The history of American Literature starts well before this land was even called America. It has been a great evolution to come from tribal symbols and drawings to today's Stephen King and Danielle Steele. Literature has gone through many phases and was impacted by great events and ideas in American history.
The earliest form of literature in what would one day be known as America were far from what modern day people would consider "Literature". The Natives who inhabited this land first had unwritten ways of passing on experiences, beliefs, and stories. Natives relied heavily on the verbal telling of these stories to younger generations. The same stories, fables, or belief structures were told repeatedly, each time identical to the last, and were memorized by the listeners so they would be able to pass these on to the next generation. They also used pictures, carvings, or special mementos such as bones, teeth, feathers, or skins as reminders of great hunts or wars. If an entire tribe and all its descendants were killed off, the specific stories and history of that tribe would also be gone. Other tribes may speak of the first, but never in the same detail or with the same perspective as the original tribe members.
Long before settlers arrived in America, explorers reported on their voyages to the continent. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci provided some of the earliest European descriptions of the American continent. Before 1600 Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Harriot, and John White had published accounts of discoveries.
The writings of Captain John Smith, an explorer whose travels took him up and down the eastern seaboard of America, represent a shift from exploration narrative toward early history. Early histories, however, were written mostly by settlers rather than by explorers. William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote his Of Plymouth Plantation from 1620 to 1647 . Another important historian of early America was Thomas Morton, whose New English Canaan used humor in portraying what he considered to be the overbearing and intolerant qualities of the Puritans .
Histories of early America, especially in New England, were filled with references to the Bible and to God's will. Nearly all events could be explained from this religious perspective: Foul weather and diseases were perceived as God's wrath; a bountiful harvest represented God's blessing. Given the Puritans' relationship with God, it is not surprising that sermons and other religious writings dominated literature in America in the 1600s. John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop were among the most prominent religious writers.
A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson (1682). This work is a firsthand account by a colonist who was taken captive by Indians during King Philip's War. It presents a dramatic tale of suffering and of Rowlandson's efforts to make sense of that suffering. Her story became the model for a new genre of early American literature: captivity narratives. Such accounts became staples of American literature and eventually provided material for American fiction. While still religious in tone and purpose, captivity narratives emphasized the experiences of individuals. They also incorporated many of the fundamentals of fiction, making use of characters, dramatic action and setting.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 were another period in early American history that affected literature. As accusations of witchcraft in a Massachusetts town resulted in the execution of 14 women and 6 men, Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) documented the events of the witch trials.
Cotton Mather remained an important literary figure in the 18th century. His Magnalia Christi Americana (The Great Works of Christ in America, 1702) is a history of New England that celebrates the founding generation of Puritans. Like his earlier works, it is religious;...
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