I. The Emergence of an American Literature
A. Writing the Territory: The Literature of Discovery and Exploration
1. One of the most fundamental things that can be said about America is that it is
first and foremost an effect of literature. Indeed, in the minds of sixteenth-century
Europeans, America existed only as a literary object. This object was represented in the
writings of the Europeans who first visited America. Most of the first descriptions of
America were written in Spanish and French, not in English.
2. Until late in the sixteenth century, the English knew about America only
through foreign sources. Beginning from the 1570s, English mariners started exploring
the North American coast. Thanks to these explorations, an Anglo-American literature
of exploration was born. It is from such texts that American literature would later
3. The emergence of an American literature of exploration goes hand in hand
with the first permanent colonies at:
* Jamestown (1607)
* Plymouth (1620)
* Boston (1630)
* Charleston (1670)
* Philadelphia (1682).
In a language characteristically American in temperament and tone, the literature of the
first colonists differed from the exotic narratives of the early explorers. The literature of
the colonists reflected an ambiguous mixture of terror and exaltation before the
magnitude of the land.
4. However, more often than not, the literature of the first settlers shows that it
was difficult to maintain an exalted disposition. As George Percy's Discourse on the
Plantation (1607) illustrates, the writers who saw in America the land of beautiful
"medowes and goodly tall Trees" would later suffer the "miserable distress" of extreme
hunger, hardships, and physical effort.
5. It is such experiences of hardship that would mark American literature with its
most lasting and characteristic voice: a voice rooted in narrative action rather than
imagery or contemplation.
6. The narratives of Captain Smith are perhaps the most representative example
of America's emergent literary character. In his works, the narration of the internal
drama of individual existence goes hand with the external drama on the territory as it
unfolds through the process of exploration and discovery:
* A True Relation (1608)
* A Map of Virginia (1612)
* The General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
7. The works of captain smith are representative of an authtentically American
literary character in the sense that they reflect a deeply American theme: The theme of
the indivisible relation between individual self-exploration and territorial exploration.
In this relation, the individual's life, his identity, and his internal evolution are a
function of the progressive discovery of the land.
8. With the evolution of the colonies and their social needs, there was also an
evolution in writing. The writer's function now consisted in more than observing and
describing the land. The writings of the mid- and late sventeenth century still reflected
the influence of discovery literature: the themes, the lyricism, and the sense of action.
But despite this influence, a more abstract type of literature was now emerging.
9. As in William Bradford's Of Plimmoth Plantation (1630-50), the new literature
concerns itself with the complexities of colonial administration and the social
organization of the community.
10. In the final analysis, the ambiguities of territorial exploration and discovery in
American literature reveal another kind of ambiguity. It is the ambiguous relationship
between hope and despair, good and evil. This type of ambiguity remains the most
marking territory explored by the early writers of America. Born of the magnitude and
complexities of the land itself, this vision would determine the American imaginary.
Even today, it still represents an important aspect of the American literary sensibility.
B. An Authentically American Literature? Textual Appropriations,
Generic Influences, Innovation
1. To many observers the notion of an authentically American literature seems to
be somewhat of a paradox. Indeed, it would be difficult to ignore the fact that American
literature emerged and developed in the shadow of the English literary tradition.
However, the paradox turns out to be only apparent. An authentically American
literature is like any body of literary creation: It is always in need of other literary
influences for development and growth. At the same time, those influences are in turn
transformed through authentic innovation.
2. In this respect, the texts of the New World are both an extension of English
literature and an innovative body of literary texts. The continuity between English and
American literature originates primarily in a shared cultural and national heritage; as
for the innovations of American literature, they are primarily a result of the colonials’
ambivalent experience of the monumental continent.
3. In English as well as in colonial education, the following subjects were very
important: Latin, philosophy, history, and Greek and Roman literature. Concerning
their national heritage, both English people and colonists shared the memory of the
English Reformation. With the Reformation, there appeared the myth of England as an
elect nation, a nation guided by the Puritan Saints.
4. The colonists and the English people identified with the myth of the elect
nation by means of several religious and literary texts:
* The most important religious text was the vernacular Bible, in particular
the highly popular Geneva version (1560);
* Here are some of the English literary texts that had an influence on the
* John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563, 1570)
* Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590, 1596)
* John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667)
* John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678, 1684)
5. More importantly, what emerges from this common sense of national and
cultural heritage is a common vision of the individual and the community. This vision
is reflected in two dominant aspects of the Protestant literary and existential experience:
* the strict application of every event in the bible to the individual person;
* the perception of historical events as a predestined fulfillment of biblical
events as they apply to the elect nation.
6. These two common aspects of colonial and English experience led many
English writers to consider America as the predestined land. They thought an English-
American Reformation was going to take place in America. This historical and
religious continuity between England and America was expressed by the English
religious poet George Herbert in his famous lines
Religion stands on tip-toe in our land,
Readie to pass to the American strand (The Temple 1633).
7. Thus, it is no surprise that the sense of a shared cultural, historical, and literary
heritage contributed toward common imaginary perceptions of the New World among
English people and the colonists themselves.
8. One of the imaginary visions of America was derived from the myth of
Arcadia. The myth of Arcadia features a contrast between peaceful, simple, and
uncorrupted nature, and the corruption, intrigue, and ambition of city life. Aspects of
Arcadian imagery are to be found in many pastoral poems and romances:
* Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590, 1593)
* Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book VI
In America, Thomas Morton's New English Canaan (1637) presents the promised land
of the bible as an American Arcadia: a land of happiness, peace, and innocence ⇒ A
9. The imaginary vision of America as a land where divine grace restores nature's
original innocence is also represented through another literary form: The emblem book.
In this form, Henry Vaughn, the English poet, had a particularly strong influence on
American poets. He interpreted natural phenomena as symbols, or emblems, of divine
10. Later, in the early eighteenth century, the American poet Edward Taylor
would develop several emblematic poems in which he described natural phenomena as
manifestations of divine things.
11. The myth of America as a new Eden, or new Israel where nature is finally
restored to its innocence was also reinforced by the English utopian tradition. Notable
examples of such a tradition are:
* Thomas More's Utopia (1516)
* Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1626, 1643)
* James Harrington's Oceana (1656)
The imaginary conception of America as a New World utopia also found its way into
Puritanism. For the Puritans, the notion of the Holy Community was a sort of utopia.
What was meant by the Holy Community was invariably the chosen nation, the church
of the nation, or even the sphere of the family.
12. The utopian tendency exists also in the legal documents and the institutional
structures of colonial America. This aspect of American utopianism appears in
* The Christian Commonwealth (1659) by the millenarian missionary
13. Utopianism as a world vision also appears in different American projects that
aim at establishing ideal communities. The Plymouth envisioned by the Mayflower
Compact,1 a communitarian project like Brook Farm,2 and even the American
Declaration of Independence also represent different ideals of a utopian society.
1Since they were not under the jurisdiction of any English authority, the Pilgrims drew up the
Mayflower Compact aboard the Mayflower, establishing it as a legal document that committed the
community to the "equal Laws" and the "general Good" of a "civil Body Politick."
14. Of all literary influences that marked the development of American literature,
the prose forms that appeared during the English Reformation are the most significant.
The most important of those prose forms is the sermon. Indeed, the influence of the
sermon was so profound we can say that the prose and poetry of the American Puritans
are the product of a biblical sensibility.
15. This biblical sensibility establishes no limit between the expression of art and
the spiritual manifestations of universal truth or universal history. In poetry as well as
in prose, the writers of New England appropriated biblical references, imagery, and
themes. They used biblical imagery and themes to represent historical events as a
predestined realization of the Protestant world vision.
16. As it figures in colonial poetry, the predestined vision of history is often
expressed in terms of an apocalyptic battle between an elect nation and the evil forces
of Antichrist. A typical example of such works is Anne Bradstreet's "Dialogue between
Old England and New." This poem was written at the outbreak of the Civil War in
England (1642). Another example is Michael Wigglesworth's epic poem Day of Doom
17. The other forms of literary production that flourished in colonial America are
those different genres of poetry and prose about the analysis and exploration of the
* The meditation - the journal - the diary - autobiography - biography
- lyric poetry.4
18. In all these genres, the ethic and world vision of Protestantism are presented
as central elements in judging human experience. The most important figurative and
narrative elements were derived from the Bible. They provided a general esthetic and
thematic structure for a literature of introspection and self-exploration:
* The narrative of the Exodus;
* Paul's metaphors of Christian pilgrimage and Christian warfare ⇒
Movement through space (outer world) as an expression of self-realization
through exploration of one’s soul (inner world);
* The conception of the Christian life as a "progress of the soul" according
to certain preestablished stages (Hebrews: 8) ⇒ Progress is both
movement in space and improvement of the self;
* The Psalms as an account of David's sins and repentance.
19. Another important genre in colonial literature is the meditation. There are 2
types of meditation:
* the occasional meditation: it is a short piece of prose—a sort of essay
containing reflections on daily events, or on spiritually important acts in
the writer's life;
* the second type of meditation is the deliberate meditation: it is written as
a preparation for religious ceremony or as an elaboration on a sermon.
2A cooperative reform community founded in 1841 by George Ripley and a group of
Transcendentalists (see lectures on Transcendentalism).
3Wigglesworth's Day of Doom: interprets the Restoration in England and especially the Great Drought
in New England in 1662 as auguries of Apocalypse and Judgment.
4Lyric poem: a fairly short, non-narrative poem presenting a single speaker who expresses a state of
mind or a process of thought or feeling.
20. Autobiography was also an important genre in colonial literature. It became
important in the 17th century on both sides of the Atlantic. It concerned narratives of
spiritual development as well as narratives of secular events. An example of such
autobiographical literature is John Winthrop's Journal: It is about the evolution of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony.
21. Despite English influences, the consciously self-analytical autobiography is a
product of Puritan culture. True to the ethic of Puritanism, it is based on the practice of
keeping a precise daily account of every incident of spiritual importance.
22. In conclusion, we can say that from the beginning American literature
simultaneously assimilated and transformed English cultural and literary influences in
the New World. During the colonial period, the writers of the New World were
obsessed by the same themes. They appropriated the same literary genres. And they
used the same biblical metaphors that predominated in English literature during the
23. Still, American literature cannot be reduced to a mere "transplant" of English
literature, a colonial clone. In the process of its American transplantation, English
literature emerged renewed and metamorphosed in innovative and fascinating ways.
• • •
II. Puritanism: A (New) World Vision
A. The Puritan (New) World Vision in the Larger Scheme of Things
1. The English Puritans can be divided into several groups. Most of the Puritans
remained in England. They accepted the principles of Oliver Cromwell's
commonwealth as a form of government (1649-60). The smallest group, the Separatists,
accepted no affiliation with any authority, including the English Protestant church.
They were persecuted, and many of them had to run away to Amsterdam, and later to
the New World.
1'. To many puritans, Columbus's passage to America was one of 3 major
historical events. They interpreted those 3 historical events as the signs of a greater
historical destiny. The two other events were: the invention of the printing press (1456)
and the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
1''. According to the puritans, the 3 events (the geographical event, the textual
event, and the religious event) inaugurated a grand historical transformation: the
biblical apocalypse and the emergence of "a new heavens and a new earth"
2. First, let's turn to the printing press and its effect on the puritans' vision of their
historical mission. Gutenberg's invention was particularly significant for the New
England Puritans because of their frequent use of texts. Indeed, one can say that the
puritans were a unique form of society in the sense that they defined their identity
essentially by means of texts.
2'. Throughout the seventeenth century, colonial identity was the product of a
double effect: an effect of literature, appearing in discourse; and an effect of concrete,
material movement, appearing in geographical and social space. This particular form of
identity can be seen in different aspects of literary expression. The puritans used those
aspects of literary expression as a means of self-definition:
* sermons - declarations - covenants - controversies - statements of
3. Thus, the lasting effect of the printing press on colonial America resides in its
contribution to the emergence of a national identity: a national identity based on
discourse. It was first by means of publication that America declared its identity as an
autonomous nation. It was first through an effect of discourse that America defined,
proclaimed, and projected its past, its present, and its future.
B. Realizing the Vision: The Image of the Future Played out in the New World
4. Let's now turn to the relation between the textual event and the two other
events: The religious and the geographical events. As far as the puritans' world vision is
concerned, their conception of their role in the discovery of america is profoundly
religious. It is inseparable from the biblical metaphors of the Apocalypse, and the
coming of the millennium.
4'. Therefore, the puritans' view of their historical position in america, their view
of geographical exploration and territorial conquest, is closely related to their biblical
definition of themselves and of america. In the larger divine plan, the puritans are god's
chosen people. Their destination (both spiritual and geographical) is America: the New
Israel that marks the beginning of the millennium.
5. In this context, it is also worth adding that the millenarian utopianism of the
puritans goes hand in hand with their political and religious beliefs. Through a
characteristic synthesis, they proclaimed their system as a church-state. They believed
that this religious-political system should be a model for all the Christian world.
6. The puritans considered their historical role in the New World as that of a
universal community organized under a "federal" or "national" contract (covenant).
Therefore, in John Winthrop's words, the new church-state was to be a "city set upon a
hill"—a universal "model of Christian charity" (sermon aboard the Arbella ) ⇒
6'. But with the beginning of the Restoration in 1660, the puritans lost all hope of
spreading their universalism through England. The realization of their vision was now
fully turned toward the American scene. Consciously or unconsciously, the second- and
third-generation puritans appropriated European metaphors of America. It is those
metaphors that they used in their futuristic vision of both land and history.5
7. Thus, the imaginary visions of America as utopia became synonymous with the
"new heaven" promised by Revelation.
7'. In this vision, geographical and literary exploration, textuality and religious
imagery are inseparable. These 3 aspects of the puritans' (New) World vision represent
their most enduring contribution to the American sense of identity.
8. Exploration, textuality, and religious imagery combined, transformed America
into a metaphor. This metaphor represents the notion of progress as historically
determined movement: the movement of a people trying to REALIZE a necessary,
predestined promise.6 Evoking the biblical promised land, John Cotton expressed this
5Cf. Robert Frost, "The Gift Outright."
6This quest of "achievement" (achieved utopia, closure of the commonwealth, monadic totalization) is
expressed territorially in the expansion of the Frontier-as-garden: the tendency toward closure behind
the movement of the frontier.
particular impulse of the puritan vision: "Other peoples have their land by providence;
we have it by promise" (1630).
9. In Samuel Danforth's words, the collective effort to realize the promised land is
at the heart of the American "Errand into the Wilderness" (Brief Recognition of New
England's Errand into the Wilderness ).7 This errand is the forward movement,
the pilgrimage, the "progress," of a new society. This society is marked by 2
* The definition of the collectivity as a homogeneous body, a corporate
* The conception of society as constantly pushed toward realizing itself in
10. From The Declaration of Independence to the notion of "Manifest Destiny"
(John L. O'Sullivan) to the "New Frontier" (JFK), the United States has always seen its
confrontation with future projects as an errand into a hostile wilderness. During such
projects, the nation's representation of itself reminds us of the puritans' imaginary
vision of the New World: the vision of a nation in danger; the vision of a plantation
facing a complex and hostile environment; the vision of a unified community gaining
strength and homogeneity from the challenges of its environment.
10'. Throughout this vision, we find 3 fundamental components of American
* The imaginary projection of nature as the epic scene of a specifically
* The representation of a self that uses such a scene to enact a specifically
American mode of self-realization in (the future) ⇒ Importance of the
Frontier: Future and hope ⇒ New beginnings;
* the conscious or unconscious references to biblical imagery and the
biblical conception of history. These references present america and its
projects not as a possibility, but as a necessary, self-fulfilling promise.
7His election-day address.