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History of American Literature
Finding your way
Of course there is no such thing as the history of American literature. At best this course
will be a history. Nothing can replace the experience of reading but most people, even in
a life=me of reading, are unable to read all American literature and most of us find it
helpful to learn from the experience of others. Like all survey courses, this course will be
par=al in both senses of the term: there will be gaps (leC for you to fill) and it will
probably reveal my own tastes. The course is designed to help you think about and
situate in both =me and space the American authors you read. It is meant, in other
words, to help you find your way.
Required Reading
Students will be expected to read the passages posted each week.
Student assessment:
There will be a one-hour end-of-term examina=on in which students will be given a
passage by an American author. You will be expected to discuss the passage,
demonstra=ng your knowledge of 1) the way it can be seen as connected to the work of
other American authors and 2) the ways in which it is original—different from the work
of other authors. You will be expected to do this in 200 to 400 words.
What Do We Mean by “American literature”?
The answer is not as obvious as it may seem. Is “American literature” literature wriRen
on the American con=nent? In what is now the United States? In other words is it
somehow connected with place? The ques=on is all the more complicated since the
borders of that place, the United States, have been redefined more than once since they
first came into existence: the United States as you know have not always been what they
are today. Furthermore, “America” was a place in the imagina=on long before the United
States were even thought of. In fact, even before America was discovered. And since
literature has everything to do with the imagina=on, we will begin with William Bradford
and try to think about the connec=on between place—the North American con=nent
that is—and the imagina=on, the way a par=cular place, for all sorts of different reasons,
fired the imagina=on and marked the literature of those who lived there. I will not be
talking about the oral tradi=on that existed in North America before the arrival of
Europeans, although it is an interes=ng subject in itself. The people that are now lumped
together under the label “na=ve Americans” had a remarkable tradi=on of storytelling
and performance—in which memory and modula=on of the voice played major roles.
That tradi=on was recognized and admired by many of the early seRlers and travellers.
In this course, I will concentrate on wriRen literature and on literature wriRen in English.
In other words I will exclude literature wriRen in, say, French or Spanish, which also
existed in what is now the United States.
William Bradford
1. William Bradford's Of Plimouth Planta6on
The Plymouth colony was not the first European colony in North America and William
Bradford's account was not the first to be wriRen or published. But it holds a special
place in the American canon (i.e., the accepted group of works that make up American
literature, just as there is an authorita=ve list of books accepted as Holy Scripture)
because of the nature of Bradford's experience, which has the aRributes of an heroic
enterprise, but also because of the sweatness of Bradford's tone, his humility and his
courage.
William Bradford was born and bap=zed in Yorkshire, England in 1590. He was orphaned
at an early age and, when he was twelve (in 1602), he began to aRend Puritan (or
Separa=st) mee=ngs. Why were they called Puritans and Separa=sts and later
Dissenters? Because they opposed the Church of England—the Anglican Church—and
sought to purify it, to rid it of what they considered excesses of ceremonial worship that
they saw as idolatry. They opposed the priesthood and insisted on personal
interpreta=on of the Bible—or Scripture. They were constantly hounded by local
magistrates and in 1608, many began to leave England and seRle in Holland where they
were tolerated. They wanted to separate, in other words, from the Anglican Church.
William Bradford was among the Separa=sts in Holland where he married in 1613. Seven
years later, the whole congrega=on, or most of it, hired a ship, the Mayflower, and
decided to go and seRle in America, styling themselves “pilgrims.” Bradford and his wife
leC their four-year-old son behind and Bradfords wife,Dorothy May, died, just before
their arrival, falling overboard—some say she commiRed suicide.
The next year, in 1621, aCer the death of the first governor of Plymouth, Bradford was
elected governor, a posi=on to which he was re-elected every year (except five) for the
rest of his life, un=l 1657, that is. Mourt's Rela2on, men=oned in the notes, based on
wri=ngs by William Bradford among others, was published 1622 in London. But Bradford
only began to write Of Plymouth Planta2on (from which today's passage is taken) only in
1630, that is, ten years aCer his arrival in the New World. Bradford worked on Of
Plimouth Planta2on for twenty years. and it was published in England in 1650.
You should remember that while William Bradford was aRening Puritan services from
1602 onwards, and later while he was travelling across the Atlan=c and seRling in the
New World, Shakespeare's plays were being performed at the Globe Theatre in London.
James I (who succeeded Elizabeth 1 in 1603 and who was himself both a writer and
scholar) was King and the head of the Anglican Church. Remember too that this was the
=me of John Donne (1572-1631), of Ben Jonson (1572-1632) and of John Milton
(1608-1674) and of the King James transla=on (or Authorized Version) of the Bible
(1604-1611), a major literary and scholarly undertaking carried out under the auspices
of the King himself. All this to give you an idea of the literary context in which William
Bradford lived even aCer he leC England.
2. God's Chosen People, Sent on a Divine Errand into the Wilderness
William Bradford's account reveals his determina=on to make a record of the pilgrim
project. This may seem self-evident but the story of the Puritans’ departure, voyage,
arrival, seRlement, and the development of the planta=on, as well as their las=ng
dedica=on to what they saw as God's purpose in history would define a shape for the
wri=ng of America. Right from the very beginning, Bradford's account contained a
ques=on: could language express the extraordinary experience of the pilgrims? America
became a sort of tes=ng place for language. The Pilgrim's constant search for
providen=al meanings and hidden revela=ons was part of the aRempt to discover and
understand the meaning of the New World. Bradford wrote that he was determined to
render his account “in plaine style with singular regard unto the simple truth in all
things.” For him, the voyage to New England was an act of faith, derived from his reading
of providen=al signs in everyday events. What he called ”the simple truth” was nothing
less than the ac=ons of God's Chosen People, sent on a divine errand into the
wilderness. History in the New Word could, according to this view, redeem or repair the
sins of the Old World. His goal, the goal of the Pilgrims was the Chris=an millenium (the
thousand years men=oned in the Bible (Revela2on 20) during which holiness is meant to
prevail and Christ is to reign on earth). For the Puritans, all events, even seemingly
unimportant events, were signs.
Bradford's account did not appear out of nowhere. Behind it lay the powerful biblical
story of the Promised Land. This is evident, for example, in Bradford’s allusion to Pisgah,
which is the hill from which Moses contemplated Canaan, the promised land (e.g.,
Deuteronomy 3.23-25). For Bradford, the Pilgrims were new Israelites. They were
repea=ng the Biblical story of the Exodus and arrival in the Promised Land. He places
their adventure on the stage of world history. It is part of a drama that goes back to the
beginning of =me. Their object was to embody the divine will by building villages and
improving their own behaviour: they intended to be examples for all mankind. Bradford
saw the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World as part of an historical con=nuum that
began with Crea=on and which would come to an end with the apocalypse. So beyond
the facts related in Bradford's account there are clearly allegorical and transcendental
meanings. He sees facts as nothing less than evidence of God's par=cipa=on in human
history.
Bradford's account takes the shape of what has been called a “jeremiad,” a primary type
of Pur=an wri=ng. A “jeremiad,” (from the book of Jeremiah in the Bible) is not only a
tale of sadness or woe, but an interpreta2ve account of hardships as well as a call for
return to the purity of earlier =mes. All events, no maRer how ordinary, require
scrupulous aRen=on because they are part of the allegoraical mystery. Bradford’s Of
Plymouth Planta2on is a sort of millenarian epic—an epic without a known outcome.
This uncertainty—uncertainty about how the story will end—explains Bradford's need
for “plaine style.” “Plaine style,” the accurate representa=on of observed life, seemed to
the Puritans to be a way to remain as close as possible to the essence of the facts to be
interpreted.
Bradford's account constantly tes=fies to the shortcomings of the pilgrims. It repeatedly
laments the gap between divine inten=ons and human fulfilment. Yet the pilgrims
persisted in giving themselves a central role in the drama that God had designed for
them on the American stage, which they thought of as the final stage of human history.
George Santayana, the American philosopher, said that the essen=al legacy of the
Puritan imagina=on was precisely that conflict between the ideal and the real, the
Utopian and the actual, the inten=onal and the accidental, the mythic and the everyday.
The Puritans were aRemp=ng to found a new order of society based on a new covenant
among men (a binding agreement, or compact) and a new rela=on of religion and law.
CoRon Mather and the Intensity of Puritan Wri=ng
1. CoLon Mather (1663-1728)
CoRon Mather‘s Magnalia Chris2 Americana (1702) marked the culmina=on of the
process of typological interpreta=on (i.e., interpreta=on of symbols, especially in the
Bible): the facts of American history became one long record of trials and proofs of
God's providence (i.e., guidance or care). For the Puritans charged with God's errand in
the wilderness, it seemed that the whole world watched as God and Satan struggled on
the American shore. Their task was to displace the centre of history from Europe to this
narraw strip of land. They saw themselves as a =ny band of spiritual pioneers who had
accepted God's injunc=on to establish his Kingdom in the wilderness.
CoRon Mather (no=ce his extraordinary name) was the third in line of the Mather
dynasty (aCer Richard and Increase). He felt des=ned for leadership of both church and
state. He was a man of great learning and owned a library of that showed the density of
culture that had quickly developed in New England. Harvard College was founded in
1636. CoRon Mather spoke seven languages well. He had access to European science
and thought, and in his life=me, he wrote over 450 books of essays, sermons, verses and
theological trea=ses! His books look back at the story of the New England seRlement
and celebrate its endurance. Like Bradford, Mather asserted God's presence in the
American colonies. Eighty years aCer seRlement, the story he told was less jeremiad
than epic and Mather drew on the ancient tales of the founding of Rome as well as the
Bible. His aim was to emphasize the Puritan idea of history: a few transplanted
Englishmen were at the centre of God’s plan for the redemp=on (or repair) of His
crea=on.
In 1692, the MassachuseRs Bay Colony (founded in 1630), executed fourteen women,
five men, and two dogs for witchcraC. CoRon Mather jus=fied these execu=ons as you
will see in this excerpt from The Wonders of the Invisible World, published in 1693.
2. The Intensity of Puritan WriVng
We have discussed William Bradford’s journal and CoRon Mather's chronicles as well as
the Puritans’ aRachment to “plaine style,” to the simple unadorned language that they
thought was the only way to express the truth. The Puritans were suspicious of any
crea=ons that served merely for pleasure. But their records were not only of public but
also of private, inward, events. The Puritans were concerned with domes=c experience
as well as the life of the seRlements and congrega=ons. For the Puritans, history and
autobiography—especially spiritual autobiography—merged. Self-scru=ny, and so
autobiography, became an accepted Puritan form, des=ned for public circula=on. The
Puritans published diaries as well as sermons. They also read and wrote poetry. Two
Puritan poets stand out: Ann Bradstreet (c1612-1672) and Edward Taylor (1644-1729),
whose work was not published an only discovered un=l in 1937. Ann Bradstreet was
born in England and emigrated soon aCer Bradford in 1630. She wrote about public
issues as well as about daily life. Her most famous lines concern marriage:
If ever two were one, then surely we
If ever man were loved by wife, then surely thee
She inherited the vivacity, simplicity and a quality of felt experience from English poetry.
But her piety, self-scru=ny, and her respect for her Maker are Puritan. Her acute
awareness of nature make her American. The wit and texture of her poetry an=cipates
another New England poet, Emily Dickinson. Edward Taylor emigrated later, in 1688. He
was a minister first and a poet second. He was brought up in England on a diet of
metaphysical poets—Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—and his poems have both a Pu=tan
intensity and a metaphysical complexity of imagery. His conceits, with their violent
yoking of unlike things, remind us of the metaphysical poets and yet are en=rely
compa=ble with the Puritan world view:
Alas! my soul, product of breath divine
For to illumine a lump of slime
Sad providence! Must thou below thus tent
In such a cote as strangles with ill scent?
The source of Taylor's poems is his passionate faith and his belief in the Fall and man's
exile and search for a New Jerusalem or Heavenly City. His poems are medita=ons about
the individual soul seeking regenera=on. In spite of their spareness, which also
announces Emily Dickinson, they display the drama of feeling of a troubled conscience.
Like Bradstreet, Taylor explores even the most ordinary human ac=vity and perhaps his
most famous poem is called “Husewifery.”
The intensity of Puritan poetry as well as Puritan chronicles and journals would
characterize much of later American wri=ng from Emerson to Henry James.
Mary Rowlandson's CapVvity NarraVve
In seventeenth century America, there was no imagina=ve prose fic=on to compare with
these voices. One form of prose story, which found its source in the Puritan's trials in the
wilderness, did exist and became extremely popular— the Indian cap=vity narra=ve.
Indian cap=vity narra=ves told the story of the Puritan's encounter with the American
landscape, the American climate, and most of all the American Indians. As the Puritans
saw it, cap=vity was part of God's plan: a confronta=on with Satan in “the howling
wilderness.” Cap=vity narra=ves were the record of this story and they became the first
form of popular American wri=ng. Mary Rowlandson's account became a bestseller, as
we say now, and a prototype of popular American wri=ng. Cap=vity narra=ves record
terrible events and terrible casual=es, all of which fit into the larger story of a chosen
people who crossed the sea, seRled in a wilderness peopled with unknown numbers of
devils. a story of terrible hardship and cruelty, and then of rescue or escape—the
necessary condi=on of a wriRen account. Rowlandson constantly connects her cap=vity
with Biblical tales of cap=vity. She seeks providen=al meaning in all she underwent and
her narra=ve was seen as an allegory of salva=on. In fact, cap=vity narra=ves mimicked
the hazardous human journey through life and rescue was a sign of God's mercy. They
gave a structure and purpose to individual human lives, not unlike John Bunyan's The
Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) published in England about the same =me.
Cap=vity narra=ves were a form of storytelling among a people who were, once again,
devoted to truth and who saw fic=on as another form of lying. Mary Rowlandson
(c1635-1678 but perhaps later than this) was made a cap=ve during King Philip's War
(1675-1676) when the NarrraganseR Indians aRacked her village, Lancaster in February
1676. She was abducted by the Indians who held her for 11 weeks and five days, un=l
she was ransomed. it shows the dangers among which the seRlers lived, their contempt
for the Indians, their dependence on the Bible for support and their treatment during
enforced cap=vity.
So cap=vity narra=ves were moral tales, lessons, and sermons as well as history. But
they were also sensa=onal adventure stories and, as such, immensely popular. The
announce the gothic tale of the end of the following century.
Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) “Concerning the Savages of North America” (1782-83)
Anyone who reads Benjamin Franklin's essay “Concerning the Savages of North America”
immediately aCer Mary Rowlandson's cap=vity narra=ve, or CoRon Mather's discussion
of witchcraC in New England, can only be struck by the sea-change that clearly occurred
in the hundred years following the wri=ng of Rowlandson's and Mather's works.
Franklin's essay was wriRen in 1782-83, that is almost exactly a hundred years aCer
Rowlandson's narra=ve. Remember the Puritans’ "howling wilderness” a place they
would redeem and repair all mankind! S=ll, as you also know, the Puritans were not the
only people to seRle in America. They were not even the only English-speaking people to
seRle in America. There were the Anglican English who seRled in Virginia, and the Dutch,
who set up trading posts at the mouth of the Hudson River. There were English catholics.
There were also the Quakers who seRled in Philadelphia. Many of these seRlers, saw
America as a source of wealth as well as of social opportunity. What is striking in
Benjamin Franklin's essay is a a completely new astude. While Mary Rowlandson
describes the Indians as devils who are part of God's poviden=al plan designed to try the
Puritans and to punish them for their sins, Franklin describes them with what he calls
“impar=ality” and finds them superior to Europeans. How did this change take place?
Benjamin Frankilin was born in Boston. He was the son of a chandler (a man who makes
candles) and went to school for a few years before he began to work. At twelve he was
appren=ced to one of his brothers who ran a magazine. Franklin was a big reader. He
taught himself several languages. At seventeen, he he began to work in a print shop. At
24 he owned his own print shop. Towards the end of his life, Franklin wrote his most
famous work, his Autobiography, in which he describes his method of self-improvement.
This is perhaps the major aRribute of the new spirit of the eighteenth century. Franklin
aRempted to improve himself (which the Puritans had also done) but also to improve
the world around him: he aRempted to do beRer business, of course, but he also
ini=ated projects for establishing city police, for paving, cleaning and ligh=ng the streets,
and for the first circula=ng library. He was interested in every sort of natural
phenomenon and he made many scien=fic experiments, including the famous one with
a kite, to show the iden=ty of electricity. He also invented a stove. He was prac=cal. He
took affairs into his own hands and was extraordinarily successful in everything he did.
Franklin's was interested in the useful. His concerns were secular and social. And, as
everyone knows, he was a Founding Father, that is he contributed to the Declara=on of
Independence.
So Franklin was not primarily concerned with spiritual salva=on. He was preoccupied
instead with the world of things. He was a man of the enlightenment, a man of the
eighteenth century. He believed in progress. But the Calvinism of the Puritans—
remember the self-scru=ny, the journal-keeping of the Puritans—seems to have leC its
mark. We see evidence of this in the Autobiography, in the mere fact that Franklin
undertook this self-examina=on. There is surely also some connec=on between Puritan
unadorned “plaine style” and Benjamin Franklin's u=litarian prose. Yet Franklin is a
typical example of eighteenth century enlightenment: he was a yankee Puritan who had
read and agreed with Rousseau and Voltaire and he could use the language of Daniel
Defoe and Joseph Addison with a na=ve American twang. (I hope you remember them
from the first semester: Defoe was a pioneer of the realist novel and Addison, who
wrote essays for the Spectator dealing with manners, daily life, and the progress of
civilisa=on.) Franklin's style is precise, lucid, and perfectly adapted to the ends to which
he devoted it. His mind was pragma=c and although he reserved his enthusiasm for
science, he was tolerant of all types of thought. This tolerance, is clearly visible in his
essay “Concerning the Savages of North America.”
Hector St. John de Crèvecœur (1735-1813)
Last week we read Benjamin Franklin's essay “Concerning the Savages of North America”
and we noted Franklin's irony and and his aRempt to examine another culture
“impar=ally.” His aRempt in other words, to look at his own society and culture without
prejudice. We also noted that he was bent on improving the world around him,
improving it prac=cally rather than spiritually. There was a sort of op=mism in Franklin's
astude to the world, which is typical of the enlightenment. Franklin was the supreme
example of the self-created American type. We noted too, and more generally, that the
eighteenth century was a period of major change in American ideas and ideals, a change
which did not so much displace the millenarian impulses of the Puritans, as refashion
them in response to the intellectual and scien=fic ques=ons of the Age of Reason. The
Puritan inheritance was being moderated and changed by the new thought and the new
social order. The great religious awakenings of the new century were not simply
aRempts to revive the Puritan inheritance. They were also efforts to give new meaning
to rapidly changing =mes.
Today we are going to look at a passage from Hector St. John de Crèvecœur's LeHers
from an American Farmer. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur was a French aristocrat who
emigrated to North America in 1755, at the age of 20. First he fought with Montcalm in
Canada and later he was naturalized as a Bri=sh colonial subject in New York where he
spent a few idyllic years in Orange County. But, as a loyalist, he was forced to flee during
the American Revolu=on, first to New York City and then to France in 1780. When he
returned to America in 1783 he found that his wife was dead, his home burnt, and his
children dispersed, as a result of an Indian raid. Eventually he found his children and
seRled in New York.
Crèvecœur has oCen been considered merely a sen=mental Rousseauis=c romancer, but
he is also a vigorous recorder of early American rural life. American nature was hard
material for the mind to manage. American physical space was vast, its climate varied
and oCen dangerous. Its problems of seRlement and organiza=on were great. American
physical space was neither tamed nor enclosed, neither a garden to work on nor
distantly sublime and enlarging to the imagina=on. Some, in Europe, like Buffon in
France, saw the American climate as perverse and American fauna as degenerate.
Others sought to embrace the special wonders of American nature. At the end of the
eighteenth century the idea of America as a promising new pastoral was perhaps best
expressed by Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. His LeHers from an American Farmer are a
powerful demonstra=on of how a new nature and a new social order might generate a
new kind of man and so make American soil the terrain on which the final stage of
civiliza=on would be played out. For Crèvecœur, America was an extraordinary openfron=ered landscape, there to be administered, according to the highest eighteenthcentury ideals. His LeHers read like a heroic pastoral of the New World.
Although his LeHers from an American Farmer were not published un=l 1782, they were
wriRen over the seven years leading up to the American Revolu=onary War and
demonstrate Crèvecœur’s early op=mism. We are reading one of his early and most
laudatory leRers in which he describes all the virtues of the American character and
promises its flourishing. The leRers are all wriRen from the perspec=ve of “James” (an
avatar for Crèvecœur himself), and addressed to a “Mr. F.B.,” an English gentleman.
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