Literature of the usa. Colonial period literature

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The first explorers and settlers who came to North America from Europe wrote little beyond practical reports which they sent back to the Old World, describing the continent’s natural beauty, its unique plants and animals, and the customs of the dark-skinned inhabitants already there. They did not note the rich local folklore (myths, legends, tales, and lyrics of Indian cultures) – an oral, not written, tradition – which was really the first American literature.

The actual discovery of America was made during the Renaissance period, in the 16th century. In search of a shorter and safer trade-route from Europe to Asia, Christopher Columbus landed on some island near Cuba in 1492 which he mistook for India. The misunderstanding was cleared up a few years later when the Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci, explored that coast and found that it was not India. So the new continent came to be called America after the name of its undoubted discoverer.

More than a century was spent on compassing both Americas. The northern part of America, where Canada and the United States now lie, was first explored by a Bristol merchant John Cabot and his son Sebastian who sailed direct west from England across the Atlantic, and then by Henry Hudson1. The southern continent was explored by the Spaniards ad the Portuguese.

At first, the only aim of these white adventurers was to go get gold. That is way they were more interested in the southern part of the continent: there lived numerous rich tribes of Indians, some of them highly civilized. Cortes, the conquistador from Spain, went to what is now Mexico with a band of cut-throats and plundered the American Indians using the most murderous means. Eventually Spanish settlements appeared on the Haiti and Cuba; but it was only at the beginning of the 17th century that colonization of America really started.

Four European nations competed in that overseas expansion: Spain, Holland, France and England. Spain colonized the part of North America where Florida, Georgia and South Carolina now are. The Dutch founded colonies around the mouth of the Hudson River and built a town on the Island of Manhattan, which they called New Amsterdam. Then further north, in Canada, the French founded their colony Quebec. Sometime later came the English. London merchants organized a company for starting farming colonies in Virginia. The wealthier of the new settlers received large tracts of land and became plantation owners. The rest became small farmers. The governors of the English colonies were appointed by the king of England; as to colonial legislature, each county sent two representatives to the assembly at Jamestown. While the small farmers probably outnumbered the rich planters nine or ten to one, the representatives were invariably chosen from the rich planter class. This feudal system of government was characteristic of the South.

Colonization of America on a large scale in the 17th century was due to the changing conditions in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of poor peasants who had lost their land in Britain and Germany were forced to leave their native countries and search for new homes across the Atlantic.

A group of English Puritans set sail from Plymouth early in September 1620, in ship called the Mayflower. After a long voyage across a stormy sea they dropped anchor at Cape Cod Bay on November 11. These Puritans are generally spoken of as the “Pilgrim Fathers’’. One hundred and two of the pilgrims survived the voyage and reached the shores of America. When still on the ship they agreed that they would build up a new society where every member would be free; and before leaving the ship, they signed a pact called the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrim Fathers promised: “…to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience”.

The Puritans set up a more democratic form of government than that of the southern colonies, yet it was a bourgeois order with a theocracy2 at the top. It should be remembered that before the American Revolution the main occupation of the population was agriculture. Industry developed later. At first, the Pilgrims had a hard time cultivating the virgin land, but when they began to prosper, they expanded their holdings. They drove the Indians off their hunting-grounds and took the land for their own use. Later poor immigrants began to arrive in the New World. They were mostly ruined yeomen who needed land. If they could not buy land, they became tenants of, or servants to the landowners. Odd as it may seem, the Puritans who had come to America in search of freedom, believing that all men had a right to freedom, they themselves denied this freedom to the homeless immigrants and oppressed them.

Fortunately, the old European laws based on private ownership of land lost all meaning on the new continent. Many people in bondage broke away from their masters and went into the wilderness. They crossed the Alleghenies and descended into the basin of the Tennessee River. There no king’s governor came to lord over them; there the flag of England did not wave. Those who made their way through the wilderness were called frontiersmen. They were the pioneers who moved the frontier westward. A frontiersman lived by himself. He was either a hunter, or boatman; or a wandering cowboy and mustang catcher; or a squatter3 who felled trees, built himself a log hut and cultivated land. His dress and equipment was such as suited his rough life. In wooded regions the axe and the rifle were the frontiersman equipment; on the Great Plains the horse and the pistol were essential. The frontiersman obeyed no written laws. He obeyed only the discipline of frontier life, that is to say, his own rules of behavior.

From the European colony of New Plymouth immigrants spread in all directions and the colonies New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island appeared which laid the foundation of New England.

In the 18th century, a bitter struggle was fought between the ruling classes of England, France, Holland and Spain to determine to which country the American continent should belong. England took over the Spanish and Dutch settlements and changed the name of New Amsterdam to New York. The combat with France lasted much longer: France found an ally in many an Indian tribe. These wars were described by Fennimore Cooper in his “Leather-Stocking Tales”. They are called the Franco-Indian Wars, or the Seven-Year War. In the end England, then the richest and strongest maritime power defeated her rivals and became supreme ruler of the North- American continent.

But this New World had already been inhabited long before the Europeans came. The Red Indians, the native population, were the real Americans. The question of the origin of the Indians has not yet been settled. No one can decide whether they are Asiatic who had reached the American mainland by way of the frozen Bering Strait or by way of a ridge of land, which since then has disappeared, or whether Neolithic man took the place of Paleolithic man by domestic evolution. But this much seems certain: that there had been no communication between the North-American Indians and the rest of the world for many a thousand years, because their development was at so low a level that they had not yet discovered the use of the wheel. They lived in patriarchal tribes, and engaged in hunting and fishing. They followed the deer through the immense forests and the fish up the streams, which accounts for their wandering habits; most of the tribes were practically unfamiliar with agriculture.

The natives met the first Europeans with hospitality. We are told that they were eager to trade with the pale-faces, as they called the white men. But when the Indians were cheated and plundered and driven off their hunting-grounds, naturally they answered their enemy with blood and fire. The Europeans could have easily managed to live in American without disturbing the Indians, because there were so few of them in comparison with the enormous space, which the New World offered. Both the North and South Americans and the more densely populated part of Central America did not have a population of more than ten million in all, that is, as many as live in New York today. But the Europeans in their greed for riches were ruthless. The way the Indians were conquered by white race constitutes one of the darkest pages in the history of mankind.

The colonizers who descended upon the Indians were commercial adventurers, wealth-seekers, capitalists and land speculators. The speculators sold land in the southern regions to planters who wanted to raise tobacco, cotton and sugar; and the planters needed field-workers. At first, they tried to capture and use Indians. But the American Indians never made good slaves: in captivity they died like flies. So the colonists started bringing convicts from the prisons of Europe as labour, and also Negroes from Africa. In the year 1619 a Dutch ship, the Treasurer, landed at Jamestown, Virginia, with first black slaves in chains for the planters. Though slavery was legal only in southern colonies, trading companies in the North were very much to blame for developing the slavery trade. Every year ships from Boston, Newport, Bristol, Salem and the other ports sailed off to Africa to obtain this “profitable commodity”. The hard ship the Negroes had to suffer during the voyage to America was terrific. Often more than half of them suffocated in the hold of the ship where they were held during the voyage, and their bodies were thrown overboard.

During the following decades, the black population of America increased rapidly. In the regions where the Blacks far outnumbered their white masters, the latter treated their slaves with utmost cruelty to keep them in subjection. A slave could not think for himself :”… the most be a mere machine without either will or motion other than you impress upon him,” said the rules for slave-holders , otherwise”…an independence of spirit will be acquired that will demand repented punishment to suppress it”. Attempts to escape were not the only means employed by the slaves to free themselves of their oppressors. The intolerable conditions of the Blacks provoked them to no less than 25 rebellions in the colonies before the American War of Independence.

Not only were Negroes bought and sold. The shipping companies also organized the kidnapping of white children twelve and thirteen years of age. In 1627, ships arrived bringing 1,500 children kidnapped by “spirits” in European ports. These were sold as slaves to the planters.

Another type of white slaves imported to America was not poor wretches from the cities and villages of Ireland, Scotland and other countries. These were poor artisans and peasants, unable to pay their passage to America, and ready to risk everything to save their families from starvation. They signed contracts called indentures before leaving the Old World, and became “Indentured servants”. This indenture bound the owner or master of the ship to transport them to the New World, and bound the passenger to serve some master in America a number of masters of the ship sold them for their passage to the highest bidder. If nobody wanted white slaves, the indentured servants were passed over to a class of speculators known as “soul drivers”, who drove them through the country like so many cattle and sold them for what they would bring. This buying and selling of immigrants continued long after the colonies became the United States.





Colonial Period

William Bradford, John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Anne Bradstreet


The Revolutionary Age

Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Paine


The Early National Period

James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, William Cullen Bryant, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs (slave narratives)


The Romantic Period

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau
Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman


The Realistic Period

Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, Frank Norris,


The Naturalistic Period

Stephen Crane, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser


American Modernist Period

Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Amy Lowell, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos


Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Eugene O'Neill, H.L. Mencken


Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, James Baldwin, etc.

1920s, 1930s

The "Lost Generation"

Gertrud Stein, T.S. Eliot, Erza Pound, Ernest Hemingway



The Contemporary Period

Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, E.L. Doctorow, Marianne Moore. Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell


Beat Writers

Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, African American writers: Ralph Ellison, Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka), Toni Morrison, etc.

1960s, 1970s





Leaders of the earliest permanent settlements, in the first years of the 1600s, kept detailed accounts of the lives of their little groups of colonists. Their purpose was not only to tell their friends back home what the new land was like; they also wanted to describe what was in effect a social experiment. The first English colony was set in 1585 at Roanoke, off the coast of North Carolina. The exploration of the area was recorded by Thomas Hariot in “A Brief and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia” (published in 1588). Captain John Smith (1580-1631), who organized the English colony of Jamestown (in what is now the state of Virginia), wrote books in which he outlined carefully the economic and political structure of his settlement. He probably wrote the first personal account of a colonial life in America “A True Relation of Virginia” (published in England in 1608). Farther north, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor William Bradford (1590-1657) recorded the experiences of the Pilgrims who had come from England and Holland seeking religious freedom. His history “Of Plymouth Plantation” (1651) focused on their hardships, on their spiritual response to life in a remote wilderness, and on the religious meaning of those events. This account was written only for his own reflection.

For a long time, however, there was little imaginative literature produced in the colonies. At first, the settlers’ waking hours were occupied nearly totally with efforts to ensure survival. Later, the community discouraged the writing of works such as plays because these weren’t “useful” and were widely considered to be immoral. In the North, where the communities were run by the religious Protestants generally called Puritans, hard work and material prosperity were greatly valued as outward signs of God’s grace. Making money was also important, for other reasons, to the merchants of the growing cities of New York and Philadelphia and to the farmers of large tracts of land in the southern colonies.


The population of the colonies increased rapidly, and by the middle of the 17th century these colonies were no longer crude outposts. In 1647, Massachusetts began to require towns of 50 families or more to establish elementary schools. Excellent colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary were founded throughout the colonies for training religious leaders. In 1640, the “Bay Psalm Book” was the first book printed in America; by the early 1700s, newspapers were appearing. As the latest books arrived on ships from Europe, colonists involved themselves in various European religious and political controversies. Puritan sermons, such as those of Increase Mather and his son

Cotton Mather, the author of 1702 “Magnalia Christi Americana” (“Ecclesiastical History of New England”) in the late 1600s, or of Jonathan Edwards (Calvinism defender) in the mid-1700s, were often highly intellectual discussions of theology, responding to arguments in the English church. These were not inevitably dry, sterile lectures. Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” for example, was full of imagery and passion. John Woolman, a Quaker, left a record of his innermost thoughts in his “Journal” (published in 1774). The work reflects his deep faith in the “Inner Light”. According to Quaker’s belief, the light is God’s spirit and exists in every human being.


The Puritan notion that God should be seen in every phase of daily life also gave rise to poetry. Anne Bradstreet published a volume of fine poems, chiefly religious meditations, in 1650. Edward Taylor, who wrote at about the same time but did not publish his poems during his life, used imagery in the same bold, witty, original way as did English religious poets John Donne and George Herbert. These writers were known as the “Metaphysical” poets. Taylor’s poems belong to the literary tradition of the individual focusing on his interior life. Anne Bradstreet’s poems represent yet another important element of American literature: From the beginning, women were active literary figures in the New World. Michael Wigglesworth, another important colonial poet, achieved wide popularity with his poem “The Day of Doom” (first published in 1662). It gives the description of the day of judgment.


Native people in North America, more than 10 million of them speaking over 350 languages, had rich and varied oral traditions. In journals, diaries, travel accounts, and other forms, European explorers recorded what they saw and felt as they were exposed to the New World. Since many of the settlers came to America with strong religious convictions, there is wealth of religious writings, particularly by Puritan writers.

Examples of almost very oral genre can be found in American Indian literature: lyrics, chants, myths, fairy tales, humorous anecdotes, incantations, riddles, proverbs, epics, and legendary histories. 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 (wild duck) fly 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 – the Indian name for America, “ Turtle Island.’’

Among the many narrative forms are creation or origin stories, myths that explained how things came to be as they are. Another form was cultural hero stories, which showed how remarkable people—usually with superman powers—changed the natural world and helped create the existing Native culture. Trickster tales are a specialized form of narrative in which a trickster (deceiver) figure, often an animal, uses its cunning to outwit more powerful enemies.

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 (play games of chance for money), various magic chores, or dance ceremonials. Indian oral 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 also contains works of great beauty.


The development of industry in such of the English colonies as New York and Pennsylvania was constantly restricted by the ruling classes of the mother country. British bourgeoisie did not want the colonies to have an economy of their own, fearing they would develop into a dangerous rival. But by the middle of the 18th century a generation of the bourgeoisie had grown up in America who had lost any feeling of blood with the British and for whom America was their homeland. They had an enormous rebellious influence in the colonies that grew from year to year. The centre of culture moved from the Atlantic coast to the industrial colonies, and Philadelphia, the chief city of Pennsylvania became the cultural and political centre. In the second half of the century the colonial bourgeoisie became powerful enough to start armed struggle against Britain. In 1774 a Continental Congress in Philadelphia called together representatives from all the different colonies and unity of the thirteen colonies was established. The Congress organized what were to keep all good patriots informed of every act of the British Government.

The first armed conflict between England and America occurred on April 19, 1775. British troops attempted to capture military stores at Lexington and Concord but the American militia defended them and won their first victory.

The difficulty in the armed struggle against Britain was that the rebels did not have the support of all their fellow-countrymen. The number who remained loyal to British king was large. These were the planters, the land speculators and rich citizens, such as the professional money-lenders. They belonged to the Loyalist Party. But the artisans and the labors, and the small farmers who had hated the money-lenders since time immemorial, where ready to give their all to the Revolution. They were the soldiers who could be depended upon in George Washington’s army. Their party was the Republican Party.

On July 4, 1776, the colonies declared themselves a Democratic Republic, issued a Declaration of Independence and later adopted a Constitution. But the war with England dragged on till 1783. A decisive battle was famous battle of Saratoga when the Americans were victorious. But the British did not give up fighting and brought fresh troops to America while the Republican army lacked volunteers and had no military supplies. Starving and frozen, the army was compelled to retreat. The cold winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge was the turning- point in the American Revolution.

During all the years of war the Republican army suffered a shortage of men and ammunition because many in America remained indifferent to the Revolution. Among these were immigrants from other parts of the world who did not understand the state of affairs. They thought that a “quarrel” between the English colonies and Britain, the mother country, had nothing to do with them. It was not their business. Many of the frontiersmen, too, who formerly had been white slaves, were passive. They saw no difference between the manufacturers and landowners of Britain, and those of the colonies: reduced to despair by the intolerable exploitation they had suffered, they trusted no one. To them any type of organization or authority was synonymous with oppression. An American historian characterizes the frontiersman follows as follows: he “was merchant and preacher, and soldier and king, and preacher, and soldier and king, and he ruled his realism as pleased him, and all others take warning “. The wilderness had given him his chance, the only chance that would ever come to him in all his life. And that chance he refused to surrender. All he wanted was to be let alone.

The problem that caused the greatest anxiety to the American leaders was not how to fight the professional British officers but how to keep the army and the population together until the common enemy was defeated. After two years of fighting, however, Washington did succeed in getting many of those frontiersmen to volunteer into the army. The Americans owed this to their revolutionary journalist, Thomas Paine.

In 1778, an alliance arranged with France brought a French fleet to the American shores and helped defeat the English on the sea. The French general Lafayette, later statesman in the French Revolution, helped the Americans against the English on land. On October 15, 1781, at Yorktown the English army surrendered to the Americans. In a treaty signed on September 3, 1783, England officially declared that the war had ended. The American colonies became the United States.

The Republican Party fell apart after the Revolution. Those who defended the interests of the rich called themselves the Federalists. They changed many points in the Constitution. Now the poor farmers, the workers and artisans of the towns, who had done the actual fighting, had no lot in framing the laws under which they were to live. The left wing of what used to be the Republican Party formed the Democratic Party headed by Thomas Jefferson, who represented the common man and his agrarian interests. Jefferson and his party achieved such important reforms as the nationalization of north- western lands and the separation of the abolition of slavery. The writers and poets of the Revolution stood for this party in their struggle for the rights of man.

  1. When did colonization of America start, and to what political and economic processes was that overseas expansion due?

  2. What countries competed with each other in exploring and exploiting the natural resources of the New World?

  3. How did the ideals declared by the Puritans on their arrival in America differ from their actions when they settled in the new land?

  4. Who were the Native Americans, and what stage of development had they reached when the Europeans discovered the American continent?

  5. Why did the Franco-Indian Wars break out?

  6. Who were the people used as labour by the privileged masters in the New World? How did they happen to be in America?

  7. What was the difference in the government set up by the Puritans the North ( New England), and the form of government in the South (Virginia)

  8. Which of these two forms of government influenced most the culture of the people and their language?

  9. What are Americanisms?

  10. When did the first literature written in the English language appear in America? Who were the writers and what did they write about?


The settlements of New England developed rapidly. Ten years after the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims more than twenty thousand people lived in the colony and that the majority was from England. And it was here in New England that the literature of the new American nation appeared. The Pilgrim Fathers played a historical role in this, although it was through no conscious desire of their own. Many of them were men of learning with a university education. They brought books on various subjects to America. They opened schools for the children and in 1636 founded Harvard College, the first American university. They also set up the first printing- press in the country and published at the first books. But the American Puritans were not guided in this by any humanitarian desire to spread learning and knowledge among the people. They were first and foremost religious fanatics, determined to subjugate everyone to their rigorous, dogmatic discipline: the schools taught their religion to the children, the university trained energumen for Protestant churches in the colony which they hoped would give them more power, and the books they published had the same purpose.

Although the only book they recommended for home reading was the Bible, they also printed various histories, journals, memoirs and theological tracts intended for the clergy who ruled the colony. The authors of these works were far from being professional writers but their writings tell the story of the colony and disclose the true nature of the Puritanism of those days.

The Puritans were jealous of and feared any ideas until they compelled them to abandon their “sinful” thoughts. They wanted people to obey their laws and despise the joys of mortal life. This led to brutal cruelty. Before long they started hysterically persecuting free-thinkers as “witches”. Witch-hunting increased in ferocity towards the end of the 17th century when the civil power of the Church began to crumble. Hundreds of innocent men and women were imprisoned, hanged and even burnt at the stake. This was a consequence the Pilgrim Fathers had not quite foreseen.

The power of Puritans theocracy lasted for three generations. The writers who fought for democracy in the colonies (Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams and John Wise) came into sharp controversy with the clergymen. Gradually, under the influence of French and German cultures brought to America by new immigrants, theocracy was defeated, and the number of secular poets and writers increased. Since the writers in the Northern colonies dealt with the life around them, of which they were an inseparable part, their works became part of American national literature; while Virginia and other Southern colonies added but little to the creative literature of America. This is not surprising: the planters lived in the colonies only with an eye to profit. They educated their sons in imitation of the old home, and there was very little contact with the North.

Here are some other writers we should be acquainted with to get a better idea of the early colonial period.

William Bradford (1590-1657), was one of the Pilgrim Fathers and was chosen governor for New Plymouth. He wrote a “History of the Plymouth Plantation”. In Book I, Chapter IX, he tells of their voyage, and how they passed the sea, and of their safe arrival at Cape Cod. In Chapter X he shows how they sought out a place of habitation and what befell them thereabout. Book II deals with the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Compact with the Indians (1621).

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1657), a women poet born in the Old World in England. She was the daughter of the Governor of Massachusetts, and was married at sixteen to one of the Puritans who founded the Boston settlement. Her husband, a frontiersman, always lived in the wild regions of the newly conquered land. She had eight children and it was hard to take care of them and yet to find time for writing. But she found the time. Her first book of verse was called by the British editor “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America” (1650). In her early poems she longs for her old home in England, but in her later lyrical poems she wrote about the familiar objects of her daily life. Anne Bradstreet revealed the life of the first generation of New Englanders. Her works were re-edited in America in 1932 under the title “The Works of Anne in Prose and Verse”.

Sarah Kemble Knight (1666- 1727) was another woman writer of the time. She was born in America. The widow of a Boston merchant, she kept a school in Boston. Once she had to go to New York and made the and dangerous journey on horseback. She kept a diary in which she described all the people she met on the way, and the places she stopped at for the night. From her diary, we learn of the rough life of the frontiersman and the small farmers of Connecticut. Though the author did not have the least liking for them and their democratic ways, she admitted that intellectually these common men and women were by no means inferior to the Boston citizens in spite of their coarse life and wild habits. Her style of writing is vivid, light and has humor. Her book “Private Journal of a Journal from Boston to New York” was re-edited in 1920.

A writer who expressed sympathy for the American farmer was a French aristocrat, Hector de Crevecoeur (1739-1813). He had been a French soldier in Canada and had lived for some time in the State of New York as a farmer. During the War of Independence, when France helped the mutineers, he was arrested by the British generals as a political enemy and was imprisoned. He nearly died in prison. When he was released he left for Europe. He was one of the few survivors when the ship on which he sailed was wrecked. When he reached London, he arranged to have his work “Letters from an American Farmer” (1782) published. Then he went to France and later returned to America only to find that during the war his homestead had been burnt down, his wife had died, and his children had been lost. Then he returned to France for good. In the twelve letters in his book, he gives a wonderful description of life in the North- American colonies.

American culture, however, cannot be really understood if we view it only in the light of European influence. American literature is now more than 300 years old. It is an independent literature intimately connected with the history of the country and should not be considered as a branch of British literature because it is written in the English language. Literature not only reflects the particular period in which it is created, it always rests on the traditions of the country, which reared it. Traditions generally mean the beliefs and customs of a people that are handed down from generation to generation. These beliefs and customs become part of their life. They are the starting-point in art and literature. Nor can the culture of the American nation be separated from Indian mythology and Negro folk-role. Some of the Europeans who had come to America learned from the Indians: they became acquainted with their social laws and appreciated such human values as their love of freedom, their self-respect, their contempt for wealth. They compared these qualities with those of the white men who turned into beasts in their greed.

The Negroes contributed greatly to the development of the arts, Negro songs and acting have become part of American national music and drama. Negro folklore has given American literature a specific coloring: a mixture of jocularity and sadness.

American literature owes its revolutionary traditions, of course, to the War of Independence. And it much to the tradition of pioneering in the free lands of the West. This introduced at adventurous feature so characteristic of American literature. The people who grew up under the conditions of the frontier spirit handed down the traditions that produced such men as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and such poets and writers as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. To study their literature means to learn much about America’s unrelenting fighters for justice and freedom.

The ideas of the Age of Reason in America were expressed in the Revolution. The outstanding writers of the time were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and the poet Philip Freneau. The chief aim of the writers of Enlightenment was to diffuse republican ideas among the people: to expose the tyranny of monarchism, and defend the rights of man against the church and the outdated feudal laws. Rationalism applied to theology produced Deism4 and in some cases as in the works of Paine, atheism.

Unlike the French philosophers of the early 18th century who never lived to see their revolution, the American writers if their Age of Reason were able to see their ideas materializing. They all contributed to the success of Revolution.

The appeal to reason prompted men of all ranks to discuss existing social problems. It brought about a vast spiritual and social upheaval in literature and accounted for a tremendous development of journalism. People wanted to share their ideas with their fellow-countrymen. When Franklin was born, there was only one American newspaper; by the time of the Revolution there were nearly fifty. As for periodicals, the number of magazines had grown to forty when George Washington was elected President of the United States.

Similarly to what happened in the movement of Enlightenment in Europe, the American political leaders and writers too had a firm belief in the reality of the world as revealed to the senses – hence the interest in science; a distrust of the mystical – hence another step towards religious tolerance and atheism; confidence in the attainment of progress by education and humanitarianism – hence new methods of teaching at schools ; a belief in progress as the exercise of reason , and the exercise of reason as a means to solve the problems of society and the state.

  1. What features are characteristic of American Enlightenment?

  2. Who were the outstanding writers of the time?

  3. Why is the period of Enlightenment also called the Age of Reason?

  4. What were the progressive ideas of the time revealed in literature?

1 Henry Hudson – English navigator, made two voyages to America in 1609-1611 hoping to find a sea path to China. He was the first to discover what is now Hudson River. On his second voyage his crew rose in mutiny, put their captain and his son in an open boat in Hudson Bay and left them there to perish.

2 most meet – suitable to the conditions or situationtheocracy – a system of government in which the laws of the state are made by priests because they are supposed to be the representatives of god

3 squatter – one who settles on land without official rights to ownership

4 Deism – belief in existence of a Divine Being which reveals itself in nature and not in religious dogma

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