American and Colonial Period to 1776
literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends,
tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. There was
no written literature among the more than 500 different Indian
languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America
before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, Native
American oral literature is quite diverse. Narratives from
quasi-nomadic hunting cultures like the Navajo are different
from stories of settled agricultural tribes such as the
pueblo-dwelling Acoma; the stories of northern lakeside
dwellers such as the Ojibwa often differ radically from
stories of desert tribes like the Hopi.
First Thanksgiving," a painting by J.L.G. Ferris,
depicts America’s early settlers and Native Americans
celebrating a bountiful harvest.
maintained their own religions -- worshipping gods, animals,
plants, or sacred persons. Systems of government ranged from
democracies to councils of elders to theocracies. These tribal
variations enter into the oral literature as well.
Still, it is
possible to make a few generalizations. Indian stories, for
example, glow with reverence for nature as a spiritual as well
as physical mother. Nature is alive and endowed with spiritual
forces; main characters may be animals or plants, often totems
associated with a tribe, group, or individual. The closest to
the Indian sense of holiness in later American literature is
Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendental "Over-Soul,"
which pervades all of life.
tribes revered the divine Quetzalcoatl, a god of the Toltecs
and Aztecs, and some tales of a high god or culture were told
elsewhere. However, there are no long, standardized religious
cycles about one supreme divinity. The closest equivalents to
Old World spiritual narratives are often accounts of shamans
initiations and voyages. Apart from these, there are stories
about culture heroes such as the Ojibwa tribe's Manabozho or
the Navajo tribe's Coyote. These tricksters are treated with
varying degrees of respect. In one tale they may act like
heroes, while in another they may seem selfish or foolish.
Although past authorities, such as the Swiss psychologist Carl
Jung, have deprecated trickster tales as expressing the
inferior, amoral side of the psyche, contemporary scholars --
some of them Native Americans -- point out that Odysseus and
Prometheus, the revered Greek heroes, are essentially
tricksters as well.
almost every oral genre can be found in American Indian
literature: lyrics, chants, myths, fairy tales, humorous
anecdotes, incantations, riddles, proverbs, epics, and
legendary histories. Accounts of migrations and ancestors
abound, as do vision or healing songs and tricksters' tales.
Certain creation stories are particularly popular. In one
well-known creation story, told with variations among many
tribes, a turtle holds up the world. In a Cheyenne version,
the creator, Maheo, has four chances to fashion the world from
a watery universe. He sends four water birds diving to try to
bring up earth from the bottom. The snow goose, loon, and
mallard soar high into the sky and sweep down in a dive, but
cannot reach bottom; but the little coot, who cannot fly,
succeeds in bringing up some mud in his bill. Only one
creature, humble Grandmother Turtle, is the right shape to
support the mud world Maheo shapes on her shell -- hence the
Indian name for America, "Turtle Island."
The songs or
poetry, like the narratives, range from the sacred to the
light and humorous: There are lullabies, war chants, love
songs, and special songs for children's games, gambling,
various chores, magic, or dance ceremonials. Generally the
songs are repetitive. Short poem-songs given in dreams
sometimes have the clear imagery and subtle mood associated
with Japanese haiku or Eastern-influenced imagistic poetry. A
Chippewa song runs:
A loon I thought
But it was
often very short, are another distinctive form. Appearing in
dreams or visions, sometimes with no warning, they may be
healing, hunting, or love songs. Often they are personal, as
in this Modoc song:
tradition and its relation to American literature as a whole
is one of the richest and least explored topics in American
studies. The Indian contribution to America is greater than is
often believed. The hundreds of Indian words in everyday
American English include "canoe," "tobacco,"
"potato," "moccasin," "moose,"
"persimmon," "raccoon," "tomahawk,"
and "totem." Contemporary Native American writing,
discussed in chapter 8, also contains works of great beauty.
THE LITERATURE OF EXPLORATION
taken a different turn, the United States easily could have
been a part of the great Spanish or French overseas empires.
Its present inhabitants might speak Spanish and form one
nation with Mexico, or speak French and be joined with
Canadian Francophone Quebec and Montreal.
the earliest explorers of America were not English, Spanish,
or French. The first European record of exploration in America
is in a Scandinavian language. The Old Norse Vinland
recounts how the adventurous Leif Eriksson and a band of
wandering Norsemen settled briefly somewhere on the northeast
coast of America -- probably Nova Scotia, in Canada -- in the
first decade of the 11th century, almost 400 years before the
next recorded European discovery of the New World.
The first known
and sustained contact between the Americas and the rest of the
world, however, began with the famous voyage of an Italian
explorer, Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish rulers
Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus's journal in his "Epistola,"
printed in 1493, recounts the trip's drama -- the terror of
the men, who feared monsters and thought they might fall off
the edge of the world; the near-mutiny; how Columbus faked the
ships' logs so the men would not know how much farther they
had travelled than anyone had gone before; and the first
sighting of land as they neared America.
de las Casas is the richest source of information about the
early contact between American Indians and Europeans. As a
young priest he helped conquer Cuba. He transcribed Columbus's
journal, and late in life wrote a long, vivid History
of the Indians
criticizing their enslavement by the Spanish.
English attempts at colonization were disasters. The first
colony was set up in 1585 at Roanoke, off the coast of North
Carolina; all its colonists disappeared, and to this day
legends are told about blue-eyed Croatan Indians of the area.
The second colony was more permanent: Jamestown, established
in 1607. It endured starvation, brutality, and misrule.
However, the literature of the period paints America in
glowing colors as the land of riches and opportunity. Accounts
of the colonizations became world-renowned. The exploration of
Roanoke was carefully recorded by Thomas Hariot in A
Briefe and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia
(1588). Hariot's book was quickly translated into Latin,
French, and German; the text and pictures were made into
engravings and widely republished for over 200 years.
colony's main record, the writings of Captain John Smith, one
of its leaders, is the exact opposite of Hariot's accurate,
scientific account. Smith was an incurable romantic, and he
seems to have embroidered his adventures. To him we owe the
famous story of the Indian maiden, Pocahontas. Whether fact or
fiction, the tale is ingrained in the American historical
imagination. The story recounts how Pocahontas, favorite
daughter of Chief Powhatan, saved Captain Smith's life when he
was a prisoner of the chief. Later, when the English persuaded
Powhatan to give Pocahontas to them as a hostage, her
gentleness, intelligence, and beauty impressed the English,
and, in 1614, she married John Rolfe, an English gentleman.
The marriage initiated an eight-year peace between the
colonists and the Indians, ensuring the survival of the
struggling new colony.
In the 17th
century, pirates, adventurers, and explorers opened the way to
a second wave of permanent colonists, bringing their wives,
children, farm implements, and craftsmen's tools. The early
literature of exploration, made up of diaries, letters, travel
journals, ships' logs, and reports to the explorers' financial
backers -- European rulers or, in mercantile England and
Holland, joint stock companies -- gradually was supplanted by
records of the settled colonies. Because England eventually
took possession of the North American colonies, the best-known
and most-anthologized colonial literature is English. As
American minority literature continues to flower in the 20th
century and American life becomes increasingly multicultural,
scholars are rediscovering the importance of the continent's
mixed ethnic heritage. Although the story of literature now
turns to the English accounts, it is important to recognize
its richly cosmopolitan beginnings.
THE COLONIAL PERIOD IN NEW ENGLAND
It is likely
that no other colonists in the history of the world were as
intellectual as the Puritans. Between 1630 and 1690, there
were as many university graduates in the northeastern section
of the United States, known as New England, as in the mother
country -- an astounding fact when one considers that most
educated people of the time were aristocrats who were
unwilling to risk their lives in wilderness conditions. The
self-made and often self-educated Puritans were notable
exceptions. They wanted education to understand and execute
God's will as they established their colonies throughout New
definition of good writing was that which brought home a full
awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the
spiritual dangers that the soul faced on Earth. Puritan style
varied enormously -- from complex metaphysical poetry to
homely journals and crushingly pedantic religious history.
Whatever the style or genre, certain themes remained constant.
Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation and
hellfire, and success to heavenly bliss. This world was an
arena of constant battle between the forces of God and the
forces of Satan, a formidable enemy with many disguises. Many
Puritans excitedly awaited the "millennium," when
Jesus would return to Earth, end human misery, and inaugurate
1,000 years of peace and prosperity.
long pointed out the link between Puritanism and capitalism:
Both rest on ambition, hard work, and an intense striving for
success. Although individual Puritans could not know, in
strict theological terms, whether they were "saved"
and among the elect who would go to heaven, Puritans tended to
feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth and
status were sought not only for themselves, but as welcome
reassurances of spiritual health and promises of eternal life.
concept of stewardship encouraged success. The Puritans
interpreted all things and events as symbols with deeper
spiritual meanings, and felt that in advancing their own
profit and their community's well-being, they were also
furthering God's plans. They did not draw lines of distinction
between the secular and religious spheres: All of life was an
expression of the divine will -- a belief that later
resurfaces in Transcendentalism.
ordinary events to reveal their spiritual meaning, Puritan
authors commonly cited the Bible, chapter and verse. History
was a symbolic religious panorama leading to the Puritan
triumph over the New World and to God's kingdom on Earth.
Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the
seriousness of Reformation Christianity. Known as the
"Pilgrims," they were a small group of believers who
had migrated from England to Holland -- even then known for
its religious tolerance -- in 1608, during a time of
Puritans, they interpreted the Bible literally. They read and
acted on the text of the Second Book of Corinthians -- "Come
out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord."
Despairing of purifying the Church of England from within,
"Separatists" formed underground "covenanted"
churches that swore loyalty to the group instead of the king.
Seen as traitors to the king as well as heretics damned to
hell, they were often persecuted. Their separation took them
ultimately to the New World.
William Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth in the
Massachusetts Bay Colony shortly after the Separatists landed.
He was a deeply pious, self-educated man who had learned
several languages, including Hebrew, in order to "see
with his own eyes the ancient oracles of God in their native
beauty." His participation in the migration to Holland
and the Mayflower
voyage to Plymouth, and his duties as governor, made him
ideally suited to be the first historian of his colony. His
(1651), is a clear and compelling account of the colony's
beginning. His description of the first view of America is
passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles...they had now no
friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their
weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair
to, to seek for succor...savage barbarians...were readier to
fill their sides with arrows than otherwise. And for the
reason it was winter, and they that know the winters of that
country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to
cruel and fierce storms...all stand upon them with a
weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and
thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.
recorded the first document of colonial self-governance in the
English New World, the "Mayflower Compact," drawn up
while the Pilgrims were still on board ship. The compact was a
harbinger of the Declaration of Independence to come a century
and a half later.
disapproved of such secular amusements as dancing and
card-playing, which were associated with ungodly aristocrats
and immoral living. Reading or writing "light" books
also fell into this category. Puritan minds poured their
tremendous energies into nonfiction and pious genres: poetry,
sermons, theological tracts, and histories. Their intimate
diaries and meditations record the rich inner lives of this
introspective and intense people.
Bradstreet (c. 1612-1672)
The first published book of poems by an American was also
the first American book to be published by a woman -- Anne
Bradstreet. It is not surprising that the book was published
in England, given the lack of printing presses in the early
years of the first American colonies. Born and educated in
England, Anne Bradstreet was the daughter of an earl's estate
manager. She emigrated with her family when she was 18. Her
husband eventually became governor of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony, which later grew into the great city of Boston. She
preferred her long, religious poems on conventional subjects
such as the seasons, but contemporary readers most enjoy the
witty poems on subjects from daily life and her warm and
loving poems to her husband and children. She was inspired by
English metaphysical poetry, and her book The
Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America
(1650) shows the influence of Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney,
and other English poets as well. She often uses elaborate
conceits or extended metaphors. "To My Dear and Loving
Husband" (1678) uses the oriental imagery, love theme,
and idea of comparison popular in Europe at the time, but
gives these a pious meaning at the poem's conclusion:
If ever two were
one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me,
ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole
mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love
from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
while we live, in love let s so persevere
That when we live
no more, we may live ever.
Taylor (c. 1644-1729)
Like Anne Bradstreet, and, in fact, all of New England's
first writers, the intense, brilliant poet and minister Edward
Taylor was born in England. The son of a yeoman farmer -- an
independent farmer who owned his own land -- Taylor was a
teacher who sailed to New England in 1668 rather than take an
oath of loyalty to the Church of England. He studied at
Harvard College, and, like most Harvard-trained ministers, he
knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. A selfless and pious man,
Taylor acted as a missionary to the settlers when he accepted
his lifelong job as a minister in the frontier town of
Westfield, Massachusetts, 160 kilometers into the thickly
forested, wild interior. Taylor was the best-educated man in
the area, and he put his knowledge to use, working as the town
minister, doctor, and civic leader.
and hard-working, Taylor never published his poetry, which was
discovered only in the 1930s. He would, no doubt, have seen
his work's discovery as divine providence; today's readers
should be grateful to have his poems -- the finest examples of
17th-century poetry in North America.
wrote a variety of verse: funeral elegies, lyrics, a medieval
"debate," and a 500-page Metrical
History of Christianity
(mainly a history of martyrs). His best works, according to
modern critics, are the series of short Preparatory
Michael Wigglesworth, like Taylor an English-born,
Harvard-educated Puritan minister who practiced medicine, is
the third New England colonial poet of note. He continues the
Puritan themes in his best-known work, The
Day of Doom
(1662). A long narrative that often falls into doggerel, this
terrifying popularization of Calvinistic doctrine was the most
popular poem of the colonial period. This first American
best-seller is an appalling portrait of damnation to hell in
is terrible poetry -- but everybody loved it. It fused the
fascination of a horror story with the authority of John
Calvin. For more than two centuries, people memorized this
long, dreadful monument to religious terror; children proudly
recited it, and elders quoted it in everyday speech. It is not
such a leap from the terrible punishments of this poem to the
ghastly self-inflicted wound of Nathaniel Hawthorne's guilty
Puritan minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, in The
(1850) or Herman Melville's crippled Captain Ahab, a New
England Faust whose quest for forbidden knowledge sinks the
ship of American humanity in Moby-Dick
was the favorite novel of 20th-century American novelist
William Faulkner, whose profound and disturbing works suggest
that the dark, metaphysical vision of Protestant America has
not yet been exhausted.)
colonial literature, the poems of early New England imitate
the form and technique of the mother country, though the
religious passion and frequent biblical references, as well as
the new setting, give New England writing a special identity.
Isolated New World writers also lived before the advent of
rapid transportation and electronic communications. As a
result, colonial writers were imitating writing that was
already out of date in England. Thus, Edward Taylor, the best
American poet of his day, wrote metaphysical poetry after it
had become unfashionable in England. At times, as in Taylor's
poetry, rich works of striking originality grew out of
often seemed ignorant of such great English authors as Ben
Jonson. Some colonial writers rejected English poets who
belonged to a different sect as well, thereby cutting
themselves off from the finest lyric and dramatic models the
English language had produced. In addition, many colonials
remained ignorant due to the lack of books.
The great model
of writing, belief, and conduct was the Bible, in an
authorized English translation that was already outdated when
it came out. The age of the Bible, so much older than the
Roman church, made it authoritative to Puritan eyes.
Puritans clung to the tales of the Jews in the Old Testament,
believing that they, like the Jews, were persecuted for their
faith, that they knew the one true God, and that they were the
chosen elect who would establish the New Jerusalem -- a heaven
on Earth. The Puritans were aware of the parallels between the
ancient Jews of the Old Testament and themselves. Moses led
the Israelites out of captivity from Egypt, parted the Red Sea
through God's miraculous assistance so that his people could
escape, and received the divine law in the form of the Ten
Commandments. Like Moses, Puritan leaders felt they were
rescuing their people from spiritual corruption in England,
passing miraculously over a wild sea with God's aid, and
fashioning new laws and new forms of government after God's
tend to be archaic, and New England certainly was no
exception. New England Puritans were archaic by choice,
conviction, and circumstance.
Easier to read than the highly religious poetry full of
Biblical references are the historical and secular accounts
that recount real events using lively details. Governor John
(1790) provides the best information on the early
Massachusetts Bay Colony and Puritan political theory.
which records the years 1674 to 1729, is lively and engaging.
Sewall fits the pattern of early New England writers we have
seen in Bradford and Taylor. Born in England, Sewall was
brought to the colonies at an early age. He made his home in
the Boston area, where he graduated from Harvard, and made a
career of legal, administrative, and religious work.
was born late enough to see the change from the early, strict
religious life of the Puritans to the later, more worldly
Yankee period of mercantile wealth in the New England
colonies; his Diary,
which is often compared to Samuel Pepys's English diary of the
same period, inadvertently records the transition.
diary, Sewall's is a minute record of his daily life,
reflecting his interest in living piously and well. He notes
little purchases of sweets for a woman he was courting, and
their disagreements over whether he should affect aristocratic
and expensive ways such as wearing a wig and using a coach.
The earliest woman prose writer of note is Mary
Rowlandson, a minister's wife who gives a clear, moving
account of her 11-week captivity by Indians during an Indian
massacre in 1676. The book undoubtedly fanned the flame of
anti-Indian sentiment, as did John Williams's The
(1707), describing his two years in captivity by French and
Indians after a massacre. Such writings as women produced are
usually domestic accounts requiring no special education. It
may be argued that women's literature benefits from its homey
realism and common-sense wit; certainly works like Sarah
Kemble Knight's lively Journal
(published posthumously in 1825) of a daring solo trip in 1704
from Boston to New York and back escapes the baroque
complexity of much Puritan writing.
No account of New England colonial literature would be
complete without mentioning Cotton Mather, the master pedant.
The third in the four-generation Mather dynasty of
Massachusetts Bay, he wrote at length of New England in over
500 books and pamphlets. Mather's 1702 Magnalia
Christi Americana (Ecclesiastical History of New England),
his most ambitious work, exhaustively chronicles the
settlement of New England through a series of biographies. The
huge book presents the holy Puritan errand into the wilderness
to establish God s kingdom; its structure is a narrative
progression of representative American "Saints' Lives."
His zeal somewhat redeems his pompousness: "I write the
wonders of the Christian religion, flying from the
deprivations of Europe to the American strand."
Williams (c. 1603-1683)
As the 1600s wore on into the 1700s, religious dogmatism
gradually dwindled, despite sporadic, harsh Puritan efforts to
stem the tide of tolerance. The minister Roger Williams
suffered for his own views on religion. An English-born son of
a tailor, he was banished from Massachusetts in the middle of
New England's ferocious winter in 1635. Secretly warned by
Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, he survived only by
living with Indians; in 1636, he established a new colony at
Rhode Island that would welcome persons of different
graduate of Cambridge University (England), he retained
sympathy for working people and diverse views. His ideas were
ahead of his time. He was an early critic of imperialism,
insisting that European kings had no right to grant land
charters because American land belonged to the Indians.
Williams also believed in the separation between church and
state -- still a fundamental principle in America today. He
held that the law courts should not have the power to punish
people for religious reasons -- a stand that undermined the
strict New England theocracies. A believer in equality and
democracy, he was a lifelong friend of the Indians. Williams's
numerous books include one of the first phrase books of Indian
Key Into the Languages of America (1643).
The book also is an embryonic ethnography, giving bold
descriptions of Indian life based on the time he had lived
among the tribes. Each chapter is devoted to one topic -- for
example, eating and mealtime. Indian words and phrases
pertaining to this topic are mixed with comments, anecdotes,
and a concluding poem. The end of the first chapter reads:
sons, both wild and tame,
Humane and courteous be,
ill becomes it sons of God
To want humanity.
In the chapter
on words about entertainment, he comments that "it is a
strange truth that a man shall generally find more free
entertainment and refreshing among these barbarians, than
amongst thousands that call themselves Christians."
life is uniquely inspiring. On a visit to England during the
bloody Civil War there, he drew upon his survival in frigid
New England to organize firewood deliveries to the poor of
London during the winter, after their supply of coal had been
cut off. He wrote lively defenses of religious toleration not
only for different Christian sects, but also for
non-Christians. "It is the will and command of God,
that...a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or
Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men,
in all nations...," he wrote in The
Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience
(1644). The intercultural experience of living among gracious
and humane Indians undoubtedly accounts for much of his
two-way in the colonies. For example, John Eliot translated
the Bible into Narragansett. Some Indians converted to
Christianity. Even today, the Native American church is a
mixture of Christianity and Indian traditional belief.
The spirit of
toleration and religious freedom that gradually grew in the
American colonies was first established in Rhode Island and
Pennsylvania, home of the Quakers. The humane and tolerant
Quakers, or "Friends," as they were known, believed
in the sacredness of the individual conscience as the
fountainhead of social order and morality. The fundamental
Quaker belief in universal love and brotherhood made them
deeply democratic and opposed to dogmatic religious authority.
Driven out of strict Massachusetts, which feared their
influence, they established a very successful colony,
Pennsylvania, under William Penn in 1681.
The best-known Quaker work is the long Journal
(1774) of John Woolman, documenting his inner life in a pure,
heartfelt style of great sweetness that has drawn praise from
many American and English writers. This remarkable man left
his comfortable home in town to sojourn with the Indians in
the wild interior because he thought he might learn from them
and share their ideas. He writes simply of his desire to "feel
and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in."
Woolman's justice-loving spirit naturally turns to social
criticism: "I perceived that many white People do often
sell Rum to the Indians, which, I believe, is a great Evil."
Woolman was also
one of the first antislavery writers, publishing two essays,
"Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes," in
1754 and 1762. An ardent humanitarian, he followed a path of
"passive obedience" to authorities and laws he found
unjust, prefiguring Henry David Thoreau's celebrated essay,
"Civil Disobedience" (1849), by generations.
The antithesis of John Woolman is Jonathan Edwards, who
was born only 17 years before the Quaker notable. Woolman had
little formal schooling; Edwards was highly educated. Woolman
followed his inner light; Edwards was devoted to the law and
authority. Both men were fine writers, but they reveal
opposite poles of the colonial religious experience.
molded by his extreme sense of duty and by the rigid Puritan
environment, which conspired to make him defend strict and
gloomy Calvinism from the forces of liberalism springing up
around him. He is best known for his frightening, powerful
sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
[I]f God should
let you go, you would immediately sink, and sinfully descend,
and plunge into the bottomless gulf....The God that holds you
over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some
loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully
provoked....he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to
be cast into the bottomless gulf.
sermons had enormous impact, sending whole congregations into
hysterical fits of weeping. In the long run, though, their
grotesque harshness alienated people from the Calvinism that
Edwards valiantly defended. Edwards's dogmatic, medieval
sermons no longer fit the experiences of relatively peaceful,
prosperous 18th-century colonists. After Edwards, fresh,
liberal currents of tolerance gathered force.
LITERATURE IN THE SOUTHERN AND MIDDLE COLONIES
southern literature was aristocratic and secular, reflecting
the dominant social and economic systems of the southern
plantations. Early English immigrants were drawn to the
southern colonies because of economic opportunity rather than
southerners were poor farmers or tradespeople living not much
better than slaves, the southern literate upper class was
shaped by the classical, Old World ideal of a noble landed
gentry made possible by slavery. The institution released
wealthy southern whites from manual labor, afforded them
leisure, and made the dream of an aristocratic life in the
American wilderness possible. The Puritan emphasis on hard
work, education and earnestness was rare -- instead we hear of
such pleasures as horseback riding and hunting. The church was
the focus of a genteel social life, not a forum for minute
examinations of conscience.
Southern culture naturally revolved around the ideal of
the gentleman. A Renaissance man equally good at managing a
farm and reading classical Greek, he had the power of a feudal
describes the gracious way of life at his plantation,
Westover, in his famous letter of 1726 to his English friend
Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery:
advantages of pure air, we abound in all kinds of provisions
without expense (I mean we who have plantations). I have a
large family of my own, and my doors are open to everybody,
yet I have no bills to pay, and half-a-crown will rest
undisturbed in my pockets for many moons altogether.
one of the patriarchs, I have my flock and herds, my bondmen
and bondwomen, and every sort of trade amongst my own
servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on everyone
epitomizes the spirit of the southern colonial gentry. The
heir to 1,040 hectares, which he enlarged to 7,160 hectares,
he was a merchant, trader, and planter. His library of 3,600
books was the largest in the South. He was born with a lively
intelligence that his father augmented by sending him to
excellent schools in England and Holland. He visited the
French Court, became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was
friendly with some of the leading English writers of his day,
particularly William Wycherley and William Congreve. His
London diaries are the opposite of those of the New England
Puritans, full of fancy dinners, glittering parties, and
womanizing, with little introspective soul-searching.
is best known today for his lively History
of the Dividing Line,
a diary of a 1729 trip of some weeks and 960 kilometers into
the interior to survey the line dividing the neighboring
colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. The quick impressions
that vast wilderness, Indians, half-savage whites, wild
beasts, and every sort of difficulty made on this civilized
gentleman form a uniquely American and very southern book. He
ridicules the first Virginia colonists, "about a hundred
men, most of them reprobates of good families," and jokes
that at Jamestown, "like true Englishmen, they built a
church that cost no more than fifty pounds, and a tavern that
cost five hundred." Byrd's writings are fine examples of
the keen interest Southerners took in the material world: the
land, Indians, plants, animals, and settlers.
Beverley (c. 1673-1722)
Robert Beverley, another wealthy planter and author of The
History and Present State of Virginia
(1705, 1722) records the history of the Virginia colony in a
humane and vigorous style. Like Byrd, he admired the Indians
and remarked on the strange European superstitions about
Virginia -- for example, the belief "that the country
turns all people black who go there." He noted the great
hospitality of southerners, a trait maintained today.
satire -- a literary work in which human vice or folly is
attacked through irony, derision, or wit -- appears frequently
in the colonial South. A group of irritated settlers lampooned
Georgia's philanthropic founder, General James Oglethorpe, in
a tract entitled A
True and Historical Narrative of the Colony of Georgia
(1741). They pretended to praise him for keeping them so poor
and overworked that they had to develop "the valuable
virtue of humility" and shun "the anxieties of any
satirical poem "The Sotweed Factor" satirizes the
colony of Maryland, where the author, an Englishman named
Ebenezer Cook, had unsuccessfully tried his hand as a tobacco
merchant. Cook exposed the crude ways of the colony with
high-spirited humor, and accused the colonists of cheating
him. The poem concludes with an exaggerated curse: "May
wrath divine then lay those regions waste / Where no man's
faithful nor a woman chaste."
In general, the
colonial South may fairly be linked with a light, worldly,
informative, and realistic literary tradition. Imitative of
English literary fashions, the southerners attained
imaginative heights in witty, precise observations of
distinctive New World conditions.
Equiano (Gustavus Vassa) (c. 1745-c. 1797)
Important black writers like Olaudah Equiano and Jupiter
Hammon emerged during the colonial period. Equiano, an Ibo
from Niger (West Africa), was the first black in America to
write an autobiography, The
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or
Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789).
In the book -- an early example of the slave narrative genre
-- Equiano gives an account of his native land and the horrors
and cruelties of his captivity and enslavement in the West
Indies. Equiano, who converted to Christianity, movingly
laments his cruel "un-Christian" treatment by
Christians -- a sentiment many African-Americans would voice
in centuries to come.
Hammon (c. 1720-c. 1800)
The black American poet Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long
Island, New York, is remembered for his religious poems as
well as for An
Address to the Negroes of the State of New York
(1787), in which he advocated freeing children of slaves
instead of condemning them to hereditary slavery. His poem "An
Evening Thought" was the first poem published by a black
male in America.