The United States has such a large and varied literature that no generalizations could be made about it. Three characteristics seem to stand out.
First, American literature reflects beliefs and traditions that come from the nation's frontier days. The pioneer ideals of self-reliance and independence appear over and over again in American writings. Authors have great respect for the value and importance of the individual. They tend to reject authority and the equality of the people.
Second, American writers have always had a strong tendency to break with literary tradition and invent their own. Other countries absorb national literary traditions without giving much thought. But, in the United States, many authors have rejected the old in order to create something new.
Third, a lively streak of humor runs through American literature from earliest times to present. In many cases, a dash of salt humor saves a serious theme from becoming too sentimental.
American humor tends to be exaggerated rather than subtle. It reflects the people's ability to laugh at themselves during the most difficult times.
Early American Literature
American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics of Indian cultures. There was no written literature among the more than 500 different Indian languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, Native American oral literature is quite diverse.
Tribes maintained their own religions -- worshipping gods, animals, plants, or sacred persons. Systems of government ranged from democracies to councils of elders to theocracies. These tribal variations enter into the oral literature as well.
Indian stories, for example, glow with reverence for nature as a spiritual as well as physical mother. Nature is alive and endowed with spiritual forces; main characters may be animals or plants, often...