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American Literary Movements

Teacher Guide by Rebecca Ray

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

Student Activities for American Literary Movements Include:

As the world around us changes, so does the way that we see the world, and how we express that vision. Literature, arts, and philosophy evolve to mirror their historic and social context. An appreciation of a particular piece of literature is grounded by an understanding of the work’s context. Looking at literary movements helps students articulate the common approaches to writing, big ideas of each movement, and social and political influences of the time period. It is important for students of American Literature to understand the author and characters’ attitudes; connecting a piece of writing to the ideologies of its time is a significant component in this task.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Prominent Literary Movements Taught in American Literature

Name(s) of Literary MovementsApprox. Dates
Native AmericanOral Tradition
Puritanism or Colonial1620-1750
Revolutionary, Age of Reason, Enlightenment1750-1800
Romanticism, Dark Romanticism, Anti-Transcendentalism, American Gothic1800-1865
Transcendentalism1840-1860
Realism1865-1914
Naturalism1885-1930
Regionalism1865-1895
Modernism1914-1945
Lost Generation, Jazz Age, Roaring 20s, the Harlem Renaissance1917-1937
Beat Generation1950-1965
Contemporary or Postmodernism1939-Present


Native American (Before 1600)

Characterized by oral traditions, epic poems, creation myths, songs, and poetry. Native American literature was well established long before European settlers arrived. Recently​, authors like Sherman Alexie have revived the tradition,​ with insightful stories about life on reservations.



Puritanism or Colonial (1620-1750)

Motivated by a desire to 'purify' the Church of England with the simple worship of God, Puritans left to colonize the New World. As settlers, they recorded their experiences through diaries and historical accounts.



Revolutionary, Age of Reason, Enlightenment (1750-1800)

Consisting mostly of philosophers and scientists, Enlightenment writers sought to understand the world around them through reason and deduction, rather than faith. Literature of this period was frequently satirical and skeptical.



Romanticism, American Gothic (1800-1865)

This era valued feeling, intuition, and idealism. It placed faith in interior experience and imagination​. Individual freedom and worth were paramount, and poetry was seen as the highest expression of the mind. The Dark Romantics, or American Gothic writers, combined these values with dark supernatural themes and settings.



Transcendentalism (1840-1860)

Transcendentalists advocated self-reliance and individualism over authority and conformity to tradition, believing institutions and organizations were responsible for corrupting the inherent goodness of people. ​​In their writing, transcendentalists commonly reflected on nature, a unified “divine spirit”, common to all people, and community.



Realism, Naturalism & Regionalism (1865-1914)

As America suffered from growing pains, this movement was marked by feelings of disillusionment. Familiar subjects included ghettos of rapidly growing cities, the Industrial Revolution, and corrupt politicians. Authors focused on painting a realistic setting of everyday life and ordinary people, including local color, while also seeking to explain human behavior. ​



Modernism (1914-1945)

Modernism began as an extension of realism, but made efforts to break with literary and poetic traditions. Authors of this era were bold and experimental in style; an example of this being the “stream of consciousness”. Commonly dealing with the struggles of individuals, modernist literature can seem bleak, but is characterized by the optimistic belief that people can change the world around them.



Lost Generation, Jazz Age, Roaring 20s & The Harlem Renaissance (1917-1937)

Alongside modernism, African American culture in Harlem, New York was flourishing. Much of the style derived from poetry rhythms based on spirituals, jazz lyrics on the blues, and the use of slang in everyday diction. These influences intersected with prohibition, reactions to WWI, and the sultry nightlife of the big city to produce an energetic progressive culture.



Beat Generation (1950-1965)

The Beat Generation was a small group of authors whose literature explored and influenced American culture in the post-World War II era. The Beats were against the prudery of their parents’ generation and promoted sex and sexuality as healthy topics of discussion. Beat hipsters defied modest America with their hedonistic bohemianism and celebration of nonconforming creativity.​



Contemporary/Postmodernism (1950-Present)

Literature since WWII has been heavily influenced by studies of media, language, and information technology. It rejects the idea that anything is truly “unique”, proposing that culture endlessly duplicates itself. Postmodern literature especially is marked by irony in the form of parody, unreliable narrators, absurdity, self-awareness, and deconstruction. Postmodernist literature frequently reminds the audience that they are reading a work of fiction or supply other “meta” commentary. New literary forms and techniques focused on intense dialogue, blending fiction with nonfiction, and the overall appearance of the work.



American Literary Movements Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

American Literary Movement Timeline

In this activity, students can create a timeline of the literary movements in American literature. Students will use a timeline to portray the major movements in form and genre from Puritanism to Modernism. Having students use elements, like characters and settings, that are indicative of the time period to depict life in the era will help them understand the experience of people from that period. Students will also connect changes between the periods. For example, students will notice that Puritanism had a strong belief and reliance on God, whereas its successor, the Age of Reason, shifted focus to understanding through logic and science.

When giving directions, take care not to stifle student creativity. Allow them to select the information they feel will be most important to know. In the description boxes, students can answer a variety of questions about the time period.


Example questions include:

  • What were the main beliefs of the people during this movement?
  • What significant events prompted people's rationales to change?
  • What aspects of culture derive from this movement?

American Literary Movements Timeline
Create your own at Storyboard That Native American (Before 1600) Puritanism or Colonial (1620-1750) Revolutionary, Age of Reason, Enlightenment (1750-1800) Romanticism, American Gothic (1800-1865) Transcendentalism (1840-1860) Realism, Naturalism & Regionalism (1865-1914, 1930, 1895) Modernism (1914-1945) Lost Generation, Jazz Age, Roaring 20’s & The Harlem Renaissance (1917-1937) Beat Generation (1950-1965) Contemporary/Postmodernism (1950-Present) Characterized by oral traditions, epic poems, creation myths, songs, and poetry. Native American literature has been around long before the settlers arrived. Recently​, authors like Sherman Alexie have revived stories of American Indians​ with his stories, which give insight into life on the reservation. Characterized by their desire to 'purify' the Church of England with the simple worship of God, Puritans left England to colonize the new world. As settlers, they recorded their experiences through diaries and historical accounts. ​ Characterized by human desire to understand the world around them through reason rather than faith. This era was mostly composed of philosophers and scientists whose writing sparked an enlightenment in thought. This era valued feeling, intuition, and idealism. It placed faith in inner experience and imagination​. Individual freedom and the worth of the individual was paramount, and poetry was seen as the highest expression of the mind. Dark Romantics or American Gothic writers used dark supernatural themes and settings. Transcendentalists advocated self-reliance and individualism over authority and conformity to tradition, believing institutions and organizations were responsible for corrupting the inherent goodness of people. ​​In their writing, transcendentalists commonly reflected on nature, a unified “divine spirit”, common to all people, and community. This movement was marked by feelings of disillusionment. Familiar subjects included ghettos of rapidly growing cities, the industrial revolution, and corrupt politicians. Authors focused on painting a realistic setting of everyday life and ordinary people, including local color, while also seeking to explain human behavior. ​ Beginning as an extension of realism, this era broke with literary and poetic traditions. Authors were bold and experimental in style; an example being “stream of consciousness”. Modernist literature can seem bleak, but is characterized by the optimistic belief that people can change the world around them. African American culture in Harlem, New York was flourishing. Much of the style derived from poetry rhythms based on spirituals, and jazz lyrics on the blues, and the use of slang in everyday diction. These influences intersected with prohibition, reactions to WWI, and the sultry nightlife of the big city to produce an energetic progressive culture. A small group of authors whose literature explored and influenced American culture, post-World War II. The Beats were against the prudery of their parents’ generation and promoted sex and sexuality as healthy topics of discussion. Beat hipsters defied modest America. with their hedonistic bohemianism and celebration of nonconforming creativity.​ Literature in this period was influenced by studies of media, language, and information technology. It is marked by the fact that nothing is truly "unique" and the conception that our culture endlessly duplicates itself. New literary forms and techniques focused on intense dialog, a blend of fiction and​ nonfiction, and the overall appearance of the work. AMERICAN LITERARY MOVEMENTS 1600 CE 1620 CE 1750 CE 1800 CE 1840 CE 1865 CE 1914 CE 1917 CE 1949 CE 1950 CE Legend Time Break 32 Years and 365 Days 1600 CE 1620 CE 1750 CE 1800 CE 1840 CE 1865 CE 1914 CE 1917 CE 1949 CE 1950 CE Legend Time Break 32 Years and 365 Days 1600 CE 1620 CE 1750 CE 1800 CE 1840 CE 1865 CE 1914 CE 1917 CE 1949 CE 1950 CE Legend Time Break 32 Years and 365 Days 1600 CE 1620 CE 1750 CE 1800 CE 1840 CE 1865 CE 1914 CE 1917 CE 1949 CE 1950 CE Legend Time Break 32 Years and 365 Days