History of American Literature

The story of American literature reflects the vibrant and sometimes violent origins of the lands that formed the United States of America. American literature begins with narratives of indigenous Americans and international explorers, extending to the creative work of slaves and other disenfranchised people. Immigrants and their descendants, as well as the nation’s continued influx of new immigrants, also contribute to the ongoing rebirth of the American character. Whether or not one adopts the metaphor of the United States as a melting pot, in which its citizens come together in the creation of a uniquely American ethos, its literary tradition speaks with diverse voices, and often with an eye to the land itself.

History of American Literature

American Literature: Revolutionary and Early American Era (1720–1820)

Throughout the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the American Revolution, many colonists pondered issues related to independence and governance. Support for religious freedom played a role in the civic life of the colonies, and in the 1730s and 1740s a revival of religious faith known as the Great Awakening took hold. Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist minister, played a vital role in this movement, which deemphasized tradition and ritual in religion, focusing instead on helping believers to develop a personal connection with their faith: to feel emotionally attached to their beliefs rather than to experience them intellectually. In 1741 he delivered the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which outlines the misery of hell awaiting those who ignore God’s teaching. His sermon ends by summoning sinners to return to God while time remains to repent: “it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it … ‹In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God” (156–57). In addition to the sermons of Edwards, George Whitefield, with his “Marks of a True Conversion” and “The Great Duty of Family Religion,” and Gilbert Tennent, with “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” also participated in the Great Awakening, which likely influenced the coming American Revolution. The emphasis on personal, emotional experience rather than solely on churches’ official positions, as well as the recognition that all people face the same possibilities of salvation or damnation, may have primed Americans for more revolutionary ideas in politics and governance.

Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century, American literature developed a character based less on faith and more on intellect. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous figures in the American Revolution, published his Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1733 through 1758, distributing useful information on such subjects as the weather, eclipses, and tides. More notably, Franklin’s almanacs instruct their readers with maxims, many of which remain in currency today: “He that goes far to marry, will either deceive or be deceived” (6), “Humility makes great men twice honourable” (7), and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” (9). Years later he co-authored the Declaration of Independence (1776). Franklin’s Autobiography chronicles his rise from modest beginnings as the son of a candle maker, his training as a printer, and his success as a newspaper editor, leading to his position as a representative of the colonies. Franklin died before The Autobiography was completed, and so only events occurring prior to 1758 are depicted. An excellent example of autobiography, Franklin presents himself with refreshing candor.

A number of tracts criticizing colonial rule and promoting the establishment of the United States of America was published throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century. In Common Sense, published anonymously a few months before the start of the American Revolution in 1776, Thomas Paine articulates a “common sense” argument against British rule over America and for the development of an American government. Paine followed this publication with sixteen pamphlets collectively entitled The Crisis, published from 1776 through 1783. The Crisis inspired American readers, criticizing the tyranny of the English who, he believed, usurped powers that only God should have over men. He firmly believed that Americans were right to fight for independence.

Other authors focused on issues uniquely American in nature. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote Letters from an American Farmer (published 1782) prior to the American Revolution, while living on his farm, Pine Hill, in New York. In these letters, he discusses the animals, plants, and communities of America. For the most part, he idealizes the nation, discussing the multinational origins of Americans, their religious diversity, and the country’s role as a refuge for the poor and disenfranchised. Crèvecoeur advances the idea of America as a melting pot: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” (70). Along with his positive representations of America, Crèvecoeur acknowledges the country’s weaknesses, condemning slavery and the failure of Americans to recognize the suffering of enslaved men and women. In his letters Crèvecoeur discerns a distinctly American culture in this fledgling nation.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) discusses the colony’s natural resources and influential social elements in America. Jefferson provides data about Virginia’s land and resources and discusses its people, religions, and laws, among other subjects. In his discussion of
slavery, Jefferson theorizes that, due to long-held prejudices and the effect of slavery, blacks and whites could not live together effectively in Virginia society. He therefore advocates relocating black men and women to Africa, after a period of education and work as slaves. Although Notes on the State of Virginia is among the most respected works of the eighteenth century, Jefferson’s position on slavery continues to create debate and criticism among current readers, especially in light of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings.

True independence and the establishment of American citizenship did not extend to African Americans or American Indians. Even so, a number of these Americans played important roles in this period of American literary history. Among the many ministers publishing sermons, Samson Occom, a Mohegan and Presbyterian minister, penned his “Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul” in 1772, the first publication in English by an indigenous writer. This sermon was delivered in Connecticut at the execution of Moses Paul, a Mohegan who killed a white man. Occom, a skilled rhetorician, published his sermon soon after its delivery, and it went through nearly twenty editions into the nineteenth century. Olaudah Equiano, born in what is now Nigeria circa 1745, was captured as a slave in 1756, sent to Barbados, and eventually sold to a Pennsylvania merchant. After buying his freedom in 1766, he left for England, later traveling to many other countries, but never returning to America. Equiano strongly supported abolition and lectured on the subject in England. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) details his childhood in Africa and his horrid experiences as a slave, although recent evidence suggests that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina, making some of his story a fabrication (Carretta 96–105). Nonetheless, his vivid and dramatic descriptions in this book advanced the abolitionist cause. Equiano’s book represents a strong example of the slave narrative, a genre of autobiography common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries recounting a slave’s life and mistreatment, including such later works as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

Of course, black Americans also wrote in genres other than slave narratives. The first published African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston as a child in 1761 and sold to the wealthy Wheatley family, who educated her and encouraged her to write. In Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), she pens verse in several genres, including elegies written on famous figures, such as minister George Whitefield; reflections on God and faith; and patriotic lyrics supporting America. “To His Excellency, George Washington” (1775) resulted in a meeting between the two. She enjoyed fame for a short time, but her success did not last. Soon after Wheatley was emancipated, she married, but her family succumbed to poverty and she died when approximately thirty-one years old, having lost two children before her and a third soon after.

Other prominent American poets during the revolutionary period include Philip Freneau, who supported and fought in the American Revolution. His poems include “On the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country” (1779), “The Indian Burying Ground” (1788), and “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man” (1795). Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus (1787) and the later revised edition of the work titled The Columbiad (1807) pay a patriotic tribute to America and brought him much literary respect. More recently, the poem’s critical reputation has fallen due to its rhetorical excesses. Of his poetry, “The Hasty Pudding” (1793) stands as his most lasting contribution to American literature.

Soon after American independence came the first American novels. During this period, the literacy rate improved, which increased readership for authors and booksellers. As the country was defining itself and its values, novels took up entertaining subjects that often intersected with social and political ideas. Recognized as the first American novel, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1791) explores with sentiment and emotion a romantic relationship discovered to be incestuous. The novel was intended to be engaging for readers but also instructive for young women in their conduct. Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794), the best-selling novel in America for approximately fifty years, tells of the seduction of Charlotte Temple, a teenager, who is impregnated but then deserted by her seducer. Rowson’s sentimental novel warns young women to protect their honor and to avoid being led astray. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton (1797) offers both entertainment and instruction for readers. This epistolary novel tells the story of Eliza Wharton, a young woman courted by two men: a clergyman and a libertine. After losing both men to marriage, she has an affair with Peter Sanford, the libertine, and finds herself pregnant. Alone and unmarried, Eliza gives birth, but her child dies, and Eliza dies soon after. Although the novel powerfully argues that feminine virtue is important above all else, the author also demonstrates great sympathy for Eliza and her struggles. The Coquette, like Charlotte Temple and The Power of Sympathy, is a sentimental novel, focusing on the realm of feelings rather than logic, and inviting readers to become emotionally invested in the characters’ lives. These are merely three of numerous American novels in the sentimental tradition, an eighteenth-century English literary tradition as well that enjoyed continuing popularity in nineteenth-century America.

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History of American Literature

American Literature: Pre-colonial and Colonial Era (Pre-Columbian–1720)

The literary heritage of the United States begins with the many indigenous communities of the Americas, whose stories, chants, and prayers came down from generation to generation through oral performances, which changed with each teller. For many years, these stories remained within individual tribal communities, though some Native American oral texts were eventually transcribed. Many Native American creation stories share common features, such as the importance of the natural world, yet each story offers unique insights into the history and beliefs of its people. Several creation stories, including those of the Creek, the Iroquois, the Cherokee, and the Lakota, depict a cataclysmic flood, after which the current world, populated with people and animals, comes forth. Numerous stories, including those of the Navajo and Lakota, discuss the role of a trickster figure who participates in the world’s creation. North American creation stories unite the world of humanity with the natural world through such symbolically important animals as the wolf, turtle, and serpent.

Europeans traveling throughout the continent in voyages of discovery and acquisition produced the first major set of written texts coming from the Americas. The voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 inaugurated numerous exploratory trips authorized by Spain, Italy, England, and other European countries. Within fifty years after Columbus, Europeans had settled communities from the eastern coast of what is now Canada, along the eastern seaboard, and on throughout South America. Other explorers moved west through the interior of the continent. Throughout this period, explorers documented their experiences through a combination of travel journals and formal missives back to the governments sponsoring their travels. This literature of encounter records detailed information regarding the physical landscape, flora and fauna, and most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Columbus’s letters to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella explain his early reactions to the New World, specifically to Hispaniola (comprised today of the Dominican Republic and Haiti). He describes the lush countryside ready for cultivation, as well as his plans to control the indigenous people if necessary. In his journal entry for October 15, 1492, Columbus notes that the Arawak Indians lack experience with fighting: “Your Highness will see from the seven whom I caused to be taken in order to carry them off that they may learn our language and return. However, when Your Highness so commands, they can all be carried off to Castile or held captive in the island itself, since with fifty men they would be all kept in subjection and forced to do whatever may be wished” (28). Columbus’s journals convey his interest in the place and its people, but also his indifference to the Indians’ welfare.

Other early explorers expressed a mix of emotions toward the New World. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spaniard who traveled to America in 1502, criticized the ways the explorers treated indigenous peoples. For years Casas assisted in the settling of Hispaniola, work that included physical attacks on the Taino Indian community, supposedly undertaken as a defensive measure, although just as likely executed without provocation. Like other settlers, Casas conscripted slaves from among the indigenous people, taking their land and their liberty. After his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1510, Casas realized that such violent measures for controlling the indigenous population were detrimental to the Indians and to his people. He released his slaves, and he also advocated for the rights of Native Americans, taking his argument to King Ferdinand. Although he initially failed to alter prevailing practices, he was appointed Protector of the Indians. In 1516 Casas presented to the King’s regents his “Memorial de Remedios para Las Indias,” which proposes methods for improving conditions in the West Indies, including ceasing the use of forced Indian labor and changing the economic system. Casas’s “Brevísima Relacíon de la Destruccíon de las Indias” (1542), a tract detailing the violent treatment of the indigenous people, initiated changes in Spain’s slavery laws. He also wrote Historia de las Indias, a three-volume work chronicling the history of the colonization of the West Indies, from 1492 through 1520.

La Relacíon de Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, originally published in Spain in 1542, recounts the adventures of Cabeza de Vaca throughout the American South and Southwest. Cabeza de Vaca traveled in 1527 as part of a large exploration to Hispaniola and then on to the Florida coast, surviving shipwrecks and other catastrophes. His La Relacíon describes the years he roamed the region, including his imprisonment by the Karankawa, his work as a healer and merchant, and his life among indigenous groups, including the Pimas, Coahuiltecans, and Conchos. His descriptions of these tribes’ daily lives illuminate their customs and beliefs, including aspects of marriage, death rites, personal relationships, clothing, commerce, child-rearing, and other subjects. Although he struggled throughout his time in America, Cabeza de Vaca respected the indigenous people for their kindness to him.
Throughout the sixteenth and into the early seventeenth century, other explorers and settlers recorded their encounters with America. Such reports came from other Spaniards, such as Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who traveled throughout the American Southwest, and Hernán Cortés, who traveled throughout Mexico, ultimately conquering the Aztec empire. Englishmen Arthur Barlowe described his voyage to Roanoke and John Smith wrote of his experiences in Jamestown, as well as other parts of the eastern coast. Frenchmen like Samuel de Champlain played an integral role in France’s claims to land in what is now Canada and the northeast United States, and Robert de La Salle traveled the length of the Mississippi River and claimed the Mississippi River basin for France, naming it Louisiana.

By the seventeenth century, much of North America’s eastern coast was being settled, with new immigrants creating communities or joining existing ones. These settlements fostered new publications, with some of the writing intended for people living in the colonies rather than for those living in Europe. Most of these nonfiction publications focused on issues important for people in these new towns and cities, including histories and religious tracts. One of the earliest and most important works from this period was William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. A Puritan Separatist, Bradford came to North America on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. His history of the region depicts the community’s experiences from 1621 through the 1640s, and he also explains the religious reasons for the Puritans’ exodus to North America.

John Winthrop, one of the founders and the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, brought his Puritan beliefs to the colonies in 1630. On his voyage to America, he gave a speech, later published as A Model of Christian Charity, outlining his ideas about building a community based on religious responsibility. Like other Puritans, he believed that God creates roles for each human and that all people play a role in the community, whether as leader or follower, or as rich man or poor. Society, Winthrop argued, requires the cooperation of its members working together. Winthrop also kept a journal detailing his experiences in America, which was published as The History of New England from 1630–1649. After several generations of Puritans established colonies in North America, Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston, scripted his comprehensive work on the history of religion in New England. Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) tells of the hard work and dedication demonstrated by generations of New England settlers who established communities steeped in a Puritan sensibility.

An original member of the Massachusetts Bay Company like Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet wrote poetry as a child in England and continued in America. In addition to lyric poems such as “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment,” “The Author to Her Book,” and poems in memory of her father, grandchildren, and others, Bradstreet also wrote a series of “Meditations.” A collection of her work was first published in England in 1650, making Bradstreet the first published poet of the New World. Following Bradstreet’s lead, Michael Wigglesworth, a Puritan minister, became the best-known poet of the age. “The Day of Doom” (1662) inspired a fervent readership, particularly among Puritan readers, due in part to the poem’s graphic descriptions of the day when God returns to judge the wicked:

Mean men lament, great men do rent
their robes and tear their hair:
They do not spare their flesh to tear
through horrible despair.
All kindreds wail, their hearts do fail:
horrour the world doth fill
With weeping eyes, and loud out-cries,
yet knows not how to kill.
(stanza 11)

Such powerful religious language highlights the centrality of religious themes to the literatures of the British colonies. Not surprisingly, many colonists who fled England to escape religious persecution appreciated religious verse.
Although much of the writing from seventeenth-century America focuses on the establishment of colonies and religion in the New World, other publications accentuate the dangers of life in an apparently uncivilized land. On February 10, 1676, Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife, was kidnapped along with her three children by members of the Wampanoag. A prisoner for eleven weeks and then ransomed for twenty pounds, Rowlandson records her experiences in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682). The narrative excited readers, and her religious devotion served as an example for others in duress. Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is the most famous of this genre. Some stories of captivity recount not only captivity’s dangers but also its positive features. In 1755, young Mary Jemison and her family were kidnapped by a group of Shawnee and Frenchmen during the French and Indian War. After many of her family died, Seneca Indians adopted her. Eventually she married a Delaware and, after he died, a Seneca. When Jemison had the opportunity to return to the colonies, she instead stayed and lived out her days among the Seneca. Her experiences were published in 1824 as Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. The publication of these captivity narratives and of other stories of adventure, such as that of Cabeza de Vaca, started a long series of American adventure literature.

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