American Literature

Essential Question

What were the common themes in American Literature?

American Literature


American writers celebrated the American character, history, and landscape. Some American writers and philosophers were also inspired by the idea of transcendentalism and individualism. Transcendentalists believed that people could transcend, or rise above, material things. They wanted to explore the relationship between man and nature by emotions rather than reason. They wanted people to be in nature, live simply, and find the goodness within them. Individualists believed that people should depend on their own insights rather than outside authorities to become independent and self-reliant.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading transcendentalist. He wrote many essays, the most famous are “Self-Reliance” and “The Oversoul.” In these essays he said that Americans relied too much on institutions and value material goods. Instead, they should follow their personal beliefs and use their judgment. 

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau also believed in self-reliance. He spent two years living in the woods at Walden Pond, meditating on nature. He summarized many of his ideas in his book Walden, which was published in 1854. He urged people to live simply "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." In his essay "Civil Disobedience" he encouraged civil disobedience, the idea that people should peacefully disobey unjust laws if their conscience demands it. Thoreau once spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes that supported slavery.

Activity 1: Primary Source - "Self-Reliance."

Define the vocabulary words, read the primary source excerpts, and answer the text-dependent questions.

Primary Source- Self-Reliance

American Romanticism

Ideas about the simple life and nature also inspired painters and writers in the early and mid-1800s. Some joined the Romantic movement that had begun in Europe. Romanticism involved a great interest in nature, an emphasis on individual expression, and a rejection of many established rules. These painters and writers felt that each person brings a unique view to the world. They believed in using emotion to guide their creative output. 

Many female writers, like Ann Sophia Stephens, wrote historical fiction that was popular in the mid-1800s. New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter during that period. One of the greatest classics of Romantic literature, it explored Puritan life in the 1600s. Hawthorne's friend Herman Melville, a writer and former sailor, wrote novels about the sea, such as Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. Many people believe that Moby-Dick is one of the finest American novels ever written.

American Romantic authors also wrote a great deal of poetry. The poet Edgar Allan Poe, also a short story writer, became famous for a haunting poem called "The Raven." Other gifted American poets included Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. Most of Dickinson's short, thoughtful poems were not published until after her death. Longfellow, the best-known poet of the mid-1800s, wrote popular story-poems, like The Song of Hiawatha. Whitman praised American individualism and democracy in his simple, unrhymed poetry. In his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, he wrote, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Little Women

Little Men

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

The Scarlett Letter

The House of the Seven Gables

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Moby Dick

Billy Budd

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

“Paul Revere’s Ride”


Discussion Questions

Activity 2: What were the different themes of American Literature?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the question in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio. 

Extension Activities