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History and Development of Indian Literature

  • Indian History
  • Indian Literature

Table of contents

A brief history of indian literature, tagore: the arch-writer, dalit writers, development of indian english literature , the impact of western education.


Without a doubt, the Indian literary tradition is one of the oldest in the world. It comprises 22 officially recognized tribal and foreign languages like Persian, French, Portuguese and English. While a significant amount of the Indian literature is written, a lot more is propagated orally in regional languages, all of which have received an enormous reception worldwide. 

The first ancient Indian literature was Sanskrit literature which comprised Rig Veda, Mahabharata, and Kannada , all of which were written in the first millennium BCE. They were then followed by Marathi, Urdu and into the modern times, with Rabindra Nath Tagore, a bengali writer who went on to become the first Indian to receive a Nobel Prize for his literary work.

During the anti-colonial period, the Indians began gauging themselves with the rest of the world in education. To keep pace with the world’s developed literature, the Indian linguist created genres unknown to the past. Genres like fiction, essay, lyrical poetry, theatre, criticism and literary history started to be all been shaped according to Indian demands and public reception.

The essence of the writings suffered a sea-change, apart from revolution in forms. The increasing pace of industrialization and urbanization exposed literary imagination to the experience of the city. The impact of science and rationality encouraged authors to criticise institutions and practises that did not otherwise face logical scrutiny. The other worldly concerns of pre-modern literature gave way to a growing curiosity for the current reality around them. In addition to bringing the ancient gods, Indian creativities established new gods. Men in society and nature were the foremost of these.

Literature education has been made easy as students can use the best academic services available online when doing college assignments like writing work, essay writing, and other services. Students often use Edubirdie when they face complex essays and research topics. This is especially true when they come from a different background but have to write in another.


Tagore is a perfect representation of traditional and modern Indian writers. Although he was deeply interested in Indian traditions, he cannot be said to be a traditionalist. He was not a blind modernist, even though he was attracted by West and the rest of the world. In plays like Bisorjon , he dramatized his dissatisfaction with the outmoded conventions. He also criticised the blind pursuit of modernity in Muktadhara without regard to humans and nature.

The same can be said about some of his fiction works and poetry; they created matchless idioms, communion, solitude and hope. In one line, Tagore calls upon the nation to let love be the light of the world.

Being the most significant Indian literature figure in the 20th century, most of his writings typifies many other outstanding contemporary writings in different native languages like Kuvempu, Subrahmanya, Kannada Prasad Hindi.

After Independence, this attitude of millennial hope changed. The self-axis and the world axis never converge in fantasy as it does in reality. Although the fruits of the liberation from the yoke of foreign authority fell into Indians’ hands, with the new dawn there was violence. The killing of Mahatma Gandhi , the father of the nation, the division of the subcontinent into India, and Pakistan, led to massacres that took heavy toll of life and property during the Hindu/Muslim revolt.  Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said, ‘This is a false dawn. Caravan, move on,’ 

There were two reactions to this disillusionment: one was the sorrowful hope that the world would be reconstructed; another was to undertake a clinical diagnosis of the disease. The first led to the progressive writing movement, an ideology that puts an end to inequity and exploitation; while the second led to introspective modernism. Novels such as Tamas (Hindi) by Bhisham Sahani and Alai Osai (Tamil) by Kalki made a healthy diagnosis of communal hysteria and called upon the depths of humanism. Nabanna, Bijon Bhattacharya’s tragic Bengal classic, spoke about universal hunger in Bengal during the fake famine. 

The introverted withdrawal from each other’s space was visible in works of writers like the Bengali poet Jibanandadas or the Gujarati poet Raoji Patel: ‘When did I become an alien, tell me, in your house?’ Sometimes, in works of great writers like the Hindi poet Muktibodh the twin impulses to optimism and despair combined.

The works of the progressive group were directed towards Soviet socialist realism while the introverts were affected by modernism in the West. The shifting literary forms mirrored this. In modernist experimentation, Fiction bid farewell to linear narrative, poetry to metre and drama. In the 1960s and 1970, the French academy of existentialist philosophy found great favour. For example Ashadh Ka Ek Din by Mohan Rakesh (Hindi) and Yayati by Khandekar (Marathi), the alienation of the author from his self and from the world was dramatised.

In the literature created in India following the mid-70s, the anguish and boredom of the modernists and the futural comforts of the progressives were examined critically. This period saw the growth of formerly disadvantaged, non-literate parts of marginalised India, not simply just the proclamation of emergency; dalits, tribals and women, which began to understand the self and the world in different light than their predecessors.


Dalit authors first began dismantelling the complete edifice of Indian ideals in Maharashtra and later in other regions, with the teachings of the first large modern Dalit leader, Ambedkar. They have not only punished in the heart of their burning poems the foundations of Caste Society like the Marathi poet, Namdev Dhasal, but also challenged the same society to rebirth. The autobiographic form was restored in a fresh way by Dalit sensibility in several languages. Even the straightforward story of their lives was a severe shock to the respectable society.

The best Dalit authors introduced not only a new substance but also a revolutionary new language, which drew pictures and metaphors of the non Dalit world unknown to people in life. They produced great heroes from the ordinary men and women of Dalit. Sakavva, the protagonist of Devanuru Mahadeva’s Kannada Dalit novel, has the claim of being scared of Yama’s Death, for she cannot conceive of greater pain than she has previously experienced.


Since the beginning of the first millennium, there have always been excellent female writers in India, among whom some excel their male counterparts in creative talent. The women who debuted in the 70s, however, reveals a new kind of relationship with the world. They refused to look at the world from male bifocals and started to honour their ideas of women. Senior writers such as Mahashweta Devi (Bengali) and Sugathakumari (Malayalam) had blazed the way in their books.

The emergence and growth of feminist movements had given women the defiant idiom of a writer, based on the rejection of male idiom, as in the mighty expressions of the first Dalit English woman poet, Meena Kandasami.

Tribal and other marginalised authors, like Dalits and women, are adding to contemporary Indian literature.


India’s development in English Literature gained momentum as British imperialism became more consolidated in India. The first definitive Indian work in English has a diversity of opinions, however critics agree that Indian literature in English goes back to at least the early 19th century. Three sources give their impetus to its origins – educational reforms by the British Government, missionary activities, and the reception by the upper-class Indians of English and literature.  

English literature was developed in India because of the mixture of the social codes between British and Indians. The mindset of the people and a wider acceptance in the country of the English language led many writers to use English as a medium of education and expression, which led to the steady development of English literature.

The work of writers continues to be valued by award-winning institutions like Jnanpeeth and Saraswati Samman, centre academies and states, as well as by large sections of readers. The creative expression of literature in India is now ready for another significant change, as e-books come, internet space is being opened and new techniques of electronic reproduction are being introduced.

One cannot doubt the significance of western education on the growth and development of Indian literature. When the Indians embraced western education, literature writers had no choice but to develop literature pieces that were in line with western education.

Today, things have become even better as new Indian literature students have better facilities at their disposal. Modern tools like citation generators , digital resources for references etc have proven to be of great benefit.

The reception of foreign languages in India, especially the English language, brought many radical changes, yet history still views mixed feelings. Thus, the rise of Indian literature can be attributed to the intermingling of social codes between the colony and colonialist Indians and British. The British changed the mindset of the Indian literature writers and prompted many writers to improve their writings and embrace English as a medium of literature development.

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Ancient Indian Literature

Last updated on December 17, 2022 by ClearIAS Team

ancient indian literature

The apex of Indian culture has been ancient literature, which demonstrates the masters’ wide range of aptitude and expertise. Do you know the history of ancient literature? What are the main topics discussed by them? What is their classification? What is the importance of Ancient literary works? Read the article to know more about Ancient Indian Literature.

Perhaps no other region in the world has created such a substantial amount of literature about knowledge and wisdom than India. For more than 300 years, Sanskrit—first in its Vedic form, then in its classical form—dominated India’s literary tradition

Table of Contents

The oldest known piece of Indian literature is known as the Rig Veda, which consists of 1028 hymns written in Vedic Sanskrit. Although the majority of the ancient Indian literary works that have survived are religious texts, it is erroneous to characterise ancient Indian literature exclusively in terms of religion.

Indian literature spans a variety of literary forms, including epics, songs, dramatic and didactic poetry, narrative and scientific writing, as well as oral poetry and music. Two ancient Indian epics are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Prior to the Gupta dynasty , a lot of secular literary works were produced. During this time, poetry and drama were in their prime.

The principal topics of these works included political events, allegories, comedies, romances, and philosophical issues. In Southern India, ancient Indian writings were written in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, four Dravidian languages that also established their own literature and script.

The earliest of these, with literature from the first decades of the Christian era, is Tamil. Three Sangams (meetings of poets and writers) held at separate eras resulted in this development. Sangam literature frequently explores the topics of politics, love, and war.

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 Vedic Literature

  • Between the end of the Indus Valley Civilization and the start of the second urbanisation in the central Indo-Gangetic Plain in 600 BCE, India’s history is known as the Vedic period, or Vedic age (c. 1500–c. 500 BCE).
  • When the Vedic literature, which includes the Vedas, was written in the northern Indian subcontinent (1300-900 BCE).
  • The Vedas are vast collections of religious writings from ancient India that were written in Vedic Sanskrit.
  • They are the earliest texts in both Sanskrit literature and Hinduism.
  • It is said that the Vedas were transmitted orally from one generation to the next.
  • They are frequently referred to as Shruti as a result. The four Vedas are Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda, and Rig Veda .
  • The mantra text of each Veda is known as a Samhita.

There are two types of Vedic literature:

  •   Shruti Literature
  •   Smriti Literature

Shruti literature – The term “Shruti Literature” refers to the sacred texts, which include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads and is derived from the word “Shruti,” which means “to hear.”Since it is canonical, contains revelation, and contains unquestionable truth, shruti literature is regarded as eternal.

Smriti literature – The word “Smiriti,” which refers to supplementary information that could change over time, literally means “to be remembered.”Vedanga, Shad Darshana, Puranas, Itihasa, Upveda, Tantras, Agamas, and Upangas are all part of the Smriti literature.

Ramayana And Mahabharata

  • Two ancient Indian epics are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
  • These have been in their current form for millennia and represent the ethnic memory of the Indian people.
  • They were transmitted orally over the years by singers and storytellers, and they were probably first recorded in the second century BCE.
  • Generally credited to Maharishi Valmiki is the epic Ramayana.
  • The 24000 verses that make up the Ramayana are organised into seven Khandas, or volumes.
  • It’s written in a poetic style with both entertainment and education in mind. It is Rama’s story, and it describes how to achieve the four Purusharthas of human existence: Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.
  • With one million lines, The Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written.
  • The Itihasa Purana, or Mythical History, is what it is called (because this history is not merely the depiction of events that happened, but these are the events that will always happen and repeat).
  • It was written by Vyasa and recounts the succession struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravs for the crown, weaving together numerous incidents to create one epic.
  • In addition to the main story of the fight, a later addendum to the Bhagavad Gita also includes an integrated view of Dharma (performance of righteous duty in the selfless way of Nishkama Karma).

They helped Hinduism develop from the ancient Vedic faith. In Sanskrit, the word “Purana” literally translates as “to resurrect the old.”Most likely during the third and eleventh centuries AD, the Puranas were written.

The literature of the Puranas is broad and addresses a variety of subjects, including but not limited to:

  • Genealogy/Medicine
  • Goddesses and Gods

They were written in order to show the populace the veracity of the Vedas. The Puranas impart philosophical and theological principles via well-known folklore and mythological tales.

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The Puranas contain numerous tales and anecdotes from India’s religious, social, and cultural past when paired with the Ithihas (Ramayana and Mahabharata).

Based on the writings of Lomaharshana (a Ved Vyasa), the 18 Upa Puranas

Earlier Buddhist writings

  • The Buddha’s teachings were rehearsed and approved in the First Council in 483 BC, and then they were divided into the Three Pitakas.
  • His instructions were recorded in Pali somewhere around 25 BCE.
  • The earliest Buddhist literature is in Pali. The Sutta Pitaka is a collection of conversations between the Buddha and his followers.
  • A compendium of rules for monastic organisations is known as the Vinaya Pitaka.
  • The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a systematised philosophical analysis of monks’ academic and teaching output.
  • The Divyavadana, Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Milind Panha, among others, are important Buddhist texts.
  • The Milindapanho is a compilation of conversations between the Indo-Greek king Menander and the Buddhist Nagasena.
  • The Jatakas are an important part of early Buddhist literature and are a collection of tales that have been incorporated into many sculptures.
  • Ashvaghosha is the author of the Sanskrit book Buddhacharita, which details the Buddha’s life.

Important Indian ancient Sanskrit literary works

Some of the ancient Indian literary works include the following:


  • Time period-4th century to the 8th century CE
  • Author – Visakhadatta
  • Vishakadatta’s political intrigue Mudrarakshasa, which was written in the sixth century CE, is set in an intriguing era of Indian history. At the beginning of the play, Chanakya tries to persuade Rakshasa to join his cause so that Chandragupta can have a capable minister on his side. The name Mudrarakshasa alludes to Rakshasa’s signet ring. It was taken by a spy for Chanakya.


  • Time period-2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE
  • Author-Kautilya
  • An ancient Indian text written in Sanskrit on statecraft, political science, economics, and military strategy is known as the Arthashastra. The Arthashastra is a text on politics, economics, military strategy, governmental function, and social organisation that is attributed to the philosopher and prime minister Kautilya (also known as Chanakya).


  • Time period-5th century
  • Author-Kalidasa
  • Kalidasa wrote the Sanskrit play Malavikagnimitram.It is his first play, and it is based on a number of incidents that took place under Pushyamitra Shunga. The tale of Agnimitra, the Shunga Emperor in Vidisha, and his love for the lovely handmaiden of his chief queen is told in Malavikagnimitram.


  • Time period-5th century CE
  • In the fifth century CE, Kalidasa wrote the play Vikramorvasiyam.The plot centres on a human who develops feelings for a celestial girl. The piece is renowned for a “crazy scene” in which the bereaved monarch wanders through a beautiful forest while apostrophizing different flowers and trees as if they were his love. One interpretation states that the term “Vikrama” in the title refers to Vikramaditya, the patron king of Kalidasa.
  • The great poet Kalidasa created the literary masterpiece Raghuvamsa. The drama’s creator, Raghuvamsa Kalidasa, is honoured. The drama centres on Lord Rama’s ancestors, descendants, and the legendary warrior Raghu. The heroism and power of the legendary warrior Raghu are major themes of Raghuvamsam. It chronicles the lives of some of India’s greatest military rulers. Lord Rama is without a doubt the most well-known of them all, as his life’s story was preserved in the ancient epic Ramayana.


  • Time period – 5th century CE
  • Author-Sudraka
  • Mricchakatika is a drama that takes place during the rule of King Plaka of the Pradyota dynasty in the historic city of Ujjayanai, India. Vasantasena is a wealthy courtesan or nagarvadhu who falls in love with Charudatta, a noble but poor young Brahmin. The play stands out among the existing Sanskrit plays for concentrating on a hypothetical situation rather than a classic tale or legend.


  • Time period-6th century
  • Author-Bharavi
  • The epic poem Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi is regarded as the most potent piece of Sanskrit literature. In eighteen cantos, Lord Shiva’s battle with Arjuna (who took the form of a kirata, or “mountain-dwelling hunter”) at Indrakeeladri Hills near Vijayawada is described. It is one of the three main Sanskrit mahakavyas, or great epics, together with the Naisadhacarita and the Shishupala Vadha.


  • Time period- 7th or 8th century
  • Author- Magha
  • Magha created the Shishupala Vadha, a masterwork of classical Sanskrit poetry, in the 7th or 8th century (kavya). This Sanskrit poem, or kavya, is based on one of the epics, specifically the Mahabharata. Lord Krishna is enraged by Shishupala, the king of the Chedis in central India after he insults him repeatedly in an assembly. Shishupala is then killed.
  • Time period-400 BCE to 300 CE
  • Author-Vatsyayana
  • The Kamasutra stands out among Sanskrit literature for having a nearly complete disregard for caste and class (varna) (jati). The writing style combines prose with poetry in the anustubh metre. The literature makes reference to the Purusharthas, or acceptable life goals, which are defined as desire, sexuality, and emotional fulfilment. The chapters of the book cover a variety of topics, including courtship, finding a partner, flirting, and maintaining authority in marriage.

Sangam Literature

  • Around the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., South India (the region south of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers) saw the Sangam Period.
  • Four Dravidian languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam—evolved their own literature and script and were used to transcribe ancient Indian manuscripts in Southern India.
  • The best work was published in anthologies, which were censored by distinguished thinkers who congregated at the sangams.
  • These literary works served as the earliest illustrations of Dravidian literature.
  • The earliest of them, Tamil, has literature that dates back to the very beginning of the Christian era.
  • This developed throughout the period of three Sangams, which were gatherings of poets and scribes that took place at various times.
  • Politics, love, and war are all common themes in Sangam literature.
  • Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, and Tolkappiyam are two significant works from the era.
  • The most well-known author of our time is Thiruvalluvar, who wrote Kural, a book that touches on many facets of life and religion.
  • Elango Adigal penned Silappathikaram, and Sittalai Sattanar wrote Manimegalai, the two sagas.
  • Additionally, they provide insightful information on Sangam politics and society.

Importance of Ancient literary works

  • There is a great deal more to understand and absorb from ancient Indian literature than only the Vedas and epics.
  • Ancient literature also explains the Dharmashastras, which define a person’s obligations and describe how a person should develop as a character. Shastras encompassed mathematics and science.
  • Kautilya’s book Arthashastra, written in Sanskrit, discusses economic and governmental policy.
  • The popularity of Buddhist literature written in the Pali language also increased. It includes works of Buddhist literature like poetry, philosophy, and some grammar.
  • Ancient Indian literature is both beautiful and challenging to read and understand.
  • The formation of a person’s character and the quest for happiness are both facilitated by the Vedas, Shastras, and Upanishads.
  • The primary subjects of old Sanskrit poets included love, nature, panegyric, moralising, and narrative.
  • The ancient poets spoke passionately of physical love when it came to love; they saw nature in connection to man rather than for its own sake.
  • The Sanskrit Kavya reaches a level of quality and perfection unmatched in Kalidasa’s literature.

In its broadest sense, Indian literature encompasses both religious and commonplace writing, epic and lyric poetry, dramatic and didactic poetry, narrative and academic prose, as well as oral poetry and music. There is perhaps no other region of the world that has produced such a vast array of knowledge and wisdom books. Indian literature from the past is both beautiful and challenging to read and comprehend.

Article Written By: Atheena Fathima Riyas

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Introduction: Indian Literature and the World

  • First Online: 31 March 2017

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literature indian history

  • Rossella Ciocca 3 &
  • Neelam Srivastava 4  

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In what follows, we propose a working model of contemporary Indian literature characterized by four features: firstly, it is multilingual, hence our volume draws on the specific linguistic expertise of scholars whose work is included in the collection; secondly, it is translational, namely we consider the process and politics of translation as central to the construction of a pan-Indian canon (also through the contribution of contemporary publishing practices); thirdly, it is comparative, because it is necessary to conceive of Indian literatures in the plural while arguing for the importance of comparing these literatures with each other as a way forward for scholarship; fourthly, it is a simultaneously located and internationalist literature, which we understand as being premised on a multilingual literary sphere in which translation plays a prominent role. Rather than attempting to approximate Indian literature to the fashionable centre-periphery model adopted by critics who have used world-systems theory for re-structuring the modern literary field, we look at its enduring engagement with the public sphere and with political resistance through a variety of narrative and poetic forms that defy any categorization within a singular model of literary modernism emanating from the capitalist centres and re-appropriated by the peripheries. Engaging in recent debates about the limitations of postcolonial theoretical approaches to literature, this edited collection aims to offer a different picture of contemporary Indian writing than what is currently available today.

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Recent critiques of such approaches include Neil Lazarus ( 2011 ), Benita Parry ( 2004 ), and Timothy Brennan ( 2006 ). Indeed they can be said to include most of the proponents of the materialist strand in postcolonial studies, who seem to want to do away with the field altogether.

Studies dedicated to Indian postcolonial literature as writing in English are too numerous to list here. Scholars who have contributed major and defining works in this area include Rajeswari Sunder Rajan ( 1992 , 1993 ), Priya Joshi ( 2002 ), Bishnupriya Ghosh ( 2004 ), Jyotsna Singh ( 1996 ), Deepika Bahri ( 2003 ), Rashmi Varma ( 2012 ), Pablo Mukherjee ( 2010 ), and Alex Tickell ( 2012 ), among many others. It is extraordinarily interesting to note the recent shift in focus to the role played by multilingualism and translation in scholarship on postcolonial Indian writing: Rashmi Sadana’s English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012 ), and two recent volumes on Arun Kolatkar as a bilingual poet, Laetitia Zecchini’s Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines ( 2014 ) and Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture ( 2016 ) are among the most salient works published to date. Francesca Orsini’s major new project, ‘Multi-Lingual Locals and Significant Geographies: A New Approach to World Literature’ (Orsini 2016 ), funded by the European Research Council, promises to be a groundbreaking intervention in debates on world literature, conducting the study of multilingual literary cultures and an ethics of comparison across three regions: North India, Morocco, and Ethiopia. See https://www.soas.ac.uk/cclps/research/multilingual-locals-and-significant-geographies/ .

More specifically, Robert Young reminds us that ‘before postcolonial cultural critique was developed as a political and academic practice, the term “post-colonial” (usually in the hyphenated form) was used in the social sciences with a specific Marxist reference […] to post-independence Marxist states’ ( 2001 : 58).

See Robert Young ( 2012 ) for a defence of the continued need for and relevance of a postcolonial approach to contemporary theory.

Nicholas Harrison takes issue with David Damrosch’s argument that while different societies and cultures have different notions of what literature is, it is best defined pragmatically as ‘whatever texts a given community of readers takes as literature’ (Damrosch qtd in Harrison 2014 : 423). This approach poses a problem for ‘world literature’ because not all cultures may have the same pragmatic notion of literature as Damrosch does, nor the same boundaries between the sacred and the secular, as the Rushdie affair showed.

For a fuller discussion of the political issues that led to the construction of ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ as separate linguistic entities, see Francesca Orsini ( 2010 ) and Aamir Mufti ( 2016 ), pp. 119–130.

Orsini discusses the traffic between translation and nation-forming in the context of Hindi during the nationalist period in her unpublished paper, ‘National Literature and Translation: Metaphors, Understandings and Translation Practices Before and After Independence’ ( 2011 ). In a different though possibly related context, the translation into regional languages of the writings of the great Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar was a major trigger for the emergence of a Dalit political identity.

Marathi Sammelans (meetings focusing on Marathi culture) take place all over the world, including Dubai and Scotland. See, for example, Neeta Kolhatkar, ‘Dubai to Host World Marathi Sammelan’ (January 11, 2010 ), http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-dubai-to-host-world-marathi-sammelan-1333237 .

Aamir Mufti’s Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016 ) and Pheng Cheah’s What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016 ) are among the most recent books on the subject.

Mufti’s book examines the development of world literature as an idea from a specific location, that of India.

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism , London: Verso.

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We would like to thank Aishwarya Subramanian for all her excellent work in copy-editing and proofreading this volume. We would also like to thank Chicago University Press and the journal Critical Inquiry for allowing us to republish Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay in slightly revised and edited form. The essay originally appeared with the title ‘Zeitgeist and the Literary Text: India, 1947, in Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children ’, in Critical Inquiry , volume 40, issue 4, Summer 2014, pp. 439–465. Also we would like to thank Penguin Random House India and Kamala Das’s estate for permission to use excerpts from Kamala Das, Selected Poems , edited and Introduced by Devindra Kohli.

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Ciocca, R., Srivastava, N. (2017). Introduction: Indian Literature and the World. In: Ciocca, R., Srivastava, N. (eds) Indian Literature and the World. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-54550-3_1

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Foundations of Medieval Indian Literature: 600 CE to 1700 CE

Medieval Indian literature begins from the 7th century when Alwars and Nayanmars, a group of devotional poets appeared in South India. These devotional poets developed a literature completely different from classical literature in Sanskrit and Tamil.

We can divide medieval age in Indian literature in two major phases:

  • Early Medieval Indian Literature that was produced between 7th to 14th century
  • Late Medieval Indian Literature that was produced between 14th to 18th century: This is the period in which literary giants such as Kabir, Guru Nanak, Tulsidas, Sankaradeva, Sarala Das, Ezhuthachan, Potana, Chandidas and Narasimha Mehta wrote.

Before we explore middle age in Indian literature, we must keep in mind that India is a vast and diverse country, where multiple languages and dialects are spoken, and varied literatures are produced. Hence, there are multitude of linguistic, religious, political, cultural, and philosophical factors that have shaped the literatures of the period co-existing throughout the country.

Despite a perpetual power struggle throughout the northern and southern regions of the country, Medieval Indian Literature remained more or less unaffected. There was no direct relationship between literary innovations and political changes. Indian literature during the middle ages was more directly impacted by patronage, linguistic, and religious scenarios. The literature produced during the 7th - 14th century can be distinctly categorized as:

  • Literature produced in royal courts. Works belonging to the medieval period were written for the elite. Therefore, they were written in Sanskrit. The literature produced in royal courts was mostly recited and read. Medieval Indian literature in Sanskrit was conditioned and controlled by royal patrons.
  • Literature produced under the patronage of religious groups, temples, mathas, and monasteries. These works were written in languages usually other than Sanskrit. This literature was mostly religious and was meant to be sung to the masses. It was accompanied by musical instruments and dance performances. Literature produced by Śaiva and Vaishnava saints reflected their religious thoughts, while Jain and Buddist monks used literature as an effective instrument to propagate their respective religious ideas.

Political Scenario

Signature of King Harshavardhana

There was no singular, stable political power in the country. The Gupta Empire had ended by the middle of the 6th century. One of the most prominent kings in the first half of the 7th century was King Harshavardhana who ruled from 606 CE to 647 CE. He was a playwright and a patron of poetry. After his death, many new dynasties ruled North India for short periods of time. Some of the more distinct dynasties of North India were the Palas of Bihar and Bengal, the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan, and the Gujara-Pratiharas of Malwa and Rajasthan. In South India too, there was no stability. There was a constant conflict among three dynasties-- the Chalukyas of Badami, the Pallavas of Kanchi, and the Pandyas of Madurai.

Linguistic Scenario

There were significant societal and linguistic changes in India around the 6th century that affected literature of the time. Linguistically, the medieval age of Indian literature lies in the second and third stages of the Middle Indo-Aryan period. Throughout medieval Indian literature, there existed a tension, a dilemma among the writers, to either choose Sanskrit, the language of the elite and educated, or to write in the language of the masses. For example, the Jains (who wrote in Prakrit) and Buddhists (who wrote in Pali) did not completely abandon Sanskrit, despite writing in the languages of the masses. During this period, there also existed tension between Sanskrit, which was supported by the kings of Pallava and Chola dynasties, and Tamil that had continued to gain popularity through the Bhakti movement, initiated by the Saivas and the Vaishnavas. While for the Saivas, Sanskrit and Tamil enjoyed equal importance, there was a split within the Vaishnavas into thenkalai and vadakalai. Thenkalai was the southern school of learning that supported Tamil, while Vadakalai was the northern school of learning that supported Sanskrit. Although many bhashas attempted to challenge Sanskrit’s lingual supremacy, it persisted throughout medieval Indian literature.

The Apabhramsa period (700 CE - 1000 CE)

The final stage of the Middle Indo-Aryan period is also known as the Apabhramsa period. Apabhramsa is the name of the final stages of the Prakrit languages that were the dominant languages of the Middle Indo-Aryan period, and had originated from Sanskrit. The most important languages of this period were Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa, and Pali.

Conventionally, the term Apabhramsa indicated inferior, sub-standard or corrupt speech. While Patanjali (the grammarian of 2nd century BC) considered Apabhramsa a corrupt speech, it was considered as the dialect of Abhiras (cow herds) by the scholar poet Dandin, who raised it to a literary status. Finally, scholars like Anandavardhana and Rajashekhara recognised it as a literary language. Sauraseni Apabhramsa was developed from the Sauraseni Prakrit and it was this language in which literatures were produced.

The Decline of Pali

Image of Manuscript written in Pali

During the medieval period of Indian literature, the status of Pali, the dominant language of Buddhist literature began to decline. The last great scholar who had written in Pali was Budhhaghosha , a Buddhist scholar in the 5th-6th century. The two significant works written in Pali are:

  • Padya Chudamani by Buddhaghosha (not the same as above)- a life story of Buddha in ten cantos. It may have been composed in the 12th century
  • Jinacharita by Medhankara- a 470 stanzas long poem about the life of Buddha, composed in the 13th century.

After the decline of Pali by the end of the 12th century, it was Sanskrit that became the literary language of Buddhism.

Status of Sanskrit

An image of manuscript in Sanskrit

Sanskrit was the language of the educated and elite, spoken exclusively by Brahmins. It enjoyed prestige and reverence throughout the country. Unlike Dravidian languages such as Tamil, and more recent Kannada and Telugu, Sanskrit transcended regional boundaries and was a literary language throughout India.Prakrit and Apabhramsa too were prevalent in larger regions than Tamil. Even Tamil Nadu had many educational centers for Sanskrit. Although, male dominant, there were many women who composed poetry in Sanskrit. There is also evidence that the audience for literature produced in Sanskrit was not exclusively male. Despite being a significant and prestigious language, Sanskrit was not spoken by the masses. All the Puranas, Vedas, Upnishads were written in Sanskrit.

Status of Tamil

Palm leaf manuscript in Tamil

Tamil is the oldest language in India and was as powerful, popular and revered as Sanskrit. During the middle ages, Tamil changed significantly from the ancient Sangam Tamil. Nevertheless, the language has an uninterrupted history and since it underwent several significant changes throughout time, it has become both an ancient and a modern language at the same time. The language also enjoyed a larger readership or audience as compared to Sanskrit. The great and popular Bhakti literature was developed in Tamil.

Cultural Scenario of Medieval Indian Literature

Loss of folk literature.

Most of the Medieval Indian literature was either religious, or was produced for the elite royals. However, there also existed works that were for the entertainment of the common people. These works were neither religious, nor required any deep literary knowledge to enjoy them. Unfortunately, such works did not survive due to the lack of their preservation.

Modes of Transmission

During the middle ages, producing literary texts was difficult due to limited resources, illiteracy and high cost. Therefore, almost all medieval Indian literature was transmitted orally. This was done by professional story-tellers, singers, and performers, who used to memorize texts. The practice of silent reading did not exist at that time. Only religious and academic institutions, and the rich could afford to have libraries.

Places of Performance

As discussed above, medieval Indian literature was either produced at the court intended for the king, elite and the educated, or for religious or entertainment purposes intended for the masses. Literature for the masses was often performed or recited in the temples, while literature for the Kings was performed in the royal courts. The audience for court poetry was extremely selective and small. On the other hand, literature performed and recited in the temples was meant for larger audiences, irrespective of their social or economical status. The poetry and literature produced in the royal court was different from that produced for the masses.

Status of Authors

Idol of Nammalwar

The poets and authors who wrote for the royal courts were extremely educated Brahmins, belonging to reputed families. For example, Sudraka and Harsha were kings, Vishakhadatta was a prince, Bhavabhuti came from a family where Taittiiriyaveda was studied, and Bana was a Brahmin of Vatsyayanas. Dandin, who might be the author of the well known Kavyadarsha was also a renowned Brahmin scholar. Kumaradasa and Magha too had affluent ties.

The poets from the South belonged to both upper and lower class. Saint poets such as Appar and Nammalwar came from Vellala, while Tirruppan Alwar was a highly educated poet who belonged to a lower caste. Despite not belonging to the upper caste and not being rich, these saint poets were extremely revered by the masses. The Jain and Buddhist writers (or poets) were mostly monks and lived in monasteries. Female writers and poets were extremely few during this age. Most significant women writers of the era are Mahadeviyakka (Akka Mahadevi) who was among the earliest poets of Kannada literature, Karaikkal Ammaiyar (foremost figures of Tamil literature), and Andal or Kothai (the hindu poet-saint of South India).

Audience of Medieval Indian Literature.

Besides royal patrons, the audience of Medieval Indian Literature also impacted the kind of works that were produced. As discussed before, most of the Sanskrit poetry was recited to a very exclusive and elite audience. All Sanskrit literature during the 7th and 8th century referred to specific gosthis or group in the various fields of learning, art and literature. Gosthis were periodically assembled either at a public hall, at the houses of courtesans, or were hosted by any one of the nagarkars (aristocrats).  The group or the gosthi that was exclusively devoted to academic discussions on scriptures was called Sastragosthi. These discussions were conducted in the homes of learned ascetics. Gosthi that was focused on creative and critical writing was called Vidagdha gosthi. Members of this group were expected to be extremely creative and imaginative. Discussions held within Vidagdha gosthi led to the production of works like Kavyadarsha by Dandin. Kathagosthi was the group that was interested in imaginary, legendary, or biographical stories narrated in ornate kavya style. Works like Avantisundari Katha by Dandin were meant for Kathagosthi.

There also existed Sanskrit poetry that was recited to an audience that was not always attentive or receptive. To entertain and gain appreciation from such listeners, the poets prioritized immediate appeal rather than evoking emotions that could be appreciated later in peace and tranquility. Such poetry was full of captivating imagery, alliteration, similes and resembled lingual acrobatics. There was also a general shift in the nature of Sanskrit poetry. It had become decorative, pedantic and erotic. The unabashed eroticism in Sanskrit poetry was a conscious attempt by the poet to entertain the aristocrats.

Impact of Ancient literature on the Medieval Age

A scene from the Mahabharata

The medieval Indian literature inherited a vast religious and philosophically rich ancient literature. Even though ancient literature could not be preserved and memorized in its entirety, much of it continued to influence both the poets as well as the common masses.

The Vedas and the Upnishads were exclusively guarded by the Brahmins and were inaccessible to the general public. Nevertheless, the ideas and philosophy contained in them eventually penetrated among the masses and significantly influenced their culture, thought and literature. Among the most significant ancient epics that continued their influence throughout the medieval ages were the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both the epics underwent inevitable changes in the middle ages. However, they still retained their complex morality, imagination and preserved their antiquity.

Medieval Indian literature in Tamil was also significantly impacted by ancient works. The akam and puram poetry of the Sangam literature, the epic Silappadikaram by Jain author Ilango Adigal, Manimekalai by the Buddhist poet Maduraikkuavankar Cattanor and Tirukkural regulated the creativity of the poets and the writers of Medieval Indian literature.

One of the most significant and noticeable changes of the Medieval Indian Literature in Tamil is its transition from being secular to becoming thoroughly religious. Bhakti literature, the highlight of medieval Indian literature, did not sever its ties entirely from secular ancient literature. In classical Tamil literature, God was the model for the protagonist and many poets elevated the hero to a God-like pedestal. Eventually, the hero in ancient literary works began to be identified as God or divine. The devout saint poets of Bhakti literature protested against praising a king or a protagonist instead of God. It is interesting to note that the Alwars and Nayanmars never glorified temples erected by Kings in their literary works in spite of traveling and visiting them throughout the country.

Impact of Religion on Medieval Indian literature

Lord Vishnu and his avatars

Medieval literature was deeply connected with religion and philosophy of that time. In Medieval India, God was the center of life, and almost all creative activities were dedicated to divine power. It was believed that all creative power was a gift of the almighty. Thus, the ultimate underlying motive of the majority of Medieval Indian literature was to glorify God. This belief unified all artistic and creative activities of medieval India.

Several religious sects emerged during the middle ages. At the same time there was a decline of Buddhism and Jainism but a rise of Brahmanical religion. As a result, there was also a rise in the construction of temples and idol worship along with elaborate rituals. Brahmanism developed the concept of trimurti or the three forms of the Supreme power -- Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara.

There also existed a perpetual struggle among sects, particularly between Saivism (followers of lord Shiva) and Vaishnavism (worshippers of lord Vishnu). Another prominent sect was Shaktism. All the sects were sustained by Puranas that were written in Sanskrit. In addition to the Puranas, Saivism was theologically based on twenty-eight agamas. These agamas were composed at the time when Saivism had established itself in the South. Additionally, during the 13th and 14th century, Saiva-Siddhanta were composed that further renewed and enhanced Tamil Saivism. The Nayanmars were a group of 63 saints who represented Saivism and significantly influenced the Bhakti movement.

The Vaishnavism sect had its roots linked to the Bhakti philosophy, but was still a new sect. Its literary and emotional roots were in the poetry of the Alwars. Bhagavata Purana was the pivotal literature for the Vaisnavas.

Folio from Devi-Mahatmya

The people belonging to the cult of Shakti worshiped her as the superior to Shiva. The sect had many Tantric texts and nigamas. The chaters 81 to 93 of the Markandeya Purana included a complete work titled Devi-Mahatmya or Chandi. It included several verses to celebrate the glory of Durga or Chandi and the supremacy of Shakti as the Goddess of the universe.

Besides these prominent sects, there were some that were confined to smaller groups such as Siddhars. Despite being extremely radical, they continued to compose poetry that depicted a different religious life and literature of medieval India.

The Puranas

A folio from Bhagavata Purana

Puranas were literary texts that contained stories of god and genealogies of the sages.They significantly impacted the mentality of the people. As discussed above, the puranas were extremely crucial in preserving and promoting the ideas of various sects. They constituted a very important part of medieval Indian literature. There were eighteen puranas defending and promoting one of the three sects of Vaishnava, Saiva, and Shakta, and were grouped accordingly. The puranas that promoted the sect of Vaishnava were the Bhagavata Purana, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Padma, and Brahma-Vaivarta. It is interesting to note that the epic poem Raghuvamsa by Kalidasa was based on the story of Rama as told in the Padma Purana. Puranas that worshiped Shiva as the supreme deity were Skanda, the Siva, the Linga, and the Bhavishya Purana. The Markandeya Purana was a text of the Shakta sect.

The puranas were extremely popular during the medieval age and gave rise to another kind of literature called the Upa-puranas (secondary purana) that were also eighteen in number. The upa-puranas were the foundations of Hinduism and were the source of various myths and religious as well as literary activities of medieval Hindu society. Puranas were intimately governed by sectarian interests and each sect had its puranas and upa-puranas. They held epic and encyclopedic significance in medieval Indian literature. Even though none of the puranas shared all the characteristics, there were some of the common features such as:

  • Sarga or Creation
  • Pratisarga or re-creation
  • Vamsha or the genealogy of Gods and rishis
  • Manvantara or cosmic cycles presided by Manu, the ancestor of mankind
  • Vamshanu Charita or accounts of royal dynasties

The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, along with the puranas contributed to the perception of a unified India despite the perpetual existence of political disunity. The literary works created an India that was sacred and blessed with holy mountains such as the Himalayas, Vindhyachal; rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Sarayu, Gomati, and Sindhu; forests like Dandakaranya and Pushkar Aranya; and lakes such as Manasa-Sarovara and Pushkara. These created a sacred geography.

The geography of medieval Indian literature is regionally accurate but it also includes mythical elements of sacred India as written in the epics and the puranas. This is a very significant feature of the literary works that were produced in the medieval age. Even though there are supernatural and miraculous elements in hagiographies and other medieval literary works, they did not make literature completely unrealistic. Despite the prevalence of myths and miracles there is a persistent and strong sense of realism where real life is portrayed in vivid details. Eventually, the realistic element began to get stronger around the 9th and 10th century. It was during this time that anthologies of short verses written in Sanskrit were written and compiled, and Buddhist Sahajiya poetry was composed. These literary works were refreshingly close to real life and its people.

As discussed above, the majority of medieval Indian literature was either produced for the elite or for religious motives. Such kinds of texts were not much focused on being realistic. Thus, during and after the 8th century, there was a persistent tension between the elements of realism in everyday life and the philosophical perception of the world being illusory and transient.

Philosophies and works of Sankara and Ramanuja

The ideological foundations of medieval Indian literature were established by two seminal philosophers- Sankara and Ramanuja.

Sankaracharya with his disciples

Sankara was born in the eighth century and was from Kalādi or modern day Kerala. He renounced his domestic life at a very young age and traveled the sub-continent in the pursuit of liberation. Sankara questioned the nature of God, the world and the relation between God and man and Brahma and Jiva. Sankara was taught by Govinda who was the pupil of Gaudapāda, the composer of Gauḍapādakārikās in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. Sankara wrote the earliest commentaries on the Brahmasūtras, Bhagavadgītā and Upanishads (Īṣā, Kena, Kaṭha, Praṣna, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍūkya, Aitareya, Taittirīya, Chāndogya, and Bṛhadāraṇyaka). He also composed Upadeśasāhasrī or ‘ A Thousand Teachings ’. Sankara was a towering and significant philosopher and a teacher of the medieval age who established his philosophy of nondual brahman, and systemized Advaita Vedānta. He also introduced the concept of maya. The philosophical teachings of Sankara had a significant impact on the common Indian thought and were prevalent in medieval Indian literature. It was Sankara who made Vedanta the rural philosophy of India. Sankara was such a significant philosopher and teacher, that he was often the subject of many medieval Indian literary works like Shankara Digvijaya and Shankara Vijaya. The key points related to Sankara’s philosophy are:

  • Non Dualism or Advaita Vedanta : Sankara taught that there is only singular reality, called Brahman. All the apparent diversity in the world is just an illusion or maya. According to Sankara, the individual self is one with the Brahman. This is the core principle of Sankara’s philosophy.
  • Maya or Illusion : The apparent diversity in the world is maya or an illusion. It is this illusion that makes people believe that they are separate from the world.
  • Brahman : According to Sankara, Brahman is the ultimate reality that transcends all limitations, space, time, and casualty. The ultimate goal of human life and the key to liberation from the cycle of birth and death is to realize one’s unity with Brahman.
  • Jiva and Atman : According to Sankara, there is no difference between Jiva, the individual’s soul and Atman, the true self. It is because of maya or illusion that they appear to be different.
  • Three levels of reality : Sankara proposed three levels of reality. Paramarthika or absolute reality, Vyavaharika or transactional reality, and Pratibhasika or illusory reality.

Sankara developed his philosophy of non duality through the knowledge gained from the Vedas and the Upnishads.


Ramanuja was born in 11th-12th century near modern Chennai. He studied under his guru Yadava Prakasha and enjoyed tremendous power as a religious leader. Immensely influenced by the Alwars, Ramanuja had a tolerant and liberal outlook towards religion. Just like Sankara, he traveled throughout the country, met scholars, and established mathas. He was devoutly followed by many powerful Kings, and rich men, and converted many Buddhists and Jains into Vaishnavism.

Ramanuja proposed the philosophy of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta or Qualified Non-Dualism that emphasized the supremacy of bhakti. Although he agreed with Sankara that Brahman is the ultimate reality, he challenged him and believed that Atman or an individual’s soul and the material world are real manifestations of Brahman rather than being an illusion or maya. In contrast to Sankara, Ramanuja asserted that Brahman is not without attributes. It is in fact, the very source of all attributes like infinite knowledge, power, and happiness. For him, our souls have a distinct identity and are not in complete union with the Brahman, just interconnected with it. Just like Sankara, Ramanuja too philosophized three levels of reality, and emphasized on Vedas and Pancharatra Agamas as the ultimate source of spiritual knowledge.

Ramanuja also wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutra called Shri Bhasya which became one of the most significant works of medieval Indian literature. He also commented on the Divya-Prabandham, the anthology of Tamil songs composed by the Alwars, and on Sahasra-giti composed by Nammalwar (one of the twelve Alwar saints).

The philosophical strain in medieval Indian literature did not end with the works of Ramanujan, Sankara and their followers. A vast body of philosophical literary works were written for many following centuries.

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A short history of indian literature.

Author: Horrwitz, E.

Publisher: Rare Books, Delhi

Source: Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi

Type: E-Book

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Book Source: Digital Library of India Item 2015.97551

dc.contributor.author: Winternitz, M. dc.date.accessioned: 2015-07-01T16:00:40Z dc.date.available: 2015-07-01T16:00:40Z dc.date.digitalpublicationdate: 2012-03-06 dc.date.citation: 1927 dc.identifier: V B Librarian dc.identifier.barcode: 4990010056063 dc.identifier.origpath: /data8/upload/0253/346 dc.identifier.copyno: 1 dc.identifier.uri: http://www.new.dli.ernet.in/handle/2015/97551 dc.description.scanningcentre: C-DAK, Kolkata dc.description.main: 1 dc.description.tagged: 0 dc.description.totalpages: 668 dc.format.mimetype: application/pdf dc.language.iso: English dc.publisher.digitalrepublisher: Digital Library Of India dc.publisher: The University Of Calcutta dc.rights: In Public Domain dc.source.library: Central Library, Visva-bharati dc.subject.classification: Literature dc.subject.classification: English Epic dc.subject.keywords: Rgveda Samhita dc.subject.keywords: Aranyakas And Upanisads dc.subject.keywords: Popular Epics dc.subject.keywords: Mahabharata dc.subject.keywords: Puranas dc.title: A History Of Indian Literature,vol.1

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Article contents

Native american literature.

  • Margo Lukens
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.584
  • Published online: 26 July 2017

At the start of European voyages of exploration and empire building, the North American continent was populated by somewhere between 20 and 100 million people who spoke more than 300 different languages descending from 17 language families as different from one another as the Germanic from the Sino-Tibetan. Since their origins on the continent, each of the more than 300 distinct cultural groups had developed its own oral literature containing ritual drama, song, narrative, and oratory, all held in the vessel of human memory and transmitted through performance. These literatures—or “oratures” as some have called them—describe and express the abundant differences among culture groups, although there are some basic similarities among the worldviews of Native people in North America.

One salient similarity is a high value placed on community, the group within which one has one's identity and wherein lie the keys to safety and survival in a subsistence economy. North American Native peoples also share a belief in the close coexistence of physical and spiritual realities and the necessity for humans to maintain a harmonious connection with all parts of their world. In all cases, the Native peoples' oral traditions contain teachings and rituals for the specific purpose of keeping their relationships in balance with the universe. Finally, their cultural practices having evolved from making a living in a particular ecosystem (for example, coastal, woodland, desert, arid plains), Native peoples have identified strongly with traditional land and sometimes with particular features of familiar landscapes.

Oral Traditions: Preservation in Written Texts

Knowledge of the oral traditions of Native North Americans has been preserved in writing by Europeans and Euro-Americans since the early missionary incursions of the Spanish Franciscans and the French Jesuits. The first serious ethnographic collector in English was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft , an Indian agent who, with the assistance of his wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwa), published Ojibwa stories in Algic Researches ( 1839 ). What followed in the wake of his effort was a wide variation in collectors' approaches to the oral traditional material. Some nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century collectors, like Charles Godfrey Leland and Frank Cushing , polished their material with an Anglo-American audience in mind, using elevated literary language, reaching for parallels with Greco-Roman mythology, and eliding the sometimes prevalent and often humorous references to bodily functions. Others, like Abby Alger (who trained with Leland) and the Reverend Silas Rand (Micmac legends) managed to preserve the sensibility of the original in their translations and often credited the Native storytellers from whom they got their material.

The twentieth century saw the “salvage anthropology” of Franz Boas and his students, who worked in reaction to the military subjugation of tribes in the United States and the institution of the reservation system during the last decades of the nineteenth century . Anthropologists like J. D. Prince and James Mooney made the objective preservation of “vanishing” cultures and languages their project. This approach sometimes resulted in the publication of transliterated oral texts along with ungainly word-for-word translations; however, this work was initially intended for a specialized academic audience. It has been suggested that work in collaboration with Native informants by such scholars as Ruth M. Underhill , Frances Densmore , and Ruth Bunzel may also have stimulated some Native communities to value and remain attentive to continued practice of their oral traditions. As the importance of ethnography rose in the early twentieth century , many “as told to” life stories were collected by anthropologists seeking to understand tribal cultures. Notable among these are such narrators as Sam Blowsnake (Winnebago), Mountain Wolf Woman (Winnebago), Maria Chona (Papago), and Helen Sekaquaptewa (Hopi), all of whom collaborated with scholars or with friends to whom they entrusted their stories.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, individual Native writers began to publish their own collected retellings of oral literature; one of the first was Joseph Nicolar (Penobscot) , who published a version of the cycle of stories of Gluskap, the Wabanaki culture hero.

European Colonial and Missionary Period

The Franciscan missionaries who accompanied Hernán Cortés in his conquest of the Aztec empire and tributaries set to work in the 1520s to convert Native people to Catholicism, hand in hand with a project to make them literate, first in Nahuatl and then in Spanish. Within the next one hundred years Aztec writers produced texts describing the conquest from the Native perspective, both in narrative and lyric form, which can be found in codices preserved in European ecclesiastical libraries.

Although the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom was the first Native writer to publish in English, it is clear that some Native people had been literate in English for a hundred years before his sermon on the death of Moses Paul ( 1772 ); letters of negotiation were written during King Philip's War ( 1675–1676 ) by Narragansett and Nipmuck men who had become literate as part of their conversion to Christianity. Occom himself was converted to Methodism and learned to read and write during his late teens, and although some Native people had been literate a century earlier, the experience of coming to literacy in late adolescence and in conjunction with religious conversion was recapitulated in the lives of numerous Native writers (and recounted in their texts) until the late nineteenth century . Occom's letters, sermon, and short autobiography reflect his frustration that even in his work as a missionary he encountered the racism of white ministers in the church hierarchy.

Early Self-Determination and Sovereignty

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries produced conditions that required Native people to negotiate space and power with a new republic. A century and a half of occupation by Anglo-Americans had created mixed-blood and literate people for whom assimilation was a strategy for survival and for acquisition of power. In New England, the itinerant Methodist preacher William Apess (Pequot) published several texts including his autobiography A Son of the Forest ( 1829 ); his works range from religious conversion narratives to political protest and lectures on revisionist history, ending with A Eulogy on King Philip in 1836 . Apess developed a concept of coalition among “people of color,” a term he used; his most widely anthologized work, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man ( 1833 ), analyzes racism and its expressions in the early republic.

In the southeast, meanwhile, the Cherokee linguist Sequoyah had invented a system for writing his Native language; his Cherokee syllabary made possible the publication, in Cherokee and English, of the first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix . Elias Boudinot (Cherokee) was responsible for fund-raising to launch the paper and gave his Address to the Whites in 1826 as part of the Cherokee effort to convince Anglo-Americans that the Cherokee people were equal in their attainments to whites and ought to be trusted to remain on their traditional lands and govern themselves. Boudinot became editor of the Phoenix in 1828 and continued to write persuasively about the Cherokees' civilization until his death in 1839 at the hands of his own people.

Nineteenth-Century Autobiographers and Novelists

Black Hawk, an Autobiography ( 1833 ) is the first example of an “as told to” life story, collected from Black Hawk (Sauk) by Antoine Le Claire and edited by John Patterson . Another early- nineteenth-century life story tells about the role of Governor Blacksnake (Seneca) in the revolutionary war; it did not reach publication until 1989 under the title Chainbreaker . The genre's most famous exemplar is Black Elk Speaks ( 1932 ), which appeared a full century after Black Hawk's life story.

John Rollin Ridge (Cherokee) grew up in the traditional Cherokee homeland of Georgia, but like Elias Boudinot, his father and grandfather were murdered in the internecine struggle between traditional and assimilationist Cherokee parties facing the forced removal of their people to Indian Territory (the Trail of Tears, 1838–1839 ). Ridge fled from the site of family horrors and migrated west. On the wave of gold fever, he worked as a journalist in California and there wrote the first Native American novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta ( 1854 ), under the nom de plume Yellow Bird. The legendary California bandit provided Ridge with a story on which he could displace his own consciousness of injustice at the hands of white people and wreak a heroic revenge.

His contemporary George Copway (Ojibwa) first published an autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-gah-ga-bowh , in 1847 ; he revised that work twice and republished it several times in the ensuing years. The autobiography contains several genres, including tribal ethnohistory, conversion narrative, and an account of his people's struggles with Anglo-American policy. Like William Apess , Copway devoted much of his life to working on behalf of Indian people in resistance to U.S. government plans for their relocation.

The first Native American woman to publish a volume on her own was Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Northern Paiute), who, like Copway, came to write after embarking on a career as a lecturer about her people. In her lectures she emphasized the parallels between Paiute and Christian morality and strove to demonstrate their potential for citizenship. Her cause to raise funds to establish a bilingual school for Native children in her community was taken up by the philanthropist Elizabeth Peabody , who introduced her to influential easterners (including Senator Henry Dawes , the sponsor of the General Allotment Act) and whose sister, Mary Peabody Mann , helped Winnemucca edit her manuscript for publication. Life Among the Paiutes ( 1883 ) resembles Copway's book in its inclusion of tribal ethnohistory, a memoir of the tribe's first contact with whites, and a detailed chronicle of the tribe's political relations with white settlers, Indian agents, and military personnel as well as Winnemucca's own role in these relationships. The text's purpose is social and political; it ends with a petition for readers (presumably sympathetic and enfranchised American citizens) to sign and circulate in support of the reunification of her people in a traditional homeland.

Sophia Alice Callahan (Muskogee Creek), the first Native American woman novelist, began Wynema, A Child of the Forest ( 1891 ) as a romance that celebrated both Creek traditional ways and the adaptability of Muskogee people to Anglo-American ways. The novel analyzes the prejudices of white people toward Indians and meditates on the issue of allotment of lands in severalty, a concern for Native reservation communities since the 1887 passage of the Dawes Act. However, before Callahan finished the manuscript, the December 1890 massacre of Sioux people at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, claimed her passionate attention, and her story swerves from its center at Muskogee, reaching out to incorporate Wounded Knee and in fact incorporating some of its survivors into Muskogee's mixed-blood center. After a successful reception in the twenty years following its appearance, Wynema lay forgotten in a few libraries until late- twentieth-century scholarly attention by Annette Van Dyke and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff brought it to the light of republication.

Cultural Preservation and Instruction by Native Writers

In the mid- to late nineteenth century , Native writers like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwa) and Joseph Laurent (Abenaki) perceived that preserving oral traditions in writing was one way to counteract cultural erosion; Schoolcraft published retellings in English of individual stories, while Laurent's 1884 New Familiar Abenaki and English Dialogues detailed the grammar of what Laurent called “the uncultivated Abenaki language,” with the object of preserving it from “alterations.” The Penobscot writer and tribal leader Joseph Nicolar wrote his 1893 Life and Traditions of the Red Man , an English-language version of traditional Penobscot stories, as an act of cultural preservation dedicated to the young people of his own nation. At the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who wrote under the pen name Zitkala-Sa, published Old Indian Legends ( 1901 ), a collection of Dakota stories retold primarily for a juvenile non-Native audience; her writing career included journalism, fiction writing, autobiography, poetry, and political writing. The novelist Christine Quintasket (Okanogan/Colville), also known as Mourning Dove, collected stories from Okanogan elders for the 1933 volume Coyote Stories .

Early Twentieth Century

Although literary scholars usually locate the Native American “renaissance” in the late 1960s and 1970s, the early twentieth century was a period of prolific activity by literate Native people in a wide range of genres and fields: autobiography, novel, short fiction, drama, poetry, ethnography, political writing, and publishing. The U.S. government's policies of assimilation had been aggressively advanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the General Allotment Act of 1887 and by a system of boarding schools for Indian children that removed them from the cultural influences of their home communities. In the process, however, children from numerous different tribes lived together at schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where they used English as their common language, and published their exemplary work in school newspapers such as the Carlisle Arrow . This experience led to the rise of a pan-Indian consciousness, out of which grew both political organization and the creation of literary works in English.

One of the central figures at the turn of the twentieth century was Zitkala-Sa—“Red Bird” in Lakota, a name she gave herself. Educated at a Quaker missionary boarding school and at Earlham College, she was hired by Richard Henry Pratt to teach at Carlisle, the school he had founded on military principles to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Her first major publication, three autobiographical articles in the Atlantic Monthly during the first three months of 1900 , revealed her deep disagreement with her employer's policy, creating a rift that led to her departure from Carlisle. These articles were collected, along with her essay Why I Am a Pagan ( 1901 ) and some short fiction, in a 1921 Ginn and Company volume entitled American Indian Stories . In the meantime Bonnin had collaborated with the composer William Hanson on the libretto and music of an opera entitled The Sun Dance ( 1913 ) and became secretary of the pan-Indian Society of American Indians and editor of its journal American Indian Magazine , to which she contributed numerous poems, articles, and editorials. In 1924 , the same year U.S. citizenship was finally granted to Native Americans, Bonnin coauthored Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians , an exposé of the land grab that followed the discovery of oil on Indian land. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 , several years after the demise of the SAI, and served as its president until she died in 1938 .

Contemporary with Bonnin were Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee Sioux) and Luther Standing Bear (Teton Sioux), both of whom wrote autobiographies, published retellings of traditional Sioux stories, and wrote some books intended for young audiences. Eastman was particularly known for his contributions to the early formation of the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls in the early twentieth century . Eastman's Indian Boyhood ( 1902 ) is a memoir of his Santee childhood that ends with an optimistic view of his conversion to Christianity and entry into Anglo-American education; From the Deep Woods to Civilization ( 1916 ) problematizes Eastman's experiences and includes his view, as the first physician on the scene, of the massacre of Big Foot's Oglala band at Wounded Knee. Standing Bear's autobiographical My People, the Sioux ( 1928 ) chronicles in positive terms his experiences among the first students admitted to Carlisle and as a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; his Land of the Spotted Eagle ( 1933 ) reflects more on Sioux traditions and provides a critique of white people's treatment of Native Americans.

The early twentieth century also saw Native authors writing short fiction, poetry, and political satire, much of which appeared in ephemeral publications such as local and Native-run newspapers but sometimes in magazines of national circulation. The poet of first importance during this period was E. Pauline Johnson (Mohawk), from Grand River Reservation of the Six Nations in southern Ontario. Her mother was English and her father was Mohawk; consequently her upbringing gave her grounding in the English Romantic poets as well as great respect for Mohawk traditions. When her family fell on hard times after her father's death, Johnson began a twenty-five-year career of writing poetry and performing it live for general audiences in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Her first volume, The White Wampum ( 1895 ), is still one of the most published books of Canadian poetry; she also wrote numerous short stories, many of which deal with the issue of mixed blood. The last of these stories were collected in The Moccasin Maker , a volume published by friends after her death in 1913 .

Contemporary scholarship has brought to light some poetry by Zitkala-Sa, who had likely been influenced by Johnson; her energies, however, were expressed more aptly in her prose fiction and in her overt political work and writings. Their contemporary Alexander Posey (Creek) used poetry as his primary vehicle, basing the style of his early works on the Anglo-European classics he had read in school or at Bacone Indian University in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Posey's unique contribution to Native American letters, however, is a style he developed as a mature writer based in the customs, values, and speech styles of Creek people. In 1902 Posey bought and took over the editorship of the Indian Journal , and for the next six years it was his vehicle for publishing the satirical Fus Fixico letters, which were often picked up by mainstream newspapers. Posey became known as an insightful humorist and biting satirist whose works express and incorporate the language, social values, and aesthetic sense of Native American people. After his death by drowning in 1908 , his wife, Minnie Posey , published The Poems of Alexander Lawrence Posey ( 1910 ), the first collection of his works; the Fus Fixico letters were finally collected in one volume by Daniel Littlefield and Carol Hunter in 1993 . In a similar instance, Henry “Red Eagle” Perley (Maliseet) made a sixty-year career of writing short fiction and nonfiction for national magazines and Maine sportsmen's magazines and newspapers between 1911 and 1972 ; decades after his death Aboriginally Yours ( 1997 ), a volume collecting a portion of his works, was published by Perley's niece and granddaughter.

The novelists of the early twentieth century are few but notable for their adaptation of genre to Native concerns. The young Christine Quintasket (Colville/Okanogan) spent four years in a convent school and two at a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school in Washington state; four years at the Fort Shaw Indian School near Great Falls, Montana; and two years at a business school in Calgary, Alberta, learning typing and correspondence skills. During her youth she had conceived a love for two narrative genres: the traditional tales of Okanogan culture and the romantic and melodramatic novels popular in Anglo-American culture. It was with these materials and styles that she set to work as Mourning Dove, or Hum-is hu-ma . Between 1912 and 1914 , when she was in business school, Mourning Dove completed the first draft of her novel Cogewea, the Half-Blood ( 1927 ), but it would take more than a decade of struggle to publish it, even with the assistance of a white collaborator, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, an amateur ethnographer and supporter of Indian causes. The published novel, although marred by McWhorter's editorial incursions, weaves together Okanogan traditional story lines and a western romance plot, in which the mixed-blood hero and heroine establish a safe and prosperous future for themselves and their white and Indian relatives. Although Mourning Dove's collection Coyote Stories had been published three years before her death in 1936 , other editors brought out volumes of her renditions of traditional stories, Tales of the Okanogans ( 1976 ) and Mourning Dove's Stories ( 1991 ). Her memoirs were edited by Jay Miller in Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography ( 1990 ).

John Milton Oskison (Cherokee), educated at Stanford and Harvard, was the son of an English father and a Cherokee mother; he used his family's experience farming and ranching in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) as material and setting for numerous “western” short stories and novels of frontier life such as Wild Harvest ( 1925 ). The characters sometimes resemble Oskison or his family members, as in the dynastic novel Brothers Three ( 1935 ), and often his works meditate on negotiating mixed-blood identity amid the separations between Anglo and Native America. A world traveler who also possessed a degree in law, Oskison wrote numerous essays on topics as varied as scientific discovery, medicine, industry, international policy, and the political and economic issues affecting particular Native tribes.

Mid-Twentieth Century

The middle decades of the twentieth century were characterized by two policies enacted by the U.S. government. The first was the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act; this act ended allotment of lands in severalty—which had resulted in the loss of 60 percent of previously reserved Indian land to non-Indians since 1887— and reestablished the authority of tribal governments. This act seemed a “New Deal” for Indian people. However, in 1953 , when popular post–World War II sentiment pointed toward ending government involvement with Native communities, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, a policy known as “termination” of the government relationship of trusteeship with numerous tribes. Termination led to the loss of reservations and federal recognition for many tribes and to the forced migration of many Indian people to big cities in search of a non–land-based livelihood. Ironically these events brought many Native authors into the milieu of alienation that characterized the modern period for European and Anglo-American writers.

Some, like the Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs , chose an urban lifestyle; Riggs spent most of his adult life alternating between Greenwich Village and Santa Fe, New Mexico. His plays and screenplays, however, partake of New Mexico and the Oklahoma of his childhood. Riggs's most famous play, Green Grow the Lilacs ( 1931 ), provided the libretto for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize–winning musical Oklahoma! ( 1943 ); Phyllis Cole Braunlich notes that Riggs used the taming and dividing of western land as “a metaphor for the spiritual change that was being forced on Native Americans, who believed that the land was a gift to all people from the Great Spirit.” Some of Riggs's plays were more overt in their treatment of Indian themes and characters, most notably The Cherokee Night ( 1932 ), which deals with the situation of Native people in his day.

Two novelists who were most important and accomplished during this period were John Joseph Mathews (Osage) and D'Arcy McNickle (Salish). Mathews had experienced childhood in Indian Territory, military service in Europe during World War I, education at Oxford University, and world travel before returning to Oklahoma to gather material for his first novel, Wah'Kon-Tah ( 1932 ). Mathews was elected to the tribal council the same year his second novel, Sundown ( 1934 ) was published. Both of his novels deal with the effects of allotment and assimilationist education on Native communities and individuals. Mathews published an autobiography entitled Talking to the Moon in 1945 , after which his career turned toward biography and an epic history of the Osage people based on oral accounts, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters ( 1961 ). At his death Mathews left behind the unpublished novel Within Your Dream and was still at work polishing his compendious autobiographical Twenty Thousand Mornings . D'Arcy McNickle, the son of a Metis mother and a white father, was adopted into the Flathead tribe, and his family settled on allotted land. After being sent to the Indian boarding school in Chemawa, Oregon, McNickle went to public schools in Montana and Washington State, enrolling at the University of Montana in 1921 . McNickle sold his allotment land to finance studies at Oxford, but when the money ran out in 1926 he settled in New York City, where he began work on his first novel, The Surrounded ( 1936 ). The novel went through numerous revisions before publication, corresponding with an evolution in McNickle's orientation toward his Indian and mixed-blood characters; he came to believe adherence to tribal ways and communities was better for Indian people than assimilation. The years John Collier served as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ( 1933–1945 ) gave McNickle the promise of government employment as an Indian working on behalf of Indians. By 1936 he was living in Washington, D.C., working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and beginning his path of publishing works of history. He published a juvenile novel Runner in the Sun in 1954 , and his last novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky , was published posthumously in 1978 . McNickle was honored during his lifetime by an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado; in 1972 he became program director at the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indians, which was renamed for him after his death in 1977 .

Unique among mid- twentieth-century Native American literature was Black Elk Speaks , a collaborative work narrated by Nicholas Black Elk (Oglala Lakota) and fashioned into prose by the German-born poet John Neihardt. The volume presents special problems to readers looking for Black Elk's voice, since he narrated his visions and experiences in his Native language; almost simultaneously, Black Elk's son Ben translated his father's words into English, which Neihardt then rephrased for his daughter Enid to copy down in shorthand. She later typed them into longhand, from which Neihardt then composed the text. Black Elk Speaks is a work of hope perched at the edge of despair, the last-ditch effort of the Oglala holy man to provide spiritual teaching for his people and the world beyond; since the middle of the twentieth century Black Elk Speaks has provided a map for the spiritual seeking of many Native people outside the Oglala, as well as for non-Native people wishing to understand a Native American spiritual perspective.

Late Twentieth Century

The late twentieth century in Native American letters is marked by a widespread literary flowering across the genres, the “Native American Renaissance,” heralded by the publication of Vine Deloria Jr. 's (Standing Rock Sioux) Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto ( 1969 ), the first of his numerous works of philosophy, religious studies, and political and legal critiques of American society. The same year, the mainstream literary establishment recognized the talent of N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa); his first novel, House Made of Dawn ( 1968 ), received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Momaday's poetry, fiction, and prose memoirs have influenced and inspired two generations of Native American and First Nations (Canadian-Native) writers. It is notable that many authors have published in multiple genres: for example, James Welch (Blackfeet) followed his first work of poetry with the influential novel Winter in the Blood ( 1974 ) and four more that have followed. Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) has produced a dozen volumes of poetry, fiction, and scholarship since 1973 and is probably most widely known for The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions ( 1986 ). Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) began her literary career with poetry but, in collaboration with her husband Michael Dorris (Modoc), soon became a prolific writer of Faulkneresque novels including Love Medicine ( 1984 ) and Tracks ( 1988 ). Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) published numerous works of poetry before her work branched to produce the novels Mean Spirit ( 1990 ) and Solar Storms ( 1995 ). Diane Glancy (Cherokee) has published fifteen volumes including poetry ( Brown Wolf Leaves the Res , 1984 ), short fiction ( Lone Dog's Winter Count , 1991 ), and plays ( War Cries , 1996 ). Foremost among these versatile writers is Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), whose early work includes the volume of poetry entitled Laguna Woman ( 1974 ) as well as the appearance of a number of her poems and short stories in anthologies of Native American writing published in the mid-1970s: The Man to Send Rain Clouds ( 1974 ), Voices of the Rainbow ( 1975 ), and Carriers of the Dream Wheel ( 1975 ). Silko's career blossomed with the publication of her novel Ceremony ( 1977 ), which weaves together mythic stories of Laguna spiritual tradition and a plot dealing with the experiences of a young mixed-blood Laguna man who serves in World War II; the novel blends the stylistic elements of oral tradition and postmodern narrative. Her later novels Almanac of the Dead ( 1991 ), a complex vision of self-interest and violence in the Americas, and Gardens in the Dunes ( 1999 ) explore the world beyond Laguna but with the sensibility and values she derives from Laguna. Silko also continues to range across genres, publishing poetry, fiction, and memoir in Storyteller ( 1981 ), letters between herself and the poet James Wright in a volume called The Delicacy and Strength of Lace ( 1986 ), and essays in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit ( 1996 ).

Among those who work primarily in verse, Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) has been an influential poet since the early 1970s. The best-known of his fifteen volumes is From Sand Creek ( 1981 ). Ortiz's work is based in his strong Acoma identity, incorporating Keresan language and the spiritual traditions of his community. Joy Harjo (Muskogee Creek) went to college to learn painting but decided to become a writer after hearing Ortiz read. While she is primarily a poet ( She Had Some Horses , 1983 ; In Mad Love and War , 1990 ), Harjo's works include a screenplay and recordings of musical performances with her band, Poetic Justice. The Hopi/Miwok poet Wendy Rose, trained academically as an anthropologist, has published eleven volumes since 1973 . Primary among her philosophical concerns is the negotiating of identity, since having a non-Hopi mother situated her as an outsider to that community; The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems ( 1985 ) is in many respects a complex response to and meditation on the conundrum of identity. What Happened When the Hopi Hit New York ( 1982 ) contemplates the specificity of different landscapes and connects her with Maurice Kenny (Mohawk), a prolific poet since the late 1950s, whose works have twice been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes; he received the American Book Award in 1984 for The Mama Poems ( 1984 ). Luci Tapahonso (Navajo) writes poetry from the perspective of Navajo as her first language, using both Navajo and English in her work. Saani Dahataal: The Women Are Singing ( 1993 ) is rooted in Tapahonso's connection to her family and community and combines aspects of Navajo tradition and contemporary mainstream American life.

At work in his own direction before the 1969 flowering, Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) began his prolific literary career in poetry after encountering haiku and other Asian literary forms while stationed in Japan with the U.S. Army. During the 1960s he published nine volumes of poetry, including some reworking of traditional Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) lyrics. During the mid-1960s he worked on behalf of urbanized Indians in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area and through this work began writing journalistic pieces; he wrote and edited for the Minneapolis Tribune from 1968 to 1976 . In the 1970s Vizenor began publishing essays and fiction and made a transition from community service to college teaching and leadership in Native American studies. Vizenor's theoretical work on Indian identity as a construct (“terminal creeds are terminal diseases”) and his stance on mixed blood as creative, similar to the energy of the “compassionate trickster,” inform most of his work, including Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent ( 1981 ), Griever: An American Monkey King in China ( 1987 ), Landfill Meditation ( 1991 ), and Chancers ( 2000 ). N. Scott Momaday has called Vizenor “the supreme ironist among American Indian writers of the twentieth century ,” and for Louis Owens, Vizenor's work provides the most “outrageous challenge to all preconceived definitions.”

Louis Owens (Cherokee/Choctaw) wrote novels and taught writing at the college level, becoming one of the most respected Native literary scholars of his generation. Owens published American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Critical Bibliography ( 1985 ) with his friend and colleague Tom Colonnese (Lakota), following that with Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel ( 1992 ) and Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place ( 1998 ). His works of fiction partake of the popular genre of murder mystery but are always informed with tradition and sensibilities from his Choctaw heritage: The Sharpest Sight ( 1992 ), Bone Game ( 1994 ), Wolfsong ( 1995 ), and Nightland ( 1996 ) all rely on a Choctaw mixed-blood protagonist to unravel the mystery. In Owens's last novel, Dark River ( 1999 ), his protagonist Jake Nashoba dies of a gunshot wound in the process of discovering the answer to the puzzle, an intimation of Owens's untimely death in July 2002 . Shorty Luke, “the surviving twin” of the story, gives him this epitaph: “It is said that Jacob Nashoba went home.”

Directions for the Twenty-First Century

Most of the writers from the end of the twentieth century have survived into the twenty-first, and readers should expect an ever-increasing and changing body of work from Native American writers whose careers have lately begun. Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) has kept up a pace of producing at least one book a year in his first ten years of writing, and two of his titles have been made into films: The Business of Fancydancing ( 1992 ) retained its title, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven ( 1993 ) became Smoke Signals . He has also worked on a screenplay based on his novel Indian Killer ( 1996 ). Greg Sarris (Pomo/Miwok) too has made the crossover into screenplay with his “novel in stories” Grand Avenue ( 1994 ), which is set in the tough Santa Rosa, California neighborhood where Sarris grew up. His biography of Pomo basketmaker Mabel McKay and his 1993 critical text Keeping Slug Woman Alive hold substantial promise for the future. Readers might also hope to see more from Betty Louise Bell (Cherokee), whose first novel, Faces in the Moon , a multigenerational story of women in one mixed-blood Cherokee family, appeared in 1994 , and Susan Power (Dakota), author of The Grass Dancer ( 1994 ).

Another emerging direction in Native American literature is the proliferation of drama, a genre that flowered sooner in Canada than in the United States, with government support for the work of highly popular playwrights such as Tomson Highway (Cree), author of The Rez Sisters ( 1988 ) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing ( 1989 ). In the United States, the Kiowa/Delaware playwright Hanay Geiogamah has been at work in theater since the early 1970s, publishing ( Body Indian , 1972 ; Foghorn , 1973 ), directing, producing, and teaching Native American theater. For the past twenty years William Yellow Robe Jr. has acted, directed, taught, and written forty-two plays including The Independence of Eddie Rose ( 1986 ). The contemporary writers Gerald Vizenor ( Ishi and the Wood Ducks , 1994 ), Diane Glancy ( The Truth Teller , 1993 ), and LeAnne Howe ( Indian Radio Days , 1993 ) have contributed to this growing field.

Increasingly it will be important for the field of Native American literary studies to be enriched and interrogated by the perspectives of Native American literary critics such as Paula Gunn Allen, Greg Sarris, Robert Allen Warrior (Osage), and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Dakota). Cook-Lynn has been an arbiter in Native American studies, having founded Wicazo Sa Review and operated it as an entirely Native-edited journal since 1985 . She and fellow Native critics, teachers, and publishers like Jeannette Armstrong and Joseph Bruchac will help foster the talent of new writers as well as the ongoing growth of the field.

See also Erdrich, Louise ; Momaday, N. Scott ; and Silko, Leslie Marmon .

Further Reading

  • Allen, Paula Gunn . The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions . Boston, 1986; rev. 1992.
  • Bataille, Gretchen M. , and Kathleen Mullen Sands . American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives . Lincoln, Neb., 1984.
  • Bruchac, Joseph , ed. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets . Tucson, Ariz., 1987.
  • Brumble, H. David , 3d. American Indian Autobiography . Berkeley, Calif., 1988.
  • Colonnese, Tom , and Louis Owens , comps . American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Critical Bibliography. New York, 1985.
  • Harjo, Joy , and Gloria Bird , eds. Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Woman's Writings of North America . New York, 1997.
  • Jaskoski, Helen , ed. Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays . New York, 1996.
  • Krupat, Arnold . The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon . Berkeley, Calif., 1989.
  • Lincoln, Kenneth . Native American Renaissance . 2d revised edition. Los Angeles, 1985.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. , and James W. Parins , comps . American Indian and Alaskan Native Newspapers and Periodicals, 1826–1924. Westport, Conn., 1984.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. , and James W. Parins , comps . A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772–1924. Metuchen, N.J., 1981.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. , and James W. Parins , comps . A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772–1924: A Supplement. Metuchen, N.J., 1985.
  • Murray, David . Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts . Bloomington, Ind., 1991.
  • Nelson, Robert M. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction . New York, 1993.
  • Owens, Louis . Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel . Norman, Okla., 1992.
  • Roemer, Kenneth M. , ed. Native American Writers of the United States. Dictionary of Literary Biography , vol. 175. Detroit, 1997.
  • Ruoff, A. La vonne Brown . American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography . New York, 1990.
  • Ruppert, James . Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction . Norman, Okla., 1995.
  • Sarris, Greg . Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts . Berkeley, Calif., 1993.
  • Swann, Brian , and Arnold Krupat , eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature . Berkeley, Calif., 1987.
  • Trout, Lawana , ed. Native American Literature: An Anthology . Lincolnwood, Ill., 1999.
  • Vizenor, Gerald , ed. Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures . Albuquerque, N.Mex., 1989.
  • Warrior, Robert Allen . Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions . Minneapolis, 1995.
  • Wiget, Andrew O. , ed. Critical Essays on Native American Literature . Boston, 1985.
  • Wiget , ed. Handbook of Native American Literature . Detroit, 1994.
  • Wyss, Hilary E. Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America . Amherst, Mass., 2000.

Related Articles

  • Erdrich, Louise
  • Momaday, N. Scott
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon

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