Writing Interesting American Literature Essays

In the early days of America, from the colonial period through much of the 19th-century, it was considered to be a country without much culture or literature to speak of. Certainly nobody in England, with its long and rich literary tradition, paid much attention to American letters. After America won its independence, it became a point of national pride to produce a homegrown literature separate from England and indeed, since then America has produced a unique body of literature that equals any tradition in the world.

The first wave of American literary masterpieces began around 1950, a period that has come to be known as the American Renaissance, with Hawthorne, Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville. In the 20th-century, America produced some of the most influential novelists, such as Ernest Hemmingway  and William Faulkner, and poets  like T.S. Eliot. One of the most significant changes in American literature after World War II until now has been the prominence of novels by women and minorities. 

Writing interesting essays about this unique national literature requires some familiarity with the themes that have characterized American culture and letters. Here are just a few:

  • Democracy and Freedom: America was founded as a democracy, and cherishes the ideals of liberty. Walt Whitman wrote much about American democracy in Leaves of Grass. Much American literature looks at its failure to extend those ideals to slaves, such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twain's Huck Finn.
  • Consumerism: The U.S. has often been accused of being a country obsessed with money and material things. Its literature, from Henry James' Daisy Miller to Don DeLillo's White Noise, reflects this concern.
  • A Nation of Immigrants: The U.S. is a country mostly made of people who came from another country, and much of its recent literature reflects the experiences of immigrant cultures, such as Asian, Latino, Jewish, and others.
  • "The American Dream": From Ben Franklin to Horatio Alger, a core American myth is of the self-made man, one who can accomplish and become anything. Many American novels explore the dark side of the pursuit of happiness, such as The Great Gatsby and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Regional Literature: Many areas of the U.S. have unique identities, almost like countries of their own. The earliest literary movements were centered in New England. The South and the West have since become identifiable literatures.

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