American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States.
When did American literature begin?
Who are some important authors of American literature?
What are the periods of American literature?
Literature has existed in the Americas for as long as the people who lived there have been telling stories. Native American cultures have a rich history of oral literature. Mayan books from as far back as the 5th century are known, and it is believed that the Maya started writing things down centuries before that. As a specific discipline viewed through the lens of European literature, American literature began in the early 17th century with the arrival of English-speaking Europeans in what would become the United States.
American literature is often divided into five major periods:
- The Colonial and Early National period (17th century to 1830)
- The Romantic period (1830 to 1870)
- Realism and Naturalism (1870 to 1910)
- The Modernist period (1910 to 1945)
- The Contemporary period (1945 to present)
Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent—colonies from which a few hardy souls tentatively ventured westward. After a successful rebellion against the motherland, America became the United States, a nation. By the end of the 19th century this nation extended southward to the Gulf of Mexico, northward to the 49th parallel, and westward to the Pacific. By the end of the 19th century, too, it had taken its place among the powers of the world—its fortunes so interrelated with those of other nations that inevitably it became involved in two world wars and, following these conflicts, with the problems of Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, the rise of science and industry, as well as changes in ways of thinking and feeling, wrought many modifications in people’s lives. All these factors in the development of the United States molded the literature of the country.
This article traces the history of American poetry, drama, fiction, and social and literary criticism from the early 17th century through the turn of the 21st century. For a description of the oral and written literatures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, seeNative American literature. Though the contributions of African Americans to American literature are discussed in this article, seeAfrican American literature for in-depth treatment. For information about literary traditions related to, and at times overlapping with, American literature in English, seeEnglish literature and Canadian literature: Canadian literature in English.
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