American Literature

On American Literature

For more than a hundred years dark fiction and in particular horror have been strong elements in American literature.
For more than a hundred years dark fiction and in particular horror have been strong elements in American literature. | Source
Stephen King revived the vampire in his novel Salem's Lot.
Stephen King revived the vampire in his novel Salem's Lot. | Source
It came out of Star Trek the television show and also the novels that all Americans should have the same freedoms.
It came out of Star Trek the television show and also the novels that all Americans should have the same freedoms. | Source
Steel Rose by Barbara Custer
Steel Rose by Barbara Custer | Source
Night to Dawn magazine.
Night to Dawn magazine. | Source
More Deaths than One by Pat Bertram
More Deaths than One by Pat Bertram | Source
The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Sefano.
The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Sefano. | Source
Night to Dawn magazine
Night to Dawn magazine | Source
In the USA fictional characters such as The Shadow from the radio serials and the pulps are still part of the writing scene.
In the USA fictional characters such as The Shadow from the radio serials and the pulps are still part of the writing scene. | Source
The Shadow out of radio and the pulps.
The Shadow out of radio and the pulps. | Source
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper | Source
Pulp fiction lives on.
Pulp fiction lives on. | Source
Guns of the Black Ghost by Tom Johnson
Guns of the Black Ghost by Tom Johnson | Source
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe | Source
Strange ideas about good and evil came with the settlers from England to the USA.
Strange ideas about good and evil came with the settlers from England to the USA. | Source
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville | Source
Rubicon Ranch
Rubicon Ranch | Source
Out now in 2014.
Out now in 2014. | Source
After the American Civil War there was a push West.
After the American Civil War there was a push West. | Source
Events West attracted Eastern attention and so was born The Western
Events West attracted Eastern attention and so was born The Western | Source
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain | Source
The Cowboy.
The Cowboy. | Source
Readers in the East wanted to forget about big city living for a while by diving into a Western adventure.
Readers in the East wanted to forget about big city living for a while by diving into a Western adventure. | Source
Gothic literature did well in 19th Century USA as it continues to do well in modern USA.
Gothic literature did well in 19th Century USA as it continues to do well in modern USA. | Source
Science Fiction continues to be popular in the USA.
Science Fiction continues to be popular in the USA. | Source
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft | Source
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury | Source
Imaginative Science Fiction has come out of the USA and continues to do so.
Imaginative Science Fiction has come out of the USA and continues to do so. | Source
In one particular novel firemen burn books.
In one particular novel firemen burn books. | Source

On American Literature

Today the top writers on the American scene are Stephen King, Diane Carey, Harry Turtledove, and Peter David.

Up-and-coming greats include Barbara Custer, Tom Johnson, Pat Bertram and Michael De Sefano.

Many of Stephen King's novels have been turned into either movies or television mini-series.

As a writer King has been popular for decades. Carrie (1974) is probably his most famous book followed by Salem's Lot (1975).

As for personal preference, for me it is a toss up between The Langoliers (1990) and Christine (1983).

In the Langoliers you have a group of people at an airport caught between moments of time.

In Christine there is the American love of the fast car gone wrong. There's a car truly bad to the bone.

Stephen King has made the claim that he owes his success to hard work and also to his knowledge of the American horror and dark fantasy writers, such as H. P. Lovecraft, that were in the craft before him.

The up-and-coming writer dark fantasy and science fiction writer Barbara Custer claims a fascination for the works of Stephen King. Is there a pattern here? I believe there is.

Diane Carey is possibly best known for her work on Star Trek novels such as Ancient Blood (1997) and Wagon Train to the Stars (2000).

Other popular Star Trek novelists include Melinda Snodgrass (The Tears of the Singers 1984), V. E. Mitchell (Enemy Unseen 1990), John Vornholt (War Drums 1992), Simon Hawke (Blaze of Glory 1995) and Jerry Oltion (Twilight's End 1996).

Harry Turtledove has worked in many areas of fiction but is best known for his alternate history novels such as How Few Remain (1997), American front (1998), Blood and Iron (2001), and In at the Death (2007).

Peter David has done everything from write for Marvel and D. C. comics to writing Star Trek novels such as The Captain's Daughter (1995).

Barbara Custer's work includes City of Brotherly Death (2012) and Steel Rose (2013). She is the editor of the popular dark fantasy magazine Night to Dawn.

Barbara runs Night to Dawn as both a book editor and publisher.

In City of Brotherly Death, Philadelphia is transformed into a killing zine with vampires and zombies on the loose. A truly dark read. In Steel Rose we also have zombies on the rampage.

Pat Bertram is best known for her suspense novels such as More Deaths than One (2009). She has also been involved in a saga involving other writers, Rubicon Ranch (2013), and the anthology Break Time (2014).

If not for the Western secured by great writers such as Zane Grey in the 20th Century there might not have been a Rubicon Ranch in the 21st Century.

Tom Johnson writes in the traditional pulp style established in the 1920s and '30s.

Tom is best known so far for his short story collection Pulp Echoes (2011), and his earlier work Guns of the Black Ghost (2008).

Michael De Sefano's The Gunslinger's Companion (2014) takes the reader on a dark journey from the point of view of a young migrant worker trying to make his way in the USA.

Defining literature from other forms of writing is never easy. Perhaps the best yardstick to use concerns what has survived and has inspired others to produce great work and what has not.

Literature tends to survive. It is not always possible to rely on past or even present critics. Sometimes they speak for the general public and sometimes they do not. When a language is in flux they can be more of a hindrance than anything else.

American literature began before the USA was officially created. The great distance between England and other parts of Europe from America meant that new twists and turns on the English language would eventuate and in fact did eventuate. The same thing happened in Australia.

For some time well educated people living in America spent time abroad in Britain leaning to speak English the way the English do and then bringing this knowledge back to the colonies. When the colonies ceased to be colonies and the USA was born the trend still continued.

It was a fact that, in terms of literature, Americans in the big northern cities were experiencing a cultural cringe in which whatever was published in Great Britain or France had to be better than whatever could be published locally.

There was a reluctance to publish works by Americans that were strictly about America. One did not make it as a recognizable author unless given the nod by overseas critics. What overseas critics could not or would not understand because they were not familiar with it simply did not see publication.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper was first published in 1826. It dealt with a war between the British and colonial American forces against the French in which some Indian tribes sided with the British and colonials and others sided with the French.

Though it may have been an exciting read when it first came out, this novel is rather tough on the modern reader. It is here that the notion of the noble savage in fiction probably originated. The dialogue throughout comes across as too stilted to be realistic but, even so, here we do have an American writer actually writing proudly about the American past. In those terms it was a step forward.

A few years later a little book that would grow came out. It would also have it's say as to what direction American literature would eventually take to free itself of the bonds of forever looking to the British or the French for approval.

In 1828 an American by the name of Noah Webster put out a dictionary based on the American take on English. In it were words no longer commonly in use in England and words whose meaning had gone through cultural change.

The American word 'store' for example replaced 'shop'. In other words, a place to hold goods according to the English became a place to sell them. The letter pronounced Zed in British English became Zee in American English. Americans now had a dictionary all their own which actually celebrated how the language had developed in the USA.

British novelist Charles Dickens showed, at times, a preference for American spelling over British spelling. Where American spelling was more phonetic he thought it was best.

In 1843 Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart saw print. In 1845 The Raven and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe was published.Though an exceptionally good writer, Poe doesn't have much of a distinctly American flavor to his work. When I was young I thought Poe had to be an English writer rather than an American because of many of the settings and the general style.

In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and other works came out. The Scarlet Letter began a Gothic horror tradition that is in some ways unique to the USA and which continues to this day. He was a powerful writer and his descriptions of Puritanism and of the wilderness still continue to haunt readers.

Moby-Dick, written by Herman Melville, is a cautionary tale dealing with one man's obsession and the destruction it brings. Published in 1851 it somewhat romanticizes whaling in the waters off the east coast of the USA.

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe's great anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was published. It has been said that Queen Victoria wept when she read it. This work was not popular in the American South at the time.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865) and in the expansion West in the 1870s, the American language changed dramatically and so did the American take on the novel.

In 1868 Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women where the dialogue shines out as having a real New England feel to it. The talk was prime and proper but with a certain cheekiness that was all American.

in 1895 Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage saw print. It is about a private's first battle during the American Civil War. It cuts out the romance of armed conflict and instead shows the blood, the fear and the confusion. Here Crane invented his own words to replace the swear words neither publisher nor censor would allow him to use.

Samuel Clemens wrote his first successful short story during the American Civil War. It was after the war, however, that he became a popular novelist under the name Mark Twain. The critics generally hated his writing because he used the real language of the people too readily but the general public loved him for the same reason.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was first published in 1876 and remains a monument to a way of life on the Mississippi that was already fading as he wrote. In too many places the movement of goods by boat was being replaced by the iron horse. It was a great work but it was not to be his best effort.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in my opinion, remains a very powerful anti-slavery novel and to this day shouts out about the freedom that can be found along a great waterway. You just have to have ears to hear by and an open heart.

Written in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deserves its place among literary masterpieces of the world even though the critics at the time loathed it and it was banned in the south. It is a novel which meanders like a river but that is fine with this reader.

Perhaps it should also be remarked that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had some controversy in the late 20th Century because of use of language and is currently being threatened with being banned in some schools in the USA because of use of language.

In this novel, as in his 1889 book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he pokes fun at royalty, romanticism and the idea that landowners in the USA should act like the British upper class.

In the 19th Century there was much excitement about the West in the East and so the Western was born. Histories both true and fictional and sometimes somewhere in between that dealt with famous Western characters became popular.

At first it was the written word then there was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show that began in 1883 and continued to thrill audiences until 1913. People in the cities in the East who had never seen live Indians or covered wagons or cowboys herding cattle could see all of this live. It was really at best a snap-shot of what the West was once really like and, of course, in fake battle the cavalry always won and the Indians always lost. What it didn't have in terms of realism or truth was made up for in excitement.

One of the biggest stars was Anne Oakley, a little gal who could really shoot. There is still some archival footage of her around.

The hunger for Western adventure led to writers like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour turning the Western into an art form. Zane Grey's Last of the Plainsmen (1908) and his 1934 novel Code of the West can be considered 20th Century literature American style. Lois L'Amour's Hondo (1953) and his High Lonesome (1962) should also rate very high.

Meanwhile the pulp magazines were creating authors of new and incredible power.

Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft brought Gothic horror, mysticism and really dark fantasy to the American scene. To Robert E. Howard one might also add sword and sorcery.

Robert E. Howard is best remembered for the creation of Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja. There have been a number of Conan movies and one Red Sonja film.

H.P. Lovecraft is probably best known for his creation of the Old Ones and The Call of Cuthulhu (1926). There's also The Color Out of Space (1927) and At The Mountains of Madness (1931).

There's Isaac Asimov to consider. He is probably best remembered through his I, Robot (1950) short story collection and his novel, The End of Eternity (1955). He was both a scientist and a science fiction writer.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was first published in 1953 but was based on a 1951 short story by Bradbury titled The Fireman. It is about a terrible future in which books are not only banned but burnt. The only shining light are the book people who have become living books. It is a wonderful novel with an inspired ending that should put it up there with world literature.

Today American literature is considered to be up there with the best the rest of the world has to offer.

The cultural cringe of a distant time is now a fast fading memory. This cultural cringe, however, still exists in Australia but I am confident it won't exist there forever.

Your Favorite American Novel

Of the Novels Listed below which would be your favorite?

  • Steel Rose by Barbara Custer
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  • Christine by Stephen King
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey
  • Wagon Train to the Stars by Diane Carey
  • The Captain's Daughter by Peter David
  • More Deaths than One by Pat Bertram
  • The End of Eternity by Issac Asimov
See results without voting

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Comments 16 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I'm impressed. Probably a better summary of the development of American literature than most Americans could come up with. Twain wrote a very funny criticism of Cooper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" which you might enjoy. My lit professor considered it a "realism" author criticizing a "romantic" writer. Dickens was very popular in the US. Probably like soap operas today, everybody had to know the latest on "little Nell.'Uncle Tome is in disrepute nowadays for much the same reasons as Twain.Uncle Tom has become a negative term for the civil rights people.

I would probably add Owen Wister to the origins of the Western. "The Virginian" is considered to be the beginning of the adult Western.

These are just my opinions Your hub is excellent I hope you write more on the subject of American literature and language.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thank you for your comments dahoglund. I came across what Twain had to say about Cooper and your lit professor was right. Twain amongst other things was known as a humorist. You are right in saying Dickens was very popular in America. He was also very positive about America. He lost some points though with Americans when he criticized America in one of his novels. Yes, I know about how the term Uncle Tom came to mean an African American collaborator with 'the establishment'. That was back in the 1960s and '70s. I didn't know the term still had any relevance or that the novel would be in dispute today because of it.

Owen Wister would be a good choice. The Virginian would easily put him up there with Zane Grey.

There is a lot on American literature I haven't covered. I have barely scratched the surface of the influence of the pulps or mentioned the great writers of the '60s, '70s and '80s. So when I have the time a part two wouldn't be completely out of the question.

I do love great writing and Americans have been responsible for a lot of great writing.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

The term "Uncle Tom" is still used in American politics to Black Republicans or conservatives. I think I have heard suporem court Justic Clarence Thomas refered to in those terms.

As far as reading the book, I don't know. I think it is more significant as a social document than a literary one.

Dickens, I believe, was bothered by the fact that copy rights were not honored.

I understand that the hubs are limited in space and have to kept concise.

You are off to a good start.

If you are not already familiar with it, you might enjoy Hal Holbrooks stage play "Mark Twain Tonight" He did a very convincing Mark Twain.

Mark Twain was unconventional in marketing his books through essentially door to door sales. It is one reason he was not taken seriously in his own time. I think he would be a standup comic today. I understand he was also a talented singer.

I look forward to your next hub.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

You could be right about Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dialogue is a bit clumsy and the plot reeks of melodrama. Still it did move a lot of people to the plight of the plantation slave at the time.

Yes, Dickens was bothered by copy right problems in the USA. He also had an idealized vision of what America would be like before he left England. It really wasn't possible for the whole of the USA to meet his expectations.

I will check out Mark Twain Tonight when I can.

I didn't know Twain went door to door.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I didn't mean to be misleading. Twain did not go door to door himself. He did publish through what I think was called "subscription publication." The publishing firm had salesment that went to peoples homes. probably a bit like encyclopedias were sold when they were still in book form.The address below tells about it.

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/marketin/sol...


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thanks for the added information dahoglund.


premierkj profile image

premierkj 6 years ago from Republic of Ireland

Edgar Allen Poe is my favourite American writer, its as though he created his own genre. When you ask what separates literature from the rest I think the main thing is real literature has to be somewhat experimental and innovative. Of course there is one genius in every generation who accomplishes something truly original and then other very good writers back it up to create a literary age. I must say unless I missed it, I am shocked that 'The Great Gatsby' has been omitted from this hub, not that I particularly liked it from a literary perspective, but it did seem to define that age in America. Good work.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thanks premierkj.

Edgar Allen Poe was a particularly powerful and talented writer. He is a favorite of mine and I can understand why you think he is wonderful. He didn't, however,invent Gothic or give it a particularly American flavor. He certainly did take it to new heights as a literary art form.

It was Nathaniel Hawthorne who created Gothic with a truly American slant. Both Poe and Hawthorne are brilliant and I am not putting Poe down. I wouldn't do that. It is a question of where he fits in the scheme of things.

Later on an English writer who spent a lot of time in the USA, Algernon Blackwood, helped to cement American Gothic in the minds of readers and thus paved the way for great literary artists such as H. P. Lovecraft.

premierkj you are free to go along with the notion that the main thing in real literature is experimentation and innovation. I won't disagree with you there. I think both are important to the health and well being of the novel. They are also important in the short story.

As for The Great Gatsby, I mentioned this novel in an earlier hub and certainly would not neglect mentioning it if and when I get around to doing a part two. Time and space are not always on our side. Yes, Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby are strong reminders of the jazz age in the USA. Tender is the Night was a big hit straight up. The Great Gatsby took longer to grab an audience but it is still mighty fine writing.

Talking about experimentation and innovation, I also neglected to mention Catch 22 which happens to be fantastic. My favorite character in this rather warped out book being Major Major Major Major.


AJHargrove profile image

AJHargrove 6 years ago from USA

Good job breaking down the time periods. That's not always an easy thing to do for such a wide topic.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thanks AJHargrove.


myownworld profile image

myownworld 6 years ago from uk

Very interesting.... and brought back memories of my days as a Literature student. Most of these books were on my course, though I too admit being fascinated by Poe and Hawthorne then. (Btw. Tell-tale Heart to this day sends a shiver down my spine!). However, my all time favorite is L. M Alcott, and not just Little Women, but the entire series down to Jo's boys were some of the most wonderful books I've read. Actually, anything to do with books, and I'm there, so thank you for this great hub. :)


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thanks for stopping by and having a look, myownworld.


randslam profile image

randslam 5 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

Hi Rod,

What a great rundown of the American literary scene. You mention many of my favourite sci-fi authors, which I read as a kid--Bradbury, Asimov, etc.

The first novel I ever read was, in fact, Hondo by Louis L'Amour at the age of eight--couldn't believe I'd read a whole book, but it opened a world of incredible opportunity and possibility.

Thanks for your effort. Twain, Samuel Clemens, life was quite tragic when one reads his biography. His wife and daughter died leaving him alone and in a very depressed state during the course of his later years. He was basically done writing novels by the age of 48.

As he boasted about his laziness, it was intriguing to learn of the typing/printing machine he tried to develop that never made him any money and eventually required him to hit the speaking trail.

It seems sad that the 'powers that be' have decided to edit much of the original text of Huckleberry Finn, because the very reason for his telling that story was to find freedom for an oppressed caste of people in America. For many, attitudes haven't changed that much in the Old South--and perhaps lessons we should have learned a long time ago are being removed from our literary history.

At any rate, great hub.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Thanks, randslam.

Hondo is a great novel and also quite unusual for a Western because of its take on American Indians. If it has to be your first novel then I would say its a very good choice indeed.

I have a copy of Huckleberry Finn. It is a Penguin edition I bought some twenty years ago. It seems to be intact. Yes, it was a book about freedom on a great river and the quest for an even greater freedom. It is also one of the best adventure stories ever written. The powers that be should remember that it was originally banned in the South. I feel it is very necessary not to white-wash either American history or American literature. I love Huckleberry Finn just the way Mark Twain intended it to be, warts and all.

I agree Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had some rough years. He also left behind a great treasure in words of a bygone age and its people which I feel is precious. The same can be said for Bradbury and Asimov. I hope someday it will be said about my own writing.


cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 5 years ago from northeastern US

i recently read "the secret river", historical fiction - my favorite genre - about the settling of australia. is it written by an australian? is it part of the end of the cringe?


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia Author

Yes, cathylynn, Kate is an Australian. I too like historical novels. It may be part of the end of the Australian cringe but it isn't over yet. The USA went through a similar cultural cringe which was knocked about and finally ended firstly by people like Mark Twain who gave Americans their own voice in characters such as Huck Finn and later by visionaries such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. By the time you get to Bradbury there was no longer anyone apologizing for reading something written in the USA. But it was a long journey.

Australia is at the Mart Twain phase. We have the goods so to speak. We just need to get it out there and to convince the public that we really do have our own unique voice.

When I write I do write as an Australian. It is obvious I like American literature but that's fine with me and I hope with you.

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