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American Literature books summary

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Short Summaries of the Books

You Have to Read in the course of

the English Literature by Stulov

Thursday, April 3 2002



2. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 5


4. CATCH-22 22

5. Catcher in the Rye 31


7. Grapes of Wrath 41

8. Great Gatsby 46

9. Long Day's Journey Into the Night 49

10. Moby Dick 53

11. Scarlet Letter 63

12. Slaughterhouse Five 67

13. Sound and the Fury 73

14. Streetcar Named ”Desire” 87


Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the

history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half,

America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard

of the North American continent--colonies from which a few hardy souls

tentatively ventured westward. After a successful rebellion against the

motherland, America became the United States, a nation. By the end of the

19th century this nation extended southward to the Gulf of Mexico,

northward to the 49th parallel, and westward to the Pacific. By the end of

the 19th century, too, it had taken its place among the powers of the world-

-its fortunes so interrelated with those of other nations that inevitably

it became involved in two world wars and, following these conflicts, with

the problems of Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, the rise of science and

industry, as well as changes in ways of thinking and feeling, wrought many

modifications in people's lives. All these factors in the development of

the United States molded the literature of the country.

The 17th century

American literature at first was naturally a colonial literature, by

authors who were Englishmen and who thought and wrote as such. John Smith,

a soldier of fortune, is credited with initiating American literature. His

chief books included A True Relation of . . . Virginia . . . (1608) and The

generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624).

Although these volumes often glorified their author, they were avowedly

written to explain colonizing opportunities to Englishmen. In time, each

colony was similarly described: Daniel Denton's Brief Description of New

York (1670), William Penn's Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania

(1682), and Thomas Ashe's Carolina (1682) were only a few of many works

praising America as a land of economic promise.Such writers acknowledged

British allegiance, but others stressed the differences of opinion that

spurred the colonists to leave their homeland. More important, they argued

questions of government involving the relationship between church and

state. The attitude that most authors attacked was jauntily set forth by

Nathaniel Ward of Massachusetts Bay in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in

America (1647). Ward amusingly defended the status quo and railed at

colonists who sponsored newfangled notions. A variety of counterarguments

to such a conservative view were published. John Winthrop's Journal

(written 1630-49) told sympathetically of the attempt of Massachusetts Bay

Colony to form a theocracy--a state with God at its head and with its laws

based upon the Bible. Later defenders of the theocratic ideal were Increase

Mather and his son Cotton. William Bradford's History of Plymouth

Plantation (through 1646) showed how his pilgrim Separatists broke

completely with Anglicanism. Even more radical than Bradford was Roger

Williams, who, in a series of controversial pamphlets, advocated not only

the separation of church and state but also the vesting of power in the

people and the tolerance of different religious beliefs.The utilitarian

writings of the 17th century included biographies, treatises, accounts of

voyages, and sermons. There were few achievements in drama or fiction,

since there was a widespread prejudice against these forms. Bad but popular

poetry appeared in the Bay Psalm Book of 1640 and in Michael Wigglesworth's

summary in doggerel verse of Calvinistic belief, The Day of Doom (1662).

There was some poetry, at least, of a higher order. Anne Bradstreet of

Massachusetts wrote some lyrics published in The Tenth Muse (1650), which

movingly conveyed her feelings concerning religion and her family. Ranked

still higher by modern critics is a poet whose works were not discovered

and published until 1939: Edward Taylor, an English-born minister and

physician who lived in Boston and Westfield, Massachusetts. Less touched by

gloom than the typical Puritan, Taylor wrote lyrics that showed his delight

in Christian belief and experience.All 17th-century American writings were

in the manner of British writings of the same period. John Smith wrote in

the tradition of geographic literature, Bradford echoed the cadences of the

King James Bible, while the Mathers and Roger Williams wrote bejeweled

prose typical of the day. Anne Bradstreet's poetic style derived from a

long line of British poets, including Spenser and Sidney, while Taylor was

in the tradition of such Metaphysical poets as George Herbert and John

Donne. Both the content and form of the literature of this first century in

America were thus markedly English.

The 18th century

In America in the early years of the 18th century, some writers, such

as Cotton Mather, carried on the older traditions. His huge history and

biography of Puritan New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, in 1702, and

his vigorous Manuductio ad Ministerium, or introduction to the ministry, in

1726, were defenses of ancient Puritan convictions. Jonathan Edwards,

initiator of the Great Awakening, a religious revival that stirred the

eastern seacoast for many years, eloquently defended his burning belief in

Calvinistic doctrine--of the concept that man, born totally depraved, could

attain virtue and salvation only through God's grace--in his powerful

sermons and most notably in the philosophical treatise Freedom of Will

(1754). He supported his claims by relating them to a complex metaphysical

system and by reasoning brilliantly in clear and often beautiful prose.But

Mather and Edwards were defending a doomed cause. Liberal New England

ministers such as John Wise and Jonathan Mayhew moved toward a less rigid

religion. Samuel Sewall heralded other changes in his amusing Diary,

covering the years 1673-1729. Though sincerely religious, he showed in

daily records how commercial life in New England replaced rigid Puritanism

with more worldly attitudes. The Journal of Mme Sara Knight comically

detailed a journey that lady took to New York in 1704. She wrote vividly of

what she saw and commented upon it from the standpoint of an orthodox

believer, but a quality of levity in her witty writings showed that she was

much less fervent than the Pilgrim founders had been. In the South, William

Byrd of Virginia, an aristocratic plantation owner, contrasted sharply with

gloomier predecessors. His record of a surveying trip in 1728, The History

of the Dividing Line, and his account of a visit to his frontier properties

in 1733, A Journey to the Land of Eden, were his chief works. Years in

England, on the Continent, and among the gentry of the South had created

gaiety and grace of expression, and, although a devout Anglican, Byrd was

as playful as the Restoration wits whose works he clearly admired.The

wrench of the American Revolution emphasized differences that had been

growing between American and British political concepts. As the colonists

moved to the belief that rebellion was inevitable, fought the bitter war,

and worked to found the new nation's government, they were influenced by a

number of very effective political writers, such as Samuel Adams and John

Dickinson, both of whom favoured the colonists, and Loyalist Joseph

Galloway. But two figures loomed above these--Benjamin Franklin and Thomas

Paine.Franklin, born in 1706, had started to publish his writings in his

brother's newspaper, the New England Courant, as early as 1722. This

newspaper championed the cause of the "Leather Apron" man and the farmer

and appealed by using easily understood language and practical arguments.

The idea that common sense was a good guide was clear in both the popular

Poor Richard's almanac, which Franklin edited between 1732 and 1757 and

filled with prudent and witty aphorisms purportedly written by uneducated

but experienced Richard Saunders, and in the author's Autobiography,

written between 1771 and 1788, a record of his rise from humble

circumstances that offered worldly wise suggestions for future

success.Franklin's self-attained culture, deep and wide, gave substance and

skill to varied articles, pamphlets, and reports that he wrote concerning

the dispute with Great Britain, many of them extremely effective in stating

and shaping the colonists' cause.Thomas Paine went from his native England

to Philadelphia and became a magazine editor and then, about 14 months

later, the most effective propagandist for the colonial cause. His pamphlet

"Common Sense" (January 1776) did much to influence the colonists to

declare their independence. "The American Crisis" papers (December 1776-

December 1783) spurred Americans to fight on through the blackest years of

the war. Based upon Paine's simple deistic beliefs, they showed the

conflict as a stirring melodrama with the angelic colonists against the

forces of evil. Such white and black picturings were highly effective

propaganda. Another reason for Paine's success was his poetic fervour,

which found expression in impassioned words and phrases long to be

remembered and quoted.

The 19th century

Early 19th-century literature

After the American Revolution, and increasingly after the War of 1812,

American writers were exhorted to produce a literature that was truly

native. As if in response, four authors of very respectable stature

appeared. William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper,

and Edgar Allan Poe initiated a great half century of literary

development.Bryant, a New Englander by birth, attracted attention in his

23rd year when the first version of his poem "Thanatopsis" (1817) appeared.

This, as well as some later poems, was written under the influence of

English 18th-century poets. Still later, however, under the influence of

Wordsworth and other Romantics, he wrote nature lyrics that vividly

represented the New England scene. Turning to journalism, he had a long

career as a fighting liberal editor of The Evening Post. He himself was

overshadowed, in renown at least, by a native-born New Yorker, Washington

Irving.Irving, youngest member of a prosperous merchant family, joined with

ebullient young men of the town in producing the Salmagundi papers (1807-

08), which took off the foibles of Manhattan's citizenry. This was followed

by A History of New York (1809), by "Diedrich Knickerbocker," a burlesque

history that mocked pedantic scholarship and sniped at the old Dutch

families. Irving's models in these works were obviously Neoclassical

English satirists, from whom he had learned to write in a polished, bright

style. Later, having met Sir Walter Scott and having become acquainted with

imaginative German literature, he introduced a new Romantic note in The

Sketch Book (1819-20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and other works. He was the

first American writer to win the ungrudging (if somewhat surprised) respect

of British critics.James Fenimore Cooper won even wider fame. Following the

pattern of Sir Walter Scott's "Waverley" novels, he did his best work in

the "Leatherstocking" tales (1823-41), a five-volume series celebrating the

career of a great frontiersman named Natty Bumppo. His skill in weaving

history into inventive plots and in characterizing his compatriots brought

him acclaim not only in America and England but on the continent of Europe

as well.Edgar Allan Poe, reared in the South, lived and worked as an author

and editor in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York City. His

work was shaped largely by analytical skill that showed clearly in his role

as an editor: time after time he gauged the taste of readers so accurately

that circulation figures of magazines under his direction soared

impressively. It showed itself in his critical essays, wherein he lucidly

explained and logically applied his criteria. His gothic tales of terror

were written in accordance with his findings when he studied the most

popular magazines of the day. His masterpieces of terror--"The Fall of the

House of Usher" (1839), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), "The Cask of

Amontillado" (1846), and others--were written according to a carefully

worked out psychological method. So were his detective stories, such as

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), which historians credited as the

first of the genre. As a poet, he achieved fame with "The Raven" (1845).

His work, especially his critical writings and carefully crafted poems, had

perhaps a greater influence in France, where they were translated by

Charles Baudelaire, than in his own country.Two Southern novelists were

also outstanding in the earlier part of the century: John Pendleton Kennedy

and William Gilmore Simms. In Swallow Barn (1832), Kennedy wrote

delightfully of life on the plantations. Simms's forte was the writing of

historical novels like those of Scott and Cooper, which treated the history

of the frontier and his native South Carolina. The Yemassee (1835) and

Revolutionary romances show him at his best.

The 20th century

Writing from 1914 to 1945

Important movements in drama, poetry, fiction, and criticism took form

in the years before, during, and after World War I. The eventful period

that followed the war left its imprint upon books of all kinds. Literary

forms of the period were extraordinarily varied, and in drama, poetry, and

fiction leading authors tended toward radical technical

experiments.Experiments in dramaAlthough drama had not been a major art

form in the 19th century, no type of writing was more experimental than a

new drama that arose in rebellion against the glib commercial stage. In the

early years of the 20th century, Americans traveling in Europe encountered

a vital, flourishing theatre; returning home, some of them became active in

founding the Little Theatre movement throughout the country. Freed from

commercial limitations, playwrights experimented with dramatic forms and

methods of production, and in time producers, actors, and dramatists

appeared who had been trained in college classrooms and community

playhouses. Some Little Theatre groups became commercial producers--for

example, the Washington Square Players, founded in 1915, which became the

Theatre Guild (first production in 1919). The resulting drama was marked by

a spirit of innovation and by a new seriousness and maturity.Eugene

O'Neill, the most admired dramatist of the period, was a product of this

movement. He worked with the Provincetown Players before his plays were

commercially produced. His dramas were remarkable for their range. Beyond

the Horizon (first performed 1920), Anna Christie (1921), Desire Under the

Elms (1924), and The Iceman Cometh (1946) were naturalistic works, while

The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922) made use of the

Expressionistic techniques developed in German drama in the period 1914-24.

He also employed a stream-of-consciousness form in Strange Interlude (1928)

and produced a work that combined myth, family drama, and psychological

analysis in Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).No other dramatist was as

generally praised as O'Neill, but many others wrote plays that reflected

the growth of a serious and varied drama, including Maxwell Anderson, whose

verse dramas have dated badly, and Robert E. Sherwood, a Broadway

professional who wrote both comedy (Reunion in Vienna [1931]) and tragedy

(There Shall Be No Night [1940]). Marc Connelly wrote touching fantasy in a

Negro folk biblical play, The Green Pastures (1930). Like O'Neill, Elmer

Rice made use of both Expressionistic techniques (The Adding Machine

[1923]) and naturalism (Street Scene [1929]). Lillian Hellman wrote

powerful, well-crafted melodramas in The Children's Hour (1934) and The

Little Foxes (1939). Radical theatre experiments included Marc Blitzstein's

savagely satiric musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and the work of Orson

Welles and John Houseman for the government-sponsored Works Progress

Administration (WPA) Federal Theatre Project. The premier radical theatre

of the decade was the Group Theatre (1931-41) under Harold Clurman and Lee

Strasberg, which became best known for presenting the work of Clifford

Odets. In Waiting for Lefty (1935), a stirring plea for labour unionism,

Odets roused the audience to an intense pitch of fervour, and in Awake and

Sing (1935), perhaps the best play of the decade, he created a lyrical work

of family conflict and youthful yearning. Other important plays by Odets

for the Group Theatre were Paradise Lost (1935), Golden Boy (1937), and

Rocket to the Moon (1938). Thornton Wilder used stylized settings and

poetic dialogue in Our Town (1938) and turned to fantasy in The Skin of Our

Teeth (1942). William Saroyan shifted his lighthearted, anarchic vision

from fiction to drama with My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your

Life (both 1939).

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Samuel Clemens was born in Missouri in 1835. He grew up in the town of

Hannibal, Missouri, which would become the model for St. Petersburg, the

fictional town where Huckleberry Finn begins. Missouri was a "slave state"

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