American Literary Movements Timeline | Eastern Oregon University (2023)

7 Min Read

The United States may be a relatively young country by global standards, but American literary history stretches back centuries. Let’s take a dive into the history of the main American literary movements and what they say about the characteristics of American literature.

Native American Literature

Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, native people had their own rich culture. The Native American literary tradition comprises oral tradition, folktales, creation stories and other myths that survive in the traditions and stories told by modern-day Native Americans.

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One common element in these stories is repetition of incidents in a culturally significant number, usually four (the cardinal directions) or seven (the cardinal directions plus skyward, earthward and center). These stories were told and retold by generations of storytellers across the many tribes, and the stories vary in the telling not just from storyteller to storyteller and tribe to tribe, but even across multiple tellings by the same narrator.

In the 1700s, the Reverend Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, was among the first Native Americans to publish writings in English. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zitkála-Šá, a Yankton Dakota writer, musician and activist, collected and published legends drawn from Native cultures for a widespread white, English-speaking readership — along with personal stories that explored her struggles with cultural identity and the tension between traditional and assimilation. Another iconic writer of the early 20th century was Charles Eastman, considered the first to write American history from the Native American point of view.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Native American Renaissance saw a surge of Native American literature, including authors like James Welch and Paula Gunn Allen. Contemporary Native writers such as Eden Robinson and Sherman Alexie continue to be vital voices in the American literary tradition.

Colonial Literature

As the English colonies were established in the 17th century, the topics of literature among the colonists reflected their historical context. The earliest English works from the colonies ranged from practical accounts of colonial history and life written by leaders such as John Smith, to Anne Bradstreet’sThe Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, likely the first collection of poetry written in and about America.

Since many of the colonies were founded due to religious divisions back in Great Britain, it should be no surprise that religious themes were common. Such works ranged from the Puritan writings of ministers such as Increase Mather, to Roger Williams’ arguments for separation of church and state, and even the anti-religiousNew English Canaanby Thomas Morton — a harsh critique of the Puritans’ customs and power structures.

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Enlightenment and Revolution
Mid- to Late 1700s

In the years surrounding the American Revolution, literature likewise shifted to encompass the patriotic spirit that drove the nation toward independence. The iconicFederalist Papersin the realm of politics were matched by works by other authors in the realm of science and philosophy, such as Thomas Paine’sThe Age of Reason.

1789 saw the publication ofThe Power of Sympathyby William Hill Brown. Widely recognized as the first American novel, Brown’s work was a cautionary tale about the dangers of seduction, advocating for rational thinking and moral education of women. Given its historical context, critics have viewedThe Power of Sympathyas an exploration of virtues most needed by the new nation.

American Gothic
Early 1800s-present

Not to be confused with the famous painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic literature draws on dark themes from the nation’s historical and contemporary challenges. The early Gothic writers drew on frontier anxiety and fear of the unknown; Washington Irving’sThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow(1820) is perhaps the most famous example.

As the nation grew and matured, the Gothic tradition matured with it, through the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Southern Gothic writers used the decaying plantations of the post-Civil War South in place of the castles of European Gothic literature, as in the works of William Faulkner. The contemporary works of authors like Stephen King, who draws on his own experiences in rural Maine in his stories, continue the long American Gothic tradition.

Romanticism and Transcendentalism

The romantic era began in Europe in the eighteenth century, but it arrived in America later, around 1820. American romantic writers explored themes of individualism, intuitive perception and the inherent goodness of the natural world. Among the best known American romantic novels are Nathaniel Hawthorne’sThe Scarlet Letter(1850), a dramatic story of a woman cast out of a Puritan community for committing adultery; and Herman Melville’sMoby Dick(1851), one of history’s most famous stories of man against the elements.

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Emerging from romanticism later in the 1800s was perhaps the first notable American intellectual movement, transcendentalism, built on the belief in the inherent goodness of people, and the idea that self-reliance, transcending the corrupting influence of society, unlocks that goodness. We see these ideas in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and others. Perhaps the best-known transcendentalist book was Thoreau’sWalden, a reflection on his experience living independently near Walden Pond.

Since transcendental literature was in many respects the opposite of American Gothic, it should come as no surprise that prominent Gothic writers also penned critiques of transcendentalism, such as Hawthorne’sThe Blithedale Romance.

Literary Realism, Naturalism and Modernism

Following the Civil War, American literature was marked by a deep skepticism, understandable given the historical context. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American literary realism, in the works of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and others, was marked by attempts to present realistic things as they are, without supernatural or speculative elements. Twain’s vigorous, colloquial style in works such asThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finnwas a shot across the bow at tired conventions. American naturalism, heavily influenced by the works of Frank Norris, stood in the middle ground between romanticism and realism; for instance, Stephen Crane’s short storyThe Open Boat, a naturalistic depiction of a group of shipwreck survivors, explores themes of the indifference of the universe.

From the same current as realism, literature progressed to American modernism in the interwar period, with some of the most famous works penned by the “Lost Generation” of expatriate writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Modernist works drew from the pain and loss of direction that this generation experienced in the wake of World War One, but it also contained themes of hope as individuals could change their surroundings.

Contemporary & Postmodern Literature

The postwar period saw the rise of a whole spectrum of innovative and subversive themes in literature, from the overtly counter-cultural works of the 1950s “Beat Generation” to John Updike’s reflective explorations of faith, personal turmoil and sensuality. Sexually frank content entered the mainstream in this period, as restrictions on obscenity were loosened and writers were empowered to speak freely about previously taboo topics.

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Over the last several decades, American literature has seen an explosion of postmodernist themes such as unreliable narrators, internal monologue and temporal distortion. Contemporary writers have used literature to critique American culture, find connections across time and place and explore themes such as pluralism, relativism and self-consciousness.

The broader story of the American literary movements

American literature is about far more than just entertainment; it’s both a reflection of, and an influence upon, the moments in history and the changing human experience that shaped each movement. When you learn about the characteristics of American literature, you learn about what it is to be human, to struggle and succeed, to love and lose, to communicate and create. Get started with thefully online B.S./B.A. in English/Writingat Eastern Oregon University Online.

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What were two major movements in American literature during the early 1900s? ›

Realism and Naturalism

Realism was a literary period that developed out of Transcendentalism. Walt Whitman was a poet who is often thought to have straddled the gap between the two movements.

What literary movement was in the 1890s? ›

Literary Movements of the 1890s: Impressionism, Symbolism, and fin-de-siècle Austria - German Literature of the Nineteenth Century, 1832–1899.

What are the 10 literary periods in order? ›

World Literature Periods
  • ROMANTIC PERIOD (c. 1790-1830)
  • VICTORIAN PERIOD And The 19th Century (c. 1832-1901)
  • MODERN PERIOD (c. 1914-1945)
  • POSTMODERN PERIOD (c. 1945 onward)
  • ROMANTICISM (1800-1840)
  • REALISM (1865-1915)

What are the 5 major themes of American literature? ›

It may prove valuable to you by providing some ideas which you might wish to incorporate in any survey lecture which you give to your American literature class. Five major themes are discussed: (1) Innocence; (2) Violence; (3) The Frontier; (4) Absence of Happy Love or Fulfilling Marriage; and (5) Anti-machine.

What are the four major literary movements? ›

What Are the Literary Periods?
  • The Medieval Period. The medieval period was the first of the major English-language literary eras. ...
  • The Renaissance. ...
  • The Enlightenment. ...
  • Romanticism.
21 Feb 2022

What was the literary movement in the 1950s? ›

Beat movement, also called Beat Generation, American social and literary movement originating in the 1950s and centred in the bohemian artist communities of San Francisco's North Beach, Los Angeles' Venice West, and New York City's Greenwich Village.

What literary movement was in 1923? ›

Lost Generation, a group of American writers who came of age during World War I and established their literary reputations in the 1920s. The term is also used more generally to refer to the post-World War I generation.

What was the literary movement in the 1920s? ›

The 1920s brings to mind authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Today we would call this decade part of the modernist movement.

What literary movement was in the 1960s? ›

New Journalism, American literary movement in the 1960s and '70s that pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism and nonfiction writing. The genre combined journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real-life events.

What is the literary movement of the 1800? ›

Romanticism (or the Romantic era/Period) was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1840.

What literary era was the 1870s? ›

The 1870s is the time when America was trying to solve the issues raised after the American Civil War, that ended just a few years before, through Reconstruction. During this time, a new movement in American Literature, Realism, began.

What was the literary movement in the 1930s? ›

Literature of the 1930s continued to enlarge the meaning of earlier movements toward realism and modernism. Realism was an attempt to show life as it really was—its cruelties, problems, harsh conditions, sorrows, as well as its joys and successes.

What are the 11 literary theories? ›

  • What Is Literary Theory? ...
  • Traditional Literary Criticism. ...
  • Formalism and New Criticism. ...
  • Marxism and Critical Theory. ...
  • Structuralism and Poststructuralism. ...
  • New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. ...
  • Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Criticism. ...
  • Gender Studies and Queer Theory.

What are the 4 major literary genres before the 21st century? ›

In the landscape of literature, there are four major genres: poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

How many literary movements are there? ›

These 16 major movements provide a framework for categorizing literature.

What are the 7 themes of literature? ›

The 7 story archetypes are:
  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.
31 Oct 2011

What are 3 main characteristics of American literature? ›

The three characteristics of American Literature include – plot of decline, indifferent of nature, 3rd person omniscient reaction to romanticism and surrealism. Firstly, American Literature reflects beliefs and traditions that come from the nation's frontier days.

What are the 6 most common literary themes? ›

Six common themes in literature are:
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Love.
  • Redemption.
  • Courage and perseverance.
  • Coming of age.
  • Revenge.
20 Aug 2021

What are the 8 periods of literature? ›

The most important 8 periods of English Literature are:
  • Old English (Anglo-Saxon Period): 450–1066.
  • Middle English Period: 1066-1500.
  • Renaissance: 1500-1600.
  • Neoclassical Period: 1600-1785.
  • Romantic Period: 1785-1832.
  • Victorian Age: 1832-1901.
  • Edwardian Period: 1901-1914.
  • Georgian Period: 1910-1936.

What are the six literary movements? ›

Top 6 Literary Movements
  • Romanticism (1800 to 1850). ...
  • Transcendentalism (1820 to 1840). ...
  • Modernism (1870 to 1940). ...
  • Harlem Renaissance (1918 to 1930). ...
  • New York School (1950 to 1970). ...
  • Postmodernism (1960 to 1990).

What are the 8 literary theories? ›

Literary Theory helps a reader derive meaning. There are many lenses through which a reader can analyze literature and this lesson addresses seven: Traditional, Formalism/New Criticism, Structuralism/Post-structuralism, New Historicism, Marxism, Post-Colonialism, and Gender Studies/Queer Theory.

What are the 5 literary forms? ›

Today, Vista Higher Learning is breaking down the differences to give you a crash course on the five main genres of literature.
  • #1 Fiction. One of the most popular genres of literature, fiction, features imaginary characters and events. ...
  • #2 Nonfiction. ...
  • #3 Drama. ...
  • #4 Poetry. ...
  • #5 Folktale.
13 Jun 2019

What is the most important literary movement? ›

The Harlem Renaissance is one of the most important literary movements in the history of American poetry, novel writing, and more.

What is the literary movement of the 21st century? ›

Transrealism: the First Major literary Movement of the 21st Century.” The Guardian.

What was the name of the American literary movement? ›

American Romanticism, like other literary movements, developed on the heels of romantic movements in Europe. Its beginnings can be traced back to the eighteenth century there. In America, it dominated the literary scene from around 1820 to the end of the Civil War and the rise of Realism.

What major social movement occurred in the 1950s? ›

The Civil Rights Movement

A growing group of Americans spoke out against inequality and injustice during the 1950s.

What was the name of the American literary movement in the early 1900s that sought to remove all unnecessary flowery words? ›

Imagism was an early twentieth century poetic movement that emphasized clear, direct language. It was considered a reaction to the traditions of Romantic and Victorian poetry, which emphasized florid ornamentation of language. The Imagists, by contrast, were succinct and to the point.

What literary period was 1922? ›

The year 1922 has been known as the annus mirabilis (“miracle year”) of Anglo-American literary modernism, chiefly because of the near-simultaneous publication of T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land,” James Joyce's Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room.

What is the significance of the year 1922 in English literary history? ›

Because of books like Ulysses and The Waste Land, 1922 changed the reading public's perception of what literature could be – the poet WH Auden later said that the "climate" had changed. The year deserves its reputation as a moment beyond which nothing would be the same.

What was the year 1923 known for? ›

1923 Year In History including Major World Events include Mount Etna eruption, Great Kanto earthquake, Insulin is introduced for treatment of Diabetes, In Popular Culture Movies include The Ten Commandments and Hunchback of Notre Dame and the First baseball game is played on April 18 at Yankee Stadium, In Technology ...

What are four major social movements of the 1920s? ›

Immigration, race, alcohol, evolution, gender politics, and sexual morality all became major cultural battlefields during the 1920s. Wets battled drys, religious modernists battled religious fundamentalists, and urban ethnics battled the Ku Klux Klan. The 1920s was a decade of profound social changes.

What were the major themes of 1920s literature? ›

Common themes of 1920s literature included sexuality, pleasure, materialism, and happiness, as well as horror and war following WWI. Popular 1920s writer F. Scott Fitzgerald authored "The Great Gatsby" in 1925. The aforementioned novel was a love story and cautionary tale about excess, decadence, and wealth.

What important literary movements took place in the 20th century? ›

Modernism is a major literary movement of the first part of the twentieth-century. The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature.

What movements were in the 60s and 70s? ›

The 1960s and early 1970s represented a period of large scale protest in United States history. Recognizable movements during the period included the anti-Vietnam War campaign, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the student movement, and last, but not least, the counterculture.

What were the major movements of the 1960s? ›

The 1960s saw the emergence of social movements around civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, feminism, Mexican American activism, and environmentalism, as well as the first stirrings of gay rights.

When was the modernist literary movement? ›

Modernism is a period in literary history which started around the early 1900s and continued until the early 1940s.

What was the literary movement in the 18th century? ›

CLASSICISM (Literary Movement) 18th Century. Movement of artists and writers derived from the forms and principles of ancient Greece and Rome. It was a political and philosophical movement away from overt religion and toward reason and science.

What literary movement was in 1961? ›

India's first Postcolonial movement was the Hungryists. The Hungryists or The Hungry Generation attempted to confront and upset preconceived literary notions, especially Colonial Bengali works. The Hungryists published more than 100 manifestos between 1961 and 1965.

What came first naturalism or realism? ›

Naturalism came from realism, and is sometimes considered a type of realism. However, there are a few key differences between the two genres. Just like realism, naturalistic fiction tends to concentrate on the lives of poorer characters, and their lives and living conditions are portrayed completely realistically.

What literary movement from the late 1800's began to make a comeback during the 1970's and 1980's? ›

What literary movement from the late 1800's began to make a comeback during the 1970's and 1980's? Realism.

What is realism and naturalism 1870 to 1910? ›

Between 1870 and 1910, there were two main movements that took place in American literature: realism and naturalism. Realism was a literary movement that focused on ordinary characters ordinary, everyday life situations. Realist stories, like that of Stephen Crane, were written simply and told stories of simple people.

What major events happened in the 1870s? ›

POP Culture: 1870
  • John D. ...
  • The National Weather Service issues its first weather forecast on November 1, 1870. ...
  • "The Great Chicago Fire" begins October 8, 1871.
  • President Ulysses S. ...
  • The Jesse James Gang conduct the first successful train robbery in the American West on July 21, 1873.
8 Dec 2021

What was the literary movement in the 1940s? ›

Modernism was a literary and artistic movement that was centered around a deviation from every norm it could think of paired with radical experimentation. Everything from subject to writing style was experimented with. Traditional religious, political, and social views were also challenged.

What are the 7 literary periods in the Philippines? ›

The six literary periods in the Philippines are Pre-colonial period, Spanish Colonization period, Propaganda and Revolutionary period, American colonial period, Japanese occupation and contemporary or modern period.

How many different periods of American literature are there? ›

The history of American literature stretches across more than 400 years. It can be divided into five major periods, each of which has unique characteristics, notable authors, and representative works.

What is the first period of American literature? ›

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the first American novels were published.

Who developed the 7 literary standards? ›

The criteria was developed by writer William J. Long in his textbook “English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English-speaking World.” The seven literary standards are: artistry , suggestiveness , intellectual value, spiritual value, permanence, universality and style.

What are the 4 languages used in literary works during the American period? ›

Their writings clearly depicted their love of the country and their longings for independence. In 1910, a new group started to write in English. Hence, Spanish, Tagalog, Vernaculars and finally, English, were the mediums used in literature during these times.

What are 3 major genres of literature? ›

There is a lot, but luckily they all fit under just three major genres. The rest are all sub-genres, and even the subgenres have subgenres. The three major genres are Prose, Drama, and Poetry.

What are the six themes of literature? ›

6 Common Themes in Literature
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Love.
  • Redemption.
  • Courage and perseverance.
  • Coming of age.
  • Revenge.
20 Aug 2021

Who is father of American literature? ›

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. He was praised as the "greatest humorist the United States has produced", and William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature".

What are the 10 major themes in American literature? ›

Terms in this set (10)
  • The American Dream. ...
  • Loss of Innocence. ...
  • Coming of Age. ...
  • Relationship with Nature. ...
  • Relationship with Society. ...
  • Relationship with Science. ...
  • Alienation and Isolation. ...
  • Survival of the Fittest.

Which is the most important period in American literature? ›

The Revolutionary Age (1765–1790)

Beginning a decade before the Revolutionary War and ending about 25 years later, this period includes the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. This is arguably the richest period of political writing since classical antiquity.

When was the golden age of American literature? ›

The eighteenth century produced many talented novelists who will remain immortal through the ages and their works read, analysed and studied for years to come. This is why the 19th century is considered as the golden age of literature in the West.


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