American Literature Research Paper Topics

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This article provides a comprehensive guide to American literature research paper topics , showcasing the depth and diversity of the literary landscape in the United States. From colonial beginnings to contemporary voices, American literature offers a rich tapestry of stories, themes, and perspectives. For students diving into this vast field, choosing the right topic is crucial. This guide not only lists an array of potential American literature research paper topics but also delves into the evolution of American literary movements, offers practical advice for topic selection, and gives tips on how to craft a compelling paper. Additionally, with iResearchNet’s expert writing services, students are equipped with professional resources to ensure their research endeavors are a success.

100 American Literature Research Paper Topics

American literature, a vast and diverse field, encompasses a range of themes, styles, and epochs. From the colonial tales of the early settlers to the modern narratives of the 21st century, the U.S. literary canvas is as broad as the country’s history. This comprehensive list offers a variety of American literature research paper topics divided into ten distinct categories, ensuring that every student can find a theme that resonates with their interests and academic goals.

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I. Colonial and Early American Literature

  • The religious undertones in the works of Anne Bradstreet.
  • Exploring captivity narratives: Mary Rowlandson’s “A Narrative of the Captivity.”
  • Jonathan Edwards and the rhetoric of the Great Awakening.
  • The role of nature in early American literature.
  • Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography”: A study in self-fashioning.
  • The evolution of the American Dream in early American writings.
  • The emergence of American Gothic: Charles Brockden Brown’s “Wieland.”
  • Slavery narratives: Comparing Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
  • The role of women in colonial American literature.
  • Native American oral traditions and their influence on early colonial writings.

II. Romanticism and the American Renaissance

  • Washington Irving and the creation of American myths.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: The master of American Gothic.
  • Transcendentalism: The philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau.
  • Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”: An exploration of good vs. evil.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s exploration of Puritanical guilt in “The Scarlet Letter.”
  • Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and the birth of free verse.
  • Emily Dickinson: A recluse’s perspective on society and nature.
  • The frontier in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.
  • Gothic elements in the works of Louisa May Alcott.
  • Dark romanticism: A comparative study of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville.

III. Realism and Naturalism

  • Mark Twain and the critique of American society in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
  • Henry James and the art of psychological realism.
  • The portrayal of urban life in Stephen Crane’s works.
  • Edith Wharton’s critique of the Gilded Age in “The Age of Innocence.”
  • The conflict of man versus nature in Jack London’s writings.
  • The influence of Darwinism on American naturalist writers.
  • Kate Chopin and the awakening of female sexuality.
  • The immigrant experience in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
  • The rise of regionalism: Willa Cather and the American Midwest.
  • Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and the dark side of the American Dream.

IV. The Harlem Renaissance

  • Langston Hughes and the jazz poetry movement.
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s exploration of black folklore in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
  • Claude McKay and the politics of race in America.
  • Jean Toomer’s “Cane”: A mosaic of African American life.
  • The influence of jazz and blues on Harlem Renaissance literature.
  • The role of magazines and journals in promoting African American voices.
  • Nella Larsen’s exploration of racial identity in “Passing.”
  • Alain Locke’s “The New Negro” and the redefinition of African American identity.
  • Gender and sexuality in the works of Wallace Thurman.
  • The intersection of visual arts and literature during the Harlem Renaissance.

V. Modernism

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald and the disillusionment of the Jazz Age.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s narrative style and the “Lost Generation.”
  • Gertrude Stein and the avant-garde literary scene.
  • T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the fragmentation of modern society.
  • The influence of World War I on American modernist writers.
  • John Dos Passos and the critique of capitalism in “The U.S.A. Trilogy.”
  • William Faulkner’s innovative narrative techniques.
  • The works of E.E. Cummings and the break from traditional poetic forms.
  • The influence of expatriation on American modernist literature.
  • Djuna Barnes and the exploration of sexuality in “Nightwood.”

VI. The Beat Generation

  • Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”: Defining the Beat ethos.
  • Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: A protest against conformity and consumerism.
  • William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and its critique of post-war America.
  • The role of jazz and drug culture in the Beat literary movement.
  • The Beat Generation and their relationship with Eastern spirituality.
  • Female voices in the Beat movement: Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger.
  • The legacy of Neal Cassady: From muse to writer.
  • The impact of San Francisco Renaissance on the Beats.
  • The Beats and their dissection of the American Dream.
  • The global travels of the Beat Generation and their reflections in literature.

VII. Postmodernism

  • Thomas Pynchon and the entropic vision of “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”: War, time, and metafiction.
  • Metafiction and historiographic metafiction in works by John Barth.
  • The detective novel reimagined: Paul Auster’s “City of Glass.”
  • Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and the haunting of history.
  • Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” and the fear of death in postmodern society.
  • Paranoia and conspiracy in Robert Coover’s novels.
  • Postcolonial critique in Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
  • The consumerist dystopia in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.”
  • Maximalism in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”

VIII. Contemporary American Literature

  • Identity and multiculturalism in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake.”
  • The post-9/11 American psyche in novels by Jonathan Safran Foer.
  • Magical realism and the immigrant experience in Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
  • The reimagining of the American West in Annie Proulx’s works.
  • Technology and isolation in Dave Eggers’ “The Circle.”
  • The deconstruction of the family narrative in Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.”
  • The changing American South in the works of Jesmyn Ward.
  • Dystopian futures in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments.”
  • Coming-of-age in the digital age: Sally Rooney’s novels.
  • The clash of cultures in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.”

IX. Literature of the American Frontier and West

  • The myth versus reality of the Wild West in Owen Wister’s “The Virginian.”
  • Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and the brutality of westward expansion.
  • The legacy of frontier humor in Mark Twain’s early works.
  • Women’s perspectives on the frontier: Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!”
  • Native American voices and the frontier: N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.”
  • The environmental ethics of the American West in Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.”
  • Revisionist Westerns: Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”
  • Exploration of masculinity and the mythic West in Sam Shepard’s plays.
  • The Gold Rush in American literature: Joaquin Miller’s poetic works.
  • The Asian American experience in the Old West: Sui Sin Far’s stories.

X. Science Fiction and Dystopian Literature

  • The socio-political critiques in Philip K. Dick’s novels.
  • Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series and the fall of the American empire.
  • The fear of otherness in Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
  • Environmental collapse in Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable” series.
  • Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the danger of censorship.
  • The commercialization of society in Frederik Pohl’s “The Space Merchants.”
  • Feminism and gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
  • The evolution of the post-apocalyptic narrative in American science fiction.
  • The role of technology and artificial intelligence in contemporary American science fiction.
  • The resurgence of dystopian literature in the 21st century: Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series.

American literature, shaped by history, society, and diverse voices, offers a plethora of research topics. Whether students wish to delve deep into a specific era or explore overarching themes across epochs, this list provides a starting point. Armed with these American literature research paper topics, scholars can embark on an enlightening journey through the annals of American literature, discovering insights that not only illuminate the texts but also reflect the nation’s evolving identity.

American Literature and the Range of Topics It Offers

American literature, as vast and varied as the landscape of the country itself, encapsulates the spirit, dreams, and dilemmas of its people over centuries. From the indigenous narratives of pre-colonial America to the postmodernist critiques of the late 20th century, the literary output of the United States mirrors the sociopolitical changes, cultural shifts, and individual narratives that have shaped its history.

Colonial and Early American literature, for instance, grapple with themes of discovery, colonization, and the quest for identity in a new world. Authors like Anne Bradstreet and Jonathan Edwards exemplify this era’s struggles and spiritual yearnings. Their works lay the foundation for the Romantic period that followed, characterized by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These authors delved deep into the human psyche, often highlighting the dualities of human nature and the looming American wilderness.

The transcendentalist movement, spearheaded by figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, presented a unique take on individuality, nature, and spirituality. Their perspectives provided a stark contrast to the realist and naturalist writers of the late 19th century, who, influenced by Darwinism and the Industrial Revolution, presented a grittier, more deterministic view of the human experience.

The 20th century ushered in a literary renaissance, with the Harlem Renaissance leading the charge. This era, defined by writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay, not only redefined African American literature but also laid the groundwork for successive generations of writers to explore themes of racial identity, inequality, and heritage.

American literature’s vast scope is further broadened by the Beat Generation, Postmodernists, and contemporary writers, each adding layers of complexity and depth to this already multifaceted literary tradition. The Beats, with their unorthodox lifestyles and candid explorations of sexuality, spirituality, and societal rebellion, paved the way for postmodernists to break literary conventions and question the very nature of narrative and authorship.

In the contemporary realm, the literary landscape is even more diverse, with authors from various backgrounds addressing issues such as immigration, gender identity, technology, and globalization.

Considering the vastness and depth of American literature, the range of potential American literature research paper topics is immense. Whether analyzing a specific author’s style, comparing literary movements, or delving into the socio-political implications of a particular work, students have a plethora of avenues to explore. The beauty of American literature lies not just in its rich tapestry of stories but also in the endless academic inquiries it sparks.

The American literary canon, forever expanding and evolving, stands as an open invitation for scholars, students, and readers alike to delve in, explore, and contribute to the ongoing conversation. The American literature research paper topics presented earlier merely scratch the surface of what’s possible, offering a starting point for those eager to embark on their own literary journey through the annals of American literature.

How to Choose an American Literature Research Paper Topic

The process of selecting American literature research paper topics can be both exciting and daunting. The vast expanse of literary works, spanning from the earliest colonial narratives to the contemporary experimental pieces, offers a plethora of subjects to dive into. However, choosing the right topic is crucial not only for academic success but also for maintaining personal interest throughout the research process. Here’s a comprehensive guide to assist you in making an informed choice:

  • Start with Personal Interest: Your enthusiasm for a particular era, author, or theme can drive the quality of your research. Always consider what genuinely intrigues you about American literature. Is it the Harlem Renaissance, the transcendentalist movement, or the postmodern era?
  • Read Widely: Before settling on a topic, immerse yourself in a variety of texts. By exploring a wide range of works, you might discover a previously unconsidered area of interest or identify gaps in existing research.
  • Historical Context Matters: The socio-political backdrop against which a literary work was produced often deeply influences its content and themes. Understanding this context can provide richer layers of meaning to your research.
  • Consider Genre and Form: Instead of focusing solely on an author or era, consider diving into specific literary forms – poetry, short stories, novels, plays – or genres like Gothic, mystery, or magical realism within American literature.
  • Check Availability of Resources: It’s essential to ensure that adequate resources – primary texts, scholarly articles, critiques – are available on your chosen topic. Conduct preliminary research to gauge this.
  • Consult Professors or Mentors: Engage in discussions with your professors or academic mentors. Their insights, based on years of experience and study, can guide you toward a promising research area or warn you about potential pitfalls.
  • Evaluate Scope: Ensure that your chosen topic is neither too broad nor too narrow. A topic that’s too expansive can be overwhelming, while an overly specific subject might lack substantial content for a comprehensive paper.
  • Interdisciplinary Approaches: Consider merging literary analysis with insights from fields like sociology, psychology, or history. For instance, you could study the portrayal of mental illness in American literature through both a literary and psychological lens.
  • Stay Updated with Recent Scholarship: Literary interpretations evolve over time. Ensure you’re familiar with the latest scholarly discussions surrounding your topic. This can help refine your thesis and approach.
  • Relevance and Contribution: Ask yourself how your research will contribute to the existing body of knowledge. Aiming for a fresh perspective or a unique interpretation can make your work stand out.

Choosing a topic for a research paper in American literature is a journey of discovery. It’s about finding the right balance between personal interest, academic relevance, and the potential contribution to the field. Remember, the process of research and writing should be as rewarding as the final product. By carefully selecting your topic, you set the stage for a fulfilling academic endeavor.

How to Write an American Literature Research Paper

Delving into the world of American literature is like embarking on a thrilling journey across time, cultures, and ideologies. From the early Native American oral traditions to the cutting-edge contemporary narratives, the literary landscape of America offers a vast terrain to explore and analyze. Writing a research paper on such a subject is not just about summarizing texts, but about adding to the discourse. Here’s a detailed guide to help you craft a compelling and insightful research paper on American literature:

Your research paper journey begins with a strong introduction. This is your chance to captivate your reader’s interest, provide some background on your topic, and present your thesis statement.

  • Choose a Strong Thesis: A clear, concise, and debatable thesis is the backbone of your research paper. Ensure it provides a fresh perspective or a unique angle on your chosen topic.
  • Research Thoroughly: Dive deep into primary sources (novels, poems, plays, etc.) and secondary sources (critiques, essays, and scholarly papers). Libraries, academic databases, and online literary journals are invaluable resources.
  • Develop a Structured Outline: Before diving into writing, chalk out an outline. This ensures a logical flow to your arguments and helps in organizing your thoughts systematically.
  • Maintain a Critical Perspective: While it’s essential to understand various interpretations, always maintain a critical lens. Challenge existing viewpoints, draw your conclusions, and support them with evidence.
  • Incorporate Quotes Wisely: Direct quotes from literary works can bolster your arguments. However, use them judiciously. Ensure they serve a purpose in your narrative and always provide proper citations.
  • Understand Literary Devices: Having a firm grasp of literary devices like allegory, symbolism, or irony will enhance your analysis. Highlight where authors have employed these tools and discuss their significance.
  • Historical and Cultural Context: American literature cannot be detached from its historical and cultural backdrop. Embed your analysis within this context, offering a richer and more nuanced understanding.
  • Stay Objective: While personal interpretations are vital, ensure your arguments remain objective. Avoid overly emotional or biased language.
  • Revise and Edit: Once your initial draft is ready, take a break before revising. Fresh eyes can spot inconsistencies, redundancies, or errors. Check for clarity, coherence, and overall flow. Grammar, punctuation, and syntax should be impeccable.
  • Properly Format and Cite: Adhere to the specified format, whether it’s APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, or Harvard. Properly cite all your sources to avoid plagiarism. Utilize tools or software that can help streamline this process.

Wrap up your research paper by reiterating your main arguments and thesis. Highlight the significance of your findings and hint at potential areas for future research. Writing an American literature research paper is a rigorous but rewarding process. It demands diligence, critical thinking, and a deep appreciation for the literary arts. Remember, it’s not just about presenting facts but weaving a story that adds value to the existing body of knowledge. With dedication and passion, you’ll not only craft an impactful research paper but also deepen your connection with the rich tapestry of American literature.

iResearchNet Writing Services

In the dynamic world of academics, having a reliable partner to guide you through the intricate maze of research and writing is invaluable. iResearchNet emerges as that indispensable ally for students venturing into the vast expanse of American literature. Offering a tailored approach to your research paper needs, here’s a deep dive into the multitude of features that make iResearchNet the go-to destination for discerning literature students. Every literary masterpiece has a memorable beginning, and so does every outstanding research paper. iResearchNet ensures that your American literature research paper starts with a bang, capturing attention and setting the tone for the ensuing academic brilliance.

  • Expert Degree-Holding Writers: With a dedicated team of writers who not only hold advanced degrees but also have a deep passion for American literature, iResearchNet ensures that your research paper is both academically rigorous and creatively engaging.
  • Custom Written Works: Every student is unique, and so is their perspective. iResearchNet prides itself on delivering 100% original content, tailor-made to resonate with your unique viewpoint and academic requirements.
  • In-Depth Research: The cornerstone of an impactful research paper is exhaustive research. Our team delves deep into countless primary and secondary sources to ensure a comprehensive and insightful exploration of your chosen topic.
  • Custom Formatting: Whether it’s APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, or Harvard, our experts are well-versed in all major formatting styles, ensuring that your paper adheres to the stringent guidelines of academic writing.
  • Top Quality: Compromising on quality is not in our lexicon. Every research paper undergoes a multi-layered review process, ensuring impeccable language, robust arguments, and flawless presentation.
  • Customized Solutions: We recognize the diverse needs of our clientele. Whether you need a comparative analysis, thematic exploration, or a character study, our team crafts solutions aligned with your specific requirements.
  • Flexible Pricing: iResearchNet believes in offering unparalleled quality without breaking the bank. Our pricing structure is designed to be student-friendly, ensuring top-notch services without undue financial strain.
  • Short Deadlines: Pressed for time? With our express services, even the tightest deadlines won’t pose a challenge. Our dedicated team ensures timely delivery without compromising on quality.
  • Timely Delivery: Adherence to deadlines is sacrosanct at iResearchNet. We recognize the importance of time in academic pursuits and ensure prompt delivery every single time.
  • 24/7 Support: Questions, concerns, or last-minute modifications? Our customer support is available round the clock, ensuring seamless communication and timely resolution.
  • Absolute Privacy: Your trust is our utmost priority. All personal and academic details are safeguarded with the highest level of encryption, ensuring complete confidentiality.
  • Easy Order Tracking: With our intuitive portal, you can easily track the progress of your research paper, ensuring transparency and peace of mind.
  • Money Back Guarantee: At iResearchNet, we stand by the quality of our services. However, if for some reason you’re not satisfied, our money-back guarantee ensures that your investment is protected.

Navigating the world of American literature is a daunting task, but with iResearchNet by your side, it becomes an enriching experience. Offering a perfect blend of academic rigor and creative flair, our services ensure that your research paper stands out, reflecting not just the vastness of American literature but also your unique perspective. Join hands with iResearchNet and transform your academic journey into a memorable literary adventure.

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From the raw, unfiltered brilliance of Mark Twain to the contemporary musings of Toni Morrison, American literature is a vast and varied landscape, teeming with stories that capture the essence of the American spirit. As a student, exploring this diverse tapestry offers both challenges and opportunities. With iResearchNet, you’re not just writing a research paper; you’re embarking on a journey through time, space, and human emotion.

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Katy Chiles, associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, teaches and writes about early American literary studies, African American and Native American literature, critical race theory, and print cultures. Her book,  Transformable Race:  Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literatures of Early America , was published by Oxford University Press, and her work has appeared in  PMLA ,  Early American Literature ,  American Literature, Race in American Literature and Culture  (Cambridge UP, 2022), and  African American Literature in Transition, Volume 1, 1750-1800  (Cambridge UP, 2022). She is currently working on another book project that examines race, collaboration, and print history in early American literature, which has been supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.

Cassander Smith is an associate professor of English and associate dean of academic affairs for the Honors College at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research focus on early African American, American, and Caribbean literature, with a general focus on the early Black Atlantic. She is the author of  Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the early Atlantic  (LSU Press, 2016) and  Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic  (LSU Press 2023). Her current works in progress include a monograph, tentatively titled “Wasteful Bodies: Conservation, Preservation and the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” which examines sustainability rhetoric in the shaping of the transatlantic slave trade.

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Katy Chiles, University of Tennessee [email protected]

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Table of Contents

Volume 59, number 1.

Editor’s Note Cassander Smith and Katy Chiles

Richard Beale Davis Prize for 2022 Tara Bynum, Ana Schwartz, and Michelle Sizemore

Feeling Solitary in the Seductive Republic: Narrative Deviance in Elizabeth “Harriot” Wilson and William “Amos” Wilson Ben Bascom

Equiano’s African Methodist Appetite: Feasting and Purification Rituals as Community and Resistance Carole Lynn Stewart

Reading with Powhatan Ancestral Remains in Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia Kimberly Takahata

The 2023 SEA Common Reading Forum: On Toni Morrison’s A Mercy Anna Brickhouse, April Langley, and Kaitlin Tonti

Toni Morrison’s A Mercy : A Meditation on Othering Dana A. Williams

Teaching A Mercy Riché Richardson

Reading Race and Power in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy Angelyn Mitchell

Possibility and A Mercy Michelle S. Hite

Review Essay

The Din of Pasts Colliding: Latin American Histories Urbane, Archival, and Sacral Dana Leibsohn

Book Reviews

Michael Boyden, Vincent Carretta, Jeannine Marie Delombard, Patrick M. Erben, Ian Finseth, Theresa Strouth Gaul, Aston Gonzalez, Ray Horton, Scott M. Larson, Wendy Raphael Roberts, David Roediger, Ana Schwartz, Bryan Sinche, Amy L. Sopcak-Joseph, Ezra Tawil

Resources for Early American Studies

Ryan Carr, Rebecca M. Rosen, Christopher Trigg, Abram Van Engen

Conference Reviews

Jenny Marie Forsythe, Rowan Red Sky

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The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature

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The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature


Kevin J. Hayes , Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, is the author of Stephen Crane, which forms part of the Writers and Their Work series published by Northcote House in association with the British Council. He is the editor of the Bedford edition of Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and of Henry James: The Contemporary Reviews. For six years, he served as Bibliography Editor for Documentary Editing. For his work, the Association for Documentary Editing presented him with its Distinguished Service Award.

  • Published: 18 September 2012
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The Introduction to this book starts by discussing various attempts over time to define the body of writings that constitute American literature. It also explains the structure of this book, stating that the canon of early American literature has expanded rapidly in recent years. The book seeks to consolidate recent gains and impose order on the field of study as a whole. It aims to define American literature in terms of both language and geography. The Introduction describes the various parts of the book that follow. The work focuses on major authors and different literary genres.

In 1713, White Kennett, bishop of Peterborough, published Bibliothecae Americanae, the first systematic attempt to define a body of writings that constitute American literature. Bishop Kennett issued this work upon presenting his personal library of Americana to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Hoping the library would aid the society's mission, he was open-minded enough to recognize that many others could benefit from its holdings: colonial administrators, historians, mariners, members of trading companies, merchants, and ministers of state. Kennett advocated broad accessibility, suggesting that the library could provide for “the Information of Strangers, and the Entertainment of all Persons” (Kennett 1713 , iv).

Mentioning the collection's entertainment value, Kennett suggested that these books not only were instructive but also contained much to delight readers. To delight and instruct: this Horatian paradigm succinctly articulates the dual purpose of literature in Bishop Kennett's time and, indeed, through the remainder of the eighteenth century. His bibliography implicitly defines American literature in terms of both language and geography. Though it lists a few titles in Spanish and a few others in Latin, otherwise it consists of works in English. In terms of geography, Kennett included works pertaining to both North and South America. From his perspective, early American literature consists of writings in English pertaining to the Americas that both delight and instruct. This definition would change as the study of American literature developed in the coming years.

The Recognition of Early American Literature

Many readers recognized the value of Kennett's bibliography. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson owned copies of the work. Jefferson found his especially useful when he and John Adams were discussing early American literature in their correspondence. Adams introduced the subject. He was motivated by a pamphlet volume John Quincy Adams had found in Germany, which contained three seventeenth-century works, all now recognized as classics of the period: Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence, Thomas Morton's New English Canaan, and William Wood's New Englands Prospect. Adams asked Jefferson what he knew about New English Canaan. Jefferson consulted Kennett's Bibliothecae Americanae and other pertinent works. The most useful volume he had at Monticello for Adams's purpose was Nathaniel Morton's New-England's Memorial, a work detailing Thomas Morton's exploits in New England. Responding to Adams, Jefferson took the time to transcribe several pages from New-England's Memorial.

This exchange, which occurred nearly a hundred years after Kennett published Bibliothecae Americanae, reveals a burgeoning interest in early American literature. Actually, American readers had become curious about their unique literary past decades earlier. A new edition of Mary Rowlandson's Sovereignty and Goodness of God in 1770, for example, sparked a revival of interest in her work. Originally published in 1682, Rowlandson's captivity narrative had not been republished since 1720. Retitled The Narrative of the Captivity, this new edition reflects an interest in uniquely American books among American readers in the run-up to the Revolution. Rowlandson's Narrative went through several more editions in the early 1770s. After the Revolutionary War, it was revived again. The work became so well known that her name became part of a proverbial comparison: “as many removes as Mrs. Rowlandson” (Hayes 1997 , 10). Jeremy Belknap, the New Hampshire author whose historical and biographical writings contribute significantly to early national literature, used the phrase in a letter to Ebenezer Hazard, another important historian: “I remember, when you removed your family to New York, you complained of the inconvenience. I now can, more fully than I could then, adopt the same language and entertain the same feelings. Once I could be at home anywhere. From the time I went to college till my settlement at Dover I had near as many removals as Mother Rowlanderson (this is a New England comparison, and will make Mrs. Hazard laugh)” (Belknap 1877 ).

The references to Thomas Morton in the Adams-Jefferson correspondence and to Mary Rowlandson in Belknap's provide instances of early American literature referring to itself. These letters establish continuity with their literary past even as they form contributions to American literature in themselves. Similar examples abound. Benjamin Franklin's reference to Cotton Mather in his Autobiography may be the most well-known instance of early American literature referring to itself. Franklin not only mentions the Magnalia Christi Americana, Mather's epic history of New England but also refers to Mather's Essays to Do Good.

Franklin mentioned the titles of many books in his autobiography, partly to give readers a program of self-education they could follow. In Mather's case, Franklin's scheme worked brilliantly. The autobiography prompted a revival of Mather's Essays to Do Good. After its publication, a flurry of reprints of Mather's work followed. In the early nineteenth century, American editions of Essays to Do Good were published in Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. British editions appeared in Glasgow and London. Influenced by Franklin's reference to the work, Thomas Jefferson ordered a copy of Essays to Do Good for the University of Virginia library (Jefferson 1950 , 30).

Despite the numerous reprints, Cotton Mather was not known primarily for Essays to Do Good in the early nineteenth century. Nor was he known primarily for the Magnalia Christi Americana, though that work was reprinted in 1820. In the popular imagination, Mather was best remembered for his belief in witchcraft. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which appeared around the same time as the new edition of the Magnalia, Washington Irving has Ichabod Crane read Mather's “History of New England Witchcraft” (Irving 1983 , 1063). The work Irving had in mind was Wonders of the Invisible World, in which Mather documented many supposed instances of witchcraft. During the nineteenth century, Cotton Mather came to represent all the prejudice and parochialism of colonial New England, yet he came to represent early American literature, too. For years to some, references to Mather in the popular culture would continue to function as a barometer of national attitudes toward early American literature.

In Grandfather's Chair (1841), Nathaniel Hawthorne asserted that Cotton Mather saw “evil spirits all about the world. Doubtless he imagined that they were hidden in the corners and crevices of his library, and that they peeped out from among the leaves of many of his books, as he turned them over, at midnight” (Hawthorne 1883 , 513). Reading another book by Mather, the narrator of Herman Melville's short story “The Apple-Tree Table” (1856) observes, “His style had all the plainness and unpoetic boldness of truth. In the most straightforward way, he laid before me detailed accounts of New England witchcraft.” The more the narrator reads, the more he frets: “I began to think that much midnight reading of Cotton Mather was not good for man; that it had a morbid influence upon the nerves, and gave rise to hallucinations. I resolved to put Cotton Mather permanently aside” (Melville 1987 , 382, 385).

The study of early American literature came of age in 1829. This year William Hazlitt used a recent publication by William Ellery Channing, then considered an important American author, to reconsider American literature as a whole. In Hazlitt's opinion, three American authors before Charles Brockden Brown deserved recognition: Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. Franklin was, in Hazlitt's words, “a great experimental philosopher, a consummate politician, and a paragon of common sense.” Edwards was “one of the acutest, most powerful, and, of all reasoners, the most conscientious and sincere.” And Crèvecoeur's great work, Letters from an American Farmer, offered “a tolerable idea how American scenery and manners may be treated with a lively poetic interest. The pictures are sometimes highly-coloured, but they are vivid and strikingly characteristic. He gives not only the objects, but the feelings, of a new country” (Hazlitt 1829 , 130–131).

Unbeknownst to Hazlitt, American scholars were simultaneously taking stock of their national literary heritage. Samuel Knapp's Lectures on American Literature, the first history of American literature, appeared this same year. So did Samuel Kettell's three-volume Specimens of American Poetry, the fullest anthology of American literature published to that time. Not since White Kennett's Bibliothecae Americanae had there been such significant contributions to the study of early American literature.

Not all readers were pleased with these two works. Hugh Swinton Legaré may have been their most vocal critic. Discussing both in the Southern Review, Legaré recognized Kettell's New England bias. Instead of insisting on more southern authors, he questioned the entire project of distinguishing a uniquely American literature. Both Knapp and Kettell clamored for an autochthonous literature, that is, a literature freed from external influence, the influence of Europe in general and of England in particular. Legaré disagreed. He saw no reason that American readers should reject English literature in favor of a less accomplished indigenous literature: “Whatever be the wonders that Cotton Mather and his heroical successors have effected, we not only think that the English literature is good enough for us at present, but that it may actually continue good enough for perhaps a century to come. We have certainly produced bards and philosophers many a one—but neither Miltons, Shakespeares, nor Bacons as yet” (Legaré 1831 , 438).

In her review of Kettell's Specimens of American Poetry, a contributor to the Ladies' Magazine offered a different perspective: “Here the curious student may find the remains of our elder poets in the quaint phraseology, enriched and embued with the scriptural learning, of that primitive and peculiar people.” According to this viewpoint, the poems Kettell collected were curiosities, examples of how people used to write, artifacts useful for understanding the past but scarcely what can be called great literature. This reviewer also felt that Kettell should have included more work by female poets: “We must be watchful that our own sex suffer no injustice at the literary tribunal” (Anon. 1829 ). In the waning decades of the twentieth century, many academics would critique the male-dominated canon of early American literature. Such criticism was nothing new. As this review verifies, gender-based critiques of the canon occurred as early as 1829.

How Edgar Allan Poe Read Early American Literature

Edgar Allan Poe questioned the literary value of the poetry Kettell included in his anthology, too. Poe observed, “The ‘specimens’ of Kettell were specimens of nothing but the ignorance and ill taste of the compiler. A large proportion of what he gave to the world as American poetry, to the exclusion of much that was really so, was the doggerel composition of individuals unheard of and undreamed of, except by Mr. Kettell himself” (Poe 1984 , 550). Poe considered writing a history of American literature but ultimately abandoned the project in favor of a description of current American letters. Poe's lack of resources was one reason he abandoned his history of American literature, but not the primary reason. He simply cared little for early American literature (Hayes 2000 , 106). His short story “The Business Man” satirizes one of the most revered works of the period, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (Lemay 1982 ). Of Joel Barlow's epic poem, Poe admitted, “We cannot stand being told … that ‘Barlow's Columbiad is a poem of considerable merit’” (Poe 1842 ). Poe felt comfortable restricting his literary study to contemporary authors because, like Legaré, he did not see American literature beginning much before the nineteenth century.

Poe's dislike of early American literature partly stems from the break he made with traditional ways of thinking about literature. Eschewing the long-standing requirement that art both delight and instruct, Poe established the idea of art for art's sake (Hayes 2004 , 225). While this phrase has been attributed to both Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater, Poe anticipated it in an 1844 book review, in which he insisted “that under the sun there exists no work more intrinsically noble, than this very poem written solely for the poem's sake ” (Poe 1984 , 295). The fact-filled, often didactic, and frequently admonitory literature of colonial America had no place in Poe's aesthetic.

Poe did appreciate some early American authors, even if he refused them a place on his American Parnassus. When his friend William Gowans published a scholarly edition of Daniel Denton's Brief Description of New York in 1845 as the first title in his Bibliotheca Americana series, Poe appreciated Denton's promotional tract as a work “of exceeding interest—to say nothing of its value in an historical point of view” (Poe 1845 , 168). Though interesting and historically valuable, Denton's tract does not measure up as literature when considered from Poe's aesthetic.

Gowans's Bibliotheca Americana series represents an important step in the literary recognition of early American prose, but Gowans was more interested in issuing quality editions than rushing works through the press. The fifth title in the series, George Alsop's Character of the Province of Maryland, did not appear until 1869, nearly a quarter century after the first title. Alsop's delightful tract had been almost completely forgotten in the two centuries since it first appeared. Gowans's edition helped American readers recognize its literary qualities. As one reviewer observed, “Our old author writes in a sharp and pungent style, and his ardent loyalty as a cavalier, and his sufferings whet his sarcasms to a keen edge and give piquancy to his contrasts of civilized and barbarous life” (Anon. 1869 , 385).

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe's literary executor, did much to make early American literature more accessible. He established his editorial reputation with The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), The Prose Writers of America (1846), and The Female Poets of America (1848). He subsequently prepared new editions of all three, revising and expanding their contents to suit public demand and to compete in the marketplace. Though Griswold largely plagiarized The Poets and Poetry of America from Kettell's Specimens of American Poetry, his work succeeded commercially whereas Kettell's had failed (Cutting 1975 , 227). Dependent on Kettell for most of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century verse he used, Griswold abbreviated Kettell's selections considerably and improved their pace. He also added a handful of poems not in Kettell, including “New England's Annoyances,” which is now recognized as the earliest known American folksong (Lemay 1985 ). The Prose Writers of America, though more original than The Poets and Poetry of America, is less expansive in its scope. Without an anthology of prose comparable to Kettell's verse anthology, Griswold ignored the seventeenth century altogether. Prose Writers of America begins with Jonathan Edwards.

The Cyclopaedia of American Literature

Part encyclopedia and part anthology, Evert and George Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855) excelled any previous work on the subject. In their preface the Duyckinck brothers cautioned against reading the selections for their aesthetic qualities. Early American literature “is not so much an exhibition of art and invention, of literature in its immediate and philosophical sense, as a record of mental progress and cultivation, of facts and opinions, which derives its main interest from its historical rather than its critical value.” Still, they encouraged readers to keep an open mind: “The many noble sentiments, just thoughts, the eloquent orations, the tasteful poems, the various refinements of literary expression, drawn together in these volumes, are indeed the noblest appeal and best apology for the work. The voice of two centuries of American literature may well be worth listening to” (Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1855 , 1: v, viii).

The general purpose of the Cyclopaedia was “to exhibit and illustrate the products of the pen on American soil.” These words express an important truth: there is an inextricable relationship between land and literature. Works produced by authors who have spent time in North America reflect the physical influence of the American environment. Whereas previous anthologies were biased toward the literature of New England, the Duyckincks made a conscious effort to include representative selections from southern writers, too. Regardless whether from the North or South, all American authors display the influence of the land on their writings.

The work's chronological organization follows “as nearly as practicable the date of birth of each individual” (Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1855 , 1: vi). The Duyckincks violate this stated organizational scheme within their first ten pages. George Sandys, the subject of the first entry, was born in 1578. Thomas Hariot, the subject of the seventh entry, was born in 1560. Starting their Cyclopaedia with Sandys gave the Duyckincks a distinct advantage. Traditionally, it had been assumed that the colonists were so busy carving their communities from the wilderness and guarding against Indian attack they had neither the time nor the inclination for belles lettres. The example of Sandys proves the opposite. Appointed treasurer of the Virginia colony and a member of its governing council, Sandys reached Virginia in 1621. Present for the great Indian uprising that occurred on March 22, 1622, he personally led the first counterattack against the Indians. He remained in Virginia to 1625. During his stay he completed Ovids Metamorphosis Englished (1626), a translation that profoundly affected Milton, Dryden, and Pope. As the Duyckincks tell the story, the premier author of American literature influenced some of the foremost authors of English literature.

Moses Coit Tyler

Though indebted to the work of the Duyckincks, Moses Coit Tyler elevated the study of early American literature to a professional, scholarly level. Tyler combed public and private libraries seeking out original manuscripts and rare first editions (Vanderbilt 1986 , 82–83). When he published his History of American Literature (1878), which took the story to 1765, he could boast, “Upon no topic of literary estimation have I formed an opinion at second hand. In every instance, I have examined for myself the work under consideration” (Tyler 1878 , vii). Tyler could make a similar boast two decades later when he published his follow-up study, The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763–1783 (1897). Tyler brought to the field a seriousness and dedication the finest literary scholars have since emulated.

Like the Duyckincks, Tyler recognized the connection between land and literature. He defined American literature in terms of both language and geography. For him, American literature begins with the establishment of the first permanent English colony in America. Unlike Poe, Tyler did not see literature as being constrained to belles lettres. But by the time his literary history appeared in 1878, the phrase “art for art's sake” had become so firmly entrenched in the critical discourse that he found it necessary to allude to it, if only to recognize it as an anachronism when applied to early American literature. Speaking of early colonial days, Tyler observed, “Undoubtedly literature for its own sake was not much thought of, or lived for, in those days” (Tyler 1878 , 1: 7).

Tyler devoted his second chapter to the individual he identified as the first author of American literature, Captain John Smith. Like other early settlers of both Virginia and New England, Smith was born in England, but his writings are American through and through. Taking other seventeenth-century works for example in subsequent chapters, Tyler emphasized the influence of the American environment on its literature. After quoting from John Hammond's promotional tract, Leah and Rachel: or, The Two Fruitful Sisters Virginia, and Maryland (1656), for example, Tyler characterized what Hammond had to say: “Here, certainly, in these brusque sentences, do we find a literature smacking of American soil and smelling of American air. Here, thus early in our studies, do we catch in American writings that new note of hope and of help for humanity in distress, and of a rugged personal independence, which, almost from the hour of our first settlements in this land, America began to send back, with unveiled exultation, to Europe” (Tyler 1878 , 64). Tyler is convincing: the American strand has had a deep and abiding impact on the literary imagination.

Early American Literature in the Classroom

When Tyler's literary history first appeared in 1878, there were really no college classes devoted to the study of American literature, but courses on American literature proliferated in colleges and high schools toward the end of the century. The textbook industry recognized the trend, and the brief literary history emerged as the preferred pedagogical tool. Around the turn of the century, a dozen or so different works were available. Take American Literature: An Elementary Text-book for Use in High Schools and Academies (1891), for example. Written by Julian Hawthorne (Nathaniel's son) and Leonard Lemmon, a Texas school superintendent, this work was published by D. C. Heath, a major textbook publisher. Though Hawthorne and Lemmon referred to Tyler's history to write theirs, they did not share his appreciation of early American literature. They observed: “The productions of our colonial period can be called literature by courtesy only. They consist of historical and geographical memoranda, and of theological essays and arguments. The Revolutionary era is rich in speeches, protocols and declarations, often elevated in sentiment and massive in thought, but dyed in the passionate hues of patriotism and partisanship, and necessarily lacking the repose and balance that belong to pure literature” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891 , x-xi). Their first chapter, “Colonial Literature,” shows little understanding of the period, as its opening sentence indicates: “As the physical analysis of the Universe begins with protoplasm, so must intelligent study of a literature begin with examination of the inchoate material upon which the literature is based.” Protoplasm? Inchoate material? These are harsh terms to describe early American literature. Hawthorne and Lemmon mention Captain John Smith's True Relation of Virginia and his Map of Virginia but assure students that they need not read them. They also mention George Alsop and Daniel Denton, an indication that William Gowans's Bibliotheca Americana series had done its work. Ultimately, they suggest that Samuel Sewall's diary may be “the only book of the Colonial period that can be read through with pleasure” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891 , 1, 6).

In a note to teachers, Hawthorne and Lemmon explain, “Standard writers are now obtainable at so cheap a rate, that any one may afford the material for a year's reading in connection with this manual” (Hawthorne and Lemmon 1891 , viii). While there were numerous cheap editions of prominent nineteenth-century authors available, there were no comparable collections for earlier centuries. Ten years would pass before a convenient, reasonably priced, relatively thorough anthology of early American literature would become available. When William P. Trent and Benjamin W. Wells published Colonial Prose and Poetry in late 1901, it was warmly received. Trent and Wells took great pains to include representative works from throughout the American colonies in their three-volume anthology. Authors represented include George Alsop, Robert Beverley, William Byrd, Daniel Denton, Philip Vickers Fithian, Sarah Kemble Knight, Mary Rowlandson, Patrick Tailfer, and John Woolman. “Outwardly delightful and intellectually stimulating,” one reviewer called it. “To those who are doubtful of the intellectual stimulus to be got from Cotton Mather and Michael Wigglesworth, we can say only that our colonial writers have abundant interest for those who are willing to look for it. Viewed from the narrow standpoint of aesthetics, they have little to offer; but seen in the wider vision that broadens before the student of social history and the spiritual life, they occupy a large place in our annals.” This reviewer also emphasized the book's convenience and originality: “Nothing of the sort has heretofore been accessible to the general reader, unless, perchance, he happened to own a Duyckinck,” but the reader “can put these books in his pocket” (Anon. 1902 , 91). Colonial Prose and Poetry was reissued in 1903 as part of the series Handy Volume Classics. It was also republished in a convenient one-volume edition specifically designed for college classroom use, which went through numerous reprintings through 1929. Rachael Childrey, for example, read one of the later printings of this work while a student at Cornell in 1926.

Another classroom anthology appeared in 1909 and went through multiple re-printings through the 1920s. In his preface to Selections from Early American Writers, 1607–1800, William B. Cairns observed, “Teachers of American literary history are coming pretty generally to recognize that some knowledge of the temper and the manner of Colonial and Revolutionary writers is necessary to the full understanding of their successors” (Cairns 1909 , v). This anthology begins with five selections from Captain John Smith, followed by a description of a storm and a shipwreck by William Strachey, included because of its supposed influence on The Tempest. The next several selections come from New England. In fact, the collection as a whole is decidedly biased toward New England. One selection from early Maryland literature, Ebenezer Cook's The Sotweed Factor, is included because, in Cairns's words, it forms “one of the more curious bits of early Americana” (Cairns 1909 , 252).

Hildegarde Hawthorne (Julian's daughter) reviewed the work and noticed the New England slant. Though she generally enjoyed it, she disagreed with what Cairns said in his preface. In fact, she saw no “link between this beginning and the immense superstructure of our present output.” In contrast to the numerous Puritan selections, she found the selections from the Revolutionary period quite refreshing: “The latter part of the book contains excerpts from the writings of Jefferson, Paine, and Hamilton, sonorous and immortal pages where a new spirit is already to be observed spreading pinions far beyond the confines of the Puritan prison” (Hawthorne 1909 , 475).

The Cambridge History of American Literature

William P. Trent was the prime mover behind The Cambridge History of American Literature, which he edited with John Erskine, Stuart P. Sherman, and Carl Van Doren. Together they, too, recognized that the modern emphasis on belles lettres was inappropriate to the study of early American literature. As one contemporary reviewer summarized their approach: “The editors believe that to write the intellectual history of America from the modern aesthetic standpoint would be to miss precisely what makes it significant among modern literatures. A people that devoted its main energies to exploration, settlement, labor for sustenance, religion, and statecraft had no time and no disposition to pursue art for art's sake” (Anon. 1917 , 646).

Book 1 of The Cambridge History of American Literature, “Colonial and Revolutionary Literature,” includes nine chapters. Book 2, “Early National Literature,” contains two chapters that treat other genres belonging to the previous period, specifically travel writing from the middle to late eighteenth century and early American drama. Each chapter is written by a different contributor. Two are devoted to major authors (Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards). Others are devoted to different types of writing such as poetry and political writing, and others to different types of writers: divines, historians, philosophers, travelers. One is devoted to print culture. This multifaceted approach makes good sense. The only problem, Walter Bronson ( 1918 ) noticed, was that each chapter took its subject back to its beginnings and thus hindered the historical continuity of the work as a whole.

The Cambridge History of American Literature was the first comprehensive, collaborative history of American literature. In Perry Miller's words, the work “was as much a battle-cry as a work of scholarship. It was a manifesto of the Americanists that American literature was no longer to be merely a subsection of the English, but was henceforth to be coequal in dignity and repute” (Miller 1948 , 4). Subsequent generations of literary scholars have produced their own comprehensive, collaborative histories: Robert Spiller's Literary History of the United States (1948), Emory Elliot's Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), and Sacvan Bercovitch's eight-volume Cambridge History of American Literature (1994–2005). All of these works have been devoted to American literature as a whole. There has never been a comprehensive, collaborative literary history of early American literature—until now.

A New England State of Mind

Without a collaborative history specifically devoted to early American literature, the field of study was left to individual scholars. Tyler's History of American Literature had been reprinted numerous times through the late nineteenth century, but it went out of print after 1909. The fullest work on the subject to emerge in the middle third of the twentieth century was Perry Miller's two-volume opus, The New England Mind (1939–1953). More a history of ideas than a literary history, Miller's work makes for difficult reading. To be sure, more people bought The New England Mind than actually read it. Regardless whether they read it, many people bought into Miller's argument. He struck a chord that reverberated across the nation. For decades, elementary school history lessons and annual Thanksgiving Day rituals had reminded Americans of the importance of the Puritans to the development of American culture. While publicly acknowledging their cultural significance, many were privately embarrassed by the Puritans' stern ways and narrow thinking. The great value of The New England Mind was to show that the Puritans were deep and serious thinkers, that they devoted enormous amounts of time pondering their condition, that they did not simply accept their prejudices but worked hard to reconcile reality and faith. Miller gave Americans of the mid–twentieth century great comfort: he let them know that they could be proud of their Puritan ancestors maugre their apparent narrow-mindedness.

There had been a New England bias to the study of early American literature ever since the days of Messrs. Knapp and Kettell; Miller's work reinforced the New England bias all the more. Though important works devoted to the intellectual, literary, and cultural history of the South also appeared in the middle third of the twentieth century—W. J. Cash's The Mind of the South (1941), Jay Hubbell's The South in American Literature, 1607–1900 (1954), and much of Richard Beale Davis's impressive body of work—none captured the popular mind-set the way The New England Mind did. Furthermore, none really changed the general way early American literature was taught.

When Davis's three-volume opus, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763, appeared in 1978, the Miller-inspired New England bias was so fully ingrained in the study of early American literature that it seemed impossible to change. Writing this same year, James M. Cox observed, “The Puritan ascension could be attributed to three causes: Harvard, Yale, and Perry Miller” (Cox 1978 , 635). Professor Cox was being facetious, but he is not far wrong. The appearance of the second volume of The New England Mind in 1953 coincided with the rise of the anthology as the dominant pedagogical tool for teaching American literature. The anthologies further institutionalized the New England bias. As recently as 1989, the third edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature titled its first section, “Early American Literature, 1620–1820.” In other words, the editors dated the start of the period from the arrival of the Puritans in New England, not from the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. Eleven of the first twelve authors represented in this edition of the Norton Anthology are from New England.

Expanding the Canon

In the history of literary scholarship, certain times and places form wellsprings to nourish and accelerate the development of the field of study. In the history of Melville scholarship, for example, the seminars conducted by Stanley T. Williams at Yale in the 1940s were a watershed. Many prominent Melville scholars of the following generation took Williams's seminar, wrote their doctoral dissertations under him, and went on to publish important Melville editions and critical studies. When it comes to the study of early American literature, the same can be said of the seminars conducted by J. A. Leo Lemay at the University of Delaware in the late twentieth century.

Following the lead of Richard Beale Davis, much of Lemay's own scholarship has involved expanding the canon of early American writings to include works from the colonial South. Upon its publication in 1972, Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland broadened the canon of early American literature to include many delightful yet little known authors. Lemay's Robert Bolling Woos Anne Miller: Love and Courtship in Colonial Virginia, 1760, and his separate publication of “Neanthe” established Robert Bolling as an important early American author. And Lemay's Calendar of American Poetry in the Colonial Newspapers and Magazines (1972) forms a useful research tool that anyone studying the period can use to broaden the canon of early American verse on their own. As significant as they are, Lemay's writings may not be his greatest contribution to the study of early American literature. The classes he has taught—Colonial American Literature, Southern Colonial Literature, Complicity in American Literature—may ultimately prove to be his greatest legacy to the field.

In Colonial American Literature, for example, Professor Lemay's instructions the first week of the semester were intimidating in their simplicity: come back next week with an original essay on any work of early American literature. He did provide his students with a list of suggested topics—a single-spaced, ten-page list—but otherwise he left it up to them to choose which authors and what works to study. Suddenly, early American literature no longer meant William Bradford, Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop; it also involved Robert Beverley, William Byrd, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, and Richard Lewis. No longer was early American literature just Puritan histories and sermons; it now included promotion literature, picaresque travel narratives, and bawdy Hudibrastic verse.

Carla Mulford, one of Lemay's students, became a founding editor of The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990). Published by D. C. Heath ninety-nine years after the firm had published the Hawthorne and Lemmon textbook, this anthology begins with traditional Native American stories, includes excerpts of numerous European voyages from Christopher Columbus through Samuel de Champlain, presents a liberal sampling of literature from the English colonies on the mainland, and includes a selection entitled “Emerging Voices of a National Literature: African, Native American, Spanish, Mexican.” No longer can early American literature be called protoplasm, but the Heath Anthology still makes the field seem somewhat inchoate. Suddenly, inclusivity had become more valuable criterion than literary quality. Diversity had become more valuable than continuity.

In the decade and a half since the first edition of the Heath Anthology appeared, the canon of early American literature has continued to expand. Essentially, two new approaches to the field have emerged. Whereas early American literature had been defined in the past in terms of language and geography, now it is being defined in terms of language or geography. Some prefer to take a hemispherical approach and look at early American literature as involving all literature written in the Americas during colonial times in any language. Others take a linguistic approach and see early American literature as literature in English about America. This approach, which encompasses North America, Great Britain, and the West Indies, can be called the transatlantic approach.

Though well intended, both the hemispherical approach and the transatlantic approach ignore a central fact about American culture that Tyler and the Duyckincks understood intuitively. Both approaches ignore how important the American soil has been to the development of American literature. New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South all shared a similar geography. Settled along the East Coast, the colonies were separated from the rest of the continent by the Appalachians. Beyond that was a vast and sparsely populated land that stretched westward for thousands of miles. This unique geographic situation contributed immeasurably to make American literature what it would become. “Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,” Wallace Stevens wrote in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” Before this long poem is through, its speaker revises the phrase to “Nota: his soil is man's intelligence.” Either way, Stevens identified an inextricable link between the land and the intellectual activity that occurs there, a link that is essential for understanding early American literature.

The Structure of This Volume

The canon of early American literature has expanded so rapidly in recent decades that advances in the field made twenty or thirty years ago have been forgotten in the face of more recent discoveries. In other words, the South is being neglected yet again. Ignored in favor of early New England literature through much of the twentieth century, the literature of the colonial South is now ignored in favor of Spanish voyages, Native American legends, and the poetry of the West Indies. While taking advantage of efforts to expand the canon of early American literature, The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature seeks to consolidate recent gains and impose some order on the field of study. While acknowledging the importance of the hemispherical and transatlantic approaches as important contexts for understanding colonial America, the Oxford Handbook sees early American literature as something that can be defined in terms of both language and geography. As defined here, early American literature is literature written in English in the region contemporary writers referred to as the “colonies of the main,” that is, the British colonies on the American mainland and, after 1776, in the United States. The present work takes the story of early American literature through the period of the Revolutionary War to the mid-1790s. An Oxford Handbook devoted to the next period of study will begin with Charles Brockden Brown.

The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature is subdivided into seven parts, each part containing from three to five chapters. Five chapters are devoted to major authors: Crèvecoeur, Edwards, Franklin, Hamilton, and Smith. Other chapters are devoted to different literary genres: autobiography, captivity narratives, diaries, novels, plays, political writings, promotion literature, and slave narratives. Some genres receive more than one chapter. Travel writing receives two, one on early voyages and another on picaresque travel narratives. Natural history is treated in a chapter devoted to scientific discourse, as well as in another chapter that examines two of the masterworks of early American literature, Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and William Bartram's Travels. History writing receives two chapters, and poetry receives three. Part 4 contains three chapters treating different aspects of print culture in early America. And one chapter takes Native American voices as its subject.

The contributors to this volume take advantage of many emerging approaches to literature. Both Melissa Homestead and David Carlson display the usefulness of understanding the transatlantic contexts. In her study, Homestead, for example, shows that the early American novel evolved within the cultural dynamic of ocean crossing. Recent developments in the field of cultural studies are also useful to the study of literature, as several of the contributors demonstrate. The history of the book has become a lively field of study in its own right. The section devoted to contexts of reading makes an effort to integrate the history of the book within the study of literature, but other chapters incorporate advances made by those who study the history of the book, including the profound importance of understanding the interrelationship between manuscript and print culture. Performance studies is another growing field with vast implications for literary study. In his study of Augustan American poetry, Chris Beyers, for example, suggests that the composition of a poem functions as a cultural performance. Intended to explore many different aspects of early American literature, the chapters that follow are arranged in a rough chronological order and, therefore, form, a literary history, the fullest history of early American literature since the days of Moses Coit Tyler. The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature is not just a history of the subject; it is also a celebration of American culture.

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Poe, Edgar Allan. 1842 . Review of Roswell Park, Pantology; or A Systematic Survey of Human Knowledge . Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 20: 191.

———. 1845 . Critical Notices.   Broadway Journal 2 (September 20): 167–168.

———. 1984 . Essays and Reviews, edited by G. R. Thompson. New York: Library of America.

Trent, William P., and Benjamin W. Wells, ed. 1901 . Colonial Prose and Poetry. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. (The Rachael Childrey-James Rupp-Kevin Hayes copy.)

Tyler, Moses Coit. 1878 . A History of American Literature. 2 vols. New York: Putnam's Sons.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. 1986 . American Literature and the Academy: The Roots, Growth, and Maturity of a Profession. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Early American Literature

Spotlighting the importance of early american literature since 1965..

Founded in 1965, Early American Literature is the official journal of both the Society of Early Americanists and the MLA’s Forum on Early American Literature. EAL ’s province is American literature through the early national period (about 1830.) Along with the standard writings in English from British America and the US, EAL invites work on Native American traditional expressions, and also the colonial literature of the Ibero-American, American Francophone, Dutch, and German American populations present at America’s conception as a nation.

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — American Literature — Tracing the Evolution of Early American Literature: Historical Survey


Tracing The Evolution of Early American Literature: Historical Survey

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early american literature essay topics

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American Literatures Prior to 1865

early american literature essay topics

Scott D. Peterson, St. Louis, MS

Copyright Year: 2022

Publisher: University of Missouri - St. Louis

Language: English

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Learn more about reviews.

Reviewed by Susan McKinnis, Instructor, Allen Community College on 9/30/22

The book includes major authors of the period. Although it is not as comprehensive as a Norton anthology, the selections offered are certainly adequate for an introductory survey class; the section on the Native American experience appears... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 3 see less

The book includes major authors of the period. Although it is not as comprehensive as a Norton anthology, the selections offered are certainly adequate for an introductory survey class; the section on the Native American experience appears especially solid. What may not be adequate, however, is the fact that spelling has not been regularized and explanatory footnotes are almost non-existent. There is no glossary or index, and archaic words are not glossed within selections.

Content Accuracy rating: 3

The introductions would benefit from fact-checking. Examples: Many Poe scholars now consider the circumstances leading to his death an unexplained mystery rather than a likely "lost weekend." Even more significant is the controversy over whether Olaudah Equiano actually wrote about his own childhood in the early part of his biography; in the early 2000s, information came to light indicating he was born in North America rather than West Africa, and this issue has not yet been settled.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 4

It would be fairly easy to revise the introductions or swap works out of or into the existing four sections.

Clarity rating: 2

The introductions are very accessible, but, in the older selections, the spelling is not regularized. In most elections, obscure or archaic language literary allusions, and historical references remain unexplained.

Consistency rating: 4

The text is consistent in the lack of explanatory notes, glossed language, and regularized spelling in the older selections.

Modularity rating: 5

Since the text is an anthology, the reading selections are easily segmented.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5

The selections are arranged chronologically and divided into 4 major sections. This choice works well.

Interface rating: 4

I saw no interface issues, only minor type face inconsistencies between some selections.

Grammatical Errors rating: 4

The introductions were clearly written and, as I spot-checked them, I saw no obvious errors. Some of the prose might benefit from streamlining or revision, but it was not incorrect.

Cultural Relevance rating: 5

The text is appropriately inclusive.

The text would be more useful and user friendly if it included an index and explanatory notes. If the target student audience is undergraduate English majors or minors, regularized spellings and glosses of archaic words are needed. If the target reader is a graduate student or Early American Lit scholar, regularized spellings wouldn't be necessary; however, word glosses and explanatory notes might still be helpful.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Unit I. Colonial Literature- Puritan Beginnings - Smith, Bradford, & Morton
  • Unit II. Colonial Literature - Puritan Beginnings - Winthrop, Bradstreet, & Sewall
  • Unit III. Colonial Literature- Puritan Beginnings - Mather, Williams, & Rowlandson
  • Unit IV. Colonial Literature - Of the Revolution - Franklin, Crevecoeur, Paine
  • Unit V. Colonial Literature - Jefferson & the Federalist Paper
  • Unit VI. Colonial Literature - John & Abigail Adams- John Adams & Thomas Jefferson
  • Unit VII. Colonial Literature - Wheatley, Pontiac, & Occom
  • Unit VIII. Literature of Native American Perspectives and Discovery - Seneca & Iroquois
  • Unit IX. Literature of Native American Perspectives and Discovery - Pima, Cherokee, Penobscot, & Passamquoddy
  • Unit X. Literature of Native American Perspectives and Discovery - Peyote Cult & Origin of Disease and Medicine
  • Unit XI. Literature of Native American Perspectives and Discovery - De Vaca & The Pueblo Revolt of 1680
  • Unit XII. Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform - Garrison & Grimke
  • Unit XIII. Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform - Whittier & Child
  • Unit XIV. Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform - Stanton & Fern
  • Unit XV. Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform -Davis & Douglass
  • Unit XVI. Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform -Equiano, Truth & Stowe
  • Unit XVII. Literature of the New Nation - Irving & Cooper
  • Unit XVIII. Literature of the New Nation -Emerson o& Thoreau
  • Unit XX. Literature of the New Nation - Hawthorne- Blithedale Romance
  • Unit XXI. Literature of the New Nation - Melville
  • Unit XXII. Literature of the New Nation - Melville - "Benito Cereno" Part II
  • Unit XXIII. Literature of the New Nation - Poe
  • Unit XXIV. Literature of the New Nation - Poe (Continued)

Ancillary Material

About the book.

This work was created as part of the University Libraries’ Open Educational Resources Initiative at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

A web version of this text can be found at .

This anthology of American Literatures Prior to 1865, is organized chronologically into four units, focusing on Colonial Literature, Literature of Native American Perspectives and Discovery, Literature of Nineteenth Century Reform, and Literature of the New Nation. It includes introductions to the many authors included to enhance the reader's contextual understanding of the chosen texts. This anthology is essential reading for any student or scholar of Early American literature.

About the Contributors

Scott D. Peterson,  University of Missouri-St. Louis

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Early American Literature

Early American Literature examines the cultures and literatures of the Americas from the colonial period through the early national period of the United States (ca. 1820).  Beginning with Native American expressions and oral traditions, it ranges widely across the Americas, from Francophone writings in the north to Ibero-American literature in the south.  Interdisciplinary in its origins, early American literature fosters close ties with other departments, including history, religious studies, and romance languages, in order to find the best methodological approaches for grappling with writings that often sit uneasily in any particular genre.  The particular strengths at Washington University lie in African American literary traditions, Puritanism, transatlantic sentimentalism, and the role of religion in shaping literature and culture.

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Early American Colonial Period Essay Topics

The early American Colonial era encompasses the period between the establishment of the first English colony in North America in 1607 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The European settlers were beginning a completely new life, while the lives of the indigenous Americans would be changed forever. This was therefore a rich period of history with plenty of scope for different types of essay topics.

By moving to a new land, the settlers had to adjust to a completely different topography, while also affecting it by planting their new settlements. Essay titles can explore these issues by focusing on the geographical conditions of the settlements and how they affected the settlers. The settlements' effect on the geographical and environmental conditions the indigenous peoples had been used to could also be an essay topic.

The economic policies pursued by the British regime that ruled Colonial America affected the development of the settlements and the economy of the North American continent in general. Essay topics around this may include an examination of the pre-1763 British mercantilist policy or a comparison between the continent's economic position at the start of the early Colonial period and toward the end.

The social dynamics of this era are fascinating and therefore produce a number of potential essay topics. Essay titles could focus on the role of different social classes in founding the settlements, the emergence of new classes as time went on, the social position of indigenous Americans, evolving definitions of social status and opportunities for social mobility. Essays may also explore subsets of classes, such as intellectuals, professionals and laborers.

Diplomacy, political policy and military conflict all played their part in defining a new North America. Potential essay topics regarding the period's politics are the colonial wars fought between the French and British, the reasons behind England's ultimate winning of control over North America, the political measures the British took in order to rule the continent effectively and comparisons between the political views of the settlers and indigenous peoples, or between the views of different settlements and regions.

Many religious settlers saw North America as a haven from persecution and other problems they encountered in the places of their birth. Upon moving to the continent, they began to shape its development in ways that were motivated by their beliefs. Essays on this might discuss the New England Puritans' attempts to create a model society, the effect of religious movements on the social landscape and the effect of the Enlightenment on the popularity and intensity of religious belief.

  • Dear America: 1607-1776 The Colonial Period
  • The Declaration of Independence

Based in London, Autumn St. John has been writing career- and business-related articles since 2007. Her work has appeared in the "Guardian" and "Changing Careers" magazine. St. John holds a Master of Arts in Russian and East European literature and culture from University College London, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in modern history from the University of Oxford.

Free American Literature Essay Examples & Topics

It is tough to come up with a definition of what American literature is. It is a product of the cultural diversity of people who live and write in the United States. However, not every literary work produced in the US can be included in this list.

Of course, American literature is predominantly in English. One of the early 21st century developments is an increase in authors who write in their language. However, they still can be considered American. As a result, African American, Asian American, and other ethnic branches of literature emerged.

Assigned to write an essay about American literature? In this article, our experts tried to simplify the task for you. We’ve described the periods of the United States literary tradition so you can navigate freely. Also, check a list of topics for your American literature essay. Finally, see some examples of the works written by other students.

The Many Periods of American Literature

Literature reflects society. It magnifies all the good and bad values, mirroring the life of the country and its development. In this section, we’ve described the main periods in US history. It will help you realize what to discuss in your essay on American literature.

  • The Colonial and The Early National Period (1607-1830)

The first European settlers started describing their experiences in the 1600s. The narration was practical, direct, and copied the British literary style. The earliest American literary works were mainly nonfictional. The first president of the Jamestown Colony wrote about his personal experiences and published them from 1608 till 1624. Such prominent writers as Nathaniel Ward and John Winthrop elaborated on the topic of religion. African American tradition started during that period, too. For instance, Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano created the first slave narratives.

  • The Period of American Renaissance (1830-1870)

Romanticism values a person’s emotions over reason. American writers embraced this movement at the beginning of the 19th century. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the vivid examples of Romantic writers. In New England, several thinkers emerged too after 1830. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote essays, while Henry Thoreau wrote a story of his life. Poets such as Herman Melville and Walt Whitman began publishing their works at that time too.

  • The Realistic and Naturalist Period (1870-1914)

The Civil War fueled the realistic period in American literature. Mark Twain was one of the most notable writers of that era. In his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , he depicted the actual Americans.

Naturalism is another literary movement that was prevalent at that time. For example, Theodore Dreiser embraced it. His novel Sister Carrie is an essential American naturalist novel.

  • The American Modernist Period (1914-1939)

The modernist period was one of the most fruitful in American history. It got intensified after the advancement in science and technology. The outcomes of WWI and the Great Depression caused a lot of contradiction. Thus, it found its way into art and literature. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, and many more writers became dominant voices .

  • The Contemporary Period (1939-Present)

The period has started after World War II. American literature during that time became more inclusive and had a variety of voices. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison tell stories of race and sexuality. American contemporary novels had many forms, like postmodern and feminist ones.

21 Amazing Topics on American Literature

You may wonder what to write in your American literature essay. The abundance of writers and literary works make it difficult to choose. That’s why we combined several ideas. We hope you’ll find them useful in identifying the topic for your work. If not, you can let our title generator create a few original ideas on the subject.

But first, check these ideas for your essay on American literature:

  • Harriet Beecher’s art of persuasion as the author in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  • Naturalism and regionalism in American literary tradition.
  • The influence of Phillis Wheatley on American Literature.
  • What is American literature? What are its characteristics?
  • The themes of early American literature.
  • The importance of magical realism in American literature.
  • Oral storytelling techniques in Native American literature.
  • The influence of naturalism on American writers.
  • Early American literature and the power of religious ideologies.
  • The idea of masculinity in the colonial period in American literature.
  • The black experience manifested through African American poetry.
  • Historical factors that influenced the Romantic period of American literature.
  • How did Gothic literature in American tradition start?
  • Levels of literacy in African-American literature.
  • Native American mythology in American literature.
  • The issues of divorce and love in Latin American literature.
  • The evolution of the role of women in American literature.
  • The theme of perseverance in African American literature.
  • The topic of slavery in early American literature.
  • The significance of the American Renaissance for American literature.
  • The role of James Fennimore Cooper in enhancing nationalism.

Thank you for your attention! American literature is indeed a vast subject. We hope that this article will help you focus on a good idea. If you are still unsure what topic to choose, check our American literature essay samples below. You can look through them faster if you use our summarizer .

2042 Best Essay Examples on American Literature

The story of an hour critical analysis essay.

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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: Elements of the Story

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Theme and Characters of Twain’s “Advice to Youth”

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“Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

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George Orwell’s 1984: Winston and Julia’s Relationship Essay

The yellow wallpaper.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Literary Analysis

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Stanley and Blanche Relationship in A Streetcar Named Desire

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Hemingway’s Code Hero in The Old Man and the Sea. Traits & Definition

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O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Foreshadowing Analysis

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The Short Story “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin

Critical analysis of the metamorphosis by franz kafka.

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Young Goodman Brown Setting Analysis, Symbolism, & Characters

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“Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver Review

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Silver & Gold: Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby Reflection Paper

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Nick as the narrator in the great gatsby.

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Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” Short Story: Literary Analysis

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“Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou

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Capitol and District 12 in “The Hunger Games” by Collins

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Lady Lazarus Poem by Sylvia Plath’s

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“I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson

Heart of darkness – analysis of marlow’s lie.

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The character of kid in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

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Pecos Bill: Summary and Analysis of the Story

Mark twain: the story of the “good little boy” and “bad little boy”, “o captain my captain” by walt whitman: literary devices, “cross” by langston hughes: metaphor in the poem, sylvia plath’s “daddy”.

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Character Analysis of Connie in “Where are you going, Where have you been?”

Should huck finn be banned in schools huckleberry finn should not be banned essay.

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Summary of “The Shunammite” Short Story by Ines Arredondo

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“Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan

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“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“neighbors” by raymond carver: an analysis, “the black cat” by edgar allan poe.

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A Clean and Well-Lighted Place

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Exploring Mythology of Fuku and Zafa in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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“The Caretaker” by Anthony Doerr

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Are you looking for an engaging literary research paper topic? Whether you're writing a college-level essay or a master's thesis, the right literature research paper topics can make all the difference. They range from exploring particular genres or authors to examining the use of language in literary works. By researching these topics, you will gain a greater understanding of the ideas, improve your critical thinking skills, and learn to appreciate the nuances. This article will explore such literature topics for research and open up endless possibilities for analysis and interpretation, ranging from classic to modern-day texts. Are you ready to choose a trending topic and write a paper that will win your professor’s heart? 

What Are Literary Research Paper Topics?

Literary research paper topics focus on a particular literary work, such as a book, poem, novel, play, or story. They provide a great starting point for researching the specific aspect you're planning to explore for a better perception of the idea and help to eliminate any artificial facet. Literary research topics may analyze a single text, compare different writings by the same author, or contrast different authors' styles.  Common literature topics for research papers comprise symbolism, characterization, themes, plot structure, historical context, point-of-view analysis, biographical contexts, and intertextual connections. These research paper topics may also focus on how an author has been interpreted or evaluated over time, analyzing the critical reception of their works and examining any changes within literary canonization. Additionally, these topics can explore how literary works intersect with other disciplines, such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, or economics.

Characteristics of Good Literature Research Paper Topics

Literary research paper topics are usually considered good when they are:

  • Relevant They should be engaging, thought-provoking, and appropriate to the academic work.
  • Specific Similarly, good literature research topics must have a narrow focus and not be overly broad.
  • Interesting They should pique your interest and encourage you to explore and aspire to know more about the literary work.
  • Challenging Deep analysis, thoughtful reflection, and creative thinking are also vital.
  • Unique They should be memorable and offer new insights into academic work.

With these important characteristics of literary topics for research papers in mind, you're ready to start writing!

How to Choose a Literature Research Paper Topic?

Choosing a literature research paper topic can be daunting, but with careful thought and planning, you're sure to find the perfect one. In order to do this, you need to complete the following:

  • Brainstorm: First, start by brainstorming topics that interest you. Think about the works you've been studying, authors and genres you enjoy reading, and themes that have resonated with you.
  • Narrow it down: Once you've identified a few research topics that intrigue you, narrow them down to one that is most relevant and specific.
  • Research: Explore if it is relevant. This will guarantee that you have enough material to work with.
  • Refine: Once you have researched, refine your topic to ensure it is specific and engaging. Consider the most interesting aspects and how they can be explored further.
  • Choose: Finally, choose the title that best reflects your interests and passions for an enjoyable research experience!

With these tips, you can find the perfect literary research paper topic! Don’t have time for reading piles of books? Get professional help with research paper writing from StudyCrumb and have your study completed by a real pro.

List of Literature Research Paper Topics

A list of literature topics for research offers a wide range of literary-related issues that can be explored and studied for your project. It includes ideas that could spark your creativity and help you choose the best title. Whether you're interested in exploring the works of Shakespeare or examining modern literature, this list of literary research paper topics has something for everyone!

  • Use of symbolism in romantic poetry.
  • Importance of technology within cyberpunk genres.
  • Impact of fantasy on contemporary culture.
  • Representation of male or female authors as represented by classic literary works.
  • Postmodernist views of time and space in literature.
  • Representation of race and ethnicity within contemporary fiction.
  • Representation of LGBTQ characters in literary works.
  • The role of mythology during the era of ancient works.
  • Social media impact on modern texts.
  • Classic and contemporary literary criticism.

Interesting Literary Research Paper Topics

If you are interested in classic books or modern trends, these ideas can be a fascinating starting point for your project. They include theories, criticism, comparison, and specific authors or genres. Besides providing an analysis of the work, a literary research paper topic could also comprise examining different themes. Explore the following interesting literature topics for your project:

  • Literary influences of Jane Austen's works.
  • Symbolism as represented by gothic texts.
  • Relevance of classic mythology within contemporary fiction.
  • The role of magic or fantasy in children's literature.
  • The role of women in Victorian literature.
  • Representation of race and ethnicity in early 20th-century literature.
  • Themes of love and loss in romantic poetry.
  • The use of horror genres in contemporary fiction.
  • Postcolonialism's impact on literary works.
  • Nature in 19th-century literature .
  • Representation of LGBTQ characters as represented by contemporary fiction.
  • Technology's impact on modern literary works.
  • Classic and contemporary interpretations of gothic texts.
  • The role of magic and fantasy in modern literary works.
  • Representation of death and loss in 20th-century works.

Great Literature Research Paper Topics

A list of great literature research topics provides a variety of ideas related to literary works. These research topics in literature can offer an exciting starting point for your English paper:

  • Rebellion themes in Shakespeare's tragedies.
  • Class and economic status in Victorian texts.
  • Symbolism in romantic poetry.
  • Impact of British imperialism on literary fiction worldwide.
  • Gender and sexuality representation in early 20th-century writings.
  • Postcolonialism in 19th-century fiction.
  • The literary influence of WWII on modern writings.
  • Vampires' role in gothic literary texts.
  • Use of fantasy in childhood writings.
  • Technology's impact on contemporary literary works.
  • Race and ethnicity as represented by postmodern fiction.
  • Religion in romantic poetry.
  • Themes of love and loss in 20th-century texts.
  • Horror genres in literary fiction.
  • Postmodernism's impact on contemporary literary works.

Unique Literature Research Paper Topics

Unique literature topics for research papers can help students explore new concepts and gain a deeper understanding of their subject. Below are rare literature paper topics for you to review:

  • The role of jealousy in 17th-century literary works.
  • Gender identity as represented by reformist fiction.
  • Mythological figures as portrayed by Greek and Roman poetry.
  • The relationship between gender and power in Shakespeare's plays.
  • Themes of isolation in 20th-century British poetry.
  • Metaphors in the works of Gabriel García Márquez .
  • Themes of rebellion and revolution in African American literary texts.
  • The role of women in medieval romance literature.
  • Poverty representation in Victorian novels.
  • Themes of oppression and freedom in colonial Latin American texts.
  • Use of metaphor and allegory in Dante's divine comedy.
  • Influence of industrialization on 19th-century fiction.
  • Dystopian settings within modern literature.
  • Religion in contemporary fiction.

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Controversial Literary Research Paper Topics

Controversial literary research topics can provide students with an opportunity to explore complex and sometimes contentious issues related to literary texts. Find below a controversial literary research paper topic for your dream English project!

  • Racial stereotypes during 19th-century English literature.
  • Themes of sexuality and desire in ancient Greek poetry.
  • The relationship between political power and language in Shakespeare's plays.
  • Conflict representation during 20th-century English fiction.
  • English role in colonial Indian literature.
  • Gender and racial representations within African American autobiographies.
  • Themes of justice and control in Victorian English novels.
  • Themes of oppression and resistance in feminist texts.
  • The role of English in modern Japanese fiction.
  • Themes of identity and belonging in postcolonial Indian literature.
  • Censorship, free speech, and social responsibility in 19th-century English novels.
  • Politics and power representations in Latin American poetry.
  • Gender, race, and class representations in English renaissance drama.
  • English as a tool for political ideology within the works of George Orwell.
  • Language used to defy authority during modern fiction writing.

Fresh Literature Research Paper Ideas

Coming up with fresh ideas for literature research topics can be daunting. Students may want to look at the works they have studied or venture outside the traditional reading list and explore different authors and genres. Some literature research paper ideas comprise studying how certain authors influenced the literary movement, analyzing how language has been used throughout history, or examining gender, race, and class representations from a literary text. Here is a perfect list of fresh ideas!

  • Aesthetics as presented by postmodern fiction.
  • The theme of loss as portrayed by African authors .
  • Use of language throughout history.
  • Identity and belonging representation in contemporary young adult fiction.
  • The intersection between art and literature in modern poetry.
  • Themes of authority, rebellion, and revolution in medieval epic poetry.
  • Role of fantasy in horror fiction.
  • Gender, race, and class representations within British romanticism.
  • American literary realism and naturalism.
  • Influence of symbolism on French modernist poetry.
  • Construction of memory within African American autobiographies.
  • Representation of narrative time in Latin American fiction.
  • Social injustice theme during early 20th-century American drama.
  • The relationship between social identity and language during postcolonial fiction.
  • Values and beliefs representations as presented by ancient Greek mythology.

Literature Research Paper Topics for Students

For students looking for research topics in literature for study, there is a wide variety of options available. Depending on the level and course, they might focus on analyzing particular authors, literary movements, or genres, exploring the use of language throughout history, or examining representations of gender, race, and class in books. You also need to study literary devices and their effects on readers when exploring literary topics for a research paper . Below are examples of literature topics for different students:

Literature Research Paper Topics for High School

These are literature topics to research, specifically tailored to high school students. They involve exploring the influence of literary work on culture, analyzing a single author's literary movement or genre, or investigating language use throughout history. This list of research topics in literature for high school provides an original starting point for your literary project!

  • Racism as presented during early 20th-century works.
  • Social criticism within contemporary dystopian young adult fiction.
  • Folklore's impact on contemporary poetry.
  • Representation of nature in modern literature.
  • Spirituality as portrayed by reformist literature.
  • Social class representation within postmodern novels.
  • The theme of environment in romantic works.
  • Colonialism representation during postcolonial works.
  • Effects of pop culture on modern fiction.
  • Mental illness representation during 19th-century poetry.
  • The role of music and art in early 20th-century literary texts.
  • Literature's influence on identity building in minority cultures.
  • Family dynamics in postmodern poetry.
  • Family and community representations during gothic fiction.
  • Literature as a tool for social change.

Literature Research Paper Topics for College Students

These titles entail more serious and in-depth scrutiny than a high school literary paper. A college-level literary research paper topic provides students with a broader range of analysis. It encompasses looking at literature as a form of political commentary to get its relationship with other art forms. Below are literature research paper topics for college students:

  • Identity construction during postmodern poetry.
  • Alienation themes within modern fiction.
  • Gender role representations in Shakespearean tragedies.
  • The relationship between narrative and memory within Holocaust literature.
  • Nature's role in contemporary American fiction.
  • Authority and subversion themes during the early 20th-century drama.
  • Race, class, and gender representation within African American autobiographies.
  • Social media influence the literary language.
  • The relationship between social identity and language in postcolonial fiction.
  • Values as presented by ancient Greek mythology .
  • Psychological distress during 20th-century war narratives.
  • Attitudes towards mental illness as portrayed by gothic texts.
  • The relationship between science and literary imagination.
  • Social hierarchy within Victorian novels.
  • Religion's role in southern American literature.

Literary Research Paper Topics by Categories

Research paper topics for literature by category offer an exclusive and stimulating perspective on literary analysis worldwide. They can be grouped into literary movements, authors, and genres, as well as topics related to language and history. If you are interested in European, American, and English literature topics, these ideas will help you find the perfect literary research paper topic for your project.

World Literature Research Paper Topics

Research paper topics for world literature allow students to explore literary works from any part of the world, including texts written in English, Spanish, and other languages. Below is a list that provides original world literature research topics for any project:

  • Impact of colonialism on native literary traditions.
  • Gender representation within French literature.
  • Religion's role within literary works from Latin America.
  • Symbolism in English poetry from the 19th century.
  • Themes of nationalism within modern Russian fiction.
  • Power and politics in Spanish plays.
  • Conflict as portrayed by African literature.
  • The role of folklore within Chinese fiction.
  • Themes of cultural identity in Japanese drama.
  • Family ties in Italian poetry.
  • Symbolism in Arabic literature.
  • Social class representation in Indian novels.
  • Impact of globalization on middle eastern fiction.
  • Human rights themes by contemporary Australian poets.
  • Western representations of other cultures in modern literature.

American Literature Research Paper Topics

In research paper topics for American literature, you examine the works of early American writers and poets, as well as those from later periods. Here is a list of American literature topics for your paper!

  • Attitudes towards race in early American novels.
  • Colonialism during 19th-century poetry.
  • Freedom and rebellion themes within revolutionary literature.
  • The emergence of gothic horror in American fiction.
  • Impact of transcendentalism on American writing.
  • Gender representation during pre-civil war literature .
  • Themes of morality in post-World War II American fiction.
  • Role of religion during 19th-century American novels.
  • Slavery and its abolition by American poets.
  • Social class representation during early American drama.
  • Themes of identity in postmodern American fiction.
  • Industrialization of 20th-century literature.
  • War and conflict representation by contemporary American playwrights.
  • Racism in 20th-century American novels.
  • Assimilation and immigration themes in post-World War II American literature.

British Literature Research Paper Topics

In British literature research topics, you explore works from early British writers to contemporary authors. Ideally, research topics for British literature should encompass works written by authors from all eras, including Medieval, Renaissance, and modern. Here is a list of English literature research paper topics for your perfect essay!

  • Gender representation during medieval English literature.
  • Colonialism's effects on British literary works during the 18th century.
  • Influence of British writers on modern literature.
  • The role of nature in 18th-century British novels.
  • Interpretations of classic British literary works.
  • Social class representations during 19th-century British fiction.
  • Themes of love and romance within Victorian literature.
  • Industrialization's impact on 20th-century British novels.
  • Patriotism and nationalism during post-World War II literary work.
  • Multiculturalism representations in postmodern British fiction.
  • Effects of censorship on British authors during the 20th century.
  • Mental health representation in modern British poetry.
  • Representation of historical events in British works throughout time.
  • Technological representations in 21st-century British Novels.
  • Intersectionality by contemporary British playwrights.

Did you know that you can generate a bunch of title ideas using our Research Paper Topic Generator ?

European Literary Research Paper Topics

European literature research paper topics offer an excellent opportunity to explore the works of European authors. They allow you to study and analyze the academic traditions and cultures of some of Europe's most influential writers. You can find such literary research paper topic ideas in the list below:

  • Representations of the European monarchy in classic novels.
  • Censorship effects on European authors during the 20th century.
  • Impact of World War II on European authors.
  • Gender representations within Victorian poetry.
  • Literary works from different countries and cultures in Europe.
  • Use of language, symbolism, and imagery to explore themes in European texts.
  • Themes of nature and environment within German short stories.
  • Technology representations in late Victorian poetry.
  • Popular culture's influence on European literary movements from the 20th century to modern times.
  • Impact of European literary works on people's perceptions of other cultures.
  • Use of supernatural elements within European gothic writings from the 18th to 19th centuries.
  • Identity representations in French social realism texts.
  • Technology's impact on contemporary European literary works.
  • Family and community representations during post-war theater.
  • Themes of justice and injustice within European dystopian texts.

Literature Research Paper Ideas by Periods

You may aspire to find literature topics for research papers from different historical periods. This involves studying literature from various cultures or eras, such as ancient, medieval, or modern ones. These ideas also cover the examination of themes and symbols used in writings and scrutinizing characters and their development through various works. Other topics include the exploration of texts from a political perspective in relation to their historical contexts. These ideas contain some literary research topics from various periods:

Ancient Literary Research Paper Topics

There are many exciting options to consider if you're looking for ancient literature research paper topics. They can be studied with regard to history, culture, art, and philosophy. To gain more insight, you could explore the works of Homer, Henry James, Virgil, and the Mahabharata, or old Egyptian writings, such as The Iliad and Odyssey . Below is a list of ancient literature topics for research you can choose from.

  • Gender representations in epic poetry.
  • Role of mythology and religion in ancient texts.
  • Influence of philosophy on ancient literature.
  • Power representations in Greek tragedy.
  • Heroism by early epic authors.
  • Love and marriage in ancient texts.
  • Ancient narratives of war and conflict.
  • Slavery representations in Roman poetry.
  • The role of music and art in classical literature.
  • Nature representations in ancient texts.
  • Politics' influence on Greek comedy.
  • Family and community representations in roman narratives.
  • Characters' representation in epic poetry.
  • The role of technology in early literary works.
  • Representations of the divine in ancient texts.
Read more: History Research Topics for Students 

Medieval Literature Research Paper Topics

The medieval literary study provides a unique opportunity to explore literature research topics of the Middle Ages. From Beowulf to The Canterbury Tales , these works offer insights into this era's cultural beliefs and values. Here are such literary topics for research papers to focus on:

  • Representations of medieval chivalry in literary works.
  • Religion's influence on medieval works.
  • Gender representation in medieval texts.
  • The role of magic in medieval narratives.
  • The impact of feudalism on medieval texts.
  • Honor and loyalty representations by chivalric texts.
  • The role of courtly love in medieval works.
  • Knights and warriors' representations in literary works.
  • Warfare representations in medieval texts.
  • The role of education and learning in medieval literature.

Renaissance Literary Research Paper Topics

The Renaissance literature research paper ideas explore works of literature during the Renaissance era, which spanned from the 14th to the 17th century. They focus on the themes, authors, and literature of this period to provide a better understanding of how literary works have evolved within this timeframe and their impact on our current literature. Some of the most influential figures who contributed immensely to writings during this era were William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. If you are interested in researching this period, you can consider a literature research paper topic from the list below:

  • Love and romance representations in Renaissance texts.
  • Science and technology in 16th-century literature.
  • Class and social status representations in Renaissance literary works.
  • Classical mythology in Renaissance poetry.
  • Representations of family and community in Renaissance narratives.
  • Effects of humanism on Renaissance literature in Europe.
  • Imagery role by William Shakespeare .
  • Representations of art, music, and theater in Renaissance texts.
  • Politics' role in 16th-century literary texts.
  • Nature representation by John Milton or Torquato Tasso.
  • Exploration influence on Renaissance narratives.
  • Influence of Renaissance literature on modern writing.
  • Women's representation in literary texts by Anne Bradstreet or Aphra Behn.
  • Magic and supernatural representations in literary works of Renaissance.
  • Humanism and individualism themes within Renaissance literature.

Romantic Literature Research Paper Ideas

Romantic literature emerged during the late 18th century and flourished throughout the early 19th century in Europe. It is characterized by its focus on emotion and depictions of nature. This movement had a lasting impact on literary works and has been highly influential. Research topics in literature can explore the writings of authors such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. Here are some ideas related to romanticism:

  • Nature representations in Romantic texts.
  • The role of emotion as depicted in 19th-century literature.
  • Influence of Romantic authors on modern literature and culture.
  • Women's representation in Romantic narratives.
  • Industrialization impact on 19th-century texts.
  • Influence of religion and superstition in early Romantic texts.
  • Use of technology to discuss themes in Romantic texts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
  • The role of education as portrayed by Romantic narratives.
  • Character analysis and plot structure in gothic fiction.
  • Nationalism and patriotism as represented by post-Napoleonic war poems.

Modernist Literary Research Paper Topics

Modern literature emerged during the early 20th century until the end of World War II. It is characterized by a rejection of traditional conventions and focused on experimentation with form. This movement had an unprecedented impact on literature research topics and is highly influential today. If you are looking for literary topics for research papers that focus on modernism, consider exploring the following:

  • Nature representations by modern texts.
  • Social inequality in 21st-century novels.
  • Modernism's influence on current literature and culture.
  • Climate change within contemporary fiction.
  • Impact of social injustice on 20th-century literary works.
  • Urbanization representations by modern literary texts.
  • Education's influence on modernist narratives.
  • Wealth and power in early modernist texts.
  • Themes of urban life by Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens.
  • Modernism's impact on classical literature.
  • Globalization themes within postmodern poetry.
  • Multiculturalism themes in contemporary literary works.
  • Mental health representations in modern British novels.
  • Global conflict representation in modern fiction.
  • The influence of psychoanalysis on modernist literature.

Current Literature Research Paper Ideas

Current literature paper topics can look at the latest trends. They include exploring contemporary works such as Harry Potter by J.K Rowling and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. These topics may also involve analyzing social media's effects on literary writings. If you are looking for current literary topics for a research paper, consider the following:

  • Technological impact on literary works in the 21st century.
  • Art, music, and theater in modern texts.
  • Impact of conflict on recent literary works.
  • Social injustice in 21st-century narratives.
  • Racism, ethnicity, and slavery in contemporary texts.
  • Wealth and power in recent literary works.
  • Globalization themes in postmodern poetry.
  • Urbanization in modern writings.
  • Immigration within postmodern British novels.

In case you need more paper topics, feel free to browse our blog. We have a wide arsenal of ideas starting from philosophy research paper topics to education research paper topics .  

Bottom Line on Literature Research Paper Topics

Literature topics for research can explore a wide range of themes and works. Whether you are looking for visionary ideas about poetry, fiction, or books from different eras, there is no shortage of literature paper topics to choose from. To narrow down your focus and find the best idea for your project, consider researching literary movements, reading widely, and thinking about the areas that interest you most.  Literature topics for research papers should be chosen based on students' interests and areas of expertise. By conducting in-depth research, you will gain a greater appreciation for literary work and its impact on society. With this article as a guide, you can take the time to find a topic that speaks to you and create an engaging research paper.


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50 American Literature Research Paper Topic Ideas

The most defining aspect of your American literature research paper is the topic. It determines the books you will read and the perspective you take in the discussion. The topic also invites readers or will repel them. The topic plays a huge role during grading. Above all, it will determine the perception with which readers approach your paper.

There are many research paper topics American literature you can consider in your writing. When asked to pick a topic for your paper, here are a few considerations to make.

  • Freshness – are you discussing the same old American literature research topics that your professor explored decades ago? No one will pick your paper from the shelves. Choose the most recent and forward-looking ideas. The oldest professor in your department will be looking for fresh ideas in your work. You would better provide that.
  • Unique – look for unique American literature research paper ideas to discuss in your paper. Avoid perspectives that every student would discuss in their paper. Choose a topic that immediately captures the attention of the vetting panel because it is original and unique.
  • Specific – what do you want to discuss about American literature? The area is so wide that it cannot fit into one research paper. Choose a specific idea that creates boundaries for your paper. The person reading the paper should have a clear idea of what to expect based on the topic.
  • Researchable – can you get reference materials for your literature research paper topic? Choose a strong and researchable topic, especially one that is relevant to the unit you are studying. It must be within the scope of American literature to make sense to a reader. Avoid shallow topics that deny you the opportunity to express your ideas. At the same time, the topic should not be too demanding that you fail to make a comprehensible argument.

Here are the best American literature topics to consider for your paper:

  • American dream in literature
  • Labor movement depiction in writing
  • Cross-generational American authors
  • Most influential American literature
  • American literature and social media
  • Contribution of American writers to the world
  • American literature and the Nobel price
  • Religion in the American literature
  • American book topics ideas across races
  • Racism depiction in American books
  • Politics and the growth of the American literary scene
  • The tradition of the theater and its influence on American literature
  • Modern American poets
  • Literature of the American Civil War
  • Depiction of the indigenous people in American literature
  • The language of American writing
  • The place of film in American writing
  • Authors who have influenced American writing
  • Sports and literature
  • The opera and literature
  • Immigrants writers
  • American wars and their influence on literature
  • Capitalism captured in American writing
  • Influence of foreign languages
  • Impact of the school system on American writing
  • The gender divide in literature
  • Mark Twain influence
  • Literature and age
  • Samuel Clemens
  • Technology and impact on literature
  • Literature out of quarantine
  • Gender-based violence in literature
  • LGBTQ in literature
  • Sign language and literature
  • Human rights
  • The international community in American Literature
  • American legends
  • Mythology in American writing
  • Fiction in American writing
  • WWI literature
  • Bibliographies and autobiographies
  • Literature and propaganda
  • Literature of the city
  • Feminism in writing
  • Social identity
  • Evolution of American literature
  • Interracial love
  • American performed literature
  • Liberty in American Novels
  • Black poets

There are many topics you can explore in your American literature research papers. Choose a topic that allows you to exercise your mind and deliver the most insightful discussion. You may also hire a professional writer to assist you with the paper.

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