Review of American Literature Prior to the Romantic Period

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American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. There was no written literature among the more than 500 different Indian languages and tribal cultures that existed in North America before the first Europeans (from Spain) arrived. Indian stories show respect for nature: viewing nature as a spiritual as well as physical mother. Today’s written records of Indian stories show that nature is alive and has spiritual forces; main characters may be animals or plants. Archetypes (repeating patterns, characters, and ideas in literature) include the trickster character like Coyote of the Navajos and Old Man Above (a creator god). The Indian contribution to American literature and language is great. The hundreds of Indian words in everyday American English include “canoe,” “tobacco,” “potato,” “moccasin,” “moose,” “persimmon,” “raccoon,” “tomahawk,” and “totem.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American Romantic transcendentalist writer, like other later American writers, was influenced by the Indian respect for the holiness of nature. He would write of the “Over-Soul,” which he believed is part of all life.

            The writings of explorers make up the next part of American literature.  Although some textbooks credit the Spanish explorers as the first Europeans to come to the New World, others count the Scandinavian explorers from Norway as Europeans. It is clear that the adventurous Leif Ericson and a band of wandering Norsemen settled briefly somewhere on the northeast coast of America — probably Nova Scotia, in Canada —in the first decade of the 11th century, almost 400 years before the next recorded European discovery of the New World.  No matter where they came from, explorers kept journals of their adventures which allow today’s readers to share the adventures of those times.

            The writings of Puritans in the Colonial Period in New England make up the next part of American literature. It is likely that no other colonists in the history of the world were as intellectual as the Puritans. Between 1630 and 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New

England, as in the mother country of England — an amazing fact when one considers that most educated people of the time were rich aristocrats who would not risk their lives in wilderness conditions. The self-made and often self-educated Puritans were exceptions. They wanted an education to understand and execute God’s will as they established their colonies throughout New England.

The Puritans defined good writing as writing that gave a full awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced on Earth. Puritan writings and beliefs make America what it is today. Americans believe in the Puritan beliefs of ambition, hard work, and a strong drive for success. Americans accept the idea that hard work, a good education, and a free market (a capitalist economy) offers the opportunity for everyone to succeed. Anne Bradstreet’s Puritan poem “Here Follow Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666” shows her education and her belief that God is the owner of all things. The poem uses inversion or Yoda-speak, inverted, backwards phrasing to maintain rhythm and rhyme.  She wrote in the plain style, using common words. Her poem is in the first published book of poems by an American, but the book was printed in England because there were few printing presses in America.

            No account of New England colonial literature would be complete without mentioning Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  He believed in inoculating (vaccinating) against illness, while most did not; however, he also believed that some illnesses were the result of witchcraft and some of his writings were used to support the Salem Witch Trials. He did write a letter in 1692 asking the Salem court to limit the use of spectral evidence: statements that visions revealed evil deeds.

            Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) influenced many people with his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). This sermon explains that only God’s hand holds everyone safely away from Hell.  If people were to sin, God could drop them into Hell. The purpose of the sermon is to convince people that the fate of humans is determined by God; therefore, people should behave better, ask for forgiveness, and turn to God. The sermon has many figures of speech — metaphors and similes to prove Edwards’s point.

            Contemporary literature (1939 to the present) is still interested in Puritan themes.  Written nearly three hundred years after the Puritans, The Crucible by Arthur Miller explores the belief system that allowed the terrible Salem Witch Trials.



The American Age of Enlightenment began in the 18th-century. It was a movement marked by an emphasis on reason rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious belief, and a representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man. Writers of this period were known as Rationalists. Writers began to search for a national literature to tell American stories about American life, using a new American style. Benjamin Franklin wrote his Autobiography about rising from rags to riches. Franklin tried to help other ordinary people become successful by sharing his insights and beginning a characteristically American genre (type of literature) — the self-help book. He wrote his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack. It was published annually, beginning in 1732. It includes many famous sayings still known today. “Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy, and wise” is one example.

Patrick Henry’s 1765 “Speech to the Virginia Convention” helped convince colonists to go to war against their mother country: England. The speech uses powerful logical and emotional arguments to disprove counterarguments: opposing arguments.  His emotional arguments use exclamations and metaphors. His logical arguments point out that England’s king had no reason to build up his army and navy if he truly wanted peace.

The hard-fought American Revolution against England (1775-1783) was the first modern war of liberation against a colonial power. Americans and Revolutionary Period writers believed their victory was a sign from God that they were destined for greatness; their literature should continue to move away from European stories and styles. Political pamphlets, horror stories, and stories about the American West became very popular. Individuality and human rights were common themes.

  Source: Most of the words are Kathryn VanSpanckeren’s. Gale Sperry simplifies some vocabulary, provides transitional words to summarize VanSpanckeren’s text, and provides some preparatory information for the EHS English 3 Semester 1 Final Exam.)