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Notable literary movements

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Literary Movements

Literary movements are terms which group writers whose works have similar subject matter, writing style or thought. There tends to be overlap in literary movements. Usually the terms for these movements and their associated writers are developed over time - or the group of writers will define themselves in this group (such as the Beat generation or the Dada movement). In literature, you'll see a lot of these terms, especially when coming across anthologies or studying writing on a large scale. These terms definitely help you get a sense of the context in which these writers wrote. Take a look!

Absurdist literature
c. 1930-1970

This movement occurred primarily in theatre drama. It is nihilistic and emphasizes the meaninglessness of life. One of the most famous works in the Theatre of the Absurd is Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot - in which a pair of men wait for Godot, who never arrives.

Angry Young Men

These "angry young men" were a group of British male writers. They created plays and fictional works which illustrated dissatisfaction with their government and the smug middle class. One of the most prominent works in this movement was John Osborne's play, Look Back in Anger (written in 1957). The term was coined by journalists who referred to these writers as such.

Beat Generation

The beat generation emphasized a bohemian culture of sex, drugs, and Buddhism. This generation is often associated with jazz. Allan Ginsberg is a famous Beat poet who gave readings in coffeehouses - he wrote the poem Howl. Jack Kerouac's book On the Road coined the term "beat".

Bloomsbury Group
c. 1906-1930s

This informal group consisted of friends and lovers, including John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Lytton Strchey, Virgina Woolf and E.M. Forster. They lived in the Bloomsbury area of London in the early 20th century, and have a great influence in liberalizing British culture.

c. 1660-1790

The enlightenment was a movement throughout Europe which emphasized reason, liberty and technological progress. It is also known as the Age of Reason. Most of the writing during this time was nonfiction, such as essays and philosophical treatises by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau and Descartes.

Elizabethan era
c. 1558-1603

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, there was a blossoming of new English drama and literature - William Shakespeare being the most prominent. Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser are also some famous writers of this time.

Gothic fiction
c. 1764-1820

Gothic fiction had mysterious, brooding settings and plots - much like today's "horror stories". Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto is considered the first major Gothic novel. Edgar Allan Poe's stories are also considered Gothic.

Harlem Renaissance
c. 1918-1930

One of my favourite literary movements. This was a rebirth of African-American literature, art and music during the 1920s - beginning in Harlem, New York City. Popular writers of this movement include W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale's Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as the Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

High modernism

Modernism took form in the 190s, but "high modernism" was considered the golden age for modernist literature. This movement broke with the traditional aspects of Western conventions. Popular works during this time include James Joyce's Ulysses, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time

The Lost Generation
c. 1918-1930s

The "lost" generation described a generation of writers who had a sense of disillusionment with the world - many of them had just entered maturity during World War I. Prominent writers of this group included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos.

Magic realism
c. 1935-present

This style of writing combines dream-like imagery and fantasies with real life. Prominent writers included Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and Isabel Allende.

Middle English
c. 1066-1500

This is the transitional period between Anglo-Saxon and modern English. After the Norman Conquest of England, there was a large amount of new secular literature - including ballads, romances, allegorical poems and religious plays. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a popular book of this period.

c. 1865-1900

This movement used very detailed realism in order to suggest that social conditions, heredity and our environment were inevitable in shaping our human character. Writers during this time include Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane.

c. 1660-1798

"Neo-" means "new", so this movement was a new version of the classical works of ancient Greece. It emphasized balance and order. Neoclassicism also roughly coincided with the Enlightenment. Popular writers of neoclassicism included Edmund Burke, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift.

Nouveau Roman
c. 1955-1970

Meaning "new novel", this French movement was led by Alain Robbe-Grillet. One of the lesser known literary movements, Nouveau Roman rid itself of traditional novel elements like plot and character - instead, it recording the experience of sensations and things in a more neutral manner.

Postcolonial literature
c. 1950s-present

This involves literature about, or by, people from former European colonies. These colonies include places in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. Its aim is usually to expand Western literature and challenge the Eurocentric assumptions about race, identity and otherness. Popular works during this time include Eddward Said's Orientalism, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

c. 1945-present

The term "postmodernism" is often used and interpreted in many ways. It is known as a response to the elitist literature of high modernism (such as Hemingway) as well as a response to atrocities of World War II. Postmodern literature is noted for his fragmented use of high and low culture, an absence of tradition and structure and a world of technology and consumerism. Popular writers of this period include Toni Morrison, Vladimi Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, and Kurt Vonnegut.

c. 1830-1900

This term is loosely used - it usually refers to any work that aims to give an honest portrayal (as opposed to sensationalism or exaggeration). Realism technically refers to late 19th century literature that was French, English and American. It aimed to depict ordinary life. This includes writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, and Leo Tolstoy. Naturalism can be considered a more intense version of realism.

c. 1798-1832

This literary and artistic movement was a response to the restraints and scientific approach of the Enlightenment. Romantics loved imagination, subjectivity, the romance of nature and spontaneity. Popular English writers of the Romantic movement included Jane Austen, William Blake, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. As for the American Romantic movement, prominent writers included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Sturm and Drang

Sturm and drang means "storm and stress/urge" in German. Though this was a brief movement, it advocated great passion - as a response to Neoclassical rationalism. One prominent example is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Wether and Faust. This greatly influenced the Romantic movement.


This primarily occurred in France - as you know, Salvador Dali was a popular surrealist painter. There were also surrealist poets, such as Andre Breton and Paul Eluard. These writers were not as popular as the artists of this movement.

c. 1835-1860

This was an philosophical (and also spiritual) movement occurred mainly in New England - the upper eastern states of America. It focused mostly on the individual's conscience and rejection of materialism in favour of becoming closer with nature. Thoreau's work Walden and Emerson's Self-Reliance are the most popular works.

Victorian Era
c. 1832-1901

This era is named after Queen Victoria and ends at her death. She had strict conservative views on sex, religion and science - but during this time, there were a great number of works written, as well as social reform. Writers of this era include Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray and Thomas Hardy.

Poets of this era included Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Nonfiction writers of this time include Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and Charles Darwin (who wrote The Origin of Species).

Is that all?

Of course not, silly! The number of literary movements could go on and on. These are just a few to help whet your appetite.

Images Credits: Kodiak Schools, NYtimes, Tfaoi,
Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby,


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Last Updated At Dec 07, 2012


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