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American literature

Parents: world literature - United States

Related: Dalkey Archive Press - the beat generation (1950s literary movement) - the lost generation (American expatriates in Paris of the 1920s and 1930s) - black science fiction - American literary criticism - Partisan Review

Titles: Native Son (1940) - Junkie (1953) - Candy (1958) - The Great Gatsby (1925) - Catcher in the Rye (1951) - Naked Lunch (1959)

In the 1950s: Beatniks and the beat generation, an anti-materialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in 1948 and stretched on into the 1960s, was at its zenith in the 1950s. Such groundbreaking literature as William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye were published. [Aug 2006]

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) - Herman Melville [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

People: Ambrose Bierce - Paul Bowles - William S. Burroughs - James Cain - Dennis Cooper - Allen Ginsberg - Kenneth Goldsmith - Jack Kerouac - Ernest Hemingway - Stephen King - Jack London - H.P. Lovecraft - David Markson - Herman Melville - Chuck Palahniuk - Edgar Allan Poe - Ezra Pound - Thomas Pynchon - Terry Southern - Mark Twain - Edmund Wilson


The literature of the United States may be considered as belonging to English literature or as a distinct body of literature.

Early U.S. literature
Much early American literature is derivative: European forms and styles transferred to new locales. For example, Wieland and other novels by Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) are energetic imitations of the Gothic novels then being written in England. Even the well-wrought tales of Washington Irving (1783-1859), notably Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, seem comfortably European despite their New World settings.

Becoming American
Perhaps the first American writer to produce boldly new fiction and poetry was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In 1835, Poe began writing short stories -- including The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue -- that explore previously hidden levels of human psychology and push the boundaries of fiction toward mystery and fantasy.

Meanwhile, in 1837, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) collected some of his stories as Twice-Told Tales, a volume rich in symbolism and occult incidents. Hawthorne went on to write full-length "romances," quasi-allegorical novels that explore such themes as guilt, pride, and emotional repression in his native New England. His masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, is the stark drama of a woman cast out of her community for committing adultery.

Hawthorne's fiction had a profound impact on his friend Herman Melville (1819-1891), who first made a name for himself by turning material from his seafaring days into exotic novels. Inspired by Hawthorne's example, Melville went on to write novels rich in philosophical speculation. In Moby Dick, an adventurous whaling voyage becomes the vehicle for examining such themes as obsession, the nature of evil, and human struggle against the elements. In another fine work, the short novel Billy Budd, Melville dramatizes the conflicting claims of duty and compassion on board a ship in time of war. His more profound books sold poorly, and he had been long forgotten by the time of his death. He was rediscovered in the early decades of the 20th century.

In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an ex-minister, published a startling nonfiction work called Nature, in which he claimed it was possible to dispense with organized religion and reach a lofty spiritual state by studying and responding to the natural world. His work influenced not only the writers who gathered around him, forming a movement known as Transcendentalism, but also the public, who heard him lecture.

Emerson's most gifted fellow-thinker was perhaps Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), a resolute nonconformist. After living mostly by himself for two years in a cabin by a wooded pond, Thoreau wrote Walden, a book-length memoir that urges resistance to the meddlesome dictates of organized society. His radical writings express a deep-rooted tendency toward individualism in the American character.

Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) was the first major American writer to be born away from the East Coast -- in the border state of Missouri. His regional masterpieces were the memoir Life on the Mississippi and the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain's style -- influenced by journalism, wedded to the vernacular, direct and unadorned but also highly evocative and irreverently funny -- changed the way Americans write their language. His characters speak like real people and sound distinctively American, using local dialects, newly invented words, and regional accents.

Henry James (1843-1916) confronted the Old World-New World dilemma by writing directly about it. Although born in New York City, he spent most of his adult years in England. Many of his novels center on Americans who live in or travel to Europe. With its intricate, highly qualified sentences and dissection of emotional nuance, James's fiction can be daunting. Among his more accessible works are the novellas Daisy Miller, about an enchanting American girl in Europe, and The Turn of the Screw, an enigmatic ghost story. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_literature [Oct 2005]

Wonderfreaks (2001) - Jan Wildt

Wonderfreaks, a short story by Jan Wildt, originally appeared in New Genre’s second issue in 2001.

“Wonderfreaks” opens with Steve, the 25-year-old protagonist, picking up a young woman in a Seattle bookstore, ostensibly for casual sex. As they drive off, it becomes clear that they have something else in mind. Inside her apartment, they “osculate”, and then both lose consciousness. On awakening, each now knows things previously known only to the other person. They have shared information.

Steve and the woman (he belatedly learns that her name is Lisa) are “wonderfreaks” (or “freaks”), and they have just engaged in a telepathic form of brain-intercourse with is both pleasurable and addictive. As we follow Steve’s downward arc, we learn about the strange subculture in which he lives, where freaks pursue their “fixes”. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonderfreaks

See also: 2001 - American literature - speculative fiction

The Quaker City or the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1844) - George Lippard

The Quaker City or the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1844) - George Lippard [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

America's best-selling novel in its time, "The Quaker City", published in 1845, is a sensational expose of social corruption, personal debauchery and the sexual exploitation of women in antebellum Philadelphia. This new edition, with an introduction by David S. Reynolds, brings back into print this important work by George Lippard (1822-1854), a journalist, freethinker and labour and social reformer.

George Lippard (1822-1854) was a brilliant but erratic 19th century American novelist, journalist, and playwright. Although almost completely unknown today, during the decade between 1844 and 1854 he was one of the most widely-read authors in the United States. He befriended Edgar Allan Poe, advocated a socialist political philosophy, was an unheralded writer for the proletariat, and founded a secret benevolent society, Brotherhood of the Union, investing in it all the trappings of a religion. He was author of two types of stories. The first were tales about the immorality of large cities, gothic stories of horror, vice, and debauchery, such as The Monks of Monk Hall (1844), reprinted as The Quaker City (1844), and New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million (1853). The other stories were historical fiction of a type called romances, such as Blanche of Brandywine (1846), Legends of Mexico (1847), and the popular Legends of the Revolution (1847). Both kinds of stories, sensational and immensely popular when written, are mostly forgotten today. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lippard [May 2006]

See also: monk - Gothic novel - American literature - 1844

Maria Jolas, Woman of Action: A Memoir and Other Writings (2004) - Mary Ann Caws

Maria Jolas, Woman of Action: A Memoir and Other Writings (2004) - Mary Ann Caws [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Maria Jolas, born Maria McDonald on January 12, 1893, Louisville, Kentucky, United States - died March 4, 1987 in Paris, France, was one of the founding members of transition in Paris, France with her husband Eugene Jolas.

Jolas also translated many works including Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.

Maria Jolas, Woman of Action - A Memoir and Other Writings was edited and introduced in 2004 by City University of New York professor Mary Ann Caws. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Jolas [Feb 2005]

Brooklyn Follies (2005) - Paul Auster

Brooklyn Follies (2005) - Paul Auster [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Yesterday at the Fnac (that culture temple of books, films and music which can be found in France and Belgium), I read the first pages of Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies. They were hilarious. [Aug 2006]

From the first page:

"I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn't been back in fifty-six years, and I remembered nothing. My parents had moved out of the city when I was three, but I instinctively found myself returning to the neighborhood where we had lived, crawling home like some wounded dog to the place of my birth. A local real estate agent ushered me around to six or seven brownstone flats, and by the end of the afternoon I had rented a two-bedroom garden apartment on First Street, just half a block away from Prospect Park. I had no idea who my neighbors were, and I didn't care. They all worked at nine-to-five jobs, none of them had any children, and therefore the building would be relatively silent. More than anything else, that was what I craved. A silent end to my sad and ridiculous life."

See also: folly - novel - 2005 - American literature

Absalom, Absalom! (1936) - William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (1936) - William Faulkner [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Multiple narrators, see Rashomon.

see also: 1936 - unreliable narrator

The End of the Story: A Novel (1995) - Lydia Davis

The End of the Story: A Novel (1995) - Lydia Davis
[FR] [DE] [UK]

"The last time I saw him, though I did not know it would be the last, I was sitting on the terrace with a friend and he came through the gate sweating, his face and chest pink, his hair damp, and stopped politely to talk to us."

More on the first sentence of novels here.


Lydia Davis (born 1947) is a contemporary American author and translator of French. She is the daughter of Robert Gorham Davis and Hope Hale Davis. From 1974 to 1978 Davis was married to Paul Auster, with whom she has a son.

She has published six collections of short stories, including The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (1976) and Break It Down (1986). Her most recent collection is Samuel Johnson is Indignant, published by McSweeney's in 2002. Her stories are acclaimed for their brevity and humour. Many are only one or two sentences. In fact some of her stories are considered poetry or somewhere between philosophy, poetry and short story.

Davis has also translated Proust, Blanchot, Foucault, Michel Leiris, and other French writers. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Davis [Oct 2006]

See also: translation - American literature - French literature

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