From Dr. Adam Potkay’s English Majors Handbook (College of William and Mary), lightly edited

English and American Literary History

Every English major should have some sense of the distinguishing characteristics of each period of English and American literary history.

Some broad or general knowledge of the particular period in which an author writes is requisite for interpreting that author’s work; conversely, any interpretation of a particular work will influence one’s general sense of the period in which it was written.

In studying literary history we observe both continuities and transformations in each of the various literary genres – epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, lyric, biography, the essay, romance, and a relative newcomer, the novel.

Consequently, all prospective majors should begin their course of literary study by taking English 211 (English Literature I) and English 213 (English Literature II). Normally these courses should be taken in your freshman or sophomore year, and English 292 (Introduction to Literary Analysis) should be taken with one of them.

Here, in outline, are the major periods and the major authors of English and of American Literary History, through the early twentieth century. Datings for each period are conventional.

  • The Middle Ages (to 1485):
    Beowulf, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Gawain-Poet, Sir Thomas Malory.
  • The Renaissance (1485-1660):
    Often broken down between “The Sixteenth Century”(1485-1603) and “The Seventeenth Century” (1603-1660). 

    • “The Sixteenth Century”:
      Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare.
    • “The Seventeenth Century”:
      John Donne, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, John Milton.
  • The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (1660-1798):
    John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, William Blake.
  • The Romantic Period (1798-1832):
    William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott.
  • The Victorian Age (1832-1901):
    Thomas Carlyle, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde.
  • Modernism (1901-?):
    William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot.
  • Colonial (1620-1776):
    Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards.
  • Early National Period (1776-1830):
    Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper.
  • American Renaissance (1830-1865):
    Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.
  • Realism (1865-1920):
    Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Charles Chestnutt, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar
  • Modernism (1913-45):
    Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner.

Of course, literature doesn’t stop in 1945. Many new “classics” have entered the canon in the past seventy years, and you will doubtlessly become acquainted with some of them during your years here. Your appreciation of contemporary literature will be greatly enhanced, however, by a broad knowledge of earlier literary tradition.