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


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historical, 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:

Modern North American Literature 101:

The Legacy of Modern North American Literature

Every aspect presented in this 101 series is crucial for understanding the contemporary American literary scene, both in the U.S. and in a global context. Geopolitically, the economic and social hegemony of the country impacts current cultural and literary tendencies. That is, American literature, as a whole, has been canonised within world literature and has been upheld with the same values as French and British Literature in previous centuries. English and Philosophy Professor Jeffrey R. Di Leo argues that “American literature […] has been historically delimited not just by genre or form but also by language and nation” (Di Leo, 2017, p. 3).

However, globalisation has provoked the exportation of a Western Americanised conception of culture and literature that overpowers European or other pieces of literature through national identity and, clearly, through the English language. Furthermore, the political position of the US in global power dynamics was accentuated after WWII by decimated countries in Europe and vulnerable decolonised ones in the other continents. Consequently, American self-glorification is translated into its literary projects. Despite being remarkable works of literature, their American sentiment is transmitted to other geographical locations, which subsequently estimate America with a greater value. Then, non-American texts and their readers undergo a process of Americanisation (Jaffe, 2017).

Figure 1. World Literature is suffering a process of Americanisation.

Essentially, “American fiction (or American literary culture) is, at the high end of prestige, a system unto itself, one characterized by books and readers that mostly engage with one another and that, as a system, maintains comparatively high barriers to entry for non-American participants” (Wilkens, 2021, p. 70). As cultural beings, readers and authors seek to replicate texts and tendencies that bring them closer to the isolationist American literary culture. Isolationist does not mean to imply that US literature refuses to interact with other literature but that its main goal is to remain outside a global context, to remain American at its core. This article strives to present the factors that assisted in the Americanisation of literature in several fields consequent to the events and works presented throughout this series so as to consider the impact of Modern North American Literature in a global context according to its national identity and language.

The Cultural and Economic Americanisation of Literature

Motivated by the political disturbs on US internal affairs, certain cultural issues were brought to the fore, such as class oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and xenophobia. Moreover, these were partly confronted by literary activism with countless authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. These actions, which paralleled in most ways to Western Europe, represent the “function of the value systems that trade on world literature as itself a global aesthetic” (Hitchcock, 2017, p. 89).

Figure 2. American Author Toni Morrison.

Perceived as the land of freedom and opportunity, the American Dream permeated massive bodies of culture through its literature. Although subsequent American texts gradually refuted the American Dream, its resonance persists in its national identity, chiefly in the quest for the Great American Novel [GAN]. Interestingly, the mid-century revision of GANs “set forth an alternative model of ‘greatness’ that despite its own fall from favor a few decades later helped ensure, […] that the field of eligibles would permanently be opened to a wider range of stylistic registers” (Buell, 2014, p. 56). The range of opportunities America seems to give to discriminated authors propelled a delusive image of the eminence of American texts. Actually, "the fact of their being American would seem to guarantee their crossover appeal and mass entertainment value, arguably transferring some agency of a global superpower to aspirational readers" (Apter, 2017, p. 107). Its denunciation of certain national affairs crafted a national identity that transcended borders, seas, and bookshelves (Di Leo, 2017).

The massive commercialisation of American novels, which ensued from a resilient capitalist system, has perpetuated an Americanisation of literature as an economic activity. The interference of publishing oligarchs such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, and distributors such as Amazon, might result in “the marketing of products intended for rapid, ‘de-nationalized’ circulation [and] products based on tested aesthetic formulas and designed to appeal to the widest possible readership” (Casanova, quoted in Vermeulen & Hurkens, 2020, p. 435). Therefore, the infiltration of American literature within World Literature has broader economic consequences, a product of the capitalist hegemony of the US in the international economy.

Figure 3. These are the most prominent publishing houses; all American except for MacMillan and Hachette Livre.
A Global America: Language and Geography.

Linguistically, the clearest example of the impact Modern North American Literature has had globally is its language: English. Sharing the mantle with the UK, both wielded their language as a non-violent weapon. That is, they became linguistic imperialists. Applied linguist Alastair Pennycook explains that "Nineteenth-century writing on English abounded with glorifications of the language, suggesting that [...] the undeniable superior qualities of English must reflect a people and a culture of superior quality" (Pennycook, 1998, p. 149). Even more, the popularisation of American novels propagated the establishment of English as a lingua franca. Moreover, the period of colonisation provoked English to become the first language in many multilingual colonies in Africa and South Asia. In the coexistence of languages, English is wrongly perceived as more communicative than other languages. Pennycook continues that there is a "notion of English as some pure Anglo-Saxon language, the idea that English and English speakers have always been open, flexible and integrationist, and the belief that because of their vast vocabulary, speakers of English are the ablest thinkers" (150). In the field of Postcolonial Studies, an area of interest should be the preference for English over the native languages of decolonised areas. The works, hence, belong to the category of Literature Written in English instead of their national literature.

On the one hand, some literary figures, such as Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o contend that “English itself ought to be avoided by African writers as a medium of literary expression. Language, in this sense, is not a passive object. In representing peoples and places, it has the capacity to make and remake them” (Marx, 2004, p. 86). By using native languages, people can reappropriate their culture and disassociate their cultural images from their colonisers. On the other hand, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe argued that “English is the only practical foundation for generating a literature equally accessible to all the members of a Nigerian citizenry that shares no other idiom” (87). Nonetheless, both options emphasise the relevant position of English in the postcolonial world. Contemplating the economic centre of the US globally, the Western reader is, either intentionally or not, targeted in an academic and entertainment sense.

Figure 4. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe decided to write his novels in English.

Geographically, the United States has an omniscient presence in English-written fiction, mainly novels. Typically, the US is mentioned, and even the plot partially occurs in American territory, regardless of the purpose of the novel. Characters are displaced and relocated to the US for economic, political, or professional reasons. In contrast, American novels predominantly remain grounded on American soil, seldom migrating to non-American locations. Hence, the surge of American Literature ensued from its twentieth-century literature and the American Dream disclaims how “immigrant narratives register the anxieties, ambiguities, and shifts in the dominant culture. They draw on its discourses to negotiate the demands of Americanism” (Taubenfeld, 2010, p. 496). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana (2013) and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002) are some of the countless examples in which characters are relocated at some point to the US. Consequently, the dominant American identity promoted by its twentieth-century literature clogs the reconciliation with other ethnic or national identities, preventing them from fully expressing themselves.

These narratives have presented the U.S. as a double-edged sword. They have their benefits and disadvantages. Author and Literature Professor Aviva Taubenfeld explains that,

“the new emphasis on ethnic distinctiveness […] created a new, dominant national narrative that turned away from the exclusivist Anglo-American conception of the nation to a construction of the United States as a ‘nation of immigrants.’ In the process, however, it reinforced the black-white color line in the United States. It normalized European immigration, […] whose distinctiveness built American and whose assimilation is a national loss, and set them against the apparent failings of African-Americans and the new ‘non-white’ immigrants” (506).

Therefore, Modern North American Literature geographically delineated the spaces in which plots and narratives could take place. That is not to say that all works are set in the United States, but consistently and gradually, it has been regarded as a role model. Clearly, contemporary works are demystifying certain metanarratives endorsed by the American state with “immigrants and their descendants suggest[ing] both the shared and distinctive experiences that continually inform the writing and rewriting of ‘America’” (507).

Figure 5. One of the main characters in Adichie's Americanah is displaced to the United States.
The Americanisation of Literature

The overarching influence of American literature across the globe boils down fundamentally to its texts, thematically and formally. As presented throughout this series, American authors, theorists, and critics have contributed to the reformulation and expansion of literary techniques, theories, and literary movements. The impact was of majestic consequences to the extent that literature itself, the written words, suffered a process of ‘Americanisation’. They became more American—contemplate that defining American is acutely as complex as with any other nationality.

Hence, “‘Americanisation’ is not quite the same as a whole sale commercialization and trivialization, for the simple reason that America is not a frictionless conduit for capital and commodities, but an environment with values, habits, and practices of its own” (Vermeulen & Hurkens, 2020, p. 436). Literary practices, for instance, are “manifestly preoccupied with the way in which Americans are tirelessly about the business of making America up” (Singer, 2017, p. 210). This preoccupation has reached foreign shores, and texts such as The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison are extensively studied; and have consequently been established as masterpieces of world literature.

Figure 6. The world is suffering a process of Americanisation.

Extremely concerned with its national history and population, twentieth-century American Literature is not that distinct from other national identities. It has had its struggles, conflicts, and successes (even if at the expense of others). However, it might be conceded that authors, considerably ostracised before the 60s, have to a certain degree, attempted to remedy certain errors and stereotyping. Evidently, “with a bit more oomph from the critical community, the mounting collective accomplishment of these latter-day writers might be linked back to earlier classics” (Buell, 2014, p. 464). In other words, American literature has been boosted to stand opposite and above the rest constantly. This situation is referred to as American exceptionalism. Due to its progressive approach to literature, that is, experimenting, testing, and distending it, alongside its cultural politics, “‘American literature’ came to a close, not because ‘America’ has ended nor because ‘literature’ has ended, but rather because no one needs either outside of or separate from ‘a world.’ Just as it is no longer possible to think ‘America’ without ‘world” (Di Leo, 2017, p. 13).

Conclusions and Farewell.

In a nutshell, this series has encapsulated seven main features of Modern North American Literature. The series mainly aimed to provide a general presentation of the literary situation of the United States throughout the twentieth century. First, a socio-political overview that explains the prevalence of American literature. Second, fundamental works essential for grasping the essence of American literature. Third, the main genres and themes that American authors interiorised and even instigated. Fourth, the diversity and representation that American works should include and recognise. Fifth, the influence of literary theory and literary criticism as well as those exclusively theorised in the US. Sixth, the delineation of Southern American literature contrasted with the rest of the country. And lastly, the impact and consequences such aspects had on the rest of world literature. However, the ultimate goal was to deliver the reader a plausible comprehension of the configuration of the actual American identity, crafted largely in the last century, through its literature.

Finally, this last article has sought to introduce the significant impact that American literature, both in its theoretical and practical sense, has had on world literature. Its relevance transcends the page and implicates itself in political, economic, linguistic, and geographic concerns, often as a power holder. In his epilogue, Di Leo concludes that if “the United States remains a desirable place of immigration for non-Americans broadly and for literary emigrants specifically, and so long as New York remains the most formidable publishing center in the Anglophone world, ‘America’ and ‘the American experience’ will continue to be a subject and/or target for creative writers” (Di Leo, 2017, p. 463). This contention should be the broader conclusion extracted from this series. American literature has such a relevant position in contrast to other works of world literature not due to its 'greatness' but because of its counterposition to them. Notwithstanding, Modern North American Literature can be regarded as crucial for contemporary literature considering its countless contributions to improving and developing world literature and the world itself.


Apter, E. (2017). Political Serials: Tanner '88 to House of Cards. In J. Di Leo (Ed.), American Literature as World Literature. (107-126). Bloomsbury Academic.

Buell, L. (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel / Lawrence Buell. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Di Leo, J. (2017). American Literature as World Literature / edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo. (Di Leo, Ed.). Bloomsbury Academic.

Hitchcock, P. (2017). Worlds of Americana. In J. Di Leo (Ed.)., American Literature as World Literature. (89-105). Bloomsbury Academic.

Jaffe, A. (2017). Experience to Experiment, Signs to Signals: Toward Flusser's New World. In J. Di Leo (Ed.), American Literature as World Literature. (187-208). Bloomsbury Academic.

Marx, J. (2004). Postcolonial Literature and the Western Literary Canon. In N. Lazarus (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 83-96). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521826942.005

Pennycook, A. (1998). The Discourses of Postcolonialism. English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge. (133-44).

Singer, A. (2017). Un-Making American Literature: Mind-Making Fictions of the Literary. In J. Di Leo (Ed.), American Literature as World Literature. (209-223). Bloomsbury Academic.

Taubenfeld, A. (2010). Constructions of “Ethnicity” and “Diasporas”. In P. Lauter (Ed.), A Companion to American Literature and Culture. (493-507). Wiley-Blackwell

Vermeulen, P., & Hurkens, A. (2020). The Americanization of World Literature?: American Independent Publishing and the World Literary Vernacular. Interventions (London, England), 22(3), 433-450.

Wilkens, M. (2021). Too Isolated, Too Insular: American Literature and the World. Journal of Cultural Analytics, 6(3).

Visual References


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Natàlia Vila

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