In the contemporary world, American culture is practically universal in its forms of expression. Given this information, it is important to remember how American literature played a part in the shaping of America’s cultural and historical process. From the writings of the first authors during colonial times, to the continuous changes that took place during that time, it’s possible to understand how the identity of American Literature was built through the centuries.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the values, feelings and dreams of the new American nation are reflected. The first features of American literature had clearly religious nuances, as well as narratives of the difficulties that these authors faced when they arrived at this new land and forming a new country. Therefore, in this material, we will analyze three of the most relevant writers during these periods, their ideologies and their main writings: Thomas Paine, Anne Bradford and Phillis Wheatley.
1. Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet was the first known poet in American literature. In 1628, Bradstreet immigrated to America and established in Massachusetts along with her husband Simon, and her parents (Poets.org). In her writings, Anne Bradstreet describes how life unfolded for the first pilgrims in the British colonies. She also wrote about culture, nature, religion, family, death and history (Cowell, 2008).
Bradstreet was initially shaken by being so far from the comforts of home; however, in 1632 she began to write poetry and in 1650, her first book of poetry, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America, was published in London. (ProQuest). The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America was also America’s first poetry book. In her book, Bradstreet writes about being unhappily aware that the society in which she lived criticized women who dared to undertake activities outside their domestic obligations.
In her latest poems, addressed to her family, Bradstreet shows spiritual growth. She also composed a series of poems of a more personal nature and considerable beauty: her thoughts before giving birth, her response to the death of some of her grandchildren and her love to her husband:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.” (Elliot et al 124)
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2. Thomas Paine.
Thomas Paine is the author of two of the most famous political writings in the history of the American democracy. He was one of the most conspicuous and influential slavery opponents.
In 1776, Pain wrote his pamphlet Common Sense. Paine’s 77-page pamphlet aimed to outline the reasons for rejecting British authority in the simplest, most straightforward terms, with self-evident arguments and a destiny written in the stars. “Common Sense” was the perfect title (Rohdri 7). The impact of the pamphlet was immediate: in 1776 it sold more than one hundred thousand copies and was translated into French (Paine et al.). Common Sense was a passionate attack against the British monarchy and all that it represented, he explained that the colonies derived no benefit from their bond with England.
Paine insisted that the people could govern themselves without nobility or elites. His proposal was a simple republicanism based on the democracy of the assemblies. All this was raised without euphemisms, in a direct, clear and popular writing style that could be read and understood by anyone. The result was that it became an instrument of popular independence mobilization among vast sectors of farmers and artisans. The impact of these pamphlets was not only among the ‘crowd’, but also among broad sectors of the elite. John Adams, who shared the independence ideology, expressed his fear of the effect that such a popular pamphlet can have on the people since a radicalism so democratic without controls or balances can generate many evils and confusion (Philp).
Thomas Paine’s legacy has been much deeper than we could deduce, he proposed the abolition of slavery almost a hundred years before Lincoln; he was one of the first English to propitiate the independence of India; He planned a retirement plan; and claimed the rights of women. Thomas Paine is relevant not only for his revolutionary internationalism and challenge to existing institutions, but for the modernity of his thinking, his rationalism and his faith in human nature; however, like all idealists, he made the mistake of underestimating the power of the ruling class.
3. Phillis Wheatley.
Phillis Wheatley was the third woman who published a book in the United States. Her work Poems on Various Subjects was published in 1773. Her work is considered one of the first examples of African American literature and was used by abolitionists to deny the artistic inferiority of Africans. For many years, her poems were more valued from the historical point of view than from the literary one. However, today her poetry is analyzed and studied in institutes and universities in much of the world (Turner-Sadler 39-40).
In her poetic work, admired by Voltaire and George Washington, religion and morality are fundamental themes; but also, the author dedicates some verses to her childhood in her homeland and to slavery. Her poem On Being Brought from Africa to America is one of the few that revolves around slavery. In it, the author makes use of self-representation and rhetorical irony to end the prejudices that existed about her race in that society:
“Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Elliot et al 422)
If we read the first four verses superficially, it seems that the author feels gratitude for having been introduced into American society and thus being able to embrace the only true faith: Christianity. In the first quartet Wheatley shows himself as an ignorant and naive person, as are the rest of the pagans of his homeland.
Far from underestimating the African population, she feels deeply sorry that they do not know Christianity. Thus, expressing this feeling and adopting a harmless tone, it manages to please the Western and Christian public.
In general, the political poetry of Phillis Wheatley has been ignored over time. However, her poem To His Excellency General Washington, dedicated to George Washington, has aroused some interest among literary critics due to the author’s skill in adapting neoclassical poetry to the context of the American Revolution. This poem was written in 1775 (Elliot et al 429-430)
In conclusion, American literature was initially influenced by European cultures that came to the new world to discover and conquer it. During the seventeenth century, the influences of several European countries in the new land did not allow the development of a native literary culture. However, during the eighteenth century, the values, feelings, and dreams of the new American nation are echoed. The first features of American literature had clearly religious nuances, reduced creativity and due to the conservative nature of society. The first features of American literature had distinctly religious nuances, a reduced creativity and due to the conservative nature of society they focused mostly on passages from the Bible, in simple life, the closed, strict and critical society of that time, in the Innocence and sin. With time, the approaches of literature began to unfold and started touching broader issues, starting with nature.
- Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poet/anne-bradstreet.
- Cowell, Pattie. ‘Anne Bradstreet (1612? – 1672).’ 2008. Georgetown University. 6 February 2008.
- Anne Bradstreet. ProQuest, Ann Arbor, 2017. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.cpcc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.cpcc.edu/docview/1959814533?accountid=10008.
- Levine, Robert S., et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 124-422.
- Marsden, Rhodri. ‘Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.’ The Independent, Jan 09, 2016, pp. 7. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.cpcc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.cpcc.edu/docview/1754663154?accountid=10008.
- Paine, Thomas, et al. Thomas Paine Reader. Penguin Books, 1987.
- Philp, Mark. “Thomas Paine.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 19 Sept. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/paine/.
- Turner-Sadler, Joanne. African American History: an Introduction. Peter Lang Publishing, 2020, pp. 39-40.