Themes of Early American Literature
Early American literature does a tremendous job of revealing the exact conditions and challenges that were faced by the explorers and later by the colonists of the New World. From early shipwrecks to the later years of small colonies barely surviving through dreadful winters, the literary works of the time period focus on some very recognizable themes. The theme of any given work – being simply the unifying subject or idea – is a very important element of any piece of writing. As one reviews some of this early literature, it becomes obvious that several themes appear repeatedly, and it is these subjects that were clearly very common among people from all over the New World. While a number of themes can be found in early American literature, the only dominant and recurring themes are exploration, hardship, and religion. It is these central ideas around which all early American writing is based.
The first prominent theme that appeared in the literature of Christopher Columbus and the many great explorers that followed in his footsteps was that of exploration. With the mission to sail West across the Atlantic Ocean and report back with their findings, these explorers wrote down all of their noteworthy experiences in journals and narratives. So, it is only natural that the theme of exploration can be found in many of these literary works. For example, in Christopher Columbus’ Report of the First Voyage, he details the discovery of the Canary Islands as well as their inhabitants; a settlement of people who had never before been known to exist. Throughout the report, Columbus describes nearly everything that he sees as he explores the islands and the curious people who call them home. Exploration is the central theme in just about every popular literary piece from this period, including Verrazzano’s Voyage and The Voyages of Samuel de Champlain. In Verrazzano’s Voyage, Giovanni Da Verrazano describes his encounters with the native people in great detail, and illustrates everything from their clothing to the primitive weaponry that they carried. In addition, he did his best to describe the shore he traveled along, and in one particular sentence his true uncertainty of the land is very apparent; “We set sail from this place, continuing to coast along the shore, which we found stretching out to the west (east?)” (Perkins and Perkins 21). Clearly, Verrazzano was not even sure of the direction he was traveling along the coast, which emphasizes the fact that these explorers were writing about their travels of truly unknown and uncharted land. Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer who also made numerous discoveries in the new land that he documented in some early pieces of literature. He mapped out a great deal of the New England coast, and even went ashore and joined some of the Native Americans during their war maneuvers, taking him to the interior of the wilderness (Perkins and Perkins 30). In these travels, he discovered Lake Champlain in present-day New York, and even lost a soldier to the arrows and knives of the Native Americans (Perkins and Perkins 30-33). As is evident in these writings, the explorers wrote about the one thing that they new best, and that was the exploration and discovery of the new land and the people who lived there.
As explorers adventured in the New World and colonies began to settle along the Eastern coast, they began to realize that life in the new land would not be without a price. Thousands of miles away from the nearest industrialized nation, the Europeans in America soon began to experience many hardships. The explorers were frequently faced with sickness and death at sea, while others struggled to sustain themselves once reaching the New World. In one particularly disconcerting piece of literature, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca writes of his experiences as a slave to the Native Americans. The work is titled The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca...
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Lawson, Stephen. The Poetry of Michael Wigglesworth. 28 May 2009.
Perkins, George and Perkins, Barbara. The American Tradition in Literature. Twelfth Edition, Volume 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Reuben, Paul. “Chapter 1: John Smith.” Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 29 May 2009.
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