Major Periods of English & American Literature AN OVERVIEW
What is meant by “period”?A period is a dominant mode, style, or type of literature within a specific historical context.A period is usually indicative of the controlling philosophical perspective of the time.As such, periods are not generally confined to the literature of the time; rather, their characteristics can be seen in other art forms as well as non-literary texts.Dates are approximations.
ENGLISH LITERATUREliterature produced in England, from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century to the present. The works of those Irish and Scottish authors who are closely identified with English life and letters are also considered part of English literature.
AMERICAN LITERATURELiterary works, fiction and nonfiction of the American colonies and the United States, written in the English language from about 1600 to the present.This literature captures America’s quest to understand and define itself. From the beginning America was unique in the diversity of its inhabitants; over time they arrived from all parts of the world.Although English quickly became the language of America, regional and ethnic dialects have enlivened and enriched the country’s literature almost from the start.
Old English or Anglo-Saxon Era (450-1066)This period extends from about 450 to 1066, the year of the Norman-French conquest of England.The Germanic tribes from Europe who overran England in the 5th century, after the Roman withdrawal, brought with them the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, language, which is the basis of Modern English.Few surviving texts with little in common.Language closer to modern German than modern English.Frequently reflect non-English influence.Beowulf, “The Wanderer”
Old English or Anglo-Saxon Era (450-1066)Much of Old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon scop, or bard.Prose in Old English is represented by a large number of religious works.
Middle English (1066-1500)Extending from 1066 to 1485, this period is noted for the extensive influence of French literature on native English forms and themeThe Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Old English literature.Works frequently of a religiously didactic content.Written for performance at court or for festivals.Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) “The Cuckoo’s Song”, mystery plays
English Renaissance (1500-1660)Influence of Aristotle, Ovid, and other Greco-Roman thinkers, as well as science and exploration.Primarily texts for public performance (plays, masques) and some books of poetry.William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont.
Neoclassical Period (Enlightenment/Age of Reason) England 1660-1785 America 1750-1800Reaction to the expansiveness of the Renaissance in the direction of order and restraint.Developed in France (Moliere, Rousseau, Voltaire).Emphasized classical ideals of rationality and control (human nature is constant through time).Art should reflect the universal commonality of human nature. (“All men are created equal.”)Reason is emphasized as the highest faculty (Deism).
Neoclassical Period (cont.)Writing should be well structured, emotion should be controlled, and emphasize qualities like wit.England: John Locke, John Milton (Paradise Lost), Alexander Pope (Essay on Man), Jonathon Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice).America: Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, autobiography), Thomas Paine (“Common Sense”), Thomas Jefferson (“The Declaration of Independence”), James Madison (“The Constitution of the United States”).
Romantic Period England 1785-1830 America 1800-1860Reaction against the scientific rationality of Neoclassicism and the Industrial Revolution.Developed in Germany (Kant, Goethe).“I felt before I thought.” -RosseauEmphasized individuality, intuition, imagination, idealism, nature (as opposed to society & social order).Elevation of the common man (folklore, myth).Mystery and the supernatural.
Romantic Period England 1785-1830 America 1800-1860romantic literature everywhere developed, imagination was praised over reason, emotions over logic, and intuition over science—making way for a vast body of literature of great sensibility and passion.This literature emphasized a new flexibility of form adapted to varying content, encouraged the development of complex and fast-moving plots, and allowed mixed genres (tragicomedy and the mingling of the grotesque and the sublime) and freer style.
Romantic Period England 1785-1830 America 1800-1860No longer tolerated, for example, were the fixed classical conventions, such as the famous three unities (time, place, and action) of tragedy.In English poetry, for example, blank verse largely superseded the rhymed couplet that dominated 18th- century poetry.
ROMANTIC THEMESLIBERTARIANISM-the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, and the new emphasis on the rights and dignity of the individual.Political and social causes became dominant themes in romantic poetry and prose throughout the Western world, producing many vital human documents that are still pertinent.NATURE-Basic to such sentiments was an interest central to the romantic movement: the concern with nature and natural surroundings.
ROMANTIC THEMESNATURE-Delight in unspoiled scenery and in the (presumably) innocent life of rural dwellers.THE LURE OF THE EXOTIC-In the spirit of their new freedom, romantic writers in all cultures expanded their imaginary horizons spatially and chronologically.-They turned back to the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) for themes and settings and to the Asian setting of Xanadu evoked by Coleridge in his unfinished lyric “Kubla Khan.
ROMANTIC THEMESTHE SUPERNATURAL- The trend toward the irrational and the supernatural was an important component of English and German romantic literature.- It was reinforced on the one hand by disillusion with 18th-century rationalism and on the other by the rediscovery of a body of older literature—folktales and ballads—collected by Percy and by German scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Karl Grimm and Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. From such material comes, for example, the motif of the doppelgänger (German for “double”). Many romantic writers, especially in Germany, were fascinated with this concept, perhaps because of the general romantic concern with self-identity.
Romantic Period (cont.)England: Robert Burns (“To a Mouse”), William Blake (Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience), William Wordsworth (Lyrical Ballads, “Tintern Abbey,” “Intimations of Immortality,” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Kahn”), Lord Byron (“Don Juan”), Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Ozymandias”), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Frankenstein), John Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe).
Romantic Period (cont.)America: Washington Irving (“Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), Edgar Allan Poe (“The Raven,” Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Philosophy of Composition”), James Fennimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick, Billy Budd), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Twice-Told Tales, The Scarlet Letter), William Cullen Bryant (“To a Waterfowl”), Oliver Wendell Holmes (“The Chambered Nautilus”), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Paul Revere’s Ride”), James Russell Lowell (“The First Snowfall”).
Romantic Period (cont.)American Transcendentalism (Romantic philosophy)Named for the core belief that our spiritual nature transcends rationality and religious doctrine; thus, it is found in intuition.Developed in New England, influenced by Eastern philosophy.Pro-suffrage & abolitionist.Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature, “The American Scholar”), Henry David Thoreau (Walden, “Civil Disobedience”), Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass).
Romantic Period (cont.)In New England, an intellectual movement known as transcendentalism developed as an American version of romanticism.the transcendentalists celebrated the power of the human imagination to commune with the universe and transcend the limitations of the material world. The transcendentalists found their chief source of inspiration in nature.
Victorian Period (England 1832-1901)Named for the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain’s longest reigning monarch.Period of stability and prosperity for Britain.British society extremely class conscious.Literature seen as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism.Generally emphasized realistic portrayals of common people, sometimes to promote social change.Some writers continue to explore gothic themes begun in Romantic Period.
Victorian Period (England 1832-1901)The novel gradually became the dominant form in literature during the Victorian Age.English literature throughout much of the century, the attention of many writers was directed, sometimes passionately, to such issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, the progress of industrial enterprise and the consequent rise of a materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly industrialized worker.
Victorian Period (cont.)Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations), George Eliot (Middlemarch), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D’Ubervilles), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Rudyard Kipling (Jungle Book), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (In Memoriam), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese), Robert Browning (“My Last Duchess”), Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach”), Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest).
Realistic Period (America 1860-1914)Reaction against Romantic values (Civil War).Developed in France (Balzac, Flaubert, Zola).Emphasized the commonplace and ordinary (as opposed to the romanticized individual).Sought to depict life as it was, not idealized.Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Ambrose Bierce (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), William Dean Howells (A Modern Instance), Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie).
Realistic Period (America 1860-1914)Realist literature is defined particularly as the fiction produced in Europe and the United States from about 1840 until the 1890s, when realism was superseded by naturalism. This form of realism began in France in the novels of Gustave Flaubert and the short stories of Guy de Maupassant.an attempt to describe human behavior and surroundings or to represent figures and objects exactly as they act or appear in life.
Realistic Period (cont.)Naturalism – hyper-realismNamed for the belief that man is simply a higher order animal, and thus under the same natural constraints and limitations as other animals.Naturalism (literature), in literature, the theory that literary composition should be based on an objective, empirical presentation of human being.Controlled by heredity and environment.Stephen Crane (Maggie: A Girl of the Street, The Red Badge of Courage), Jack London (“To Build a Fire”), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle).
Edwardian Period (England 1901-1914)Named for King Edward.Some see as a continuation of Victorian Period; however, the status quo is increasingly threatened.Distinction between literature and popular fiction.Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness), H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds), E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, A Passage to India), George Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara), A.C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy).
Modern Period (1914-1945)Reaction against the values which led to WWI.Influenced by Schopenhauer (“negation of the will”), Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil), Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling), as well as Darwin and Marx.If previous values are invalid, art is a tool to establish new values (Pound: “Make it new”).Writers experiment with form.Form and content reflect the confusion and vicissitudes of modern life.Expositions and resolutions are omitted; themes are implied rather than stated.
Modern Period (1914-1945)During the 20th century a communications revolution that introduced motion pictures, radio, and television brought the world into view—and eventually into the living room. The new forms of communication competed with books as sources of amusement and enlightenment. New forms of communication and new modes of transportation made American society increasingly mobile and familiar with many more regions of the country. Literary voices from even the remotest corners could reach a national audience. At the same time, American writers—particularly writers of fiction— began to influence world literature.
Modern Period (cont.)Poetry:Ezra Pound (The Fourth Canto), T.S. Eliot (Prufrock and other Observations, The Waste Land, “The Hollow Men”), W.B. Yeats (The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, The Swans at Coole), H.D. (“Pear Tree”), Wallace Stevens (Harmonium), William Carlos Williams (“The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This Is Just to Say”), Robert Frost (Mending Wall, The Road Not Taken).
Modern Period (cont.)Fiction:James Joyce (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle), Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises), William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Thornton Wilder (Our Town, The Bridge at San Luis Rey), D.H. Lawrence (The Rainbow), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse).
Post-Modern Period (1945-?)Critical dispute over whether an actual period or a renewal and continuation Modernism post-WWII.Influenced by Freud, Sartre, Camus, Derrida, and Foucault.Deconstruction: Text has no inherent meaning; meaning derives from the tension between the text’s ambiguities and contradictions revealed upon close reading.Some believe it leads directly to the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Post-Modern Period (cont.)Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), J.D. Salinger (A Catcher in the Rye), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), John Updike (Rabbit Run), Phillip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral), J.M. Coetzee (Life & Times of Michael K), Joyce Carol Oates (“Where Are Going, Where Have You Been?”), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaiden’s Tale), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Allen Ginsberg (Howl and Other Poems), Charles Bukowski (The Last Night of the Earth Poems).