16 February 2015
America, the Literary
What does it mean to be American? Is America found in the language that is spoken? Is it in the geography? Or does America manifest itself in the literature that has lasted throughout the development of the nation? From the age of colonization to the age of the Romantics, the American people expressed their emotions, concerns, thoughts, and experiences through the written word. Individual writers wrote about their own American experiences and some even compared their life in America to their life in Europe. Although it was a product of Europe in its beginnings, America came into its own as a nation with literary prestige as it grew more independent from its European roots. Before the age of colonization, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, America was uncharted territory. It was fresh, new, and relatively unclaimed. Because of its novelty and unfamiliarity, the first pieces of American literature were travel narratives written by Europeans who were exploring the New World. According to Dr. Watson in her lecture titled, “Early Colonization”, these travel narratives were written by explorers who discussed the perils of ocean passage, described the new terrain in comparison to Europe, gave advice to others who wished to brave the New World, and critiqued earlier reports (Watson). One such travel narrative is A True Relation of…Virginia, which was written in 1608 by John Smith, a settler, and later a leader, in one of the Southern settlements, Jamestown. In this narrative, John Smith discusses the “potentials of the rich American plenty,” and emphasizes adventure along with his formidable encounters with the American Indians (Ruland 7). Travel narratives were products of the Europeans because they were written by European explorers and requested by the European people, who financed and encouraged these trips in order to reap the benefits. However, these travel narratives are still considered somewhat American because they were written by those that explored America. Another form of early American literature is the didactic, religious, and plain writings of the Puritans. Puritanism is a protestant sect of Christianity that agrees with many Calvinistic teachings such as the belief in predestination and God’s providence (Ruland 17). Early in the seventeenth century, two Puritan groups sought religious freedom by travelling to America. The separatist sect of the Puritans wanted to break away from the Church of England, so they boarded the Mayflower in 1620, and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Another Puritan sect wanted to purify the Church of England, but saw no way of doing so in England, so they boarded the Arbella in 1630, and settled in Massachusetts Bay. The Puritans wrote in many styles, but they mostly contained similar themes, such as nature being the second book of God, life being a test or a battlefield, and America being a wilderness or a “New Canaan” (Watson). Some Puritans, such as John Winthrop, wrote journals or diaries to reflect on their individual lives. Others, like Anne Bradstreet, wrote poems to contemplate God’s faithfulness and providence or to express their inner thoughts. Still others, such as William Bradford, wrote Jeremiads which called for a return to a lost purity; and some others, like Mary Rowlandson, wrote captivity narratives which documented the trials they suffered while being held captive (Ruland 17). Another common Puritan genre was the sermon, such as John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” given aboard the Arbella in 1630. In this influential sermon, Winthrop charges those listening to be a “city upon a hill,” one that would “stand as a lesson and beacon to the entire world” (Ruland 11). Although given by a European Puritan, this sermon exemplifies the American dream and the American desire to be set apart from its European predecessors. As the seventeenth century came to a close, the...
Cited: Baym, Nina. “Edgar Allan Poe.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 629-667, 701-729. Print.
Baym, Nina. “Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 106-121. Print.
Ruland, Richard, and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York, NY: Penguin, 1992. Print.
Watson, Sidney. "Early Colonization." 19th Century American Literature. Oklahoma Baptist University, Shawnee, OK. 26 Jan. 2015. Lecture.
Watson, Sidney. “Edgar Allan Poe.” 19th Century American Literature. Oklahoma Baptist University, Shawnee, OK. 9 Feb. 2015. Lecture.
Watson, Sidney. “Irving” 19th Century American Literature. Oklahoma Baptist University, Shawnee, OK. 30 Jan. 2015. Lecture.
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