Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Highlights American Lit's History

American Lit 101: A Crash Course in American Literature highlights the accomplishments of important American writers and identifies which voices played a vital role in shaping the literary landscape of America.  It includes hundreds of rich tidbits as it provides a refresher on American literature. Author Brianne Keith covers dozens of authors in her book, including these:

·         Thomas Paine
·         Thomas Jefferson
·         Benjamin Franklin
·         Washington Irving
·         Henry David Thoreau
·         Ralph Waldo Emerson
·         Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
·         J.D. Salinger
·         Edgar Allan Poe
·         Herman Melville
·         Nathaniel Hawthorne
·         Walt Whitman
·         Frederick Douglas
·         Harriet Beecher Stowe
·         Emily Dickinson
·         Mark Twain
·         Henry James
·         Judith Wharton
·         Jack London
·         William Faulkner
·         Ezra Pound
·         T.S. Eliot
·         John Steinbeck
·         Robert Frost

Here are select passages from this most interesting of books:

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…

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 comprising the fabric of our lives…

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

Philip Freneau: The Poet of the American Revolution
While pamphlets, broadsides, speeches, and proclamations dominated the American literary landscape during the late eighteenth century, 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.

Creating an American Literature
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.

Walt Whitman
With Leaves of Grass, America finally had a poetry that could express the American experience in both form and content.  While Longfellow wrote about American subjects, he used traditional poetic forms and structures that, yes, delighted readers but didn’t seem to fully capture the American voice.  Whitman’s poetry dug deep – it was raw, spoke of the “barbarism and material” of the times, and spoke with a fresh new voice, a “barbaric yawp.”

Mark Twain: American Humorist and “Dean of American Literature”
Mark Twain (1835-1910) wasn’t born in the Northeast (the literary hub of America in the mid-nineteenth century), didn’t come from a wealthy family or have a college degree, and writing wasn’t his dream career (being a riverboat captain was).  Nevertheless, Twain achieved a level of literary prestige and worldwide celebrity during his lifetime that was nearly unsurpassed at the time.  He is still celebrated today as one of America’s finest writers and humorists.

Typewriting First
Mark Twain was one of the first writers to use a typewriter to compose his works.  However, later in life he invested – and lost – a great deal of money in an automatic typesetting machine.

Stephen Crane: Live Fast, Die Young
Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was the kind of person you might find at a seedy bar well past last call.  Crane befriended prostitutes, chain-smoked, and became a fixture of the 1890s Bowery district scene in New York.  In his lifetime, he survived a shipwreck, sailed to Greece, mingled with famous writers, inspired writers generations older than him, and established a new field of literature.  He did this all in the short twenty eight years he was alive.

Crane wrote the novel he is most famous for, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Though Crane never served in any war, his portrayal of the psychological effects of war remarkably realistic.  The novel tells the tale of the Civil War from the point of view of a soldier.

Anthropomorphism is a literary device through which an author gives human characteristics to animals or nonliving objects.  Anthropomorphism allows authors to explore sensitive social issues in a nonthreatening way.  A famous example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, published in 1945.  Orwell used the device to satirize Stalin and make a statement about the danger of dictatorship.

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925) defined the twenties.  The Great Gatsby is a lyrically written tale of glitz, glamour, and enchantment.  At its core is the romanticism of the American dream that drove the era.  Also at its core is a statement of how that dream, in the end, is empty.

Written in Pencil
Steinbeck used 300 pencils to write his novel East of Eden.  Typewriters existed then, but Steinbeck preferred to write by pencil.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of America’s most beloved poets.  Who doesn’t recognize the lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” or “Miles to go before I sleep”?  Perhaps you’ve even used them yourself in conversation.  Frost’s poems have become so popular that they have become ingrained in our American idiom.

Blank verse is made up of iambic pentameters (five iambic feet per line).  Many major writers – Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth – used blank verse, a highly adaptable meter.  Frost used blank verse because it allowed him to capture the natural rhythms of colloquial speech.

Postwar Literature
In the 1940s and 1950s, a small group of writers, disparagingly termed “beatniks,” started writing works that were obscene and experimental, and openly discussed almost every taboo topic under the sun.  Underneath all of the raucousness of their writings lay an important message:  Despair still runs through American culture.  Their writings reflected how, in exchange for stability and comfort, Americans had traded their source of vitality – creativity.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, poetry began to explore this message from another angle:  the personal “I.”  A new type of poetry called confessional poetry developed that discussed subject matters considered taboo for the politically conservative era-tropics such as depression, death, and relationships – from a deeply personal and intimate perspective.  The works of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell ushered in a new style that influenced writers for decades to come.

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was the leading poet of the beats.  His poetry collection Howl became the poetic center of the Beat Generation.

J.D. Salinger
Rounding out our literary voices of the young generation of the 1950s is Holden Caulfield, the fiction protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger (1919-2010).  Salinger’s portrayal of teen angst is so convincing and sincere that many young people felt Salinger “knew” them and that they “knew” him – something that provided to be very annoying to the author.  The enormous success of The Catcher in the Rye was so annoying, in fact, it sent Salinger fleeing to Cornish, a remote hill town in New Hampshire.

Salinger became one of America’s most famous literary recluses.  For years he refused to grant interviews or publish anything after his last collection of stories in 1961(though he said he was still writing).  When he died in 2010, everyone wanted to know who had access to his unpublished work and whether it would ever be published.  Dozens of articles were published over these questions.  The public is still hungry for a glimpse into this elusive hermit’s life.

The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield still survive as the voice of disaffected youth.  It’s had more than forty printings, has sold millions of copies, and still sells over 200,000 copies a year.

Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman
Loman is an aging Brooklyn salesman who can’t come to terms with the fact that he is being thoughtlessly fired from a job he loyally served for thirty-four years and that his son, Biff, can’t (and doesn’t want to) find a job in sales. Even though he’s just been dealt a humiliating blow by his company, Willy still sees business as the only way to success, while Biff sees it as a dead end:  he’d rather work outside with his hands.

After a series of schizophrenic-like episodes in which Willy reminisces about the past (and escapes from is present situation), he begins to crack.  In a moment of frustration, Biff tries to get Willy to come to terms with reality – that both he and his father are just average men who are destined for ordinary lives.  “Pop,” he says, “I’m nothing!  I’m nothing.  Pop.  Can’t you understand that? There’s no spite in it any more.  I’m just what I am, that’s all.”  Willy resists, ultimately driven by shallowness and empty values.  He is unable to establish a real relationship with his son because he is under the spell of another, more illusory reality – the American dream.

Contemporary American Literature and Beyond
In the 1960s through the 1970s, writers began to blur the lines between fact and fiction in works that explored crime and pop culture.  Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer all contributed to new forms like the nonfiction novel and New Journalism.  The middle class became a dominant theme, as America became more suburban and people began feeling more stifled.  Magical realism – a literary technique that blends fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, first established by Latin writers- made its way into American fiction.

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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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