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Why do we study American literature?

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We study American literature to develop a more thorough understanding of the totality of the American experience, which spans centuries and widely different populations. By reading a wide variety of authors from various eras, readers can more fully understand how Americans have changed over time and how they are all connected to each other.

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Some schools throughout the United States teach American literature alongside American history, and I think the pairing is brilliant as an instructional tool. Indeed, works of literature from any particular era often reflect the social constructs, challenges, and victories which the authors have personally experienced.

John Smith, who was an explorer and a president of the Jamestown colony, is considered one of the first American writers. His first work of Virginian history was published in 1608, meaning that American literature now encompasses hundreds of years. By studying American literature, our modern society can more fully understand the struggles and victories of various populations of Americans during the last five centuries.

It's one thing to read a detached and factual account of historical events. It's quite another to read the firsthand account of Frederick Douglass's escape from slavery or to experience the tragic existence of migrant workers such as George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. When we read literature, we connect with the characters and with their conflicts. This helps us relate to the conflicts of any particular era in a way that is more meaningful and relevant. American literature helps readers to understand the ways Americans have changed over time and the ways that all Americans, regardless of time or place, are the same.

American literature allows readers to become more intimately aware of the totality of the American experience. Reading from a variety of authors and eras helps to develop a more complete portrait of American history, with all of its shortcomings and glories.

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Why study American literature? The question is not about literature but rather about the American aspect.  Studying American literature encompasses understanding society.  From this study, society can only improve by analyzing the writing in any culture.   American literature has produced some of the most significant prose and poetry the world has seen. By analyzing the technical aspects of famous American poetry, essays, short stories, dramas, and novels, the reader can learn how to improve the future of American literature.  

American literature begins with British literature.  The Puritans who came in 1607 to settle in the unknown and frightening new land brought with them hundreds of years of English literature.  The writers who figuratively came with them included Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Pope and many others.  American literature began then as an extension of English literature. 

When American literature began, the earliest colonial writers were educated in England. What changed the early American literature from the English was the influence of the type of life that colonists faced. The early writers William Bradford to Anne Bradstreet wrote with conviction about their spirituality, puritanical lives, and the hardships they faced  for which they were unprepared.

In his last years, Bradford liked to read the Old Testament in Hebrew because he wanted to see “the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty.” He remained the simple man revealed in his writings. At his death, his holdings were modest: a house, an orchard and several pieces of land

The periods of American literature and an exemplary writer illustrate the history of the United States:

Colonial Period-Anne Bradstreet

Revolutionary Period-Benjamin Franklin

Early National Period-Edgar Allan Poe

Romantic Period-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Realistic Period-Mark Twain

Modern Period-Ernest Hemingway

Contemporary Period-John Updike

Reasons to study American Literature

1. American literature contains the most available knowledge about its people.  The belief, perceptions, philosophies—these are subtly placed in the literature.
2. To learn the irony, ambiguity, and nuances that American literature holds-- It enables readers to understand the mysteries of the writing and the writers.
3. Exploration of the culture comes from looking closely at the religious and historical literature.
4. Appreciation of the diversity of individuals is represented in the fiction and poetry of American literature.
5. To learn to question what is written and not just accept the opinion of a writer encourages free thinking.

In general, the study of any literature enhances the vocabulary and understanding of the language of that country.  The history of the country becomes clear. Literature cultivates wisdom and creative thought.  Any person who reads great literature learns about himself.  Finally, the literature of America is certainly entertaining.

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We study American literature to be aware of the nation’s cultural identity.  Naturally, the culture has shifted and evolved over the decades, but America’s legacy is preserved in literature.  When examining literature from the 1920’s, the culture of the “jazz age” is quite dissimilar from our own; in fact 1920’s slang is all but eradicated.  While history books provide facts about America’s  development, American literature (including essays, novels, poetry, etc.) gives a personal perspective to those facts.  The institution of slavery, for example, may be taught about, but without reading slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass’s, the full impact of our nation’s history may not be absorbed. 

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American literature reflects the hopes and dreams of the American people, from our beginnings as colonies to our present.  To learn about a people, reading literature provides great insight, into a national character, culture, history, and vision.  From our earliest days, we are steeped in the tension between freedom and religion, between rugged individualism and community, between the power of the state and local control, between the inevitability of class and the struggle against it, and the tension amongst the various cultures, religions, and ethnicities that make up America.  America is one of the greatest social experiments ever to happen, and its literature records its trials, tribulations, and triumphs.   From Jonathan Edwards to Jonathan Franzell, from Alexis de Toqueville to John Dewey, from Mark Twain to Toni Morrison, American literature gives us the ability to learn about a remarkable story.

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