Colonial Period (in American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Colonial Period (in American literature)

Colonial Period (in American literature): An era in American literary history spanning the years 1607, when English settlers founded Jamestown, Virginia, to 1765, when the passing of the Stamp Act by the English parliament enraged the colonists in America, sparking opposition that led to the American Revolution some eleven years later in 1776.

To say that an “American” literature existed during the Colonial Period is somewhat misleading. Although the colonists came from a variety of countries, the influence of England on every “American” institution was overwhelming, and most colonial writers modeled themselves after English writers. Furthermore, the very fact that the colonists came from different lands and religious backgrounds with few unifying influences made it difficult to form any “national” literature. The geographic dispersal of the colonists into small, relatively insulated, and generally self-sufficient communities and the limited communication between the thirteen original colonies created additional obstacles.

Some have even suggested that the use of the term literature to describe works written during the Colonial Period is inappropriate. Literature as we often conceive of it today — as an artistic medium — was in short supply. Indeed, imaginative literature was banned in several colonies until the American Revolution, thanks in large part to the Puritans, who viewed drama and the novel in particular as paths to perdition. Drama was explicitly labeled an evil akin to cockfighting by the Continental Congress as late as 1774. Furthermore, the harsh conditions of frontier life in America also inhibited the development of an artistic literature.

With practical needs and survival as priorities for settlers, colonial works were largely historical and didactic, intended to record, instruct, or even warn. Letters, journals, narratives, and histories were popular forms of writing. John Smith’s A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia (1608) is sometimes called the first “American” book, but given that Smith was an Englishman who returned home in 1609, this label is highly questionable. Other writers, however, migrated to America and stayed. Political figures such as William Bradford and John Winthrop kept personal journals recording events in Plymouth and New England, respectively, that became key sources of colonial history. Bradford’s journal, written between 1620 and 1647, was published as History of Plymouth Plantation in 1856; Winthrop’s journal, covering the years 1630—1649, was published in part in 1790 and then in its entirety in 1825 as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. William Byrd’s two histories of a border dispute, based on a diary he kept during a surveying expedition in 1728, were also published much later, in 1929, as Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. By contrast, Mary Rowlandson’s account of being captured by “Indians,” A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was published at the time, in 1682, to wide circulation in both America and England. Many colonial writers, preoccupied with issues of day-to-day survival, expressed hostility and fear toward Native Americans, including a strong opposition to miscegenation (mixing of the races).

Many colonial works were also polemical or religious in nature. The Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book published in America, was a compilation of psalms modified for singing. Sermons, philosophical pieces, and theological tracts were some of the most common forms of written expression; a number of ministers who were members of Massachusetts’s famous Mather family delineated the dictates of Puritanism. Calvinist preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards is perhaps most famous for his awe-inspiring, terrifying sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741).

Although poetry was not a major focus of colonial expression, a few poets emerged during the Colonial Period. Anne Bradstreet inaugurated lyric poetry in America with the publication of a volume entitled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650). Edward Taylor wrote a number of religious poems, but his work remained unpublished until 1937. Michael Wigglesworth was perhaps the best-known poet of the time; his poem The Day of Doom (1662), which set forth Calvinistic theology, was required reading for most schoolchildren of the day. Finally, toward the end of the period, Jupiter Hammon, a slave in New York, inaugurated the African American literary tradition with the publication of his poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries” (1760).

Nonreligious and nonhistorical prose was fairly rare, but among prose authors Benjamin Franklin — who incorporated Enlightenment ideas into many of his works — stands out. Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732) remains famous today; Richard Saunders is probably the first fully developed fictional character in American literature. A very different kind of imaginative prose was produced by John Cleland, author of the early erotic, softcore porn classic The Life of Fanny Hill (or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) (1749).

The first slave narratives were also written during the Colonial Period. An example is A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,Servant to General Winslow of Marshfield, in New England (1760).