Literature is the written work of a specific culture, sub-culture, religion, philosophy or the study of such written work which may appear in poetry or in prose. American literature is literature written or produced in the United States and its preceding colonies. Before the founding of the United States, the British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States were heavily influenced by English literature. The American literary tradition thus began as part of the broader tradition of English literature.
The revolutionary period is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. It was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the nation’s first novels were published. An early example is William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy published in 1791.
With an increasing desire to produce uniquely American literature and culture, a number of key new literary figures emerged, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson started an influential movement known as Transcendentalism. Inspired by that movement, Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, which celebrates individualism and nature and urges resistance to the dictates of organized society. The political conflict surrounding abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his magnum opus The Scarlet Letter, a novel about adultery. Hawthorne influenced Herman Melville, who is notable for the books Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. America’s greatest poets of the nineteenth century were Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Mark Twain was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast. Henry James put American literature on the international map with novels like The Portrait of a Lady. At the turn of the twentieth century a strong naturalist movement emerged that comprised writers such as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London.
American writers expressed disillusionment following World War I. The short stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood of the 1920s, and John Dos Passos wrote too about the war. Ernest Hemingway became famous with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms; in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. William Faulkner became one of the greatest American writers with novels like The Sound and the Fury. American poetry reached a peak after World War I with such writers as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and E. E. Cummings. American drama attained international status at the time with the works of Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize. In the mid-twentieth century, American drama was dominated by the work of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as by the maturation of the American musical.
Depression era writers included John Steinbeck, notable for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Miller assumed a distinct place in American Literature in the 1930s when his semi-autobiographical novels were banned from the US. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s many popular works in modern American literature were produced, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. America’s involvement in World War II influenced works such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The main literary movement since the 1970s has been postmodernism, and since the late twentieth century ethnic and minority literature has sharply increased.
Though its exact parameters remain disputable, from the early 1970s to the present day the most salient literary movement has been postmodernism. Thomas Pynchon, a seminal practitioner of the form, drew in his work on modernist fixtures such as temporal distortion, unreliable narrators, and internal monologue and coupled them with distinctly postmodern techniques such as meta-fiction, characterization, unrealistic names, absurdist plot elements and hyperbolic humor, deliberate use of anachronisms and archaisms, a strong focus on postcolonial themes, and a subversive commingling of high and low culture. In 1973, he published Gravity’s Rainbow, a leading work in this genre, which won the National Book Award and was unanimously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year. His other major works include his debut, V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006).
Toni Morrison, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, writing in a distinctive lyrical prose style, published her controversial debut novel, The Bluest Eye, to critical acclaim in 1970. Coming on the heels of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the novel, widely studied in American schools, includes an elaborate description of incestuous rape and explores the conventions of beauty established by a historically racist society, painting a portrait of a self-immolating black family in search of beauty in whiteness. Seizing on the distinctly postmodern techniques of digression, narrative fragmentation and elaborate symbolism, and strongly influenced by the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace began his writing career with The Broom of the System, published to moderate acclaim in 1987.
Jack Kerouac was an American novelist and poet of French-Canadian descent. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation Kerouac is recognized for his method of spontaneous prose. Thematically, his work covers topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. He became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements.
Since his death, Kerouac’s literary prestige has grown, and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, including The Town and the City, On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterranean, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody, The Sea is my Brother, and Big Sur.
On the Road, a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across the United States. It is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, with its protagonists living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry and drug use. The novel published in 1957 is a roman à clef, with many key figures of the Beat movement, such as William S. Burroughs , Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady represented by characters in the book, including Kerouac himself as the narrator Sal Paradise.
The two main characters of the book are the narrator, Sal Paradise, and his friend Dean Moriarty, much admired for his carefree attitude and sense of adventure, a free-spirited maverick eager to explore all kicks and an inspiration and catalyst for Sal’s travels. The novel contains five parts, three of them describing road trips with Moriarty. The narrative takes place in the years 1947 to 1950, is full of Americana, and marks a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis” The novel is largely autobiographical, Sal being the alter ego of the author and Dean standing for Neal Cassady.
The first section describes Sal’s first trip to San Francisco. Disheartened after a divorce, his life changes when he meets Dean Moriarty, who is “tremendously excited with life”,” and begins to long for the freedom of the road: “Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” He sets off in July 1947 with fifty dollars in his pocket. After taking several buses and hitchhiking, he arrives in Denver, where he hooks up with Carlo Marx, Dean, and their friends. There are parties among them an excursion to the ghost town of Central City. Eventually Sal leaves by bus and gets to San Francisco, where he meets Remi Boncoeur and his girlfriend Lee Ann. Remi arranges for Sal to take a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. Not holding this job for long, Sal hits the road again. Soon he meets Terry, the cutest little Mexican girl, on the bus to Los Angeles. They stay together, traveling back to Bakersfield, then to Sabinal, “her hometown”,” where her family works in the fields. He meets Terry’s brother Ricky, who teaches him the true meaning of “mañana” (“tomorrow”). Working in the cotton fields, Sal realizes that he is not made for this type of work. Leaving Terry behind, he takes the bus back to Times Square in New York City, bums a quarter off a preacher who looks the other way, and arrives at his aunt’s house in Paterson, just missing Dean, who had come to see him, by two days.
In December 1948 Sal is celebrating Christmas with his relatives in Testament, Virginia, when Dean shows up with Marylou (having left his second wife, Camille, and their newborn baby, Amy, in San Francisco) and Ed Dunkel. Sal’s Christmas plans are shattered as “now the bug was on me again, and the bug’s name was Dean Moriarty.” First they drive to New York, where they meet Carlo and party. Dean wants Sal to make love to Marylou, but Sal declines. In Dean’s Hudson they take off from New York in January 1949 and make it to New Orleans. In Algiers they stay with the morphine-addicted Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane. Galatea Dunkel joins her husband in New Orleans while Sal, Dean, and Marylou continue their trip. Once in San Francisco, Dean again leaves Marylou to be with Camille. “Dean will leave you out in the cold anytime it is in the interest of him”,” Marylou tells Sal. Both of them stay briefly in a hotel, but soon she moves out, following a nightclub owner. Sal is alone and on Market Street has visions of past lives, birth, and rebirth. Dean finds him and invites him to stay with his family. Together, they visit nightclubs and listen to Slim Gaillard and other jazz musicians. The stay ends on a sour note: “what I accomplished by coming to Frisco I don’t know”,” and Sal departs, taking the bus back to New York.
In the spring of 1949, Sal takes a bus from New York to Denver. He is depressed and lonesome; none of his friends are around. After receiving some money, he leaves Denver for San Francisco to see Dean. Camille is pregnant and unhappy, and Dean has injured his thumb trying to hit Marylou for sleeping with other men. Camille throws them out, and Sal invites Dean to come to New York, planning to travel further to Italy. They meet Galatea, who tells Dean off: “You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your kicks.” Sal realizes she is right that Dean is the “HOLY GOOF” but also defends him, as “he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find out.” After a night of jazz and drinking in Little Harlem on Folsom Street, they depart. On the way to Sacramento they meet a “fag”, who propositions them. Dean tries to hustle some money out of this but is turned down. During this part of the trip Sal and Dean have ecstatic discussions having found “IT” and “TIME”. In Denver a brief argument shows the growing rift between the two, when Dean reminds Sal of his age, Sal being the older of the two. They get a 1947 Cadillac that needs to be brought to Chicago from a travel bureau. Dean drives most of the way, crazy, careless, often speeding at over one hundred miles per hour (160 km/h), delivering the car in a disheveled state. By bus they move on to Detroit and spend a night on Skid Row, Dean hoping to find his homeless father. From Detroit they share a ride to New York and arrive at Sal’s aunt’s new flat in Long Island. They go on partying in New York, where Dean meets Inez and gets her pregnant while his wife is expecting their second child.
In the spring of 1950, Sal gets the itch to travel again while Dean is working as a parking lot attendant in Manhattan, living with his girlfriend Inez. Sal notices that he has been reduced to simple pleasures—listening to basketball games and looking at erotic playing cards. By bus Sal takes to the road again, passing Washington”,D.C., Ashland, Cincinnati, and St.Louis, and eventually reaching Denver. There he meets Stan Shephard, and the two plan to go to Mexico City when they learn that Dean has bought a car and is on the way to join them. In a rickety ’37 Ford sedan the three set off across Texas to Laredo, where they cross the border. They are ecstatic, having left “everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things.” Their money buys more (10 cents for a beer), police are laid back, cannabisis readily available, and people are curious and friendly. The landscape is magnificent. In Gregoria, they meet Victor, a local kid, who leads them to a bordello where they have their last grand party, dancing to mambo, drinking, and having fun with prostitutes. In Mexico City Sal becomes ill from dysentery and is “delirious and unconscious.” Dean leaves him, and Sal later reflects that “when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.”
Dean, having obtained divorce papers in Mexico, had first returned to New York to marry Inez, only to leave her and go back to Camille. After his recovery from dysentery in Mexico, Sal returns to New York in the fall. He finds a girl, Laura, and plans to move with her to San Francisco. Sal writes to Dean about his plan to move to San Francisco. Dean writes back saying that he’s willing to come and accompany Laura and Sal. Dean arrives over five weeks early, but Sal is out taking a late-night walk alone. Sal returns home, sees a copy of Proust, and knows it is Dean’s. Sal realizes his friend has arrived, but at a time when Sal doesn’t have the money to relocate to San Francisco. On hearing this Dean makes the decision to head back to Camille. Sal’s friend Remi Boncoeur denies Sal’s request to give Dean a short lift to 40th Street on their way to a Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. Sal’s girlfriend Laura realizes this is a painful moment for Sal and prompts him for a response as the party drives off without Dean. Sal replies: “He’ll be alright”. Sal later reflects as he sits on a river pier under a New Jersey night sky about the roads and lands of America that he has travelled and states: “… I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”