American Literature – Introduction
Welcome! Today we begin our study of American literature by looking at the American dream and its impact on our understanding of humanity's role in the universe.
What is literature?
Literature = word works of lasting importance
You do. Like all human beings, you wonder about your purpose in life. Do you exist for a reason? Is there purpose in the universe or is everything an accident? Do you have a soul? Will part of you exist forever? It's scary to think that we all might just end and have no knowledge that we ever existed.
Great thinkers and writers created works that answer some of our most serious questions and some answers help us feel less afraid of life and death. Their answers give us our belief systems and help define what an American is and what an American can do.
Native American Literature and the American Dream
The dream began when people first went to the North American continent. The people who went to America went because they wanted more than what they already had. Some looked for a way to just survive. Others had dreams of adventure, freedom, and opportunity. Archaeologists think that people first went to North America from Asia between twenty thousand and forty thousand years ago. They went across a land bridge between the eastern part of Russia and western Alaska during the Ice Age.
Characteristics of Native American Literature
The descendents of the people who came from Asia to North America are now called Native Americans. We begin our study of American literature with their works.
One thing to remember about Native American literature is that it was oral; it was passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth, not through written works.
Native American literature was repetitious and rhythmic; these two characteristics were important because they helped people remember the story or poem.
Another thing to remember is that Native Americans often used metaphors – direct comparisons of two things which seem to be very different but which have some similarities. For example, if I say that the snow was a blanket covering the ground, I am comparing snow, which is cold, to a blanket, which is warm; however, both are similar because they cover something.
Native Americans sometimes used something called an archetype. An archetype is a character, series of events (plot), or an image that has been repeatedly used throughout many years and generations. In Native American works, there is often a character called a trickster. These tricksters were often coyotes, foxes, or other animals. They were tricky, sneaky, lied, or were rebellious, but they could still perform heroic actions. Even today in modern American literature we use archetypes which help readers predict what will happen in a story. We expect stories to have “good guys” and the “bad guys.” We expect archetypes to sometimes be represented by symbols – white hats = good guys; black hats = bad guys. As readers and movie goers, we enjoy stories with a "formula" that we are familiar with and sometimes we enjoy them even more when the formula is broken and we are surprised.
Native Americans created myths that explained the origin of the earth, the sky, people, animals, and everything they saw around themselves.
Essential Question: What is humanity's role in the universe?
Native American Answer: If we study nature and live in harmony with it, then we do not have to fear life or death.
Characteristics Summary: oral, repetitious, rhythmic, metaphorical, archetypal, mythical, and about nature
©2010 Gale Sperry, www.mrssperry.com, All rights reserved.