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The chronology of American Literature is a record of America’s literary achievements from the beginning of European exploration and settlement through the end of the twentieth century. It describes more than eighty-four hundred works by some five thousand writers, in abroad survey of American writing wide enough to include authors and works that contemporaries have esteemed as well as those that later literary opinion has rescued from obscurity. Works popular in their day, which may have disappeared from modern view or been relegated to the cabinet of historical curiosities, are noted, as well as important rediscovered figures who were unread or undervalued by their contemporaries, such as Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. Our goal is to include a wide range of works providing the fullest sense of America’s rich and complex literary history—not just the standard canon of “serious” literature but also key popular or representative minor works as well. Their inclusion helps define each era’s culture and sets the literary context from which major works emerged.
Proceeding year by year (rather than by author, era, region, or theme—the more traditional formats for examining the literary record), this book allows the entire sequence of America’s literary history to become clear. A chronology enhances the reader’s ability to evaluate American literary achievement comparatively. By examining American literature as it unfolded over time, the reader can correlate literary expression with historical and social developments that affected literature—war and peace, boom and bust, social change and reaction to change. Unlike a focus on the “great authors” (which, like the “great man” theory of history, elevates some and diminishes others, resulting in a loss of context), a wide-angle perspective offers a greater sampling of significant documents and, we hope, promotes a better grasp of the myriad forces that have helped shape the literary culture of America.
The Chronology is divided into five sections, corresponding to major stages in American literary history. Each work is briefly described to indicate what it is about and why it is included. Key birth and death dates and literary prizes are listed in sidebars, along with annual bestseller lists beginning in 1895. The result is intended as a convenient and useful single- volume guide to American literature, helpful to the student and researcher, stimulating for the general reader, and entertaining for the browser.
Section I covers the colonial and Revolutionary periods up to George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States in 1789. Within each year, entries in this section are arranged by six category headings: Diaries, Journals, and Letters; Essays and Philosophy; Nonfiction; Poetry, Fiction, and Drama; Publications and Events; and Sermons and Religious Writing. The American literature of this period begins with letters home—the attempt by early explorers and settlers to make sense of a new continent and its challenge to conventional European ways of thinking. The impact of the American landscape on the European sensibility established a difficult though fruitful tension in the development of indigenous American literature. This combination of immigrant cultural influences and a landscape that fostered a sense of starting afresh—a New World defined not by the past but by future possibilities—makes America and its literature a unique hybrid. Various transplanted cultural traditions have over time contributed to this distinctive amalgam, shaped also by the environment, history, and individual genius.
Most early American literature was written by the Puritan settlers of New England, who came to America to create a new social order that centered on expressing and practicing their religious beliefs. This section of the Chronology includes many significant firsts derived from their religious practices, such as the first book published in America (The Bay Psalm Book, 1640), the first book of poetry by a colonist (Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, 1650), the first American bestseller (Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom, 1662), and the first complete Bible printed in America (John Eliot’s Indian-language translation, 1663). Among the key initial literary figures were clergymen such as John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Increase and Cotton Mather. The most noteworthy nonreligious writings in seventeenth-century America were the records of the New England colonists: William Bradford’s History of Plimmoth Plantation (completed in 1651) and John Winthrop’s Journal (published as The History of New England in 18251826). The writing was overwhelminglly utilitarian and religious in nature, suggesting that the initial literary response to America was determined by issues of physicccccal and spiritual survival. One intriguing question to ponder in reviewing the Puritan literary record is how such an orthodox community, a theocracy that showed little tolerance for dissent, could unite with other regions marked by differing beliefs and together evolve into a democratic nation and one of the most open societies in history.
In the literary record of eighteenth-century America, we see the gradual emergence of a secular society and a shift of emphasis from religious to political themes. Perhaps no figure more typifies this transition than Benjamin Franklin. Born in Puritan Boston, influenced by the moral writings of Cotton Mather, Franklin made his way to the Quaker city of Philadelphia. There the Quakers’ tradition of tolerance and esteem of the individual’s conscience produced the ideal intellectual climate for Franklin’s remarkable career as printer, inventor, scientist, and writer. Franklin, like others in his generation, Americanized European Enlightenment thinking, translating issues of personal liberty and equality into a philosophy and political stance that eventually justified breaking with the British crown.
The magazines and newspapers that Franklin and others created helped shape a consensus of opinion in favor of colonial unity and revolt. Two writers in particular —Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson—were decisive in the seismic shift from colony to nationhood. Paine’s Common Sense (1776) forcefully made the case for independence, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence synthesized Paine’s central ideas into one of the most important political documents ever created (certainly the most eloquent document that ever came out of a committee). During the Revolutionary period, writers such as Francis Hopkinson, John Trumbull, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Philip Freneau, and Mercy Otis Warren supported the patriot cause with some of the earliest examples of American nonreligious poetry and drama. The descendants of the early colonists— Europeans in America— had evolved toward a new identity as Americans, and American writing played a key role in making both the nation and its identity a reality.
Section II spans the first seventy years of the national history of the United States. Entries here and through the remainder of the Chronology are categorized under the headings Drama and Theater, Fiction, Literary Criticism and Scholarship, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Publications and Events. As America expanded beyond the eastern seaboard of the original colonies and struggled evermore intently over the question of slavery, a national literature gradually emerged. Its earliest attempts were primitive and imitative. At first American writers were still clearly dependent on English and European literary ideas and practices. The plays of the period were adaptations of European models; the poetry echoed the concerns and styles of the English neoclassical and Romantic writers, while America’s first novels reworked English picaresque, sentimental, and gothic sources. There is little in the literary record between 1790 and 1820 that stands out today as more than second rate and inferior attempts to replicate European culture in America.
Washington Irving was the first American writer to achieve an international reputation, the first to gain widespread European respect and consequently validation in America. For the first time, an American writer proved that he could be favorably compared to the best European writers. By doing so, Irving helped establish a market for American writing at home and abroad while demonstrating that important subjects and themes could be mined from America’s history and landscape. James Fenimore Cooper likewise achieved international distinction by following Irving’s lead and adapting Walter Scott’s brand of historical novel to an American setting. Cooper, particularly in his Leatherstocking Tales, helped define enduring American myths by delving into the poetic possibilities of the American wilderness, the prototypical American in the frontiersman, and the tragic fate of the American Indian. Cooper also identified a primary and persistent American theme in the tension between the individual and society, between personal freedom and the restraints of civilization. In Cooper’s vision, America was the last Eden, steadily being destroyed by progress, expansion, and settlement. This contrast between an ideal America, full of promise and transcendent possibility, and its reality—between America’s reach and its grasp—has been a persistent theme in American writing ever since.
If Irving and Cooper helped establish a market for American writing and its core subjects and themes, the catalyst for the first great fulfillment of American literary promise was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Secularizing Puritan idealism, modifying and applying European Romanticism to American imperatives, Emerson and the New England intellectuals who came to be known as the Transcendentalists lit the fuse for an explosion of creative energy that produced in the 1850s one of the greatest literary decades in U.S. history. Emerson viewed the writer as the literary equivalent of the American frontiersman and pioneer, who abandoned convention and tradition for a direct and original apprehension of a new world. Urging American writers and intellectuals to break with the past and with imitation in favor of what was uniquely American, Emerson wrote in The Poet (1842): “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.” Emerson’s prophecy was answered in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s turning the romance and prose tale into original meditations on the psychology of sin and guilt derived from America’s Puritan past; in Herman Melville’s radically experimental novel Moby-Dick, which converted a whaling adventure into a darkly existential tragedy; in Henry David Thoreau’s iconoclastic moral explorations stimulated by the American landscape and social and political scene; in Walt Whitman’s grandiloquent attempt to write the first truly American epic poem memorializing every aspect of native experience. By 1860 American writers had begun to make a unique national literary culture independent of European models. Its further development depended on interpreting the impact of the first great tragedy in American history—the Civil War.
Section III covers the Civil War and its aftermath up to the beginning of World War I, a remarkable period of accelerating technological, economic, and social change, which transformed the nation from a predominantly rural, agrarian, and isolated society into an urbanized, industrialized world power. The war that triggered that transformation is the most written-about event in American history. In many ways the first modern war and a defining test of American democracy, the Civil War continues to exert its hold on the American psyche, a watershed between contrasting eras. American writers began to record the changes wrought by the war by documenting America’s regional characteristics. For the first time substantial literary contributions were made by writers west of the established cultural centers along America’s east coast.
If the prewar American Romantic writers began to delineate the American soul and conscience, the postwar regionalists recorded the nation’s outward appearances while developing a realistic aesthetic to complement an inwardly directed literary imagination. The key figures in the development of American realism were Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James, as well as writers influenced by naturalism: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser. Together the realistic writers of the period helped direct American writing toward a truthful, non-idealized depiction of American life, using it as an instrument to expose the dislocations and inequities caused by rapid technological and social change and the evolving conceptions of American identity and destiny as it entered the twentieth century.
Section IV deals with the two world wars of the twentieth century and the dynamic period in between. America’s entry into the Great War in 1917 marked a symbolic passage from innocence to experience and another symbolic divide between eras. The war forced a radical reassessment of virtually every measure—political, social, religious, and artistic—formerly used to order and comprehend the human situation. Out of this breakdown of absolutes and crisis of belief emerged American literature’s second great explosion of creativity during the 1920s, ignited by such writers as Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Faulkner. For the first time, American writers played a significant role in the direction of world literature. In poetry, Eliot’s The Waste Land defined the modern poetic epic; in fiction Hemingway evolved a prose style and stance that was imitated worldwide. Faulkner produced the first great American modernist works, rivaling the achievements of the European modernist masters such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann; in drama America gained its greatest playwright in Eugene O’Neill, who played a significant role in reshaping modern drama.
Like the Great War, the Great Depression forced a similar radical reassessment of the role of the artist in American society and the response of writers to its social challenge. World War II added to the horrors of the Great War, with genocide taking place on an unprecedented scale and the ultimate extension of modern technology in the atomic bomb. American isolation from global issues ended, and the nation entered one of the most contradictory periods in its history.
Section V reviews the last five decades of the twentieth century, the period of America’s preeminence as a global superpower and one of the most disruptive and dynamic eras in American history, particularly during the tumultuous 1960s.Americanwriters of the period reflected on the escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, which included the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Writers also helped provoke and then record racial, gender, and sexual liberations, which shifted what was formerly on the margins of American norms to its center. Writers of color, women, homosexuals and lesbians, along with writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds, altered accepted standards of American identity and experience. The Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang, commenting on recent trends in drama, has observed that “American theater is beginning to discover Americans. Black theater, women’s theater, gay theater, Asian American theater, Hispanic theater.” His observation could be equally applied to American poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in the last half of the twentieth century. Pluralism and diversity dominated literary expression in the decades leading up to the new millennium.
If American literature began with the discovery of America, it has been sustained by its continuing discovery of Americans. If consensus is lacking about what precisely America has become and where it is headed, American perspectives on those questions have never been as wide-ranging or as challenging as they are today.
Copyright 2004 by the New England Publishing Associates and Daniel S. Burt. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.