Since literature is the human experience, American literature is the experience of Americans. Therefore, this recording of American's history and cultural practices is a reflection of the times in which the works of poetry or fiction are written. For instance, Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac was both a recording and an influence upon what it meant to be an American as many followed his aphorisms.
One of the most influential writers in the burgeoning of the American novel is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Haunted by the Puritan culture of his ancestors, Hawthorne wrote of the hypocrisy of sanctimonious Puritans, employing symbolism to a great extent. As a Dark Romantic, Hawthorne perceived the inherent evil in man and motivations that sprang from this darkness. Another Romantic author, James Fenimore Cooper created an American hero who is a triumph of American innocence in contrast to the rational hero of Franklin. He is youthful, possesses a sense of honor, has intuitive understanding, and loves nature while searching for a higher truth in the natural world.
American novelists looked to wesward expansion and the development of the frontier for inspiration, creating subject matter that broke with European tradition.
This American hero, however, is in great contrast to characters in modern American literature, such as those of Ernest Hemingway, who are disillusioned after a world war. For, they feel that little matters and there is no higher truth.
So, then, what elements are necessary to create an effective work of American literature? If, indeed, this question can be answered at all, the response would include these features:
- A work of American fiction must be a recording of American truths and experiences and philosophies.
- These truths and experiences can be expressed within the literary period and reflect the characteristics of this period, one which makes use of symbolism, Gothic conventions, stream of consciousness, magical realism, satire, etc.
- Thus, an effective work of American literature is creative while reflecting the American thought and behavior and myths of a period of American history and its varied people.