American Literature (College)

Oh say can you read?

This course has been recommended for ACE CREDIT®, which means it is considered for credit at thousands of colleges and universities across the country. For more information, click here.

Warning: these books can and will change your life.

And, uh, if they don't change your life, they'll at least help you understand the life you're living. Really. Let us ask you some questions:

  • Are you an individual, someone who's not about to go conform simply for the sake of conforming?
  • Can hard work and self-reliance improve your life?
  • Do you ever find yourself browsing through the "Self Help" section at your local Barnes & Noble?
  • Are you middle class? 
  • Are you or your ancestors originally from a part of the world other than England?
  • Are you a Southerner who takes pride in your hospitality, or a Westerner who takes pride in your independence, or a New Englander who takes pride in your self-reliance?

You probably didn't answer yes to every single question, but we bet you answered yes to at least some. That's because these traits are American. Ideals of individuality and self-improvement go way back to early Puritan writings; the rejection of hereditary class systems is written into our founding documents; the idea of America as a nation of immigrants is as old as, well, the first immigrants who settled here.

And it's all here in this course. You'll be reading some of the first self-help literature ever written with Ben Franklin's Autobiography, and seeing how generations of writers have imagined their own autobiographies in similar terms. You'll be reading stories about the ideals of perfectibility—the idea that we can all, if we just work hard enough, become the best versions of ourselves. You'll be reading essays about nonconformity and individuality as the hallmarks of the American spirit. And, of course, you'll be reading about some of America's less idealistic legacies: responses to slavery and war that nevertheless draw from the same ideals of freedom and self-reliance that the early Puritans and merchants brought with them.

In terms of human history, English-speaking settlers have been on the North American continent for the blink of an eye. Some of their early preoccupations seem pretty foreign. But others—the right way to learn, the right way to parent, the right way to be—are as American as apple pie.

Unit Breakdown

  1. American Literature (College) - Colonialism and Exploration 1400 – 1700

    This unit will introduce you to American Literature, focusing on the central guiding question, "What makes me 'American'?" The central focus will be on the first Americans, including Native Americans, explorers during the age of colonization, and the Puritans. Plus, we'll answer the most enduring question of all: when did language stop being so old-timey?

  2. American Literature (College) - Rationalism and Independence: 1700 – 1800

    Building upon the ideas introduced in Unit 1, this unit will focus on American seminal texts and rhetoric that involve the split from England and the formation of a new country. Primary documents and letters will support the writing of the time period as well as several significant biographies. Sounds fun? You haven't even met Poor Richard yet.

  3. American Literature (College) - American Gothic 1800 – 1855

    This unit will involve an in-depth analysis of American Gothic fiction through themes, plot, suspense, character, setting, and narrative devices. Melville and Hawthorne cameos will prove you don't have to be Poe to be spooky.

  4. American Literature (College) - Transcendentalism 1830 – 1850

    This unit will introduce you to the literary movement of American Transcendentalism, begun by authors such as Emerson and Thoreau and continued by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The central focus will be on the tenets of transcendentalism, which include individualism, self-reliance, metacognition, and a focus on Nature. Yep, we capitalized Nature—it's that important to these innovative writers and thinkers.

  5. American Literature (College) - Abolition and Women’s Rights 1820 – 1920

    How can a hyphen or an ellipsis represent years of oppression? This unit will use short stories and literary nonfiction, including seminal texts to examine the historical significance of the abolitionist and women's rights movements. The central focus will be on how argument, rhetoric, and the power of art can advance a cause—because today, women and ethnic minorities totally have it set, right? (…Collar tug.)

  6. American Literature (College) - Realism 1855 – 1870

    This unit focuses on American Realism as a movement in both urban and rural areas. A novel study on Little Women will a focus on social/historical context, as well as provide you with evidence to prove or disprove that you are so the Jo and you are so the Amy. Plus, we'll be analyzing Jacob Riis photos, Civil War-drenched short stories, and the grossest parts of The Jungle—what else could a Shmooper desire?

  7. American Literature (College) - Regional Pride 1870 – Present

    Short stories and poems from a wide range of American literary greats will provide ample discussion about different regions within the United States and how they're reflected in literature. A novel study on Huckleberry Finn will be used to examine author's style and tone; nonfiction selections will provide background and information for studies on realism. A continuation of the study on dialect is also a part of this unit—because let's face it, it wouldn't be Twaintime without it.

  8. American Literature (College) - Jazz and American Change 1910 – 1950

    This unit will focus on the movements of the Harlem Renaissance, the Roaring Twenties, and other changes in American literature of the time period—as well as well after the time period, with James Baldwin essays and a complete reading and viewing of A Streetcar Named Desire. After the Southern studies of Unit 7, it's a fascinating look at how American regional literature evolved—and didn't evolve—in a world rattled by post-Reconstruction change.

  9. American Literature (College) - Novel Study: John (the Man) Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath 1930 – 1945

    This unit will focus on an author study—our only author study. And why John Steinbeck? Besides the fact that he loved flying pigs and is Shmoop's personal hero, this unit will analyze why many readers and critics consider Steinbeck to be the quintessential American author. We'll conduct a novel study on The Grapes of Wrath and look at the social/historical/cultural context of the novel and Steinbeck's role in this period of American history. Wouldn't you guess it? It's still relevant today.

  10. American Literature (College) - The Greatest Generation 1910 – 1960

    Everything in this country was better when your great-grandparents were your age, Shmooper—especially the literature. That's why this unit will focus on Modernism and Postmodernism, from experimental e.e. cummings poetry to comparing The Feminist Mystique with The Catcher in the Rye. In a time in American culture where much went unsaid, we'll pay special attention to language, with a study of slang used in modernist writings and other multiple meaning words and phrases.

  11. American Literature (College) - Civil Rights and Multiculturalism in Literature 1960 – 1980

    This unit will focus on the Civil Rights Movement in America and the great speeches, memoirs, essays, and literature it inspired. Topics such as demonstrations, violence vs. nonviolence, major artists of the movements, and specific multicultural groups will be discussed, and the rhetoric of these speakers and writers will be assessed and analyzed for author's bias, claims and support, and persuasive strategies. A novel study on Toni Morrison's haunted Beloved will help you extrapolate the concepts of literature as history's ghost. Spooky? You bet.

  12. American Literature (College) - Contemporary Literature 1980 – Present

    American Literature concludes with a study of the here and now, focused at the high end of young adult texts with contemporary poetry and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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