American Gods

American Gods

American Gods Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman grew up in West Sussex, England, reading fantasy works by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ursula Le Guin. In his late teens, Gaiman decided he wanted to become a writer. He began a career in journalism writing book and music reviews as he learned how to get published. After forming a friendship with the comic book writer Alan Moore, Gaiman started to work in comics. He was hired by DC comics in 1987 and worked on his most famous comic book series, The Sandman, from 1989 to 1996. From there, Gaiman moved into novels, screenplays, and radio. His most popular works include American Gods, Good Omens (in collaboration with British author Terry Pratchett), Stardust, Coraline, the book and television series Neverwhere, and the movie Mirrormask. He has been honored with several awards for science fiction, including four Hugos and two Nebulas as well as the Newberry and Carnegie medals. Gaiman also keeps an active online presence, with a website, twitter, and tumblr page updated frequently with fan questions, supplemental material to his works, and general publishing news. Gaiman now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after spending a decade in Wisconsin with his first wife, Mary McGrath. Now married to the musician Amanda Palmer, Gaiman is a current professor of the arts at Bard College in New York.
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Historical Context of American Gods

America has long been understood to be a nation of immigrants, beginning with the colonization of the American continent after Columbus’s so-called “discovery” of the continent in 1492. However, the first arrival of people in North America was likely between 40,000 and 17,000 years ago (most estimates cite the Clovis people who traveled around 14,000 years ago) when ancient tribes crossed the land bridge over the Bering Sea. From that point, many different groups are said to have been the “first” people in America, including the Norse around 1000 A.D., a possible Chinese voyage in 1421, and the likelihood that Polynesian peoples made contact with American land between 500 and 700 A.D. Gaiman includes references to almost all of these groups in his accounts of “Coming to America.” Regardless of who really “discovered” America, it is widely accepted that the unique American character comes from the many influxes of immigrants that have marked American history, and the unfortunate backlash against these new arrivals. In the 1500s and 1600s, thousands of French, Dutch, Spanish, and English settlers arrived in various parts of America, focusing mostly on the Eastern seaboard and what is now Florida, California, and New England. By the early 1700s, the English had won major control over the American land. The Puritan English settlers came seeking religious freedom, while others looked for economic opportunity, as Mr. Ibis explains with his account of Essie, the indentured servant. During this time period, African peoples were also forced to come to America as slaves, concentrated mostly in the southeastern United States and adding their traditional religions to the culture of this area. In the 1800s, another major wave of immigration hit the now established country of the United States of America. People from Northern and Western Europe came fleeing famine or poverty, as well as Germans who came and settled the large majority of the Midwest United States. Anti-immigrant sentiment grew, especially with regard to those immigrants (such as Irish or Italian newcomers) who practiced Catholicism rather than the largely Protestant groups of the first English colonists. Chinese and other Asian immigrants also came to America’s western coast during the mid-1800s gold rush, eventually culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that fought to keep the new Chinese population and its influence on western American culture to a minimum. By the late 1880s and 1890s, rapid industrialization and the chance for jobs brought millions of immigrants from southern, central, and Eastern Europe, and the cultural/religious practices of these groups were also added to the new mix of the American spirit. Cities such as New York and Chicago were especially affected by these new groups, retaining specific features like the Polish influence in Chicago, or the Ashkenazi Jews in New York. The immigration quotas of the 1920s fought to keep any one of these “newer” immigrant populations from becoming too strong. There was a lull in immigration during the two world wars and subsequent economic depression of the 1930s, but immigration picked up again in the 1960s with explosions of newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and countries in the Middle East, and around 14% of America’s population reported as born in a country outside the United States. The majority of immigrants to America today come from Mexico and China as debates about refugees and the details of legal and illegal immigrants continue to rage on. Immigrants today still change the face of America, adding new languages, foods, cultural practices, and, most importantly to Gaiman, religions into what counts as “American.”

Other Books Related to American Gods

As an “American Road Trip” novel that unearths the forgotten sides of America, American Gods has some aspects in common with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, though American Gods has a far more optimistic (and fantastical) outlook. It also takes inspiration from the detective novels of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler in Shadow’s noir-like character and the mystery of the town of Lakeside. Finally, as a work of modern mythology, American Gods is related to Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Buddha, Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka, Richard Wilkinson’s The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Within the genre of urban fantasy, American Gods is also similar to Diane Wynne Jones’ Eight Days of Luke, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels and Gaiman’s own collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.
Key Facts about American Gods
  • Full Title: American Gods
  • When Written: June 1998 to February 2001
  • Where Written: Neil conceived of the idea for American Gods on a trip to Iceland, then wrote the bulk of the novel while traveling around the United States (specifically Chicago, Florida, Las Vegas, and other locations). He finished editing and revising in Ireland.
  • When Published: June 19, 2001
  • Literary Period: Post-modernism, Contemporary
  • Genre: Americana, Fantasy, Mythology
  • Setting: America
  • Climax: Shadow figures out the truth behind the prosperity of the town of Lakeside, after hanging to die on a tree as a sacrifice for Odin and learning his true identity as Odin’s son.
  • Antagonist: The New Gods, Mr. World (Loki), and Mr. Wednesday (Odin)
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for American Gods

Popularity and Relevance. American Gods has been adapted into a television series by Starz, which premiered in April 2017. The series has been accepted well by critics, especially for the unplanned political overtones of its pro-immigration stance in the tense environment surrounding immigrants during Trump’s presidency.

Industry Secrets. Gaiman has kept a blog of the entire writing and copy-editing process for American Gods preserved on his website. Gaiman offers insight into the novel itself, as well as a peek into the world of publishing and all the things that have to happen after a book is written and before it can be read by the public.