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date: 24 July 2024

Colonial Writing in North Americalocked

Colonial Writing in North Americalocked

  • John GattaJohn GattaSewanee: The University of the South


No longer viewed as mere prologue to the emergence of authentic American literature, colonial writing displays a fertile diversity of literary styles, genres, and linguistic traditions. Yet its array of expressive forms differs markedly from that which latter-day readers of short stories, novels, and plays usually expect “literature” to look like. Colonial writers, not motivated by ambition to create art for art’s sake, penned instead a multitude of sermons, treatises, chronicles, histories, letters, conversion narratives, political pronouncements, slave and captivity narratives, travel reports, and promotional tracts. Such works of creative nonfiction continue to deserve attention today—not only for what they reveal about the formative cultural mythology of the American nation but also because of the rhetorical artistry invested in compositions as varied as William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, or Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. The imaginative intensity of writing by colonial New Englanders such as Jonathan Edwards, together with those symbols and modes of discourse made mythic by leading Massachusetts Puritans, have left an enduring imprint on American consciousness.

In one traditional genre of literature, that of poetry, the output of colonial New Englanders was impressively prolific. Especially noteworthy is the corpus of devotional poems left us by Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Taylor’s poetic meditations, unpublished until the modern era, display remarkable wit, exuberance, and artistry. And Bradstreet’s long verse-reflection titled “Contemplations” warrants recognition as the first poem to record a sustained, appreciative response to outdoor experience in British North America.

Yet even within the context of British-dominated settlements, the sensibility of colonial writing was scarcely monolithic. It reflects the expression not only of Puritan New Englanders but also of Anglicans, Pennsylvania Quakers, Deists, Southern planters, political revolutionaries, traders, explorers, and worldly adventurers. Increasingly, too, scholarship has begun to recognize that North America’s pluralistic literary heritage from this period includes writing in languages other than English, from New Spain and New France, as well as mediated transcripts of indigenous oral traditions. Moreover, in the light of present-day interest in “green” and gender-linked themes, works such as William Bartram’s nature-suffused Travels through Southern climes, or Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of her captivity and restoration, have drawn renewed attention.


  • North American Literatures

Updated in this version

Summary, keywords, and Discussion of the Literature section were added. Updates were made to the text and the Further Reading list.

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