An Introduction to American Literature
Lesson 1: An Introduction to American Literature
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:
Our class activities this week include the following:
Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), describe a poem, story, play, movie, or song you like and explain what makes it meaningful to you.
Presentation: An Introduction to American Literature (Professor Canada)
Ice-breaker: Introduce yourself to the other members of your group by taking on the role of a character in the work you described in your “Think Fast” exercise. Have your fellow group members try to guess your character’s identity.
Literary interpretation: Analyze Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road.” Discuss the various ways that Whitman conveys meaning through his choice and placement of words, as well as his use of literary devices, such as persona, metaphor, and symbolism.
Presentation: Literary Research (Professor Canada) Meet in reference area of Sampson-Livermore Library on Wednesday.
Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.
Think Again: Using what you have learned about literary research, find some sources on the American author you have chosen for your author project. In a brief essay (300 words), describe this author’s major contributions to American literature.
Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences. During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.
Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.
Names and Terms
Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:
Make sure you are familiar with the following key dates in early American history:
1492: Columbus lands in North America
1607: English settle Jamestown
1620: Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock
1775-1783: Colonists fight American Revolution
1861-1865: North and South fight Civil War
You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:
The Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, discusses authors, works, and trends in American literature.
The Oxford Companion to American Literature, which contains entries on hundreds of authors and works, is a useful quick reference for students of American literature.
The Cambridge History of American Literature, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, is a multivolume work featuring extensive information about authors, works, and more.
The Dictionary of Literary Biography, a multivolume subject encyclopedia, is an invaluable resource for starting research on an author. Along with extensive biographical and critical information, it features bibliographies and photographs.
Be Your Best: Reading contains guidance on understanding and interpreting literature.
Be Your Best: Research contains guidance on finding, evaluating, and using sources when writing essays and other forms of argument.
Welcome to ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865. In this first lesson, we will survey the landscape ahead of us as we prepare for our road trip through antebellum American literature. We will begin with a session on Monday, August 19, 2002, in Dial 149. On Friday, August 23, we will meet in the reference area of Sampson-Livermore Library. Let’s get started!
In 1623, at the time the English were settling America, the great English poet and essayist John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Donne’s words are worth remembering as we enter our exploration of American literature. Far from being born in America, literature goes back thousands of years, and American writers have consciously and unconsciously borrowed from this tradition as they have produced their own poems, novels, essays, and plays. It is impossible to know exactly when some cave dweller or hunter and gather crafted the first poem or composed the first story. For millennia, such artistic material would have traveled by word of mouth, and thus we have no record of it. Nevertheless, the early creators and performers of oral narrative and poetry were producing something akin to literature, which we might loosely define as the creative use of language, incident, character, and other elements to express ideas and feelings. Since the word “literature” comes from a Latin word meaning “writing,” a stricter definition would include only stories, poems, and other materials committed to writing. When this brand of literature originated we also cannot know, since documents often disappear.
What we do know about the early history of literature is that the Sumerians recorded a lengthy poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh around 2000 B.C., giving us the earliest written record of a substantial piece of literature. Since that time, numerous cultures have produced literary masters and masterpieces. The Hebrew Bible, often known today as the Old Testament, was composed in the Middle East beginning in the 13th century B.C. Ancient Greece gave us Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey and Sophocles’s tragic play Oedipus Rex, among many other classics, and ancient Rome produced Virgil and his epic poem the Aeneid. During the medieval era and the Renaissance in Europe, French writers produced numerous romances, and the great Italian writer Dante Alighieri composed his Divine Comedy. Perhaps the most important precedent for American writers, however, has been the rich literary tradition of England, which includes Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (c. 1469), a romance about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights; Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400); and the sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Virtually all of this literature was in the backdrop when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) landed somewhere in the West Indies in 1492, establishing permanent contact between Europe and the rest of what would come to be called the “Old World” on one side and the Americas, which would come to be called the “New World,” on the other. Not new at all, the Americas already contained millions of people belonging to numerous tribes and occupying the land from modern-day Alaska to the southern tip of South America. These Native Americans, whom Columbus called “Indians” because he thought he had reached Asia, had their own languages and customs, as well as numerous stories and poems that were performed orally. Because these creative works generally were not written or printed until the arrival of the Europeans, they do not fall under the strict definition of “literature”; nevertheless, they contain characters, plots, creative use of language, and other features common in literature and can be studied in much the same way we study written stories and poems by Europeans.
Throughout the next century and beyond, numerous Europeans—including Spain’s Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490-1558), England’s Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), and France’s Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570-1635)—followed Columbus’s lead and explored the Americas. Like Columbus, they often recorded their encounters with the land and peoples of the “New World,” thus creating the first wave of American literature. One of these Europeans was an Englishman named John Smith (1580-1631), who arrived in the Americas in 1607 and eventually wrote a half-dozen or so accounts of his travels. Although Smith’s experience and literary output mirror those of Cabeza de Vaca in some ways, he is distinctive. Because he actually lived for two years in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States, we might consider Smith the first truly American author.
Despite the importance of Smith, the first century of American literature belongs largely to the English men and women who settled several hundred miles north of Virginia in New England. Written by William Bradford (1590-1657), John Winthrop (1588-1649), Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683), Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705), Mary Rowlandson (c. 1636-1711), Edward Taylor (c. 1642-1729), and others, this literature consisted largely of sermons, nonfiction narratives, and poetry. Because virtually all of these writers were Puritans, devoutly religious people known for wanting to “purify” the Church of England, this literature generally deals with the writer’s spiritual life, God’s plan for his people, and other matters of faith.
Thanks to the work of Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the Puritan influence extended into the eighteenth century. By the 1720s, however, the tenor of American literature was beginning to change. Although they lived thousands of miles from the Mother Country, writers such as Benjamin Franklin and William Byrd were still English, and their literary productions resemble those of leading contemporary English writers, such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Jonathan Swift. Much of the writing from this period of American literature belongs to a category of elegant, urbane, and often witty writing called “belles-lettres.” Later, particularly around the American Revolution (1775-1783), writers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine produced a body of political and philosophical literature. Unlike the works of the Puritans, the American literature of the eighteenth century is largely secular and reflects the outlook of the Enlightenment, a cultural period in which European and American intellectuals emphasized humans’ control of their environment and valued artistic qualities such as order and balance. Although Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, and other writers produced notable poetry, this period was an age of prose, particularly the satirical or political essay.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, American literature retained obvious ties to England and the rest of Europe. Washington Irving (1783-1859) borrowed European legends and set many of his sketches in European locales, and the works of America’s first great novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, so resembled those of Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott that he became known as “the American Scott.” By the 1830s, however, American writers were carving out an identity of their own, though still borrowing from European models. Most significantly, European Romanticism—particularly its emphasis on emotions and the individual—exerted a powerful influence on writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, the leading writers of fiction of the age, as well as the poets William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. It also colored the attitudes of a group of writers and thinkers called the Transcendentalists. Led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, this group also included Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Although many of the Transcendentalists’ major works were essays and nonfiction narratives, their ideas helped to shape the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Finally, the political debates over slavery, which would culminate in the American Civil War (1861-1865), helped to shape a body of abolitionist literature, including slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, fiction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier, and essays by William Lloyd Garrison and others.
Why do people read literature? The answer, of course, will depend partially on the writer, the reader, and the literature itself, but most certainly one reason is entertainment. On one level, Harlequin romances, historical novels, Westerns, science fiction, and spy thrillers appeal to people precisely because they differ so markedly from their comparatively humdrum lives. That much of this literature is extremely formulaic may matter little to its devoted readers, who indeed may appreciate the comfort that comes in knowing that the lovers will live happily ever after or that the hero will prevail in the end. In some cases, mystery novels may offer a similar form of escape, although this genre has the added attraction of giving readers a puzzle to unravel and thus are akin to crosswords and other tests of one’s mental faculties. For the sake of classification, we might say that poems, stories, plays, and other works that serve primarily to entertain belong to the category of popular writing.
Some literature, including all of the works we will read in this course, appeal to readers on a level other than entertainment. Some, such as Byrd’s comical narratives and Poe’s chilling stories, contain some of the same elements found in popular literature—humor, suspense, adventure—and may indeed be entertaining to read, while others seem to exhibit all the drama of the dreariest of diaries by the dreariest of diarists. Entertaining or not, all of this literature has one thing in common: it engages readers’ intellectual faculties and immerses them in the world of ideas. Many literary works, for example, address subjects of social significance: class, race, politics, even economics. Some of these works, such as Whittier’s abolitionist poetry, is clearly didactic, while others may simply explore social issues without exhibiting any obvious agenda. Other literature is more personal or psychological, seeking to explore human relationships, conflicts, desires, and fears. This brand of literature, seen in the works of Poe and other American Romantics, seem to appeal to readers in the way described in the biographical film Shadowlands, in which a student of the writer and scholar C.S. Lewis suggests that people read so that they will know that they are “not alone.” Still other works, particularly those of the Transcendentalists, are philosophical and may feature extensive treatments of such subjects as the role of an individual in society. Many literary works show more than one of these features. In any case, readers of these writings seek not just enjoyment, but enrichment, and they find it in skillfully drawn pictures of reality, complex and fascinating characters, and provocative questions and ideas. In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James argues that the novel exists “to attempt to represent life” (188). We can say that novels, poems, and other works that represent life in all its complexity belong to the realm of literature, a kind of writing that William Faulkner said should concern “the verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” (575). Because they emerge out of the combination of personalities, social groups and classes, settings, and political and economic forces that make up a culture, furthermore, reading literature can provide remarkable insights into this culture and even into a people’s mindset.
Entertaining almost by definition, popular writing requires no special preparation, aside from an ability to read and some patience. Literature, on the other hand, often challenges readers to follow relatively slow-paced plots, to study subtle psychological traits, and to find or to make meaning out of complex symbols, explicit or implicit allusions, and intricate patterns. One might be able to read and even to enjoy some of the more entertaining pieces of literature, but truly appreciating literature—that is, experiencing some of the richness that their authors have invested in them—requires work. Like the work that goes into playing a musical instrument or building something useful, such work can be immensely rewarding if done effectively—and immensely frustrating if not.
Some strategies can help you get the most out of the literature you read in this class and, indeed, out of the stories, poems, and other works you read in other courses and in your life. First, when reading literature, make sure that you understand its surface meaning; that is, know who the characters are, how they relate to one another, where they are living, and what they are doing. Use marginal notes to mark the introductions of characters, descriptions of the setting, and key incidents in the plot. Second, explore the significance beneath these surface features, as well as any allusions, striking metaphors, or enigmatic or suggestive objects. Continually ask yourself questions such as these: Why did she say that? How would this story be different if it took place somewhere else? What associations does this watch—or door or bird or other possible symbol—conjure up? The answers to these questions almost always will give you insights into the “deeper meaning” of literature. Third, look for lines, shapes, and patterns. If the characters are traveling somewhere, where do they wind up? Who and what changes in the novel, and what might the changes mean? What words, phrases, or images reappear in a poem or a story, and what do they suggest? Finally, take the time to reflect on all of this material, not only making marginal comments as you read, but also synthesizing these comments—along with your unwritten thoughts—and writing more detailed notes and even brief essays elsewhere, in a notebook or a computer file. You will find a great deal of guidance in this process of making meaning out of literature, I think, in my lessons and in our course activities. Like this one, the lessons I post on the World Wide Web for this course feature thought-provoking questions, lists of names and terms, chronologies, lists of relevant resources, and contextual essays designed to illuminate the personal and historical forces that helped to shape the novels are reading. While I hope that these lessons will set the stage for our explorations, the real learning will take place when you actively engage in studying the literature yourselves. To this end, we will spend our class time responding to the novels through essays, presentations, discussions, and other activities.
There is one other component to the study and appreciation of literature, and that is research. In addition to interacting with one another in class, we will be using the library and the Internet to explore research done by experts on the various authors and on the novel itself. Specifically, we will practice finding, evaluating, and using sources such as subject encyclopedias, scholarly monographs and periodicals, and credible Internet sites to track down both factual and interpretive information that can help illuminate the novels we are studying.
Faulkner, William. Speech of Acceptance for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. Sixth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism. New York: Penguin, 1987.
In this lesson, we have examined the background and history of early American literature, looked at some of its variations, touched on some strategies for appreciating literature, and begun practicing literary research. In our next lesson, we will begin our study of American literature with an exploration of the writings of John Smith. You will want to keep the material in this lesson in mind as we study this work and the works that follow it in the coming weeks. In particular, think about how these works fit in the overall history of American literature, what variations they represent, what they reveal about the American mind and culture, and what strategies can help us to make meaning out of them.