American is a multi-national country. Just like a big container, which put in various kinds of elements. Different cultures, that can not only be co-existed but also form a sharp contrast, mixed together, It makes American literature style has a flavor of distinct and various aesthetic feeling. Many writers come from lower level, which makes American literature has the rich flavor of life and local color. Furthermore, many new styles of literature in the world are oriented in America since 20th century.
The process of American literature can be divided into following main periods: Colony and Puritan literature; early national literature; latter national literature and Modern literature.
America's history of literature began with the swarming in of immigrants with different background and cultures. After that, American literature had been greatly influenced by the European culture for a long period. It was not until America's independence, did Americans realize that they need national literature strongly, and American literature began to develop. The Civil War was a watershed in the history, after which American literature entered a period of full blooming. Romantics, which emphasized individualism and intuition，and Tnscendentalism represented by Emerson came out into being. This was an exciting period in the history of American literature. Like the flowers of spring, there were suddenly many different kinds of writing at the same time. They have given depth and strength to American literature, and accelerated the forming of High Romantics. But due to the influence if Civil War, the American society was in a turbulent situation. The writings about local life, critical realism and unveiling the dark side of the society were increased. After The First World War, Americans were at a loss postwar, and the Modern American literature began.
1. Colonial and early American literature
(1). Travelers and Explorers
When the European explorers first came to this new continent, the native Indians who probably got here from Asia about fifteen thousand years ago were still in origin, and they even had no written language, “The traditional literature was originally transmitted almost entirely by word of mouth, and therefore belongs to the category of oral literature,” (Wu Dingbo, 1) As time past, more and more travelers and explorers swarmed in. They wrote a lot of diaries、letters, and travel accounts to describe the new land as second Eden. No wander somebody said that the earliest American literature were the travel accounts written by European adventurers. Among the most remained were Captain John Smith's True Relation of Virginia (1608), and Description of New England (1616).
Although most of the Indian history was preserved in tales and songs, they had thoughts about life and nature. They loved the natural world around them deeply, and they believed that when a person was dead, he would give back what had borrowed while he was alive to nature. This kind of philosophy had influenced later or even modern American writers. It's interesting that when we look at the literature of the Puritans, the Transcendentalists, the Naturalists, and even the Moderns, when we read Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, and Ernest Hemingway, we can find similar themes.
(2) Pilgrim settlements
Several years later, another group of settlers also arrived in the New World. This group was looking for the Jamestown settlement. However, because of bad navigation, they landed in Massachusetts. They were also coming to the New World with dreams of success, but their goal was different from the Jamestown settlement. They wanted to start a new world governed by the Bible. They were called Puritans because they wanted to live a better life by making themselves pure. They first arrived on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth. This is the group we are usually thinking about when we talk about the "first Americans."
The clearest history of their journey to the New World can be found in History of Plymouth Plantation (1608) written by William Bradford, who was also one of the Mayflower passengers. The History of Plymouth Plantation is a Puritan book in the best sense. “It's loosely annalistic, but a direct and simple style gives charm, as a sincere faith in Puritanism gives purity, to the entire book.” (W. P. Trent, 1997)
The Puritans had several kinds of literature. By far the most common form is the writing related to Biblical teachings, or sermons, that the church leaders wrote. The Puritans believed that they were in the New World because God had brought them there for a special purpose. They thought that by studying the Bible they could learn more about this way of life. So they were very strict to their life, and they didn't allow any kind of entertainment even in literature. That's way Wu Dingbo said in his book “Literature of the New England Settlement is mainly a literary expression of the Puritan idealism” and “The literature of the colonial settlement served either God or colonial expansion or both.” (Wu Dingbo, 4)
Another important form of writing from this period is the histories. These books, like Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, are important because they tell us about life at the time of the Puritans.
People also wrote many poems. But a lot of works were hidden and lost because people often considered poetry to be an inferior form of writing and not totally acceptable to Puritan thinking.
One of the most significant poets from this period was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672). Her poems in Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up In America (1650) reflected the con concerns of women who came to settle in the colonies, and in all her poems, however, she shows her strong belief in God.
2. 18th century—the Age of reason
(1) The Age of reason
In the 18th century, people believed in man's own nature and the power of human reason. With Franklin as its spokesman, the 18th century America experienced an age of reason.
Words had never been so useful and so important in human history. People wrote a lot of political writings. Numerous pamphlets and printings were published. These works agitated revolutionary people not only in America but also around the world.
Among the most renowned was the work Common Sense (1776) of Thomas Paine (1737-1809). It's the ringing call for the decoration of liberty. He also wrote Crisis (1774-1783) and The Age of Reason (1794-1796), according to Wu, “He thought that religion should be based on rational, reasonable ground. ” (Wu Dingbo, 12) The pamphlets helped complete the debate that resulted in America's separation from England.
And of course for all the Americans, the most important document from this period was a single sheet of paper called The Declaration of Independence (1776), mainly written by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the most distinguished person and giant in American history, he wrote and worked for American independence hardly and had made so many great efforts to America that he has been called "The First American." a world-renowned scientist, diplomat, philosopher, and writer. He perfected the smooth, clear, short sentences of the Puritan plain style. His Autobiography encourages hard work and emphasizes the importance of achievement. Another work that is well known is Poor Richard's Almanack, and many of the sentences have become popular quotations.
During this time writers thought that the truth should be relied on Bible, churchmen, authorities, or practice and experience.
(2) Early National Literature
During the period of American Revolution War, American national literature came into being. Since before the war, American people have already had the awareness of national independence, so they wrote many political writings revolutionary poems.
The war helped the first important American prose writers and poets grow up both culturally and artistically. Furthermore, the independence of nation led to the independence of national literature. From this moment on, American people began to understand of meaning of being a real ”American“.
3. The flourishing of American literature in 19th century
From the 1820's to the Civil War broke out, American literature entered a period of full blooming. Writings all characterized by a distinct national style and flavor. At the same time, the world as a whole was experiencing a change in ways of thinking: there was a move from classical ideas to romantic ones. This change was taking place in all areas of culture around the world. This was an exciting period in the history of American literature. Like the flowers of spring, there were suddenly many different kinds of writing at the same time. All the works have an optimistic spirit. They represented the various and quick development of American national literature.