American Literature

The United States of America, built on new, radical ideals and expectations, has a body of literature that reflects these sensibilities. In its earliest years, it was linked to the tradition of English literature. As the American character emerged its literature became recognized for its own voice, with its uniquely American point of view.

The American Literature CLEP exam covers material that is taught in a college semester survey course that explores the prose and poetry written in the United States from colonial times to the present. The exam primarily tests a student’s knowledge about American literary works. The interpretation of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose is also tested. The successful student will have an understanding of the terms, forms and literary concepts used by scholars to examine literature of all genres.

The exam assumes the student has read widely in American literature and has an understanding of American literary periods and historical timeline.

The exam contains approximately 100 questions to be answered in 90 minutes. Some of these are pretest questions that will not be scored. The College Board provides the parameters for the exam which we have listed below.

*An optional essay section can be taken in addition to the multiple-choice test. SpeedyPrep prepares its subscribers for the question portion of the exam, but not the essay portion.


  • Particular literary works—their authors, characters, plots, style, setting, themes, etc. (45% – 60% of the exam)
  • Understanding and ability to interpret short poems or excerpts from long poems and prose works. (25%-40% of the exam)
  • Historical and social settings of specific works, their relation to other literary works and traditions, and the influences on their authors. (10%-15% of the exam)
  • Familiarity with critical terms, verse forms, and literary devices. (5%-10% of the exam)

The American Literature exam recognizes the following historical timeline and literary eras.

THE COLONIAL AND EARLY NATIONAL PERIOD: (beginnings-1830)—15% of the exam.

Starting with the pilgrims, the foundation for American Literature was laid during this period.

THE ROMANTIC PERIOD: (1830-1870)—25% of the exam.

Westward expansion and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution sparked American authors to explore the ideals of intuition, imagination and individualism. Prose in the form of the novel was the leading literary form that extolled nature and the common man as hero.

THE REALISM AND NATURALISM PERIOD: (1879-1910)—20% of the exam.

Naturalist writers attempted to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to their study of humans, while the Realists focused on rendering reality closely and in comprehensive detail.

THE MODERNIST PERIOD: (1910-1945)—25% of the exam.

During the interwar period, modernist writers produced works that represented the transformation of traditional society under the pressures of modernity. Enlightenment thinking was rejected and writers sought to better represent reality in a new, more industrialized word.

THE CONTEMPORARY PERIOD: (1945-present)—15% of the exam.

This period explored the ways that truth is not straight forward, rational or clearly defined, but rather how it is completely influenced by human perception. Writers focussed on the workings of human thoughts and experience to define characters rather than their actions.

Each college sets their own credit-granting policies for the exam, so check with your college admissions office, test center, or academic adviser before taking the test.