America has a great and proud literary tradition, including some of the world’s most famous authors. Novels, plays and poems pour out of the United States, with increasing numbers of women, African American, Native American and Hispanic writers making a strong contribution. There have been twelve literature Nobel Prize laureates, beginning with Sinclair Lewis in 1930 to Bob Dylan, in 2016. Other American writers who were laureates include such household names as T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. American writers’ contribution to English literature is incalculable
The American literary tradition began when some of the early English colonists recounted their adventures in the New World for the benefit of readers in their mother country (see our list of the best English authors). Some of those early writings were quite accomplished, such as the account of his adventures by Captain John Smith in Virginia and the journalistic histories of John Winthrop and William Bradford in New England.
It was in the Puritan colonies that published American literature was born, with writers like Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams producing works to promote their visions of the religious state. Perhaps the first book to be published by in America was the Bay Psalm Book in 1640, produced by thirty ministers, led by Richard Mather and John Cotton. It was followed by passionate histories like Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence (1654) and Cotton and Mather’s epic Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).
The American Revolution and the subsequent independence of the United States was a time of intellectual activity together with social and economic change. The founding fathers of the new state included the writers, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Philip Freneau, the first American lyric poet of distinction, the pamphleteer Thomas Paine, later an attacker of conventional religion, and the polemicist Francis Hopkinson, who was also the first American composer. The nineteenth century saw the spreading and recognition of American writing in Europe with the folk stories of Washington Irving, the frontier adventures of Fenimore Cooper and the moralising verse of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Then came the giants, who took even the old world by storm and are still regarded as being among the greats of Western literature: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and the poet, Walt Whitman.
That romantic trend was interrupted by two of America’s great writers, Henry James and Mark Twain, who threw the doors open to a new realism and changed American literature, setting it up for the rich literature that followed and which has not diminished. James emigrated to Europe and embraced psychological realism in novels such as Portrait of a Lady (1881), andTwain used national dialects in classics like Huckleberry Finn (1885).
The twentieth century witnessed the flowering of American literature . Confronted by the violence of the 20th century, a sense of despair was reflected in the literature, and the particular conditions of American society with all its diversity found its way into American writing. In the 1950s, major dramatists, notably Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard, developed the American theatre. African-American writers, such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, dealt with racial inequality and violence in contemporary US society while Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison focused on the 20th century history of African-American women. In the 1960s, novelists such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Joseph Heller examined the Jewish experience in American society.
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016. It was a controversial decision. However, it points to a new development in the progress of American literature when a songwriter’s work is regarded as literature. There have been several great American songwriters in the past century and one can find many of the concerns of modern America in the national songbook but this is the first time that American songs have been regarded as “literature.” Over seven decades Dylan has addressed the changes that America has experienced, ranging over war, race, climate change, and many other phenomena, producing a comprehensive commentary on the times in which we live. Some of the lyrics of his songs are regarded as being among the finest poetry of the period.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution… Read more about Nathaniel Hawthorne >>
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story… Read more about Edgar Allen Poe >>
Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title… Read more on Herman Melville >>
Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular… Read more on Walt Whitman >>
Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written… Read more on Emily Dickinson >>
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’… Read more on Mark Twain >>
Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times…. Read more about Henry James >>
Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit… Read more about T. S. Eliot >>
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America… Read more about F. Scott Fitzgerald >>
William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…Read more about William Faulkner >>
Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classis of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama… Read more on Tennessee Williams >>
Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits… Read more about Arthur Miller >>
Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers… Read more about Joseph Heller >>
Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously… Read more about Ernest Hemmingway >>
Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once… Read more about Raymond Chandler >>
Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993… Read more about Toni Morrison >>
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition… Read more about Vladimir Nabakov >>
Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality… Read more about Flannery O’Connor >>
John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far… Read more about John Steinbeck >>>
John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades… Read more about John Updike >>
Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden… Read more about Kurt Vonnegut >>