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The Beginnings

Of the American


To 1760

The Americas

  • Admiral Columbus left Spain in the ship Santa Maria on August 2, 1492. On October 11-12, he thought he saw a light, which turned out to be an island, which its natives called Guanahani. He renamed it San Salvador. These inhabitants were the Arawak people. They shared no common language, customs or religion with the Spaniards and disputes broke out. The Arawaks convinced the Spaniards to go to other islands, promising they would find treasures. Six years later, Columbus realized he had reached a “very great continent,” which he wrote on his third voyage to America.

Exporation and Settlement

  • Early American literature was inspired by the European desire to explore and describe the continent after Columbus’ voyages.

  • They hoped to find a faster trade route to China, or to find the fabled Earthly Paradise where there was a cure for all diseases, rivers flowed with gold, and there was a Fountain of Youth.

  • Instead, they brought back grim stories of the more than 2,000 Indian tribes.

  • Other stories were more fanciful, about people sleeping under water and having hard tails.

  • Near end of 16th century, exploration changed to settling North America. Europeans began to see America as a place where there was plentiful food and land that poor people could own.

  • The new interest in settlement produced literature. Inexpensive pamphlets and poems appeared in Europe to advertise the attractions in America.

  • Permanent settlers came to America because of the promise of land, good wages and other benefits.

  • They came first to the South, and shortly afterward to the North.

The north puritanism
The North: Puritanism

  • 1620: about a hundred English men & women settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts; 10 years later, another 1,000 settled around Boston.

  • Most of them came fleeing the English authorities over the right to practice their religion, Puritanism.

  • Settlement in America meant an end to their trials, but they had to leave friends and family and face a wilderness.

Three Puritan Beliefs:

Puritans wished to have their feelings radically changed, and experience what they called grace, the miracle by which God grants some people the ability to love truly. They wished to cleanse themselves of all vanity, envy and lust so as to love God and God’s creation wholeheartedly. They realized people could not simply decide to convert their feelings; they spent much of their lives examining their feelings for signs of grace.

Puritans valuedplainness, especially in religion. They desired to return Christianity to simple forms of worship described in the New Testament.

They met for worship in square wooden buildings, painted white and stripped of ornament.

3. They saw their lives in the New World as a divine missionto carry Christianity to America. They believed that America was a place specially appointed by God to be an example to the rest of the world, a “city upon a hill.”

Puritan writings
Puritan Writings

  • Diaries – an attempt to trace the rise of grace in their souls. Those who achieved grace told of their experiences in a form called a spiritual autobiography.

  • Histories – the famous minister Cotton Mather wrote an impressive history of the lives of New England leaders, Puritans’ conflicts with the Indians, and of the witchcraft trials in Salem.

  • Poetry – poets include Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor.

  • The Bay Psalm Book (1640) – first book published in America. Classic expression of Puritan plain style.

  • The Day of Doom (1662) – written by a minister Michael Wigglesworth – he depicted awful punishments awaiting the wicked on Judgment Day – written for children! Popular – called “the first American best seller.”

End of puritanism
End of Puritanism

  • Puritanism as a way of life lasted only about a century in America.

  • As villages grew into towns and cities, the zeal of the first settlers began to fade.

  • Religion came under attack in the Age of Reason.

  • Revived briefly in the 1740’s during the Great Awakening, when grace seemed to seize masses of people throughout New England. These religious conversions were short-lived.

  • By the American Revolution, few Americans would have called themselves Puritans.

The south a planter society
The South: A Planter Society

Differences between Southern settlements & New England:

  • Climate: South had warmer weather & richer soil

  • Manner of settlement: Puritans lived in villages populated by friends & acquaintances who came to America together; Southerners were farmers who worked small plots of land with the help of indentured servants. By turn of 17th century, small number of planters had become wealthy and powerful; they were a new aristocracy which owned and managed PLANTATIONS. Each planter did own farming, weaving and baking, & had to provide own medical care & entertainment.

  • Religion: Church of England was dominant religion of the South, which the Puritans defied.

  • Ideals of behavior: Puritans were zealous, soul-searching believers; Southerners were generous, self-controlled gentlemen, attentive to manners and keenly aware of obligation to serve the public.

  • Southern literature reflected these qualities. Attention turned outward. Wrote more about nature and society (What did Northerners write mostly about?)

  • Southerners wrote detailed descriptions of the wilderness and frontier life.

  • Puritans wrote for instruction and inspiration, while Southerners wrote for amusement and diversion.

  • Puritans passed laws against performances of plays; Southerners erected the first known theater in America (Williamsburg, Virginia).

The beginnings of american literature

Puritans vanished but their emphasis on examining and purifying one’s feelings lingers in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call to see the world freshly, as if reborn.

Puritans’ insistence on plainness resounds in poetry of EmilyDickinson and prose of Ernest Hemingway.

Puritan vision of America as divinely appointed plane pervades later American concepts of an “American Mission,” “Manifest Destiny,” or “American Dream.”

Southern gentleman’s ideal of public service survives in Washington, Jefferson, & other Southern Revolutionary leaders.

Planters’ closeness to land lives on in modern Southern writers like William Faulkner.

Explorers, Puritans & early Southerners share with later American writers a desire to convey the special quality of life in America, to show how they felt living in a new land, facing new experiences.

The Beginnings of American Literature