A Survey of American Literature

Literary Movements

Cult of True Womanhood / Separation of the Spheres

1700 - 1800

The Cult of True Womanhood was brought on as America industrialized. As factories opened and jobs became available, the public and private spheres of life were divided by gender; men made up the public sphere and woman composed the private sphere. Prior to the emergence of these factory jobs, men and women typically worked together on farms. The agricultural lifestyle had a less structured division of labor and less traditional marital roles. The new industrial jobs created the belief that women should be domestic if they wish to be a “true woman”. According to this value system, a woman was supposed to possess four traits: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. These strict social roles led many women to become dissatisfied and eventually rebel against what society dictated was correct.

Jim Crow Laws

1860 - 1960

Jim Crow laws refer to the laws that were implemented in the South to ensure that freed slaves remained second-class citizens. The economy of the South crumbled after the abolishment of slavery because the agricultural society relied heavily on the work the slaves preformed in the fields. Jim Crow Laws deemed that blacks and whites should be “separate but equal”, however blacks received poor treatment from whites. African Americans were required to pay poll taxes, pass literacy tests, and were intimidated by racist whites all to prevent the African American from voting. The laws caused massive unrest among the African Americans eventually leading to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement.


1890 - 1920

Naturalism was a movement in literature that began in the late 19th century and was the transition from the realist movement to the modernist movement. Naturalism focuses on man against forces he cannot fight such as nature and fate. This inability to control external forces leads many to describe naturalist writings and “depressing realism”. Naturalism focuses on the facts of life and addresses them in a realistic manner that is often rather gloomy. The writer remains objective in their writing, but displays pessimism through the actions of characters and the unfortunate fate that they encounter as a result of their actions.

Harlem Renaissance

1900 - 1929

In the late 20th century, de facto slavery was still practiced in the southern states, which led to the Great Migration; the movement of large numbers of African Americans from the south to urban areas in the North especially Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York and specifically Harlem. Harlem was a popular destination for the blacks in the Great Migration because during World War I, a large number of homes were built in Harlem for returning soldiers, but too many were built driving the price down and making them more alluring to the migrating African Americans. The concentration of African Americans in Harlem resulted in a sense of optimism among the race. The blacks became more educated; worked respectable, middle class jobs; and had time for recreation, art, and music. Langston Hughes was the most notable poet of the time capturing the artistry and optimism of the time that existed in Harlem, the center of black culture in the United States at the time.


1910 - 1945

Modernism was a literary movement that flourished in the 1920’s and was composed of authors commonly referred to as “ex-patriots” or “the lost generation” because many modernist authors were American born but then moved to Europe. Modernist writers were rather wealthy and able to attend Ivy League schools and travel the world. Many modernist writers were friends with one another and even edited and published each other’s works. In the beginning of the movement the writers lived and worked in the United States until the writers began to move to Europe steering many others to follow suit. Modernism was shaped by the world wars because modernism got it start abound the start of the first World War and ended around the conclusion of WWII. These wars, along with other events such as the Dust Bowl, Prohibition, and the fight for women’s suffrage, had a psychological effect of the authors of the period because they disrupted the stability of the past. People of the time felt that the coherence of life had been lost and were left asking what happened to the world.

Confessional Poets

1950 - 1963

Confessional poetry was a movement that began in the 1950’s that broke away from the objectivity of modernism and was written to be completely subjective. Confessional poetry includes personal details from the lives of the authors and incorporates them into the works. The movement began at the end of WWII when men returned home from the war and gender roles were expected to return to how they were prior to the war. Women were no longer as accepted in the workplace and the social structure was very repressive for women. The poetry was originally dismisses because it was not believed to be universal because it addressed women’s topics. It was later decided that the poetry explained the universal through the personal and was accepted and given merit. The most famous confession poets include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

The Beat Generation/ Beat Poets

1950 - 1963

The beat poets received their name from Jack Kerouac and his work On the Road, because the term “beat” could mean tired and defeated but could also mean blessed or angelic. The term stuck and the beat poets used the term to describe themselves. This counterculture of the 50’s inspired people to fight the social order, and ultimately lead to students oppose the Vietnam War, especially the group that became known as the “hippies”. Beat poets were a group composed mostly of men who were superstars of this underground culture. Poets of the time were avidly followed by fans and adored for their works. The biggest name in Beat Poetry is Allen Ginsberg, who is most famous for his work Howl. Ginsberg addressed topics such as homosexuality in his works suggesting the societal changes that were about to occur.

Black Civil Rights Movement/ Black Power Movement

1954 - 1975

The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movements were two simultaneous movements with the same goal, positive change for African Americans. The movements began with the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, which lead to school integration. The Civil Rights Movement is typically represented by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and receives a positive connotation because of the nonviolent protests that were associated with the movement. The commonly accepted leader of the Black Power Movement was Malcolm X; this movement was viewed negatively because members fought for racial equality “by any means necessary”. The Black Power Movement is perceived as a radical, violent group, but in reality they were responding to equally violent acts against them. During this period, many black churches were bombed, people were murdered solely because of their race, and hate crimes were rampant; these actions lead to the “by any means necessary” mentality of the movement, which was really for protection.

Post- Modernism

1960 - Present

Postmodernism is a literary movement that began in the 1960’s that consciously satirizes characteristics of our own society. Postmodernism ridicules our own societal habits by using irony, parody, and incorporating low and high cultures. The quintessential postmodern work is Don Delillo’s White Noise, published in 1985. Because of his ridicule of society in the work, White Noise remains relevant today and many of the predictions made in the work have actually come true. Postmodernism aims to improve society by pointing out the fallacies that exist.

Authors and Works

Leaves of Grass- Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman is recognized as the father of American poetry due to his use of a different form than poets before him. In his iconic work Leaves of Grass, which he published himself, Whitman aimed to define what it is to be American, a topic never addressed before. There were 11 different versions of Leaves of Grass released as Whitman edited and added to poems that were already in the publication. Leaves of Grass was so successful because Whitman presented himself as a common man writing for the common man. Whitman was not an elitist allowing him to connect with his audience and reach the level of success he attained.

"The Open Boat"- Steven Crane


Steven Crane was a naturalist writer in the late 19th century best known for his works about war. One of the main naturalist characteristics that Crane embodied was a realistic plot. “The Open Boat” is a fictional story, but the events in the story are entirely plausible. Crane also focuses on the class of the men in the story, another key aspect of naturalism. The men on the boat are all hard working, blue-collar individuals trying to make ends meet. Crane uses his characters to describe typical Americans at the time who were hard-nosed workers trying to support their families.

"The Awakening"- Kate Chopin


Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”, is considered a modernist work by some and a naturalist text to others. Chopin used this work to display her dissatisfaction with the societal role of women in her lifetime. Because of the nature of “The Awakening”, it is relevant to the Cult of True Womanhood and the Separation of the Spheres because Chopin disagrees with what these movements preached. Chopin uses Edna to point out the flaws with the expected roles of women and how ostracized someone who does not fill these roles feels. Edna’s suicide could have been prevented if society would have allowed her to be the independent woman she longed to be.

"Up From Slavery"- Booker T. Washington


Booker T. Washington was a leader during the Civil Rights Movement and believed in gaining economic power as a means to accruing civil rights. Washington strongly advocated for black education because he knew economic prosperity would follow. Once blacks became a large group economically, they would be impossible to ignore and whites would have to respect them. Washington also founded the first black college in the country, the Tuskegee Institute, in 1881 to educate African Americans to become teachers. “Up From Slavery” was Washington’s autobiography in which his passion and drive to educate African Americans and eventually reach social equality is clearly evident.

The Souls of Black Folk- W.E.B. Dubois


W.E.B. Dubois was a highly educated African American who advocated for civil rights. Dubois was a Harvard graduate who believed that the “Talented Tenth” would pull up black society up with them as they become educated and become respected by society. The “Talented Tenth” that Dubois refers to is the 10% of blacks that must receive a college education and get good jobs so that African Americans are more accepted and respected by their society. Dubois was also instrumental in founding the NAACP to help advance African Americans as a race.

"South of the Slot"- Jack London


“South of the Slot” embodies the masculinity and hard working aspects of naturalism. Freddie Drummond transforms from a well-educated, high class individual into the rugged, blue-collar Bill Totts and is the hero of the story. London, like many naturalist writers, uses a male protagonist because of the superiority men enjoyed at the time. As London describes Totts work on the South side of San Francisco, we see how the working conditions were at the time and how hard people had to work to earn their money. Through this story, London displays the ambitious nature of our country at the time.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock- T.S. Eliot


T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888 and is the face of the Modernist movement. Although Eliot was American born, he lived in England for majority of his life, much like other Modernist authors. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” depicts the modern man in Eliot’s society. The poem displays the negative, hopeless feeling many people living at the time the poem was written felt because of major events like WWI. Through Eliot’s works, we gain an understanding of the mindset of individuals living in the early 1900’s.

"I, Too"- Langston Hughes


Langston Hughes was one of the most important poets during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance resulted from The Great Migration in the late 20th century where blacks moved from the rural south to urban areas in the north; Harlem was one area that blacks flocked to. African Americans were able to buy middle class homes in Harlem because of a surplus of housing built for soldiers returning from WWI. As a result, Harlem became a center for African American culture and art, music, and literature flourished there. Langston Hughes was one of the most influential poets during this movement because his writings encapsulated the optimism that existed in African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance.

Passing- Nella Larsen


Nella Larsen’s Passing explores a topic that is not commonly addressed when discussing the Civil Rights Movement, mixed race individuals pretending to be white. Whites received many advantages that blacks were unable to enjoy simply because of racial differences. Larsen shows readers the lengths that African Americans were willing to go to for the rights that whites had. Larsen also displays the tension that existed between the races and how poorly African Americans were treated. Due to abuse by society, passing as white was often practiced by anyone who could appear white so they could receive better treatment.

"A Supermarket in California"- Allen Ginsberg


Allen Ginsberg was the face of the Beat Poets when the group came to prominence in the 50’s. He used his works to address the major cultural events that were taking place while he wrote including the Cold War, development of Interstate highways, and an emerging sense of nationalism sweeping the country. Ginsberg was a rock star during his time, gaining a huge following of other members of the counterculture of the 50’s. Ginsberg achieved great fame and was friends with a number of other famous figures of the time including Amiri Baraka, one of the most important figures of the Black Arts Movement. During the 50’s homosexuality was treated as a disease, making Ginsberg an outcast to mainstream America. Ginsberg’s success helped to draw attention to the issue of homosexuality in our country and attempt to gain equal treatment for that group.

"Her Kind"- Anne Sexton


Anne Sexton was a confessional poet who began writing poetry in 1957 per the advice of a doctor after her attempted suicide. Sexton’s poetry was dark and included details from her personal life to address mainly issues regarding the role of women in society. In Sexton’s writings, her mental instability is apparent and almost foreshadows her suicide in 1974. The popularity of Sexton’s work helped to make progress for women, although Sexton was never able to see the fruits of her labor.

Dutchman- Amiri Baraka


Amiri Baraka was the father of the Black Arts Movement that began in 1955. The literature of the time was very political and fought for the rights of African Americans. In the works, African Americans displayed their dissatisfaction with their current society and called for change. As a result, many works did not receive any literary merit until long after their publication because the art of the time was often labeled propaganda because of the intertwinement of current events, opinions, and literature. Baraka’s leadership helped the Black Arts Movement to be successful and achieve the long lasting effect it has had on our society.

"Daddy"- Sylvia Plath


Sylvia Plath lived a similar life to her friend and confessional poet counterpart Anne Sexton. Plath’s poetry is also characterized by its dark, hopeless nature, which is often attributed to her mental illness that ultimately led to her suicide in 1963. Plath resented the gender roles that had emerged in the U.S. after men returned home from WWI. Women were once again expected to take care of the home and raise children, an expectation that Plath loathed; her hate for these roles is evident in many of her popular works. Plath’s poetry remains popular today for it’s attacks on oppressive gender roles.

"Trust Me"- John Updike


John Updike was one of the most versatile fiction writers of all time. His works included novels, short stories, poetry, children’s books, and even a play. Because of his wide variety of works, it is difficult to assign a literary movement to associate with Updike. In “Trust Me”, Updike employs vivid imagery and details into the work giving his readers a clear picture of what is happening in the story. The story also explores the long lasting memories from childhood and applies them to adult life. After the swimming incident, Harold understands human nature more and is able to characterize people as either like his mother or his father.

The House on Mango Street


Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street takes a different look at the American dream and the concept of home. Because Esperanza moved so frequently, she had no real concept of a home; her idea of home was only in her head and did not really exist. The first person point of view that Cisneros employs puts readers in Espranza’a shoes and we learn her lessons with her throughout the story. Cisneros shows us how the American Dream can be a prison, especially for women because they can be literally trapped in the home and forced to take care of it. We understand how the symbol for the American Dream, the home, can be twisted into something completely different.

White Noise- Don Delillo


Don Delillo’s White Noise is the quintessential postmodern text. Delillo satirizes American culture by pointing out flaws that we may not even realize existed. By reading the novel, readers understand how foolish some of the habits we practice are. As a result, readers are conscious of our flaws and we can attempt to change them and improve society as a whole. The main fallacy that Delillo addresses in White Noise is fear of death as Delillo uses Jack Gladney to point out how irrational this fear is although it is very common.

Beloved- Toni Morrison


Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an important text in addressing the lives of African Americans and women. Beloved offers a different perspective of slavery then we are accustomed to by displaying the awful, long-term psychological effects that slavery had on African Americans. Sethe shows us the lengths that people were willing to go to prevent their loved ones from being forced to endure the evils they had to face. Beloved makes us understand that slavery is even worse than we were taught in school and shows us what the terrible institution did to its victims psychologically.

"In the Field"- Tim O'Brien


Tim O’Brien mainly writes about the Vietnam War, but his writing hold deeper meaning than simply being war stories. O’Brien uses vivid details in his writing and is able to evoke a tremendous emotional response from his readers by how he introduces his characters. O’Brien is difficult to classify as a writer because of the messages in his writings. Through telling war stories, O’Brien is able to teach readers about life and present a moral to his works for readers to pick up on.

"Vampires In The Lemon Grove"- Karen Russell


Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” takes on a magical realism. The story includes many details and an objective view of nature while still incorporating mystical aspects into the story by adding vampires as characters. The text also embodies realism because the story concludes with Clyde’s death. His death restores order because it eliminates the complications that existed when he pursued his relationship with Magreb. Although realism surfaced long before Russell began writing, her works make it clear that Realism still exists today.