American Literary Movements

Teacher Guide by Rebecca Ray

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American Literary Movements Lesson Plans

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.

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?

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American Literary Periods | Depict the Time

Using a multi-cell storyboard, ask students to show their knowledge of a time period by depicting what the people, settings, homes, and technology looked like. These categories are important to understand because literature is affected by the popular ideology, technology, advancements, people, and physical setting of its time. Depicting the characteristics of each period will also help students make real world connections. Making connections is a very important skill to acquire and practice.

Using this activity, students will make text-to-text and text-to-world connections. They will also be able to discuss commonalities between texts from a time period. By understanding the motivations of the people in the period, students studying American literature will retain and comprehend each era.

More in-depth classroom use will help students develop a higher level of understanding for each period. Using a chart to graph the differences in style and ideology between literary periods is key to mastery. By graphing categories like values, historical events, style of writing, and common elements, students will make connections and see the progression of the culture.

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American Literary Movement Philosophies

Using a T-Chart is an effective way for students to understand the many differences in style and ideology between literary periods. By graphing categories like values, historical events, style of writing, and common elements, students will make connections and see the progression of culture.

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American Literary Movements | American Authors

As you read a work of literature from each movement, ask students to track the author(s) and themes. By the end of the year, students will be able to reflect on themes that endured over time and distinguish them from themes that were a direct result of the period.

In the example below, a student created an author board for Edgar Allan Poe after reading his works from the Romantic/American Gothic movement. Students can extend their storyboards to track one author from each period or to do all the authors read during class on separate storyboards. The options are endless!


Romanticism/American Gothic: 1800-1865

Edgar Allan Poe was a ​Gothic writer specializing in short stories of the macabre and bizarre. His well-known works, "The Raven", "The Cask of Amontillado", and "The Tell Tale Heart", are prime examples of Gothic literature with eerie settings and grotesque themes.

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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
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.

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•   (English) American Literary Movements   •   (Español) Movimientos Literarios Americanos   •   (Français) Mouvements Littéraires Américains   •   (Deutsch) Amerikanischen Literarischen Bewegungen   •   (Italiana) Movimenti Letterari Americani   •   (Nederlands) American Literary Movements   •   (Português) Movimentos Literários Americanos   •   (עברית) תנועות ספרותיות אמריקניות   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الحركات الأدبية الأمريكية   •   (हिन्दी) अमेरिकी साहित्यिक आंदोलनों   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Американские Литературные Движения   •   (Dansk) Amerikanske Litterære Bevægelser   •   (Svenska) Amerikanska Litterära Rörelser   •   (Suomi) Amerikkalainen Literary Liikkeet   •   (Norsk) Amerikanske Litterære Bevegelser   •   (Türkçe) Amerikan Edebi Hareketler   •   (Polski) Amerykańskie Ruchy Literackie   •   (Româna) Mișcările Literare Americane   •   (Ceština) Americké Literárních Směrů   •   (Slovenský) Americké Literárne Hnutia   •   (Magyar) Amerikai Irodalmi Mozgások   •   (Hrvatski) Američki Književni Pokreti   •   (български) Американски Литературни Движения   •   (Lietuvos) Amerikos Literatūros Judėjimai   •   (Slovenščina) Ameriški Literarne Gibanje   •   (Latvijas) Amerikāņu Literāro Virzienu   •   (eesti) American Kirjandussuundade