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 Dry. Watson in her lecture titled, “Early Colonization”, these travel rarities 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.
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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 (Roland 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 Charlatanry that agrees with many Calvinist teachings such as the belief In predestination and God’s providence (Roland 17). Early in the seventeenth century, two Puritan groups sought religious freedom by traveling to America. The separatist sect of the Puritans wanted to break away from the Church of England, so they boarded the Mayflower In 1 620, 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 Rubella 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 Ewing 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 1 OFF 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 Rowland, wrote captivity narratives which documented the trials they suffered while being held captive (Roland 17).
Another common Puritan genre was the sermon, such as John Winthrop “A Model of Christian Charity,” given aboard the Rubella 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” (Roland 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 population in the colonies began to rise. According to Dry.
Watson in her lecture titled “Eighteenth- Century American Literature,” the increase in population in the colonies caused an increase in diversity, secularism, and sectionalism as the eighteenth century began Watson). The increase in secularism was mainly due to the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a movement motivated by reason and rationality, which began in Europe in the seventeenth century and spread to America by the eighteenth century. While the Age of Reason sparked many great changes in science and philosophy in Europe, it was largely a political movement in America.
American thought was very much shaped by the ideas of natural law and individual liberty from European enlightened thinker, John Locke, so “liberalism and progress increasingly became the appropriate ways to interpret the American Experience” (Roland 38). The Enlightenment was a widespread movement that effected America at its very core with the writing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that illustrates the Locked ideas of “life liberty, and property’ and exemplifies the nation’s desire to be its own entity (Roland 38).
Because of the great influence of the Enlightenment, many enlightened writers and thinkers even used their reason to argue for the American Revolution. Thomas Paine published a pamphlet in 1776 titled, Common Sense, where he “embodied the voice of the revolution itself” by logically arguing for it (Roland 57). One person that was greatly influenced by enlightened principles and ideas was Benjamin Franklin who was a Deist, a scientist, politician, American Founding Father, and even a literary critic (Roland 46).
Franklin is what some would call a “self-made American man” because in his Autobiography, he describes his attempt to prove himself by going from rags to riches (Watson). In contrast to the Enlightenment, there was another movement exerting much influence as well, the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a religious movement that spread throughout the colonies by religious figures such as Jonathan Edwards, a theologian who wanted to reconcile faith with Enlightenment thought. Jonathan Edwards gave many powerful sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” and “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (Watson).
Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin were both men who exemplified life in America in the eighteenth century and “seemed to realize and sum up the changes [in] American thought and the variety within it” (Roland 38). Although he was a European living in America, Occurred published Letters from an American Farmer, the first work that asks the question: What is an American? In this epistolary work, Occurred America by describing its mild government, agrarian society, and tolerance for religion (Watson).
By the end of the eighteenth century, America was beginning to gain its own identity as a nation and also as one with literary prestige, but “found itself caught between two contradictory claims: the need for literary independence and republican originality, and the hereditary tie for nourishing contact with the European cultural past” (Roland 64). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, there was a shift from Enlightenment ideas to Romanticism because of the growing sense of individualism in the new nation and the endless possibilities of the American landscape.
According to Dry. Watson in her lecture titled “Romanticism”, the Enlightenment celebrated reason, wit, the society as a whole, and nature as law; while Romanticism celebrated emotion, imagination, the beauty of nature, and the individual (Watson). Washington Irving used the many Romantic themes in his “innovative travel sketches” and short stories, and was the first successful American author because he had an “international literary reputation” (Bam 25). Under the persona of Dietrich Knickerbockers, Irving penned the widely celebrated short story, Rip Van Winkle.
In this short story, the character of Rip Van Winkle, an Englishmen living in America, falls asleep for twenty years and wakes up to a Post-revolutionary America (Bam 30-41). Irving uses the theme of change over time, especially the revolution and its impact, along with the romantic elements of the supernatural and nature. By employing these themes, Irving created a literature that was uniquely American and even linked nationalism to literature created in America (Watson). One aspect of Romanticism in America that separated it from its European counterparts was the concept of the American frontier.
Cooper was “among the most important writers of his time??a writer who helped chart the future course of American Fiction” (Bam 62). In his famous Leathernecks Novels, Cooper creates the celebrated character of Natty Bumpy, the true image of what it meant to live life on the American frontier. One could either read them in the order of Natty life: The Deerstalker (1841), The Last of the Musicians (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823), and The Prairie (1827); or one could “follow the order of writing to see how Knotty’s image and Cooper’s view of fiction altered from book to book” (Roland 97).
In chapter three of The Pioneers, some of the people that were traveling to the West decided to slaughter pigeons for fun. Natty Bumpy was very troubled by this and said that he did not like how they shot at the pigeons “in such a wicked manner” (Bam 77). In his Leathernecks Novels, Cooper employs the Romantic themes of emotion and nature to idealize life on the American frontier and to stir up an appreciation for the beauty that nature has to offer.
He also proved that literature in America could stand on its own by demanding respect and by fighting his literary nickname, “The American Scott” (Watson). Another way that American Romantic literature attempted to break away from its European roots was through Poetry. According to Dry. Watson lecture, “Sentimental Poetry’, most women were constrained, and felt like they could only write about a limited subject matter, such as the importance of domestic values (Watson).
Lydia Sojourner, “the most popular women poet of the early national and ante-bellum period”, took many risks and broke out of the status quo of women writing sentimental poetry by attempting to fuse of her time, in both America and Europe, and wrote two thousand articles as well as published fifty-six books, fifty of which are volumes of verse (Watson). In “Our Aborigines” she employs the Romantic themes of the supernatural, emotion, and nature by personifying the forest, bringing up the Greek gods, and using words like “hollow groan” (Bam 116).
In her poetry, and in Romantic poetry in general, nature and emotion act as teachers and guides. Sojourner is the perfect example of literature flourishing and coming into its own in America. In contrast to the American literary exemplar of Lydia Sojourner, some writers such as Longfellow and Whittier, riding in the Boston Genteel Tradition, wished to remain closely knit to European style (Watson). Although evident in both European literature and American literature, the gothic concept of the sublime is unique in American literature because the American scenery is different from European.
One author who employs the gothic style along with the grotesque and psychological is Edgar Allan Poe, a southern writer. Although Poe was from the South, he did not consider himself a Southern writer, according to Dry. Watson in her Lecture titled, “Edgar Allan Poe” (Watson). In the sorority of his works, Poe is difficult to understand because he uses supernatural elements along with natural and he uses grotesque elements along with psychological. This is evident in the short story, Algeria, which involves many supernatural and psychological elements.
In some ways, Edgar Allan Poe does not fit with the American literary tradition because most of his stories do not even take place in America, but in the European Aristocracy. However, Edgar Allan Poe did set the tone for the “modern detective story’ with his characters in The Purloined Letter of Duping (Roland 136). Although not a traditional author, Edgar Allan Poe did help to make the mystery story and the gothic one popular. Edgar Allan Poe exemplifies the ability of an American writer to gain popularity by mixing European and American themes in literature, while still remaining true to an American identity.
From the European colonization of America to the post-revolutionary and expansive American frontier, writers in America attempted to create their own literary identity as they became less dependent on their European predecessors and focused more on their own development as a nation. Although never completely breaking apart from its European roots, as illustrated in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, America developed into a nation with its own version of literary prestige with the works from authors such as Lydia Sojourner and James Feminine Cooper.