Southern United States literature is defined as American literature produced about the South or by writers from the region. Literature published about the American South began during the colonial era and flourished greatly during and after the United States' time of slavery. After slavery, however, economic conditions in the South declined drastically, resulting in fewer opportunities for authors.
Writers from the South have had a significant impact on world literature. Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, John Grisham, Anne Tyler, J. D. Salinger, and Harper Lee are among the most famous current or past writers from the region. The New South movement in the 19th century and the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th both had an impact on southern writing. Novelists such as Charles Brockden Brown, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman were influenced by events occurring in the South. Many other important writers have been born in or lived primarily in the South, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Margaret Mitchell, Carson McCullers, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison.
Literary critics divide American literature into four periods based on major events that occurred within the country: pre-Columbian, colonial, post-revolutionary, and industrialization/urbanization. Southern literature is included in this category because most of it was written before the civil war.
American literature is defined as literature created or published in the United States of America and its predecessor colonies (for specific discussions of poetry and theater, see Poetry of the United States and Theater in the United States). Writing in 1807, Alexander Wilson noted that "our English poets are indeed the greatest names in our literature," but he also said that "Americans have been able to produce some very respectable writers in various departments."
Before the 20th century, Americans tended to identify their own culture with that of Britain. Thomas Jefferson was among those who identified Shakespeare with England and claimed him as an American author. The first known case of a US author being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature occurred in 1953 when judge Arne Jacobsen announced that Herman Melville was awarded the prize for his role in creating a new genre, the novel.
In 1971, American literature was given its own department at Columbia University, New York. This development signaled the country's recognition of its own literary heritage and ability.
Today, American literature is one of the most widely studied subjects in universities all over the world. Many consider John Milton and Henry David Thoreau to be two of the founders of modern literature with William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Jonathan Swift also being recognized as important figures in the history of the art form.
During the 1600s, the majority of American literature was practical nonfiction produced by British settlers who settled the territories that would become the United States. These chronicles, which were written between 1608 and 1624, are among the first works of American literature. Many more poems were written by colonists during this time, but most were published in London or Dublin and rarely seen by Americans today.
Colonists wrote about their experiences living in America with all its challenges--including the threat of attack from indigenous people and animals, as well as competition from other colonists for land and resources. The narratives also described the arrival of disease to which they had no resistance, including influenza, measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis. English colonists even wrote about the cruelty of slavery, something that would later cause many to oppose slavery itself.
American writers began to experiment with form and content much earlier than is usually believed. Poets such as John Milton and George Herbert wrote about political issues relevant to colonists, while others focused on religious subjects. Plays were also popular at this time and include works by Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and Ben Jonson. Fiction includes novels by Francis Bacon, Daniel Defoe, and Henry David Thoreau.
By the 1730s, American writers were producing some of the most respected work in English literature.