American literature is the literature written or produced in the area of the United States and its preceding colonies. During its early history, America was a series of British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its literary tradition begins as linked to the broader tradition of English literature. However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production usually now cause it to be considered a separate path and tradition.
The New England colonies were the center of early American literature. The revolutionary period contained political writings by Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. In the post-war period, Thomas Jefferson’s United States Declaration of Independence solidified his status as a key American writer. It was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the nation’s first novels were published. With the War of 1812 and an increasing desire to produce uniquely American literature and culture, a number of key new literary figures emerged, perhaps most prominently Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) started a movement known as Transcendentalism. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) wrote Walden, which urges resistance to the dictates of organized society. The political conflict surrounding abolitionism inspired the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her world-famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These efforts were supported by the continuation of the slave narrative autobiography, of which the best known example from this period was Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
American writers expressed disillusionment following WW I. The stories and novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) capture the mood of the 1920s, and John Dos Passos wrote about the war. Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) became notable for The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms; in 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. William Faulkner (1897–1962) is notable for novels like The Sound and the Fury. American drama attained international status only in the 1920s and 1930s, with the works of Eugene O’Neill, who won four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize.
In the middle of the 20th century, American drama was dominated by the work of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as by the maturation of the American musical.