Long before computers made life easier for authors, well-known writers chronicled the times — times of change and struggles. The popularity of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper proved in the 1800s that Americans craved quality literature. Irving's The Sketch Book contained stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Its subsequent publication in London made Irving the first internationally recognized American writer. Cooper, using the image of the noble savage in such books as Last of the Mohicans and Deerslayer, won readers across the ocean as well.
Early American literature had begun in New England, but with the success of Irving and Cooper, New York became the literary center of America. However, a few writers known as the Concord Group, mostly followers of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Transcendentalist philosophy, put New England back on the literary map. Emerson and other transcendentalists maintained steadfast opposition to the overemphasis on material progress. Henry David Thoreau embraced much of this in his work, especially in his most famous book, Walden, describing the two years that he spent living as a virtual recluse in a simple cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.
Other Major Literary Contributors
Four other titans of American literature — novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, poet Walt Whitman, and poet/short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe — defined the craft of writing. Hawthorne penned his novel The House of the Seven Gables and was renowned for his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. The younger Herman Melville wrote about the South Seas and crafted his famous work Moby Dick. Edgar Allan Poe, a desperate man with bouts of alcoholism, depression, and unemployment, wrote some of his best work (including the mysterious and the macabre) just to survive, such as the detective story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was the publication of The Raven and Other Poems, however, that set him apart as an internationally acclaimed poet. Walt Whitman wrote in rhythmic free verse about controversial subjects, but in many cases espoused democratic ideals. He self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855 as a collection of twelve long poems.
On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became famous for the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, which took thirty-three hours and thirty minutes. Lindbergh was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and in 1954, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his book bearing the same name as his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.
Mark Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) of Missouri came to public notice with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi. Henry James wrote largely about characters visiting or traveling abroad. His early novels, written in the early 1900s, were considered to be his finest, including The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl.
Emily Dickinson was reticent in life (indeed, she lived out much of her life as a recluse in her Amherst, Massachusetts home), but after her death she came to be regarded as one of America's finest poets. Shortly before World War I, new poets emerged, such as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, who each had powerful and conversational styles. After traveling to Britain, the California-born Frost returned to teach English at Amherst College in Massachusetts and was later dubbed “the voice of New England.” One of his best-known poems was titled “The Road Less Traveled.”
The Lost Generation
In the postwar prosperity, some writers yearned to return to the simpler life with basic values. These were known as “the Lost Generation.” Ernest Hemingway was one of them, and his novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms both appeared in the late 1920s. Later works included For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. In 1954, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for literature, but sadly, he succumbed to severe depression and alcoholism, and committed suicide in 1961. T. S. Eliot, another of the Lost Generation, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also saw their stars rise in the 1920s and 1930s.
Sinclair Lewis chronicled the career of a corrupt evangelist in Elmer Gantry and became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize, which he was awarded in 1930. Pearl S. Buck was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1938. The Good Earth, a novel about a northern Chinese peasant family, is considered to be her masterwork.
As the years went by, other famous writers and their works became well respected. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath about Oklahoma farmers driven to California by the Dust Bowl drought, and Margaret Mitchell wrote of the South during the Civil War in Gone with the Wind. William Faulkner earned the Nobel Prize in 1949 for his work as a novelist. That same year, Arthur Miller made it big as a playwright with Death of a Salesman. Tennessee Williams, another playwright, is best known for two works — A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.