Notes for Norton Anthology of American Lit

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The “new world” that Columbus boasted of to the Spanish monarchs in 1500 was neither an expanse of empty space nor a replica of European culture, tools, textiles, and religion, but a combination of Native, European, and African people living in complex relation to one another. »full text •The Native cultures Columbus found in the New World displayed a huge variety of languages, social customs, and creative expressions, with a common practice of oral literature without parallel east of the Atlantic. »full text •Exploratory expeditions to the New World quickly led to colonial settlements, as the major European countries vied with each other for a portion of the western hemisphere’s riches. »full text •The role of writing during the initial establishment and administration of these overseas colonies involved influencing policymakers at home, justifying actions taken without their explicit permission, and bearing witness to the direct and unintended consequences of European conquest of the Americas. »full text •The Puritans who settled in New England represented a different type of colonist, one that emigrated for religious rather than national or economic reasons. »full text •Since the English language arrived late to the New World, it was by no means inevitable that the English would dominate, even in their own colonies. But by 1700, the strength of the (mostly religious) literary output of New England had made English the preeminent language of early American literature. »full text •The state of American literature in 1700, consisting of only about 250 published works, reflects the pressing religious, security, and cultural concerns of colonial life. »full text Full Text

Columbus’s voyage to the Americas began the exploitation of Native populations by European imperial powers, but we need not think of the intellectual exchange between the two hemispheres as being entirely in one direction. A Taino Indian whom Columbus seized and trained as a translator, and renamed Diego Colón in Spain, had as much to say to his people upon his return to the Caribbean in 1494 as Columbus did to Ferdinand and Isabella after his triumphant first expedition. The “new world” that Columbus boasted of to the Spanish monarchs in 1500 was neither an expanse of empty space nor a replica of European culture, tools, textiles, and religion, but a combination of Native, European, and African people living in complex relation to one another. After early wonder and awe at their unexpected discovery of inhabited land, Europeans used their technological edge in weaponry (gunpowder and steel) to conquer the region. They were aided in this task by the host of diseases they had brought from the Old World, against which early Americans had no immune resistance. Smallpox, measles, and typhus decimated Native populations, and in response to the lack of a local labor force the Spanish began importing Africans to take their place, thereby compounding genocide with slavery. But by no means were Natives merely helpless victims. Many adopted European weapons and tactics to defend themselves from invaders, and while some collaborated with Europeans, as did some Aztecs with Cortés’s Spanish force against their king Montezuma, or the Narragansetts and Mohegans with the New Englanders against the Pequots, they did so not out of submission or gullibility but to gain a temporary upper hand against their Native rivals—truly, a resourceful response to an impossible situation. back to Notes

The Native cultures Columbus found in the New World displayed a huge variety of languages, social customs, and creative expressions, with a common practice of oral literature without parallel east of the Atlantic. Compared to the three dozen languages, common religion and printed alphabet, and stable boundaries of the European nation-states, the Native peoples were much more diverse. They spoke hundreds of distantly related languages and widely differed in their social...
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