Thursday, November 5, 2009

4.1. THE BEGINNINGS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE (1600-1820)

Colonial America (1600-1776)

The story of American literature begins long before the US began its existence. Apart from the oral literature of Native Americans, the earliest writers were explorers like Captain JOHN SMITH (1580-1631), who wrote about his experiences in books like General Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624, Pocahontas’ story). The first permanent settlers, the Puritans, were very interested in education and culture, which they felt were at the root of their project to start a new theocratic society. Harvard was founded in 1636, and the first printing press was started in 1638. Therefore, the New World saw the emergence of a literature which was mainly made up of sermons, histories, autobiographies and poems, all of them written with a religious purpose in mind:

· WILLIAM BRADFORD (1590-1657). Of Plymouth Plantation (1651) is the most interesting of the Puritan histories, narrating the origins of the colonies with the characteristic ‘plain style’ of the Puritans. Literature for them was something practical and they avoided elegant language.
· COTTON MATHER (1663-1728) was the third in a family of ministers and writers and wrote sermons and histories.
· JONATHAN EDWARDS (1702-1758) wrote extremely frightening sermons, like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1733).
· MICHAEL WIGGLESWORTH (1631-1705) wrote terrifying poetry which became very popular, like The Day of Doom (1662).
· ANNE BRADSTREET (1612-1672) was the first New England poet. She wrote simple, intimate poems.
· EDWARD TAYLOR (1645-1729) wrote the best poetry of the time, more personal than the rest, but unpublished until the 1930s.
· MARY ROWLANDSON (1636-1711) wrote the first Indian-Captivity Narrative, where she described her experiences when she was captured by the Indians.
Literature in the South, meanwhile, was less original. There were fewer writers and more connected to England. WILLIAM BYRD (1674-1744), for instance, wrote mainly for a London audience, whereas OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1745-1797) was a freed slave who wrote the first black autobiography.

► See Classroom Activity # 14 “The Beginnings of American Literature”, p. 173.

Revolutionary America (1776-1800)

At the times of political turmoil that came during the American Revolution most writings were political in nature. There were pamphlets like Common Sense (1776), written by THOMAS PAINE (1737-1809), which was often read aloud and became immensely popular. THOMAS JEFFERSON (1743-1826) was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence (1776), a political document with undeniable literary qualities.
This was also the time of the Enlightenment, and American writers took a very active role in the development of this movement. Contrary to the Puritan tradition, they saw reason as the weapon to understand the world. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-1790) wrote his very popular Poor Richard's Almanac (1732-1757), full of proverbs and moral advice, and his Autobiography (1784), a book for self-improvement. J. HECTOR ST. JOHN DE CRÈVECOEUR (1735-1843) was a French Aristocrat who migrated to America and wrote Letters from an American Farmer (1782), which helped start the myth of the 'melting pot'.
The poetry written during these years imitated European Neoclassical models of epic, mock epic and satire. The Connecticut Wits were the first poetic circle. PHILIP FRENAU (1752-1832) was perhaps the best poet of his time. Finally, The Contrast (1787) written by ROYALL TYLER (1757-1826) was the first American play with American characters.

19th Century: Cultural Independence

The 18th century had brought important changes in the field of literature in England. This was the time of ‘the Rise of the Novel’, with writers like Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Samuel Richardson (Clarissa Harlowe, Pamela, sentimental novels), Henry Fielding (Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, satirical novels) or Walter Scott (historical novels, Ivanhoe). All these types were somewhat adapted in America, except for sentimental novels which were never too popular[1].
In the USA, the first professional novelist was CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN (1771-1810), who adapted the English Gothic novel to American settings. Gothic novels (like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto) were characterized by exotic settings (ruined castles, abbeys), the use of magic and the supernatural (ghosts, mysteries, horror), and the predominance of suspense, psychological depth and emotional power. In Brown’s novels, the villain is a rebel against society, which is the way Americans saw themselves at the time, and maybe this is why this Gothic villain becomes the antecedent of the hero in later American novels. In fact, Brown is a precursor of the American Romance represented by writers like Poe, Melville and Hawthorne. His best novel is Wieland (1798).
WASHINGTON IRVING (1789-1859) adapted European legends to the American context, providing a kind of historical past that was felt to be missing. In The Sketch Book (1819) he wrote short stories like “Rip Van Winkle” (the beginning of the ‘men on the run’ pattern typical of American Literature), or “The Story of Sleepy Hollow”. Although of European origin, they have become part of American folklore. He spent several years in Spain, after which he wrote The Alhambra (1832), tales with a Moorish flavor. He enjoyed great success in his time, but has less prestige nowadays.
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER (1789-1851). In his ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ (already dealt with in section 3.3, p. 63) he adapted Walter Scott’s historical novels to the American situation and created the prototype of westerns. Although his literary and artistic skills have been questioned by some critics (particularly his somewhat clumsy descriptions) his stories still have great epic and mythical power. Besides, he is probably the first American writer to deal with a theme that would become a feature of American Literature: man vs. nature.
[1] Leslie Fiedler, an American critic, wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel that American Literature seems to be incapable of dealing with adult sexuality and is pathologically obsessed with death. Male characters tend to run away from society and conventional love, and join other men in natural environments. The examples he used were Twain, Melville, Cooper, Hemingway and others. Maybe this is the reason why sentimental novels have never been popular in the US.

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