In This Section

Bookmark and Share


Visit our companion site, American Passages. Produced in conjunction with Oregon Public Broadcasting, this rich site includes an archive featuring over 3,000 images, audio clips, presentation software, and more.


American Literature, Beginnings to 1700American Literature, 1700-1820

The Marvels of Spain—and America

  • The sense of “discovery,” and its attendant wonder, that characterized the experience of the people who came in contact with each other after Christopher Columbus landed in what we now call the West Indies in 1492, was mutual rather than one sided, felt equally by Europeans and Natives.
  • Just as Europeans who landed in America encountered unfamiliar landscapes, foods, peoples, and cultures in the “new world,” so too did Native people experience their own lands being made unfamiliar to them through the colonial imitations of Europe that were erected and transplanted there in the forms of buildings, livestock, foods, land use patterns, social structures, etc.
  • The “new world” was not simply a matter of geography but rather a genuinely new set of social relationships that would evolve over the next centuries as the peoples from the whole Atlantic basin interacted in the Americas.
  • The hybrid cultural universe created in the Americas evolved more often through struggle than through cooperation.  Each group used its own traditions or elements borrowed from others to endure or conquer or outwit their rivals.  Violence often overshadowed the wonder glimpsed in the earliest accounts of contact between cultures.
  • Almost literally from the moment of contact in 1492, Native peoples began to die in large numbers, if not from war then from enslavement, brutal mistreatment, despair, or epidemic disease.
  • In the face of the decimation of the Native population and thus the sudden decline of available Native labor, the Spanish colonizers introduced African slavery to America as early as 1501.  By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Native population had been almost completely displaced by African slaves in some Spanish colonies.  Thus, the destruction of one people was accompanied by the displacement and enslavement of another.
  • Natives were not merely victims, suffering decline.  Many Native groups made strategic alliances both with European colonizers and with other Native groups to consolidate advantages.  Many Natives were resourceful in resisting, transforming, and exploiting the cultures that Europeans were imposing on their original landscape.

Native American Oral Literature

  • In contrast to fifteenth-century Europe, which was united by many linguistic and cultural commonalities, North American Native peoples spoke hundreds of languages, structured their societies in widely diverse forms, and held extremely diverse religious and mythological beliefs.
  • Unlike European cultures, Native Americans north of what we now call Mexico did not use a written alphabet but had instead developed oral cultures that relied on spoken words—whether chanted, sung, or presented in lengthy narratives—and the memory of those words to preserve cultural information.
  • Bringing Native American oral traditions to the page in English involves issues of translation beyond substituting Native words for English words; it involves deciding how to translate an oral text into a written text.  The performed and physical aspects of oral texts are obviously lost in written translations.  Some translators have experimented with special typography to convey the qualities of performance, while others have made use of formats that look like poetry or prose.  In either case, these are simply decisions made by the translator.

Voyages of Discovery

  • By the sixteenth century, European voyages to the Americas had become too numerous to track.  European settlements extended far to the north and south of the Caribbean basin that Columbus had explored.
  • European settlements were jeopardized by constant battles along vague frontiers between settlers and Native peoples and dissention and political infighting among the settlers themselves.
  • Spain aggressively maintained a presence in the Americas beginning in 1492; other European nations, most conspicuously England and France, awakened more slowly to the project of colonialism.
  • It was not until the seventeenth century that England and France established their first permanent colonies in North American, in Virginia and Quebec.

Literary Consequences of 1492

  • Printed documents lushly describing the “new world,” and offering propaganda to stir Europeans’ individual imaginations and national ambition, emerged immediately after Columbus’s first voyage.  The printing press and the European expansion into America were reciprocal parts of a single engine.
  • The vast majority of early American writings were produced by Europeans rather than the Native peoples of the Americas (who tended to value orality and memory over mechanical means of recording texts) with some important exceptions. Aztec written traditions, North American shellwork beads and painted animal hides, teepees, and shields, and other visual records were used in subtle and sophisticated ways.  Some Natives borrowed the Roman alphabet introduced by the Spanish to record testimony in their own language.
  • Many European texts of the period record were communications between the colonists in the Americas and their governments at home in Europe.  They were “briefs” meant to inform or influence policy decisions made at a distance or to justify actions taken. 
  • In practice, there was often a wide gap between official colonial policies adopted in European capitals and the actions taken by colonists.  The great distance separating the hemispheres made the coordination of intention and performance extremely difficult.
  • Some early American writing by Europeans can be characterized as “literature of witness,” often produced to critique—either subtly or bluntly—the bloodiness and corruption of the colonial project.

Pilgrim and Puritan

  • The English settlers who established Plymouth Plantation in 1620 (later known as the Pilgrims) and the English Puritans who established a settlement in Boston in 1630 shared a wish to purify Christian belief and practice.
  • The Pilgrims advocated separating from the established Church of England, while the Puritans hoped to purify it from within.  By 1691, the Pilgrims had been subsumed by the Massachusetts Bay colony, and the two groups merged.
  • Both the Pilgrims and the Puritan settlements were commercial enterprises as well as religious ones.  They were backed by investors in England and included secular settlers who came to America for economic opportunity rather than out of religious conviction.
  • Puritans and Pilgrims accepted John Calvin’s doctrine of election, holding that God had chosen, or “elected” before their birth those he would save and those he would damn eternally.
  • While the doctrine of election can seem harsh, there was also joy in Puritan life, often as a result of meditations on Christ’s redeeming power.
  • Puritan churches administered the sacrament of communion only to those who had become church members by standing before their minister and elders and giving an account of their conversion.  This process contributed to the Puritans’ sense of being a special, or chosen, few—a concept John Winthrop gave voice to when he exhorted the immigrants to the Bay Colony to live as a shining example to all other peoples as “a city upon a hill.”

Writing in Tongues

  • An enormous variety of languages were spoken and written in seventeenth-century North American settlements, including, among others, French, Dutch, Walloon, Spanish, Scandinavian, Portuguese, Gaelic, German, African languages, and, of course, Native American languages.
  • Eventually, political events would make English a useful lingua franca for the colonies at large and, in time, the literary medium of choice.  It is important to remember, however, the initial linguistic and cultural diversity of the colonial North American world.

American Literature in 1700

  • By the end of the first full century of European colonization, some settlements in North America had printing presses.
  • Between 1696 and 1700, about 250 separate texts were issued by North American printing presses.  They represent the diversity and political and cultural complexity of this hybrid new world.