American Literature outlines ideas, beliefs, societies and concepts of American life and history. American Literature is a way to document and reflect on American events and history. Many authors works’ are influenced by the environment and society around them. Their works often have similar themes and ideas because they reflect what is happening during the literary movement they are living in. These collections of work by authors from each literary movement can be considered as part of the literary canon. Although there are many well known American authors apart of the literary canon, four important ones are Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Paine, Washington Irving, and Robert Frost.
Literary canons are essential for shaping worldview. According to Jordan Bates, “The term “literary canon” refers to a body of books, narratives and other texts considered to be the most important and influential of a particular time period or place.” Literature that is included in the literary canon can often be viewed as classics because of the importance they reflected on society. Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Paine, Washington Irving, and Robert Frost can all be considered to be included in the literary canon because their works have been considered influential and a classic of their time.
The Colonial period was the second major movement in American Literature, which began in 1620 and lasted until 1750. During the Colonial period, many immigrants were coming to America to settle. The lecture notes state, when the immigrants settled, they were formed new colonies and new governments to break away from the British rule. During this time, women also faced repression from their male peers, which can be seen in Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. This era of literature and authors was influenced by Puritan religious influences, such as Anne Bradstreet.
Anne Bradstreet is a major influencer of the Colonial period. Originally born in England, Bradstreet moved to Massachussettes in 1630 with a group of Puritans to settle in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bradstreet had education opportunities, which was not common for women during this time. Her only published poetry book, “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America”, was published by her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge. Pattie Cowell claims that common themes in Bradstreet’s poems were “family, love, nature, sorrow, faith, and resignation” (Cowell 237). Pattie Cowell also states that Bradstreet’s poetry “consistently reflects the Puritan spiritual and communal vision” (Cowell 237). She became a model women poet for future generations.
In both, “The Prologue” and “The Author to Her Book”, Bradstreet is criticizing her male critics while defending her poetry. As stated by another author, in “The Prologue”, Bradstreet builds “assertiveness about women’s abilities in public pieces” while growing into “an uninhibited use of images drawn from women’s experiences” (Cowell 237). The same author also states that many of her works uncovered tensions between “conventional literary subject matter and her own experiences” (Cowell 237). While “The Prologue” and “The Author to Her Book” reveals how men were more superior than women, her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House” reveals her Puritan roots and religious roots. Bradstreet uses her poetry to react to her own experiences in her life and in society.
1750 to 1815 marks the Revolutionary and Nationalism Period. According to the lecture notes, this period presents many political writings, which focused on explaining and justifying the Revolution. These writings helped define what a true American is. Writers such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin focused on nationalism, patriotism, and American identity in their writings, claimed by the lecture notes. This new sense of Americanism arose from after the War of 1812, which lead to the removal of British troops and political freedom. One author claims Thomas Paine is considered to be the “pro-American writer and author of some of the most persuasive texts of the American Revolution” (Harris 441).
Thomas Paine was born as a Quaker in 1737 in England. Paine’s Quaker views were reflected in all of his work. Sharon Harris claims that because of his Quaker background, he believed the universe was controlled by “harmony, order, and natural laws” rather than hierarchies, as stated by one author (Harris 441). The lecture notes claim that because Paine was involved in many political affairs, it led to him being exiled from France and England. His four major works are “Common Sense”, “American Crisis”, “The Rights of Man”, and “The Age of Reason”. According to the lecture notes, all of these pieces of literature helped change the nations thinking about justice, equality, and of the natural rights of the individual.
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“American Crisis” was written in 1776, during the Revolutionary War. Paine wrote “American Crisis” as motivation for George Washington’s troops after they were losing hope during the Revolution. Washington ordered parts of “American Crisis” to be read to his troops before the start of another battle. In “American Crisis”, Paine calls for all to help in the war effort. Thomas Paine is one of the most influential and persuasive writers during the Revolution because he used plain language and common sense arguments that the less literate people could understand. Paine has been so influential in times of American crisis, that George W. Bush quoted the opening lines of “American Crisis” in his speech addressing the attack on September 11, 2001.
Romanticism is the philosophical attitude which is developed from reaction to previous decades. According to the lecture notes, the Romanticism period took place from 1800 to 1855 and became an era where writers were able to incorporate individualism, nature, imagination, creativity and emotions into their work. During this era, America was in the midst of westward expansion. New York and Boston became cities that inspired intellectual thought and culture. This was a period for writers, like Washington Irving, to explore philosophical debates.
Most of Washington Irving’s writings were shaped from the reaction of an American response to an Old World culture, claims William Hedges (Hedges 1122). This was the time of transitional America, a nation culturally unsure and divided over how democratic it should be, which Irving confronts in his writings. Irving is known for inventing the short story, but didn’t succeed in his writing career until his 30s. Perhaps, the most important short story Washington Irving wrote was “Rip van Winkle”, which is viewed as the birth of America’s own sense of itself as a culture, but as an allegory for the birth of true American Literature.
The story of “Rip van Winkle” sets a lot of literary precedents. This means that the work and ideas of Irving would reflect on future America. The character Rip van Winkle is in a state of confusion after he wakes from a daze of 20 years because he drank a drink from some men in the Catskill Mountains. Even though it seemed to be 20 years to Rip, but it was only an overnight occurrence to the colonists. This event is reflecting of those during the Revolution. The townspeople are representing society in America before the Revolution by being lazy and self-satisfied, which represents the repression America experienced under British rule. This scene can be understood and viewed as the “American Dream” because like Rip being unsure about what happened, newly reformed America began in uncertainty and confusion.
The Modern Period marked the first half of the twentieth century, starting in 1900 and lasting until 1950. Stated in the lecture notes, during this time, wars, economic prosperity, the Great Depression, commercialism, and increased population all occurred. This was a time where authors were able to explore alienation, change, and confronted the population’s fear, also states the lecture notes. Specifically during this period, African-American Literature flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Extensive use of symbolism and irony are seen in this era of work. Because of the use of symbolism and irony, inferences must be used to understand characters and themes. It is possible that modern writers subconsciously included historical fate in their works, but the contemporary ideas used allow for inferences to be made by readers. Robert Frost is just one among many authors who are considered to be part of the Modern Period.
After moving back to America from England in 1915, Robert Frost became a four time Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner. Frost was very popular in the academic world, especially with teachers. He became so popular that he was invited to read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony. Robert Frost faced many tragedies in his life, mostly being the death of loved ones. James Guimond writes, Frost used his “public and poetic stoicism” to mask his “acute depression, self-doubt, and guilt” (Guimond 608). He also states that Frost is “considered to be the link between an older era and modern culture” (Guimond 608).
Frost’s work is considered modern, so his work does not particularly fit in with a historical framework because his ideas are contemporary. One author claims, His work steps outside of the status quo by not following a specific set of guidelines of how poems and novels should look or sound a certain way (Molesworth 506). As stated in “The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature,” Frost used traditional rhymes and metrical forms, he wrote many poems that can be viewed as dramatic narratives, but are viewed as prose fiction (Guimond 609). “The Road Not Taken”, is a good example of how inferences can be made to determine the fate of a poem. In the poem the narrator is faced with a crossroad and is unsure of which road to take. The narrator in “The Road Not Taken” decides to take the “one less traveled by” and says that is “has made all of the difference” (Frost 610). Here, readers can make inferences on the decision made by the narrator. According to the article, “Fourteen Reasons to Study American Literature,” “Literature is full of human reactions.” A readers’ reaction is how we respond and analyze to gain knowledge of the human psyche, claims “Fourteen Reasons to Study American Literature.” Even though there may be an underlying theme or idea behind the poem, it is not directly stated by Frost.
All of these authors and their published works have influenced the country and the literary canon tremendously. The authors and their literature used in this essay have been considered literary classics from the literary movement from which they belong. They can also be considered part of the literary canon because of the influence they had in their literary period. Each author in their literary movement reflected the ideas, beliefs and values of that time period.
- Bates, Jordan. “Literary Canons Exclude Works No Matter How Selective Canon Makers Are.” The Daily Nebraskan, 16 May 2018, www.dailynebraskan.com/culture.
- Cowell, Pattie. “Anne Bradstreet.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , edited by Paul Lauter, Cengage Learning , 2014, pp. 236–237.
- “Fourteen Reasons to Study American Literature.” Why Study Brit, 26 November 2019. www3.dbu.edu/mitchell/newpage13.htm.
- Guimond, James. “Robert Frost.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , edited by Paul Lauter, Cengage Learning , 2014, pp. 608–609.
- Harris, Sharon M. “Thomas Paine.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , edited by Paul Lauter, Cengage Learning , 2014, pp. 441–443.
- Hedges, William. “Washington Irving.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , edited by Paul Lauter, Cengage Learning , 2014, pp. 1122–1123.
- Matus, Douglas. “British Literature Comparison of Romanticism and Modernism.” Synonym, 21 Nov. 2017, classroom.synonym.com/.
- Molesworth, Charles. “Toward the Modern Age.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , edited by Paul Lauter, Cengage Learning , 2014, pp. 506.
- Paine, Thomas. “The American Crisis.” 26 November 2019, americainclass.org/.
- Robert, Frost. “The Road Not Taken.” The Concise Heath Anthology of American Literature , Cengage Learning , 2014, p. 610.