Colonial America, 1607-1783

All American
>Colonial America 



  • aphorism 
  • autobiography 
  • captivity narrative 
  • journal 
  • lyric poem 
  • narrative poem 
  • satirical essay
  • sermon 


  • Puritanism 
  • Enlightenment 
  • Great Awakening


1607: Jamestown settled
1620: Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth
1775: American Revolution begins
1783: Treaty of Paris


Errand into the Wilderness is a seminal critical work on Puritans in America.

The Cambridge History of American Literature includes an entire volume covering the period 1590-1820.

Updated July 5, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001


By Mark Canada
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Benjamin Franklin once noted that the business of making a nation restricted literary activity in Colonial America. Franklin seemed to think that people needed a stable government and economy before they could make great advances in cultural pursuits such as literature, music, and painting. Indeed, between the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and the treaty ending the American Revolution in 1783, Americans did lag behind their English contemporaries in the production of epic poetry, drama, and fiction. Still, Colonial America did produce an impressive body of literature, much of it in the form of nonfiction prose, such as autobiography and sermon. 

  • Some central themes emerge from this literature. Because of the nature of their endeavor, for example, Captain John Smith and other chroniclers of settlement in the 17th century often addressed the subjects of will and work, the relationship between humans and nature, and the differences between European and Native American cultures. In this same century, Puritans such as Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop wrote about their spiritual feelings and quests, Bradstreet in very personal poems and a journal, Winthrop in both a famous public sermon and an intimate journal. This tradition continued into the following century, when Puritan Jonathan Edwards and non-Puritans such as Phillis Wheatley and John Woolman reflected on their faith in poems and journals. Other writers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, produced more public literature designed to entertain people or further their political aims. In its emphasis on human potential and reason, much of this literature reflects the prevailing sentiments of its era, often called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.
  • Study Questions

    1. How did John Smith and other early explorers describe America for the people back home in Europe? Why did they describe the area in this way?
    2. Compare John Smith's and the Puritans' narratives about life in America. Try to account for the similarities and differences by referring to their personalities, motives, and backgrounds.
    3. What did the Puritans believe? Distinguish between the Pilgrims and Winthrop's group of Puritans. When and why did each group come to America? How do the Puritans' writings reflect their beliefs and personalities?
    4. Compare Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. In what ways does each reflect the principles of the Enlightenment?
    5. Citing the work of Philip Freneau, Phillis Wheatley, and perhaps other writers, contrast the literature of this century with the Puritan literature of the previous century.