american literature essay questions

american literature essay questions

Exploring Themes and Perspectives in American Literature: Essay Questions and Analysis

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1. Introduction to American Literature

The literary history of the American story deviates importantly from most other world literary traditions: working on the premise that it throws some very distinctive poles of structure and meaning absing the modern American sensibility. The history is very short. The first novels are not written until the tail end of the 18th century, almost three hundred years after the colonies are settled. Prior to that, except for religious and devotional writings in a barren style, Anne Bradstreet and Henri Mather, the only other written product is poetry. Prosperous in the tail end of the 19th century, fiction and plays become the broader and more readable genre. United States authorship flourishes only during the 19th century and almost exclusively of male authors and men readers who are concentrated either in New England or the middle Atlantic Northeast. Nevertheless, this largely New England and Northeast writing constitutes the essential, continuing and unified literature of the United States.

Epic conquering adventures, stories of countries becoming nations, tales of individuals helping to shape an independent national character, and the literary growth in a country of diversity and racial cultures – all born of a new continent and its conflicting dreams. The legacy with that kind of aggrandizement will be long remembered – as will the stepping stones of the American literature who created those myths. Only a small part of that legacy, the central spine perhaps, can be grasped in the work and writers of this course. It is a legacy too rarely recognized for the treasure it is. This course is a step toward that treasure. The readings are but a beginning, and only a hint at the broad vista of what is American literature, much of what is not included here is as equally wonderful and wise as what you can read.

2. Key Themes and Concepts in American Literature

The lands of trees, forests, oceans, and plains inspire the imagery, introspection, and moods found in American nature writing. Undeniably, one’s personal voyage through life will take a parallel track with the authors and writers whose lives and expressions echo not only their self-interpretations of their worlds but provide guiding signposts for readers who join in the chorus of reflections of the human experience. Difficult, yes, as well as memorable, stimulating, provocative, perplexing, and challenging. At best, encounters with American literature are life-changing. Educators can assure that the shared land of books that build bridges of visions and voices is a rich, diversified, and dynamic territory of engaging and meaningful learning.

American literature will provide high school students with insights into the very essence of life. At a close reading of both classic and contemporary short stories, students are mundanely introduced to the fragile dreams, triumphs, fears, and defeats of the human struggle. American history and heroes come to life through biographical sketches, autobiographies, letters, and essays. Becoming a member of the circle of American writers provides a new generation of learners with mentors whose lives and works mirror a diverse tapestry of traditions, symbols, dreams, myths, conflicts, and struggles that are, too often, representative of a literature of European origins. The stories and accounts of American literature cross the oceans to portray social patterns and lives of poverty, colonization, immigration, and cultural adaptation.

3. Essay Questions and Analysis: Section 1

The reason that Gray’s formula is relevant to so much of what has been written in this country over the years has to do a great deal with the pervasive themes that filled many of the pages. A theme functions in a literary work much the same way as it does in a composition of music, paper decorating a room, or a movie or play created for the stage. In each of these instances, a central idea, presenting the motives, needs, and struggles of humans, is being presented at its essential level. When handled by a skilled individual, a theme can be expanded to complex and rich proportions. However, to be truly successful, it must be a dynamic force, exerting its influence throughout everything in which it exists. If it fails to do so, the work may evolve into what the authors of Literature and the Language Arts call a series of “trivial incidents.”

Even if a person has the sensibility of a turnip and is completely void of artistic creativity, it is possible to create a literary masterpiece. One needs only to gather together a group of often appealing characters in order to create a family, and then to lock the family members in a house for three solid days. One can then sell tickets and watch those within – not only the family members, but anyone who happens to enter the house – in order to create a plot for the story. One need not worry too much about other literary niceties, such as theme or climax, for these elements will emerge as the locked-up family members begin to persecute each other during their period of forced intimacy. When the family members are finally released, the masterpiece is complete. The writer of this formula, Simon Gray, is actually poking fun at the play format while discussing a particular and somewhat unique play, but his tongue-in-cheek suggestions for a formula to follow when writing a truly sensational play seem terribly relevant to a vast proportion of the American literature that is written each year.

Section 1. Themes and Perspectives: Spark’s Formula for a Literary Masterpiece

4. Essay Questions and Analysis: Section 2

In what ways are selected American Renaissance texts interested in creating, preserving, and suspecting various representations of the natural world and in assessing the effects of the human species’ footing on the planet? How, in this light, might statements, for or against such aims and items, be facilitated by a comparison of the persuasive might of the biblical doomsday message and “the unjust laws of the universe” versus the mythic poetry of geology and the expressive might, for or against such things, of visual arts reproductions and written accounts of the virtual “Petrified Forest,” “Paradise,” or the depths of the ocean?

Many works of the authors of the American Renaissance are drenched in biblical allusions. How do the Bible and its narratives in “The Burning” and “Paradise” serve as critical lenses to help readers reassess deeply seated assumptions about the human (gendered, hierarchical, racial), animal, angel, vegetable, and mineral worlds? What, in this vein, are the implications of Emerson’s identification of the latitude and longitude of the center of the world with his thematic “Revelation” and his plentiful employment of “the unjust laws of the universe”?

5. Conclusion and Future Directions

This first module of American literature spans nearly 400 years and challenges the idea or the stereotype of a single American voice. We examined questions of voice, identity, change, history and self-vision by analyzing many cultural views based on geography, religion, abilities, and societies of diverse and international origins. As a result, this course is not only an introduction to American literature but also an introduction to the importance of a critical awareness of perspective in every reading experience. Furthermore, we have seen that change is anything (and everything) but simple and inevitable, and that to write creatively, an author must see, be seen and understand, without necessarily acknowledging, the changing perspectives of that voice.

As a lecturer teaching this American Literature course, I had a keen interest in the material and also encouraged discussions as some of the texts I had not worked with previously myself. Students sometimes corrected my mistaken assertions, which was a good, humbling, and humanizing experience. I particularly enjoyed those discussions which brought various perspectives into the analysis, and this is the main way in which I might revisit teaching the course. In future, I could prepare even more open-ended questions; devote more time to some of the statements and references to racist, sexist, ageist or amoral behavior and bigotries in particular; and work harder to share and introduce controversial opinions for discussion.

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