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PinkMonkey Study Guide - American History


Appendix A : A Brief Note On American Literature, Cinema And Music

American literature

The values that helped the colonists to build a government and stable society were applied to the fields of science, literature, cinema and music. As a result, the social and economic life of the people in the US grew richer. In the field of literature, the U.S. has given the world writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.

American literature like any other country’s literature reflected the socio-economic conditions and the struggles and aspirations of the nation. Thus, during the colonial period, the literature consisted of accounts and histories of the early English settlements in the new land. "A True Relation of Virginia" (1608) written by Captain John Smith and The History and Present state of Virginia (1705) by Robert Beverly are some of the finest examples of the literature produced during this period. The "History of Plymouth Plantation" written by William Bradford and "Magnalia Christi Americana" written by perhaps one of the greatest puritan American historian - Cotton Mather are some more remarkable works of this time.

Apart from the classic work "Common Sense" of Thomas Paine during the Revolutionary period, there were new writers experimenting with new techniques who published their works as the young nation of U.S. was born out the Revolutionary war. In "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" (1819- 1820), the author Washington Irving combines the style of essay and sketch to create the first short stories in American literature. This book includes stories of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Similarly, the poet, William Cullen Bryant adapted English romantic poetry to describe American landscape and to find moral significance in natural beauty. His ’Thanatopsis’ (1817), ’To a Waterfowl’ (1818) reflect Bryant’s admiration of nature.

The mid 1800s saw the appearance of the sentimental novel in the U.S. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-’52) is a classic example of such a novel. The 1800s also saw several historical romances written. For instance, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deer Slayer (1841) are fine examples of the historical romance written during this period.

Besides, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used the romance to study the depths of human nature. His book: The Scarlet Letter (1850) set in Puritan New England depicted the suffering caused by the concealing sin. Herman Melville’s classic: Moby Dick (1851) is another example of the American romance. Edgar Allen Poe was the best exponent of Gothic fiction. His works were called ’Gothic’ because of the gloomy setting and atmosphere of the stories.

The 1830s and 1840s in America witnessed a literary and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. It was developed in New England. Transcendentalists believed that god was present in nature and that human beings intuitively know the ’truth.’ So the transcendental philosophers stressed on self-reliance and individualism. Some of the well-known transcendentalist writers were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Browson Alcott.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the popular poets of the 19. The latter’s collection of poems: ’Leaves of Grass’ (1855) depicts the best and worst of American life.

The late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed the appearance of the Naturalists who depicted their characters as people completely controlled by economic, social or biological factors. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) is a powerful novel exposing the animal-like working conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. The book had such an impact that, the Roosevelt Government was forced to sit up and pass federal regulations. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie are the other representatives of the naturalist style of writing.

Perhaps the greatest novelists of the late 19th century in America were Mark Twain and Henry James. The well-known works of Twain are Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Henry James wrote the Novel of Manners and later The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In both the works, James traced in detail the psychological and moral problems of his characters. Besides, many women writers like Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton appeared on the literary scene. Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1899), portraying a women’s psychological and sexual development received such hostile reaction, that it put an end to her career. Today, feminists approach her with a lot of respect.

The World Wars and the depression saw the rise of modernist writers and writers of realist fiction. The moving saga of farmers in Oklahoma during the depression is brilliantly portrayed in John Steinbeck’s work: The Grapes of Wrath. While Steinbeck is one of the greatest realist writers of America, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I lay Dying (1930) saw the dawn of the modernist novel in America. The Post-war period saw the continuation of realist fiction. Some of these writers were James Jones, Irwin Shaw, J. D. Salinger, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others.


The motion pictures in the U.S. has had a tremendous impact on the social and cultural life of not just the U.S. They have influenced the values of people throughout the world. Tracing the history of motion pictures in the U.S. one can go back to the first movie made in the U.S. a silent movie - ’The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), directed by Edwin S. Porter. Porter’s film with its story telling technique paved the way for a major breakthrough in the Exhibition of films. From around 1905, several ’nickelodeon’ theaters (which were shops with a screen and folding chairs) opened in several areas of the country. These theaters became the prime spots of entertainment for the American public. Initially, directors worked in several cities of the U.S. to make a movie. As the movie industry developed, film makers began working more in Southern California due to the suitable climatic conditions. And by the outbreak of World War I, a number of movie companies set up studios in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles. By the end of 1918, the name Hollywood represented the heart of American entertainment. In 1911, the Nestor Company built the first Studio in Hollywood. As the movie industry grew with its capital in Hollywood, new techniques in direction were introduced.

Historians credit D.W. Griffith an American director for developing basic film making techniques. Before his time, directors kept the camera in a fixed position and used only one for the entire picture. Griffith introduced the use of additional camera angles and broke up scenes into several shots to improve editing.

The Silent era of films featured several comic performers like Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Mary Dressler, who all worked for the Canadian Mark Sennet at his Keystone Studio in Los Angeles. With Sennet, came the era of Silent Comedies which were known for brilliant photography and emphasis on precise timing.

The Talkies: In the 1920s, motion pictures began using sound. In the mid ’20s Bell Telephone Laboratories developed a system that helped co-ordinate sound on records with the movie projector. In 1926, Warner Bros. used this system, (vita phone) in their silent film ’Don Juan’ with music and sound effects. Later in 1927, Warner Bros. produced the ’The Jazz Singer’ starring Al Johnson - where the actor for the first time spoke a few times. ’The Jazz Singer’, thus ushered in the era of the Talkies in the U.S.


It is said that the best pieces of Art, be it music, literature or painting have been produced out of pain and suffering. Mozart suffered various travails in his life. Van Gogh led a life of sheer poverty, but produced brilliant works like the World renowned "Sunflowers."

Similarly, in the U.S., music has come to be synonymous with the Afro-Americans. Perhaps, it was due to their suffering and hardship (faced over the years due to racial discrimination and oppression) that they have a peculiar sensitivity capable of creating some of the finest works in music and the arts. Whether it is Jazz, or Reggae and Rap, black Americans like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Bob Marley have become legendary names in the American history of music.

Special mention ought to be given to Jazz which has its roots in the folk songs and plantation dance music of black Americans. For it was in the 1920s that Jazz became extremely popular. The twenties decade came to be called the golden age of Jazz. The ’20s featured live performance by several Jazz artistes.

Rock’n Roll: Another trend which become the symbol of teenage rebellion and developed into a distinct counter-culture in the ’60s affecting reflecting the mood of the young, was Rock’n Roll.

Rock’n Roll has its source in the ’Rhythm and Blues’, an idiom popular among black audiences. Rhythm and Blues was a combination of the Blues (in the structure of the song, vocal style and use of amplified guitar), Gospel music accompanied by Piano and Jazz (with the Saxophone). Rhythm and Blues had become extremely popular in the ’40s. In 1951, D. J. Alan Freed attracted several white youth to this music by using the term Rock’n Roll. Rock’n Roll’s first Superstar was Elvis Presley. He led the way for the others. He shocked the conservative adults with his suggestive hip gyrations. But his dance and music delighted the youth all over America. Elvis Presley, with his huge fan

following brought the cult of personalities into ’Rock’n Roll.’ The other popular figures of this music were Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. But by the late ’50s, Rock’n Roll had become extremely formula ridden. It was in the 60s, that Rock’n Roll got a fresh lease of life with the Beatles. The ’70s saw the fragmentation of Rock into Hard Rock, and mellow Rock. While folk and Country rock retained the character of folk and country music, Reggae emerged (From Jamaica in 1972) was an combination of rock, soul, Calypso and other Latin rhythms. The Jamaican composer Bob Marley made Reggae popular in the U.S. With his band - the Wailers, he made Reggae music well known throughout the world. Bob Marley gave new meaning to music by espousing the cause of black Civil Rights in songs such as: "Get up, stand up ... "

Even today, the music scene (with honorable exceptions) in the U.S. is largely dominated by the Afro-Americans. But sadly, music like all other forms of art and even sports in the U.S. is affected by the cult of personalities. Michael Jackson, the ’King of Pop’ is a prime example of the domination of cult figures in American music today.

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