american literature essay topics

american literature essay topics

Exploring the Rich Tapestry of American Literature: Essay Topics and Analysis

1. Introduction to American Literature

American literature is at the same time a reflection of sensibility, a record of an age, and an expression of the loftiest cultural ideals. It is permeated by a sense of individualism, an experience of freedom, and a commitment to change. These objectives express themselves more often than not in a growing away of available talent from the circumference of the culture until the quest for universal truth becomes the main goal and criterion. It has been said that our literature reflects oceans, the infinite space, and love. That the national heritage at our disposal expresses itself by emphasizing the factual at the emotional level, more by preoccupation with freedom than any other single theme. The stress upon change is at the same time the recognition of the higher possibilities of man, whose spirit coincides with the fundamental principles underlying their experience of freedom. All of this must be studied against the fact that American literary tradition does not stem essentially from the colonial past. We reflect the influence of non-English America and also that of two major roots—the composite tradition of western civilization and the force of the religious experiment. We cannot appreciatively approach our works without at least recognizing their scope and rallying power.

So you teach American literature from the beginning. Throughout the course, you will always find that many ways have been open to your students. Generally, from your point of view, what is most important is to say to your students something they have never heard before, or to say in a way they have never heard before, what they already know. Besides being foraging guides, those of us on the teaching front of American literature are Sobrinos de America, and tireless, questing explorers on the still largely unexplored path of our national idiosyncrasy.

2. Key Themes and Movements in American Literature

Literature from the various movements that have transformed American society can help students understand the potential roles of ethnicity and race relations, regional heritage, and gender-related topics in social and historical issue resolution. World War I and World War II, as well as multicultural nation building, have been examined through the works of authors such as Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald that trace key periods in social, historical, and literary development. These authors represent each of the key themes and movements in American literature by telling their stories in ways that generate excitement for our students. The experiences of these writers have helped to define the American character and the overall national journey.

Pioneers of early America, such as Mary Rowlandson, John Smith, and John Winthrop, are usually best understood in the context of their hardships, religious proselytizing, and life-and-death struggles. Exploration narratives, like those of Cabeza de Vaca, Hernando De Soto, and Coronado, depict close brushes with opportunity and disaster as European landfall is made on America that has suddenly become a very populated place. The literature of the melting pot has been a key component of the national literary geography throughout our history. They are representative of the role that reflects not only class issues and political prejudices prevalent at the time of their writing but also offer a window into the ways that literature can reveal the social fabric of the past to study by our students.

3. Notable American Authors and Their Impact

Edgar Allan Poe is the master of the macabre and one of America’s chief literary treasures. With the fall of the traditional, established order and the rise of a more youthful, vibrant nation came a headstrong, spirited people who wanted to be shown that their way was the right way, no matter what others said. Poe captures the essence of Romanticism through his riddled, almost gothic imagery of gloom, despair, and death. After the deaths of so many of the people he loved and the periodic death of his friend alcohol, what else is left to write about but his morbid thoughts? And from his morbid thoughts emerged stories and poems that will last, forever young, forever eloquent. In their flourish, they will never flag or fade away with our progress, as the men and women whose houses Poe saw and whose attics he tread. For in that riddled hollowed-out mind, with gigantic imaginative powers, he has made a sound foundation. No bone man would still be revered today, even though his own flesh is dead and gone. And that his own flesh is gone is even sadder because that poetic eye, the key, will never be unlocked by the unskilled. In his bizarre voice, Poe seems to narrate the idea that his mind will remain forever young while the reader grows older and more worldly. In a sense, the legacy can forever stay the same.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most significant figures in nineteenth-century American literature. Influenced by the period’s philosophical and religious roots, Emerson wrote some of the earliest works that seriously affected how Americans thought about literature. In almost all of his works, Emerson stresses the importance of independence in one’s thinking and outlook on life. He urges people, both in “Self-Reliance” and in “Experience,” to criticize the establishment when it no longer holds up to the principles that are good in men’s hearts and minds. He urged those with power, those with independent thought, to perpetuate these qualities on their own. No thought or idea was so important that it should not be subjected to criticism. The man with independent thought has the ability to change the establishment for good or bad, to rise when others fall, to become greatness personified. Emerson writes out of his heart. No change in thought or in behavior comes unless it comes from within. These messages still resound today in our culture, and will as long as humanity exists.

4. Intersectionality and Diversity in American Literature

The authors of Americans challenged readers to consider the revolutionary concept of intersectionality. The melting pot of America is not merely a product of the blending of nations and cultures, but also the rich array of people that people this land. During the years that the literature is called to receive from American authors, this means queer love during the Great Depression, stories of immigrants new to our shores, and the stories of mixed-race people. The Sunflower Cycle rewards readers with a Queer Latin kiss at the height of the Great Depression that was scrupulously copyright negotiated by Carmen D. Siering. FOB Girls brings readers tales of immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East, and India into the daily lives of young Americans. Anika Fajardo’s young-adult novel What If a Fish focuses on mixed-race identity. I’m Not Dying with you Tonight, a young adult book by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, involving an outbreak of violence in a diverse high school results in two girls, one black and one white, and their communities banding together to protect one another. Imani Uniqrishma has two powerful selections in the Literature of the Americas. In “The Case Against the Former Citizen,” an individual struggles with the pressure of her immigrant family and finding her own voice, while “Woke Up Black” describes an individual’s rise to power through the Black Lives Matter movement.

The notion of intersectionality is the concept that there are numerous categories of identity that interconnect, overlap, and reinforce each other. The concept is essential to American literature as authors must understand and embrace a variety of human experiences. How do authors use the tools of fiction to create a rich tapestry of human experience and identity? How do characters develop and uncover complex and overlapping identities as the story unfolds? Which stories are essential to American literature that pivot on themes of intersectionality and the various shades of identity? How do the authors employ the craft of writing to express the complexities and richness of identity? Start examining these questions with the essay topics in this lesson.

5. Contemporary Trends and Future Directions

3. Changing the Myth: Novelists of Emerson’s time sought to embrace or explode the myths of America Emerson used in his writings. Examine the works of a contemporary novelist such as Vonnegut or Updike and compare it to the themes expressed in Emerson’s “American Scholar.”

2. Science Fiction: Through novels such as the Earthsea series, LeGuin shows the everlasting relevance of science fiction. Compare LeGuin with one of the country’s founding fathers of this theme – Nathaniel Hawthorne – and one of the current leading science fiction writers – Philip Dick.

1. Chicano Fiction: Writers have recently blossomed out of the southwest and California, dramatizing through their works the experiences of the Mexican-American. Groups of writers in the Midwest, New York, and Pennsylvania have also published tales of the immigrant experience. Compare the works of these authors with those of the slave narratives.

Contemporary American literature reflects a broad and exciting array of sounds, styles, and themes. In keeping with the spirit of what is innovative, what is groundbreaking, and what is happening next, we would like to turn your attention to some trends and areas of new exploration in American literature. Whether your students have themselves enjoyed these topics in their reading, or are seated in your classroom preparing for academic work in literature or American History, we hope that the essays below will offer a framework for understanding how these works fit and last in their literary tradition.

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