American Literature Course

When Englishman Sydney Smith asked, “Who reads an American book?” in an 1820’s pamphlet, Americans were indignant for decades. Though Smith may have had a point at the time—America was, after all, still in its infancy—Americans have since contributed many lasting works of art to the world’s literary canon. One of the best ways to “read an American book” (and enjoy it!) is to take an American literature course.

Virtually every college and university offers an American literature class, along with its other English course offerings. You can also find American literature courses online that are offered through colleges and websites. In these courses, you will read and analyze poems, short stories, plays, and novels written by American authors. Though authors such as Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway are some of the most famous American authors, American literature covers everything from speeches written by Native Americans to modern fiction recommended by Oprah.

What you study in an American literature course can vary widely. The works you will read will depend on how the instructor organizes the course. Some of the most common ways that professors organize an American literature course include:

  • Chronological—Some of the earliest American literature was written before America was even established as a country. Works written by Native Americans, as well as essays and stories written by British colonists living in the New World, are likely to begin an American literature course that is organized chronologically.
  • Some instructors will organize the literature chronologically, but focus on a specific period in American history. After all, trying to cover three hundred years of American literature in one course can be overwhelming. Limiting the works studied to a specific period is also a good idea because historical events often influence the kind of literature that is created. For example, novels written during the Civil War tend to address different themes than works written during modern times.

  • Thematic—American literature, regardless of when it was written, often has a distinctly “American” flavor, which can prompt some professors to organize the course around general themes found in the works. America as a melting pot, the “pursuit of happiness,” and constitutional freedoms are just a few distinctly American themes that you can find reflected in American literature.
  • Movements—At times in American history, many writers produced works with similar subject matters or styles. These literary movements can provide a framework for organizing an American literature course. For example, “The Lost Generation” was a generation of authors such as Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald whose works reflect disillusionment with the world. A more uplifting movement was the Harlem Renaissance. Literature produced during this period in the 1920s grew out of a revival of African-American culture.
  • Ethnicity—Some instructors will organize their American literature course around the author or characters’ ethnicity. Irish-American, African-American, and Native American literature are some subsets of American literature organized by ethnicity. Organizing courses according to ethnicity enables students to delve more deeply into issues that are important to a particular minority group. Courses that study the literature chronologically or by themes tend to overlook these groups in favor of more prominent authors.
  • Events/Eras—Literature written during a unique period in American history tends to reflect similar themes, so a professor may have you study literature produced during specific years, such as during colonial times, the Civil War, or World War II.

American literature courses offered by colleges typically last one semester. Since American literature can cover such a broad range of works, however, you may need to take more than one course if you want to gain a comprehensive perspective, especially if the courses available only cover specific periods in American history.

An online course can be a viable alternative to a college class and is often inexpensive or free. The advantage is that you can complete the course at your own pace. The disadvantage is that if the course is not offered by a university, you will not earn college credit for it.

Most readers are familiar with authors such as Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, but an American literature course can open your eyes to lesser-known writers, too. From Native Americans to the Beat Generation, American literature reflects the unique experience of living “The Great Experiment” that is America.


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