In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, a lack of political and economic stability impeded the development of true American literature. Due in large part to the lax copyright laws that allowed piracy of previously published work, few authors emerged in the early 1800s. Around 1825, however, a distinctly American voice began to develop as writers explored the concept of identity in a vast and violent wilderness with little established social hierarchy.
America's First Professional Author
Washington Irving was the first American-born best-selling author who was able to make a living from his published work. However, since U.S. copyright law at the time didn't protect writers from piracy, much of Irving's work was written and published while he lived in Europe. His 1809 book "History of New York," written under the pen-name "Diedrich Knickerbocker," was his first popular work, but he is perhaps best known for his short stories. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," published in 1819 and 1820, began a new folklore tradition in the young nation. As a best-selling author with international literary acclaim, Irving spent his later years promoting stricter copyright protection so others could pursue writing as a legitimate career.
The Great American Novel
Irving wasn't the only American writer negatively affected by the weak copyright protection in the U.S. In 1821, James Fenimore Cooper published his second novel, "The Spy," a historical romance about the American Revolution. Although the novel became popular, Cooper saw the work pirated by four different printers within a month of its first publication. At the height of his popularity, Cooper left America for Europe, and at his death was more respected abroad than he was at home. Although the quality of his writing has been criticized, most notably by Mark Twain, he is credited with the creation of the first truly American protagonist. Natty Bumppo, the hero of "The Pioneers," defined the morally upright, rugged individualism that became the essence of the literary American spirit.
The Rise of the Romanticists
Revolutionary writers of the late 1700s focused primarily on personal essays and political topics. As the dust settled on the new nation, writers turned to fiction and entertainment writing, and America's first literary tradition was born. Beginning with Cooper, these writers developed larger-than-life characters who had to forge their own paths in the world against all odds. This uniquely American tradition reflected post-Revolutionary life in a new country without a stable, predictable social hierarchy. Following in Cooper's footsteps, mid-century romanticists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe wrote imaginative stories that drew on emotion, with fantasy and adventure elements.
New England Transcendentalism
The first genuine American philosophical movement, transcendentalism, rose out of the romanticist literary tradition. These writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, believed intuition and conscience were more important teachers of truth than experience and information gained from the senses. The movement was born in Concord, Mass., a New England town that became an artist's colony and an alternative to the hustle and bustle of post-Revolutionary American cities. Transcendentalists promoted a return to nature and focus on individual self-reliance.