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.
|Name(s) of Literary Movements||Approx. Dates|
|Native American||Oral Tradition|
|Puritanism or Colonial||1620-1750|
|Revolutionary, Age of Reason, Enlightenment||1750-1800|
|Romanticism, Dark Romanticism, Anti-Transcendentalism, American Gothic||1800-1865|
|Lost Generation, Jazz Age, Roaring 20s, the Harlem Renaissance||1917-1937|
|Contemporary or Postmodernism||1939-Present|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.