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American Literature

Study the field of American literature, which is the body of written works produced in the United States, including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, biographies/autobiographies, works of history, essays, and literary criticism.

Some of the earliest works of American literature go back to the seventeenth century, when America still consisted of colonies of British subjects. The prominent writing from this period and into the eighteenth century was primarily nonfiction due to a general societal prejudice against fiction, with a focus on religion, history, biographies, and philosophy. As the colonists moved toward independence from Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century, political writing became prominent—particularly the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.

Following independence, American political writing addressed the country’s future, while the prominent works of poetry and fiction either came from Britain or were modeled on British literature. This trend began to change in the first decades of the nineteenth century as American writers sought to create a uniquely American literature. Writers such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper wrote stories that depicted American society and its landscape.

Between 1830 and 1870 writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman typified what became known as the Romantic Period, in which writings tended to value the individual above the group, the subjective over the objective, emotion over reason, and nature over man-made order. During this same time period, both free and enslaved African Americans (e.g., William Wells Brown) published fiction and slave narratives.

The national suffering that resulted from the Civil War (1861–1865) also shaped the literature of the period immediately following, as the twin trends of realism and naturalism presented a realistic view of the world—often with a focus on the urban middle and working classes—between 1870 and 1910. Celebrated writers of this style of literature include Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Writers of the Modernist Period (1910–1945) were influenced by the upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century, which was marked by two world wars and a global economic depression counter-balanced by sweeping progress ushered in by advances in science and technology. Writers responded to these contradictory impulses by creating works that were a complete break from past and marked by a profound sense of loss and disillusionment. Prominent writers from this period include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, and John Steinbeck. This was also a period of the ascendance of American drama, with Eugene O’Neill being the most prominent figure. This period also witnessed a wealth of African American literature from the cultural movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, including the works of Langston Hughes. African American writing in the post-war period focused on racism and the need for social change, as embodied in the writings of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Overall, the era of American literature after World War II is marked by amazing diversity in form and style. While some literary movements, such as the Beat movement of the 1950s (represented foremost by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s (embodied in the work of Amiri Baraka) can be identified, there is little else that binds American writers together beyond their geographic and chronological proximity. Prominent contemporary writers include the novelists Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth; the poets Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Rita Dove; and the playwrights David Mamet and August Wilson.

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American Literature Resources

Gale provides scholarly resources, including American literature databasesprimary source archives, and eBooks.


Gale databases offer researchers or teachers access to credible, up-to-date publications for research or teaching.

Primary Source Archives

Gale Primary Sources offers American literature collections that include journal articles and additional manuscripts and periodicals that provide researchers with firsthand material.

Gale eBooks

Gale offers a variety of full text American literature resources covering a wide range of topics, including African authors, linguistics, and more. Users can add Gale eBooks to a customized collection and cross-search to pinpoint relevant material. Workflow tools help users easily share, save, and download content. 

  • American Poets and Poetry: From the Colonial Era to the Present, 1st Edition

    American Poets and Poetry: From the Colonial Era to the Present, 1st Edition

    Greenwood Publishing Group  |  2015 |  ISBN-13: 9781610698320

    Written for high school and undergraduate students, this two-volume encyclopedia covers U.S. poetry from the Colonial era to the present, offering full treatments of hundreds of key poets of the American canon. What sets this reference apart is that it also discusses events, movements, schools, and poetic approaches, placing poets in their social, historical, political, cultural, and critical contexts and showing how their works mirror the eras in which they were written. Readers will learn about surrealism, ekphrastic poetry, pastoral elegy, the Black Mountain poets, and "language" poetry. There are long entries on modernism and postmodernism, as well as entries related to formal and technical dimensions of American poetry. Particular attention is paid to women poets and poets from various ethnic groups. Poets such as Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, Natasha Trethewey, and Tracy Smith are featured. The encyclopedia also contains entries on a wide selection of Latino and Native American poets and substantial coverage of the avant-garde and experimental movements. Throughout the volumes, sidebars illuminate key points, while photos and illustrations help students visualize important poets and topics.

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  • American Writers: Supplement XXIX, 29th Edition

    American Writers: Supplement XXIX, 29th Edition

    Charles Scribner's Sons  |  2018 |  ISBN-13: 9780684325606

    This collection of critical and biographical articles covers hundreds of notable authors from the 17th century to the present day. Signed essays, 12-15 pages in length by noted scholars, provide thought-provoking insights into the lives, careers and works of American writers. Each Supplement covers approximately 18 additional authors and includes a cumulative index.

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  • Critical Insights: Censored/Banned Literature, 1st Edition

    Critical Insights: Censored/Banned Literature, 1st Edition

    Salem Press  |  2019 |  ISBN-13: 9781642650297

    This title examines the wide range of important literary texts that have been subjected to censorship, either at the time they were first published, later in their history, or both. Because important works frequently offer challenging responses to social, historical, and political issues, often it is the very best works that provoke - at least initially - the most hostility or discomfort. This volume includes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1884), The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951), and Beloved, by Toni Morrison (1987).

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  • Linguistic Identity Matching, 1st Edition

    Linguistic Identity Matching, 1st Edition

    Springer  |  2013 |  ISBN-13: 9783834820952

    Regulation, risk awareness, and technological advances are increasingly drawing identity search functionality into business, security, and data management processes, as well as fraud investigations and counter-terrorist measures. Over the years, a number of techniques have been developed for searching identity data, traditionally focusing on logical algorithms. These techniques often failed to take into account the complexities of language and culture that provide the rich variations seen in names used around the world. A new paradigm has now emerged for understanding the way that identity data should be searched. This new approach focuses on understanding the influences that languages, writing systems, and cultural conventions have on proper names. A must-read for anyone involved in the purchase, design, or use of identity matching systems, this book describes how linguistic knowledge can be used to create a more reliable and precise identity search, and looks at the practical benefits that can be achieved by implementing third-generation linguistic search technology.

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  • Lucent Library of Black History: African American Literature: Sharing Powerful Stories, 1st Edition

    Lucent Library of Black History: African American Literature: Sharing Powerful Stories, 1st Edition

    Lucent Press (Rosen)  |  2018 |  ISBN-13: 9781534560789

    In this book, readers discover the challenges African authors have faced in American history having their work published and being taken seriously by critics and readers alike. Engaging sidebars and detailed photographs augment the main content of this comprehensive overview of the racism that still persists in the publishing industry.

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