American Literature after the Civil War (2023)

The devastation of the Civil War seriously challenged the faith in the power of sympathy, family, and God that undergirded sentimentalism as well as the romantic optimism that powered transcendentalism and the antebellum reform movements. These literary modes never really disappeared—Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), for example, drew on all three—but the rapid changes occurring in American life seemed to many to necessitate new forms of literary expression. Urbanization increased rapidly, as did immigration, Darwin’s theory of evolution shook up former certainties, and new technologies like the Transcontinental Railroad and the telephone altered how Americans connected with one another. In the place of sentimentalism and transcendentalism arose three related literary modes that dominated postbellum American fiction: realism, regionalism, and naturalism. The literary marketplace grew rapidly, allowing authorship to become a far more accessible career option than it had been, especially for African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women. In an era in which slavery had been abolished but the rights of African Americans remained tentative at best, new black voices rose to national recognition, as did new Native American voices, protesting the continued encroachment on native lands and new educational policies that sought to strip Native Americans of their cultural identities.


The postbellum period saw the first publication of the poems of Emily Dickinson, a poet who, like Whitman, would fundamentally reshape American verse. Dickinson was little known in her own lifetime—only seven of her poems had been published, and these anonymously. (A more extensive collection of her poems appeared in 1890.) Her nearly 1800 surviving lyric poems frequently confront death, but she was also interested in nature, spirituality, and everyday life. Her poems are usually composed of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, the meter of nursery rhymes and many hymns. But though she wrote in meter, Dickinson wasn’t afraid to break the rules, building in pauses through her extensive use of dashes, writing in fragments and enjambed lines, and repeatedly using slant rhyme.


Realism was a literary movement that originated in Europe and became popular in United States. Its most voluble proponent in the U.S. was William Dean Howells, editor of the most prestigious literary periodical of the time, the Atlantic Monthly. According to Howells, realism “is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.” Realists found fault with the Romantic and the sentimental for what was perceived as untruthful idealizing, offering instead detailed portraits of the everyday. Rather than the remote or strange, realists wrote about the ordinary, the probable, about characters who seemed like real people in situations that real people routinely experience.

(Video) History of American Literature: The Civil War and After

Rebecca Harding Davis is best known as a pioneering realist and the author of “Life in the Iron-Mills” (1861), an incredibly popular story about the plight of industrial workers, their lack of access to art, and their temptations to crime.

Mark Twain’s work demonstrates his commitment to realism as well as his desire to portray life in his native Missouri. Twain’s work also reminds us that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the golden age of children’s literature, when children’s books moved away from didactic moralizing and towards entertaining their child readers. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) provides a prime example of a new sort of child protagonist, the “bad boy,” whose badness and trickery (like cleverly conning his friends into whitewashing his aunt Polly’s fence) are signs of high spirits and wit, not of inner depravity. But it is the sequel to Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which proved Twain’s most influential contribution to American literature. The story of Tom’s impoverished and abused friend Huck fleeing down the river with the unexpected companion of a slave man, Jim, broke ground. The novel was the first written entirely in vernacular language: it is told in Huck’s Missourian, childish dialect. Scholars continue to debate the novel’s racial politics, particularly its portrayal of Jim, whom Huck decides he would rather go to Hell than betray. Huck’s belief that doing right by Jim will damn him to Hell is just one example of Twain’s pointed critique of racial politics in nineteenth-century America.

Henry James was a prolific late nineteenth-century realist novelist. His novels are often psychologically probing narratives about upper class characters and the experiences of Americans in Europe. He gained fame with the publication of Daisy Miller (1878), the story of a naïve American girl who resists social norms. His other famous works include The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a novel about Isabel Archer, a young woman who attempts to escape an entrapping marriage without losing her principles or hurting others, and The Turn of the Screw (1898), the story of an English governess working to protect the children she cares for from the influence of ghosts who may or may not be real.

Edith Wharton, a close friend of Henry James, also wrote realist novels about high society, novels highly critical of the position of women in that society. Her most famous works include The House of Mirth (1905), the story of Lily Bart, a socialite who slowly but surely loses her social position, and eventually, her life, as she fails to marry or inherit wealth, and The Age of Innocence (1920).


(Video) How the Civil War transformed American Literature: A Discussion with author Randall Fuller

Regionalism was the most significant literary mode after the Civil War, fueled by an explosion in magazine publication, postwar curiosity about the different parts of the United States, and a sense of nostalgia for a rural past that always already seemed to be slipping away. In regionalist texts, setting is central. Regionalist narratives document the unique ways of life of rural communities, offering readers distinctive visions of life in the South, New England, the Midwest, and the West. Regionalist fictions are invested in offering readers a realistic snapshot of the language, customs, habits, landscape, and social life of rural America. They often present characters as types, as representatives of the traits of a community or region. Though they are deeply invested in the local, regionalist stories are often narrated by outsiders who differ in class status or place of origin from the locals. This distance between the narrator and the other characters, as well as the fact that many of the readers of regionalism were urban, has led some scholars to contend that regionalism exploits the locations it represents, selling them to more privileged audiences as a kind of literary tourism.

Bret Harte, a groundbreaking regionalist, offered readers a romanticized vision of life during the California Gold Rush in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868). This story, of rough-and-tumble but warm-hearted miners who try to raise an orphaned baby until a flood sweeps them away, made Harte an international sensation and signaled the acceptance of regionalism by the literary establishment.

Sarah Orne Jewett was a New England regionalist best known for The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), a collection of related stories of life in rural Maine told through the perspective of a summer visitor. The book offers a striking portrait of a strong female community.

Charles Chesnutt, the first African American fiction writer to be published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, wrote regionalist fiction about the South. His stories often feature ex-slave Uncle Julius McAdoo, a wise old man with remarkable skill for manipulating his white “superiors.” Chesnutt’s best-known short story collections are entitled The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth (1899). His 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition registers strongly his anger at continuing racial injustice, telling the story of a white woman and her unacknowledged mixed race sister who find their lives torn apart during a race riot over an election in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Kate Chopin wrote regionalist fiction often set in New Orleans or rural Louisiana. Her most famous novel, The Awakening (1899), reflects her interest in the way women’s sexual desires came into conflict with social expectations. The novel tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a mother who attempts to escape her loveless marriage and find herself as a sexual and independent individual.

(Video) Randall Fuller, "How the Civil War Transformed American Literature," (Austin, February 2012)‬


Naturalism is sometimes seen as a species of realism and sometimes as a separate literary movement. Naturalists focused on how our lives are shaped (and, often, misshapen) by forces beyond our control, like genetics, the economy, and the social system. The protagonists of naturalist texts futilely attempt to shape their own lives and usually succumb to unpleasant fates in the end. Naturalist texts very frequently focus on lower-class characters, those on the fringes of society, and are often fueled by rage at social injustices. While regionalism focused strongly on the rural, naturalism was most at home in urban environments.

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a strong example of naturalism. The novel centers on Civil War soldier Henry Fleming, but Fleming is not a conventional war hero. Instead, the novel focuses on the violence and chaos of war and his feelings of panic, triumph, and confusion. Crane also wrote Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1903), which tells the story of an impoverished girl in New York who is forced to become a prostitute.

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) also exemplifies the characteristics of naturalism. Sister Carrie tells the story of Carrie Meeber, a young woman who moves from the countryside to Chicago, where she is seduced first by a traveling salesman, Charles Drouet, then by the manager of a fashionable bar, George Hurstwood, with whom she runs away to New York. In New York, Hurstwood’s circumstances decline until he commits suicide, while Carrie gains fame, but not happiness, on the New York stage.


(Video) American Lit after WW2

The changing literary marketplace, especially the rise of regionalism, and the end of slavery offered new opportunities for black writers in America, like Charles Chesnutt, discussed above. During this period, Zitkala-Sa also became the first Native American writer to be embraced by the literary establishment, having her work published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly.

The two best-known black writers and leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington’s most famous work, Up from Slavery (1900), offers an autobiographical account of Washington’s experience of slavery, with special focus on his thirst for literacy, as well as his rise to social power after emancipation. Washington was a proponent of an assimilationist philosophy, urging black Americans to “cast down [their] buckets where [they] are” and to work slowly toward social and economic equality with whites. As such, he advocated vocational training for African Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois was strongly opposed to Washington’s views, especially his willingness to accept limited intellectual opportunities for blacks. His most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), took aim at Washington’s politics, offering a sociological view of the life of poor African Americans in the South mingled with fiction and personal narratives. The book introduces the idea of “double-consciousness,” Du Bois’s term for the conflicting experience of African Americans as both Americans and black people.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, who published poetry, novels, songs, and essays around the turn of the century, was one of the first African American professional writers. His most famous volume of poetry, Lyrics of the Lowly Life (1895), displayed his affinity for both black dialect and Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. His novel The Sport of the Gods (1903) offers an unhappy story of a black family who moves from the rural South to New York.

A lifelong activist for Native American and women’s rights, Zitkala-Sa penned essays and narratives that registered the costs of the federal government’s policy of “detribalization” and continuing encroachment on native lands. Among her best-known works are “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” (1900) and “The School Days of an Indian Girl” (1900), which recounts her days in a school established by whites to erase native cultures through education, as well as “Why I Am a Pagan” (1902).

To craft this document, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism, the Norton Anthology of American Literature (shortened eighth edition), and American History Through Literature, 1870-1920, ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst.

(Video) Randall Fuller on "From Battlefields Rising: How The Civil War Transformed American Literature"


How did American literature change after the Civil War? ›

The literary marketplace grew rapidly, allowing authorship to become a far more accessible career option than it had been, especially for African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women.

What is American literature summary? ›

American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States. Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it.

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 literature emerged post Civil War and what was the focus? ›

Prose: After the American Civil War, a new era of literature began: Realism. This was due to the radical changes in American society. The U.S. developed from an agricultural to an industrial society and money started to make the world go round.

Which literary movement began just after the Civil War? ›

Most of the famous literature from after the Civil War is called Realism. These writers turned away from Romanticism. The immense cost of life from the Civil War disillusioned Americans from their early 1800's idealism. Their plan was to portray life realistically (hence the name), and people as they were.

How did war change literature? ›

The disillusionment that grew out of the war contributed to the emergence of modernism, a genre which broke with traditional ways of writing, discarded romantic views of nature and focused on the interior world of characters.

Why is American literature so important? ›

By examining literary texts, their stories and their messages, we can increase in our understanding of how to live life. We learn how to discern what is healthy and destructive in the world, and we are challenged with injustice and its consequences.

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.

What are the most important facts in American literature? ›

25 Interesting Facts about American Literature
  • Edgar Allan Poe's prose-poem Eureka predicts the Big Bang theory by some eighty years.
  • There is an asteroid named after Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Before he turned 13, Samuel Clemens – later to become Mark Twain – had nearly drowned on nine separate occasions.

What is unique about American literature? ›

In American literature, essential literary elements are explained, including characters, narratives, settings, pictures, and themes. It also retells the tales of legends and personalities that Americans find to align with their cultural values.

What is American literature in simple words? ›

American literature is literature written or produced in the United States of America and in the colonies that preceded it.

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.

Why is war literature so important? ›

These literary works and many others that span the centuries since the classical era remind us that war is a constant in society and a topic that will continue to ensure critical debate. It is as universal as themes of love or death or time or human frailty.

What is considered the greatest piece of Civil War literature? ›

Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), by James McPherson: Widely regarded as the most authoritative one-volume history of the war.

What are the themes of post war literature? ›

The crisis experienced by people who witnessed the war in the post-war period; Fear of new wars and nuclear armament and fear of rising dictators were the main topics of literature. The reason why post-war themes were on the carpet for a long time in American literature was the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Which literary movement had the biggest impact on America? ›

Also known as the Romantic Period in America and the Age of Transcendentalism, this period is commonly accepted to be the greatest of American literature.

What was the movement after the Civil War? ›

Reconstruction refers to the period immediately after the Civil War from 1865 to 1877 when several United States administrations sought to reconstruct society in the former Confederate states in particular by establishing and protecting the legal rights of the newly freed black population.

What is the form of literature during the Civil War? ›

The US Civil War (1861–1865) still serves as one of the milestones in American literary history, commonly representing the dividing line in survey courses and reference works on 19th-century American literature. Civil War literature often includes nonfiction genres such as diaries, letters, and memoirs.

What war inspired literature? ›

14 Of The Greatest Novels Inspired By War
  • Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut. ...
  • Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks. ...
  • Catch 22 – Joseph Heller. ...
  • For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway. ...
  • The Time Of Doves – Mercè Rodoreda. ...
  • Regeneration – Pat Barker. ...
  • Men At Arms – Evelyn Waugh. ...
  • Our Man In Havana – Graham Greene.
29 Aug 2017

How has the literature of America changed over time? ›

Over the course of the years, Literature has developed and changed due to America's evolution. These changing time periods can be classified into 9 eras: Colonial, Revolutionary, Romantic, Transcendental, Realism, Modern, Harlem Renaissance, Beat Generation, and Postmodern.

How does war affect language change? ›

Besides playing a role in language shift and the creation of new varieties of languages, wars also play a role in the creation of new words and expressions relating to the military milieu. The most obvious example is the creation of military terminology.

What is the greatest work of American literature? ›

The Great Gatsby by F.

Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece about the delusion of decadence in the age of excess been hailed as “the greatest of Great American Novels” by more than one heavyweight tastemaker.

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 influenced American literature? ›

Throughout history, there has been a connection among literary works from different periods. The connection is that History, current events, and social events have influenced American Literature. Authors, their literary works, and the specific writing styles; are affected and influenced by the world around them.

What is the background of American literature? ›

In its earliest days, during the 1600s, American literature consisted mostly of practical nonfiction written by British settlers who populated the colonies that would become the United States. John Smith wrote histories of Virginia based on his experiences as an English explorer and a president of the Jamestown Colony.

Who is the greatest writer in American literature? ›

1. Mark Twain, 1835 – 1910. Without a doubt, one of the best American authors of all time is Mark Twain. Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, who had an interesting life during the 19th and early 20th century.

Where did American literature began? ›

The first writers brought mainly English ideas and ways of writing, which means early American literature is based on the literature of England. As years passed and literary theory developed, the writers who adopted the English style are now sometimes called pale faces (Franklin, Longfellow, James, Pound).

What is the most important thing in literature? ›

Literature allows a person to step back in time and learn about life on Earth from the ones who walked before us. We can gather a better understanding of culture and have a greater appreciation of them. We learn through the ways history is recorded, in the forms of manuscripts and through speech itself.

What is the most important element of literature? ›

The most important literary element is language. Language is defined as a system of communicating ideas and feelings through signs, sounds, gestures, and/or marks. Language is the way we share ideas with one another, whether it's through speech, text, or even performance!

What are the 4 major periods of English and American literature? ›

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)

What is the main theme of American literature? ›

Technology and advancement in the world as a catalyst for change.

How do you introduce American literature? ›

12 Ideas for Teaching American Lit
  1. Use a Highly Engaging Essential Question. ...
  2. Setting up literature circles doesn't have to be intimidating. ...
  3. Ask Yourself, “Who's Missing?” ...
  4. Break Up the Serious Discussions with Humor. ...
  5. Infuse the Curriculum with Modern Texts. ...
  6. Incorporate Authentic Voice.
1 Feb 2021

What is an example of American literature? ›

The Scarlet Letter. The poetry of Emily Dickinson. Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Great Gatsby.

What does American literature include? ›

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.

What are the four major themes in American literature? ›

major themes in american literature
  • Major Themes in American Literature.
  • The American Dream.
  • loss of innocence/coming of age.
  • alienation and isolation.

What is American conflict in literature? ›

In literature, a conflict is a literary device characterized by a struggle between two opposing forces. Conflict provides crucial tension in any story and is used to drive the narrative forward.

What are the 5 basic literary elements in literature? ›

When you analyze a literary text, you will deal with basic elements of literature, like plot, theme, character, point of view, and setting.

What is the only common theme of war literature? ›

Honor, Duty, and Heroism

As a result, their sense of honor is not defined by their individual accomplishments in life, but by their capacity for obeying orders and achieving victory in the war.

What value is there in writing and reading war literature? ›

Writers share war literature to communicate to others their profound sense of survival and the knowledge—having seen the highest of human sacrifices—that life is sacred.

Who are the war poets known to literature? ›

8 Battlefield Poets of World War I
  • Wilfred Owen. Portrait of Wilfred Owen. ( ...
  • John McCrae. John McCrae in uniform. ( ...
  • Siegfried Sassoon. English poet, novelist and soldier, Siegfried Sassoon. ( ...
  • Alan Seeger. Portrait of Alan Seeger. ( ...
  • 6 Famous WWI Fighter Aces.
  • Guillaume Apollinaire. ...
  • Vera Brittain. ...
  • August Stramm.
16 Feb 2016

What are 3 major results of the Civil War? ›

The Civil War confirmed the single political entity of the United States, led to freedom for more than four million enslaved Americans, established a more powerful and centralized federal government, and laid the foundation for America's emergence as a world power in the 20th century.

What is the most famous quote from the Civil War? ›

civil war Quotes
  • “We are never prepared for so many to die. ...
  • “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. ...
  • “I believe this Government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

What are 3 common themes about the Civil War? ›

Lincoln used the tools the Constitution gave him to confront three intertwined issues of the Civil War—the secession of Southern states, slavery and wartime civil liberties.

How did literature change after the Civil war? ›

The literary marketplace grew rapidly, allowing authorship to become a far more accessible career option than it had been, especially for African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women.

What is the importance of post-war period? ›

In addition to landmark civil rights legislation, laws were enacted to protect the environment and consumer safety. Important Supreme Court rulings expanded personal privacy rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.

What was the most important issues in the post-war American society? ›

Poverty and inequality in the postwar era

Despite the prosperity of the postwar era, a significant minority of Americans continued to live in poverty by the end of the 1950s.

How did the Civil War affect writing? ›

Women and the First-Person Narrative

Diaries and first-person narratives came aplenty from the Civil War. The war, in uprooting the social order, also gave women a more proper eminence. And indeed some of the finest memoirs and diaries were written by women during the period.

How did American literature change over time? ›

Over the course of the years, Literature has developed and changed due to America's evolution. These changing time periods can be classified into 9 eras: Colonial, Revolutionary, Romantic, Transcendental, Realism, Modern, Harlem Renaissance, Beat Generation, and Postmodern.

How did the Civil War modernize American journalism? ›

The telegraph, which was used heavily by the press during the Civil War, had a long-lasting effect on journalism. Since telegraph operators charged by the word to transmit stories over the wire, reporters tried to prioritize facts and write more succinctly.

What is civil war in literature? ›

The US Civil War (1861–1865) still serves as one of the milestones in American literary history, commonly representing the dividing line in survey courses and reference works on 19th-century American literature. Civil War literature often includes nonfiction genres such as diaries, letters, and memoirs.

What are the 3 most important effects of the Civil War? ›

The Civil War confirmed the single political entity of the United States, led to freedom for more than four million enslaved Americans, established a more powerful and centralized federal government, and laid the foundation for America's emergence as a world power in the 20th century.

What is the importance of American literature? ›

By examining literary texts, their stories and their messages, we can increase in our understanding of how to live life. We learn how to discern what is healthy and destructive in the world, and we are challenged with injustice and its consequences.

What role did the American Civil War play in the evolution of journalism? ›

The Civil War catapulted the newspaper industry to new heights in the United States. Newspapers had given the public near-constant access to news and events from all corners of the new American empire. In return, newspapers had secured the ability to affect public opinion.

How did the Civil War affect communication? ›

The Civil War, through the introduction of the telegraph, a relatively recent technology, revolutionized military communication in the United States. The telegraph allowed for near real- time, two-way communication. It gave senior commanders the ability to exercise command and control throughout the war.

How did the Civil War change reporting? ›

Professional journalism practices matured during the Civil War. Newspaper reporters worked in the field and sought out eyewitness descriptions. Publications were fiercely competitive, so getting a story out quickly and accurately became the goal.


1. American Literature Timeline Overview
(Megan Hall)
2. Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History #24
3. American Literature Final: The Civil War
4. American Civil War |History of USA Part 26|
(CSS World)
5. American Literature after WWII
6. American Literature 1945-Present part 1
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