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Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historic, social, economic, and most importantly, literary events which unfolded within the United States of America, spanning from the 20th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast to previous phenomena, the 20th century entailed an extreme disruption of morality, ethics, and priorities that affected the rest of the world. This series attempts to assess how the North American literary scene engaged with the socio-political panorama that engorged the patriotic American sentiment of that time, which both World Wars and the Cold War largely contributed to fueling over the period. Furthermore, it will also attempt to analyze how literature became a means and medium to protest against social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism. This analysis will involve the study and examination of literary movements and literary criticism that clearly influenced the evolution of American literature, resulting in a deep, outstanding, and long-lasting impact on the American sense of identity, only to see it shift further as the 21st century opened.

The North American Modern Literature 101 series consists of eight articles, arranged in the following order:

  1. Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric

  2. Modern North American Literature 101: Representation and Diversity - whose voices, for whom?

  3. Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories

  4. Modern North American Literature 101: Regionalism in Modern North American Literature

  5. Modern North American Literature 101: The Legacy of Modern North American Literature

Modern North American Literature 101: Genres and Themes, the Core Fabric

Literature transcends the literal words on the page. The literary space that encloses the texts defines not only their success, but their historical, social, and literary relevance in terms of literary development - trends, genres, themes, and movements. Every piece of literature is influenced by a combination of these numerous factors, and in return, literary works are constantly at a cross-road between fields. However, a chronological order can be traced throughout the evolution of said literature. In the case of Modern North American Literature, texts have shown which characteristics outline certain theories and which texts belong to these or find themselves in multiple junctures in the US literary scene.

More specifically, fields of study and movements such as realism, modernism, existentialism, and others add to the convolution of literary theory that intersects and meets repeatedly throughout the twentieth century in the United States. In response, American literary critics conceived new trends exclusive to American literature, such as that of New Journalism. Nonetheless, by the later half of the century, new leanings towards other genres and studies took force. For example, considering the cultural shifts of the 1990s; the thriller/horror and the fantasy genre started to be highlighted as American literature exceptionalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Hence, this article will be helpful to acquire a first glance at the core fabric of Modern North American Literature.

Figure 1. Photography of a collection of modern literary works delving into war in the 20th century, disrupting Northern American literature.

Presenting some -isms

At the turn of the century, one major genre, heir to nineteenth-century literature and authors, strongly predominated: realism. In its most basic form, realism entails describing and discussing real events, in which there is no space for speculative fiction or supernatural elements. Realism was first introduced through the realist art movements born in France and Russia; William Dean Howells then brought it to the United States, where renowned authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James made the genre burst into bloom. Consequently, realism was the outlet to perform the “Reality of America”, to establish what constituted America as a nation. As a matter of fact, as American and English Literature Professor Phillip Barrish summarizes, “all of these developments occurred, moreover, within the context of a nation whose official founding principles of democracy and equality could be called upon to support literary realism’s commitment to focusing on common everyday people” (Barrish, 2011, p. 23).

Nonetheless, the America portrayed in such literary works only encompassed a fraction of the actual American experience of those times, considering it was narrated by middle and upper-class privileged white men. In consequence, the authors' approach to realistic texts requires one to keep those underlying biases in points of view while analyzing them, even if “a realist text could use the device of shifting narrative perspectives to place us imaginatively within, for example, a conflicted capitalist, an unhappy wife, an ambitious doctor, and an angry laborer, potentially all in the course of a single book” (Barrish, 2011, p. 4). Both readers and authors were suddenly barred from the possibility of writing this form of realism when the Great War became their new reality. Although realism permeates most literature in some way or another, the conflict gave way to new literary disciplines under the cover of modernism.

Figure 2. Painting portrait of William Dean Howells, who brought Realism to the US.

The modernity of the war was translated into a new modern culture and mode of thinking. The mainstream novelists of the movement, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, moved modernism to a new century and reacted against realism. In fact, Jesse Matz, author of The Modernist Novel: A Short Introduction (2004) claims that,

“Modern novelists start with the belief that modernization has changed the very nature of reality, and that fiction also has to change its very nature in order to survive. They tell us that the modern novel therefore does things differently – that it sets itself against literary norms and conventions. Experiment, innovation, and improvisation are its hallmarks. New styles and structures are the result, and these are often shocking, surprising, and difficult.” (Matz, 2004, p. 6).

Correspondingly, modernist writing was rooted in its form and its reshaping. New trends, which are still frequently found in current texts, appeared. These new characteristics could fairly encompass all of society and practically all aspects of it could be traced throughout novels and poems. To name a few, Matz introduced in his work the concepts and tropes of the anti-hero, of alienation, fragmentation, the dispersed self, and stream-of-consciousness. All of these elements conformed modernism into seeing that “it makes fiction more like life, or makes the modern reality more subject to awareness, scrutiny, and understanding. Or it aims at making fiction itself as complex, as interesting, and as strange as modern experience” (Matz, 2004, p. 6).

In addition, modernism introduced new topics and interests in literature. World War I brought upon a tremendous preoccupation with the effects of memory and new issues of identity that have been stretched into contemporary literature. For instance, in the American modernist novel The Great Gatsby (1925), “Nick’s narrative is more than just a collection of individual memories of his own and Gatsby’s past. It is at the same time both collective and cultural memory of the Roaring Twenties and the American Dream” (Grmusa & Oklopcic, 2022, p. 29). Therefore, in the United States, artists profited from movements such as modernism and its successors to either praise or criticize America, because its Literature, especially Modern Literature, was relatively concerned with American identity and memory. The realness of America both nationally and internationally supposed the centre of literary interest across the country. However, as with all literary trends, modernism came to an end to give way to new experiments and literary narration.

Figure 3. Jesse Matz discusses the evolution of the 20th-century modern novel.

Postmodernism, another movement reacting against the previous current, emerged as the exhaustion of modernism. It had either been overused to the point of not having sense or purpose or authors had completely disregarded it (Matz, 2004, p. 6). Moreover, as far as the social movements of the time in the US were concerned, it also appeared as the opportunity to challenge hegemonies and meta-narratives for voices so far marginalized. In fact, postmodernism can be understood “as the dominant form of avant-grade literary experimentalism during the Cold War, a period marked by the ascendence of transnational corporations, the upheavals of decolonization, fears of nuclear holocaust, and the partitioning of the globe into ideological spheres” (Adams, 2007, p. 250). As a consequence, people began to question their reality and its grand narratives. Skepticism became the norm for postmodernist writers who could not decipher whether reality was representational due to drained narratives and politics. Originality also became an issue because of its presentation as “an aesthetic pretense, meant not to create something new but to show off, to exert power. […] Art seemed to be after a way to make people believe that those in charge of culture deserved to be in charge, because they had special kinds of taste, creativity, and knowledge” (Matz, 2004, p. 129).

Furthermore, postmodernism and its approach to the marginalized voices closely connect to the broader question of multiculturalism in America. Essentially, multiculturalism defends the presence and inclusion of divergent cultural and ethnic groups within one same society. As a product of colonialism and immigration both from South America and Europe, a miscellany of cultures and ethnicities cohabitated in America; they were not integrated but sectioned into neighborhoods. However, racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia in the US made the coexistence rather difficult. By trying to introduce multiculturalism in the US government, certain labels and behaviours reverberated in the literature itself. For instance, the nomenclature ‘American Literature’ became an issue when levelling America and the United States. Chiefly, multiculturalism strives to dismantle the binarity within American borders and allow a safe space for hybridity, which “opens the door for cultural emergence […]. As a matter of literary practice, hybridity sometimes takes the form of a reversal of the polarity of an oppressive opposition, rendering positive what the culture typically portrayed as negative, powerful what the culture typically designated as weak”. (Patell, 2014, p. 198). Clearly, in contexts of multiculturalism, grand narratives and hegemonies collide with the marginalised as with postmodernism. Therefore, the second half of the twentieth century supposed the US a re-evaluation of its social circumstances and literary legacy.

Figure 4. The US is a heavily rich multicultural country.

Likewise, this re-evaluation was further conducted under the scope of existentialism. In the twentieth century, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism swamped the US to find and resolve the purpose of human existence. This philosophical inquiry hax been translated into the modern American novel, to the extent that “the basic unit of the American novel is the act, which for the Existentialist constitutes the unity of life” (Bruneau, 1948, p. 67). As Bruneau goes on discussing further, existentialism in the American novel was partly conditioned by the spectrum of objectivity between the author and their characters. Hence, “if human life is a string of irrational deeds, it follows that the writer cannot afford to understand them. […] Sartre is convinced that the only way to write a true novel is to leave the characters as mysterious and obscure as they really are” (Bruneau, 1948, p. 68).

In the case of the US, these elements were accentuated because of both World Wars. The atrocities product of the wars impacted human emotion and understanding. The war mindset had no place in American society and thus, many lost their sense of purpose, or rather, of whether their existence had a purpose. As a consequence, the banal and the absurd gained force across the literature. By contrast, determinism lost prominence as an excuse for human responsibility in its behavior. Considering that “the Existentialist novel, therefore, will not tell a story; it will choose a particularly important relationship between character and the world, or society, or other characters, and develop all its possibilities” (Bruneau, 1948, p. 70). In the US, the relationship involved the individual and their nation; how does one American contribute to the whole of America? In other words, does or should the American individual fulfill a purpose in their nation’s road to greatness?

Figure 5. A photography of Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher to whom many of the theories behind existentialism in the 20th century are attributed.

New Journalism: The New American Genre

Journalism was of great interest to critics and writers at the time. Between the 60s and the 70s, the form and writing of journalistic pieces were transformed with non-journalistic literary methods. Accounting for the political and social anxiety of the moment, there existed “two converging and coalescing forces, one of them by journalists at newspapers and magazines trying to break away from the rigid protocols of their calling, and that of established fiction writers eager to comment more directly on the affairs of the day without undermining their reputation as fiction writers” (Dennis, 2018, 284). Hence, narration and literary devices were introduced into journalistic pieces that birthed new genres. Subjective perspective, interior monologue, and reportage are some of the many characteristics of this new journalism.

The genre is attributed to Tom Wolfe in 1973 after publishing a collection of articles titled The New Journalism, which included renowned authors such as Truman Capote and Joan Didion -also considered a pioneer of the genre-. Moreover, Capote and his novel In Cold Blood (1966) were recognized as the instigator of the true crime genre, a slightly different version of New Journalism. This genre belonged to the realm of nonfiction, with literary tendencies that made the textual facts flow like a story instead of a police report. The veracity of the subject provided wide recognition around the country to the extent that the genre was considered exclusively American since “its subject matter and context did not always directly treat great events or notable people, but rather conditions and circumstances more often associated with popular culture. And that content reflected a more self-referential approach where the message might be a subtle window on the culture itself” (Dennis, 2018, p. 300). Implicitly, the content presented was clearly structured around American society and culture, and thus, a reflection of them.

Figure 6. The True Crime novel In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote.

New Demand for Genres

With time, the typical domestic plots and themes became extensively overused. On the one hand, back in the old continent, Tolkien and Lewis had blasted open the doors to multiple fantasy worlds with The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, respectively. In the US, the fantasy genre revolved around family prospects and economic success in domestic settings. Yet, these two British authors, who exploited the Middle Ages for fantastic plots and magical endeavors, bridged a world of narrative possibilities across the ocean. In America, fantasy became a commercial success accumulating thousands of followers that pushed authors to write more fantasy. In fact, quite a number of well-known fantasy series thriving in the 2020s are from 90s authors such as Robert Jordan with his Wheel of Time series or George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones. Retrospectively, American identity did not play a crucial role in the development of the fantasy genre since much influence came from Tolkien or Lewis and English history.

On the other hand, a genre that had been severely overlooked at the time was rekindled with writers such as Stephen King. Horror as a descendent of Gothic literature maximised most of its characteristics. Effectively, “on the other side of the American Dream was always the American Nightmare, and creators seized on Gothic language to make their critiques of the ’exceptional’ nation-state” (Storey & Shapiro, 2022, p. 1). Carrie (1974), despite its gore, intrinsically deals with bullying, abusive households, and female affiliation, among others. Although this story could happen practically anywhere, it is set in the American educational system and culture and religious tendencies that exemplify human behavior from a hegemonic world power.

Figure 7. Carrie (1974) by Stephen King inaugurated the horror genre in the US.

On the whole, regardless of which of its many forms, aesthetics, or thematics it may adopt in one literary work or another, American literature largely revolves around its identity and memory. All of the movements, trends, or genres, except fantasy, seen in this article perpetuate the American nation and individual. Despite all the successes of 20th-century literature internationally, US literature is fundamentally rooted in its history, both its successes and mistakes. These are reflected in the genres that coat literature which react to the social context. Social evolution can be marked according to the movement the text is enclosed in. Some are preoccupied with form and narrative such as New Journalism, and others with the psychological implications and emotional responsibilities of living in America, such as existentialism, realism, or multiculturalism. Lastly, some were concerned about the existence of such a reality and whether this is representational, in the case of modernism and postmodernism. Finally, because of the overuse of the previous, new genres and narratives appeared in the horror and fantasy genre that boosted on the last leg of the century, and the beginning of the next. In a nutshell, the core fabric of Modern North American Literature is fairly convoluted which demonstrates the great lengths the US run during the last century.


Adams, R. (2007). The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism. Twentieth Century Literature, 53(3), 548-272.

Archambeau, R. (2012). Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism. In M. Hickman & J. McIntrye (Eds.) Rereading the New Criticism. The Ohio State University Press.

Barrish, P. (2011). The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge Introductions to Literature). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139021678

Bruneau, J. (1948). Existentialism and the American Novel. Yale French Studies 1, pp. 66-72.

Dennis, E. (2018). The Maturation of the New Journalism in the 1970s. In K. Curnutt (Ed.), American Literature in Transition, 1970-1980 (American Literature in Transition), pp. 281-303. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316584484.019

Grmusa, L.G., Oklopcic, B. (2022). The Great Gatsby: A Memory of the Memory. In Memory and Identity in Modern and Postmodern American Literature. Springer, Singapore. doi:10.1007/978-981-19-5025-4_2

Matz, J. (2004). The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Patell, C. (2014). Emergent U.S. Literatures: From Multiculturalism to Cosmopolitanism in the Late Twentieth Century. New York University Press.

Storey, M., & Shapiro, S. (2022) Introduction: American Horror: Genre and History. In S. Shapiro & M. Storey (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to American Horror (Cambridge Companions to Literature), pp. 1-12). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781009071550.001

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Natàlia Vila

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