American Literature Lesson 1

The periods of American literature are listed below:
– Exploration Period and Colonial Period to 1776
– Revolutionary Period 1776 to 1787
– National Period 1787 to 1820
– Romantic Period 1820 to 1860
– Realism Period 1860 to 1914
– Modernism Period 1914 to the end of World War II in 1945
– Post-Modernism Period from 1945 to the present

Exploration Period and Colonial Period (1776)

The beginnings of American literature can be traced to a

time long before European explorers arrived on the shores of North America. The folk tales of the American Indians contained oral narratives, myths, and legends from more than 500 languages and cultures. Many of the stories of the American Indian folk culture described a unique relationship with nature. Nature was depicted in a spiritual sense providing guidance and comfort for the members of the tribes.
Much of the literature of the American Indians was lost because there were no written records and many of the tribes were obliterated by diseases brought to North America by the Europeans.

The early European explorers who came to the Americas used the written word to record their observations of the New World. Journals were written by the explorers to provide information to the monarchs or patrons who financed their journeys to the New World. These journals included accounts of their travels and a description of the geography and the people living in a particular region. These accounts recorded by explorers from Portugal, Spain, France, and England were the first examples of written literature in the New World.

France and Spain were the leading European nations in the exploration of North America through the late 1500s. Near the end of the decade, the influence of England expanded and the power of France and Spain was in decline. English settlers began to establish permanent colonies along the East Coast of North America with the founding of Jamestown in 1607. The establishment of this colony marked the beginning of the Colonial period of American literature.

Colonial Literature
Captain John Smith (c. 1580-1631), wrote A True Relation, considered to be the first American book. The book described the English settlement of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607. Jamestown would become the largest city in the American colonies by 1710.

Smith also wrote The General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles in 1624. The purpose of this work was to describe the many opportunities the colonies offered to Englishmen. The work also described the story of how Pocahontas, the daughter of chief Powhatan, saved Smith’s life. Many historians doubt the accuracy of the story and regard the tale as mere folklore. Smith also wrote The True Travels and Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.

The economic opportunities in the colonies were described in other works, including William Penn’s Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania in 1682, Daniel Denton’s Brief Description of New York in 1670, and Carolina written by Thomas Ashe in 1682.

Many of the colonial authors referred to their allegiance to the British crown in their literary works. Other writers spoke of the various religious and political reasons that caused them to leave England and come to North America. Colonial authors sometimes used their writings as a forum to argue politics including the relationship of the church and the government.

In 1620, the Pilgrims founded the second permanent settlement in America at Plymouth. These colonists were also called Puritans, a Protestant group that followed the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564). The Puritans were an important force in the development of American literature, especially in the writing of sermons and histories.

One of the first written documents in the New World was the Mayflower Compact. This document was the framework for the new colony at Plymouth. All the male settlers signed the Mayflower Compact on November 21, 1620, before they landed on the shore of North America. Until 1691, the Mayflower Compact remained the basic form of government in the Plymouth Colony and other towns founded in the area.

Many colonists wrote personal journals to record the events of this time period. These journals were used to not only describe the events during the settlement, but also to attract new settlers to Plymouth.

William Bradford (1590-1657), a noted historian, was the second governor of the Plymouth Colony. He wrote the story of the colony from the 1630s to the early 1650s in Of Plimoth Plantation. This work describes how the Pilgrims separated from the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England.

Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630 by a group of about a thousand Puritans under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649). Winthrop wrote Journal, his personal memoirs, from 1630 to 1649, which describes the attempt to form a theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A theocracy is a government that is ruled or controlled by religious authority.

Other Puritan historians who defended the idea of a theocracy were Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Increase Mather (1639-1723), wrote An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences in 1684. This work was a summary of how people were rescued from both supernatural and natural disasters. Some historians believed Puritan leaders used this work to justify the Salem witch trials of 1692. In response to these charges, Increase Mather wrote Case of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men in 1693, which expressed his doubts concerning the accusations made during the Salem witch trials.

Religious Writings
Religious writings

Cotton Mather (1663-1728), devoted his life to praying, preaching, writing, doing good works, and defending Puritanism. He wrote more than 400 literary works on a variety of subjects. Mather wrote Magnalia Christi Americana in 1702, a religious history of New England that supported traditional Puritan beliefs. He also authored a summary of his interest in science in Curiosa Americana, written from 1712 to 1724.

The constant study of the Bible was an important aspect of the Puritan religion. The greatest Puritan preacher and theologian was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He wrote essays defending the teachings of traditionalist Calvinist doctrines. Edwards wrote A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, a defense of orthodox Calvinism. His other works include Nature of True Virtue, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and Freedom of Will. Edwards was a leader of a religious revival movement called the Great Awakening.

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Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683) was a Puritan minister who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for his views on separation of church and state and his sympathetic ties to the Native American tribes. In 1636, he founded a new colony at Providence. Williams described this separation in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.

Edward Taylor (c. 1654-1729) was a Puritan poet known for his meditative poems on scripture readings. Some of his poems, which described God’s majesty and grace, were not published until 1939.

Anne Bradstreet (c. 1612-1672) wrote poetry mostly about her love and devotion for God, her husband, and her family. Her work was published in London as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), the first volume of American poetry ever published.

The most popular poem of colonial times, “The Day of Doom: or a Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment” was written in 1662 by Michael Wigglesworth (1601-1705). The poem, considered the first best-seller, describes the events of the Apocalypse.

The literature of the Colonial period became important as more people learned to read. The first printing press was brought to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638. Book publishing in America began in 1640 with the printing of the Bay Psalm Book. The printing industry developed slowly in America. There were about 36,000 different books printed in America between 1640 and 1799. The city of Philadelphia became an important center of the book publishing industry because of the influence of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Book publishing had spread to all thirteen colonies by 1762.

Many church libraries were available to the people in the 1600s. Libraries in America began as early as 1655 in Boston. Benjamin Franklin organized the first community library in 1731. People were required to pay an annual fee to use the libraries.

The Boston News-Letter became the first published newspaper in America in 1704. Most colonial newspapers were small and usually published weekly. Benjamin Franklin began publishing the first magazine in America in 1729, The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin also published the Pennsylvania Newspaper, considered to be one of the best in the colonies.

Almanacs were books that contained worthwhile information and reference material, including a calendar of the months, weeks, and days of the year. The first almanac, An Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1639, was published in America by Harvard University. The most widely distributed almanac in the colonies was The Astronomical Diary and Almanack, published by Nathaniel Ames in Dedham, Massachusetts, between 1725 and 1764. Benjamin Franklin first published Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1733. Franklin also wrote his autobiography between 1771 and 1788, which was an important historical source of life in colonial America in the early 1700s.

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One of the most important sources of literature and information were the letters colonists wrote to each other, continuing a tradition of letter writing they had learned in England. Even paper and ink shortages and an unreliable post office system did not deter them from writing many letters. The letters written by the Committees of Correspondence were especially important before and during the Revolutionary War.

Romantic Period Reformers
Many writers supported the abolition of slavery during the Romantic period of literature. One of the most famous literary works was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) used his weekly newspaper, The Liberator, published from 1831 to 1865, to promote the fight against slavery.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) used his poetry to further the cause of abolition. He wrote Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question in 1837 and Amid Voices of Freedom in 1846.

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was a former slave who was one of the leading voices in the abolition movement. Douglass wrote his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom in 1845.

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A knowledge of this time period of American literature will be an invaluable resource for you not only as a student but also as a lifelong learner. This lesson is an overview of only some of the authors and literary works during this time. Many other writers that made important contributions to the literature of this time period were not discussed in this lesson.