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From Mark Twain to Bharati Mukherjee, from Herman Melville to Zitkala-Sa, from Richard Wright to Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King, the American literary canon is constantly being re-shaped. And it makes sense: As soon as the U.S. was founded it began to change with dizzying rapidity. With each wave of immigration and settlement, and the infusion of new traditions (literary and cultural), Americans have had to redefine what it meant to be an American, and what it meant to have a uniquely American literary tradition. With so vast a country, which encompasses so many cultures, races and creeds, the literature has had to stretch at the seams to make room for multiple traditions.

What graduate students in American Literature study now is often literature in conversation. How does Toni Morrison respond to William Faulkner? How did Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau influence one another? What did Lillian Hellman think of Mary McCarthy? (not much)

Studying American Literature means engaging with an ever-changing literary tradition. Questions that graduate students in American Literature must confront include how American literature differs from other English-language literatures. Does literature written in other languages within the United States count as American literature? How does American literature reflect its society and culture—politics, economics, religion, and aesthetics? Students must therefore master all of those areas—cross-disciplinarians prosper in the study of American Literature.

American literature is more than just a cultural artifact, of course. Imaginative expression and experimentation have been essential to the ways in which a young country has struggled to establish itself as the cultural equal of the grand Old World. Therefore examination of structure, style and syntax are as important here as they are in the study of any literature.

Degree Information

An M.A. in American Literature will normally take between one and two years, and will involve submission of a master’s paper or thesis and written exam(s). In some degree programs, study of a foreign language may be required.

Many programs offer a Ph.D. in English with specialization in American Literature, though many are now also offering a distinct Ph.D. in American Literature. A Ph.D. will take between five and seven years, and will involve submission of a dissertation and, quite often, comprehensive exams. In some degree programs, study of a foreign language may be required.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Who are the faculty members and what are their areas of concentration?
  • What sort of access do you have to faculty members, especially any big names?
  • With which other departments does the Literature department cooperate?
  • What is the intellectual tone of the department?
  • What about the students? Where are they from? What are they doing? What about the alumni? Have they stayed local? Do they support the school once they've left?
  • What kinds of fellowships or teaching assistantships are available?

Career Overview

Like other liberal arts majors, a graduate degree in American literature is not really a vocational one. But, like other liberal arts degrees, it is prized for the critical thinking skills it demands, the writing ability it cultivates in its students and the historical knowledge it imparts.

Students of American literature can end up as teachers, professors, writers, authors, editors, publishers, reporters, cultural critics, playwrights, or directors. Or they can end up in government, law, urban planning, research or archival work. The essential ingredients of an American literature degree—critical theory, historical analysis and literary analysis—prepare its adherents for many different occupations.

Career/Licensing Requirements

There are no specific licensing requirements for a career in American Literature.

Salary Information

Salary varies widely: An associate professor in American Literature could expect to make between $30,000 and $40,000 to start, and the median salary for editors (with and without experience) was about $39,000. Writers who have a regular salary (working on the staff of a magazine or newspaper, for example, or doing technical writing) can earn as little as $20,000 and as much as $80,000 (only about 10 percent earn more). Someone who parlayed his degree into a job as an archivist for the Federal Government could be making as much as $60,000 in a few years.

Related Links

American Literature
American Literature, the preeminent academic journal in the field, has searchable fields online enabling the public to get access to cutting-edge essays and an "announcements" section that tracks prizes, competitions, conferences, grants, and publishing opportunities.

The Modern Language Association of America
The Modern Language Association of America has information on periodicals, conferences, readings, jobs and style guides. It also provides a quarterly newsletter and links to accredited universities.

The Voice of the Shuttle
The Voice of the Shuttle is an online compendium of sites for academic research. It contains searchable areas from multiple disciplines in the humanities, including Literature.


  • Language And Rhetoric

  • African-American Literature

  • Colonial And Early National

  • Critical Theory

  • Folklore And Film Studies

  • Modern/Postmodern/Cultural Studies

  • Nineteenth Century American Literature

  • Rhetoric And Composition

  • Textual Studies

  • The Immigrant Experience

  • Twentieth Century American Literature