On American Literature
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?See results without voting
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