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The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Russ Castronovo is Dorothy Draheim Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is author of three books: Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom; Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States; and Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era. He is also editor of Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics (with Dana Nelson) and States of Emergency: The Object of American Studies (with Susan Gillman).

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How do we approach the rich field of nineteenth-century American literature? How might we recalibrate the coordinates of critical vision and open up new areas of investigation? To answer such questions, this book brings together twenty-three original articles written by leading scholars in American literary studies. By examining specific novels, poems, essays, diaries, and other literary examples, the articles confront head-on the implications, scope, and scale of their analysis. The articles foreground methodological concerns to assess the challenges of transnational perspectives, disability studies, environmental criticism, affect studies, gender analysis, and other cutting-edge approaches. The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature is both critically incisive and sharply practical, inviting attention to how readers read, how critics critique, and how interpreters interpret. It offers forceful strategies for rethinking protest novels, women's writing, urban literature, slave narratives, and popular fiction, to name just a few of the wide array of topics and genres covered. This book, rather than surveying established ideas in studies of nineteenth-century American literature, registers what is happening now and anticipates what will shape the field's future.

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  • Lesson Plans
  • Teacher's Guides
  • Media Resources

American Literature Lessons — Nineteenth Century

Cover of  Mark Twain's Sketches published in 1892.

Cover of   Mark Twain's Sketches  published in 1892.

Public Domain Photos

EDSITEment offers   over 30 lessons on major authors in 19th-century American literature including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Kate Chopin, and Walt Whitman.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere — Fact, Fiction, and Artistic License —An interdisciplinary lesson focusing on Paul Revere's midnight ride. While many students know this historical event, this lesson allows them to explore the true story of Paul Revere and his journey through primary source readings as well as compare artist Grant Wood's and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's interpretations of it.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow —Students explore the artistry that helped make Washington Irving our nation's first literary master and ponder the mystery that now haunts every Halloween: what happened to Ichabod Crane?

Davy Crockett, Tall Tales, and History —Using the life of Davy Crockett as a model, students learn the characteristics of tall tales and how these stories reflect their historical moment. The lesson culminates with students writing a tall tale of their own.

Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers —We are naturally curious about the lives (and deaths) of authors, especially those such as Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, who have left us with so many intriguing mysteries. But does biographical knowledge add to our understanding of their works? And if so, how do we distinguish between the accurate detail and the rumor, between truth and slander? In this lesson, students become literary sleuths, attempting to separate biographical reality from myth. They also become careful critics, taking a stand on whether extra-literary materials such as biographies and letters should influence the way readers understand a writer's texts.

Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator —Help your students consider a variety of narrative stances in Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Tell Tale Heart," and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Perspective on the Slave Narrative —Trace the elements of history, literature, polemic, and autobiography in the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave .

From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography —Curriculum Unit overview: In 1845, Frederick Douglass published what was to be the first of his three autobiographies: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself . As the title suggests, Douglass wished not only to highlight the irony that a land founded on freedom would permit slavery to exist within its midst, but also to establish that he, an American slave with no formal education, was the sole author of the work.

  • Lesson 1: From Courage to Freedom: The Reality behind the Song
  • Lesson 2: From Courage to Freedom: Slavery’s Dehumanizing Effects
  • Lesson 3: From Courage to Freedom

Hawthorne: Author and Narrator —Compare the storyteller's voice with that of the writer who was a contemporary of Whitman and Douglass.

American Literary Humor: Mark Twain, George Harris, and Nathaniel Hawthorne —Curriculum unit overview: In this three-part curriculum unit, students examine structure and characterization in several short stories and consider the significance of humor through a study of several American writers.

  • Lesson 1: Mark Twain and American Humor
  • Lesson 2: “Old Southwest” Humorists and George Washington Harris
  • Lesson 3: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Literary Humor

Tales of the Supernatural —Examine the relationship between science and the supernatural in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the "horror stories" of Hawthorne and Poe.

Critical Ways of Seeing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Context —By studying Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its critics with a focus on cultural context, students will develop essential analytical tools for navigating this text and for exploring controversies that surround this quintessential American novel.

Letters from Emily Dickinson: ' Will you be my preceptor ? ' —Curriculum Unit overview: Long perceived as a recluse who wrote purely in isolation, Emily Dickinson in reality maintained many dynamic correspondences throughout her lifetime and specifically sought out dialogues on her poetry. These correspondences-both professional and private-reveal a poet keenly aware of the interdependent relationship between poet and reader.

  • Lesson 1: Letters from Emily Dickinson: In Emily Dickinson's Own Words: Letters and Poems
  • Lesson 2: Letters from Emily Dickinson: Responding to Emily Dickinson: Poetic Analysis
  • Lesson 3: Letters from Emily Dickinson: Emulating Emily Dickinson: Poetry Writing

The Red Badge of Courage : A New Kind of Courage —In The Red Badge of Courage , Stephen Crane presents war through the eyes and thoughts of one soldier. The narrative’s altered point of view and stylistic innovations enable a heightened sense of realism while setting the work apart from war stories written essentially as tributes or propaganda. Use the audiobook recording below along with the text and this lesson plan. 

The Red Badge of Courage : A New Kind of Realism —The Red Badge of Courage’s success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news. Use the above audiobook recording along with the text and this lesson plan. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": Writing Women —Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written during this time of great change. This lesson plan, the first part of a two-part lesson, helps to set the historical, social, cultural, and economic context of Gilman's story.

Crane, London, and Literary Naturalism —Heavily influenced by social and scientific theories, including those of Darwin, writers of naturalism described (usually from a detached or journalistic perspective) the influence of society and surroundings on the development of the individual. In this lesson plan, students will learn the key characteristics that comprise American literary naturalism as they explore London's "To Build a Fire" and Crane's "The Open Boat."

Investigating Jack London's White Fang : Nature and Culture Detectives —In White Fang , Jack London sought to trace the “development of domesticity, faithfulness, love, morality, and all the amenities and virtues.” In this lesson, students explore images from the Klondike and read White Fang closely to learn how to define and differentiate the terms “nature” and “culture."

Jack London's The Call of the Wild : "Nature Faker"? —A critic of writer Jack London called his animal protagonists "men in fur," suggesting that his literary creations flaunted the facts of natural history. London responded to such criticism by maintaining that his own creations were based on sound science and, in fact, represented "… a protest against the humanizing' of animals, of which it seemed to me several 'animal writers' had been profoundly guilty." How well does London succeed in avoiding such "humanizing" in his portrayal of Buck, the hero of his novel, The Call of the Wild ?

Kate Chopin's The Awakening : No Choice but Under? —In this curriculum unit (and lesson 1), students will explore how Chopin stages the possible roles for women in Edna's time and culture through the examples of other characters in the novella.

  • Lesson 2: Kate Chopin's The Awakening : Chopin, Realism, and Local Color in late 19th-Century America
  • Lesson 3: Kate Chopin's The Awakening : Searching for Women and Identity in Chopin's The Awakening

Knowledge or Instinct? Jack London's "To Build a Fire " —As a man and his animal companion take a less-traveled path to their Yukon camp, they step into a tale of wilderness survival and dire circumstances in this excellent example of American literary naturalism by Jack London.

Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat " —The harrowing adventure of four men fighting for survival after a shipwreck is chronicled by Stephen Crane in "The Open Boat." Students learn about narration, point of view, and man's relationship to nature in this classic example of American literary naturalism.

Stories in Quilts —Quilts can be works of art as well as stories through pictures. They also tell a story about their creators and about the historical and cultural context of their creation through the choices made in design, material, and content. The video below features famed documentary film maker Ken Burns discussing the stories that quilts tell. 

Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy —Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. His efforts had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets. In this lesson, students will explore the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" by reading his poetry and prose and by examining daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. Next, students will compare the poetic concepts and techniques behind Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again," and will have an opportunity to apply similar concepts and techniques in creating a poem from their own experience.

Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe —Clues to Walt Whitman's effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse may be found in his notebooks, now available online from the American Memory Collection. In an entry to be examined in this lesson, Whitman indicated that he wanted his poetry to explore important ideas of a universal scope (as in the European tradition), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the senses.

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Walt whitman's notebooks and poetry: the sweep of the universe, the letters and poems of emily dickinson, tales of the supernatural, charlotte perkins gilman's "the yellow wall-paper"—writing women.

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Book Arts & Rare Book Collections: 19th Century American Literature

american literature in the 19th century

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american literature in the 19th century

19th Century Publishers' Bindings Database

Thanks to UW volunteers, almost ten thousand scans of publishers' bindings have been collected over the years. Accessible on internal, special collections computers, the database provides a visual and readable guide for a portion of publishers' bindings that belong to UW. Supported by a search function, items can be targeted and retrieved at the convenience of the user.

If you are interested in consulting this database, please email the curator. 

american literature in the 19th century

About the 19th Century American Literature Collection

The 19th Century American Literature Collection is a resource for the study of a wide range of authors, well-known and undiscovered. Americans during the 19th century were forging a unique artistic and literary identity during contentious socio-political conflicts. Special Collections’ vast selection of 19th century published literature and serials is an excellent source for examining the relationship between art, culture, and politics in the United States.  

This endowment supported Collection includes extensive holdings of published works of 19th century American authors, with an emphasis on women authors. All major literary figures of 19th century America are represented including H. W. Longfellow, H. Melville, N. Hawthorne, H. B. Stowe, H. D. Thoreau and R. W. Emerson along with scarce editions of popular writers of the time who are little known now. First editions, variant editions and illustrated books provide a research collection for textual studies. Some holdings of related photographic and visual materials and some limited manuscript materials. Letters of H. W. Longfellow are major manuscript holding.

Although the vast majority of the books in the Collection were published in the 19th century, books published in the 18th and 20th centuries are also represented.

English literature’s canon has long been dominated by white, cis-gendered men. At the University of Washington, we have taken special care to collect, when feasible, underrepresented communities, especially women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ writers within the Authors Collection and 19th Century American Literature Collection. Bear in mind, these materials are historic and consequently tethered to the cultural sentiments of their time and may not align with our current understanding of respect and social justice. We offer research support through our reading room and by appointment with the curator if you are embarking on research related to material that may cause harm or distress.

Starting Your Research

Please find a list of print, online, and audio/visual resources to start your research. This section serves as a jumping off point and is by no means exhaustive.

Books and Reference Sources

  • Bibliography of American Literature
  • Critical terms for literary study / edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin
  • Encyclopedia of American literature
  • Gale contextual encyclopedia of American literature
  • The Oxford encyclopedia of American literature
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
  • American Literary History
  • American Studies
  • Edgar Allan Poe Review
  • Emily Dickinson Journal
  • Henry James Review
  • Mark Twain Annual
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne Review
  • MLA International Bibliography
  • American Broadsides and Ephemera Series I
  • American Periodicals
  • Early American Imprints. Series II, Shaw-Shoemaker (1801-1819)
  • Early American Newspapers Series II, 1758-1900
  • Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
  • Everyday Life and Woman in America, 1800-1920
  • Women and Social Movements International, 1840-Present

Online Resources

  • North American Slave Narratives (UNC--Documenting the American South)
  • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (NYPL)
  • Digital Schomburg: African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
  • Project REVEAL (Ransom Center, UT Austin)
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American Literature Early 19th Century

Focus on edgar allan poe, american literature guides, more literature.

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By 1835 he was in Richmond as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, the first of several periodicals he was to edit or write for. There he married a 13-year-old cousin, who died in 1847. At various times he lived in Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. Alcohol, the bane of his irregular and eccentric life, caused his death at age 40.

His works are famous for his cultivation of mystery and the macabre. Among his tales are “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” initiated the modern detective story. His poems (less highly regarded now than formerly) are musical and sensuous, as in “The Bells,” a showcase of sound effects; they include touching lyrics inspired by women (e.g., “Annabel Lee”) and the uncanny (e.g., “The Raven”).

From CREDO Edgar Allen Poe: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia.

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19th Century American Literature

The extraordinary richness of nineteenth century textual production invites us to examine the intersections of various practical and theoretical approaches.  We analyze lifewriting and personal letters; notebooks; short stories and novels; plays and pageants; long and short poems; philosophical, political, and scientific discourse; genres that leap across boundaries to defy conventional categorization. We are interested in the effect of the Civil War and Reconstruction on imaginative literature and on the intersection of gender and race. We attend to the ways in which popular and elite writers negotiate the demands of their real and imagined audiences. Many of us specialize in highly individualistic writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Harriet Jacobs, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William and Henry James. Others have a taste for foodways, for literary biography, and for scholarly editing. Our courses reflect canons old and new, well established and newer pedagogical practices. Whatever our animating passions, we engage in a disciplined consideration of the power of literature to unsettle conventional languages of nature, soul, and self, and consequent redefinitions of a distinctive sense of American dreams, nightmares, and possibilities.

Faculty Experts

Steven Meyer

Robert Milder

Vivian Pollak

Julia A. Walker

Rafia Zafar

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American Literature: 19th Century

  • Journal Articles
  • Intro to Research Skills
  • Evaluating Sources
  • Citations & Citation Management
  • Colonial and 18th Century
  • 19th Century
  • Fantasy Literature

Subject Headings

Use the following subject headings to search for books, periodicals, and electronic resources in the   library catalog :

American literature--19th century

American literature--19th century--History and criticism

American fiction--19th century

American fiction--19th century--History and criticism

American poetry--19th century

American poetry--19th century--History and criticism

Realism in literature

Transcendentalism (New England)

Romanticism--United States

African American and Southern Literature

American literature--African American Authors--History and criticism

American literature--Southern States--History and criticism

Southern States in Literature

Women Writers

American literature--women authors--History and criticism

Women and literature--United States--History--19th Century

Professional Organizations

  • American Antiquarian Society
  • C19: Society of Nineteenth Century Americanists
  • Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
  • Emily Dickinson International Society
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Society
  • Henry James Society 
  • Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne Society
  • Nineteenth Century Studies Association
  • North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA)
  • Mark Twain Circle of America
  • Melville Society
  • Poe Studies Association
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Society
  • Thoreau Society
  • William Gilmore Simms Society (WGSS)

African American Literature

For African American literature, see the Literatures and Languages Library's guide for this subject: African American Literature Guide.

Basic Sources

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Research Database

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Help & Support Information

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  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers This link opens in a new window more... less... ProQuest Historical Newspapers is the definitive newspaper digital archive offering full-text and full-image articles for significant newspapers dating back to the 18th century. Every issue of each title includes the complete paper, cover-to-cover, with full-page and article images in easily downloadable PDF format. The full collection of ProQuest Historical Newspapers contains over 30 million digitized pages.

Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture -- a multimedia archive at the University of Virginia

Digital Archives and Projects

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Open Access (Free)

  • Mark Twain Project Online
  • Melville Electronic Library
  • The Walt Whitman Archive
  • Walt Whitman Manuscripts
  • Women Writers Project This link opens in a new window
  • Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875
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American Literature in Special Collections: 17th & 18th Century Literature

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17th & 18th Century American Literature

Prior to the 19th century, few “novels” as we know them in their modern form were published and circulating throughout American society. Toward the end of the 18th century, writers began to publish more novel-like works. Before the novel established its presence and popularity, writings such as essays, magazines, newspapers, memoirs, and journal-like accounts were more common. The Puritan and Great Awakening movements designated this era as religiously-significant, and much of the corresponding literature addresses religious traditions and morals. Following a religion-dominated 17th century was the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century, during which writers produced works of reason, logic, and challenge to the long-accepted norms. Featured here are four 17th-18th century American works: two nonfiction, journal-like accounts; one nonfiction informative piece; and an 18th century newspaper copy.

Samuel Hopkins

Memoirs of the life of mrs. sarah osborn: who died at newport, rhodeisland, on the second day of august 1796, in the eighty third year of her age by samuel hopkins, call number:  br1725.o7 h6 hopkins, samuel, et al. memoirs of the life of mrs. sarah osborn : who died at newport, rhodeisland, on the second day of august 1796, in the eighty third year of her age. printed at worcester, massachusetts by leonard worcester, 1799., first edition memoir of mrs. sarah osborn written by samuel hopkins, pastor of the first congregational church in newport, rhode island. the novel is comprised of four sections: “part i: containing an account of the first thirty years of her life;” “part ii: containing a general account of her life;” “part iii: extracts from her diary;” and “part iv: the conclusion of her life.” hopkins was of the early congregationalist clergy members to become staunchly anti-slavery and pro-abolition. his progressive theological beliefs polarized him and his “new light” congregation from more traditional groups and pastors. through her memoirs, osborn became an influential voice of american protestantism and evangelical christianity., thomas story, a journal of the life of thomas story , containing an account of his remarkable convincement of and embracing the principles of truth as held by the people called quakers and also of his travels and labours in the service of the gospel, with many other occurrences and observations by thomas story, call number:  oversize bx7795.s82 a3 1747  story, thomas. a journal of the life of thomas story: containing an account of his remarkable convincement of and embracing the principles of truth as held by the people called quakers and also of his travels and labours in the service of the gospel, with many other occurrences and observations. printed by i. thompson, 1747., 18th-century book written by thomas story offering theological perspective and wisdom. at the start of the account, story presents his intentions of the book: “that which i intend by the following work, is, to record the tender mercies and judgements of the lord; to relate my own experience of his dealings with me thro’ the course of my life; and to write a faithful journal of travels and labours in the service of the gospel: which i design for my own review; and likewise for the serious perusal of all those who may incline to enquire into things of this nature.”  , thomas story was born in 1670 to an anglican family in england. by young adulthood, he began to question the anglican practice and strove to challenge and strengthen his own spirituality with new perspectives. in 1691 at the broughton quaker meeting, story felt overwhelmed by the spirit of god and truth. over the years following, he traveled throughout europe spreading quaker ideology and eventually moved to colonial america to help strengthen and grow the quaker communities there., william penn, a brief account of the rise and progress of the people called quakers: in which their fundamental principle, doctrines, worship, ministry and discipline, are plainly declared. with a summary relation of the former dispensations of god in the world by william penn, call number:  bx7617.p5 b7 1783 penn, william, et al. a brief account of the rise and progress of the people called quakers: in which their fundamental principle, doctrines, worship, ministry and discipline, are plainly declared. with a summary relation of the former dispensations of god in the world. 7th ed., james adams, 1783., seventh edition book written by william penn, originally published in 1694. in this text penn accounts for the establishment and growth of the quaker community, discussing the following topics: the christian god and the appointing of the quaker people; the practices, doctrines, and principles of the quaker people and church; the process and credibility of quaker ministry; and a list of incitements or exhortations for the quaker community., william penn was a late 17th-century, early 18th-century politician, writer, and quaker. though born into an anglican family, penn was close friends with george fox, the founder of the quaker practice (also known as the religious society of friends) and joined the religious sect at the age of 22. penn traveled with fox throughout europe assisting him in spreading the quaker faith and wrote several testimonies of quaker ideology. , thomas' massachusetts spy, thomas's massachusetts spy, or, worcester gazette; vol. xiv, no. 704, thursday, october 14, 1784 , thomas massachusetts spy, or, worcester gazette 14 october 1784. print. , october 14th, 1784 edition of the massachusetts spy , a political new england newspaper founded by isaiah thomas in 1770. the massachusetts spy, later known as the worcester gazette , appealed to working class communities who “had not much time to spare from business” (thomas, qtd. in patrick olson rare books). all throughout the colonies, the massachusetts spy was the most popular american newspaper. thomas’ support of the whig party and independence from britain was evident in the newspaper, prompting resistance and trouble from british authorities., the masthead or header of this edition was engraved by paul revere, featuring images and the following text: “liberty defended from tyranny;” “thomas’s massachusetts spy: or, worcester gazette;” “union.” this edition contains a variety of written texts and advertisements, including the following: “a petition from almassa ali cawn, wife of almas ali cawn, whom the british cruelly executed in india, marking an early appearance of a letter frequently reprinted between 1784 and 1790. also includes news of various affairs in europe;   the bombardment of algiers (“a prodigious number of people are slain...the jews all went into   the back country, with their treasures, before the spanish fleet arrived”); fashion updates; reports from various parts of the us; and a continuation of william robertson’s history of america” (patrick olson rare books)..


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A Look at the American Literary Movements

The United States may be a relatively young country by global standards, but American literary history stretches back centuries. Let’s take a dive into the history of the main American literary movements and what they say about the characteristics of American literature.

Native American Literature

Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, native people had their own rich culture. The Native American literary tradition comprises oral tradition, folktales, creation stories and other myths that survive in the traditions and stories told by modern-day Native Americans.

One common element in these stories is repetition of incidents in a culturally significant number, usually four (the cardinal directions) or seven (the cardinal directions plus skyward, earthward and center). These stories were told and retold by generations of storytellers across the many tribes, and the stories vary in the telling not just from storyteller to storyteller and tribe to tribe, but even across multiple tellings by the same narrator.

In the 1700s, the Reverend Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, was among the first Native Americans to publish writings in English. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zitkála-Šá, a Yankton Dakota writer, musician and activist, collected and published legends drawn from Native cultures for a widespread white, English-speaking readership — along with personal stories that explored her struggles with cultural identity and the tension between traditional and assimilation. Another iconic writer of the early 20th century was Charles Eastman, considered the first to write American history from the Native American point of view.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Native American Renaissance saw a surge of Native American literature, including authors like James Welch and Paula Gunn Allen. Contemporary Native writers such as Eden Robinson and Sherman Alexie continue to be vital voices in the American literary tradition.

Colonial Literature 1600s-1700s

As the English colonies were established in the 17th century, the topics of literature among the colonists reflected their historical context. The earliest English works from the colonies ranged from practical accounts of colonial history and life written by leaders such as John Smith, to Anne Bradstreet’s  The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America , likely the first collection of poetry written in and about America.

Since many of the colonies were founded due to religious divisions back in Great Britain, it should be no surprise that religious themes were common. Such works ranged from the Puritan writings of ministers such as Increase Mather, to Roger Williams’ arguments for separation of church and state, and even the anti-religious  New English Canaan  by Thomas Morton — a harsh critique of the Puritans’ customs and power structures.

Enlightenment and Revolution Mid- to Late 1700s

In the years surrounding the American Revolution, literature likewise shifted to encompass the patriotic spirit that drove the nation toward independence. The iconic  Federalist Papers  in the realm of politics were matched by works by other authors in the realm of science and philosophy, such as Thomas Paine’s  The Age of Reason.

1789 saw the publication of  The Power of Sympathy  by William Hill Brown. Widely recognized as the first American novel, Brown’s work was a cautionary tale about the dangers of seduction, advocating for rational thinking and moral education of women. Given its historical context, critics have viewed  The Power of Sympathy  as an exploration of virtues most needed by the new nation.

American Gothic Early 1800s-present

Not to be confused with the famous painting by Grant Wood, American Gothic literature draws on dark themes from the nation’s historical and contemporary challenges. The early Gothic writers drew on frontier anxiety and fear of the unknown; Washington Irving’s  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow  (1820) is perhaps the most famous example. 

As the nation grew and matured, the Gothic tradition matured with it, through the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Southern Gothic writers used the decaying plantations of the post-Civil War South in place of the castles of European Gothic literature, as in the works of William Faulkner. The contemporary works of authors like Stephen King, who draws on his own experiences in rural Maine in his stories, continue the long American Gothic tradition.

Romanticism and Transcendentalism 1820s-1850s

The romantic era began in Europe in the eighteenth century, but it arrived in America later, around 1820. American romantic writers explored themes of individualism, intuitive perception and the inherent goodness of the natural world. Among the best known American romantic novels are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s  The Scarlet Letter  (1850), a dramatic story of a woman cast out of a Puritan community for committing adultery; and Herman Melville’s  Moby Dick  (1851), one of history’s most famous stories of man against the elements.

Emerging from romanticism later in the 1800s was perhaps the first notable American intellectual movement, transcendentalism, built on the belief in the inherent goodness of people, and the idea that self-reliance, transcending the corrupting influence of society, unlocks that goodness. We see these ideas in the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and others. Perhaps the best-known transcendentalist book was Thoreau’s  Walden , a reflection on his experience living independently near Walden Pond.

Since transcendental literature was in many respects the opposite of American Gothic, it should come as no surprise that prominent Gothic writers also penned critiques of transcendentalism, such as Hawthorne’s  The Blithedale Romance .

Literary Realism, Naturalism and Modernism 1860s-1940s

Following the Civil War, American literature was marked by a deep skepticism, understandable given the historical context. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American literary realism, in the works of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and others, was marked by attempts to present realistic things as they are, without supernatural or speculative elements. Twain’s vigorous, colloquial style in works such as  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  was a shot across the bow at tired conventions. American naturalism, heavily influenced by the works of Frank Norris, stood in the middle ground between romanticism and realism; for instance, Stephen Crane’s short story  The Open Boat , a naturalistic depiction of a group of shipwreck survivors, explores themes of the indifference of the universe.

From the same current as realism, literature progressed to American modernism in the interwar period, with some of the most famous works penned by the “Lost Generation” of expatriate writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Modernist works drew from the pain and loss of direction that this generation experienced in the wake of World War One, but it also contained themes of hope as individuals could change their surroundings.

Contemporary & Postmodern Literature 1950s-present

The postwar period saw the rise of a whole spectrum of innovative and subversive themes in literature, from the overtly counter-cultural works of the 1950s “Beat Generation” to John Updike’s reflective explorations of faith, personal turmoil and sensuality. Sexually frank content entered the mainstream in this period, as restrictions on obscenity were loosened and writers were empowered to speak freely about previously taboo topics.

Over the last several decades, American literature has seen an explosion of postmodernist themes such as unreliable narrators, internal monologue and temporal distortion. Contemporary writers have used literature to critique American culture, find connections across time and place and explore themes such as pluralism, relativism and self-consciousness.

The broader story of the American literary movements

American literature is about far more than just entertainment; it’s both a reflection of, and an influence upon, the moments in history and the changing human experience that shaped each movement. When you learn about the characteristics of American literature, you learn about what it is to be human, to struggle and succeed, to love and lose, to communicate and create. Get started with the  fully online B.S./B.A. in English/Writing  at Eastern Oregon University Online.

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A 20-Story Tour Through 19th Century American Literature

Curving asphalt road winding between red hills beckons.

Tour American literary history: 20 days of stories!

It’s summer, when many of us make plans to visit beautiful or historic places, but we also like the idea of relaxing on our vacations. In today’s post, I offer you a way to do both. You can tour all of 19th and early 20th century American literary history without leaving your chair. Read one of these classic short stories each day for 20 days, and you’ll have a great sense of the variety, richness, and evolution of American fiction, from the Romantic era beginning in 1820 right through the late Gilded Age, ending in the first few years of the 20th century.

Girl in beach chair reading American short stories.

Relax while you read.

If you read through the whole list, you’ll be reading famous works by America’s most celebrated writers from the 19th century.

You’ll also be touring many areas of the country, and even the world, from New England forests and villages to a plantation in the south to a battlefield in Tennessee to Switzerland and Rome to the Wild West to the Yukon to Nebraska and back to New York City. All these stories are absorbing to read, though written in many different styles. It’s especially appropriate to approach American literature via the short story genre, since American writers were instrumental in developing this genre into an art form.

You can find all 20 of the stories on our tour list online; all but two are available on Americanliterature.com , a wonderful website that preserves and promotes classic American literature. For the stories that aren’t on that site, I provided a link to another online text. I also provide a brief note about each story and why I chose it for this list.

Pick and choose, or read them all! If you do read any or all of them, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Please leave a comment at the end of the post. (You will enter your nickname and email, but your email will not appear on the site.)

Happy reading!

Open road-map of United States.

This list of 20 classic American short stories is a road map through American literary history.

20 Classic American Short Stories

1. “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving, 1820

Irving shot to international fame by importing plot devices of German folk tales into American settings. He also uses “Rip Van Winkle” to showcase how American culture changed from a slow-moving rural culture to a bustling, politically-oriented culture after the Revolutionary War brought Americans independence from Britain. “Rip Van Winkle” is the granddaddy of the American short story.

2. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1839

3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1843

Great examples of the American romance (not the love-story kind of romance, but the supernatural, spooky-story kind). Poe doesn’t just tell a scary tale; he examines the roots of fear and guilt in the human psyche.

4. “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1843

5.“Rappacini’s Daughter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1844

Like Poe, Hawthorne’s romances touch on the supernatural and feel a bit spooky. In these two stories, he presents two men of “science” who think they can play God, and how their overstepping affects the women who love them. He also ponders on the difference between true love and obsession.

6. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” by Herman Melville, 1853

This tale has its romantic (supernatural) elements, but is also an examination of the nature of working in business, and how becoming too dedicated to a job can suck the life out of people and put up walls between them.

7. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain, 1865 

B & W Photo of Mark Twain in profile.

This story is purely humorous. It also offers the quintessential description of a familiar American character: the tall-tale teller. The story-teller in this tale will say just about anything as long as he can keep his listener pinned to his chair.

8. “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” by Mark Twain,1876 

This story is broadly humorous as well, but Twain also enters into a more serious discussion of the nature of guilt and responsibility when the central character meets his own conscience face to face.

9. “Daisy Miller,” Henry James, 1878

We can’t tour the American literary 19th century without taking in a work by Henry James, the father of American psychological realism. His style is elaborate, which can make reading him a little difficult at times. But it is well worth any effort, not just for the elegance of expression but also for interesting,detailed observations of how people think about other people, and how they influence each other moment by moment as they interact.

In “Daisy Miller,” a young American man who grew up in Europe meets a very free-seeming American girl who doesn’t follow any of the usual social strictures that European young ladies do. He spends the whole story trying to decide what to make of her; is she an innocent girl who just doesn’t know the rules, some kind of rebel, or a girl who is not very “nice” in her behavior with men?  What does she want and expect of him? James keeps readers inside this young man’s point of view, with no glimpses into the mind of Daisy, forcing readers to try to figure out Daisy as well. Besides presenting relationship difficulties between young men and women, this story describes the contrast between European and American social values that many might still recognize today.

10.  “ A White Heron,” by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1886  

This is a lovely piece of Regionalism, which are stories that highlight customs of a particular region of America. Regionalism was the most popular type of fiction in America for much of the 19th century. This story is about a young girl growing up isolated near a New England forest in close proximity with nature. What happens when a beautiful young man, an ornithologist, comes to the woods looking for the rare white heron for his collection?

11. “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce, 1889

Known as “bitter Bierce,” this author emerged from service in the Civil War with great cynicism about human kind. In this story, a little boy wanders away from his cabin home into the nearby woods, which just happens to be near one of the biggest battles of the Civil War. What does, indeed, what can, the little innocent make of his experiences of the battle’s aftermath? A powerful story about the hellishness of war.

12. “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, 1890

The character “Mother” is part of a strict religious community where what the men say is pretty much what the women do. For forty years she has been obedient to her taciturn husband, but when “Father” breaks his 40-years’ promise to build her a proper home, and builds a barn instead, how will “Mother” react?

13. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892

No one who reads this story ever forgets it. The story unfolds through the journal entries of a new mother who is suffering from a nervous malady. Following the accepted psychological treatment for depression of that era, her physician husband has moved the family to a remote country house for the summer to help “cure” her. He prescribes copious rest, no excitement, no company, no work, and above all, no journal writing. Instead of curing her, her isolation in a room with ugly wallpaper, along with other factors, drives her slowly mad, and readers watch it all happen. Gilman wrote this story as a protest against the so-called “rest cure” for “female hysteria,” known today as postpartum depression. It is also a feminist protest against the cultural assumptions that men should make all the decisions in marriage, treating their wives as weak and childlike.

14. “Christmas Every Day,” by William Dean Howells, 1892

Howells wrote so many stories it’s hard to choose one that is representative. This one was popular in its day and meant for family reading. It’s a light-hearted moral tale a dad tells his little girl when she wishes that every day could be Christmas. If you like this one, explore other, more serious stories by Howells, who was known for his ultra-realist style, and for championing American realism among other writers through his role as editor of “The Atlantic Monthly.” Howells did not promote Hawthorne-style “romance” but instead argued that fiction should closely mirror reality.

15. “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin, 1893 

B & W Photo of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

St. Louis- born Chopin is famous for portraying the Creole culture of Louisiana, where she lived for many years with her husband, a Louisiana native. She is also famous for protesting patriarchal suppression of women, her work undergoing a great revival during the rise of feminism in the 1970s. This particular story is a beautiful, memorable, and very poignant presentation of the high and senseless cost of racism.

16. “The Wife of His Youth,” by Charles Chestnutt, 1898

Chestnutt was an African-American lawyer and fiction writer, born in Cleveland, Ohio of free black parents two years before the Civil War. Chestnutt was the first African-American writer to be published in The Atlantic Monthly, and was one of the first fiction writers to deal with problems of race after the Civil War. In this thought-provoking story, a fair-skinned African-American man has been “passing” in his community as a white man, and has achieved prominence in the town. How will he respond when his long-lost, darker skinned wife suddenly arrives at his door?

17. “The Blue Hotel,” by Stephen Crane, 1898 

B & W Photo of Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane

Tempers will flare during a “friendly” card game at The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper, Nebraska, leading inexorably to a town tragedy. What are the forces that conspire to push men past civil limits? Crane could be classified as an American Naturalist, a writer of this era who believed that nature and subconscious psychological forces are much more powerful than conscious choice in determining human behavior, and this story is Naturalism’s Exhibit A. There are some wonderful impressionistic writing and scene-painting in this story, propelling readers right into the center of the characters’ experience.

18. “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, 1902

Author of Call of the Wild , Jack London was an adventurer who became a very famous author in his day. This is another story that most people don’t forget once they read it, and which places London in the group of American Naturalists who see people as outclassed by the forces of nature.  Here, the central character’s dog is smarter about the ways of nature than he is. If only he didn’t lack the one human quality that might help him cope with the uncontrollable forces of nature: imagination.

19. “The Other Two” by Edith Wharton, 1904

New York stockbroker Waythorn’s new wife Alice is beautiful, refined, and as comfortable to live with as a well-worn shoe. The only trouble: she is twice-divorced in a culture where divorce just isn’t done, and both husbands are still hanging around. Waythorn starts to wonder whether he likes being just one more share-holder in a “joint stock company.” Wharton keeps her readers locked inside Waythorn’s point of view through this story, so at first readers may tend to see Alice as a shallow social-climber. But just maybe her husband should be regarding her as something other than a fine possession?  Perhaps the story is not a portrait of a conniving woman but rather a subtle piece of feminism.

20. “The Sculptor’s Funeral” by Willa Cather, 1905

A celebrated American sculptor, Harvey Merrick, has died, and his pupil Steavens accompanies his coffin back to the small out-of-the way Kansas town where Merrick was born. Steavens is shocked to encounter the narrow, uncharitable, materialistic community, completely unsympathetic to the aesthetic values or achievements of Harvey Merrick. The story is an indictment of provincial American places where art, as well has human differences, are unwelcome.

Remember to visit Americanliterature.com to find most of these stories.

Girl with long dark hair is looking at an Ipad and smiling.

Find all these great American short stories online.

Have you read any, or all, of these stories? Do you know of a story you would add to this list? Please leave a reply sharing your thoughts in the comment section!

*Photo Credits:

Mark Twain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kate Chopin. Click   for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Crane. Click for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

MJ Booklover

Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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January 16, 2019 at 3:34 pm

What a great list! Even though I got my BA in Literature, I was surprised to find that I had only read the earliest ones (up through Twain and then Jack London). I have read something by each of the authors, but not these particular stories. As I’m on a quest to create my own short stories this year (I’ve only written novels up to now), I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them, and to revisit some of the earlier ones.

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January 17, 2019 at 11:20 am

Thanks for your comment, Denise! I hope you enjoy touring through the stories that are new to you. If you have further thoughts on any, I welcome your comments, especially if you find any techniques that inspire your own short-story writing.

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February 2, 2021 at 7:38 am

Now we need one for the 20th Century! 😁

February 2, 2021 at 12:21 pm

Thanks Chelsea! Great idea. Right now I’m researching and re-reading 18th Century English literature so I can write the next Timeline (see Lists and Timelines menu for the classic reading lists already complete). When that is done, maybe I’ll put together that 20th century short story list! Glad you enjoyed the 19th Century one.

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