The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

American Literature and Philosophy

Serious literature in the United States starts in the early 19th century. The first internationally popular writers were James Fenimore Cooper (1751- 1851), famous for his novels about frontiersman and Indian life, and Washington Irving (1783-1859), best known for his short stories. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Herman Melville (1819-1891) lived and created entirely in the 19th century. Many of Hawthorne's novels and short stories are moral allegories with a Puritan inspiration. His most famous novel is The Scarlet Letter (1850) that explores the themes of adultery, repentance and guilt. Poe is known for his poems and dark mystery tales.  Melville's Moby Dick (1851) is now regarded as one of the best American novels.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a lecturer and essayist, leader of the Transcendental movement of the mid-19th century. He was a great proponent of American individualism, self-reliance and romantic ideals. His ideas had a great influence on American thought. 

His friend and admirer, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an essayist, political activist and naturalist. His most famous works are Walden, a meditation on simple living in a natural environment, and Civil Disobedience, an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. He used his withdrawal from public life, a famous two-year stay in a self-built cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, to document his thoughts and worldview, and to observe nature.

The best known representatives of American Realism are Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1811-1896), whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) inspired the anti-slavery movement in the North, Mark Twain (1835-1910), famous for adventure novels and humour, and Henry James (1843-1916), whose imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction. 

The most influential poets of the 19th century were Walt Whitman (1819-1892), often called the father of free verse, whose famous collection of poems Leaves of Grass was at first deemed obscene, and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who led an extremely secluded life, and became famous only after her death.

The most prominent literary figures of the early 20th century include John Steinbeck (1902-1968), best known for his depiction of workers and farmers during the Great Depression, William Faulkner (1897-1962), Pearl Buck (1892-1973), both recipients of Nobel Prize for literature, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), whose novel The Great Gatsby was famously adapted for the big screen twice. Celebrated poets of this period include T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), also a preeminent essayist, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Robert Frost (1874-1963) and E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), famous for his poetic innovation.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is probably the best known American novelist of the 20th century. His understated style had a strong influence on post-modern fiction. His life of adventure and his public image had a strong impact on future generations. His most famous novels include The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1951). Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is another well known representative of this minimalist style in American literature. Popular modern literary genres, the Western and hardboiled (or pulp) fiction were developed in the United States during the period between the two world wars.

There is an on-going debate in literary criticism what the "great American novel" is. The three works most frequently mentioned in these discussions are Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn (1885) and The Great Gatsby (1925)

Some of the most popular and highly appraised post-WWII novels include: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948), The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951), Jack Kerouac's On the Road  (1957), William Burroughs' Naked Lunch  (1959), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), Joseph Heller's Catch 22  (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon  (1977) and Beloved (1997).

The United States are not widely known for its original philosophy, although a few movements have acquired a considerable following. American philosophy, similar to British, does not lean toward metaphysical speculation like "Continental" (mainly French and German) philosophy, and has generally tried to draw closer to modern science. One of the principal movements of the late 19th century in the United States was Pragmatism, developed and popularised by William James, the brother of the writer Henry James, and John Dewey. The theory of Pragmatism is based on C. S. Peirce's pragmatic maxim that the meaning of any concept is really just the same as its operational or practical consequences. 

Analytic Philosophy is a 20th century movement, which holds that philosophy should apply logical techniques in order to attain conceptual precision. Its best known American representative, W. V. O. Quine, shared the view of logical positivists that philosophy should stand shoulder to shoulder with science in its pursuit of intellectual clarity and understanding of the world.


Essays and Lectures (first edition 1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a collection of the famous American essayists' writings.

Walden, or Life in the Woods (first edition 1854) by Henry David Thoreau is a book about the virtues of simplicity and self-sufficiency.

Hemingway (1988) is a TV film about one of the most famous American writers, played by Stacey Keach.

Capote (2005) is a biographical film about the American writer Truman Capote, following the events during the writing of his most famous 1966 novel In Cold Blood.

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