the New World. The first authors to break the ice and lead the way to the modern American literature were: John Smith, with his A True Relation of … Virginia … (1608), The general History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), William Penn and his Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania (1682), Nathaniel Ward of Massachusetts Bay with  The Simple Cobbler of Agawam in America (1647), Michael Wigglesworth and his The Day of Doom (1662) and Ann Bradstreet with her The Tenth Muse(1650).
The Eighteenth Century A century of great importance in which the differences between the United Kingdom and the New World led to the American Revolution. According to Elliot (1988:101) the American literature of those times can be described by an antithesis between Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. Mather, "the archetypal Puritan" and Franklin, "a product of the world of the new charter" (107) had both complex personalities but with completely different views on life. Cotton Mather belonged to the first half of the century, the topic of his writings being religion (his puritan beliefs) and conserving the traditions. On the other hand, Franklin belonged to the second half of the century, the half in which the people began to search for a national identity, a country to call their own, a country free from exterior government. His simple yet straightforward articles (published in Poor Richard’s almanac) instigated people to take the matter in their own hands and to revolt. And, as a result, a new country was born: The United States of America. Other notable writers of the century were: Philip Freneau (The Indian Burying Ground, The Wild Honey Suckle, To a Caty-did, and On a Honey Bee), Royal Tyler (Contrast, 1787), the writer of the first American novel William Hill Brown (The power of sympathy, 1789), Hugh Henry Brackenridge ( Modern Chivalry 1792–1815) and Charles Brockden Brown ( Wieland 1798, Arthur Mervyn 1799-1800 and Edgar Huntly 1799)
The Nineteenth Century
1800-1850 According to several events, the nineteenth century was divided into three parts, each one complementary to the other yet different in certain ways. According to Stefanovici (2006:36) the first 50 years of the nineteenth century are known as the "Knickerbocker era" of the American Literature. The famous writers of that time were William Cullen Bryant ( Thanatopsis, 1817), Washington Irving ( A History of New York, 1809), Sir Walter Scott (The Sketch Book, 1819-1820; Bracebridge Hall, 1822), James Fenimore Cooper (Leatherstocking Tales, 1823-1841), Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher , 1839; The Masque of the Red Death, 1842; The Raven, 1845), John Pendleton Kennedy ( Swallow Barn, 1832) and William Gilmore Simms (The Yemassee, 1835).
1850-1859 "A unique decade in the annals of literary production" (Stefanovici, 2006:38), has gathered such magnificent literary works in such a short period of time that it is known to be the sole of its kind in the worldwide literary history. The famed authors of this decade are: Ralph Waldo Emerson (Representative Men, 1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, 1850), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick, 1851), Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852), Henry David Thoreau (Walden, 1854) and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1855).
1859-1899 Torn apart by the Civil War, the Old America perished in flames but, just like a phoenix, obtained a new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. And, subsequently, the New America was born. As notable writers of this period of time we must mention Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad, 1869; Roughing It, 1872; The adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876; Life on Mississippi, 1883 and The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884), William Dean Howells (Their wedding journey, 1872; Annie Kilburn, 1888; A hazard of new fortunes, 1890), Hamlin Garland (Main-Travelled Roads, 1891; Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, 1895; Crumbling Idols, 1894) Stephen Crane ( Maggie: A girl of the streets, 1893; The Red Badge of Courage, 1895), Frank Norris (McTeague, 1899; The Octopus, 1901; The Pit, 1903), Henry James (The art of fiction, 1884; The American, 1877; The portrait of a lady, 1881; What Maisie knew, 1897; The golden bowl, 1904), Sidney Lanier (Corn, 1875; The symphony, 1875; The marshes of Glynn, 1878) and Emily Dickinson (The Snake, I like to see it lap the miles, The chariot, Farther in summer than the birds and There’s a certain slant of light – all published in 1890).
The Twentieth century
1910-1945 History followed its natural course, and led to improvements in several domains such as industry, agriculture, economy, urbanism, and not to mention literature. Several literary movements begin to capture the hearts of the American writers. One of them was criticism. As Van Wyck Brooks said in 1921: "It was only the other day that America first came in for its effective share of self-criticism. The critical movement happened, as it were, overnight." (qtd Spiller, 1962:1) Valuable representatives of this literary movement are: Vernon L. Parrington ("Main Currents in American Thought", 1927-1930), Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot (The Sacred Wood, 1920; "The use of poetry and the use of Criticism", 1933), Allen Tate ("Reactionary essays on poetry and ideas", 1936), John Crowe Ransom (The World’s body, 1938), Yvor Winters (Maule’s Curse, 1938), and Cleanth Brooks (The well wrought Urn, 1947). Another improvement was made in fiction. Some writers managed to tangle the modernist literary movement with portrayals of current day life, portrayals of people living in the times of the great depression", and they are F. Scot Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise, 1920; The Great Gatsby, 1925), and Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920; Babbitt, 1922; Arrowsmith, 1925; Kingsblood Royal, 1927). Other writers decided to go for a more optimistic view of the story and wrote in hope for a new life. These writers were Ernest Hemingway (The sun also rises, 1926; A Farewell to Arms, 1929), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Furry, 1929; As I lay dying, 1930; Light in August, 1932; The Hamlet, 1940) and John Steinbeck (Cup of Gold, 1929; Tortilla Flat, 1935; Of Mice and Men, 1937; Cannery Row, 1945; In Dubious Battle, 1936; The Grapes of Wrath, 1939). Poetical art was also developed. During this period of time, poets went from traditional types of verse to modern ones, from a range of topics to another and from one literary movement to another. Some notable authors of the era were Edwin Arlington Robinson (Collected Poems, 1921; The Man Who Died Twice, 1925; Tristram, 1927), Robert Frost (A Boy’s Will, 1913; North of Boston, 1914; New Hampshire, 1923; A Further Range, 1936; A Masque of Reason, 1945), Marianne Moore, Robinson Jeffers, Ezra Pound (The Cantos, 1923), T.S. Eliot (The Wasteland, 1922; Four Quarters, 1943) and William Carlos Williams ( Spring and All, 1923; In the American Grain, 1925).
On the whole, we should notice the complexity of the American literature, its outstanding evolution from colonial times up until present times. After all, why do we write and how do we know that we create literature? James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) comes with the perfect answer:
"You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world.....The World changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way...people look at reality, then you can change it." (qtd Stefanovici 2006:3)
"With a novelist, like a surgeon, you have to get a feeling that you've fallen into good hands - someone from whom you can accept the anesthetic with confidence" Saul Bellow
The end of the Second World War found a Europe desperately trying to sew itself together in a world surrounded by poverty, diseases and desperation. Yet there was a country that managed to prosper, a country that was, at that time, Europe’s "Good Samaritan" and that country was America. With the help of the Marshall Plan, America gave the non-communist countries the opportunity to get back on their feet. The money was not refundable, so this has to give an idea about the economic power of the American State.
In this period there was a clear and complex development in various literary domains, such as novels, poetry and drama. As famous representatives of this period of time we can mention: Saul Bellow, Amiri Baraka, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Updike, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor etc.:
Saul Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, is considered to be one of the most influential novelists in America since the World War II. His novels are mostly known for their deep philosophical and ethical meaning, and for the hero’s struggle to change the world. His work includes: Dangling Man (1944), The Adventures of Augie March (1953; National Book Award), Seize the Day (1956), Herzog (1964; National Book Award), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970; National Book Award), Humboldt's Gift (1975; Pulitzer Prize) (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2012:5048).
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), receiver of the PEN Open Book Award is considered to be one of the most respected and widely known African-American writers of its generation. He wrote works of poetry, drama, essays, fiction and music criticism. His major writings are: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), Dutchman and the Slave (1964), The System of Dante’s Hell (1965) and A Black Mass (1966).
J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath were three of the authors deeply concerned with the concept of madness and how it can affect a "dream-like" society, such as the 50’s America. A few representative novels for their work are: Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation, is considered to be one of the most active militants against economic materialism, militarism and sexual repression. Through his poems, such as "Howl" and "A Supermarket in California", Ginsberg harshly criticized the rise of capitalism and conformity in the United States.
One of the most significant novels to emerge from the war was Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1969).
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. managed to express through its moralistic, satirical and pessimistic novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) "the horrors of the 20th century novel" (The Columbia Encyclopedia: 50484).
A classic of the American literature is considered to be the novel of Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1953) as it manages to express the feelings and the thoughts of a black young man that tries to make a living in a hostile society.
Last but not least, Mary Flannery O’Connor succeeded in creating the perfect mélange between the grotesque, the gothic and her uncompromising moral vision, the result being a dashing literary style. As notable works we mention: Wise Blood (1952), A Good Man is hard to find (1955), The Violent Bear it Away (1960) and Everything That Rises Must Converge.
"You can handcuff my wrists, and shackle my feet. You can bind me in chains, throw me in your deepest darkest dungeon...but you can't enslave my thinking...for it is free like the wind."  Jaye Swift
When one hears the term of African-American literature, he or she might be surprised. Why, would one ask, is the distinction necessary if we talk about literary works created in America by the American people? This might be a difficult question to answer, for as everybody knows, not everything is black and white, there are also shades of grey. While some people might say, just like Langston Hughes "I am a Negro, black as the night is black, black like the depths of my Africa" (qtd Femi Ojo-Ade, 1996:1) others, like Frank Harris might reply "While we are an African people, we are not Africans."(qtd Femi Ojo-Ade, 1996:1). What is this supposed to mean? Everett Goodwin seems to have the answer:
"I must insist that, for me, this journey [spiritual, to Africa] is not just a dream. I know that I am a product of Western Civilization, but nevertheless, I need my African references." (qtd Femi Ojo-Ade, 1996:1)
The African-American is the man with two identities. The man who has his soul torn between two nations and two cultures. The man with a plan. And what is that plan? At the beginning of their history, their main goal and plan was to survive and to escape slavery. Along with the circumstances, the plan somehow changed but the motif remained the same: to survive in a world where the color of the skin matters, a world in which black people are seen as rapists and killers, a world that knows little about mercy or kindness.
Under these circumstances, these are some of the main themes approached by the African-American writers: slavery, oppression, survival at any cost, being a black person in a country of white people. Besides written texts, African-American literature has also a rich oral culture which includes blues, rap, spirituals, sermons and gospel music.
But how did it all begin? And where did it end? Or has it ended already? According to literary historians, African-American literature can be divided into five main stages:
The Early African-American literature era, also known as the era of the slave narratives with notable names such as: Phillis Wheatley and her "Poems on Various Subjects", Lucy Terry, William Wels Brown, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, considered today as "one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history".
The Post-slavery era, depicted through the works of W.E.B Du Bois and his The Souls of Block Folk, Zilpha Elaw, John Marrant, Maria W. Stewart, Jarena Lee, Elizabeth Keckley and Soujauren Truth.
The Harlem renaissance, which refers to the period between the two world wars, represented by famous writers such as: Langston Hughes and his The book of American Negro Poetry, Claude McKay, Zora Neate Hurston, Jean Toomer, Dorothy West, Frank Marshall Davis and Wallace Thurman.
The Civil Rights movement era, with notable names such as: Gwendolyn Brook, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, James Baldwin and his Go tell it on the mountain, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Amiri Baraka.
Contemporary African-American literature era, also known as the era of the Black Arts Movement, depicted through the works of James Emanuel, Toni Morrison – the first African-American to win a Nobel Prize for literature-, Alex Haley, Mat Johnson and, of course, Maya Angelou.
According to Joanne Gabbin, African-American literature exists not only inside American literature, but also outside it. "Somehow African American literature has been relegated to a different level, outside American literature, yet it is an integral part." (Coup of the century, James Madison University, accessed on 30 Nov.2012)
In a nutshell, African-American writing manages to preserve its distinctive position in the general frame of the American literature. The new voices of the Black Arts movement are doing their best to keep their legacy alive while in the mean time their inner selves are struggling to find their true identity. As a result, we have a new literature which is the perfect mirroring of today’s America and its society.
"My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself."
Maya Angelou is probably one of the artists most difficult to define. She is like a Rubik cube, very challenging to assemble and to understand. Each side has its own personality and characteristics, and just when you thought you knew them all, a new one emerges to light, shinning even brighter than the others.
Much has been said about Angelou’s life and work and, of course, there are generous sources about it. It is extremely important to consider her literary work in intercommunion with her life, since all her achievements demonstrate strong autobiographic stamp.
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson saw the first rays of sunshine on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. (Gillespie, pg.14). The second child of Bailey Johnson and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, Marguerite met from an early age the hardships of life. (Lupton, 1998:4) When she was 3 years old the "calamitous marriage" of her parents ended. (Angelou, 1969:6) Marguerite and her older brother Bailey Jr. were sent by their father alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas. (Johnson, pg. 11)
Four years later, their father "came to Stamps without warning" (Angelou, 1969:52) and returned the kids into their mother’s arms, in St. Louis. When she was 8 years old, Marguerite was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She told everything to her brother, who immediately announced the family. Mr. Freeman was found guilty, but he spent only one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered, the major suspects being Marguerite’s uncles. (Lupton, 1998:5) After this unfortunate event Angelou became mute for almost five years, (5) stating that: "I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone ..." (Angelou, BBC World Service Book Club, October 2005). According to Marcia Ann Gillespie, these five years were fruitful; these were the years in which Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, learned how to listen to people and how to observe the world around her, but also found her undying love for books and literature. (Gillespie, pg. 21-22)
Soon after this bloody event, the kids returned to their grandmother’s care. (22) A teacher and a friend of the family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers is considered to be the one who helped Angelou speak again. She deeply influenced her life and career by introducing her to several authors, like Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe, but also to African-American artists, such as Francis Harper, Anne Spencer and Jessie Fauset. (Angelou, 1969:13)
At the age of 14,

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