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"American literature is about identity," writes Kevin Hayes. Indeed, some of the most memorable first lines go straight to the question of self-definition: Call me Ishmael. . . . I celebrate myself, and sing myself. . . . I am an invisible man. In seeking their own identities, writers have elaborated that of the larger nation, creating as well as reflecting what is distinctive about American society and culture. In American Literature, Kevin Hayes provides an important new addition to Oxford's acclaimed Very Short Introduction series with a much-needed new survey of American prose and verse. Rather than simply ticking through a chronological list, Hayes organizes his discussion into thematic chapters, drawing examples from important works from across the centuries. He explores travel literature, autobiography, the short story, plays, and poetry; he considers the significance of narrative voice, the idea of the great American novel, and even "the drama of the everyday." And as he traces continuities across time (the death-and-rebirth motif, for example, which appears everywhere from Moby-Dick to The Invisible Man), Hayes's treatment also brings to light literary change, such as how the theme of our relationship to nature evolved as the continent was explored and settled. Throughout, he lends a buoyant, even wry voice to his discussion, enriching it with color and texture. From showing how the American autobiographical tradition is deeply rooted in the Puritan practice of self-examination to capturing the importance of the spoken word for modern poetry, Hayes reveals a nimble and gracious intellect. He proves an ideal guide for the general reader wanting to know the contours and experience the pleasures of the American quest to speak to itself with imagination and meaning. Comprehensive yet succinct, lively yet judicious, American Literature represents the finest short overview of the full history of American letters.
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