American Literary History 1

Klausurvorbereitung in Stichpunkten

Exam Revision, 2013

11 Pages


American Literary History I

Major turning points in US- American History

- 1607 Jamestown established
- when British came to North America to find gold & to discover the 2nd paradise, many different Native American people were already living there
- not only English people there, also Dutch Swedes, Spanish
- 1620: Pilgrims arrive in New England on Mayflower → COLONIAL PERIOD
- Puritans arrived some years later to spread religious and worldly ideas
→ left a great literary legacy (had a fine education system) → produced sermons, diaries

Colonial period 1607-1760s

- by 1700 laws that made slavery racial (whites not allowed to be enslaved)
- European settlements moved further to west
- in North America basically British, Spanish people

Colonial Literature

- integrated into English literary system
- content begins to reflect the move towards independence
- forms: old established literary forms like sonnets, wrote about landscape

John Smith “The General History of Virginia” (1624)

- encounter with an unfamiliar landscape, unfamiliar people
- Natives were not a united group, English were relatively few in number
- autobiography (talks about himself in 3rd person)
- geographical reference (Jamestown)
- establishing myth of Pocahontas (daughter of powerful Nat. Am king)
- was imprisoned by Powhatan (Native American king)
- thought he will be killed → but often said to have been an adoption ceremony rather than an attempt to kill him
- writes about Pocahontas saving his life and falling in love with her (but not liable)
- Pocahontas definitely married a settler → tour to England to convince more people to move to America → was a sensation in England, was received by king → died before travelling back to America
- dramatization → may have felt intimidated
- demonization → fear of foreigners
- Natives are presented like stereotypes
- 3rd person narrative but nevertheless personal opinions, judgements
- Pocahontas sacrifices herself for white man → whites are superior → glorification of colonial policy, success of colonial policy
- text as means of propaganda: marriage with native woman to get territory of Natives
- happy ending, but weak woman dies → symbol for downfall of Natives

Mary Rowlandson “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration” (1682)

- captivity narrative (having been kept by natives and then released → writing about experiences)
- was caught by Nat. Am. For 12 weeks (part of her family was killed)
- wrote a very detailed account of her time in captivity (structured in geographically)
- she returned to Puritan community (but many others who were caught decided not to return and stayed with Natives)
- negative description of the Natives (barbarian)
→Natives are brutal, shoot with weapons of British people → but description from only one perspective → doesn't describe how British people fight back
- her victim role (which was created by herself) justifies how Natives were treated
- calls Natives master&mistress → justification for slavery
- positive picture of Puritans
- tells that God saved her, compares herself with biblical figures
- sticks to her religion although she could have stayed there → people at home should be proud of her
- strength of woman → emphasizes pride of whites
- motive: revenge → political propaganda
- story was addressed primarily to Puritans (God saved her, proof of her faith) but also 2nd audience in England
- religious form allowed her to publish the narrative even though she is woman

Revolutionary Period (1760s-80s)

- 1776 Declaration of Independence
- 1789 Constitution
- authors often politicians, wrote autobiographies

18th century American Literature

- influence of enlightenment and natural rights philosophy → people have certain rights because they were born
- belief in power of reason, perfectibility of mankind
- high literacy rates to be able to read Bible
- Benjamin Franklin: paper money, argued that colonies needed own money, essays how to become wealthy, became rich through writing, set down principles he followed every day, structured his day precisely
- Thomas Paine: propagated advantages of Independence
- Thomas Jefferson: one writer of Declaration of Independence, supported enlightenment, sets up constitution of US, state and church should be separate, liberation of slaves

Literature of the Early Republic (1790s-1820s) / Early American Drama

- overall theme: question of national identity, defining an American national identity
- entertainment (different from European theatre)
- rich people sat in special places/balconies → social segregation
- pamphlets how to behave in theatre itself
- author totally insignificant, actors were important
- no ideas of originality
- parts of Shakespeare plays were performed
- melodrama (play with music)
→ dominant dramatic form of 19th century, stock characters, developed in Europe, moral contrast between good and bad, happy ending, technical sophistication (real fire, real water falls)
- 19th century: Indian plays popular e.g. James Nelson Barker
- time around Am.Rev. Natives lost a lot of land → sold to European settlers
- Natives pushed westwards
- European Am. Sometimes presented themselves as Native Am. To distinguish themselves from English, claim certain identity

Transcendentalism 1830s-150s

- link to American drama: search for American identity
- term based on Kant
- relation to British Romanticism
- strongly opposed to increasing materialism of their time
- against rationalism
- rationality is limited → more spiritual understanding of the world
- importance of individualism
- critique on contemporary society
- attraction of alternative life-styles
- texts: speeches, essays, sermons, diaries, lectures → non-fictional texts
- characteristic: openness of texts, hybrid texts, between theology, philosophy and poetry, pragmatism
- oversoul → self → nature → oversoul...
- nature: central sphere of influence where knowledge-formation takes place → new form of religiosity
- e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller

Henry David Thoreau “Resistance to Civil Government”

- essay
- experience of spending a night in jail → refused to pay taxes
- everybody should follow his/her conscience, even though it is in conflict with law
- dreams of Middle Ages in prison (time that America never had) → Europoean ideals
- heroic character
- anti-materialistic view
- everyone has the right to express his opinion and participate in a revolution
- compares government with with a machine that should be stopped when it doesn't work properly anymore
- everyone should stand up for justice
- many people are against slavery and Mexican war, but do not get active
- majority should not decide upon everything (voting in not enough)
- prison: right place bc. One is locked out of the state
- democracy is not the best form of government
- “I quietly declare war with the state!”

Early American Short Story

- no American invention
- Edgar Allan Poe tried to define the genre
- publication in journals: writing became job (Washington Irving)

Edgar Allan Poe

- theory about short stories
- poetry and short story: aesthetic, emotional, not about truth/facts
- repetitions/variation of application
- to achieve unity of a text, it should be possible to read it in one session
- should be characterized by economy (every word, sentence has a function)
- climatic conclusion at the end
- totality or unity of effect → all parts of text contribute to unity
- air of consequence or causation
- composition comparable to a mathematical problem
- beauty, the elevation of the soul is the province of poetry
- melancholy is the most legitimate poetical tone
- most pertinent object of contemplation: death of a beautiful woman


Excerpt out of 11 pages


American Literary History 1
Klausurvorbereitung in Stichpunkten
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik & Amerikanistik)
American Literary History
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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512 KB
colonial period, turning point, john smith, mary rowlandson, revolutionary period, early republic, transcendentalism, poe, the fall of the house of usher, american renaissance, beecher stowe, uncle tom's cabin, slave narratives, harriet jacobs, emily dickinson, herman melville, civil war, realism, henry james, naturalism, sister carrie, gilman, the yellow wallpaper, w.e.b. du bois
Quote paper
Lea Lorena Jerns (Author), 2013, American Literary History 1, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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