Early American Writing

USA Literature in Brief - Kathryn VanSpanckeren 2007

Early American Writing


“The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris, depicts America’s early settlers and Native Americans celebrating a bountiful harvest.

Courtesy Library of Congress

The foundation of American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. Native American oral tradition is quite diverse. Indian stories glow with reverence for nature as a spiritual, as well as physical, mother. Nature is alive and endowed with spiritual forces; main characters may be animals or plants, often totems associated with a tribe, group, or individual.

The Indian contribution to America is greater than is often believed. The hundreds of Indian words in everyday American English include “canoe,” “tobacco,” “potato,” “moccasin,” “moose,” “persimmon,” “raccoon,” “tomahawk,” and “totem.” Contemporary Native American writing also contains works of great beauty.

The first European record of exploration in America is in a Scandinavian language. The Old Norse Vinland Saga recounts how the adventurous Leif Eriksson and a band of wandering Norsemen settled briefly somewhere on the northeast coast of America—probably Nova Scotia, in Canada—in the first decade of the 11th century.

The first known and sustained contact between the Americas and the rest of the world, however, began with the famous voyage of an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, funded by the Queen of Spain, Isabella. Columbus’s journal in his “Epistola,” printed in 1493, recounts the trip’s drama.

Initial English attempts at colonization were disasters. The first colony was set up in 1585 at Roanoke, off the coast of North Carolina; all its colonists disappeared. The second colony was more permanent: Jamestown, established in 1607. It endured starvation, brutality, and misrule. However, the literature of the period paints America in glowing colors as the land of riches and opportunity. Accounts of the colonizations became world-renowned.

In the 17th century, pirates, adventurers, and explorers opened the way to a second wave of permanent colonists, bringing their wives, children, farm implements, and craftsmen’s tools. The early literature of exploration is made up of diaries, letters, travel journals, ships’ logs, and reports to the explorers’ financial backers. Because England eventually took possession of the North American colonies, the best known and most anthologized colonial literature is English.

It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans, most of them of English or Dutch origin. Between 1630 and 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New England, as in England. The self-made and often self-educated Puritans wanted education to understand and execute God’s will as they established their colonies throughout New England.

Puritan style varied enormously—from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals and crushingly pedantic religious history. Whatever the style or genre, certain themes remained constant. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. This world was an arena of constant battle between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, a formidable enemy with many disguises.

Scholars have long pointed out the link between Puritanism and capitalism: Both rest on ambition, hard work, and an intense striving for success. Although individual Puritans could not know, in strict theological terms, whether they were “saved” and among the elect who would go to heaven, Puritans tended to feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth and status were sought not only for themselves, but as welcome reassurances of spiritual health and promises of eternal life.

Moreover, the concept of stewardship encouraged success. The Puritans felt that in advancing their own profit and their community’s well-being, they were also furthering God’s plans. The great model of writing, belief, and conduct was the Bible, in an authorized English translation. The great antiquity of the Bible made it authoritative to Puritan eyes.

As the 1600s wore on into the 1700s, religious dogmatism gradually dwindled, despite sporadic, harsh Puritan efforts to stem the tide of tolerance. The spirit of toleration and religious freedom that gradually grew in the American colonies was first established in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, home of the Quakers. The humane and tolerant Quakers, or “Friends,” as they were known, believed in the sacredness of the individual conscience as the fountainhead of social order and morality. The fundamental Quaker belief in universal love and brotherhood made them deeply democratic and opposed to dogmatic religious authority. Driven out of strict Massachusetts, which feared their influence, they established a very successful colony, Pennsylvania, under William Penn in 1681.