Most Influential Authors in American Literature

The American literary landscape is as vast as the country’s yawning physical dimensions stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Trying to pinpoint the most influential authors to have emerged since the pre-colonial days of the 16th Century to the present day is as difficult as listing the best American cities or top American songs, all of which have candidates numbering in the thousands. 

Thinking back on history and glancing at my bookshelf, I’ve selected some authors who have had a profound impact on both American literary movements as well as countless readers and critics, but please know there are hundreds of other names I could have put on this list—the order of which only reflects a rough chronology and nothing more.  Let’s dive in and take a closer look at some of these American literary greats.

Phyllis Wheatley was the first black writer to publish a book of poetry.   As a slave, she lived in John and Suzanna Wheatley’s Boston home.  The Wheatley’s saw to it that Phillis received an education while she assisted Suzanna Wheatley during her final years.  Phillis showed noticeable acuity in her studies, particularly in writing, and was sent to London for further education where she studied Latin. Phyllis combined her religious education and devotion with her appreciation for the classics, translating and adding to the poems of Rome’s all-time greats such as Ovid and Horace.  In September 1773, her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London.  Her ability to perceive the world around her and hearken figures from ancient legend and muse on all things spiritual and mythic has earned her great respect among critics and poets alike, many of whom regard her to be one of the most talented and influential poets of the 19th C. 

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most recognizable and influential voices of the American Romantic period.  He is regarded as being the pioneer of the detective fiction genre, and his fascination with and predilection for invoking the macabre make his many short stories and poems delightfully chilling and thrilling portraits of loss, paranoia, despair, and unrequited love.  Perhaps most famous among his many works are his poem “The Raven” and his short stories A Tell-Tale Heart,  Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and The Pendulum, and the Cask of Amontillado.  Poe’s personal struggles with substance abuse and scandalous relationships epitomize the tortured artist archetype which was so pervasive among fellow Romantics, and eventually his tragic and mysterious death on October 7, 1849 seems only too fitting and perhaps even as if it were taken from of one of the gloomy forlorn passages of his works.

Mark Twain who wrote under the pseudonym Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a prominent American author of the literary movement known as Realism.  His sense of humor and familiarity with the land and lifestyle of bucolic America grouped him with other regionalists, who were known for their depictions of locales where their stories were set.  Twain perhaps most famously wrote the novels Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), both of which are widely celebrated coming-of-age stories following the adventures of brave, charismatic albeit ornery American boys.  The narratives feature dialectal language, a characteristic of regionalist writing which helps immerse the reader in the world of the characters the way the characters see it, make sense of it, and interact with it.  Twain’s wit and wry humor eventually inspired the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which has been annually awarded (excepting 2020 and 2021) since 1998 to such household names as Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, George Carlin, and Ellen DeGeneres among others.

Kurt Vonnegut was a writer, cartoonist, and heavy-hitting satirist hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana.  He is known for his imaginative narratives filled with colorful eclectic characters, zany adventures often featuring elements of science fiction, and scathing, riotously funny commentary on all things social, political, and religious.  Perhaps his best-known work is the critically acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a semi-autobiographical anti-war book that touches on the horrors of the European front during World War II, specifically the fire-bombing of Dresden, and follows protagonist Billy Pilgrim as he copes with the intersection of morality, life, death, and alien abduction.   Alongside an extensive catalog of published novels, Vonnegut also produced powerful short stories which have proved to delight readers and literary critics alike.

Toni Morrison is another literary giant and set herself apart from the rest as the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) for her critically acclaimed novel, Beloved (1987).   Morrison’s works were many and were well-received, and the subject matter often addressed and further opened discussion of black identity and race relations in America.  Oprah famously told Morrison during a live taping of her show that her books were the catalyst for the famous Oprah’s Book Club which started in 1996 and continues to attract and encourage readers worldwide to this day.

So, whether you’re looking to brush up on American literary figures for a CLEP exam or want something new to read, consider spending some time with these authors.  And remember, there are plenty more where these came from!


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