For a five page research paper on American literature from 1865 to the present, what literary works are appropriate to include?
My thesis statement is "Throughout the Victorian and Modern periods, American literature has served as a cultural zeitgeist, reflecting the societal concerns, customs, struggles, and triumphs of their respective time periods."
Following the second suggestion of the above post, many of the American war novels do, indeed, reflect the cultural climate and morals of an era. Or, they may be a protest against this "spirit of the age." For, instance, Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, a psychological novel, is a work in which Crane breaks from his American Realist contemporaries, instead depicting man Naturalistically as an amoral creature in a deterministic world. In like protest, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 takes less of a fatalist view and more of a satirical lookat the propaganda and conditioned chauvinism of his era, subtlely ridiculing the military bureaucracies involved.
In Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," there is also the satiric slant that the reader observes in Heller's work. In this poem, critics believe that the speaker's awakening to the horror of the State is symbolic of the power of the mechanized State to destroy the life of an individual, by crushing him into passivity.
First suggestion: American literature can reflect the cultural zeitgeist but not serve as it – I’d recommend rephrasing.
In order to select works, you need to focus your thesis somewhat more. Since all literary works reflect the spirit of their age and the concerns of the societies in which they were written, your thesis does not point to any specific principle of selection for works. A narrower thesis would be more useful. So, for example, you might want to argue that novels can be used to understand how the position of women varied depending on class, region, ethnicity, and period, and use Zora Neale Hurston for an early 20th century southern African-American perspective and Alice Walker for a more recent one, Kate Chopin for New Orleans, Willa Cather for the Midwest, and Edith Wharton for the Northeast.
Another possibility would be to look at the changes in US war literature, perhaps starting with Ambrose Bierce and covering Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Randall Jarrell and Normal Mailer.
To say "American literature has always" you need to have read every piece of American literature ever written. You can't make claims about all of American literature unless you have read all of American literature. Thus you need to focus your statement to discuss the limited selection of books you actually have read.
I've taken both of your considerations into account, and I apprecriate your suggestions. It's clear that you really do care helping me as a student to strive above a mediocre paper (I really do mean it!). However, I've decided to focus on countercultural social critique. My (working) thesis statement is: "American literature has always critiqued societal mores and norms, both reflecting and lambasting the concerns, struggles, and triumphs of their respective time periods."
As a 10th grade Honors student, is that sufficient? Could this be bettered? I feel now that the list can be narrowed down (i.e. pick the most obvious works such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatbsy, On the Road).