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Of course it depends on what you are reading. In general, I would ask how the pioneer experience shaped American literature. I am thinking more of Willa Cather and the like. Since the American imagination was captured by Manifest Destiny, I think that it had a huge effect on early American literature.
Another topic: It is said that American Literature began with Huck Finn. Do you agree?
Edgar Allen Poe would be a fascinating study for this research. His short story "The Gold Bug" earned him the title of "father of the modern detective story." In addition there has been intense interest and increased research in his death. Researchers have come to believe that his death might not have been the result of alcoholism but some other medical malady. Comparing his short stories to much of his poetry would also be an interesting topic. It is a marvel that the man who wrote "The Tell-Tall Heart" wrote the poignant "Anna Bell Lee."
A really interesting topic in American literature of the 1800s is the rise of local color writing shortly after the Civil War. Local color writers in four sections of the country--Northeast, South, Midwest, and Far West--wrote stories and novels that captured life in their particular regions. People, places, and unique ways of life were described in very specific detail, thus differentiating them from those in the rest of the United States. Some very famous American writers came out of the local color period. Mark Twain, for instance, wrote of life along the lower Mississippi River and about life in the mining camps in Nevada and California.
Because of its emphasis on realistic detail, local color writing acted as a transition into realism in American literature. You could research local color writing and its effect on modern American literature, or you could focus on one local color writer. There are many significant ones. Another idea--you could research the reasons why local color writing developed when it did. Very interesting!
Again, narrow your topic. However, you might consider thinking about when American writing became truly "American" and not just a copy of English/British writers. As suggested above, the short story in America is where many critics point that literature became original and truly "American" with a hint of savagery or adventure which was lacking in much of Europe since it had been settled for so many centuries. America was a new nation with new challenges to face, thus making the literature original, exciting, and titillating to the imagination.
You might also focus on the role of the female author in the 1800's, the role of religion in the literature of the time (which would be different depending on if you look at the northern or southern colonies), or focus on how many authors of the time show evidence of Romanticism (Poe, Irving, etc.) or Transcendentalism (Thoreau, Whitman, etc.) but are not alike in their approach or purpose.
Big topic...narrow it down, and Good Luck!
I completely agree with the previous posts -- you need to choose a manageable focus. You could analyze the development of one of the 'isms' that define the literary style or themes of that period. You could consider Romanticism or Transcendentalism. With that, you could then evaluate how a particular piece of literature or a particular author fits that literary movement.
This is rather a vague title you have been given, as #2 indicates. Your biggest single job is to try and narrow this title down into something more manageable, either perhaps selecting one author from this time period and exploring how his or her work reflects characteristics of American literature of this time or doing a broad and shallow sweep of the various authors from this time period.
There are so many aspects of early American literature that you can explore, of course. One topic that may be of interest is the early short story and the debate involving to whom the credit for this genre is given. While many credit Washington Irving, some argue that he borrowed too much to be original and, thus attribute the creation to Edgar Allan Poe, who always wrote a distinctive and unique story. Perhaps, you may wish to write a persuasive essay, arguing in favor of one of these writers as the originator of the American short story.
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