Explain the american literature, English

Explain the American Literature?

This is a broad question, and difficult to answer. In a way, every American writer from the Puritan days to the present has contributed or is contributing to answering this question. I think, however, that there are some general characteristics of American literature that you might want to think about when you read the classics.

From the earliest colonial times to the present, American literature has often emphasized the uniqueness of the American character and experience. For example, the Puritan preacher and writer John Winthrop called America a shining city on a hill. He and other early Puritans wanted to show that God had established America as an example of righteousness for a sinful world. In contrast to what was seen as an aristocratic and decadent Europe, many American writers celebrated Americans piety (belief in God), honesty, and directness. We will see this theme developed in The Scarlet Letter.

Humanity and Nature
Another major theme of American literature is humanity's relationship with nature. Unlike the more settled Europeans, early American settlers were constantly faced with a vast and savage, wilderness filled with obstacles such as dangerous animals and often-hostile Native Americans. In order to settle this wilderness, early American men and women had to display courage, endurance, and fortitude. Many early American writers wrote about the struggles of pioneers in settling the frontier and expanding westward. This conflict between humanity and nature is in many classics of American literature, such as The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby.

Individualism, and the Individual vs. Society

Individualism is an important part of the American character from Colonial times to the present. When we think about what makes up the American character, it is helpful to contrast Americans with Europeans. In the mid-1800's, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a classic study of the American character in Democracy in America. He showed how Europeans were defined by their relationships to other people. You might be born, grow up, get married, have children, and die in the same small French town. You and your whole extended family would live there, as your family had done for centuries. You would be Catholic because everybody was Catholic. You would be subject to a local nobleman, and you would be subject to the king of France. Your identity was largely defined by these series of relatively stable familial, religious, and political ties. Immigrants to America often left these traditions behind to come to this new land. In America, according to de Tocqueville, the individual has the responsibility for defining him or herself. Many characters in American literature, in seeking to define themselves, come into conflict with society. For example, we can see this conflict in the characters of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.

Many people around the world see Americans as optimists. Optimism is the belief that everything will turn out fine in the end. Many Americans have the optimistic belief that they have the power to make themselves and the world better. Where does this optimism come from? Some writers, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, saw the source for this optimism in the opportunities of the endless frontier. According to this "Frontier Thesis," the practical, problem-solving, optimistic nature of the American people was developed through their struggles to settle the frontier. Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby display this particularly American form of optimism.

I hope that these four general characteristics will give you a framework for thinking about American literature. What other characteristics do you find in American literature? Do you think that these characteristics of optimism, individualism, and uniqueness still apply to Americans today?

Posted Date: 5/2/2013 3:06:54 AM | Location : United States

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