A Brief Overview of American Literary Periods

From the Colonial to the Contemporary

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American Literature does not easily lend itself to classification by time period. Given the size of the United States and it's varied population, there are often several literary movements happening at the same time. However, this hasn't stopped literary scholars from attempting. Here are some of the most commonly agreed upon periods of American literature from the colonial period to the present. 

The Colonial Period (1607 – 1775)

This period encompasses the founding of Jamestown up to the Revolutionary War. The majority of writings were historical, practical, or religious in nature. Some writers not to miss from this period include Phillis Wheatley, Cotton Mather, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, and John Winthrop. The first Slave Narrative, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, was published in Boston in 1760.

The Revolutionary Age (1765 – 1790)

Beginning a decade before the Revolutionary War and ending about 25 years later, this period includes the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. This is arguably the richest period of political writing since classical antiquity. Important works include the “Declaration of Independence,” The Federalist Papers and the poetry of Joel Barlow and Philip Freneau.

The Early National Period (1775 – 1828)

This era in American Literature is responsible for notable first works, such as the first American comedy written for the stage (The Contrast by Royall Tyler, 1787) and the first American Novel (The Power of Sympathy by William Hill, 1789). Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Charles Brockden Brown are credited with creating distinctly American fiction, while Edgar Allan Poe and William Cullen Bryant began writing poetry that was markedly different from that of the English tradition.

The American Renaissance (1828 – 1865)

Also known as the Romantic Period in America and the Age of Transcendentalism, this period is commonly accepted to be the greatest of American Literature. Major writers include Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.  Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller are credited with shaping the literature and ideals of many later writers. Other major contributions include the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the short stories of Melville, Poe, Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In addition, this era is the inauguration point of American Literary Criticism, lead by Poe, James Russell Lowell and William Gilmore Simms. The years 1853 and 1859 brought the first African-American novels (Clotel and Our Nig).

The Realistic Period (1865 – 1900)

As a result of the American Civil War, Reconstruction and the age of Industrialism, American ideals and self-awareness changed in profound ways, and American literature responded.  Certain romantic notions of the American Renaissance are replaced by realistic descriptions of American life, such as those represented in the works of William Dean Howells, Henry James and Mark Twain.

This period also gave rise to regional writing, such as the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Bret Harte, Mary Wilkins Freeman and George W. Cable. In addition to Walt Whitman, another master poet, Emily Dickinson, appeared at this time.

The Naturalist Period (1900 – 1914)

This relatively short period is defined by its insistence on recreating life as life really is, even more so than the realists had been doing in the decades before. American Naturalist writers such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and Jack London created some of the most powerfully raw novels in American literary history. Their characters are victims who fall prey to their own base instincts and to economic and sociological factors. Edith Wharton wrote some of her most beloved classics, such as The Custom of the Country (1913), Ethan Frome (1911) and House of Mirth (1905) during this time period.

The Modern Period (1914 – 1939)

After the American Renaissance, the Modern Period is the second most influential and artistically rich age of American writing. Its major writers include such powerhouse poets as E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Novelists and other prose writers of the time include Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson. The Modern Period contains within it certain major movements including the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Lost Generation. Many of these writers were influenced by World War I and the disillusionment that followed, especially the expatriates of the Lost Generation. Furthermore, the Great Depression and the New Deal resulted in some of America’s greatest social issue writing, such as the novels of Faulkner and Steinbeck, and the drama of Eugene O’Neill.

The Beat Generation (1944 – 1962)

Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, were devoted to anti-traditional literature, in poetry and prose, and anti-establishment politics. This time period saw a rise in confessional poetry and sexuality in literature, which resulted in legal challenges and debates over censorship in America. William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller are two writers whose works faced censorship challenges and who, along with other writers of the time, inspired the counterculture movements of the next two decades.

The Contemporary Period (1939 – Present)

After World War II, American literature becomes broad and varied in terms of theme, mode, and purpose. Currently, there is little consensus as to how to go about classifying the last 80 years into periods or movements – more time must pass, perhaps, before scholars can make these determinations. That being said, there are a number of important writers since 1939 whose works may already be considered “classic” and who are likely to become canonized.  Some of these are:  Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Tan, John Updike, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Wright, Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Thornton Wilder, Alice Walker, Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, John Barth, Maya Angelou and Robert Penn Warren.