Characteristics Of American Literature

What are the characteristics of American Literature?

Characteristics of American literature include an emphasis on pitting the American ideals of forward-looking pragmatism and energy against what it often depicts as the effete traditionalism of Europe, as well as an emphasis on exploring the American Dream. While trying to develop a distinct voice, American writers also very much leaned into European traditions.

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Early on, especially after the United States broke away from England, it began to self-consciously develop a literature different from the European, one that emphasized American distinctives and began to build an American cultural mythology. This can be seen in such early American writers as Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They pitted the robust, forward-looking pragmatism of the new country against what they depicted as the effete, backward-looking, and restrictive traditionalism and superstition of Europe. This is illustrated, for example, in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in such characters as Brom Bones, the pragamtic, red-blooded American trickster who bests the effete, educated, and superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. This strain runs, too, through Emerson's essays, such as "Self Reliance," and can be seen in the marked preference Mark Twain shows for his high energy pragmatist protagonist Tom Sawyer over the obedient and studious Sid in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Another strain associated with American literature is the pursuit of the American Dream. This literature emphasizes the importance of the dream of abundance and equal opportunity as a motivator in American life. The dream is often critiqued. Early on James Fenimore Cooper, for instance, decried the damage the robust pursuit of wealth by settlers was doing to the environment so carefully managed by the Native Americans. This critique became louder in the 20th century, as writers such as Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby and Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men placed the reality of American society's failure to provide opportunities against the promises held out by the dream.

Much more could be said, but these are two important strands in American literature that make it different from the European. It should be noted, too, that while developing a distinctive voice, American writers also very much looked to and borrowed from European traditions.

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According to the famous playwright Arthur Miller:

The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out. Whoever is writing in the United States is using the American Dream as an ironical pole of his story. People elsewhere tend to accept, to a far greater degree anyway, that the conditions of life are hostile to man's pretensions. 

Miller's best-known play, Death of a Salesman, is a good example of what he means. Willy Loman has been guided all his life by the American Dream that everyone can be happy and successful in America, "the greatest land in the world."

It is hard to cover all of American writing in a single formula, but Arthur Miller's assessment is succinct and thought-provoking. The American Dream can be sensed as a background or screen in the works of many famous American authors, some of whom have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Beautiful and Damned can all be seen as using the American Dream as "an ironical pole." The same us true of John Steinbeck's works such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Then there is Theodore Dreiser's masterpiece An American Tragedy in which Clyde Griffith's American Dream leads him to commit murder and die in the electric chair. William Faulkner's novels are often about how "the conditions of life are hostile to man's pretensions." So are the novels of Sinclair Lewis, as well as the plays of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and William Inge.

Miller's statement calls the American Dream "largely unacknowledged." In other words, it is implicit rather than explicit. According to Miller, this is the distinguishing characteristic of American literature. Our heroes and heroines are disenchanted because they expected too much. This seems to be true of J. D. Salinger's fantastically popular novel The Catcher in the Rye.

Arthur Miller's assessment may not be applicable to American literature across the board, but it conveys an amazing number of insights in very few words. It not only offers a simple definition of American literature but differentiates it from that of all the other nations of the world.

The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out. Whoever is writing in the United States is using the American Dream as an ironical pole of his story. People elsewhere tend to accept, to a far greater degree anyway, that the conditions of life are hostile to man's pretensions. 

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This question is quite broad.  The characteristics of American Literature tend to follow movements in American History.

A few broad details of American Literature movements are that they often followed characteristic English Literary movements, but tended to be a few years behind (ie: Romanticism).  Additionally, American Literature often reflects American ideals and themes: from the escape from English rule and religious oppression, to becoming our own nation and people, our literature reflects the early religious questions (Who is God and what does He want?  How can I find knowledge without the church?  Where is the balance of religion and nature and the human experience?), the exploration of new frontiers, slavery and then freedom writings, and equality and individuality writing (which includes the voice of many minorities, not just women and Black Americans).

To see a complete list of the different periods in American Literature and the characteristics which defined them, I encourage you to check out the link below.

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