Colonial America’s Literary Beginnings
- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (excerpts)
- Thomas Morton, New English Canaan (excerpts)
- John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
- Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (excerpts); “Letter to the Town of Providence,” and “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution”
- Anne Bradstreet, poetry
We often think of literature as a piece of fiction, or perhaps as a short story, or poem, or play. While there is some of that in early American literature, much of what you will find during this “beginning” period includes sermons, journal accounts, and travel narratives. At times, you may feel like you are taking a course in history or religion. You may wonder whether the early American settlers had any actual “stories” to speak of, or whether they wrote anything beyond religious tracts or nonfiction (they did—and you’ll read some of that, too). It’s also important to remember that although this section focuses on literary beginnings of Colonial America, that doesn’t mean these were the very first texts ever produced in the Americas. As you’ll see in the section on “Native American Contact Zones,” (oral) creation texts have a long history that predates European colonial settlement.
Much of the writing produced in the American colonies during this early period is focused on how to navigate the “New World.” It makes sense when you think about it, since they have embarked on a journey to what truly is a “new world” for them. Conditions are much more challenging than they initially anticipated: people are starving, illness is rampant, personality conflicts abound. As a result, their literature is often aimed at figuring out:
- How to manage with limited resources,
- How to deal with the Natives Americans they encounter, and
- How to establish rules and maintain order within their small communities
Most of the literature we’ll encounter in this section grapples with all of these challenges. And while they may not seem very literary at times, they are—and it’s our job to figure out what these texts mean and how they mean these things. For example, when we are reading what appears to be a historical text, we should think about how the text is constructed. This includes asking questions about which events the authors are focusing on, as well ashow they are situating themselves and establishing their credibility in their writing.
Several of these texts are authored by Puritan writers, so it will be important for you to understand some of the basic tenets of Puritan ideology. The Puritans employed “typology,” the practice of using the Bible to understand events in their daily lives; they believed they were re-living Biblical scripture, and they interpreted their lives through this lens. They also viewed themselves as the New Israelites on an “errand in the wilderness.” They believed in predestination, and that the “elect” would be saved through God’s “covenant of grace.” A person could not know whether they were chosen or not, and this made the practice of typology especially important; they were looking for signs to help them know if they would be saved. Texts like John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrativeaddress many of these ideas more fully while also showing us what life was like for Puritan men and women during this period.
However, it’s also important for you to know that Puritanism was not the only religious faith in existence at that time, and that not all Puritans agreed on what it meant to be a “good” Puritan. Our ideas about the separation of church and state were just beginning to emerge during this period, and this, too, is at the heart of at least one of the conflicts you’ll be reading about. These writers knew each other, and in many cases, the texts you’ll encounter here are a window into the religious and political disagreements they had with one another.
The “Utopian Promises” video by Annenberg Learner will help you to understand more of the basic tenets of Puritanism, Quakerism, and the challenges that the colonists faced. As you watch the video and read these texts, it may help you to keep the following questions in mind:
- In what ways do these writers seem to be speaking to one another—either directly or indirectly?
- How are these writers constructing images of themselves?
- What seem to be the chief concerns of each of these writers? How are they presenting these concerns? In what ways do they suggest solutions for the problems they’ve identified?
- The term “American” was not in use when these authors wrote, but today, we see them as early American figures. As you read, think about how each writer is constructing an “American” identity. If we could create a picture out of each of their texts, what would these “American” figures look like? How might each of them describe the “ideal” American?