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date: 14 June 2024

Colonial Writing in North Americafree

Colonial Writing in North Americafree

  • 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 Taylor’s poetic meditations, unpublished until the modern era, display remarkable wit, exuberance, and artistry.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.

From the first, North America’s natural grandeur offered European explorers and settlers ample ground to stir imaginative wonder. Virtually ignoring native settlements, they saw before them a limitless, unpeopled wilderness of woodland abounding in game, fish, watercourses, and timber. Thus, trader-adventurer Thomas Morton, in his New English Canaan, rhapsodized on the “faire endowments” of a country that looked to him like “Nature’s Masterpiece” when he landed from England on a spot of paradise near present-day Quincy, Massachusetts, sometime after 1622. “If this land be not rich,” he later declared, “then is the whole world poor.” By 1690, the largest settlement in the colonies amounted to no more than seven thousand Bostonians huddled on the edge of a mostly unmapped continent. In proportion to the meager population of British North America, colonists produced a startling quantity of written material, much of which has been preserved. Why, then, have later readers sometimes ignored or discounted this early writing as something beneath genuine literature?

Part of the reason, surely, is that most colonial writing does not fit conventional modern expectations of what literature should look like. There is virtually no fiction or drama. Instead, we are confronted with a formidable array of sermons, treatises, chronicles, histories, captivity narratives, letters, conversion narratives, political documents, travel reports, and promotional tracts. Poetry is the only traditional genre of literary expression well represented in this mass of published and unpublished material. But the verses that colonists, particularly New Englanders, penned so profusely can strike us at first as alien and unappealing. Frequently expounding religious doctrines, moral teachings, or aphorisms derived from folk culture, such writing forces us to recognize that colonial Americans, even those of English or other European extraction, understood the world very differently from most of us today.

To appreciate writing of the colonial period does require present-day readers to expand their conception of literature as well as their sense of America and the world. But this effort can be rewarding insofar as it reveals the imaginative intensity and range of inquiry that colonial writers brought to their engagement with a New World. An earlier generation of 20th-century scholars, inspired by the brilliant work of Perry Miller at Harvard, has already highlighted the enduring force of Puritan thought and symbols within the history of ideas. Students of the period have also stressed the role that colonial writers played, for good and ill, in helping to shape a distinctive national mythology. Long-standing beliefs about “the American self” have been traced back to seventeenth-century discourse. Influenced by shifting cultural attitudes, analysts in the late twentieth century began to offer still more reasons for reevaluating colonial American writing. Instead of regarding it with condescension, as just a preliminary and primitive phase of American literary history, they are finding new motives for giving it serious attention in its own right.

Reassessments of Colonial Literature

In early-21st-century culture, for example, renewed appreciation for the expressive value of nonfictional prose, and for writing that blurs the distinction between journalism and imaginative literature, opens the way to better understanding of colonial autobiographies, histories, and sermons. Attentiveness to irony and patterns of self-making enables a reading of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (composed 1771–1790) not so much for its practical advice as for the way it dramatizes a prototypical American’s capacity for endless adaptation and self-invention. It has become increasingly clear that Governor William Bradford did not record a straightforward factual narrative of the first Pilgrim settlement in his Of Plymouth Plantation (composed 1630–1650). Despite its supposedly “plain style” of exposition, this work reflects the tensions and ambiguities its author faced in trying to sustain a providential vision of history. Like Thomas Jefferson’s fable of nationhood in the Declaration of Independence, Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards’s idealized re-creation of his own life in his “Personal Narrative” (composed c. 1740) and other prose pieces of the period, Bradford’s narrative reflects genuine rhetorical artistry. Instead of calling attention to itself, however, such artistry was expressly designed to serve some social purpose. The practice of art for art’s sake did not exist during this period. Nor did writing as a full-time vocation or paid career.

Pursuing the rhetorical and cultural significance of writings that fall outside usual notions of literature yields new understanding of early American experience—even with texts as unpromising as execution sermons, diaries, political pamphlets, and funeral elegies. Since the late 20th century, interest in gender politics and cultural studies has led interpreters toward fresh scrutiny of texts such as Mary Rowlandson’s gripping and personal Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), Sarah Kemble Knight’s Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York (composed 1704–1710), and Phillis Wheatley’s poems bearing on her condition as a black house slave in Boston around the time of the Revolution. The emergence of ecocriticism, a green-inspired movement in literary criticism that redefines nature writing within the broader category of environmental literature, has likewise provoked new interest in colonial and early national writings such as Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), William Wood’s New England’s Prospect (1634), and William Bartram’s Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791).

With respect to writing by colonial women, Mary Rowlandson’s widely-read captivity narrative combines vivid description of the trials and material privations suffered by this minister’s wife from Lancaster, Massachusetts amid the horrors of King Philip’s War with semi-fictive emotionalism and a confirmation of the episode’s meaning. For the author, that meaning highlighted the uses of adversity, dramatizing above all God’s providential mercy in redeeming her from the “company of hell-hounds” and “merciless heathen” who held her hostage for almost three months. Yet for latter-day readers, Rowlandson’s account also reveals moments of cross-cultural accommodation with Indian manners and customs—even, at times, a grudging admiration for the resourcefulness and stoic endurance of her pagan captors—running contrary to the author’s main intent. Along the way Rowlandson admits that, before an eventual reunion with her husband and two of her three children, she sometimes met with favor and kindness from squaws and others with whom she lodged. From them she obtained access to a Bible, opportunities to converse with her son, and other concessions. And while otherwise demonizing her captors, she acknowledges that, even while sleeping among savages, “not one of them ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity . . . in word or action.”

Mounting awareness of the need to honor this land’s ethnic and ideological pluralism has particularly influenced the canon of early American literature—that is, the roll call of texts most frequently judged to warrant inspection by readers and critics. Late-20th and early-21st century anthology collections of early American writing typically begin with mediated transcriptions of the creation myths and other oral traditions of Native peoples who did not record their experiences directly in writing. Typically, too, these collections include writings in translation by explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Bartolemé de Las Casas, and Samuel de Champlain, none of whom settled permanently in the Western Hemisphere. Early America is thus understood to embrace New Spain and New France, encompassing geographies beyond current U.S. borders and languages other than English. Even within the narrower bounds of British colonization, the beliefs of early writers show considerable diversity. Some writers, settled mainly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, were Puritans. In the spirit of John Calvin, these rigorously devout dissenters from the established Church of England wanted to press the Protestant Reformation further than Britain had thus far allowed. But other colonial writers were worldly adventurers, secular-minded Deists whose faith centered on human reason, Quakers, Anglicans, renegade Puritans such as Roger Williams in Rhode Island, or proponents of other beliefs. One anthology of writing from the period thus elects to underscore via its title a plural field of discourse—The Literatures of Colonial America—in place of the usual reference to literature.1

Nonetheless, the literature of Puritan New England has retained a distinct prominence in early American studies. Some scholars regard this special attention as a form of regional favoritism that downplays the worth of writing produced throughout the southern and middle Atlantic colonies. Others voice skepticism about the much-discussed continuity between Puritan attitudes and those reflected by major American authors in later centuries. Still others complain that Puritan influences on the future of America have been pernicious, encouraging an ideology of conquest and false confidence in this nation’s supposedly exceptional status within the world community.

Yet the Puritan imagination has in fact left an unmistakable imprint on American consciousness. The exemplary role of the Puritan community as “a city upon a hill,” first invoked by Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop in a lay sermon delivered in 1630, still surfaces perennially in political speeches as an ideal figure of the United States. Not only the imagery and thought patterns, but also some modes of expression favored by colonial New Englanders, have shown an enduring presence in American letters. For example, rhetoric of the sermon figures significantly in imaginative writings by later authors as diverse as Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sermons by spirited, first-generation divines such as Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, and Thomas Shepard amply demonstrate the power of the word to melt souls. The blended warning of a peril to come with a call for immediate reformation reflected in the Puritan Jeremiad has continued to resonate in later American culture—as evidenced in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or in the environmentally-charged rhetoric of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). Despite her eventual quarrel with Calvinist religion, Stowe respected the singular passion and urgency expressed by the Puritans of colonial New England. For “in no other country,” she observed “were the soul and the spiritual life ever such intense realities”; and nowhere else has everything been so deliberately contemplated “in reference to eternity” (The Minister’s Wooing, 1859). The Nature of True Virtue (1765) and other philosophic writings by Jonathan Edwards continue to provoke reflection on the largest questions of life and ethics.

To be sure, America’s Puritans displayed unsavory traits of exclusionary zeal for which they have long since been derided. Following the 19th-century era of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose fictional accounts of Puritan New England combined probing censure with a residue of sympathy and respect, popular images of the Puritans devolved into caricature. Puritans are still apt to be portrayed stereotypically as dour killjoys, genocidal bigots, and apostles of an unforgiving and sadistic God. Such stereotypes are reinforced by customary choices in the reading assigned for survey courses, where most students learn that Jonathan Edwards wrote a sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” but know next to nothing of his personal narrative, his Neoplatonic disposition and scientific interests, or his visionary impressions of a cosmos animated by divine beauty and harmony.

Particularly if the definition of colonial writing extends to include works published shortly after the Revolution by figures active before 1776, an array of imaginative accomplishments is likewise represented in this era’s secular writing. In the art of scripted political oratory, for example, no American—except, perhaps, for Abraham Lincoln—has ever surpassed the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Within the frame of an epistolary prose-poem, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) presents an enduring image of the New World Garden and of Americans as a “promiscuous breed” transplanted to this soil from diverse ethnocultural roots. No essay has ever captured the mood of popular American values, or expressed the American dream of achieving autonomous freedom through monetary success, more effectively than Ben Franklin’s “Way to Wealth” (1758). Nor has any personal narrative touched the heart of American individualism more memorably than Franklin’s Autobiography.

Literatures of Colonial History and Early Settlement

Throughout the European colonies, settlers and visitors recognized the decisive importance of their encounter with America. Accordingly, from the first stages of contact, they began to develop historical records of their experiences. Such regionally focused accounts include The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1632) by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who marched with Hernán Cortés into Mexico, and The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), mostly attributed to English adventurer John Smith. Virginians Robert Beverley (in The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705) and William Byrd II (in History of the Dividing Line, composed 1728–1738) offered further perspectives on the unfolding of events in their region. Colonial histories were typically meant to justify, if not to glorify, conduct of the individuals or groups responsible for producing them. Their portrayal of Native Americans falling under European control through disease or force of arms must therefore be viewed with considerable skepticism. History is always someone’s version of the story; and regrettably, no full-blown Indian chronicles could be written or preserved within the thirteen English colonies. Hints about how indigenous peoples in British America viewed colonial history must be gleaned from recorded samples of Indian eloquence, such as Chief Powhatan’s “Speech to Captain John Smith” (1609) in Virginia or from remarks embedded in writings by sympathetic colonists, including Roger Williams’s A Key into the Language of America (1643).

New England colonists began the venture of migration with a powerful sense of mission, a heightened desire to understand how their deeds fulfilled God’s purposes within the drama of world history that began a new phase at the Protestant Reformation. Thus, they had scarcely stepped off the Mayflower and other ships of passage when they began to think about recording and interpreting the history of their enterprise. Just as Puritans scrutinized their souls individually for signs that they had been “elected” by God for eternal salvation, so also they sought evidence of divine favor or disfavor toward their covenanted community of “saints.” For several generations, leading toward grand works such as Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and Jonathan Edwards’s A History of the Work of Redemption (1774), Puritan historians probed the meaning of New England’s experiment and inquired how well this new chosen people was carrying out God’s will.

William Bradford, for example, in telling the famous story of the Pilgrims who landed at Cape Cod in 1620, took pains to identify whatever instances of “special providence” emerged from his recollections of the community’s history (Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647). Particularly in earlier sections of his narrative, Bradford finds many encouraging instances of providential intervention on behalf of the holy fellowship. Surviving the perils of the first winter, meeting friendly Indians who happened to speak English, receiving rain just in time to water a rich harvest of corn—in such events Bradford saw visible evidence that Plymouth’s struggle had been blessed by God.

Nowhere in the history does Bradford seem more confident that the Pilgrims were fulfilling a sacred destiny than in his account of the first landing at Provincetown. Writing ten years after the fact, he underscores the extreme vulnerability of this “poor people” who, having survived a perilous sea voyage, now faced the onset of winter in a bleak northern climate with no standing shelter or solace from friends. Yet Bradford pictures them falling on their knees with joy and gratitude upon reaching American soil. Cape Cod scarcely seemed then to offer Pilgrims the material abundance, the biblical milk and honey, of a new Promised Land. But if the ideal of Puritan faith was to live solely upon the divine Word, New Plymouth never came closer to realizing its vocation as a sanctified community than at this moment when its people had nothing to rely upon or to “sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace.” Although these latter-day Pilgrims could not “go up to the top of [Mount] Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes” as Moses had done in the Old Testament, Bradford shows them glimpsing their land of promise inwardly and imaginatively, at the very summit of their faith. His rhetoric magnifies both the occasion and his sense of audience. Writing in the third person, the aging author declares that as he looks back on these events, he stands “half amazed at this poor people’s . . .… condition.” Bradford himself began the process of mythologizing these “Founding Fathers” as heroic models of faith and endurance.

Ironically, Bradford’s confidence in the godly destiny of Plymouth began to fade as the community’s material and economic condition gradually improved. With greater prosperity came greater interest in personal profit, the transformation of companionable Pilgrims into Yankee individualists, and the dispersal of Plymouth’s godly fellowship into new settlements scattered throughout the region. Of Plymouth Plantation embodies the author’s struggle to make sense of such developments and of social changes he associated with startling outbreaks of iniquity within the colony. Apparently unable to discern what providential meaning these events might bear, Bradford left his history incomplete. Before the work trails off, it shows the author dutifully recording a number of episodes that betray his final uncertainty and his elegiac sense of the community he once served as leader.

Contesting colonizers tell radically different versions of the same story. Beyond simply describing a given territory, colonial histories often set forth rival claims of possession. So it is fascinating to compare Bradford’s sober history with the riotously exuberant, mock-epic interpretation of events supplied by Thomas Morton in his New English Canaan (1637). Both Morton and Bradford portray Massachusetts as a land of great promise for the future, although only Morton highlights its physical attractions. Both support the idea of colonization and reflect English cultural values. And although Morton displays much less piety than Bradford, both writers invoke biblical analogies that link New England to what Morton calls “the Israelites’ Canaan.”

But the two accounts clash in every other respect. As a free-spirited entrepreneur who was nominally Anglican but actually something of a neo-pagan hedonist, Morton aroused deep suspicion among Pilgrims and Puritans. Bradford portrays him as a dissolute troublemaker. Of Plymouth Plantation deplores Morton’s erection of a maypole, at his nearby settlement of Merry-mount, that becomes the focal point for orgiastic revelry. For Bradford, Morton epitomizes not only the resurgence of pagan licentiousness and idolatry, but also the lawless freedom of the woods. Such wild energy threatened to dissolve the godly order of Plymouth’s community.

Morton, in turn, tells his story to defame the Pilgrims as bigoted fanatics who envy his success in the fur trade. According to New English Canaan, not Thomas Morton but these humorless “Separatists” and “cruel Schismaticks” are the real deviants whose behavior should trouble proponents of English colonization. In this account, the Pilgrim fathers come across as priggish busybodies. They take ludicrous measures to persecute Morton, Native Americans, and anyone else deemed unsettling to their repressive regime. Just as Bradford makes Morton an archvillain of his history, so also Morton enjoys developing a mischievous counternarrative in which the Separatists—including their un-Puritan military leader, Myles Standish, lampooned as Captain Shrimp—can be demolished through satire.

Colonial Poetry

In several English colonies, but particularly in New England, writing or reading poetry was a popular pastime for settlers from all walks of life. Poetry was considered a suitable mass medium for instruction, edification, and entertainment. It may seem surprising to us that a long apocalyptic poem like Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom (1662) not only attracted a phenomenal share of readers but was commonly committed to memory. Often set amid prose discourse in travel narratives, letters, histories, and other works, verse was likewise a familiar feature of almanacs and funeral broadsides. Plainly, most of this casual versifying does not qualify as literary art. Yet the era produced several accomplished poets whose work still draws attention today. New Englanders Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor are the leading examples. Widespread literacy, combined with the intensely verbal quality of the Puritan imagination, helped to encourage talents that were emerging in this region. Non-Puritan writers who continue to attract notice include Ebenezer Cooke, for his authorship of a humorous poem titled “The Sot-Weed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland, &c.” (1708), about tobacco trading and plantation life; Richard Lewis, for his celebration of Maryland landscapes in “A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis” (1730); and Phillis Wheatley, for poems such as “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” (1773) that subtly expose the contradiction between Anglo-America’s love of egalitarian rhetoric and continued practice of chattel slavery.

For Edward Taylor, composing the 217 poems he eventually assembled in his Preparatory Meditations (composed 1682–1725) was an extension of his lifelong vocation as minister to the frontier community of Westfield, Massachusetts. Linked to sermons preached on the sacramental occasion of his celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they reflect an interior process of meditation designed to relate scriptural texts to the state of one’s soul. In 17th-century devotional life, meditation involved not only cogitation, but a disciplined effort to integrate intellect with the feelings and commitment of the heart. Taylor’s poetic meditations, which remained unpublished until the modern era, display remarkable wit, exuberance, and artistry. Steeped in knowledge of sin but ultimately hopeful, they enact a representative soul’s search for salvation. Taylor’s sensuous metaphors and love of verbal play effectively belie stereotypes of Puritan gloom. So do accounts of finding his human nature raised to rapturous union with divinity, as exemplified by poems such as “The Experience” and “Meditation 8” within the first series of Preparatory Meditations.

Anne Bradstreet’s acute awareness of her circumstance as a woman writer, demonstrated in her poetic “Prologue” to The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), is of particular interest to present-day readers. With The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet made history as the first colonist to publish a volume of poetry. For her long poem titled “Contemplations” (1678), Bradstreet also warrants recognition as the first poet to record a sustained, appreciative response to outdoor experience in British North America. Based on a solitary autumnal walk in the woods near her home in North Andover, Massachusetts, “Contemplations” expresses an untroubled fascination with the natural world that is rare in first-generation Puritan writing. Despite the poem’s meandering style, digressive interludes, and overlay of pastoral and mythological tropes, it qualifies from the standpoint of latter-day ecocriticsm as a walking meditation situated in landscapes that were recognizably part of Bradstreet’s New World environment.

As a spirited, passionate woman, Bradstreet also faced a continuing struggle to reconcile her love of people and things in this mortal world with her commitment to God’s eternal realm of the spirit. This conflict, rendered more painful because of her deep affection for her husband and the eight children she eventually bore, is reflected in poems such as “Upon the Burning of Our House” (dated 1666) and “The Flesh and the Spirit” (1678). Despite the tensions and quarrel with God expressed in these poems, Bradstreet should not be misconstrued as a modern rebel against Puritan orthodoxy. Puritans of her day accepted such conflicted feeling as a recurring, inevitable part of the ongoing conversion process. Yet some of Bradstreet’s poems do address secular subjects or reflect a more worldly orientation. Thus, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” (1678) gives startling voice to an expectant mother’s fear, envy, and unspiritual yearning to survive death in the earthly memory of others.

Writing New World Nature

At first, English settlers did not expect to find their cultural identity seriously changed by their encounter with North America’s physical environment. They planned instead to refashion this land into a better England, remaining thoroughly English in the process. But as colonists pressed farther into the great woods and deepened their experience of the New World environment, the land itself began to reshape their group identity. Was this land a frightening “wilderness,” as it first appeared to William Bradford while gazing on the shores of Cape Cod in November? Or was it a “garden” of superabundant promise tilled by freeholding farmers, as typically imaged in writings by St. John de Crèvecoeur and Thomas Jefferson? The body of colonial American writing reveals a broader urge to assimilate both perspectives into an original impression of nature. These polar images—of threatening but vital wilderness on the one hand, of cultivated prosperity yielding paradise on the other—suffuse the rhetoric of early American writing. They can even compete for dominance within the same text by a given author.

William Bartram’s Travels is a case in point. As a bona fide though largely self-educated naturalist from Philadelphia with scientific expertise in botany, Bartram could not overlook the many troubling, threatening faces of untamed nature he encountered while wandering through the South from 1773 to 1777. His gripping tales of danger, especially the near calamity he faces while canoeing among a brood of attacking alligators in East Florida, should destroy anyone’s fantasy of the South as a semitropical paradise. Yet Bartram does not dwell on the predatory horror of “primitive nature.” Instead, his work highlights the awestruck gratitude he feels at discovering the ordered, prodigal diversity of creation. Absorbed with wonder at observing crystal fountains and remarkable plants like the Venus fly trap, he is drawn to contemplate the sublime benevolence of a world that seems to him “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator . . . furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing.”

Consistent with his Quaker spirituality, Bartram also insists on respecting the animal life of “the brute creation.” Amazingly, he denounces the needless destruction even of hawks, rattlesnakes, and bears. Bartram traces his own education in this wider compassion to an episode that occurred while he was ascending Florida’s south Musquito River in a canoe. After a hunter in his party thoughtlessly shoots a bear and then destroys the dam’s cub as well, Bartram experiences a shock of distress—along with shame over his own complicity with the deed. This episode becomes a defining moment in the Travels. Comparable to the personal epiphanies featured in conversion narratives, it exposes for Bartram the heart of all ethical compassion. Typically, humans assume they enjoy an absolute sovereignty over nature. Bartram, however, offers intimations of that rarer outlook in which humans stand more nearly as kin beside nonhumans within the divine continuity of creation.

Versions of Personal Narrative

Throughout the colonial period and beyond, Americans sought with peculiar urgency to locate and emulate those who might serve as models for their own lives. Fascination with the life stories of others became all the more pronounced in the New World as fresh avenues of social mobility and career choice emerged. But new opportunities for self-definition also produced new anxieties. How was a person to find his or her own way to success in a land without longstanding social institutions or traditions?

In his classic Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin shows how. The aim of this personal narrative is not self-expression or deep introspection, but the creation of a model that others could imitate on the way to shaping their own American lives. Addressed ostensibly to the author’s son yet plainly responding to popular demand, this first-person testimony declares its rationale of utility at the outset. Franklin wants to tell others how he achieved celebrity, happiness, and affluence because they may find his experience “fit to be imitated.” He artfully omits embarrassing details of his private life to portray the public self-most relevant to needs of his 18th-century audience. Thus, without pretense of modesty, the author idealizes his own story so as to offer readers a secular counterpart of the saint’s life and conversion narrative. Instead of passing from sin to salvation, however, Franklin describes his movement from poverty to wealth. He insists that the way to wealth is not an end in itself, but the means to building a self-reliant character empowered to perform public service. Yet the Autobiography shows that to achieve financial success in the first place, enterprising Americans must cultivate an appetite for self-serving individualism. Industry, frugality, ingenuity, and adaptability—all these traits paved Franklin’s way to wealth. But the Autobiography suggests that some lucky breaks and shrewd business deals also smoothed the way.

For Puritan New Englanders, conversion narratives were the spiritual equivalent of Franklin’s success story. From the standpoint of spiritual autobiography, though, success meant discovering in one’s personal experience signs that divine grace had transformed the heart. Prominent clergymen wrote and sometimes published spiritual autobiographies as models of edification. But since personal testimony of conversion, or regeneration of the soul, was often required for full church membership, ordinary colonists—including many women—also recorded stylized narratives contrasting the older, depraved self with their newly “saved,” authorial identity. Impelled by “a motion of love” to show how God’s “tender mercies” operated in his life and throughout creation, New Jersey Quaker John Woolman offered another kind of spiritual autobiography in his Journal of John Woolman (1774). Other noteworthy personal narratives from the general period include Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (1774), by an independent-minded woman who converted to Quakerism; A Short Narrative of My Life (dated 1768) by the Mohegan Indian, Samson Occom; and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), by a former slave born in what would become Nigeria.

Political Writing on the Verge of Revolution

Politically, the late colonial period was a time of heated controversy and high emotion. Yet in the spirit of that philosophic movement known first in Europe as the Enlightenment, it was also a time of surpassing confidence in the power of reason and in humankind’s capacity to improve the existing social order. Both tendencies can be discerned in polemical pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) and other incendiary writings by patriots, as well as in the many opposition pamphlets penned by Loyalists. Intense feeling also blends with reasoned argument in the era’s most renowned work of political rhetoric, the Declaration of Independence. Youthful Virginian Thomas Jefferson, already known as a gifted rhetorician, became principal author of the draft presented to the Second Continental Congress. By virtue of his artistry, this document came not only to describe but also in some measure to create the governing ideology and political mythology of the United States.

The Declaration begins on a calmly majestic, authoritative note—even though the colonies at this stage possessed no legal authority in the world community. Nor did they possess anything like a centrally united government, despite the voice of unified assurance created by Jefferson’s rhetoric. But instead of claiming authority through legal precedent or a legitimacy conferred by privilege from above, the Declaration appeals to the ground-up notion of a social contract formed among the nation’s people. Thus influenced by philosophic theories derived from John Locke and others, Jefferson claims that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This claim is founded, in turn, on the natural rights precept “that all men are created equal,” at least for purposes of governance, an assertion supported by the “self evident” strength of human reason as evidenced directly in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” That the collective identity of a new nation could be based not on a common ethnic heritage or class grievances but on the dignity and liberty of individual citizens was indeed a revolutionary concept.

Despite the Declaration’s reasoned respect for “the opinions of mankind,” its argument is also driven by emotion. Jefferson’s draft conveys poignant feelings of betrayal that Britain, by its abuse of America, had destroyed that vision of cross-oceanic harmony in which “we might have been a free and a great people together.” The body of the Declaration also features a long, passionate denunciation of King George III. As though ritually exorcising the demon of liberty, Jefferson recites the litany of crimes committed by a British monarch he declines to name. Implausibly but significantly, he even tries to blame this mythologized source of all oppression for sponsoring and sustaining the American slave trade. By supporting that “execrable commerce” in which Africans are bought and sold, George stands guilty of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”

As Phillis Wheatley’s poetry reminds us, colonial rhetoric of political protest often invoked the bondage metaphor, denouncing Britain’s abuse of the colonies as a plot to “enslave” them. This myth of an America in chains appears not only in political tracts but also in sermons of the period. Yet pressing the metaphor to its logical conclusion would expose the disparity between egalitarian ideals championed by patriot leaders and their typical willingness to preserve chattel slavery. If the colonies succeeded in winning independence after issuing a declaration that carried a denunciation of the slave trade, they could no longer blame George if they subsequently failed to demand abolition—or, at least, major restrictions on slave commerce. No wonder Congress insisted on expunging Jefferson’s slave rhetoric from the Declaration—a minor literary revision with momentous consequences for the nation’s future. As a southern slaveholder who retains notoriety for his involvements with the “peculiar institution,” Jefferson was fully enmeshed in these inconsistencies, despite his flashes of recognition that slavery was a tragic, unsupportable evil. Finally, however, the contradictory assertions written into the draft Declaration reveal something crucial not only about Jefferson’s personal ambivalence, but also about ideological tensions in the national psyche that have yet to be resolved.

Discussion of the Literature

Although general interest in colonial American letters had persisted from the early national period through the 19th century, especially in New England, critical scholarship devoted to this period did not flower until the 20th century, around the time of World War II. It was then that Perry Miller at Harvard first provoked deeper study of New England Puritan thought and expression in a series of magisterial commentaries, above all in his two-volume exposition on The New England Mind (1939–1952). Miller’s work, which centered on intellectual history and “the marrow of Puritan divinity” rather than literary artistry as such, has since been extended by scholars with reference to a host of other writers and contexts. It has also been challenged in diverse ways, as well as complemented by studies of writing from the Middle or Southern colonies in studies such as Richard Beale Davis’s Intellectual Life in the Colonial South (1978). But it has never quite been replaced or superseded.

In the wake of scholarship sponsored by Miller and others, a second phase of scholarly investigation into the period can be identified as running until roughly 1990. Following Thomas Johnson’s startling discovery in the 1930s of impressive but hitherto-unpublished writing by the 17th-century poet Edward Taylor, this era saw the publication of numerous, often detailed textual commentaries on writers such as Taylor, Anne Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and William Bradford. During this period, Sacvan Bercovitch at Columbia University also rose to prominence as a scholar devoted to sustaining and enlarging upon Miller’s interests in the seminal, mythmaking tenor of colonial New England writing. Early American Literature, a journal devoted to the emergent subfield, began production as a scholarly focal point; and a number of pioneering anthologies, including Harrison T. Meserole’s American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (1985), stirred awareness of the abundance of colonial writing in diverse forms. Renewed attention was given to the rhetorical strategies at play in sermons and political writings, as well as to subgenres such as conversion narratives and travel or exploratory writings.

In recent decades the very notion of a monolithic American literature, presumed to have arisen within clear geographic and linguistic boundaries prior to 1776, has been increasingly exposed to critical challenge. The scholarly canon of early American literatures has expanded accordingly, with renewed attention given to broadly North American writings of exploration or storytelling composed not only in English but also in Spanish, French, Dutch, or mediated retrospectively from the oral tradition of indigenous peoples. Present-day fascination with questions of gender, ethnicity, and comparative culture has also drawn scholarly inquiry toward the study of women’s diaries and journals, captivity literature, and slave narratives. From the first, by virtue of its engagement with intellectual history and theology, the study of colonial American literature had favored interdisciplinary approaches, rather than primary attention to belles lettres. Lately, though, scholars of early American writing have increasingly sought to incorporate insights gleaned from still other fields of inquiry such as natural history, science, anthropology, and ethnography. Interest has likewise grown in the transatlantic rather than purely regional or national temper of colonial writing, a trend represented some years ago by works such as Barbara Lewalski’s Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1985), which situated discussion of Edward Taylor’s poetry in the context of broadly Anglo-American devotional writing. Despite these varied extensions of scholarly analysis, both the usual teaching canon and the temper of present-day critical inquiry continue to honor the intellectual and rhetorical force of colonial New England writing, as evidenced by Michael J. Colacurcio’s richly elaborated study of first-generation figures such as Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, and Thomas Shepard in his Godly Letters: The Literature of the American Puritans (2006).

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse. The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.
  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Puritan Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
  • Caldwell, Patricia. The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Castillo, Susan, and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
  • Colacurcio, Michael J. Godly Letters: The Literature of the American Puritans. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
  • Daly, Robert. “William Bradford's Vision of History.” American Literature 44 (January 1973): 557–569.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Literature and Society in Early Virginia, 1608–1840. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.
  • Delbanco, Andrew. The Puritan Ordeal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. New York: Random House, 1994.
  • Franklin, Wayne. Discoverers, Explorers, Settlers: The Diligent Writers of Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Gatta, John. Gracious Laughter: The Meditative Wit of Edward Taylor. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
  • Gaudio, Michael. Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Gittleman, Edwin. “Jefferson's ‘Slave Narrative’: The Declaration of Independence as a Literary Text.” Early American Literature 8 (Winter 1974): 239–256.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. New World Encounters. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Hayes, Kevin J., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Levernier, James A., and Douglas R. Wilmes, eds. American Writers before 1800: A Biographical and Critical Dictionary. 3 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
  • Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.
  • Shea, Daniel B. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. First published in 1968.
  • Sweet, Timothy. American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Wills, Gary. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.


  • 1. Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, eds., The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001).