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 .

2038 Best Essay Examples on American Literature

The story of an hour critical analysis essay.

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“Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. Summary and Symbolism Analysis

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“To Live In the Borderlands Means You” by Anzaldua

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Willy Loman, a Poor Role Model to His Two Sons Biff and Happy

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The Ten Best American Essays Since 1950, According to Robert Atwan

in Books , Literature | November 15th, 2012 3 Comments

american literature essay

“Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things,” writes Atwan in his fore­ward to the 2012 install­ment in the Best Amer­i­can series, “but at the core of the genre is an unmis­tak­able recep­tiv­i­ty to the ever-shift­ing process­es of our minds and moods. If there is any essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest exam­ples of the form enact that ever-shift­ing process, and in that enact­ment we can find the basis for the essay’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion to be regard­ed seri­ous­ly as imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture and the essay­ist’s claim to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as a cre­ative writer.”

In 2001 Atwan and Joyce Car­ol Oates took on the daunt­ing task of trac­ing that ever-shift­ing process through the pre­vi­ous 100 years for  The Best Amer­i­can Essays of the Cen­tu­ry . Recent­ly Atwan returned with a more focused selec­tion for  Pub­lish­ers Week­ly :  “The Top 10 Essays Since 1950.”  To pare it all down to such a small num­ber, Atwan decid­ed to reserve the “New Jour­nal­ism” cat­e­go­ry, with its many mem­o­rable works by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr and oth­ers, for some future list. He also made a point of select­ing the best essays , as opposed to exam­ples from the best essay­ists. “A list of the top ten essay­ists since 1950 would fea­ture some dif­fer­ent writ­ers.”

We were inter­est­ed to see that six of the ten best essays are avail­able for free read­ing online. Here is Atwan’s list, along with links to those essays that are on the Web:

  • James Bald­win, “Notes of a Native Son,” 1955 (Read it here .)
  • Nor­man Mail­er, “The White Negro,” 1957 (Read it here .)
  • Susan Son­tag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” 1964 (Read it here .)
  • John McPhee, “The Search for Mar­vin Gar­dens,” 1972 (Read it here with a sub­scrip­tion.)
  • Joan Did­ion, “The White Album,” 1979
  • Annie Dil­lard, “Total Eclipse,” 1982
  • Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre,” 1986 (Read it here .)
  • Edward Hoagland, “Heav­en and Nature,” 1988
  • Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Mat­ter,” 1996 (Read it here .)
  • David Fos­ter Wal­lace, “Con­sid­er the Lob­ster,” 2004 (Read it here  in a ver­sion dif­fer­ent from the one pub­lished in his 2005 book of the same name.)

“To my mind,” writes Atwan in his arti­cle, “the best essays are deeply per­son­al (that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demon­strate a mind in process–reflecting, try­ing-out, essay­ing.”

To read more of Atwan’s com­men­tary, see his  arti­cle in Pub­lish­ers Week­ly .

The pho­to above of Susan Son­tag was tak­en by Peter Hujar in 1966.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

by Mike Springer | Permalink | Comments (3) |

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Check out Michael Ven­tu­ra’s HEAR THAT LONG SNAKE MOAN: The VooDoo Ori­gins of Rock n’ Roll

Wow I think there’s oth­er greater ones out there. Just need to find them.

Boise mul­ber­ry bags uk

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Defining American Literature

This essay about the evolution of American literature explores its diverse roots from indigenous oral traditions to contemporary digital narratives. It highlights key periods and figures, from Puritan writers to Romantic luminaries like Poe and Hawthorne, to the Harlem Renaissance and modern authors like Morrison and DeLillo. Throughout history, American literature reflects the nation’s values, conflicts, and aspirations, serving as a mirror to its tumultuous journey. Through a rich tapestry of voices, it engages in an ongoing dialogue about identity, societal issues, and the quest for meaning in an ever-changing landscape.

How it works

The literary diversity of America, akin to the nation itself, unfolds as a sprawling and labyrinthine narrative, intricately woven from the myriad strands of the lives, experiences, and expressions of its populace. Tracing its lineage from the indigenous oral traditions to the vibrant core of contemporary digital-age narratives, it unveils a vivid panorama of the American spirit, portraying a dynamic portrait of an ever-evolving national identity.

The origins of American literature were established long before the arrival of European settlers, deeply rooted in the fertile oral traditions of Native American tribes.

These ancient tales were imbued with profound significance and intimately connected to the natural realm, reflecting a deeply intertwined sense of community and environment. This innate reverence for nature and emphasis on communal bonds would reverberate through the ages, subtly permeating the ethos of subsequent literary endeavors.

As European settlers commenced the colonization of the New World, the early American literary landscape was characterized by pragmatic, often spiritual writings. The Puritans, with their steadfast focus on religious texts, inadvertently laid the groundwork for America’s literary awakening. Through sermons and diaries, they illuminated the trials and triumphs of life in the New World, framing the American experience within a covenantal narrative.

The dawn of the 18th century heralded a shift towards reason and enlightenment, mirrored in the writings of luminaries like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. This epoch witnessed the emergence of American political discourse, with works such as Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Federalist Papers fundamentally shaping American political identity and articulating an emerging national consciousness. The persuasive eloquence of these writings not only facilitated the birth of a new nation but also underscored the potency of the written word in shaping societal constructs.

As the nation found its footing, the 19th century brought forth a flourishing of American literature that endeavored to capture the singular essence of the land. The Romantic period witnessed luminaries like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne delving into the complexities of the human psyche and the shadows lurking beneath the veneer of civilization. Meanwhile, the transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, exalted the transcendent in the mundane and advocated for a profound, personal communion with the natural world as a direct conduit to the divine. Their writings fostered a distinctly American ethos of individualism and self-reliance, themes that would reverberate through the ages.

This era also grappled with the profound moral dilemmas of slavery and inequality, giving rise to a formidable body of abolitionist literature. Works by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe galvanized public opinion against the blight of slavery. The Civil War further intensified America’s literary exploration of its identity, with works by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson capturing the agony and ecstasy of a nation torn asunder.

The turn of the 20th century ushered in the complexities of modernity, with the American novel undergoing a dramatic maturation. Figures like Mark Twain and Henry James explored themes of identity, morality, and societal norms, often employing distinct American vernaculars and settings. This era laid the groundwork for the Jazz Age, an epoch of exuberant excess captured brilliantly by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work dissected the American dream, laying bare both its shimmering allure and disillusioning pitfalls.

The mid-20th century witnessed American literature taking a critical turn with the advent of realism and the exploration of social issues. Writers like John Steinbeck and William Faulkner painted stark portraits of American life, probing into themes of poverty, racism, and existential anguish. The period also witnessed the ascendancy of African American literature, with the Harlem Renaissance fostering a new era of literary expression that articulated the pains and joys of the Black experience in America.

Contemporary American literature is as diverse as it is prolific, grappling with issues ranging from immigration and globalization to identity politics and the ramifications of technology on society. Authors such as Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo have continued to probe America’s historical legacies and contemporary conundrums, while emerging voices like Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri interweave the narrative strands of their multicultural backgrounds into the broader tapestry of American literature.

American literature serves not only as a reflection of the nation’s tumultuous history but also as an ongoing dialogue about its values, conflicts, and aspirations. It serves as a lens through which the American identity is continually reassessed and redefined. Through this rich literary tradition, readers embark on a journey through the depths of American courage and fear, its conflicts and resolutions, and the perpetual quest for meaning and connection in an ever-evolving landscape.


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A Guide to English: Periods and Movements in American Literature

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The american essay.

  • Jenny Spinner Jenny Spinner The Writing Center, St. Joseph's University
  • Published online: 26 September 2017
  • This version: 20 April 2022
  • Previous version

America’s earliest essayists largely imitated their European counterparts. The writers abroad they most admired—periodical essayists like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the 18th century and familiar essayists like Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt in the 19th century—heavily influenced the essays they penned at home. Yet amid these imitations are glimmers of voices and experiences unique to America. Benjamin Franklin’s clear and direct prose style, combined with his down-to-earth diction, make him one of the best and most readable of the early American periodical essayists. In the first half of the 19th century, American essayists found reception for their work in the country’s many new magazines and quarterlies founded in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Among these writers, Washington Irving is often named as America’s first true essayist. Other influential essayists of this period include humor essayists like Mark Twain, who published social and political lampoons of American life. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, leaders of the American Transcendentalist movement, were influential thinkers and prolific writers as well. Emerson’s disciple, Henry David Thoreau, is a pioneer of the nature essay, which numerous writers since have used to explore America’s vast and varied landscape. Nineteenth-century America also provided women with increased opportunities to publish essays, and many, like Fanny Fern, achieved substantial commercial successes as newspaper essayists. Gertrude Bustill Mossell, the highest paid African American newspaperwoman at the time, was one of the first African American women to write a newspaper column. Political essayists like Maria W. Miller Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and W. E. B. DuBois, wrote on two of the most relevant issues of the day: slavery and women’s rights. Ann Plato became the first African American to publish a collection of essays with her 1820 book. By the turn of the 20th century, the genteel essay—marked by its yearning for a romanticized past and typically European, rather than American, in flavor—dominated the American essay scene. Agnes Repplier and Katharine Fullerton Gerould were prominent writers in the Genteel Tradition, along with Charles S. Brooks, Samuel McChord Crothers, and Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel). The 1920s and 1930s marked the heyday of the newspaper essay columnist and the decline of the genteel essay. One such columnist, H. L. Mencken, railing against the “booboise,” was one of the most influential voices of his time. The 1925 founding of The New Yorker magazine heralded a new moment for the American essay. The New Yorker provided an important outlet for the nation’s essayists, including E. B. White, whose influence on the personal essayists following in his footsteps ever since is hard to measure. Joan Didion’s work in the field of New Journalism, along with Norman Mailer, opened additional possibilities for the essay writer, adding techniques from both fiction and journalism to the essayist’s craft belt. Over two decades into the 21st century, American essayists continue to crack the form even wider, pushing against genre boundaries as well as using the essay to document the full range of American, and human, experiences.

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Student Opinion

100-Plus Writing Prompts to Explore Common Themes in Literature and Life

american literature essay

By The Learning Network

  • Jan. 31, 2019

Update, Feb. 15, 2019: Learn more about how to use our 1000s of writing prompts by watching our free on-demand webinar: “ Give Them Something to Write About: Teach Across the Curriculum With New York Times-Inspired Daily Prompts. ”

Every day since 2009 we’ve been asking students a question inspired by an article, essay, video or feature in The New York Times.

Periodically, we sort those questions into lists to make finding what you need easier, like these previous lists of prompts for personal or narrative writing and for argumentative writing , or like this monster list of more than 1,000 prompts , all categorized by subject.

This time, however, we’re making a list to help your students more easily connect the literature they’re reading to the world around them — and to help teachers find great works of nonfiction that can echo common literary themes.

Below, we’ve chosen the best prompts — those that ask the most relevant questions and link to the richest Times materials — from our Student Opinion collection that address every stage of life, from coming-of-age and wrestling with one’s identity to understanding one’s role in a family; making friends; getting an education; falling in love; working; and experiencing old age. We hope they can provide jumping-off points for discussion and writing, and inspiration for further reading.

Most teachers know that our Student Opinion questions are free and outside The Times’s digital subscription service, but what you may not realize is that if you access the Times articles we link to from those questions via our site, the articles are also free. So in this list we hope we’re not just suggesting 100-plus interesting questions, we hope we’ve also helped you find 100-plus great works of nonfiction that can speak to the literature your students are reading.

So whether you’re taking on classic works like “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” or “1984,” or whether you’re teaching more contemporary literature like “The Poet X,” “Speak,” “Refugee” or “There There,” we hope there are more than a few items on this list that will resonate.

Please note: All our recent questions, from late 2016 on, are still open to comment on our site. While questions published on an older version of The Learning Network are no longer open to comment, both the questions and the related Times materials are still available via the link.

I. Coming-of-Age

1. What Rites of Passage Mark the Transition to Adulthood in Your Community? 2. When Have You Reinvented Yourself? 3. Is It Harder to Grow Up in the 21st Century Than It Was in the Past? 4. Have You Ever Felt Pressured by Family or Others in Making an Important Decision About Your Future? 5. What Do Older Generations Misunderstand About Teenagers Today? 6. Are You Too Hard on Yourself? 7. What Childhood Rules Did You Break? 8. What Have You Learned in Your Teens? 9. Do You Think Anxiety Is a Serious Problem Among Young People? 10. Does Suffering Make Us Stronger and Lead to Success? 11. Do We Give Children Too Many Trophies? 12. Do You Have ‘Emerging Adult’ Skills? 13. Is Childhood Today Too Risk-Free? 14. How Young Is Too Young to Use Social Media? 15. What Are Your Secret Survival Strategies? 16. What Have You Learned From a Younger Person — and What Have You Taught an Older Person? 17. Do You Think Teenagers Can Make a Difference in the World?

II. Identity

1. Are You the Same Person on Social Media as You Are in Real Life? 2. How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are? 3. Have You Ever Taken a Stand That Isolated You From Your Peers? 4. What’s the Story Behind Your Name? 5. Are You Being Raised to Pursue Your Dreams? 6. Have You Ever Been Told You Couldn’t Do Something Because of Your Gender? 7. Do You Feel Constricted by Gender Norms? 8. What Messages About Gender Have You Gotten From Music? 9. Why Is Race So Hard to Talk About? 10. Is America ‘Backsliding’ on Race? 11. What Is the Role of Religion or Spirituality in Your Life? 12. How Often Do You Start Conversations About Faith or Spirituality? 13. What Is Your Earliest Memory? 14. How Resilient Are You? 15. Are You a Patient Person? 16. What Role Does Envy Play in Your Life? 17. How Do You Handle Fear? 18. How Much Control Do You Think You Have Over Your Fate? 19. What Are You Grateful For? 20. How Often Do You Leave Your ‘Comfort Zone’? 21. When Was the Last Time You Did Something That Scared or Challenged You? 22. Does What You Wear Say Anything About You as a Person?

III. Being Part of a Family

1. Who Is Your Family? 2. How Are You and Your Parents Alike and Different? 3. How Much Freedom Have Your Parents Given You? 4. Will You Follow in Your Parents’ Footsteps? 5. How Much Do You Know About Your Family’s History? 6. How Often Do You Fight With Your Parents? 7. Do You Have Helicopter Parents? 8. Do Your Parents Spy on You? 9. Should Parents Track Their Teenager’s Location? 10. How Do You Make Parenting Difficult for Your Parents? 11. What Good Can Come From Disagreements? 12. What Advice Would You Give to Your Mom, Dad or Guardian on How to Be a Better Parent? 13. How Do You Get What You Want From Your Parents? 14. Should Parents Bribe Their Children? 15. Do Your Parents Yell at You? 16. What’s the Best Way to Discipline Children? 17. How Should Parents Teach Their Children About Race and Racism? 18. Do the Adults in Your Life Follow You on Social Media? 19. What Advice Do You Have for Teenagers and Their Parents? 20. What Messages About Food and Eating Have You Learned From Your Family?

IV. Making Friends, IRL and Online

1. Do You Ever Feel Lonely? (video) 2. How Good a Friend Are You? 3. Do You Find It Easier to Make New Friends Online or in Person? 4. How Alike Are You and Your Friends? 5. Do You Have Any Unlikely Friendships? 6. What Does the World Need to Know About an Important Person in Your Life? 7. Does Technology Make Us More Alone? (video) 8. How Often Do You Spend One-on-One Time With Your Closest Friends? 9. Is Your Phone Love Hurting Your Relationships? (quiz) 10. Do You Spend Enough Time With Other People? 11. How Do You Feel About Introducing Friends From Different Parts of Your Life? 12. Do You Like Your Friends? 13. Do You Consider Your Siblings Friends? 14. How Have You Helped a Friend in a Time of Need? 15. Do You Take More Risks When You Are Around Your Friends? 16. Who Outside Your Family Has Made a Difference in Your Life? 17. Do You Ever Talk About Issues of Race and Class With Your Friends? 18. Is Your Online World Just a ‘Filter Bubble’ of People With the Same Opinions?

V. Getting an Education

1. What Do You Wish Your Teachers Knew About You? 2. Is School a Place for Self-Expression? 3. Are You Stressed About School? 4. Are Straight A’s Always a Good Thing? 5. How Well Do Rewards and Incentives Work to Motivate You? 6. Are High School Students Being Worked Too Hard? 7. When Has a Teacher Inspired You? (video) 8. Has a Teacher Ever Changed Your Mind-Set? 9. Does Your Teacher’s Identity Affect Your Learning? 10. Should Schools Teach You How to Be Happy? 11. Do You Feel Your School and Teachers Welcome Both Conservative and Liberal Points of View? 12. Have You Experienced Racism or Other Kinds of Discrimination in School? 13. Do Teachers Assign Too Much Homework? 14. How Should Schools Address Cyberbullying? (video) 15. Has a Novel Ever Helped You Understand Yourself or Your World Better? 16. Is Your School’s Dress Code Too Strict? 17. What Worries Do You Have About College? 18. Do Other People Care Too Much About Your Post-High School Plans? 19. Is the College Admissions Process Fair? 20. Should Everyone Go to College? 21. How Prepared Are You for College? How Well Do You Think You’ll Do? 22. How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities? 23. Can Students at Your School Talk Openly About Their Mental Health Issues? 24. Is Live-Streaming Classrooms a Good Idea?

VI. Learning About Love (and Sex)

1. Have You Ever Been in Love? 2. Should Your Significant Other Be Your Best Friend? 3. What Are the Basic ‘Rules’ for Handling Breakups? 4. What’s the Best Way to Heal a Broken Heart? 5. How Important Do You Think It Is to Marry Someone With the Same Religion? 6. How Do You Think Technology Affects Dating? 7. Is Dating a Thing of the Past? 8. Is Hookup Culture Leaving Your Generation Unhappy and Unprepared for Love? 9. Could Following These Directions Make You Fall in Love With a Stranger? 10. What Constitutes Sexual Consent? 11. Do You Find It Hard to Say ‘I Love You’?

VII. Working and Finding Your Purpose

1. What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? 2. Do You Think You Will Have a Career That You Love? 3. Would You Pursue a Career If You Knew You Likely Would Not Make Much Money? 4. Does Achieving Success Always Include Being Happy? 5. How Do You Express Yourself Creatively? 6. What Are Your Thoughts on ‘Hustle Culture’? 7. Is Struggle Essential to Happiness? 8. Does Achieving Success Always Include Being Happy? 9. Do You Give Yourself Enough Credit for Your Own Successes? 10. How Important a Role Has Money, Work or Social Class Played in Your Life? 11. When Have You Failed? What Did You Learn From It? 12. What Challenges Have You Overcome? 13. What Are Your Expectations About Earning, Saving and Spending Money? 14. What Choices Do You Make About Money Every Day? 15. Do You Perform Better When You’re Competing or When You’re Collaborating? 16. What Activities Make You Feel Most Alive? 17. Where Do You Think You Will Live When You Are an Adult?

VIII. Experiencing Old Age and Confronting Death

1. Do You Look Forward to Old Age? 2. Would You Want to Live Forever? 3. What Do You Want to Be Known for After Your Death? 4. If the World Was Ending, What Would You Want to Say? 5. Would You Like to Be Cryogenically Preserved (Frozen!) Upon Your Death? 6. Do You Believe That Everything Happens for a Reason?

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american literature essay

The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade

Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).

Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)

The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.

Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).

But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)

It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)

Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.

So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.”  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)

In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.

He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)

We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.

Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief 

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)

When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.

The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)

The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay  Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions  was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel  Lost Children Archive  (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a  good  conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment.  Tell Me How It Ends  is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.”  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)

In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing  Bad Feminist  that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)

Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)

On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell.  This Young Monster  (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”

If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from  Artforum ,  Dazed & Confused , and  Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.

In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic,  This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)

Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)

When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”

Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) ·  Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012)  · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)  · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014)  · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014)  · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) ·  Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016)  · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016)  · Lindy West, Shrill (2016)  · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016)  · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016)  · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016)  · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016)  · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017)  · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017)  · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017)  · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017)  · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017)  · Joan Didion, South and West (2017)  · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017)  · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017)  · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)  ·  Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017)  · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018)  · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018)  · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018)  · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018)  · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018)  · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)  · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019)  · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019)  · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019)  · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019)  · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019)  ·  Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019)  · Robert A. Caro,  Working  (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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ENGL 201 American Literature I

  • Course Description

A survey from the early Colonial period through the American Renaissance. Two critical papers are required.

For information regarding prerequisites for this course, please refer to the  Academic Course Catalog .

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*The information contained in our Course Guides is provided as a sample. Specific course curriculum and requirements for each course are provided by individual instructors each semester. Students should not use Course Guides to find and complete assignments, class prerequisites, or order books.

English 201 provides an opportunity for students to explore and analyze some of the more significant works of American literature.  Through studying and writing about the literature, students will discover the connection between historical, philosophical, and religious views expressed by the authors of this period.

Course Assignment

Textbook readings and lecture presentations/notes.

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Course Requirements Checklist

After reading the Course Syllabus and  Student Expectations , the student will complete the related checklist found in the Course Overview.

Discussions (2)

Discussions are collaborative learning experiences. Therefore, the student will create a thread in response to the provided prompt for each discussion. Each thread must demonstrate course-related knowledge. In addition to the thread, the student will reply to at least 1 classmate’s thread. For Discussion: American Literature from a Christian Worldview, the thread must be 250–300 words and the reply must be 200–250 words. For Discussion: Reflection, the thread must be 250–300 words and the reply must be 150–200 words. Both the thread and the reply must demonstrate correct, formal writing style. (CLO: 1, 6; CT 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

This step in the writing process will help the student to map out their ideas, develop organization, and ensure that they are on the right track. The student will develop a one-sentence thesis statement and outline for each essay. The student must plan for their thesis statement to be the last sentence of the intro paragraph. The thesis and outline should address one of the prompts from the essay instructions.

Essay: The Colonial Period Assignment

The student will compose a 750-word critical analysis essay (3–4 pages). The essay must focus on the colonial period of American literature that is covered in the course. The essay must include a title page, thesis statement, and outline followed by the essay and a correctly documented works cited page. The essay must include two (2) or more secondary, scholarly sources. The student will have the opportunity to receive instructor feedback by submitting the thesis and outline prior to the essay. (CLO: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; CT 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Essay: The Age of Reason/Revolutionary Period Assignment

The student will compose a 750-word critical analysis essay (3–4 pages) that focuses on the Age of Reason/Revolutionary Period of American Literature covered in the course. The essay must include a title page, thesis statement, and outline followed by the essay and a correctly documented works cited page. The essay must include two (2) or more secondary, scholarly sources. The student will have the opportunity to receive instructor feedback by submitting the thesis and outline prior to the essay. (CLO: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; CT 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Essay: The American Renaissance/Romantic Period Assignment

The student will compose a final paper of at least 1,200 words (4–5 pages) that incorporates a minimum of three (3) secondary, scholarly sources. The paper must have a title page, thesis statement, and outline followed by the paper and a correctly documented works cited page. The student will have the opportunity to receive instructor feedback by submitting the thesis and outline prior to the research paper. (CLO: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; CT 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Practice Quizzes (3)

In the module before each quiz, the student will take a Practice Quiz (Practice Quiz: The Colonial Period, Practice Quiz: The Age of Reason/Revolutionary Period, and Practice Quiz: The American Renaissance/Romantic Period) that will help him/her prepare for the subsequent quiz. Each Practice Quiz will be open-book/open-notes; consist of 16 multiple-choice and true/false; and have a 1-hour time limit. The student may take each Practice Quiz as many times as he/she likes until the due date. The final attempt will be counted toward the final grade. (CLO: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; CT 1, 5)

Quizzes (3)

The student will take 3 quizzes (Quiz: The Colonial Period, Quiz: The Age of Reason/Revolutionary Period, and Quiz: The American Renaissance/Romantic Period). Each quiz will be open-book/open-notes; consist of 40 multiple-choice, true/false, and reading comprehension questions; and have a 1-hour time limit. Unlike the Practice Quiz, the student may only take each quiz once. (CLO: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; CT 1, 5)

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  1. American Literary Identity: Past, Present, and Future

    This American literature essay gives the definition of the term and focuses on its characteristics: history, authors, periods, and themes. We will write a custom essay on your topic a custom Essay on American Literary Identity: Past, Present, and Future. 808 writers online . Learn More . Table of Contents.

  2. American literature

    American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States.. Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent—colonies from which a few hardy souls ...

  3. Free American Literature Essay Examples & Topics

    Mallard was not able to handle the swings in her emotions and this cost her life.Mr. Pages: 4. Words: 1467. "Joyas Voladoras" by Brian Doyle. Summary and Symbolism Analysis. 2.4. The "Joyas Voladoras" essay by Brian Doyle speaks of hummingbirds and hearts, the life of whales, and the life of man. Pages: 3. Words: 996.

  4. The Ten Best American Essays Since 1950, According to Robert Atwan

    Robert Atwan's favorite lit­er­ary genre is the essay. As edi­tor and founder of The Best Amer­i­can Essays series, Atwan has read thou­sands of exam­ples of the remark­ably flex­i­ble form. "Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things," writes Atwan in his fore­ward to the 2012 install­ment in the Best Amer­i­can series, "but at the core of the ...

  5. American Literature

    Since its inception, American Literature (AL) has been regarded as the preeminent periodical in its field.Written by established scholars as well as the newest and brightest young critics, AL's thought-provoking essays cover a broad spectrum of periods and genres and employ a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches--the best in American literary criticism.

  6. Defining American Literature

    Defining American Literature. The literary diversity of America, akin to the nation itself, unfolds as a sprawling and labyrinthine narrative, intricately woven from the myriad strands of the lives, experiences, and expressions of its populace. Tracing its lineage from the indigenous oral traditions to the vibrant core of contemporary digital ...

  7. How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

    Table of contents. Step 1: Reading the text and identifying literary devices. Step 2: Coming up with a thesis. Step 3: Writing a title and introduction. Step 4: Writing the body of the essay. Step 5: Writing a conclusion. Other interesting articles.

  8. What Makes a Great American Essay? ‹ Literary Hub

    November 17, 2020. Phillip Lopate spoke to Literary Hub about the new anthology he has edited, The Glorious American Essay. He recounts his own development from an "unpatriotic" young man to someone, later in life, who would embrace such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who personified the simultaneous darkness and optimism underlying the ...

  9. A Guide to English: Periods and Movements in American Literature

    American literature from Brockden Brown, Cooper and Poe, and passing by way ofTranscendentalism to Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, is a mode of writing ever subject to anxiety, apprehension and strain. ... Readers seeking a deeper understanding of Midwestern literature can then move on to other essays that explore it in depth through a variety ...

  10. American Literature

    This course studies the national literature of the United States since the early 19th century. It considers a range of texts - including, novels, essays, and poetry - and their efforts to define the notion of American identity. Readings usually include works by such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and Toni Morrison.

  11. American Essay

    The 1920s and 1930s marked the heyday of the newspaper essay columnist and the decline of the genteel essay. One such columnist, H. L. Mencken, railing against the "booboise," was one of the most influential voices of his time. The 1925 founding of The New Yorker magazine heralded a new moment for the American essay.

  12. American Literature Essay Topics

    American literature is the literature written or produced in the area of the United States and its receding colonies. American literature as a whole is the written literary work, and the new England colonies were the center of early American literature. American drama attained international status only in the 1920s and 1930s, with the works of ...

  13. American literature

    The 19th century Early 19th-century literature. After the American Revolution, and increasingly after the War of 1812, American writers were exhorted to produce a literature that was truly native. As if in response, four authors of very respectable stature appeared. William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe initiated a great half century of literary ...

  14. American literature

    American literature is literature written or produced in the United States and in the colonies that preceded it.The American literary tradition is part of the broader tradition of English-language literature, but also includes literature produced in languages other than English.. The American Revolutionary Period (1775-1783) is notable for the political writings of Benjamin Franklin ...

  15. American Literary History

    About the journal. Covering the study of US literature from its origins through the present, American Literary History provides a much-needed forum for the various, often competing voices of contemporary literary inquiry …. The ALH Review is a source for in-depth reviews assessing the significance of new books for specialists in American ...

  16. 100-Plus Writing Prompts to Explore Common Themes in Literature and

    Identity. We ask students, " Are You Being Raised to Pursue Your Dreams? " Our prompt is based on the article "How to Raise a Feminist Son.". Illustration by Agnes Lee. 1. Are You the Same ...

  17. Periods of American Literature

    Literature has been created in what is today the United States for thousands of years. This history began with the many oral traditions of the Indigenous peoples of North America.. Among the Native peoples of the Plains, the Southwest, and parts of present-day California, Coyote was the central figure of the age before humans were created. Hundreds of tales told by these peoples describe his ...

  18. The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade ‹ Literary Hub

    The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. ... Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual ...


    American literature as a whole is one of the richest and least explored topics in American studies. The Indian contribution to America is greater than is often believed. The hundreds of Indian words in everyday American English include "canoe," "tobacco," "potato," "mocca-sin," "moose," "persimmon," "raccoon," "tom-

  20. American Literature

    Overview. The American Literature exam covers material that is usually taught in a survey course at the college level. It deals with the prose and poetry written in the United States from precolonial times to the present. It tests literary works—their content, background, and authors—but also requires an ability to interpret poetry, fiction ...

  21. American Literature I

    The essay must focus on the colonial period of American literature that is covered in the course. The essay must include a title page, thesis statement, and outline followed by the essay and a ...

  22. American literature

    The American Crisis papers (December 1776-December 1783) spurred Americans to fight on through the blackest years of the war. Based upon Paine's simple deistic beliefs, they showed the conflict as a stirring melodrama with the angelic colonists against the forces of evil. Such white and black picturings were highly effective propaganda.

  23. PDF G eorgia M ilestone s

    The American Literature and Composition EOC assessment consists of selected-response, technology-enhanced, constructed-response, extended constructed-response, and extended writing-response ... to produce an argument or develop an informative or explanatory essay based on information read in two passages . There are three selected-response ...

  24. Databases A-Z

    Adam Matthew Digital. Includes records, images, case studies, audio recordings, and surveys from the Fisk University race relations department and its annual institute between 1943 and 1970 covering topics such as the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, discrimination, and racial theory.