The 19th century
Early 19th-century literature
After the American Revolution, and increasingly after the War of 1812, American writers were exhorted to produce a literature that was truly native. As if in response, four authors of very respectable stature appeared. William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe initiated a great half century of literary development.Bryant, a New Englander by birth, attracted attention in his 23rd year when the first version of his poem "Thanatopsis" (1817) appeared. This, as well as some later poems, was written under the influence of English 18th-century poets. Still later, however, under the influence of Wordsworth and other Romantics, he wrote nature lyrics that vividly represented the New England scene. Turning to journalism, he had a long career as a fighting liberal editor of The Evening Post. He himself was overshadowed, in renown at least, by a native-born New Yorker, Washington Irving.Irving, youngest member of a prosperous merchant family, joined with ebullient young men of the town in producing the Salmagundi papers (1807-08), which took off the foibles of Manhattan's citizenry. This was followed by A History of New York (1809), by "Diedrich Knickerbocker," a burlesque history that mocked pedantic scholarship and sniped at the old Dutch families. Irving's models in these works were obviously Neoclassical English satirists, from whom he had learned to write in a polished, bright style. Later, having met Sir Walter Scott and having become acquainted with imaginative German literature, he introduced a new Romantic note in The Sketch Book (1819-20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and other works. He was the first American writer to win the ungrudging (if somewhat surprised) respect of British critics.James Fenimore Cooper won even wider fame. Following the pattern of Sir Walter Scott's "Waverley" novels, he did his best work in the "Leatherstocking" tales (1823-41), a five-volume series celebrating the career of a great frontiersman named Natty Bumppo. His skill in weaving history into inventive plots and in characterizing his compatriots brought him acclaim not only in America and England but on the continent of Europe as well.Edgar Allan Poe, reared in the South, lived and worked as an author and editor in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York City. His work was shaped largely by analytical skill that showed clearly in his role as an editor: time after time he gauged the taste of readers so accurately that circulation figures of magazines under his direction soared impressively. It showed itself in his critical essays, wherein he lucidly explained and logically applied his criteria. His gothic tales of terror were written in accordance with his findings when he studied the most popular magazines of the day. His masterpieces of terror--"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), and others--were written according to a carefully worked out psychological method. So were his detective stories, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), which historians credited as the first of the genre. As a poet, he achieved fame with "The Raven" (1845). His work, especially his critical writings and carefully crafted poems, had perhaps a greater influence in France, where they were translated by Charles Baudelaire, than in his own country.Two Southern novelists were also outstanding in the earlier part of the century: John Pendleton Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms. In Swallow Barn (1832), Kennedy wrote delightfully of life on the plantations. Simms's forte was the writing of historical novels like those of Scott and Cooper, which treated the history of the frontier and his native South Carolina. The Yemassee (1835) and Revolutionary romances show him at his best.
The 20th century
Writing from 1914 to 1945
Important movements in drama, poetry, fiction, and criticism took form in the years before, during, and after World War I. The eventful period that followed the war left its imprint upon books of all kinds. Literary forms of the period were extraordinarily varied, and in drama, poetry, and fiction leading authors tended toward radical technical experiments.Experiments in dramaAlthough drama had not been a major art form in the 19th century, no type of writing was more experimental than a new drama that arose in rebellion against the glib commercial stage. In the early years of the 20th century, Americans traveling in Europe encountered a vital, flourishing theatre; returning home, some of them became active in founding the Little Theatre movement throughout the country. Freed from commercial limitations, playwrights experimented with dramatic forms and methods of production, and in time producers, actors, and dramatists appeared who had been trained in college classrooms and community playhouses. Some Little Theatre groups became commercial producers--for example, the Washington Square Players, founded in 1915, which became the Theatre Guild (first production in 1919). The resulting drama was marked by a spirit of innovation and by a new seriousness and maturity.Eugene O'Neill, the most admired dramatist of the period, was a product of this movement. He worked with the Provincetown Players before his plays were commercially produced. His dramas were remarkable for their range. Beyond the Horizon (first performed 1920), Anna Christie (1921), Desire Under the Elms (1924), and The Iceman Cometh (1946) were naturalistic works, while The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922) made use of the Expressionistic techniques developed in German drama in the period 1914-24. He also employed a stream-of-consciousness form in Strange Interlude (1928) and produced a work that combined myth, family drama, and psychological analysis in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).No other dramatist was as generally praised as O'Neill, but many others wrote plays that reflected the growth of a serious and varied drama, including Maxwell Anderson, whose verse dramas have dated badly, and Robert E. Sherwood, a Broadway professional who wrote both comedy (Reunion in Vienna ) and tragedy (There Shall Be No Night ). Marc Connelly wrote touching fantasy in a Negro folk biblical play, The Green Pastures (1930). Like O'Neill, Elmer Rice made use of both Expressionistic techniques (The Adding Machine ) and naturalism (Street Scene ). Lillian Hellman wrote powerful, well-crafted melodramas in The Children's Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939). Radical theatre experiments included Marc Blitzstein's savagely satiric musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and the work of Orson Welles and John Houseman for the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theatre Project. The premier radical theatre of the decade was the Group Theatre (1931-41) under Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, which became best known for presenting the work of Clifford Odets. In Waiting for Lefty (1935), a stirring plea for labour unionism, Odets roused the audience to an intense pitch of fervour, and in Awake and Sing (1935), perhaps the best play of the decade, he created a lyrical work of family conflict and youthful yearning. Other important plays by Odets for the Group Theatre were Paradise Lost (1935), Golden Boy (1937), and Rocket to the Moon (1938). Thornton Wilder used stylized settings and poetic dialogue in Our Town (1938) and turned to fantasy in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). William Saroyan shifted his lighthearted, anarchic vision from fiction to drama with My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life (both 1939).
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Samuel Clemens was born in Missouri in 1835. He grew up in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, which would become the model for St. Petersburg, the fictional town where Huckleberry Finn begins. Missouri was a "slave state" during this period, and Clemens' family owned a few slaves. In Missouri, most slaves worked as domestic servants, rather than on the large agricultural plantations that most slaves elsewhere in the United States experienced. This domestic slavery is what Twain generally describes in Huckleberry Finn, even when the action occurs in the deep South. The institution of slavery figures prominently in the novel and is important in developing both the theme and the two most important characters, Huck and Jim.
Twain received a brief formal education, before going to work as an apprentice in a print shop. He would later find work on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. Twain developed a lasting afiection for the Mississippi and life on a steamboat, and would immortalize both in Life on the Mississippi (1883), and in certain scenes of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Huckleberry Finn (1885). He took his pseudonym, "Mark Twain," from the call a steamboat worker would make when the ship reached a (safe) depth of two fathoms. Twain would go on to work as a journalist in San Francisco and Nevada in the 1860s. He soon discovered his talent as a humorist, and by 1865 his humorous stories were attracting national attention.
In 1870, Twain married Olivia