American Literature

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WHAT IS AMERICAN LITERATURE? AN OVERVIEW

When the English preacher and writer Sidney Smith asked in 1820, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” little did he suspect that less than two hundred years later the answer in literate quarters would be “just about everyone.” Indeed, just a few years after Smith posed his inflammatory question, the American writer Samuel Knapp would begin to assemble one of the first histories of American literature as part of a lecture series that he was giving. The course materials offered by American Passages continue in the tradition begun by Knapp in 1829. One goal of this Study Guide is to help you learn to be a literary historian: that is, to introduce you to American literature as it has evolved over time and to stimulate you to make connections between and among texts. Like a literary historian, when you make these connections you are telling a story: the story of how American literature came into being. This Overview outlines four paths (there are many others) by which you can narrate the story of American literature: one based on literary movements and historical change, one based on the American Passages Overview Questions, one based on Contexts, and one based on multiculturalism.

TELLING THE STORY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE Literary Movements and Historical Change American Passages is organized around sixteen literary movements or “units.” A literary movement centers around a group of authors that share certain stylistic and thematic concerns. Each unit includes ten authors that are represented either in The Norton Anthology of American Literature or in the Online Archive. Two to four of these authors are discussed in the video, which calls attention to important historical and cultural influences on these authors, defines a genre that they share, and proposes some key thematic parallels. Tracking literary movements can help you see how American literature has changed and evolved over time. In general, people think about literary movements as reacting against earlier modes of writing and earlier movements. For

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example, just as modernism (Units 10–13) is often seen as a response to realism and the Gilded Age (Unit 9), so Romanticism is seen as a response to the Enlightenment (Unit 4). Most of the units focus on one era (see the chart below), but they will often include relevant authors from other eras to help draw out the connections and differences. (Note: The movements in parentheses are not limited to authors/works from the era in question, but they do cover some material from it.)

Century
Fifteenth– Seventeenth Eighteenth

Era
Renaissance

American Passages Literary Movements
(1: Native Voices) 2: Exploring Borderlands 3: Utopian Promise (3: Utopian Promise) 4: Spirit of Nationalism (7: Slavery and Freedom) 4: Spirit of Nationalism 5: Masculine Heroes 6: Gothic Undercurrents 7: Slavery and Freedom (1: Native Voices) 6: Gothic Undercurrents 8: Regional Realism 9: Social Realism (1: Native Voices) 10: Rhythms in Poetry 11: Modernist Portraits 12: Migrant Struggle 13: Southern Renaissance 1: Native Voices 2: Exploring Borderlands 12: Migrant Struggle 14: Becoming Visible 15: Poetry of Liberation 16: Search for Identity

Enlightenment

Nineteenth

Romanticist

Nineteenth

Realist

Twentieth

Modernist

Twentieth

Postmodernist

Each unit contains a timeline of historical events along with the dates of key literary texts by the movement’s authors. These timelines are designed to help you make connections between and among the movements, eras, and authors covered in each unit.

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Overview Questions
The Overview Questions at the start of each unit are tailored from the five American Passages Overview Questions that follow. They are meant to help you focus your viewing and...
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