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What Are the Different Types of English Literature?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Different types of English literature are typically categorized either based on the period in which they were written or the country in which the writer lived. In general, literature in English typically refers to any work written in English, regardless of the nationality of the writer. Many types of literature are organized chronologically, and English writings are no different, with Old English, Middle English, and various types of Modern English all commonly used. As English language spread throughout the world, especially with the establishment of the US, English literature has also been divided between British and American literature.

English literature typically includes any written work initially or primarily composed in English, regardless of the nationality of the writer. This makes such literature quite large in scope and millions of books could qualify for this categorization, though literature typically refers to works of renown and substance that do not include many biographies or educational works. Chronological categorization of English literature is quite common, and this approach allows scholars and readers to begin with earlier literary works in English and see how the language and ideas have evolved and been built upon each other throughout the centuries.

A few works of English literature remain that were written in Old English, which is a form of English nearly indecipherable for most modern users of the language. Beowulf is perhaps the most well-known and important work of Old English, as it is quite lengthy and a complete text of the work from the 10th century still exists. Middle English, which spanned from about the 12th century to the late 15th century, is closer to modern English, though it can still be quite difficult for a modern reader to understand due to differences in language structure. Geoffrey Chaucer and his works, including The Canterbury Tales, are among the most well-known works of English writing that remain from this period.

The Early Modern period of English literature began as Middle English evolved into a more modern language through the development and spread of the printing press. Different periods of Modern English include numerous writers over hundreds of years, often categorized by social trends or English monarchs. The Elizabethan Era, for example, includes writers such as William Shakespeare, while Romanticism hundreds of years later featured writers and poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron.

Modern works of English literature often include those writers who worked during the late 19th and 20th centuries. These include poets and authors such as T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and James Joyce. Many of these writers wrote in reaction to the horrors of modern warfare they observed during the two World Wars of the 20th century.

English literature can also be categorized based on the location in which an author works. This is typically used to separate British and American literature, and those writers previously mentioned are all considered British writers. American writers include authors such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, as well as poets such as Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, and Emily Dickinson.

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Discussion Comments

By indigomoth — On Nov 25, 2013

@umbra21 - I don't know if they get excluded from the lexicon entirely because people are prejudiced against the countries, so much as that they are somewhat prejudiced against new literature. The USA and England were unparalleled hubs of culture until recently and the history of English literature is naturally going to mostly name authors from there, because it was only authors from there who had a chance to get published back then.

These days it's easier for a talented author to get published from anywhere in the world. It's still not easy, but it isn't a matter of scratching up the money for postage and paper and writing everything out by hand and not knowing the right people because you live half a world away, like it was back then.

By umbra21 — On Nov 25, 2013

I also want to point out that there are a lot of really good authors from other countries who write in English. Katherine Mansfield, for example, is a fairly well known author originally from New Zealand (although she did move to England because every author did in those days).

There are also some amazing poets and authors from Australia and Canada and South Africa and other places where English has spread.

By clintflint — On Nov 24, 2013

I was working in a group at school recently and one of the people in the group wanted to present our project as a series of stories that were being told by different narrators.

She thought it was a really original idea until I explained to her that one of the oldest works known in the history of English literature follows that exact same pattern.

I think it's almost impossible to get an original idea these days. It's always the execution that counts.

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