What exactly is “American” literature and what makes it different from, any of its other counterparts?
Those answers could be very different depending on when and where you went to school. When I was coming through school, “American” literature did not strictly begin until after the American Revolutionary War. Pre-war literature I had to read included Phyllis Wheatley, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and William Bradford’s extremely boring account of the famed Pilgrims.
Post-Revolutionary War literature, however, is where American literature takes shape and while some, like Washington Irving and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at least tried to maintain the same style as their English peers, others ventured more broadly.
This is where we start to see some very distinct themes emerge which, while not entirely unknown in their British and European counterparts, were more distinctly what we might see as American.
But first, a little history.
The Birth of American Literature
American literature, correctly speaking, does not begin with the end of the Revolutionary War which separated the British colonies from Great Britain. It doesn’t even begin with the Pilgrims landing in present-day Massachusetts or with John Smith’s journals about the Jamestown colony.
It begins with the nations which lived and thrived on the two American continents for thousands of years prior to any European explorations. Whether it was the oral tradition or the complicated pictographic system of the Mayans, literature did exist. Saying it didn’t is just as naive as saying the ancient Celts were nothing more than blue-painted barbarians.
Oh, and they had literature too, by the way.
So, American literature is far older than we give it credit for, and it certainly doesn’t spring from a solely European tradition. This turns out to be an important feature of why post-Revolutionary War, the newly emancipated British colonies, though they needed to create distinctly American literature. Because one of their primary goals was to reflect the North American experience in its entirety.
Even if they didn’t quite capture their Indigenous predecessors’ experience or that of the African Americans.
In the 21st century, we know a lot more and a lot better about the disparities in that experience but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, anthropology as we now know didn’t exist. What they did have were people sympathetic to the conquering of the wilderness and the complications it brought with it. And they weren’t always sympathetic towards the settlers either.
As we shall see as we delve more into James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. The beginnings of our own regrets over the past didn’t start with us, or our parents, or even our grandparents. They were already in motion.
That being said, there are three major themes which run throughout American literature, well up to the present day.
1. Self-Reliance over co-dependence
The early inhabitants of the United States firmly believed, for the most part, in self-reliance. Or, at least, they did as far as their fiction went, hence the individualism which runs through most of early United States literature. They had just accomplished what, as far as they were concerned, no other nation in the history of the world had done: they had gained independence from an overbearing government.
Self-reliance today seems an almost alien concept. We’re trapped in a world that demands we keep up with technology, with ideological trends, taxes, cost of living, and the list goes on. Self-reliance?
For those of us who have mental health issues, that almost seems laughable at times. But, there is more to self-reliance than meets the eye.
It’s the ability to find what you need to deal with life from within. Not from without. Think of it as resilience, of finding the strength to carry on, survive another day, and yes, pull yourself back together. Or at least be able to seek help in pulling yourself together.
Self-reliance goes beyond just being free and independent of your fellow human beings. It’s about a bunch of free and independent human beings allowing each other to live without forcing each other to live within what a minority of people think is the correct way to live. Because if we all are codependent on one another, then nothing will ever get done.
Certainly, if we rely on other people’s opinions on everything, then we can never form our own. We will become cookie-cutter people without our own hopes and dreams. That is the greatest tragedy our ancestors could have ever dreamt of.
2. The dangers of too much civilization
Personally, I think this is a point which we would do well to remember. We think our own way, the more recent way, is the best way. We can call it whatever we like: civilization, religion, progressivism, social justice, or creating a more fair society. The fact still remains that anything we do in the name of “justice” rarely takes the place of dealing honestly with one another.
Of course, that also means that each of us has to be a moral individual ourselves and there has to be enough of a shared morality, or at least a latent understanding and respect for one another.
But, human beings are what they are and they’ll use whatever means necessary to impose their will on their fellow creatures whether that’s the law, religion, conquest, or even outright lying and cheating.
We have the Trail of Tears as proof of that. Not to mention there’s more than one old western movie out there where it wasn’t an Indigenous American Nation who was the real enemy–there was at least a straightforwardness about them. No, the real enemy was whatever petty tyrant sought to set themselves up in power over others whether that was a Saloon madam, the local gunslinger, the corrupt sheriff, or the cattle baron.
Not all of those Hollywood movies were just made up for ratings. Some of them were based on more facts than I think any of us realize.
A Lakota warrior would at least kill you outright. But your power-hungry neighbor might take you to court for every perceived slight to their life and property and then spread malicious gossip about you to all your friends and relations. Now, you tell me: which is more “civilized?”
I know which one I personally would choose.
3. Nature, particularly the landscape
Now, this is something that I think we can all appreciate. The American landscape is very different to that of Great Britain and Europe. There are trees, species, and history here that they do not have. The newly minted citizens of the United States were well aware of this, and they wanted to incorporate that into their literature.
English Gothic novels liked to paint scenery too, but more as a way for the reader to escape the confines of the town, the house, and the dangers of traveling during the Napoleonic Wards. American novelists saw it as a point of national pride. Some, like Thoreau, even saw it as a way of trying to re-make society into something more just and fair.
And, incidentally, ecologically friendly. Yes, you’ll find a lot of concern about the abuse of natural resources in early American literature too.
So, yes, nature plays a part here just as it did in the Romantic movement in Europe.
There are, of course, nuances to all three themes which we’ll see as we go through the month of November.
What themes have you noticed in American literature?
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4 thoughts on “3 Major Themes in American Literature You Need to Know”
Great post! I especially like your point that American literature has a much longer history than the Post-Revolution period or even the arrival of the first Europeans. I’d never even thought of that before! Do you have any recommendations of literature that’s survived from that time for those who might be interested? It seems weird to me now that I’m familiar with The Odyssey and Beowulf, which were both passed on by oral tradition before being recorded, but I can’t think of a single example from the people who lived in the place where I now live.
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Hi Shannon! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Yes, there’s a lot of literary traditions out there which are overlooked. I’m actually working on a separate blog post specifically for this. Plan to release on Thanksgiving weekend at the latest, if all goes well. I have one source in particular, which is a remnant from a college class I took on European exploration. It’s a very interesting read, to say the least.
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Cool! Looking forward to it!