Saturday, March 3, 2018

How Did American Literature Rise To Greatness?

How did American literature come to be?

I must profess it is a topic I never thought to explore, not even as an English major in college.  But after reading American Lit 101: From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harper Lee and Naturalism to Magical Realism, an Essential Guide to American Writers and Works by Brianne Keith, I felt a greater appreciation for American literature and a much deeper understanding of its origins.

This easy-to-read but engaging guide captures a narrative of how literature developed in America, unshackling itself from Britain’s rule and later its cultural influence.  The book identifies American writings that contributed to the development of the nation’s voice, examining Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the early American poetry of Annie Bradstreet to the love letters of John and Abigail Adams and Ben Franklin’s autobiography.

So many great American writers have shaped not only the United States culture but the views of the world, from Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau to Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac.  Every era of America’s growth saw a class of new writers reflect and inspire the nation’s place in the world.

The book wisely takes us through America’s evolution chronologicaly, paralleling the great writers of each era to show us not only the appeal of their works but their significance of shaping the American landscape.

So which American writers were the best of the best?  Is it Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Herman Melville or Walt Whitman?  What about Edith Wharton, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, William Faulkner, and any of a hundred others?

The author labeled Emerson as “The Plato of America,” Whitman “The Bard of Democracy, said Hawthorne “Exposes the Dark Side of America.” and declared Twain, the “Dean of American Literature.”  So many fitting labels could be placed upon a lot of these writers.  To choose between those great authors is like trying to choose a favorite child.  We love them all, for together, they make up what American literature has become and always was.

The book also touches upon the literature of war from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to both World War I and II.

The final chapter, on contemporary American literature, was most interesting because it highlights how writers continue to play with the boundaries of form, where some lines blur between fact and fiction.  The author notes:  “Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer all contributed to new forms like the non-fiction novel and new journalism.”

He then broke down today’s literature by faith and ethnicity, for we are now at a time where writers no longer are white males.  We live in a melting pot where many have access to the tools of publication.  Who will be the next Saul Bellow, Philip Roth or Elie Wiesel amongst Jewish writers who explore their faith?  Who will write of the African-American experience as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison have?  Where is the Indian, Latino and Asian literary voice – who will be the next N. Scott Momaday, Richard Rodriguez, or Amy Tan?

Great American literature leads, and does not follow, cultural trends, political movements, and relationship values.  Our books don’t merely record or mirror what was or is, but rather, they serve as a blueprint for what shall be and as a crystal ball into what could be.

I leave you with some selected excerpts:

1.      It may seem that literature has no bearing on our day-to-day lives, but it certainly does. Writers and literature express a shared understanding of a time and place in history—it is through their voices that we have an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of ourselves and our world.

2.      Aristotle said that art can purge us of our emotions as they are mirrored back to us. The same is true of literature. We understand the beliefs and values of our age as they are reflected back to us by the words and actions of the characters we read in a book, or the pitch and tone of a voice in a poem. Through this understanding we can find solidarity with each other, and also find the words to define the differences among us—all composing fabric of our lives.

3.      American literature reflects the endurance of the American spirit and surge of creative forces at play in American culture.

4.      While pamphlets, broadsides, speeches, and proclamations dominated the American literary landscape during the late eighteenth century, the American poetry was still thriving—albeit in the background. The Puritan poets had set the stage, becoming the first published poets in the New World, but their subject matter was English. The colonists were beginning to yearn for their own, “American” literature that expressed the new America that was beginning to form. As the colonists broke free from Britain’s rule, they were also eager to break free of its literature. It was time for a literature of America.

5.      Shortly after 1840, America had a burst of creativity called the American Renaissance, during which a small group of writers produced some of the best and most creative writing in its literary history. The movement came on the heels of the romantic movement, which had swept across Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and cleared the way for a more dramatic, imaginative, and instinctual literature. American writers now felt able to free themselves from old literary forms and traditions to produce creative work that came from their own impulses, whatever form those took.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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