American Literary Periods WebQuest

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Literature of Reason and Revolution

The Literature of Reason and Revolution



The Road to Revolution


         The hard-fought American Revolution against Britain (1775-1783) was the first modern war of liberation against a colonial power. The triumph of American independence seemed to many at the time a divine sign that America and her people were destined for greatness. Military victory fanned nationalistic hopes for a great new literature. Yet with the exception of outstanding political writing, few works of note appeared during or soon after the Revolution.


         American books were harshly reviewed in England. Americans were painfully aware of their excessive dependence on English literary models. The search for a native literature became a national obsession. As one American magazine editor wrote, around 1816, "Dependence is a state of degradation fraught with disgrace, and to be dependent on a foreign mind for what we can ourselves produce is to add to the crime of indolence the weakness of stupidity."


         Cultural revolutions, unlike military revolutions, cannot be successfully imposed but must grow from the soil of shared experience. Revolutions are expressions of the heart of the people; they grow gradually out of new sensibilities and wealth of experience. It would take 50 years of accumulated history for America to earn its cultural independence and to produce the first great generation of American writers: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.


         America's literary prowess, prior to the Revolutionary War consisted mainly of pamphlets, newspapers, and speeches.  There was a continual struggle to divorce the new country from the old one and to define a new and unique way of doing things. Writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine struggled against the elements to raise the collective conscious on the even of the birth of what would become the world’s greatest nation.


Questions to address:

How much did England continue to influence America even decades after the war was over and why do you think that happened? What were the physical struggles that authors faced in getting their works published so that others could see it? How did colonial literacy or the lack of it impact the writers of the time?


Sites and links to get you started:


Colonial America and the Revolutionary War



Benjamin Franklin



Thomas Jefferson



The American Revolution Art



The Documents


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