How do American literature and the American character intersect?

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If one traces back American literature to its beginning stages with authors like Anne Bradstreet and Washington Irving and follows it through to our postmodern time period, one theme emerges--the American Dream.  That theme is obviously connected to the "American character"--or what it means to be an American.  While the view of the dream and, thus, the character has changed immensely over time, American authors' connection to the theme has not.  One example of this connection includes the time period of American Romanticism.  During this era (1800-1850), most authors portrayed Americans as eternally optimistic, rugged individualists, pioneers, and fiercely independent.  Only America could fulfill the sense of adventure and the search for an Eden (an escape from the hardships of Europe and beyond).   Fast forward to the Modern literary era (1900-1950), and the American character and view of the dream have changed dramatically.  Authors during this time period were experiencing two world wars, the Great Depression, and a rapidly expanding country.  Their heroes were thoroughly disillusioned with the dream, and authors such as Steinbeck, Hughes, and others portrayed the struggle that most Americans faced as they chased the dream or attempted to live up to the ideal American character.  One common element, though, in all the eras is the fighting American spirit that most authors portrayed and still portray.  Most American characters, despite what they endure, survive.