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Colonial Beginnings

American literature in English dates to the early seventeenth century and the arrival of the first English immigrants to the New World. European settlers didn’t just bring with them the English language—they also brought their knowledge of the English literary tradition. In this tradition, “America” existed long before travelers landed in North America as a mythic land imbued with wonder and romance. American exceptionalism, the belief in America’s great and unique historical mission, wasn’t an ideology born on American soil: it was a faith settlers brought with them to the New World, one that would shape many of their actions, from their genocidal behaviors toward the native peoples they found already living in their idyll to the literature they would produce, the foundation texts of the American literary tradition.

JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA

The first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Beginning life in a new and harsh environment left little time for literary production, but life in Jamestown did make it into print thanks to Captain John Smith.

John Smith was the author of the first English book written in America, A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia, 1608. Smith’s narrative emphasized both the adventurous aspect of life in the new world and its privations and dangers, especially conflict with Native Americans. The book is most famous today for the story of Pocahontas, the daughter of a Native American chief who (allegedly) saved Smith’s life. Smith’s portrayal of Pocahontas as nobly self-sacrificing and amenable to English settlement proved very influential in shaping images of Native Americans produced by white writers for centuries to come.

PURITAN NEW ENGLAND

The Puritan settlers who founded Plimouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay in 1620 and 1630 proved more prolific than their neighbors to the south. The Puritans were Christians who left Europe to practice their faith freely, away from the influence of the “degenerate” Catholic Church. They believed in predestination, that some individuals (the elect) were saved by God from eternal damnation, while others (the reprobate) were born damned. Because of this belief, they sought evidence of God in their daily lives, evidence of their own election, and they believed they had a special mission from God in the New World. They sought to build a “City upon a Hill,” a model society that would exemplify goodness, holiness, and purity for all the world. This belief that they could establish a model society, called millenarianism, shaped what came to be called the “American Dream.”

Their faith made them prolific writers, but not of fiction, condemned as nearly the same thing as lying. Instead, sermons, histories, poetry, travel records, elegies, spiritual autobiographies, and personal journals were the literary forms the Puritans most commonly employed.

William Bradford, governor of Plimouth for thirty years, wrote one of the most important literary works produced by the Puritans, his personal journal, Of Plimouth Plantation, written between 1630 and 1650 but not published until 1856. Underlying Bradford’s narrative of the Puritans’ journey and settlement in New England was the Biblical narrative of the journey to the Promised Land, directed by the hand of God.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, likewise kept a journal, published as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649 in 1825-1826. Winthrop is famous for coining the phrase “a citty upon an Hill.” His journal takes the shape of a jeremiad, a genre especially important to the Puritans. A jeremiad is an account of anguish and hardship that calls for a return to lost purity.

The Puritans also produced The New England Primer (1683?), one of the most widely read books ever published. The book was intended to teach children to read as well as to indoctrinate them into the Christian faith. It was used for generations, well into the nineteenth century.

Anne Bradstreet, who came to the New World in 1630, gained an international reputation as the first author of a book of American poetry when her brother-in-law published her work in London in 1650 without her knowledge under the title The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America. Her most famous poems include “The Author to Her Book” and “Verses upon the Burning of Our House.”

Captivity narratives were also very popular in colonial America and served as essential sources for much later American fiction. In these stories, white settlers are taken captive by American Indians, endure hardships and cruelty, witness horrors, then escape or are rescued providentially. The stories, which drew heavily on the Old Testament, served as allegories of salvation, with American Indians figuring as Satanic forces. The most famous of these narratives is Mary Rowlandson’s The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson(1682).

AMERICA IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY: THE ROAD TO REVOLUTION

The eighteenth century was a period of major change, in which the millenarian ideals of the Puritans shifted in response to the intellectual questions of the Age of Reason. Two figures exemplify this shift especially well: Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin.

Jonathan Edwards sought to make Puritanism viable for eighteenth century believers. His sermons, the most famous of which is entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” helped to spark the Great Awakening of religious fervor that spread from Maine to Georgia in the 1730s.

Benjamin Franklin’s life began in Puritan Boston, but over the course of his lifetime he moved away from this ancestry, becoming a Deist absorbed in questions of ethics and public service, not dogma. In addition to becoming the first internationally recognized American statesman and a famous inventor, Franklin produced two highly successful texts: Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733-58), an annual broadsheet that provided farming advice and home-spun wisdom, and The Autobiography (written 1771-1788, published 1791 and 1818). The Autobiography is a book of adventure and self-making, and it exerted a marked influence over later American writers.

Phillis Wheatley also gained international fame in the eighteenth century. The first published African American poet, she was a prodigy brought from Africa as a slave. Her poetry, first published in 1773 under the title Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, showed her mastery of the conventions of eighteenth-century verse. Her achievements served as key evidence of the intellectual capacity of black people for the growing anti-slavery movement.

To produce this introduction, I consulted Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism.