American Literature Context



The American Civil War: (1861-5) - Between the US and 11 Southern States. The North valued technological advance, free will to all men and free labour; the South's farming economy depended on slavery and cheap labour.

Declaration of Independence: Written by Thomas Jefferson, signed on 4 July 1776. It included a statement of rights and ideas about government; grievances against the King and declared separation and that colonies would be free states.

- "all men are created equal... with certain unalienable Rights" / "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness".

The American Dream: Belief that anyone can attain their own version of success through hard-work and sacrifice, regardless of background.

- James Truslow Adams, 1931: "Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone" - The Epic of America.

- 1938, sociologist Robert K. Merton identified the dream with monetary success.

The American Frontier: The history, geography and cultural expression of life in the forward wave of American expansion. The West embodied the vision of a vast, fertile and promising land - the Promise Land.

- The Manifest Destiny was the belief that the US was preordained to expand from the Atlantic to Pacific coast and destined by God to spread democracy and capitalism across the North American continent.

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Progressivism: (1890-1920) - Time of widespread social activism and political reform across America. a powerful national movement. It wanted to removed the issues created by corruption, immigration and industrialisation. Roosevelt took office in 1901, advocate of trust busting, fair trade and pro-labour laws.

'Roaring Twenties': Sociert wanted to reach the top of the economic ladder, with the enjoyment of prosperity blinding people from downfalls. Wealth doubled, manufacture rose 60% and output doubled.

- Conspicuous Consumption: Coined by Thorstein Veblen, who published the book 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' in 1899, condemned the commodity culture as wasteful and irresponsible.

The Lost Generation: Lack of purpose, deriving from the post-war disillusionment. Often included decadence (lavish parties), hedonism (pursuit of self-indulgence), gender roles and an idealised/unattainable past.

- Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises (1920) depicts a group of expatriate Americans wandering aimlessly through Europe.

Organised Crime: The illegal economy was organised by powerful gangs of criminals.

- Black Sox Scandal: (1919) - 8 members of the Chicago White Sox indicted for accepting bribes to throw World Series.

Prohibition: 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1919 until its appeal in 1933. Championed by the Anti-Saloon League, it was intended to raise the nation's moral standards. Led to a growth of speakesies and number of bootleggers.

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The Great Depression: Triggered by the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 and after the lavish lifestyles and post-WW1 optimism. The US lost an estimated $50bn by 1931. By 1933, 15mil Americans were unemployed and 60% of the populatuon were under the poverty line.

- Hooverviles: Migrant camps on edges of cities, named after President Hoover who was blamed for the Great Depression.

The Dust Bowl: 'Dirty Thirties' - Period of severe drought in 1931 resulted in severe dust storms, economic ruin and hardship. 2.5mil people left the Dust Bowl states during the 1930s. Caused by the over-farming of wheat after WW1 and poor agricultural practices.

- 'Okies': Over 1/3 of Oklahoma farmers left homes to head to California for work, faced discrimination.

The New Deal: (1933) - Roosevelt set up projects aimed on 'Relief, Recovery and Reform'; relief for poor, recovery of economy and reform of financial system. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) offered employment for 2mil each year until 1941.

- Weedpatch Camp: Built by WPA in California, 1936. There were labour camps/building as an alternative for the squatter camps.

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Women in 19th century America: Men considered superior to women.

- 'Separate spheres': Doctrine maintained woman's sphere consisted of privacy, family and morality, while man's of economy, politics and status.

'New Woman': Term by Sarah Grand in 1894. Cultural icon of departure from Victorian woman; intelligent, educated, independent.

- Kate Chopin (The Awakening) 1899, Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) 1900.

Declaration of Sentiments: 1848 - "all men and women are created equal", argues women are oppressed by patriarchy, mentions lack of suffrage.

Women's Suffrage: Met with strong resistance, as thought it would overturn law and social convention. 19th Amendment gave white women the vote in America in 1920.

Women in 20th century America: Increasingly emancipated, more financially independent, growth of flappers. By 1900, 1/5 of women had jobs in cities and up by 1/4 in the 1920s. By 1930, 10 mil women earning wages but most only temporary.

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Native Americans: Often conflicted with New England settlers and other immigrants. The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act made all Native Americans born in US an American citizen, 330,000 in 1930.

- The Noble Savage: Embodiment of idealised outsider, uncorrupted by civilsation so has innate goodness. (Chingachgook in The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, 1823)

Racial segregation: 13th Amendment (1864) abolished slavery and asserted universal civil rights after the Civil War. 15th Amendment (1870) declared it illegal to deny vote on grounds of race.

- Jim Crow Laws (1874-1975): Laws passed by majority of states and communities; mandate 'separate but equal' status for African Amercians.

- KKK: American terrorist, white supremacist organisation (6 mil in 1924, 30,000 in 1930).

Harlem Renaissance: (1918-37) Development of Harlem neighbourhood in NYC as black cultural mecca, with social and artistic explosion and golden age of African-American culture. The Great Migration was the movement of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North. By 1920, around 300,000 African Americans from the South had moved north.

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Sentimentalism: (1880s) - Highlighted social problems through emotion, often female protagonist for moral compass.

Romanticism: (1800-65) - Emphasised emotion, love of nature, imagination and freedom.

Transcendentalism: (1820-30) - Philosophical movement, a reaction against the general state of contemporary intellectualism and spirituality. Focused on non-conformity, self-reliance and free-thought. Emerson and Thoreau were two key transcendentalist thinkers.

- Oversoul: The cosmic unity among man, God and nature.

Realism: (1850-1900) - Realists wrote about regular people's lives, showing ordinary is meaningful. Included detail, omniscient narrator and critiqued society.

Naturalism: (1880-1940): Use of detached realism to suggest society/environment had inescapable force in shaping character. Focus not on character but reaction to circumstances.

Modernism: (1900-50) - Dominant trend between wars, highlight innovation and addressed race, religion, gender and the human condition. Explore personal effects of war and crises.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

- Raised in Minnesota, born into upper-middle class family.

- Joined WW1 in 1917.

- Attended grand parties on Long Island, moved mid-West then NY, returning after failure.

- Sayre had nervous breakdowns and Fitzgerald became heavy alcoholic.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

- Born in California; studied zoology and literature.

- 1937, travelled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California, began writing pamphlets/articles encouraging sympathy of migrants.

- Phalanx Theory: Individuals are weak but groups are strong, souls are connected, people band together improve life.

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