america’s history of literature began with the swarming in of immigrants with different background and cultures. after that, american literature had been greatly influenced by the european culture for a long period. it was not until america’s independence, did americans realized that they need national literature strongly, and american literature began to developed. the civil war was a watershed in the history, after which american literature entered a period of full blooming. romantics, which emphasized individualism and intuition and tnscendentalism represented by emerson came out into being. this was an exciting period in the history of american literature. like the flowers of spring, there were suddenly many different kinds of writing at the same time. they have given depth and strength to american literature, and accelerated the forming of high romantics. but due to the influence of civil war, the american society was in a turbulent situation. the writings about local life, critical realism and unveiling the dark side of the society were increased. after the first world war, americans were at a loss postwar, and the modern american literature began.
my piece of paper is written in chronological order as these periods developed in order to have a clear outline of its progress.
keywords: national literature, romanism, transcendentalism, local color, realism, modern literature
摘要： 从殖民地时期起，欧洲殖民者和清教徒翻开了美国文学史的第一页。WWw.11665.cOM 这往后很长一段时期， 美国文学一直都受到欧洲文化的很大影响。一直到美国独立后，美国人强烈地感觉到了民族文学的需要，美国的民族文学开始发展。 南北战争是美国文学史上一个分水岭， 战后美国文学进入了一个全盛时期，产生了强调个性主义和直觉的早期浪漫主义，和以爱默生为代表的超验主义文学。爱默生的时代是美国前所未有的文学变动时代，产生了一大批优秀的作家和作品。 他们突出地给予了当时美国文学以深度和力量，也促进了罗曼主义高潮的来临。但是由于战争的影响， 社会动荡不安，这时的作品更注重于揭示社会的阴暗面， 同时美国的民族文学进一步发展，创作出许多带有本土色彩和批判现实主义的作品。 一战后，美国人陷入战后的茫然， 美国也开始进入了现代文学阶段。
关键词： 民族文学， 浪漫主义， 超验主义， 本土色彩， 现实主义， 现代文学
american is a multi-national country. just like a big container, which put in various kinds of elements. different cultures, that can not only be co-existed but also form a sharp contrast, mixed together, it makes american literature style has a flavor of distinct and various aesthetic feeling. many writers come from lower level, which makes american literature has the rich flavor of life and local color. furthermore, many new styles of literature in the world are oriented in america since 20th century.
the process of american literature can be divided into following main periods: colony and puritan literature; early national literature; latter national literature and modern literature.
america’s history of literature began with the swarming in of immigrants with different background and cultures. after that, american literature had been greatly influenced by the european culture for a long period. it was not until america’s independence, did americans realize that they need national literature strongly, and american literature began to develop. the civil war was a watershed in the history, after which american literature entered a period of full blooming. romantics, which emphasized individualism and intuition，and tnscendentalism represented by emerson came out into being. this was an exciting period in the history of american literature. like the flowers of spring, there were suddenly many different kinds of writing at the same time. they have given depth and strength to american literature, and accelerated the forming of high romantics. but due to the influence if civil war, the american society was in a turbulent situation. the writings about local life, critical realism and unveiling the dark side of the society were increased. after the first world war, americans were at a loss postwar, and the modern american literature began.
1. colonial and early american literature
(1). travelers and explorers
when the european explorers first came to this new continent, the native indians who probably got here from asia about fifteen thousand years ago were still in origin, and they even had no written language, “the traditional literature was originally transmitted almost entirely by word of mouth, and therefore belongs to the category of oral literature,” (wu dingbo, 1) as time past, more and more travelers and explorers swarmed in. they wrote a lot of diaries、letters, and travel accounts to describe the new land as second eden. no wander somebody said that the earliest american literature were the travel accounts written by european adventurers. among the most remained were captain john smith’s true relation of virginia (1608), and description of new england (1616).
although most of the indian history was preserved in tales and songs, they had thoughts about life and nature. they loved the natural world around them deeply, and they believed that when a person was dead, he would give back what had borrowed while he was alive to nature. this kind of philosophy had influenced later or even modern american writers. it’s interesting that when we look at the literature of the puritans, the transcendentalists, the naturalists, and even the moderns, when we read anne bradstreet, emily dickinson, stephen crane, and ernest hemingway, we can find similar themes.
(2) pilgrim settlements
several years later, another group of settlers also arrived in the new world. this group was looking for the jamestown settlement. however, because of bad navigation, they landed in massachusetts. they were also coming to the new world with dreams of success, but their goal was different from the jamestown settlement. they wanted to start a new world governed by the bible. they were called puritans because they wanted to live a better life by making themselves pure. they first arrived on the mayflower and settled in plymouth. this is the group we are usually thinking about when we talk about the "first americans."
the clearest history of their journey to the new world can be found in history of plymouth plantation (1608) written by william bradford, who was also one of the mayflower passengers. the history of plymouth plantation is a puritan book in the best sense. “it’s loosely annalistic, but a direct and simple style gives charm, as a sincere faith in puritanism gives purity, to the entire book.” (w. p. trent, 1997)
the puritans had several kinds of literature. by far the most common form is the writing related to biblical teachings, or sermons, that the church leaders wrote. the puritans believed that they were in the new world because god had brought them there for a special purpose. they thought that by studying the bible they could learn more about this way of life. so they were very strict to their life, and they didn’t allow any kind of entertainment even in literature. that’s way wu dingbo said in his book “literature of the new england settlement is mainly a literary expression of the puritan idealism” and “the literature of the colonial settlement served either god or colonial expansion or both.” (wu dingbo, 4)
another important form of writing from this period is the histories. these books, like bradfords history of plymouth plantation, are important because they tell us about life at the time of the puritans.
people also wrote many poems. but a lot of works were hidden and lost because people often considered poetry to be an inferior form of writing and not totally acceptable to puritan thinking.
one of the most significant poets from this period was anne bradstreet (1612-1672). her poems in tenth muse lately sprung up in america (1650) reflected the con concerns of women who came to settle in the colonies, and in all her poems, however, she shows her strong belief in god.
2. 18th century—the age of reason
(1) the age of reason
in the 18th century, people believed in man’s own nature and the power of human reason. with franklin as its spokesman, the 18th century america experienced an age of reason.
words had never been so useful and so important in human history. people wrote a lot of political writings. numerous pamphlets and printings were published. these works agitated revolutionary people not only in america but also around the world.
among the most renowned was the work common sense (1776) of thomas paine (1737-1809). it’s the ringing call for the decoration of liberty. he also wrote crisis (1774-1783) and the age of reason (1794-1796), according to wu, “he thought that religion should be based on rational, reasonable ground. ” (wu dingbo, 12) the pamphlets helped complete the debate that resulted in americas separation from england.
and of course for all the americans, the most important document from this period was a single sheet of paper called the declaration of independence (1776), mainly written by thomas jefferson and benjamin franklin.
benjamin franklin (1706-1790), the most distinguished person and giant in american history, he wrote and worked for american independence hardly and had made so many great efforts to america that he has been called "the first american." a world-renowned scientist, diplomat, philosopher, and writer. he perfected the smooth, clear, short sentences of the puritan plain style. his autobiography encourages hard work and emphasizes the importance of achievement. another work that is well known is poor richards almanack, and many of the sentences have become popular quotations.
during this time writers thought that the truth should be relied on bible, churchmen, authorities, or practice and experience.
(2) early national literature
during the period of american revolution war, american national literature came into being. since before the war, american people have already had the awareness of national independence, so they wrote many political writings revolutionary poems.
the war helped the first important american prose writers and poets grow up both culturally and artistically. furthermore, the independence of nation led to the independence of national literature. from this moment on, american people began to understand of meaning of being a real ”american“.
3. the flourishing of american literature in 19th century
from the 1820’s to the civil war broke out, american literature entered a period of full blooming. writings all characterized by a distinct national style and flavor. at the same time, the world as a whole was experiencing a change in ways of thinking: there was a move from classical ideas to romantic ones. this change was taking place in all areas of culture around the world. this was an exciting period in the history of american literature. like the flowers of spring, there were suddenly many different kinds of writing at the same time. all the works have an optimistic spirit. they represented the various and quick development of american national literature.
(1) early romantics
in early 19th century, washington irving (1783-1859), the person born with the new nation, his the sketch book created a new style of american literature—short novel. james fenimore cooper (1789-1851) his "leather-stocking" novels told us a story about how the brave immigrants fight with savage using what they have learnt from nature.
another famous writer of this time was william cullen bryant (1794-1878), he was regarded one of the earliest naturalist poets in american history. his greatest poem thanatopsis was published in the north american review in 1817. he appreciates normal birds and flowers, through which appreciated harmonious relationship between human and nature. the romantics emphasized individualism and they thought feelings and emotions were more important than reason and common sense.
(2) the transcendentalism
“the new england transcendentalism was romantic idealism on puritan soil” (wu dingbo: 28). it stressed the power of intuition placed spirit first, and it took nature as symbolic of spirit or god. there were three main features of transcendentalism were unitarianism, idealistic philosophy, and oriental mysticism.
ralph waldo emerson (1803-1882), the leader of american transcendentalism. “he captained a group of enthusiast and formed a transcendental club with them. he also helped to set up and edited the transcendentalist journal the dial. ” he had written many famous essays. among the best are nature and the american scholar, which has been called “america’s declaration of intellectual independence”. emerson wrote in the american scholar (1837), a man must "learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within." the main key to this inner world is the imagination. mans imagination leads to expression. our expression makes each of us a unique human. romanticism became the way of thinking for this generation of writers.
henry david thoreau was also one of the writers of transcendentalism, and his famous essay was walden, in which he revealed the hidden spiritual possibilities in everyone’s life, and to considerate the pursuit of material things.
(3) high romantics
due to the great effort made by those geniuses such as emerson and thoreau, a wild-ranged national american literature had been laid a solid foundation by the mid-19th century.
there are four important names in american literature to remember from this period: washington irving (1783-1859), walt whitman (1819-1892), james fennimore cooper (1789-1851), and edgar allan poe (1809-49).
irving will long be remembered for his book of essays and stories, the sketch book of geoffrey crayon (1819), which helping this new nation started its first step confidently. cooper and whitman described the character of the nation, which combined the courage and cleverness of expansion, the great sense of destination, and the optimistic spirit together. hawthorne and melville expressed the dark side of american dream though their profound and symbolized works.
walt whitman (1819-1892), father of free verse, “he threw aside the traditional ornaments and prettiness of verse, and created his own form” (wu dingbo, 44). his leaves of grass (1855), which contains such well-known poems as i hear america singing, and song of myself, was regarded america’s first genuine epic poem. he rejected regular meter and rhyme in favor of flowing free verse and celebrated patriotic love, ragged individualism, democracy and equality and stressed an almost mystical identification with america.
nathaniel hawthorne (1804-1864), due to his family background, his works always concerned with sin, morality, romance, and had complex puritanism. his masterpiece was the novel the scarlet letter, and his the house of seven gables was also well liked. in these works he presented material on the alienation between facts and fancy, by using many symbols and setting to reveal the psychology of the character.
herman melville was hawthorne’s good friend, also an important novelist. melvilles greatest work, moby dick (1851) was based on melvilles adventures on the whaling ships. it is the deep "tragedies of human thought" that show his critical understanding of human nature. today melville is considered one of americas greatest writers today.
romanism was extremely influenced in a rising america as america had always had a strong spiritual tradition and romanticism was very comfortable with american spiritual heritage and its ideals of democracy and equality. during this period, the american literature was so changeable that has never been before. nathaniel hawthorne, herman melville, walt whitman and edgar allan poe, these four great writers had given depth and strength to american literature at that time.
4. local color and realism: a new flavor to american literature
after the civil war, the american society was in a turbulent situation through several economical crises. the writings about critical realism and unveiling the dark side of the society were increased. they were mainly focus on bankrupt in countries, difficult life or struggle of low-position people and so on. thus romanism was on the wane with passing days, while realism rose and became more and more popular.
(1) local color fiction and mark twain
local color fiction first appeared in the early 19th century, and it had further developing after the civil war. this kind of literature mainly describes the local life. its keynote was optimistic, and the language was narrative and humorous. for example, the work of bret harte (1836-1902) told us the life of american western miners. mark twain was the main writer of this period. he wrote for nearly 50 years, and he had actually written many different types of stories. nevertheless, twain is remembered most for the adventures of tom sawyer (1876), life on the mississippi (1884) and the adventures of huckleberry finn (1884). the characters he created were humorous and full of wittiness. mark twain’s work was regarded the witness of america’s pure local life. according to calkins, “few american writers have written the same after reading twain, for he has helped change the entire country with his humor and skillful story telling.” (carroll c.calkins, 124).
(2) rise of realism
“realism is the theory of writing in which familiar aspects of contemporary life and everyday scenes represented in a straightforward or matter of fact manner“ (wu dingo, 59). romantic writers focused on the development of plot, make the story as interesting and attractive as possible, while realism writers emphasized the characterization of characters, focused on objectivity rather than an idealistic view of human nature and human experience.
william dean howells (1837-1920) insisted that realism was the truthful treatment of material moral problems of society. and in o.henry (1862-1910)’s fictions, all his characters were common people and always had an ironical and surprised ending.
there was another style of writing developed by henry james (1843-1916), who was a writer focused on the description of psychology and behavior. he wrote some complex and profound novels such as the wings of the dove, the ambassador, the golden bowl, and created psychological realism.
after the mid-19th century, the keynote of romantic literature changed form optimistic to doubtful. the sharp conflict of society force more writers’ attention to the unveiling of dark social fact and self-questioning.
thought the writers of this time unveiled the misfortune and sadness or even degenerate things in actual life, they didn’t just took of the dark side of life as their material, most of them were the reformists with the hope of helping to create a better nation. stephen crane (1871-1900) showed more and more serious problems in big sites in his maggie, a girl of the streets, and his most famous book about the american civil war called the red badge of courage. he thought his works liked a mirror reflecting all life, he emphasized the accidental physiological nature of the characters rather than their moral and rational qualities. stephen crane had formed a new style called naturalism, which had influenced many following writers.
5. modern american literature
the first world war not only damaged the people’s life, but also led to a turbulent situation of the american society. people of this time were named “the lost generation ”, and the writers and works had a pessimistic and disconsolate feeling.
(1) modern poetry
ezra pound, t.s.eliot and e.e cummings are three poets who opened the way to modern poetry.
ezra pound started the “imagist” movement, and his the love song of j. alfred prufrock has been called the first masterpiece of modernism. the waste land of t.s.eliot particularly comments on the inhumanity and decadence of large modern cities.
(2) modern novels
many persons regarded that ernest hemingway and other important writers of 20th century had adopted the concise style and naturalism of stephen crane. nevertheless, they still created their own styles and had written so many immortal masterpieces. among the greatest were ernest hemingway (l899-1961) and william faulkner (l897-1962).
ernest hemingway was once take part in the first would war, so many of his works deal with war or injury, and nearly all of them examined the nature of courag, e. by suffering from the violent of war, he felt that he was cut off from all his old beliefs and assumptions about life. “he thought the war had broken america’s culture and traditions, and separated it from its toots” (elisabeth b. booz: 1982). the works he wrote--the sun also rises, a farewell to arms, for whom the bell tolls and the old man and the sea—inferred the state of mind, and they became the representatives of the feeling of this generation.
american literature has gone though the progress of development over 200 years. it is characterized by the distinct individualism, which is optimistic, free and always creative. the living american literature has been providing potent thinking headsprings for the writers past and nowadays, and it will continue reanimating the talents to bequeath and enrich the tradition of american literature, of which deserved to be proud.
1. carroll c.calkins, the story of america, new york: the readers digest association, inc, 1975
2. elisabeth b. booz, a brief introduction to modern american literature 1919-1980, shanghai: shanghai foreign language education press, 1982
3. 柯恩, landmarks of american literature, 北京: 三联书店, 1988
4. wu dingbo, an outline of american literature, shanghai: shanghai foreign language education press, 1998
5. edited by w. p. trent, j. erskine & s. p. sherman, the cambridge history of english and american literature, cambridge, england: university press, 1997