1. Introduction: American Literature
Why and how is American literature different from its mother country (Great Britain)? In the beginning, America was a colony of Britain so its literature was the offspring of British literature; it was a sort of colonial literature, which would later give place to post-colonial literature. There are differences in themes, texture, etc. American literature is something else altogether – although this won’t happen until the 1820s, when American literature will become a literature of its own. Prior to that the formative period of American literature takes place. American literature is different because literature is a cultural manifestation that expresses the ideas of the author and the country. It is linked to the context in which it is produced, the social and geographical landscape. Landscape creates character, and character creates content. Form and content are inseparable; a change in content implies a change in form, and a change in reality produces changes in form and content. In order to understand how, we must look at several characteristics.
a) Social background
- the settlements (colonization)
- the first settlers: literally, people talk about the Puritans, but before them there were native Americans, whose voices were not heard until much later. There were also many visitors, but they didn’t stay there. Examples include Smith and Cabeza de Vaca among others. The settler colony in America was established in a peculiar way. Australia was initially a prison; marginal people and convicts were sent to this remote island. There was no hope and no future. They were sent to a land of punishment. The Australian hero needs to conceal his origins. Quite the opposite happened in America: the Puritans preached freedom, they wanted a land where nobody would banish their beliefs. They were proud, and the intellectual avant-garde. These first settlers were dissenters, religious, individualistic, idealistic, liberal (defenders of the individual), and there was a sense of community. The American prototype is that of a non-conformist. He opposes institutions, like the cowboy, who always ends up leaving the place he just saved – he can’t establish himself in traditional ideologies. He is a rebel. This is opposed to British literature, where all the characters live in society, accept the conventions, etc. There is no solitary hero.
The religious element in the Puritan mind was very important. They had a sense of the “higher mission”. God had given them the mission to create the Promised Land in America. It was a sort of “manifest destiny”. They were the chosen people, and had the mission to create a new Eden; thus they were idealistic.
American colonization was built on the idea of a new beginning, getting a second chance.
Another characteristic of the settlers was courage and hardiness: when they got there, there was nothing but land. They had to start from scratch. There was also the presence of pragmatism, influenced by Calvinism – there was a sense of money-making, addiction to commercial activities… but there was also a philosophical outlook as well.
b) Geographical setting.
The setting was, of course, the American landscape. It was peculiar from the point of view of space: there was an enormous land and a huge variety of landscapes, climate (deserts, woods, etc.). It was rich in possibilities. The setting also presented a sense of newness. America was a virgin land. The Puritans were conscious of man’s newly found innocence in this new land. The West and the “myth of the frontier” was also a major feature of the geographical setting. The term ‘frontier’ means ‘openness’ in America, it is a movement westwards. It was not a limit; there were new possibilities. The pioneers were men who abandoned their little...