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A Companion to American Literature

Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture

This series offers comprehensive, newly written surveys of key periods and movements and certain major
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General Editor: Susan Belasco

Volume I

Origins to 1820

This edition first published 2020
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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data

Names: Belasco, Susan, 1950– editor.
Title: A companion to American literature / general editor: Susan Belasco.
Description: Hoboken, NJ : Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. | Series: Blackwell
companions to literature and culture ; 85 | Includes bibliographical
references and index. | Contents: Volume I. Origins-1820 / edited by
Theresa Strouth Gaul – Volume II. 1820-1914 / edited by Linck Johnson–
Volume III. 1914-Present / edited by Michael Soto.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019045913 (print) | LCCN 2019045914 (ebook) | ISBN
9781119146711 (hardback) | ISBN 9781119653356 (adobe pdf) | ISBN
9781119653349 (epub)
Subjects: LCSH: American literature–History and criticism.
Classification: LCC PS121 .C66 2020 (print) | LCC PS121 (ebook) | DDC
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019045913
LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019045914
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Volume I: Origins to 1820

Full Table of Contents ix

Editors xvi
Notes on Contributors to Volume I xvii
General Introduction xxii
Susan Belasco
Introduction to Volume I xxvii
Theresa Strouth Gaul
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xxxvi

1 The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 1

Kenneth M. Roemer
2 Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures: From
Incommensurability to Exchange 19
Kelly Wisecup
3 Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 34
Tamara Harvey
4 The Puritan Culture of Letters 51
Abram Van Engen
5 Writing the Salem Witch Trials 73
Peter J. Grund
6 Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 89
Andrew Newman
7 Africans in Early America 105
Cassander L. Smith
vi Volume I: Origins to 1820

  8 Migration, Exile, Imperialism: The Non‐English

Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 121
Patrick M. Erben
  9 Environment and Environmentalism 137
Timothy Sweet
10 Acknowledging Early American Poetry 152
Christopher N. Phillips
11 Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 167
Susan C. Imbarrato
12 Early Native American Literacies to 1820: Systems of Meaning,
Categories of Knowledge Transmission 182
Hilary E. Wyss
13 The Varieties of Religious Expression in Early American Literature 196
Sandra M. Gustafson
14 Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Editor, and Writer 217
Stephen Carl Arch
15 Writing Lives: Autobiography in Early America 233
Jennifer A. Desiderio
16 Captivity Recast: The Captivity Narrative in the Long
Eighteenth Century 250
Jodi Schorb
17 Gender, Sex, and Seduction in Early American Literature 268
Ivy Schweitzer
18 Letters in Early American Manuscript and Print Cultures 286
Eve Tavor Bannet
19 Early American Evangelical Print Culture 305
Wendy Raphael Roberts
20 The First Black Atlantic: The Archive and Print Culture of the
Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery 322
John Saillant
21 Manuscripts, Manufacts, and Social Authorship 340
Susan M. Stabile
22 Cosmopolitan Correspondences: The American Republic of Letters
and the Circulation of Enlightenment Thought 358
Chiara Cillerai
23 Revolutionary Print Culture, 1763–1776 375
Philip Gould
24 Founding Documents: Writing the United States into Being 393
Trish Loughran
Contents vii

25 From the Wharf to the Woods: The Development of US Regional

and National Publishing Networks, 1787–1820 411
Phillip H. Round
26 Performance, Theatricality, and Early American Drama 428
Laura L. Mielke
27 Charles Brockden Brown and the Novel in the 1790s 445
Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro
28 Medicine, Disability, and Early American Literature 462
Sari Altschuler
29 Remapping the Canonical Interregnum: Periodization, Canonization,
and the American Novel, 1800–1820 478
Duncan Faherty
30 Commerce, Class, and Cash: Economics in Early American Literature 495
Elizabeth Hewitt
31 Haiti and the Early American Imagination 510
Michael J. Drexler

Index to Volume I 527

0004446593.INDD 7 1/21/2020 3:06:30 PM

Full Table of Contents

Volume I: Origins to 1820

Editors xvi
Notes on Contributors to Volume I xvii
General Introduction xxii
Susan Belasco
Introduction to Volume I xxvii
Theresa Strouth Gaul
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xxxvi

1 The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 1

Kenneth M. Roemer
2 Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures: From
Incommensurability to Exchange 19
Kelly Wisecup
3 Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 34
Tamara Harvey
4 The Puritan Culture of Letters 51
Abram Van Engen
5 Writing the Salem Witch Trials 73
Peter J. Grund
6 Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 89
Andrew Newman
7 Africans in Early America 105
Cassander L. Smith
x Volume I: Origins to 1820

8 Migration, Exile, Imperialism: The Non‐English Literatures of

Early America Reconsidered 121
Patrick M. Erben
9 Environment and Environmentalism 137
Timothy Sweet
10 Acknowledging Early American Poetry 152
Christopher N. Phillips
11 Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 167
Susan C. Imbarrato
12 Early Native American Literacies to 1820: Systems of Meaning,
Categories of Knowledge Transmission 182
Hilary E. Wyss
13 The Varieties of Religious Expression in Early American Literature 196
Sandra M. Gustafson
14 Benjamin Franklin: Printer, Editor, and Writer 217
Stephen Carl Arch
15 Writing Lives: Autobiography in Early America 233
Jennifer A. Desiderio
16 Captivity Recast: The Captivity Narrative in the Long
Eighteenth Century 250
Jodi Schorb
17 Gender, Sex, and Seduction in Early American Literature 268
Ivy Schweitzer
18 Letters in Early American Manuscript and Print Cultures 286
Eve Tavor Bannet
19 Early American Evangelical Print Culture 305
Wendy Raphael Roberts
20 The First Black Atlantic: The Archive and Print Culture of the
Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery 322
John Saillant
21 Manuscripts, Manufacts, and Social Authorship 340
Susan M. Stabile
22 Cosmopolitan Correspondences: The American Republic of Letters
and the Circulation of Enlightenment Thought 358
Chiara Cillerai
23 Revolutionary Print Culture, 1763–1776 375
Philip Gould
24 Founding Documents: Writing the United States into Being 393
Trish Loughran
Full Table of Contents xi

25 From the Wharf to the Woods: The Development of US Regional

and National Publishing Networks, 1787–1820 411
Phillip H. Round
26 Performance, Theatricality, and Early American Drama 428
Laura L. Mielke
27 Charles Brockden Brown and the Novel in the 1790s 445
Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro
28 Medicine, Disability, and Early American Literature 462
Sari Altschuler
29 Remapping the Canonical Interregnum: Periodization, Canonization,
and the American Novel, 1800–1820 478
Duncan Faherty
30 Commerce, Class, and Cash: Economics in Early American Literature 495
Elizabeth Hewitt
31 Haiti and the Early American Imagination 510
Michael J. Drexler

Index to Volume I 000

Volume II: 1820–1914

Editors xvi
Notes on Contributors to Volume II xvii
General Introduction xxii
Susan Belasco
Introduction to Volume II xxvii
Linck Johnson
Chronology: 1820–1914 xxxviii

1 The Transformation of Literary Production, 1820–1865 1

Susan Belasco
2 Travel Writing 17
Susan L. Roberson
3 The Historical Romance 31
Monika M. Elbert and Leland S. Person
4 The Gothic Tale 50
J. Gerald Kennedy
5 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Transcendentalism 66
Phyllis Cole
xii Volume I: Origins to 1820

6 Henry David Thoreau and the Literature of the Environment 86

Rochelle L. Johnson
7 Herman Melville and the Antebellum Reading Public 102
David O. Dowling
8 Women Writers at Midcentury 117
Nicole Tonkovich
9 Popular Poetry and the Rise of Anthologies 133
Amanda Gailey
10 Walt Whitman and the New York Literary World 148
Edward Whitley
11 Emily Dickinson and the Tradition of Women Poets 164
Elizabeth A. Petrino
12 The Literature of Antebellum Reform 183
Linck Johnson
13 Sex, the Body, and Health Reform 202
David Greven
14 Proslavery and Antislavery Literature 222
Susan M. Ryan
15 Gender and the Construction of Antebellum Slave Narratives 242
Philathia Bolton and Venetria K. Patton
16 Antebellum Oratory 255
John C. Briggs
17 Literature and the Civil War 272
Shirley Samuels
18 Disability and Literature 289
Mary Klages
19 The Development of Print Culture, 1865–1914 308
Bill Hardwig
20 Local Color and the Rise of Regionalism 323
Anne Boyd Rioux
21 Poetry, Periodicals, and the Marketplace 342
Nadia Nurhussein
22 Realism from William Dean Howells to Edith Wharton 358
Alfred Bendixen
23 Mark Twain and the Idea of American Identity 373
Andrew Levy
24 Henry James at Home and Abroad 387
John Carlos Rowe
Full Table of Contents xiii

25 Naturalism 402
Donna Campbell
26 Social Protest Fiction 426
Alicia Mischa Renfroe
27 The Immigrant Experience 441
James Nagel
28 Double Consciousness: African American Writers at the Turn of 
the Twentieth Century 455
Shirley Moody‐Turner
29 Native American Voices 470
Cari M. Carpenter
30 Latina/o Voices 484
Jesse Alemán
31 The Emergence of an American Drama, 1820–1914 499
Cheryl Black

Index to Volume II 517

Volume III: 1914 to the Present

Editors xvi
Notes on Contributors to Volume III xvii
General Introduction xxii
Susan Belasco
Introduction to Volume III xxvii
Michael Soto
Chronology: 1914 to the Present xxxv

1 Magazines, Little and Large: American Print Culture in the Early

Twentieth Century 1
Jayne E. Marek
2 Regional Literary Expressions 18
Philip Joseph
3 The Literature of the US South: Modernism and Beyond 33
John Wharton Lowe
4 American Literature and the Academy 49
Eric Bennett
5 The Literature of World War I 65
Hazel Hutchison
xiv Volume I: Origins to 1820

6 The Course of Modern American Poetry 81

Charles Altieri
7 Modernism and the American Novel 106
Linda Wagner-Martin
8 The Little Theater Movement 125
DeAnna M. Toten Beard
9 The Lost Generation and American Expatriatism 141
Michael Soto
10 The Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro 157
Maureen Honey
11 Proletarian Literature 173
Barbara Foley
12 Realism in American Drama 187
Brenda Murphy
13 Nature Writing and the New Environmentalism 201
Karla Armbruster
14 The Literature and Film of World War II 219
Philip Beidler
15 The Beat Minds of Their Generation 236
David Sterritt
16 The Black Arts Movement and the Racial Divide 253
Amy Abugo Ongiri
17 Literary Self-Fashioning in the Pharmacological Age: Confessional Poetry 267
Michael Thurston
18 New Frontiers in Postmodern Theater 283
Kerstin Schmidt
19 Poetry at the End of the Millennium 300
John Lowney
20 The Literature and Film of the Vietnam War 316
Mark A. Heberle
21 Gay and Lesbian Literature 332
Guy Davidson
22 American Literature in Languages Other than English 349
Steven G. Kellman
23 Jewish American Literary Forms 365
Victoria Aarons
Full Table of Contents xv

24 Native American Literary Forms 382

Thomas C. Gannon
25 Asian American Literary Forms 398
Una Chung
26 Latina/o Literary Forms 414
Marta Caminero-Santangelo
27 African American Fiction After Hiroshima and Nagasaki 431
Michael Hill
28 Creative Nonfictions 448
Barrie Jean Borich
29 The Rise and Nature of the Graphic Novel 465
Stephen E. Tabachnick
30 The Digital Revolution and the Future of American Reading 480
Naomi S. Baron

Index to Volume III 499

Consolidated Index 000

Susan Belasco is Professor of English Emerita at the University of Nebraska‐Lincoln.

The author of numerous essays on nineteenth‐century American literature, she is the
editor or co‐editor of several works, including Stowe in Her Own Time (2009), “Whitman’s
Periodical Poetry” for the Walt Whitman Archive, Periodical Literature in Nineteenth‐
Century America, and the Bedford Anthology of American Literature.

Theresa Strouth Gaul is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Texas
Christian University. Among her books are Cherokee Sister: The Collected Writings of
Catharine Brown, 1818–1823 (2014) and To Marry An Indian: The Marriage of Harriet Gold
and Elias Boudinot, 1823–1839 (2005). A past co‐editor of Legacy: A Journal of American
Women Writers, she has p­ ublished widely on epistolary writings, women’s writings, and
early Native studies.

Linck Johnson, Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Colgate University, is the

author of numerous articles and book chapters on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, as well as Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of
“A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” with the Text of the First Draft (1986).
He is the co‐editor, with Susan Belasco, of the Bedford Anthology of American Literature.

Michael Soto  is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of
English at Trinity University in San Antonio, where he teaches courses on twentieth‐
century US literature and cultural history. His books include The Modernist Nation:
Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth‐Century American Literature (2004) and
Measuring the Harlem Renaissance: The U.S. Census, African American Identity, and
Literary Form (2016).
Notes on Contributors to Volume I

Sari Altschuler is Associate Professor of English at Northeastern University. She is

co‐editor of the recent Early American Literature issue on disability with Cristobal Silva
and author of The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States
(2018). Her work appears in American Literature, American Literary History, PMLA, and

Stephen Carl Arch is Professor of English at Michigan State University. He is the

author of two monographs and numerous scholarly articles on early American litera-
ture. Most recently, he has edited James Fenimore Cooper’s 1838 novel, Home as Found,
for The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (2020).

Eve Tavor Bannet  is George Lynn Cross Professor Emeritus at the University of
Oklahoma. She is editor of Eighteenth‐Century Culture and series co‐editor of the online
collection “Eighteenth‐Century Connections” at Cambridge University Press. Her most
recent book is Manners of Reading: Print Culture and Popular Instruction in the Anglophone
Atlantic World (2017), and she is currently completing a book on letters in novels.

Philip Barnard is Emeritus Professor of English at The University of Kansas. He has

edited Charles Brockden Brown’s four canonical romances (with Stephen Shapiro) and
is textual editor of the seven‐volume Bucknell Collected Writings of Charles Brockden
Brown edition, along with the Brown electronic archive.

Chiara Cillerai is Associate Professor at St. John’s University, NY. Her research focuses
on eighteenth‐century transatlantic literary culture and the Enlightenment. Her book
Voices of Cosmopolitanism in Early American Writings and Culture (2017) ­reassesses the
xviii Volume I: Origins to 1820

terms in which we understand Enlightenment cosmopolitanism. She is currently co‐

editing a collection of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s manuscript poems and other

Jennifer A. Desiderio is Associate Professor of English at Canisius College. She is the

co‐editor of the Broadview edition of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette and The
Boarding School (2011), and the guest co‐editor of a double special issue of Studies in
American Fiction called Beyond Charlotte Temple: New Approaches to Susanna Rowson
(2011). Her scholarship on eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century American literature
has appeared in American Periodicals, Early American Literature, Studies in American
Fiction, and Legacy.

Michael J. Drexler is Professor of English at Bucknell University. He is the co‐editor of

The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States (2016) and co‐author of The Traumatic
Colonel: The Founding Fathers, Slavery, and the Phantasmatic Aaron Burr (2014). Currently,
he is working on fugitive slave narratives and the American novel‐form.

Patrick M. Erben is Professor of early American literature at the University of West

Georgia. He is author of A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of
Community in Early Pennsylvania (2012) and editor of The Francis Daniel Pastorius Reader

Duncan Faherty  is Associate Professor of English & American Studies at Queens

College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of Remodeling the Nation:
The Architecture of American Identity, 1776–1858 (2009) and is currently at work on a
book about the Haitian Revolution and early US print culture. ​

Philip Gould is Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English, Brown University. He is the

author, most recently, of Writing the Rebellion: Loyalists and the Literature of Politics in
British America (2013).

Peter J. Grund is Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the University of

Kansas. He is co‐editor of Records of the Salem Witch‐Hunt (2009) and has published
extensively on the historical, rhetorical, and linguistic aspects of the Salem trial records.

Sandra M. Gustafson  is Professor of English and Concurrent Professor of

American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent monograph
is Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic (2011). She edits
Early American Literature and the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. A.

Tamara Harvey is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. Her

research focuses on women and the early Americas. She is the author of Figuring Modesty
in Feminist Discourse Across the Americas, 1633–1700 (2008) and co‐editor of books on
George Washington and global gender justice today.
Notes on Contributors to Volume I xix

Elizabeth Hewitt is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the Ohio

State University, Columbus. She is the author of Correspondence and American Literature,
1770–1865 (2009) and a co‐editor of Letters and Early Epistolary Writings (2013) in The
Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown series.

Susan C. Imbarrato is Professor of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

She is the author of Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada: Shifting Fortunes of an
American Family, 1764–1826 (2018) and Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early
America (2006).

Mark L. Kamrath is Professor of English at the University of Central Florida. He is

the author or co‐editor of various books on Charles Brockden Brown and has built with
Philip Barnard and others an XML‐based archive of Brown’s writings. He is general
editor of The Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition.

Trish Loughran is Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in History and
the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Champaign‐
Urbana. She is the author of The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S.
Nation‐Building, 1776–1870 (2007).

Laura L. Mielke is Professor of English at the University of Kansas. She is the author
of Provocative Eloquence: Theater, Violence, and Antislavery Speech in the Antebellum United
States (2019) and Moving Encounters: Sympathy and the Indian Question in Antebellum
Literature (2008), and co‐editor of Native Acts: Indian Performance, 1607–1823 (2011).

Andrew Newman is Professor of English and History at Stony Brook University. He

is the author On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory
(2012) and Allegories of Encounter: Colonial Literacies and Indian Captivity (2019).

Christopher N. Phillips is Professor of English at Lafayette College. A specialist in

American historical poetics and book history, his books include Epic in American
Culture, Settlement to Reconstruction (2012), The Hymnbook: A Reading History (2018), and
(as editor) The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Renaissance (2018).

Wendy Raphael Roberts is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany,

State University of New York. She is completing a book on early evangelical American
poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in Early American Literature and has been
supported by a number of prestigious fellowships.

Kenneth M. Roemer,  Piper Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington,

co‐edited The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature (2005), edited
Native American Writers of the US (1997) and Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s Way
to Rainy Mountain (1988), and authored four books on utopia, including a Pulitzer
xx Volume I: Origins to 1820

Phillip H. Round is John C. Gerber Professor of English at the University of Iowa. His
most recent book, Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1664–1880
(2010), was awarded the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language
Association. His current research has been supported by a John Simon Guggenheim
Memorial Fellowship.

John Saillant is Professor of English and History at Western Michigan University. He

is author of Black Puritan, Black Republican (2003), co‐editor (with Joanna Brooks) of
“Face Zion Forward” (2002), area editor of African American National Biography (2008),
and author or editor of numerous articles and historical documents.

Jodi Schorb is Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida. Her inter-
ests include early American literature and life writing, eighteenth‐century print cul-
ture, the history of literacy, and theories of gender and sexuality. She is the author of
Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment,
1700–1845 (2014).

Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and past chair of Women’s and Gender Studies
at Dartmouth College. Her fields are early American literature, women’s literature,
gender, and cultural studies. Most recently, she edited a weekly blog, White Heat,
about the year 1862 in the creative life of Emily Dickinson, which can be accessed at

Stephen Shapiro  teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary

Studies at the University of Warwick. His publications include The Culture and
Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World‐system (2008) and four
edited volumes of Charles Brockden Brown’s romances (with Philip Barnard).

Cassander L. Smith is Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama.

Her research focuses on representations of black Africans in early Atlantic literature.
Her publications include Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of
the Early Atlantic World (2016).

Susan M. Stabile  is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her

scholarly work in material culture includes Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of
Remembrance in Eighteenth‐Century America (2004). She is currently completing a collec-
tion of creative non‐fiction essays, Salvage, on the second life of objects and humans.

Timothy Sweet is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature at

West Virginia University. His publications include Traces of War (1990), American
Georgics (2002), and Literary Cultures of the Civil War (2016). He is working on a study
of agency and responsibility in extinction narratives.
Notes on Contributors to Volume I xxi

Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English at Washington University in St.

Louis. He is the author of Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New
England (2015) and The Meaning of America: How the United States Became the City on a
Hill (2020), along with several articles on early American religion, literature, and

Kelly Wisecup is Associate Professor of English at Northwestern University. She is

the author of Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures
(2013) and a scholarly edition of Edward Winslow’s Good News from New England

Hilary E. Wyss  is the Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of
English at Trinity College, where she teaches courses in early American literature,
American studies, and Native American studies. She is the author of over a dozen arti-
cles and book chapters as well as three books on Native American literacy practices in
early America.

General Introduction
Susan Belasco

A Companion to American Literature is divided into three volumes  –  “Origins to

1820,” “1820–1914,” and “1914 to the Present” – each of which contains more than
30 chapters designed to aid twenty‐first‐century readers negotiate the rich and com-
plex terrain of writings produced in the geographical region that became the United
States. Beginning with the oral traditions of Native American peoples, these volumes
trace the development of an American literature from the colonial period through the
growth and rapid expansion of a vibrant print culture during the nineteenth and twen-
tieth centuries to the emergence of electronic literature in the early years of the twenty‐
first century. At the same time, these volumes often challenge and complicate
traditional notions of what constitutes and characterizes an “American literature,” a
concept that has been under construction since the earliest years of the Republic.
Certainly, the contributors to A Companion to American Literature take full advantage of
the innovative research and scholarship of the last few decades, including significant
archival work made possible by digital technologies; the recovery of a host of women
and minority writers; important findings of book history, which includes new under-
standing of literary production and circulation; original theoretical formulations that
question linear narratives of literary‐historical development; and fresh ideas about the
transnational and geopolitical nature of the United States.
Readers of the Companion will come away with a deep appreciation of the complexi-
ties involved in this ambitious project, as well as with a strong sense of the rich yields
of such an inclusive approach to American literature. In various ways, the chapters in
each volume address the social, political, geographic, domestic, and material contexts
in which American literature has been produced and in which it is firmly grounded. A
number of chapters describe the impact of the transformations in book and periodical
production, the development of circulation and distribution systems, the rise of liter-
acy, changing reading practices, trends in new media, new literary forms, and the
influence of popular culture on literature. The important influences of race, ethnicity,
General Introduction xxiii

gender, identity, and class on American literature are a central part of many chapters,
and the contributions of women, Native peoples, African Americans, Spanish‐speaking
populations, and a variety of immigrant groups are emphasized throughout the
Companion. Further, many contributors take up the complexity of the transatlantic,
transpacific, and trans‐central networks and connections that were and are important
to the construction of an American literature. While the emphasis is on imaginative,
published writing and the traditional genres of fiction, poetry, drama, and non‐­
fictional prose, especially life writing, contributors also consider the importance of oral
traditions, as well as other kinds of writing crucial to the development of American
literature, such as diaries, journals, letters, sermons and tracts, prayers, and histories.
Our contributors have been committed to providing discussions of the most read and
studied writers as well as providing introductions to the works of non‐canonical ­writers
integral to an inclusive, comprehensive, and historically accurate study of American
literature. Finally, many chapters not only catalogue what we know or how we have
traditionally approached a field but also indicate developing fields of inquiry right now
and suggest, insofar as we can anticipate them, scholarly trends in the years to come.

Volume I: Origins to 1820

In her introduction, Theresa Strouth Gaul, the editor of Volume I, points to the
“extraordinary flourishing, dynamism, and innovation of early American literary
­studies,” which have moved well beyond earlier models that generally began with the
English Puritan settlement of New England and ended with the major political w ­ riters
of the American Revolution. She rightly credits early literary histories with establish-
ing the “richness of the field of early American literature” and traces the major changes
that have taken place in our understanding of the cultural environment of Indigenous
peoples and the earliest colonial settlers. In this conception, the canon, both figures
and texts, is dramatically expanded to include “a larger range of people, communica-
tive modes, geographical regions, and temporal moments.” The contributors to
Volume I, beginning with chapters on Indigenous oral literature and cross‐cultural
encounters in the early years of exploration and settlement, write broadly about the
varieties of literary forms that were produced by an extensive range of people from
many regions  –  geographic, linguistic, cultural, and social. While long‐established
figures such as William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles
Brockden Brown receive ample attention, other chapters are devoted to writers who
have more recently entered the canon, including Olaudah Equiano, Elizabeth Graeme
Fergusson, Samson Occom, Susanna Rowson, and Phillis Wheatley. Contributors also
provide detailed commentary about a whole host of other voices and movements,
including, for example, the impact of Portugal’s fifteenth‐century slave trade on
African experiences in America; the importance of non‐Anglophone histories and lan-
guages on literature; the impact of collaborative rather single authorship on texts that
xxiv Volume I: Origins to 1820

we study; expanded categories of literature, such as captivity narratives, letters, and

manuscript books, that move readers beyond the traditional literary genres; as well as
fresh examinations of the influence of religious history and culture on the earliest
American literature. The contributors to Volume I make a strong case for the reconsid-
eration of the earliest American literature in light of a kaleidoscope of approaches and
methods to reveal a rich and engaging body of works that move readers far beyond
what Gaul refers to as the “Puritans‐to‐Revolution master narrative of early American

Volume II: 1820–1914

Linck Johnson, the editor of Volume II, begins his introduction by evoking a famous
incident in literary history. In the Edinburgh Review in 1820, the British writer and
clergyman Sydney Smith contemptuously asked, “In the four quarters of the globe,
who reads an American book?” Taken up by writers, reviewers, readers, and all man-
ner of thinkers about the nature of the United States and its literature, that question
reverberated throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Smith’s
question served as a touchstone for the progress of American literature from 1820 to
1914, by which time it had come into its own through the efforts of a wide variety
of diverse writers responding to the social, political, economic, and cultural changes
of the period, especially the upheavals of the years before and after the Civil War.
Johnson stresses that the volume charts “the ways in which the country’s literature
began to mirror the full diversity of society and culture in the United States.” While
individual chapters focus on the work of major figures such as Herman Melville,
Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Henry James, other chapters
explore the connections between the work of well‐known authors and their signifi-
cant but lesser‐known contemporaries, for example Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Frederick
Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. The work of a host of other authors is also considered,
including a wide range of African American, Native American, Latina/o, and immi-
grant writers, some of whom wrote in languages other than English. Indeed, the
volume has been powerfully shaped by ongoing work in a number of often related
areas: efforts to recover the writings of women and people of color; scholarship on
the development of the literary marketplace and the impact of social protest and
reform movements, especially abolitionism and women’s rights; and theoretical
studies concerning the body and sexuality, disability, gender, and race. Drawing
together these and other recent strands of scholarship, the contributors to Volume II
create a lively depiction of American literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth
century in all its diversity and complexity. As Johnson explains, by the end of the
period covered in the volume, “the challenging question was no longer ‘who reads
an American book?’ but rather ‘what constitutes an American book, or indeed an
General Introduction xxv

Volume III: 1914 to the Present

In his introduction, Michael Soto, the editor of Volume III, is also concerned with what
constitutes “American literature,” in this case a national literature that had, in the early
years of the twentieth century, become a “fully professionalized” study in schools, ­colleges,
and universities. Soto outlines the thinking of the early scholars of American literature who
divided the twentieth century into “modern,” the years after World War I, and “postmod-
ern,” the years after World War II. While it continues to operate as a useful marker, that
distinction was largely based on a literary canon that was primarily white and male. As Soto
observes, scholarship in the last five decades, especially the work of feminist scholars, has
been devoted to expanding the canon and providing a more accurate view of the literature
written in the United States during the twentieth and early twenty‐first century. Just as
contributors to the first and second volumes have benefited from the extensive archaeologi-
cal and archival research that has complicated the notion that American identity and cul-
ture was fundamentally forged by the Puritan founders of New England, contributors to
this volume have, as Soto explains, produced a literary‐historical map that differs markedly
from the one so confidently drawn by literary scholars early in the twentieth century. The
contributors to this third volume have likewise taken advantage of a variety of new ways of
thinking about social, economic, political, and cultural change – and the ways in which
those ideas impact writers and literary works. The works of many familiar writers are dis-
cussed within these chapters – for example, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T.S.
Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Tennessee Williams, and Ralph
Ellison, as well as more recently canonized figures such as Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros,
and Sherman Alexie. At the same time, chapters address a variety of topics and themes such
as ­proletarian literature, which takes up the challenges to capitalism in the 1930s; women
writers and the origins of the Harlem Renaissance; nature writing and environmentalism;
Asian American and Native American literary forms; and the graphic novel as a new liter-
ary form. As in the other volumes, the technologies of reading and literary p­ roduction
are clearly addressed. This volume thus concludes with a dynamic discussion of digital
technology and the future of reading and literature in the United States.

Arrangement and Contents

Each of the volumes of the Companion includes a full Table of Contents for all three
volumes, a Table of Contents for the individual volume, notes on the editors and
­contributors, and a general introduction to the entire three volumes, followed by an
introduction to the individual volume written by the volume editor. That, in turn, is
followed by a chronology that connects the publication of literary events with signifi-
cant historical events of that year, designed to serve as a guide and handy reference for
readers. Each chapter in the volume includes a list of references and, in most cases, an
annotated list of further reading in both print and electronic resources. Finally, the
volumes conclude with a general index for easy reference.
xxvi Volume I: Origins to 1820


The editors of this project owe our major debt of gratitude to our contributors, all of
whom are outstanding scholars and committed educators. We are grateful to everyone
for their professionalism and their cooperation, as we worked on this large and com-
plex project. We also want to recognize our colleagues at Wiley Blackwell – Emma
Bennett, who first contacted Susan Belasco with the idea of a Companion to American
Literature, the several anonymous reviewers who provided helpful feedback on the
­initial proposal, as well as the other editors, staff members, and professionals with
whom we have worked: Deirdre Ilkson, Ben Thatcher, Rebecca Harkin, Liz Wingett,
Dominic Bibby, Jake Opie, Nicole Allen, Tom Bates, Leah Morin, Caroline Richards,
Neil Manley, and, most importantly, Catriona King, Publisher for the Humanities.

Introduction to Volume I
Theresa Strouth Gaul

A powerful narrative of absence and inferiority shaped the understanding of early

American literary history for most of the twentieth century. Despite work by Roy
Harvey Pearce, Perry Miller, and Sacvan Bercovitch, eminent scholars whose careful
studies established the richness of the field of early American literature, the canoniza-
tion and celebration of a narrow range of American authors of the mid‐nineteenth
century by scholars like F.O. Matthiessen exerted a firm and unyielding hold over the
literary‐historical narrative. Critics typically imagined this approximately 200‐year
period – beginning with English Puritan settlement in New England in 1620 and
ending in the decade before the beginnings of the so‐called American Renaissance of
the 1830s – as possessing only a few moments of literary‐historical significance: the
Puritan origins of the American literary tradition, the melding of European
Enlightenment ideas with the religious revivalism of the Great Awakening in the
eighteenth century, and the founding of the American nation and identity in the
Revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century. Anthologies of American literature
that began to be published for the burgeoning college enrollments of the 1960s and
1970s promulgated this narrative.1 These textbooks typically presented the work of
perhaps a few Puritan writers (often John Winthrop, William Bradford, Anne
Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, and Cotton Mather), even fewer early eighteenth‐century
authors (perhaps Sarah Kemble Knight, William Byrd, and Jonathan Edwards), and a
handful of Revolutionary‐era figures (likely Benjamin Franklin, John Hector St. John
de Crèvecoeur, Thomas Jefferson, and Philip Freneau). The period from the Revolutionary
war to 1820 was usually ignored, though perhaps some attention was devoted to
Washington Irving. Undergirded by exceptionalism and nationalism, the Puritans‐to‐
Revolution master narrative of early American literature, as I will call it, ensured that
most literature from this early period was viewed as not worthy of serious study and was
acknowledged as significant only insofar as it established the foundations of “America”
xxviii Volume I: Origins to 1820

or prepared the way for the purportedly superior flowering of American literature that
followed in the mid‐nineteenth century.
Much has changed in the literary‐historical landscape in recent years, however, and
this volume demonstrates perhaps one of the most significant developments in the
broader field of American literary study over the last two decades: the extraordinary
flourishing, dynamism, and innovation of early American literary studies. Even if one
only tracks numbers of pages as an indicator of stature, it speaks volumes, if you will,
that in this Companion to American Literature the early American period is given equal
weight – a full volume – with the nineteenth century (Vol. II) and with the twentieth
through twenty‐first centuries (Vol. III). As a point of contrast, the Cambridge
Introduction to American Literature (Bercovitch 1994–2005) devotes just one volume out
of eight to the period before 1820.
Newly available intellectual currents provide some explanation of the rapid maturation
of the field on display in this volume. The rise of New Historicism in the 1980s, along
with the development of cultural studies, invigorated the study of a literature that had
always been obviously and unmistakably embedded in its historical and cultural contexts.
The growth over several decades of women’s, African American, and Native and Indigenous
studies, along with other identity‐based fields of inquiry, demonstrated the vast potential
for the recovery of diverse texts and voices and the necessity of reinterpreting familiar
ones. The prospering of the field of book history identified vocabulary and methods for
examining print and material culture as well as publication and circulation networks. The
“transnational turn” of the 2000s provided theoretical and methodological tools for
dismantling nationalism as the primary framework through which to read early texts,
which were written in periods that preceded nation formation and which were ineluctably
transnational and hemispheric in nature and reach. The more recent “religious turn” and
its interrogation of secularization narratives long holding sway over understandings of the
period have enabled a more nuanced consideration of a fuller range of religious doctrines,
expressions, and practices. The wealth of resources made available through digital
technologies and the accompanying questions posed by digital humanities have reshaped
the early American archive and the critical horizons within which scholars and students
work. Finally, the Society of Early Americanists, founded in 1990 by Carla Mulford,
Sharon M. Harris, and Rosemary Guruswamy, and its biennial conference created forums
and communities within which to generate and disseminate scholarship, along with
several journals in the field.
As a result, the field of early American literary study is more expansive, diverse, and
complicated than it seemed even two decades ago. The canon of noteworthy figures and
texts drastically broadens to include a larger range of people, communicative modes,
geographical regions, and temporal moments. While long‐recognized figures, histori-
cal events, and genres continue to garner critical attention, the inquiry is carried out
through different methodologies and forwards new kinds of questions. This volume is
the result of these contexts: a long‐held master narrative of literary history that cracked
under the strain of its own inadequacies, the emergence of new and newly energized
approaches, and scholars who have revised old ideas and embraced alternative visions.
Introduction to Volume I xxix

The contributors in this volume trace continuities in the field of early American literary
studies as traditionally conceived and pursued since the rise of the university, even as
they demonstrate the innovation of the newest theoretical models, approaches, and
questions. They examine familiar texts, figures, and events, and they recover works,
episodes, and encounters that critics even a few decades ago never knew existed or knew
to value. They consistently move beyond boundaries – geographic, linguistic, cultural,
social, generic, temporal, and others – and evaluate the ways they impede a full appraisal
of the period and its complicated dynamics.
Because the Puritans‐to‐Revolution master narrative has been so influential, it is
worth taking some time to review its major claims and highlight the ways it directs
inquiry to a specific set of texts written by elite white men that sit at the nexus of
religion and politics. The conventional understanding of American literature from its
beginnings to 1820 – the view taught in literature classrooms through most of the
twentieth century – typically marked the “beginnings” of the tradition as demarcated
by English settlement of the eastern seaboard colonies in the early sixteenth century,
especially the Protestant separatist settlement of Plymouth Plantation in 1620 and the
Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Settlers in these two colonies displayed
a notable investment in textuality due to the exegetical influence of the Protestant
Reformation, the narrative goes, and in their privileging of spiritual examination,
didactic sermonizing, and a plain prose style the roots of the American literary t­ radition
can be located. Similarly, traits that came to be considered essentially and exceptionally
American in character were traced back to the contradictory impulses demonstrated in
early English colonists’ efforts to “civilize” Native peoples while brutally pillaging
them of their land and lives, as in the Pequot massacre of 1607 or King Philip’s War
of the 1670s; Puritans’ high valuing of community while competitively grasping for
resources to increase their individual wealth, measured by the expansion outward from
their original settlements; and their seeking of freedom to establish their own religious
institutions while demonstrating the opposite of religious toleration in demonizing
Native Americans, hanging witches (most notably in the infamous Salem witchcraft
trials of 1692) and exiling those with other religious viewpoints, including so‐called
heretics, Quakers, and Catholics.
The influence of European Enlightenment ideals, especially rationalism and
­scientific inquiry, shifted the relentlessly religious tenor of New England’s first ­century
of settlement into more secular pursuits, this familiar literary‐historical narrative
continues, though religious thought received renewed impetus in the religious
­revivalism of the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Distance from England
and the economic drain and turmoil of English imperial wars, including the French
and Indian Wars of the 1760s; the English Crown’s impositions in the form of taxes on
its colonies, especially the stamp tax of 1764, and the killing of civilians in the Boston
Massacre of 1770; and the coalescing of a uniquely American colonial identity, all
combined with new notions of individualism, equality, and democratic self‐government,
to give rise to the American colonial effort to throw off British imperial rule. The
premises driving the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1776, crystallized
xxx Volume I: Origins to 1820

and advanced through debate in the public sphere of print publication and progressed
through long years of violent military conflict that ended in 1783. The articulation of
republican principles, the formation of a new nation, and the effort to define “What
then is the American, this new man?” – in the words of John Hector St. John de
Crèvecoeur (1782/2013: 31) – proceeded through a range of political writings. These
concerns were also given fictional treatment in the nation’s earliest novels.
According to this Puritans‐to‐Revolution master narrative of early America’s
literary history, the period subsequent to the Revolution produced little to no
literary output of note. By 1820 the rudimentary state of American culture had
provoked barbs on the international stage, exemplified by Sydney Smith’s (1820)
taunt in the highly regarded Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe,
who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an
American picture or statue?” and set the stage for the development of the novel
as a popular form in the 1820s and the flourishing of the American Renaissance
in the 1830s. Genocide of Indigenous peoples, the expansion of slavery, and the
unequal status of women and other marginalized groups may have been given
glancing notice in a few writings, but always from a Eurocentric viewpoint
and  with little sustained attention. Class received little examination except in
celebration of the self‐made man, a mythology produced and promulgated in this
period, and groups such as Jews, Muslims, or non‐Anglo immigrants or non‐
English language speakers were virtually invisible in this influential telling of
American literary history.
A volume that takes as its title American Literature, Origins to 1820 may seem to face
a daunting struggle to be innovative and iconoclastic in revising that powerful master
narrative given the traditionalism of the categories indicated in its title. The title
could seem to auger that this volume will present a nationalist reading of a narrow
range of writings classified as “literature,” produced by a culturally homogenous group
of men, during a defined historical period which was lengthy but most notable for
being devoid of cultural sophistication or complexity. Contributors in this volume,
however, push against each of the primary terms of the title, and in doing so reveal
what is at stake in scholarly investigations of this period and literary studies more
generally as they revise this familiar narrative. Each chapter traces traditional under-
standings of the field in recognition of the fact that students and scholars must under-
stand its history and development in order to engage with it fruitfully today. Familiar
topics like Puritanism’s literary culture, Benjamin Franklin’s written oeuvre, and print
culture’s role in forwarding the American Revolution each receive dedicated chapters,
for example, but their authors – Abram Van Engen, Stephen Carl Arch, and Philip
Gould, respectively – show the limitations of old approaches, how new approaches are
transforming our traditional understandings of the topics and reorienting our atten-
tion to different facets of the texts or culture, and what additional directions remain to
be explored. Similarly, Peter Grund reads documents related to the Salem witch trials,
typically mined for the historical information they provide, for their potential to
­sustain literary analysis.
Introduction to Volume I xxxi

To the extent this volume is organized around the period “Origins to 1820,” it may
seem to leave temporality and historicity intact. Yet many contributors employ
­inventive strategies to think about time, history, and period and in doing so upend the
Puritans‐to‐Revolution trajectory of the conventional narrative. They focus attention
on a myriad of moments other than Puritan settlement, the Enlightenment and Great
Awakening, and the Revolution, for example. Some locate the “beginnings” of this
period much earlier than 1620 and in a broader context than English settlement,
encompassing sixteenth‐century Spanish and French colonialism. Tamara Harvey’s
vision stretches back to Columbus’s journeys and forward to the present in interrogating
the role of settlement in various European powers’ incursions into the Americas. Other
contributors focus intensively on the first three‐quarters of the eighteenth century,
outside of the frameworks of the Enlightenment and Great Awakening, and identify
important historical events that need to be added to any timeline of the period. Still
other contributors, chief among them Duncan Faherty, uncover the unexpected richness
of the virtually unstudied first two decades of the nineteenth century.
Some chapters disrupt history by looking before and beyond the defined historical
era, juxtaposing moments in the period with those that preceded it  –  for example,
Cassander Smith’s demonstration of how Portugal’s fifteenth‐century African slave
trade creates the preconditions for Africans’ experiences in America – and those that
followed it, including Timothy Sweet’s linking of modern environmental concerns
with eighteenth‐century preoccupations surrounding nature or Patricia Loughran’s
reading of nation formation during the Revolution through the lens of the twenty‐
first‐century popular musical Hamilton. Kenneth Roemer profoundly destabilizes
chronology altogether by considering oral traditions that predate modernity and are
simultaneously in processes of creation today. Even more familiar epochs, such as
the Revolutionary War era, look different when considered through a new lens such as
disability studies, as in Sari Altschuler’s effort to apply the methodology to works
emerging from a historical period predating modern definitions of disability.
The notion of America is perhaps the term most consistently and vigorously inter-
rogated in the volume. Even more so than in Volumes II or III, “America” is a shifting
and unstable term – first referring to a continent and an idea and later a nation –
during the long historical period under consideration in this volume. Despite the
explanatory dominance that nation and nationalism held over the field for decades
during the twentieth century, in retrospect it seems obvious that they were never a
good fit as conceptual frameworks through which to consider an amorphous entity
which geographically exceeded borders that were shifting and changing over time. An
expansive signifier indicating a nation, a region, a set of values, and a group of people,
“America” as an analytic lens nonetheless has been shown to be insufficient in account-
ing for the variegated cultural, social, political, material, and human landscapes it
attempted to describe. Numerous contributors in the volume turn to non‐Anglophone
histories, unsettling the association of America with England and the English ­language.
Hilary Wyss delineates the experiences, languages, rhetorics, and communications of
Indigenous communities, for example, and Patrick Erben describes the discourses of
xxxii Volume I: Origins to 1820

migration and exile in French‐, Dutch‐, and German‐language publications.

Contributors decenter New England as the originary site of American literature,
­situating their analyses in the Atlantic Basin, as John Saillant does in his consideration
of what he terms “The First Black Atlantic” or in regions that still lie outside of US
borders, as in Michael Drexler’s excavation of the long history behind Haiti’s status on
the international stage today. Even contributors who primarily explore the relation-
ship between England and its colonies on the northeastern seaboard emphasize the
multidirectional exchanges of ideas, goods, and people in larger global and imperial
“Literature” also endures scrutiny in the volume. The notion of the literary has been
interrogated since cultural studies exerted its influence, and the category of literature
has been exploded perhaps beyond recognition. In the context of American literary
history, the period leading up to 1820 particularly highlights the problems inherent
in relying on traditional conceptions of the literary to guide literary‐historical scholar-
ship. Much of this historical era precedes the development of ideas that permeate liter-
ary valuation and study in the twentieth century – for example, authorship as indicating
a single individual producing original written texts, imbued with creativity and
uniqueness, over which they retained ownership rights. Christopher Phillips shows
the particular cost of this phenomenon to the status of early American poetry, whose
display of collaboration, social engagement, religious inflection, and personal significance
have served to render it invisible in critical studies of poetry. Collaborative cultural
production of “texts” broadly defined (and which may not be even be alphabetic) is char-
acteristic of the period under consideration in this volume. Genres that preoccupy scholars
today in some cases simply did not exist in the seventeenth century – such as the novel
or the short story – and genres that were meaningful to those living in this period –
commonplace books, for example, or wampum belts – lack interpretive frameworks and
therefore often present challenges to today’s scholars. Susan Stabile’s material cultural
approach to the circulation of poetry models these possibilities.
Taken together, the chapters in this volume showcase a range of cultural and histori-
cal approaches to literary study in order to forward an inclusive, comprehensive, and
historically accurate study of American literature. Contributors not only catalogue
traditional approaches to the field but also forward concerns that are developing fields
of inquiry right now and, insofar as we can anticipate, trends in the years to come.
They particularly dwell on the social, political, geographic, material, and technologi-
cal contexts in which American literature has been defined, produced, circulated, and
read. Phillip Round’s chapter shows how an expansive approach to these contexts pays
rewards in complicating understandings of the period’s print culture. Looking beyond
print publication in a period and geographic space where print culture was nascent, a
range of chapters work together to build a new narrative of literary history paying due
attention to orality, non‐alphabetic forms of communication and literacy, rhetorics,
performance, embodiment, materiality, intertexuality, and manuscript creation and
circulation. When contributors discuss print culture they take note of anonymity,
seriality, new media contexts, and developing networks related to the print trade, as in
Introduction to Volume I xxxiii

Wendy Roberts’s excavation of the pervasive and powerful evangelical print culture of
the eighteenth century.
The table of contents for the volume shows attention to traditional loci of study
during this period, even as the chapters open up new angles on seemingly familiar
­topics. The chapter on Charles Brockden Brown, co‐written by Philip Barnard, Mark
Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro, for example, looks beyond Brown’s well‐known status
as a novelist to recover the wider and less familiar range of his literary work. At the
same time, other figures move to the fore in several chapters to demonstrate their
importance in this newly developing literary landscape: Olaudah Equiano, Elizabeth
Graeme Fergusson, Samson Occom, Susanna Rowson, and Phillis Wheatley are each
given substantive discussion in multiple chapters.
Numerous chapters pay special attention to the concept of genre, including, of
course, the perennial literary‐critical favorite, novels. But many chapters look beyond
the novel, which was, after all, an emergent form that came into its own relatively late
in the historical trajectory of the volume, to other significant forms. Captivity narra-
tives receive two treatments, one by Andrew Newman focusing on their early, reli-
giously based, intercultural instantiation in mediating relations between Native
peoples and European settlers, and one by Jodi Schorb which broadens the category to
consider Barbary, seduction, and prison narratives in the eighteenth and early nine-
teenth centuries. Jennifer Desiderio refines the distinctions between autobiographies
and diaries, while Susan Imbarrato surveys travel writings, a ubiquitous genre in a
mobile and expanding nation. Other chapters push back against the notion of genre as
a classification system altogether, shifting from considering genre as a stable and
delimited category of writing to seeing it as a cultural practice that exceeds modern
formulations or binaries placed upon it. Chapters focus instead on communicative
practices that resist categorization or on the relation between literary genres and the
cultural practices that shape them. Examples include Eve Tavor Bannet’s exploration
of the interrelationships between the cultural practice of letter writing and the imagi-
native world of epistolary novels and Laura Mielke’s demonstration of how early
American drama is informed by non‐theatrical performance cultures such as slave auc-
tions or Native ceremonies.
Other chapters use newer methodological approaches to engage the period, includ-
ing environmentalism, material culture studies, and disability studies. Ivy Schweitzer
uses approaches developed in the field of gender and sexuality studies to survey sex and
gender broadly in early American literary studies before focusing on seduction novels,
while Elizabeth Hewitt employs new economic studies to examine how early American
novels narrate economic exchange. Several chapters focus on recovering the experiences
and writings of people formerly marginalized or erased in literary histories, especially
African Americans and Native American cultural producers during the period, as well
those of other European non‐English speakers and writers. No one essay treats women
writers as its specific purview. Instead contributors incorporate women’s cultural
­output into nearly every essay in order to demonstrate women’s significance to and
centrality in the field, or they describe gaps in the archive or social prohibitions
xxxiv Volume I: Origins to 1820

limiting women’s contributions in that area. Contributors similarly address the

c­ ontributions of African Americans and Native Americans in every pertinent essay;
likewise there is no one single essay on transnational approaches. The thoroughgoing
adoption of transnational approaches within the field over the last decade is demonstrated
here by the fact that nearly every essay in the volume manifests the field’s imperative to
consider early American literature in its transnational, global, hemispheric, and Atlantic
Myths and monoliths of the Puritans‐to‐Revolution master narrative receive
­scrutiny throughout the essays. Contributors grapple with the legacy of myths of
America and Americanness (especially American exceptionalism) and the role of
­religion in influencing literature. In addressing the latter, contributors strive for a
more nuanced portrayal of the relationships between and among various religious
­traditions, the influences religions exerted on each other, and how religious beliefs and
practices intersected with print culture and aesthetic considerations. Sandra Gustafson,
for example, constellates evidence from a range of religious traditions to come to a
fuller portrait of religious practices in early America. Contributors move beyond the
constraints imposed by conceptions of nation, border, or language by centering inter-
cultural contacts, regionalism that exceeds or exists within borders or nations, transla-
tion, and cosmopolitanism. Chiara Cillerai’s examination of the global circulation of
Enlightenment discourses of natural science models such an approach. The chapters
tell tales of imperialism, colonialism, settlement, and expansion that do not lead
­inexorably to a celebration of manifest destiny but register histories of forced labor
and  enslavement; explore colonial subjectivities shaped by the experiences of exile,
displacement, alienation, subjugation, and violence; and attend to the voices of
­individuals and groups formerly marginalized in or excluded entirely from literary
history. Kelly Wisecup’s chapter, for example, provides a model of how centering
Indigenous perspectives in narratives of colonial encounter provokes a dramatic
Buttressing all of the considerations contained in this volume is the archival recovery
project that has made these explorations of the period possible. The ongoing effort to
locate, identify, contextualize, and interpret a broader and deeper range of sources –
manuscript and print, English and in other languages, textual and material, non‐alpha-
betic and sensory, human‐created and natural – has shaped the new insights driving
much of the scholarship herein and has the potential to influence the field in directions
it is hard to imagine and impossible to foresee. Indeed, over the several years the volume
took shape, there are indications of emergent trends in scholarship that will enrich,
complicate, and perhaps transform the field anew. These include, among others, affect
studies, aesthetics, object studies, modes of reading, and attention to understudied
regions during this period such as the Pacific and the Arctic. The potential of digital
humanities and big data analytics to increase access to texts, reveal new knowledge, and
generate new interpretations will need to be measured and interrogated. In the years
this volume is read and studied, more that is new will undoubtedly reveal itself, testify-
ing to the vibrancy and dynamism of the field of early American literature. Phillis
Introduction to Volume I xxxv

Wheatley reminded students at Harvard University in 1773 that a central component

of their task as fledgling scholars, an institutional status denied to her as a slave, was to
“mark the systems of revolving worlds.” “Revolving” here has two layers of meaning,
referring to movement around a circuit, as in the Enlightenment study of astronomy,
but also to the act of cogitation itself, or the turning over of ideas. In the injunction to
scholars “to mark the systems of revolving worlds” Wheatley thus presciently gives us
a phrase that aptly describes the work this volume seeks to accomplish, documenting
systemic ways of thinking about early American literature and demonstrating the
­revolutions in the field of study through cutting‐edge inquiry.


Much gratitude to Adam Nemmers and Kassia Waggoner for their painstaking and
dedicated work on this volume as editorial assistants. I appreciate the support for the
project I received from the Texas Christian University English Department and retired
Associate Provost and Dean of University Programs Bonnie Melhart. Thanks also to
Samantha Allen Wright and Angelica Hernandez for assisting with tasks at crucial
moments and to Faith Barrett, Desirée Henderson, Jennifer Putzi, and Alexandra
Socarides for feedback on the introduction.


1 Derounian‐Stodola (2018) scrutinizes the inclu- useful overview and bibliography of scholarship
sion of woman writers in anthologies of early on the politics and practices of American litera-
American literature. Her essay also provides a ture anthologies.


Bercovitch, S. (ed.) (1994–2005). The Cambridge Balkun and S.C. Imbarrato. London: Palgrave
Introduction to American Literature. 8 vols. Macmillan, pp. 249–266.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Smith, S. (1820). “Rev. of Statistical Annals of the
de Crèvecoeur, J.H.S.J. (1782/2013). Letters from an United States, by Adam Seybert.” Edinburgh
American Farmer and Other Essays, ed. D. Moore. Review, 33: 69–80.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wheatley, P. (1783/2002). “To the University of
Derounian‐Stodola, K.Z. (2018). “Bodies of Work: Cambridge, in New‐England.” In Phillis
Early American Women Writers, Empire, and Wheatley: Complete Writings, ed. V. Carretta. New
Pedagogy.” In Women’s Narratives of the Early York: Penguin, p. 12.
Americas and the Formation of Empire, ed. M.M.
Chronology: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

c. 1450 50 million Native peoples,
organized into a variety of
tribes and nations with
languages, oral literatures,
cultures, and histories,
occupy North and South
American continents
Johannes Gutenberg invents
first printing press with
movable metal type in
1492 Christopher Columbus arrives
in the Americas
Columbus writes letter 1493
describing the results of his
first voyage to the Americas
and encouraging exploration;
letter is swiftly translated
and published widely
1497 Vasco de Gama sails around
Cape of Good Hope to
1500 Native populations devastated
by European diseases
Martin Waldseemüller attrib- 1507
utes discovery of “America”
to Amerigo Vespucci in
Cosmographiae Introductio
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xxxvii

Literary event Date Historical event

1518 Slaves are imported from
West Africa to Hispaniola
1519–1521 Cortés defeats Aztecs in
Mexico and seizes lands
1539 Hernando de Soto invades
present‐day Florida
First printing press in the
Americas arrives in Mexico
Las Casas, A Short Account of 1542
the Destruction of the Indies
1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
founds St. Augustine in
Spanish Florida
Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of 1568
New Spain
1579 Sir Francis Drake sails around
Cape Horn and up the
west coast of present‐day
1585 Two ships from England
land at Roanoke Island, in
­present‐day North Carolina,
and the territory is named
Virginia after the “Virgin
Queen,” Elizabeth I
1587 A second group of English
colonists settles at ­Roanoke
but disappears and is
known as the “Lost Colony”
Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and 1588
True Report of the New Found
Land of Virginia
Richard Hakluyt, Principall 1598
Navigation, Voiages and
­Discoveries of the English
José de Acosta, Historia 1590
natural y moral de las Indias
translated as The Naturall
and Morall Historie of the
East and West Indies, 1604
1603 Samuel de Champlain
­explores St. Lawrence River
xxxviii Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

1607 Jamestown, the first
­permanent English colony,
is established in
present‐day Virginia
Captain John Smith, A True 1608
Relation of such occurances
and accidents of noate as hath
hapned in Virginia since the
first planting of the Colony
King James Bible published 1611
in England
Lewis Bayly, The Practice of 1612
Samuel de Champlain, Les 1613
Voyages du Sieur de
1614 Smith maps northeast coast
and names “New England”
Virginia planter John Rolfe
marries Pocahontas, daughter
of Chief Powahatan
Smith, “A Description of New 1616
1617 Pocahontas dies in England
while on a visit there
1619 First black Africans forcibly
brought to colonial
Jamestown, as slaves or
indentured servants
1620 Mayflower reaches Plymouth
in present‐day Massachu-
1621 Puritans sign defensive
alliance with Wampanoags
William Bradford and Edward 1622 350 colonists die in an
Winslow, Mourt’s Relation attack by Powhatans
in Jamestown
Smith, Generall Historie of 1624 Virginia Company goes
­Virginia, New‐England, and bankrupt and is taken by
the Summer Isles England as a royal colony
The Dutch Republic
established New Amsterdam,
later New York City
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xxxix

Literary event Date Historical event

1629 Establishment of Massachusetts
Bay Company by Puritans
John Winthrop, “A Modell of 1630 Great Migration of Puritan
Christian Charity,” settlers arriving in
address delivered en route Massachusetts
to America Colonial population: 4600
Bradford begins Of Plimoth
Champlain, Les Voyages de la 1632
Nouvelle France
1635 Roger Williams banished
from Massachusetts Bay
Thomas Morton, New English 1637 Pequot War, the first large‐scale
Canaan conflict between an
Indigenous people and the
English colonists of New
England, resulting in
English massacre of several
hundred Pequots at Mystic
Captain John Underhill, Newes 1638 First printing press in
from America ­colonial America arrives
in Boston
Bay Psalm Book 1640 Colonial population: 26 600
1641 Massachusetts legalized slavery,
the first colony to do so
1642 Outbreak of Civil War in
Johannes Megapolensis, 1644 Rhode Island granted colonial
Jr., A Short Account of the charter
­Mohawk Indians
Roger Williams, The Bloudy
Tenent, of Persecution, for cause
of Conscience, Discussed, in A
­Conference betweene Truth and
xl Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

1649 Maryland Toleration Act
guarantees religious liberty
to all
Charles I put to death in
Oliver Cromwell leads the
establishment of the
Commonwealth of England
Anne Bradstreet, The Tenth 1650 Colonial population: 50 400
Edward Johnson, The Wonder‐ 1651
Working Providence of Sions
Saviour in New‐England
Adriaen van der Donck, 1655
A ­Description of New
1658 Oliver Cromwell dies in
1660 Monarchy is restored in
England with coronation of
Charles II
Four people executed in
­Boston for publicly expressing
their Quaker views
Michael Wigglesworth, The 1662
Day of Doom
John Eliot, The New Testament, 1663
Algonquian translation
1667 Virginia established the first
slave code in the colonies
William Penn, The Great Case 1670 Colonial population: 111 900
of Liberty of Conscience Once
More Debated & Defended
Increase Mather, A Brief 1675–1676 King Philip’s War, last
History of the War with the large‐scale resistance by
Indians Native peoples in southern
New England
Metacom (King Philip) killed
1681 Pennsylvania founded by
­William Penn
Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty 1682
and Goodness of God
Edward Taylor begins writing
Preparatory Meditations
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xli

Literary event Date Historical event

New England Primer 1683
1688 Glorious Revolution in
King William’s War (also
known as the Second Indian
War) begins
Publication of first newspaper 1690
in colonies: Publick Oc-
currences, Both Foreign and
1692–1693 Salem witchcraft trials
Cotton Mather, Wonders of the 1693
Invisible World
Jonathan Dickinson, God’s 1699
Protecting Providence
Francis Daniel Pastorius, 1700 Colonial population:
Circumstantial Geographical 250 900
Descriptions of the Lately Enslaved population:
Discovered Province of approximately 25 000
Cotton Mather, Magnalia 1702
Christi Americana
Sarah Kemble Knight writes 1704
The Journals of Madam
1706 Benjamin Franklin born in
Isaac Watts, Hymns 1707
John Williams’s The Redeemed
Captive Returning to Zion
William Byrd begins to write 1712 New York slave revolt
The Secret Diary
First theater company in 1716
British North America
opened in Williamsburg
Watts, Psalms 1719
Franklin, A Dissertation on 1725
Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure
and Pain
New York Gazette, first
newspaper published
in New York City
xlii Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

William Byrd, A History of the 1728
Dividing Line; God’s Mercy
Surmounting Man’s Cruelty,
Exemplifed in the Captivity
and Redemption of Elizabeth
1730 First Great Awakening,
­evangelical religious revival
Franklin begins annual 1732
publication of Poor Richard’s
Franklin prints first
German‐language newspaper
in the colonies
John Gyles, Memoirs of 1736
Odd Adventures, Strange
1739 Stono Uprising, a slave
rebellion, in North
Jonathan Edwards, Personal 1740 Anglican minister George
Narrative Whitefield begins 10‐week
American preaching tour to
seven colonies
Edwards, “Sinners in the 1741
Hands of an Angry God”
American Magazine, founded
by Andrew Bradford
Dr. Alexander Hamilton 1744
compiles travel record
Samuel Richardson, Pamela,
first novel published
in ­colonial America by
­Benjamin Franklin
Lucy Terry Prince, “Bars 1746
1747 Benjamin Franklin begins
experimentation with
lightening rod
1750 Colonial population:
1 170 800
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xliii

Literary event Date Historical event

Earliest known performance of 1753
a play written and performed
in colonial America: Le
Banc de Villeneuve, Le Pére
1754 New York Society Library
loans books for annual fee
1756 French and Indian Wars
­begins and lasts until 1763
Thomas Brown, A Plain 1760
­Narrative of the Uncommon
­Sufferings and Remarkable
Jupiter Hammon, “An Evening
Thought;” A Narrative of
the Uncommon Sufferings and
Surprising Deliverance of Briton
Hammon, a Negro Man
John Woolman, Some 1762
Considerations on the Keeping
of Negros
Bible published in 1763
Algonquian language
John Dickinson, Declaration of 1765 The Stamp Act imposes special
Rights and Grievances tax on all publications
and legal documents in
American colonies
Dickinson, Letters from a 1767
Farmer in Pennsylvania to
the Inhabitants of the British
Samson Occom writes A Short 1768
Narrative of My Life
Dickinson, “The Liberty
1770 Boston Massacre: Crispus
Attucks, a free black
tradesmen and the first
man killed, is the first
casualty of the American
Franklin begins writing 1771
xliv Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

Samson Occom (Mohawk), 1772
A Sermon Preached at the
­Execution of Moses Paul
Mercy Otis Warren, The 1773
Phillis Wheatley, Poems on
Various Subjects, Religious and
Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some 1774
Account of the Fore‐Part of the
Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge
Occom, A Choice Collection of
Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Warren, The Group 1775 Battles of Lexington,
Franklin, Proposed Articles of ­Concord, and Bunker Hill
Confederation First abolition organization,
the Society for the Relief of
Free Negroes Unlawfully
Held in Bondage, founded
in Philadelphia
Thomas Jefferson, John 1776 Declaration of Independence
­Adams, Franklin, and is ratified by Second
others, The ­Declaration of ­Continental Congress
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
1777 Vermont becomes the first
colony to ban slavery
Judith Sargent Murray, “On 1779 General John Sullivan leads
the Equality of the Sexes” an American army through
The United States Magazine Iroquois country, burning
founded in Philadelphia towns and destroying crops
“Sentiments of an American 1780 Founding of the Ladies
Woman,” a broadside ­Assocation of Philadelphia,
credited to Esther deBerdt an organization that
Reed, published eventually raises $300 000
for the Continental Army
1781 Surrender of British forces at
Yorktown effectively ends
the Revolutionary War
Articles of Confederation are
Elizabeth Freeman successfully
wins a suit in Massachusetts
to challenge her enslaved
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xlv

Literary event Date Historical event

Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, 1782
Letters from an American
The Travel Diary of Elizabeth 1784 Revolutionary War formally
House Trist: Philadelphia to ends with the ratification of
Natchez, 1783–84 the Treaty of Paris
John Filson, The Discovery,
­Settlement, and Present State
of Kentucke
Joshua Smith and Samuel
Sleeper, Divine Hymns, or
­Spiritual Songs
Jefferson, Notes on the State of 1785 Brothertown Indian Nation
Virginia; A Narrative of the formed
Lord’s Wonderful Dealings
with John Marrant, a Black
Royall Tyler, The Contrast 1787 Constitutional Convention
Abraham Panther, A Surprising opens in Philadelphia
Account of the Discovery of a The Northwest Ordinance
Lady Who Was Taken by the bans slavery in the
Indians Northwest Territory
Alexander Hamilton, John 1788 Ratification of US
Jay, and James Madison, Constitution
The Federalist Papers
William Hill Brown, The 1789 George Washington elected
Power of Sympathy first President of the
Olaudah Equiano, The United States
Interesting Narrative of the French Revolution begins
Life of Olaudah Equiano, or
­Gustavus Vassa
Sarah Wentworth Morton, 1790 First official US census
Oûabi and population count:
Thomas Paine, The Rights of 3 929 214
Man Non‐white free population:
59 150
Enslaved people: 294 280
Second Great Awakening,
evangelical religious revival
William Bartram, Travels 1791 Ratification of the Bill of
through North & South Rights
­Carolina, Georgia, East &
West Florida
xlvi Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

1792 George Washington reelected
President of the United
Monarchy is abolished in
France and Republic
Charles Brockden Brown, 1793 Yellow fever epidemic in
Arthur Mervyn Philadelphia
Susanna Rowson, Slaves in 1794 Eli Whitney patents the
­Algiers; or, A Struggle for cotton gin, increasing the
­Freedom and Charlotte Temple profitability of slavery
Joel Barlow, “The Hasty 1796 John Adams elected President
Hannah Webster Foster, 1797
The Coquette
Royall Tyler, The Algerine
Brown, Wieland 1798 Yellow fever epidemic in New
Susanna Rowson, Reuben and York City
Andrew Burnaby,
Travels Through the Middle
­Settlements in North‐America
in the Years 1759 and 1760
Murray, The Gleaner
William Dunlap, André: A
­Tragedy in Five Acts
Brown, Ormond and Arthur 1799
Mervyn; Account of the
­Remarkable Occurrences in the
Life and Travels of Colonel
James Smith
Mason Weems, The Life and 1800 US population: 5 308 483
Memorable Actions of George Thomas Jefferson elected
Washington President
Brown, Edgar Huntly
Tabitha Tenney, Female 1801 Haitian slaves led by
­Quixotism Toussaint Louverture
Sally Sayward Barrell ­Keating overturn French
Wood, Dorval; or the government and establish
­Speculator the Republic of Haiti
Port Folio founded
Chronology: Origins to 1820 xlvii

Literary event Date Historical event

Washington Irving, Letters of 1802
Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
Isaac Mitchell, The Asy- 1804 Jefferson reelected President
lum; or, Alonzo and Meriwether Lewis and
Melissa ­(expanded version William Clark begin
­published in 1811) 8000‐mile journey from
Missouri River to Oregon
1807 Congress ends the African
slave trade by passing the
Act Prohibiting Importa-
tion of Slaves, which takes
effect in 1808
An Act for the Abolition of
the Slave Trade passed by
Parliament in England
James Nelson Barker, The 1808 James Madison elected
Indian Princess ­President
Leonora Sansay, The Secret Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa
History; or, The Horrors of St. (the Shawnee Prophet)
Domingo establish Prophetstown,
a pan‐Indian village and
headquarters of a confederacy
of Native peoples resisting
US expansionism
Irving, A History of New York 1809
Rebecca Rush, Kelroy 1812 Madison reelected President
War of 1812 begins which
lasts until 1815
William Cullen Bryant, “To a 1815
Philip Freneau, A Collection of
North American Review founded
James Riley, Authentic 1817 American Colonization
­Narrative of the Loss of the ­Society founded
American Brig Commerce Cherokee women deliver a
petition protesting land
1816 James Monroe elected
1819 Panic of 1819 causes many
western banks to fail
xlviii Volume I: Origins to 1820

Literary event Date Historical event

James Fenimore Cooper, 1820 US population: 9 638 453
Precaution The Missouri Compromise
Irving, The Sketchbook of excludes slavery from the
­Geoffrey Crayon Louisiana Purchase to the
north and west of Missouri
James Monroe reelected
The Storyteller’s Universe
Indigenous Oral Literatures
Kenneth M. Roemer

“The test of time,” an abundant literature, geographic expansiveness, artistry, and,

more recently, inclusiveness represented by a complex awareness of gender and cultural
diversity – these are key criteria used to determine entry into American literary canons
and American literary histories. Scholars who specialize in Indigenous oral literatures
would doubtless claim that this literature fulfills all the criteria and thus deserves a
major place in canon and history. For these readers, I could proceed directly to the
main business of this chapter: an overview of how Native oral narratives, song, and
ceremony have and will continue to challenge in constructive ways Euro‐American
concepts of authorship, context, genre, geographic and period designation, the func-
tions of literature, and the importance of understanding how literature is experienced.
But most American literature teachers and students have little knowledge of the mag-
nitude and importance of the oral literatures. For these readers, it is appropriate to
begin by establishing how this form of literature fulfills conventional expectations for
inclusion in a twenty‐first‐century literary history – and specifically inclusion as the
grand opening entry to the narrative of our literature.

The Tests of Time, Abundance, and Expansiveness

There is no consensus on exactly how long North America has been inhabited; ­estimates
range from less than 16 000 to 50 000 years. During these millennia, many thousands
of significant stories, songs, and ceremonies were lost as a result of pre‐Columbian

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
2 Volume I: Origins to 1820

natural disasters and intertribal incursions, the impact of European diseases and Euro‐
American military operations, forced assimilation in boarding schools, and the simple
but crucial act of forgetting to pass narratives from one generation to the next. But
Native storytellers and singers continued to perform, and their efforts, combined with
the collection and translation work of more than five centuries of Spanish, French,
English, American, and Indigenous men and women, have preserved hundreds of
thousands of stories, songs, and ceremonies once – and still – performed across what is
now the United States and throughout Canada, Central, and South America.
This process is certainly a story of preservation. In the introduction to one of the
most important early twentieth‐century collections of English translations, Tales of the
North American Indians (1929), Stith Thompson noted that an Iroquois creation account
he knew had the “same form” as when the Jesuit Fathers transcribed it in the early
1600s (1972: xv). But the “test of time” involves much more than preservation; it is
also a story of adaptation and continuation. For example, readers of Louise Erdrich’s
(Ojibwe) reservation novels will be familiar with the mysterious lake creature
Misshepeshu. In a detailed analysis of this underwater Lyon or Great Lynx, Victoria
Brehm (1996) demonstrates how narratives about Micipijiu have adapted over several
centuries to warn about overconsumption of scarce resources, enable women to increase
their stature, enhance the power of one group of healers, enhance the power of an
oppressive class structure, and, in Erdrich’s novels, emphasize the survival powers of
oral narratives (1996: 677–706).

The Art of Storytelling

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855) was inspired to a large
degree by the grand drama of the Ojibwe narratives translated by Henry Rowe and
Jane Schoolcraft in Algic Researches (1839). In the twentieth century, Dell Hymes
(1981) highlighted the intricate lines, stanzas, and scenes intrinsic to narratives from
the Pacific Northwest; major scholarly works such as Karl Kroeber’s Artistry in Native
American Myths (1998) celebrated the rhetorical skills of storytellers, and Andrew
Wiget (1987) highlighted the performance skills of storytellers. Still, when readers
conditioned by Euro‐American literary conventions first encounter some examples of
Indigenous story and song, they may find the texts both too simple and too complex:
too simple especially because of the amount of repetition; too complex because these
readers lack an understanding of the aesthetics and cultures that shape the texts.
One celebrated translation and another not‐so‐well known demonstrate impressive
uses of repetition. Washington Matthews’s The Night Chant: A Navaho Ceremony (1902)
is the best‐known English translation of the grand, nine‐day Navajo healing chantway,
the Nightway. The most anthologized selection of the Nightway is performed on the
ninth night. It is one of the four long prayers that precede the first dance of the Holy
Beings, the Atsálei Yei‐be‐chai, who will help restore balance for the patient(s). The
presider, echoed by the patient(s), addresses each of the four dancers. The patterns of
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 3

repetition with variation that have been building throughout the nine days culminate
in this grand invitation, which is actually less of an invitation and more of a generative
pronouncement delineated by the incremental changes of words. Translation to English
robs the words of their curative power. But even in an English translation, a few lines
spoken after the Thunder Being has left his “house made of dawn” suggest the cadences
created by the repetition with variation:

With your moccasins of dark cloud, come to us.

With your leggings of dark cloud, come to us.
With your shirt of dark cloud, come to us.
With your head‐dress of dark cloud, come to us.
With your mind enveloped in dark cloud, come to us.
With the dark thunder above you, come to us soaring.
With the shapen cloud at your feet, come to us soaring.
With the far darkness made of the dark cloud over your head, come to us soaring.
(Matthews 1902: 143)

The other example comes from the Arapaho narrative “Raw Gums and the White
Owl Woman.” It demonstrates at least four types of narrative repetition. First, the
storyteller repeats the violent acts of a voracious monster baby equipped with sharp
teeth. In the second type of repetition, the parents repeat their discovery of the
­evidence: “in his teeth fresh morsels of human flesh” (Bierhorst 1976: 143). The third,
in effect, combines the first and second when the father relates the baby’s acts to men
assembled in his tepee. The fourth type John Bierhorst calls “self‐reiteration”; it
involves a subtle form of “duplication in which … an entire story is transported to a
new level of meaning” (9–10). Just as he is about to be devoured by dogs, the baby
transforms into a handsome young man who confronts Old White Owl Woman. He is
tested in a series of parallel incidents, answers six riddles, and commits one final act of
violence. He splits Owl Woman’s head with a stone sledge. The scattering brains
become snowflakes that melt away. The transformed monster’s violence creates spring.

Gender, Culture, and Language Diversified

There are powerful male creators like the Cheyenne Maheo, but there are also powerful
female creators, especially in Pueblo cultures. Examples of powerful mythological
female figures include the woman who came from the clouds and gave the Lakota the
sacred pipe, and the woman who fell from the sky, the Huron mother of humankind,
who tries to undo her grandson’s creations. The twins in many culture hero narratives
are definitely masculine, as is the case with the Kiowa hero twins. But other hero twins
manifest a fascinating gender complexity. The Diné heroes are children of Changing
Woman and the Sun. One is Monster Slayer; the other is Child of Water. Both are
designated as male, but their different natures balance what non‐Natives might
­perceive as some of the best of masculine and feminine traits.
4 Volume I: Origins to 1820

A dynamic multicultural diversity influencing the creation of oral literatures existed

in North and South America long before the arrival of Columbus. Over thousands of
years, the Indigenous populations developed different religions and economic, social,
governmental, and interpersonal systems to adapt to environments as different as the
Columbia River forests of the Northwest, the deserts of the Southwest, and the ocean
seaboards of the eastern coasts. These were not static cultures. There were extensive
trade routes, major migrations, and military incursions long before European contact.
Terms such as “pre‐contact” or “pre‐encounter” are notorious misnomers; there were
thousands of contacts among different cultures before Columbus. After Columbus,
migrations continued. The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), for example, moved westward from
their Great Lakes region to settlements as far west as what is now north central North
Dakota. Diné and Kiowa moved from different parts of the Northwest to the Southwest.
The Diné people’s culture changed as they were influenced by Pueblo peoples; Kiowas
were influenced by the horse cultures of the Plains. The latter dynamic reminds us that
Native multiculturalism became transnational as European elements, like the horse,
were added to Indigenous multiculturalism.
One of the most important elements of cultural diversity impacting the oral litera-
tures was and still is language diversity. We will probably never know the exact num-
ber of Indigenous languages in North America in 1491. A typical estimate is at least
three hundred. David Kozak (2012) indicates that today in the Southwest alone there
are five major language families and two isolates (Zuni and Seri) that don’t fit into any
of the families (2012: 2). The differences among the languages can be significant: some
languages are verb driven while others have no adjective categories, and there are dif-
ferent ways of defining animate and inanimate objects. All these differences shape the
nature of the oral literatures’ content and performance.

The (Practically) Invisible American Literature

Given thousands of years of existence, hundreds of thousands of texts that still exist in
print and performance, geographic expanse, degree of artistry, and gender, cultural,
and linguistic diversity, it could be argued that at least 99% of this and other multi‐
volume histories of American literature should be devoted to Indigenous oral litera-
tures. This alternative history is rather unlikely. But there is evidence (outside of the
obvious inclusions in linguistics, ethnology, folklore, and anthropology studies) of the
increasing inclusion of Indigenous oral literatures in widely read general American
literary venues. This is especially the case with anthology selections since the late
1980s, as my Covers, Titles, and Tables: The Formations of American Literary Canons in
Anthologies website suggests; and Michael Elliott (2003) and I (1994) have written
about the potential impact of including translations of trickster narratives and prayers
in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.
But as Elliott observes, fewer than 65 pages of Volume 1 of the fifth edition of the
Norton were devoted to Native literatures, both translations of oral literatures and
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 5

printed English texts (2003: 726). Editors have divided more recent volumes differ-
ently. Still, in Volume A of the 2012 eighth edition (through 1820), only 46 of 900‐
plus pages cover origin and trickster narratives and oratory. Elliott’s conclusion still
applies: “these raw numbers make it all too easy for the instructor to characterize these
works as simply a small addition to American literary history, a new part wholly con-
gruent with those it joins” (726). True, there are popular anthologies that include
more oral literatures – for example, the 2014 seventh edition of the Heath Anthology – but
there are also discouraging trends that indicate less attention being devoted to this
body of cultural production. My 2005 Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature
(Roemer and Porter) was specifically designed to focus on written works originally
published in English since the 1700s; in Harvard’s 2009 New Literary History of America
(Marcus and Sollors) Indigenous oral literatures are barely visible. In the most recent
encyclopedic handbook, the 2014 Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature
(Cox and Justice), and in the 2016 Routledge Companion to Native American Literature
(Madsen), there are only a few relevant entries. My survey (2012) of articles on oral
literatures through 2011 in the premier journal in the field – Series One and Series Two
of Studies in American Indian Literatures and its predecessor in newsletter form – i­ ndicated
that only 38 articles since the late 1970s focused on oral literatures (88–99).
There are obvious reasons for these trends: the exciting rediscoveries of eighteenth‐,
nineteenth‐, and early twentieth‐century Native written texts and growing interest in
Native films have captured the attention of many scholars; most English professors are
not trained to study oral literatures and may not consider an “oral performance” to be
literature; professors and students usually encounter the literatures in printed English
translations and may therefore consider them examples of “writing” rather than ­orality;
and the history of the translation of Indigenous texts is marred by examples of inac-
curate translations and unethical collecting that may make professors skeptical of their
authenticity or validity. There may also be hesitance among Native and non‐Native
publishers, teachers, and students to teach literature that in its performance contexts
in the original languages can bring about positive or negative physical changes. For
instance, there were Navajo who believed that problems with Matthews’s translations
caused his deafness and paralysis (Roemer 1994: 817). Finally, there is the coverage/
access issue. Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) (1991), a prolific writer in many genres,
reminds scholars that “some cases [of studying and teaching Native literatures] may
even mean NOT discussing something,” especially texts meant only for certain
­individuals or groups. That can be difficult for scholars trained to “tell it all, show it
all, explain it all” (7).

Constructive Questioning of Our Concepts of Literature

Despite these obstacles, we should move out of our comfort zones and invite our stu-
dents and colleagues to experience Indigenous oral literatures. The effort can create
and enhance zones of comfort and delight with engaging trickster episodes, grand
6 Volume I: Origins to 1820

epics like Paul Zolbrod’s Diné Bahané: The Navajo Creation Story (1984), the haiku‐like
imagery of an Ojibwe song (for instance, Song of Thunders: “Sometimes I, / I go about
pitying / Myself / While I am carried by the wind / across the sky” [Day 1951: 148]),
or the cadences of a Navajo prayer (one that is appropriate for reading by non‐Native
audiences). Just as important are the ways these literatures can challenge us with dis-
ruptive and constructive questions about concepts of authorship, context, genre, and
geographic and period designations, as well as questions about the functions of litera-
ture and how literature is experienced. The advantage of perceiving the oral literatures
from this perspective is that it diminishes the probability of ghettoizing. If a literary
history or an American literature course begins with discussions of such fundamental
questions, there is a greater possibility that, as other forms of American literature are
encountered, the presence of the original American literatures will be remembered
instead of being restricted to the past and to a Native American chapter or “unit.” The
following overview of questions raised is designed to facilitate this form of continuity,
despite the fact that, because of the historical positioning of this chapter and the neces-
sary space restrictions, certain forms of historical and contemporary oral literatures,
such as jokes, histories, sermons, and oratory, will be omitted.

Challenging Concepts of Author and Context

In anthologies and even literary histories, authors’ names remain significant organiza-
tional categories. It is true that some forms of oral literature have identifiable authors;
for instance, in the twentieth and twenty‐first centuries, Cozad family members have
created respected Kiowa Gourd Dance songs. But in general, in the Indigenous litera-
tures of America, the concept of author is much more complex than the association of
an individual with a text. Who is the author of the many songs, stories, prayers, and
chants of a Navajo Nightway? According to chantway origin narratives, Diné Holy
Beings taught the Nightway to an individual named the “Dreamer” or “Visionary” or
to two men named the “Stricken Twins.” In one version, the Dreamer taught a younger
brother who began the singer‐apprentice genealogy that continues today and has been
documented in part by James C. Faris and Linda Haley (1990: 19, 100). The study of
Native oral literatures requires us to expand the concept of the author, or Foucault’s
“authorial function,” to include interdependence on the divine, family lineage, regional
conventions, and the personalities of individual performers.
The importance of context is certainly nothing new to American literature scholars.
But when studying oral‐derived texts, we have to frequently question the appropriate-
ness of projecting familiar Euro‐American connotations and concepts on to Native sto-
ries. For a traditional Lakota storyteller, red may suggest goodness, not blood and
violence; the numbers four, six, and sometimes seven can be more important than the
Christian three; and readers, unfamiliar with Navajo concepts of health as a state of bal-
ance in a universe that can always slide into unbalance, may be confused if they conceive
of victory as a total triumph over evil. Without cultural context, even a­pparently
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 7

obvious happenings that seem simple for non‐Natives to comprehend can lead to mis-
understandings. In one of the many episodes of the Winnebago trickster stories recounted
by Paul Radin (1972), Wakdjunkaga awakes after a nap to find his blanket perched high
above him. He is surprised to discover that it is perched atop his grand, erect penis.
Slowly, as his penis softens, he reels in the blanket. This might seem to be a simple mat-
ter of satirizing the antics of awakening male members, except that Wakdjunkaga at
first mistakes the blanket for the banners unfurled by chiefs during great feasts. Radin’s
storytellers explained that at these feasts, it was expected that a chief would raise a tall,
feathered crook and deliver long harangues admonishing the people to follow Winnebago
ideals. In effect, this episode vents social tension about social chastisement by juxtapos-
ing images of the antics of Wakdjunkaga’s oversized, overactive member and the emblem
of authority displayed by the guardians of social ideals (1972: 152).
A different type of context  –  the situations under which the oral literature was
­collected – invites us to question the authority of the text. At one end of the spectrum
are contacts grounded in ignorance and suspect motives. For example, in 1858, Jacob
Hamblin and 13 Mormon missionaries brought with them a Welsh interpreter when
they visited the Hopi. Hamblin needed the interpreter because he thought the Hopi
were descendants of a Welsh prince (Swann 1994: xv). At the other end of the ­spectrum
is the Tlingit writer, poet, scholar, and translator Nora Marks Dauenhauer, who with
her husband, Richard, translates Tlingit oral literature.

Disrupting Genre Constructions

Genre defining has offered another type of context and a major method – along with
regional and tribal associations – of organizing the hundreds of thousands of transla-
tions of oral literatures. Major genres consist of creation/origin stories, including epic
earth diver, emergence, and migration narratives, but also more particular stories
about the origins of stars, buffalo, corn, and the possum’s bare tail; trickster and ­culture
hero narratives; animal stories; and journeys to other worlds. Editors frequently use the
genre designations to organize selections in general American literature anthologies
and general collections of oral literatures, though for more specific collections the­
­genres may be adapted to particular tribal traditions.
Designating genres is an extremely useful method of coming to terms with the vast
number of oral texts and communicating information and theories among specialists
and to non‐specialists. It certainly sounds more academic to proclaim that you are
analyzing a trickster narrative than to admit that you are working on a character whose
penis makes his blanket fly high. But the content of the narratives raises questions: for
instance, how to define a “creator” or a “hero,” and what the dividing lines are between
human animals and non‐human animals. Even the genre classifications themselves, as
useful as they are, raise critical interpretation questions about the validity of using
genres as a means to organize and analyze literature and prompt ethical questions
about which culture should have control of defining the genres.
8 Volume I: Origins to 1820

The event sequences in the narratives and the ways the characters respond as agents,
collaborators, beneficiaries, victims, or observers often represent perspectives quite dif-
ferent from the perspectives of mainstream Christian, Jewish, or Muslim worldviews.
The biblical creator does need to rest on the seventh day, but He doesn’t need any help
to create the universe. Certainly, there are powerful Indigenous creators. Ts’its’tsi’nako,
the Laguna Pueblo Thought Woman, and her sisters created the world. But in the
Earth Diver creation stories, there is a co‐creation sequence that assumes that the crea-
tor cannot complete his or her work without the assistance of other, less powerful
creatures. In the Cheyenne creation account, for example, Maheo, the All Spirit, cre-
ated the great oceans, but He needed the help of the lowly coot bird who could dive
deep below the surface to retrieve a ball of mud that Maheo transformed into the land
with the help of another earthly creature, Grandmother Turtle, who supported the
land on her back. The Diné emergence narrative segues into a hero narrative as the
people become Earth Surface People, who discover that they are besieged by monsters.
When they existed in the lower levels, they could not experience death, but on the
surface they can. Fortunately, Monster Slayer and Child of Water can vanquish most of
the monsters, but not all. Hunger, poverty, old age, and dirt remain. From a Euro‐
American viewpoint, this might undercut their mythic status as heroic characters,
since they did not achieve a total victory. From a Diné viewpoint, this incompleteness
signals the reality of life on earth mentioned previously, one in which there are no
absolute victories and there is a perpetual possibility of imbalance. Fortunately, the
Holy Beings gave the Earth Surface People songs, rituals, and ceremonies that could
reestablish balance (hózhó). Even animal stories can challenge non‐Native readers as the
narratives blur the boundaries between humans and animals. Humans are advised,
helped, and raised by animals; witches can transform into animals; and, in a Laguna
Pueblo story, Yellow Woman falls in love with Buffalo Man.
Unless they have encountered African or other Indigenous literatures, the clearest
challenge to conventional character definition for most American students is the Native
American Trickster. S(he) is usually hungry and full of lust. S(he) can be incredibly
stupid. Wakdjunkaga doesn’t seem to realize that his anus is part of his body. He
attempts to teach his gassy end a lesson by placing a burning piece of wood in its
“mouth” and learns that he and his anus are intimately connected (Radin 1972: 17–18).
But Trickster can also be a creator. In a fit of anger, the Diné Coyote creates the starry
night sky by throwing the stars in the air. Tricksters can be kind. The Kiowa Trickster
helps the humans emerge from a hollow log onto the earth’s surface. Radin (1972) pro-
poses that Trickster narratives have survived so many centuries because the Trickster is
the most inclusive image of human (and animal) nature found in Native literatures:
Trickster “became and remained everything to everyman – god, animal, human being,
hero, buffoon, he who was before good and evil, denier, affirmer, destroyer creator. If we
laugh at him, he grins at us. What happens to him happens to us” (169).
Certainly the “content” of Native oral narratives invites us to reconsider Euro‐
American concepts of creator and created, hero and villain, human and animal. As we
read individual narratives or listen to specific songs and attempt to fit them into
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 9

widely accepted genre categories, we will also more than likely agree with Susan
Feldmann (1965) that “classes of [Native American] tales flow freely into one another”
(36), and there are many stories that don’t seem to fit neatly into the established
­genres. Various versions of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation narration have
casts of characters that include real historical characters, like the Great Peacemaker
and the orator, Hiawatha, as well as the snake‐empowered and monstrous Tadodahoh.
In some versions, the Great Peacemaker was born of a virgin mother; hence, even the
“real” historical character takes on a mythical stature. The previously discussed
Arapaho “Raw Gums and the White Owl Woman” narrative begins as a monster story
as the baby with sharp teeth devours chiefs. But after the baby’s transformation to a
handsome man, he becomes a hero battling Old White Owl Woman. After he answers
the riddles and smashes her skull, the story transforms into an origin narrative, as Owl
Woman’s brains become snow, melt, and spring arrives. Even obvious classification can
raise questions. I have argued that a Navajo travel song can be perceived as a form of
life narrative (Roemer 2012).
Native oral literatures raise at least one more significant question about using genre
categories to organize literature: who defines the genres? Up to this point, I have been
using general and specific terms in English ranging from epic creation stories to a
particular travel song. Many Native and non‐Native storytellers, singers, and scholars
use similar generic genre terms. But these terms can obscure the fact that Native
nations often have their own generic systems that may be quite different from the
Euro‐American genre concepts. For example, Andrew Paynesta and Walter Sanchez,
the two Zuni storytellers recorded by Dennis Tedlock (1972), told Tedlock that there
were two major genres of Zuni oral narratives. The telapnaawe are “fiction.” They must
begin and end with words that, according to Tedlock, are untranslatable: Son’ahchi and
Lee ‐‐‐‐‐‐‐ / semkonika. From October through March storytellers perform them at
night. Chimiky’ana’kowa (The Beginning) is the other genre. These are “true.” They
can be told anytime, but if they are performed in a ceremonial context, they are
chanted. “Well then / this / was the BEGINNING” or “Well then / at the beginning”
opens the chant; “that’s all” closes it (xxvii–xxviii, xvi–xvii, 225, 275, 269, 297). The
obvious contrasts between the generic academic genres and these Zuni genres invite us
to consider who does the genre defining for Indigenous literatures and, indeed, for any
form of literature.

Upending Spatial and Chronological Organizing Principles

Besides genre designations, the two other principal organizing methods in the study
of Native oral literatures have been geography and tribal association. These categories
would seem much less problematic than labeling by genre, especially much less “colo-
nial,” since the definitions spring from the land and the people, not from concepts that
may have been imposed by non‐Natives. This assumption helps to explain why so
many editors arrange collections by region and tribe. Even in the forthcoming When
10 Volume I: Origins to 1820

the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native
American Poetry, the poems will be arranged by geographic region (Harjo, Howe, and
Foerster). What complicates this model is the dynamic histories of today’s Native
nations. There are tribes – the Pueblos and Hopi, for instance – that have remained in
the same regions for many hundreds of years. But the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) moved
westward from the Great Lakes region; the Kiowa left their former homeland near the
mouth of the Yellowstone River, probably during the late 1600s. The latter case is
particularly interesting. Their oral narratives, as well as the striking murals displayed
at the Kiowa Nation headquarters in Carnegie, Oklahoma, trace their journey from
the forests of the Northwest to the Black Hills in what is now South Dakota, to Bear
Lodge (Devils Tower) in what is now Wyoming, and finally to Rainy Mountain in
what is now southwestern Oklahoma. These moves signaled cultural as well as geo-
graphic changes. The Kiowa were especially influenced by the horse cultures of the
Plains. It is certainly valid to have Kiowa subsections in anthologies and valid to have
Kiowa collections. But Kiowa culture and thus Kiowa oral literature is a multicultural,
multiregional product of encounters with different landscapes and peoples. For many
Native people these evolutions continued through the nineteenth, twentieth, and
twenty‐first centuries with forced (removal and relocation federal programs) and
­voluntary migrations from reservations to urban areas.
The time travel that concluded the previous paragraph points toward another way
the study of the oral literatures invites us to question the ways we organize literary
histories. My website Covers, Titles, and Tables: The Formations of American Literary
Canons in Anthologies indicates that, since 1829, the primary organizing structure for
American literary histories and anthologies has been chronological periodization.
Indigenous oral literatures upset this model. Elliott (2003) offers the example of a
Chinook Coyote story. Should it be taught as pre‐European settlement literature, since
it has roots extending back centuries, or in the “American Literary Realism” period,
since Franz Boas transcribed and then published a version in the 1890s, or, Elliott
wonders, should it be placed in the late twentieth century, since William Bright pub-
lished his version in 1993 (723, 726)? The songs and stories of the Navajo Nightway
present even more striking examples. They could logically be placed in a pre‐European
settlement era. To emphasize an impressive case of cultural survival, they could be
placed in the mid‐1860s. The Diné suffered greatly during the Long Walk to Fort
Sumner in 1864. But even under these harsh conditions there is evidence that, in
secret, the songs and stories were preserved (Faris 1990: 79–80). The editors of the
fourth edition of the Norton placed the Nightway in the late nineteenth‐/early twenti-
eth‐century section, a logical choice since Washington Matthews published the best‐
known translation of the ceremonial in Night Chant (1902) (Roemer 1994: 818). But
a case can also be made for placement with contemporary literature. In the most exten-
sive study of the Nightway, James Faris (1990) speculates that there are more Nightway
singers today than at any other time in Diné history (81). I know when I was invited
to attend portions of two Nightways in 1993, there were four being performed in the
immediate area.
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 11

Of course, the most fundamental question of periodization raised by the oral litera-
tures is: when did American literature begin? In one of the earliest literary histories,
Lectures on American Literature (1829), Samuel L. Knapp began with an introduction to
the English language that concludes with information about the invention of the
“Cherokee alphabet”; in one of the earliest anthologies, Century Reading for a Course in
American Literature (1919), Fred Lewis Pattee began with Franklin’s Autobiography. In
the provocative English Literatures of America 1500–1800 (1997), Myra Jehlen and
Michael Warner begin with Marco Polo and have More’s Utopia (1516) as an early
entry. Many anthologies begin with either Indigenous oral literatures or very early
exploration accounts. If a history begins with the oral literatures and the editors follow
the concept of origins offered by Jehlen and Warner, should American literature begin
with Siberian oral literatures as an acknowledgement of pre‐Bering Strait transversal
literatures? To many scholars, this may seem to be an outlandish periodization  –
­outside conventional timelines and beyond conventional concepts of “American” land.
Nevertheless, the dean of contemporary Native American literature, N. Scott Momaday
(Kiowa), has traveled to Siberia and met with Indigenous people to enhance the mean-
ing of his literary and Indigenous heritage.

Challenging Notions of the Work Done by Literature

“What does literature do?” is a fundamental question, possibly more fundamental

than “Where does literature begin?” To most non‐Native readers it is obvious that
reading Indigenous oral literatures can expand concepts of the functions of litera-
ture, especially the didactic functions. Origin stories “answer” multitudes of small
questions about why blue jays have such raucous calls and why skunks have stripes.
Stories present specific guides about how to hunt, fish, and plant corn and grand
explanations of how the sun, moon, and stars came into being. Often one type of
story will fulfill multiple functions: the Zuni emergence narratives, for instance,
acquaint listeners with heroes and deities; offer descriptions of the social roles of
priests who model their behavior after the two heroic Bow Priests; include informa-
tion about formal greetings customs implied when the Bow Priests speak to the
priests in the fourth level of emergence; and communicate important information
about geographical formations and deserted as well as populated villages in Arizona
and New Mexico.
Momaday imagines the multiple functions of oral literatures in ways that may seem
familiar to non‐Native readers. In the Introduction to The Way to Rainy Mountain
(1969), he imagines how the Kiowa reacted when they first saw the magnificent Bear
Lodge/Devils Tower in what is now Wyoming. They created a story about seven sisters
saved by a huge growing tree stump from the claws of their brother who has become a
gigantic bear. For Momaday, oral literatures allow humans to express “their capacity
for wonder, meaning, and delight,” especially when they confront great mysteries like
Bear Lodge/Devils Tower (1975: 104).
12 Volume I: Origins to 1820

The encyclopedic explanatory functions of the stories and their impact imagined by
Momaday may challenge some non‐Native readers to reevaluate their concepts of the
functions of literature. It is more likely that the generative functions will be more
challenging, with the concept that words shape reality. The excerpt from a Navajo
prayer offered previously is an example of this power. The words, when performed cor-
rectly in Navajo, don’t describe the approach of a Thunder Being; they compel him to
come to help the patient(s). Certainly, the notion that reading can have strong intel-
lectual and emotional impacts on readers is nothing new. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) inspired
­millions to act. Still, many students and scholars today need to be reminded that there
are reality‐generating experiences of literature that have existed for millennia and still
impact physical bodies today.

How Should Indigenous Oral Literature

Be Represented and Experienced?

Since the publication of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches (1839), the first
major collection of translations in English of Native oral literatures; and before that,
since one of the first English translations of a Native song, Lieutenant Henry
Timberlake’s 1765 heroic couplets version of a Cherokee song; and before that, since
French Jesuits collected narratives in New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries; and before that, since Columbus’s priest Ramon Pane initiated attempts by
Europeans to collect Indigenous spoken literature, oral literatures have raised provoca-
tive questions about authorship, context, genre, geographic and period designation,
and the functions of literature. During the second half of the twentieth century and
continuing into the twenty‐first, particular attention has been – and will continue in
the future to be – focused on representing and experiencing oral literature: how are
literatures collected and how do readers or listeners or viewers encounter them?
Overviews of this crucial topic typically appear as histories of translation, such as
William Clements’s excellent Native American Verbal Art (1996).
The differences among the texts that a reader, listener, or viewer encounters depend
upon the relative knowledge of the collector and his or her assumptions about what he
or she is collecting and why and where the texts appear. In terms of knowledge, the
spectrum includes, at one extreme, the vastly uninformed who don’t display a primary
intent to collect the literature (such as the previously mentioned Jacob Hamblin who
in 1858 assumed the Hopi would speak Welsh), to the other extreme: Native scholars
and poets devoting their lives to collecting their literature, people today like Nora
Marks Dauenhauer (Tlingit), Rex Lee Jim (Navajo), and Gus Palmer, Jr. (Kiowa).
Assumptions regarding what was being collected and why and for which publishing
venues range among several viewpoints. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, Franz Boas and his students saw oral narratives as verbal artifacts demanding
careful literal translations for linguists and ethnographers. They believed that the texts
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 13

were extremely important cultural evidence created by people who were soon to ­vanish.
Their exacting literal translations often appeared in Bureau of American Ethnography
(BAE) publications in marked prose paragraphs. Here is the beginning of one of Boas’s
(1928) Keresan Yellow Woman stories:

Long ago. — Eh. — There in the northwest, long ago / Yellow‐Woman lived. There

were four of them. At that time they always / made clothing. They made also open‐work
stockings / and painted them like flowers; and women’s belts (5) they also made and
painted them like flowers. (118)

At the other extreme are those who perceive Indigenous narratives as poetry. The
venues for those emphasizing poetry were, for example, a special 1917 issue of Poetry
and anthologies that often included the word “poetry” in the title. For example, in
1962 one of the best‐known collections, Margot Astrov’s The Winged Serpent, first
­published in 1946, was retitled American Indian Prose and Poetry, and in 1992 it was
re‐retitled using both previous titles. In the early twentieth century, translations of
Native songs were compared to Imagist poetry. Advocates of this view believed that
literal translations had to be recreated to match readers’ expectations: the songs needed
to look like lyric or Imagist poems. Thus, the long prose paragraphs used by ethnog-
raphers and linguists for oral narratives were transformed into long narrative poems,
which in the case of Dell Hymes’s (1981) recreations from previous translations from
the Pacific Northwest, were presented in lines, stanzas, and scenes that he believed
captured the meaning and form of the oral narratives. Jerome Rothenberg (1972) and
other poets and scholars associated with the Ethnopoetics movement often presented
previously translated texts in free verse forms that attempted to recreate the dynamics
of the performance or create provocative visual patterns that, they assumed, enhanced
the meanings of the texts (16–41).
To accommodate different assumptions about what texts are or should be, transla-
tors and editors present either one translation that reflects the “best” representation of
the text or present multiple translations. No doubt influenced by New Critical
assumptions about literature, many of the editors of early to mid‐twentieth century
popular collections favored the former position; they offered what they considered to
be the “best” single literary version. Another advocate of the one‐version approach,
Anthony Mattina, justifies his position from a very different angle. He prefers prose
translations and uses the “Red English” of his Colville co‐translator. Since English is
the primary spoken language of most Native Americans today and Mattina is attempt-
ing to capture how stories are spoken today, there is logic in his approach, though, as
Robert Dale Parker (2003) argues, the Red English texts often have “more to do with
class, not with race or literary genre” (97).
Collections edited by advocates of multiple versions have appeared at least since
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches (1839). He represented oral narratives in
prose paragraphs, but he also included songs within the narratives as poetry, including
examples of an Ojibwe version and a literary English version (e.g. vol. 1: 197) and
14 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Ojibwe and a literal version (e.g. vol. 1: 168; vol. 2: 35, 37–38, 115). In Night Chant
(1902), Washington Matthews followed this model, for example in excerpts from this
short song of one of the hero twins, Monster Slayer:

Sitse’ dze
Tsin nitadeskaígo
Ayolélego yenyenyen
Silagaástini ananhe’hé’
Before me
Wood scattered around white
He makes it (meaningless [word])
I cause it (meaningless [word])
Free Translation
Before me
Forests white are strewn around
The lightning scatters
But ’tis I who cause it.
(Matthews 1902: 281)

The multiple versions make visible what the single literary versions often hide: the
addition of poetic words from the era (“strewn” and “’tis”), judgmental calls (“mean-
ingless”), and revisions that make the text accessible to non‐Natives (the singers
explained to Matthews that the scattered wood refers to “trees recently stricken by
lightning and showing white wood”) (281). Of course, a great advantage of a mul-
tiple version presentation that includes the Native language is that it answers a
complaint articulated by an anonymous linguist to Brian Swann (2004): “What
does it say to the native communities when we tell them ‘Your literature is only
valuable when it is in English’?” (xiv). Natalie Curtis was another early champion
of the multiple version approach. Her Indians’ Book (1907), designed for a general
reading audience, included cultural background, Native language, and literal trans-
lations along with musical notations of songs. Her ethnomusicologist’s approach
was one of the first to make non‐specialist readers aware of the performance charac-
teristics of the songs.
Dennis Tedlock offers one of the most interesting late twentieth‐century expres-
sions of multiple versions, working from the belief that oral narratives should be
­represented in bilingual and poetic form and should suggest performance qualities. In
Finding the Center (1972), Tedlock presents bilingual versions of the Zuni narratives he
recorded. Unlike the poetic versions published before those in Finding the Center, these
include line breaks representing the breath patterns of the speaker, and simple
­typographical signals to demonstrate: durations of sound (e.g. “LO‐‐‐‐‐NG”); volume
(e.g. “and COYOTE / Coyote was there at sitting rock with his children. / He was with his
children); and pitch (raising words above or below lines) (77).
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 15

Robert Dale Parker (2003) observes that whether a translator uses a single version or
multiple version representations, the use of a poetic form does have an advantage: “more
readers can be taught to see value in oral narrative if it hitches a ride on the mystified, hier-
archal status of poetry.” But he also worries about the transformation of a Native oral form
into a “high art” written form that may obscure alternative aesthetics of the Native form (95).
One way to address this challenge is to present a hybrid print‐video form – or to abandon
print form, as in the representation of an Inuit story in the acclaimed film Atanarjuat: The
Fast Runner (2001). These opportunities, initiated at least as early as the 1970s, suggest
some of the most fascinating possibilities for future representations of oral literature and
scholarship on oral literatures. The groundbreaking event for this approach was Larry
Evers’s Words & Place: Native Literature from the American Southwest (1978). Words & Place
offers several options. For example, for the “By This Song” segment, a person can view
Andrew Natonabah perform and explain the song in Canyon de Chelly to his children in
Navajo with English subtitles or without the subtitles (though there are sometimes techni-
cal problems with this option); can listen to a Navajo audio without the video; and can read
a printed English transcript of the song, Natonabah’s explanation, and supplemental cul-
tural background material. Another hybrid way to use Words & Place is to select the Seyewailo
segment and use it in conjunction with Evers’s and Felipe Molina’s bilingual Yaqui Deer
Songs / Maso Bwikan (1987). A multi‐decade collaborative project that uses video comes
from Canada. It began with Robin Ridington et al.’s (2011) tape recordings of Dane‐zaa
elders in northeastern British Columbia in the 1960s and continued with video recordings.
The “entire audio archive has been cataloged and digitized” and made available to the
Dane‐zaa community. The Doig River First Nation, in collaboration with a group of schol-
ars, “began recording video as part of their Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit entitled Dane
Wajich‐Dane‐zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land” (Ridington et al. 2011: 211).
As anyone who has spoken before a camera knows, moving from print to video
doesn’t mean removing mediation. Even if we move away from print and video to live
performances, experiencing the literature will vary with the circumstances: a non‐
Native performer before a class of non‐Natives at an urban university; a non‐Native
listening to a Mohawk storyteller performing at the Akwesasne Cultural Center on the
St. Regis Mohawk reservation; a fluent grandchild of a respected Hopi clan mother
watching her grandmother perform in Hopi before the family gathered in the grand-
mother’s home. There is no one way to experience oral literatures that is “best” for
every reader, listener, or viewer. But it is obvious that the debates about how Indigenous
oral literatures are experienced and represented will be important to future develop-
ments in Indigenous oral literatures scholarship.

Scholarship and Literature Impacting Communities

Closely related to debates about representation and experiencing oral literature is another
trend that has become increasingly important: what impact does/should scholarship on
oral literatures have on the communities studied? This challenge is an obvious inspiration
16 Volume I: Origins to 1820

for the creation, mentioned above, of the audio, video, and digital recordings of stories
told by Dane‐zaa elders and made available to the communities. Another concept of
community relationship that invites future study relates to the challenge of passing sto-
rytelling on to the next generation, the community of children and youth, utilizing
youth‐friendly media. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s Red: A Haida Manga (2009), Matt
Dembicki’s Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection (2010), a puzzle‐platform
video game, Never Alone (2014), that utilizes Inupiaq storytelling, and the Longhouse
Media project are intriguing examples. Red tells a Haida narrative in images that mix
Haida with Japanese manga styles; Trickster represents a collaboration of Native and
non‐Native artists and storytellers; Never Alone represents collaboration between the First
Nation Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E‐Line media (Land 2016). The Longhouse Media
project is a collaboration between the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and a Seattle
based non‐profit that defines Native youth as the future preservers and creators of
Indigenous storytelling. Their “Native Lens” program teaches children how to use film
to tell their people’s and their own stories (Lawson 2016).


I doubt that editors, any time soon, will devote 99% of multi‐volume histories of
American literature to Indigenous oral literatures. But I hope this chapter demonstrates
that, to again borrow Elliott’s (2003) words, the Indigenous oral literatures are not sim-
ply small additions to “American literary history, a new part wholly congruent with
those it joins” (726). Like Coyote, the oral literatures are disruptors with many voices.
They come from elders’ voices, bilingual print texts, films, websites, graphic novels, and
video games. They invite us to reconsider conventional concepts of authorship, context,
genre, geographic and period designation, functions of literature, and the implications of
how we represent and experience literature and how that literature impacts communities
and future generations. And like Coyote, they are also creators. They create opportunities
to understand American literature in ways we might have never considered.


Astrov, M. (ed.) (1962). American Indian Prose and Clements, W.M. (1996). Native American Verbal
Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Capricorn Books. Art: Texts and Contexts. Tucson: University of
Bierhorst, J. (ed.) (1976). The Red Swan: Myths and Arizona Press.
Tales of the American Indians. New York: Farrar, Cox, H.C. and Justice, D.H. (eds.) (2014). The Oxford
Straus and Giroux. Handbook of Indigenous American Literature.
Boas, F. (1928). Keresan Texts. New York: American New York: Oxford University Press.
Ethnological Society. Curtis, N. (ed.) (1907). The Indians’ Book: An Offering
Brehm, V. (1996). “The Metamorphoses of an Ojibwa by the American Indians of Indian Lore, Musical and
manido.” American Literature, 68(4): 677–706. Narrative. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Bruchac, J. (1991). “Four Directions: Some Thoughts Day, A.G. (1951). The Sky Clears: Poetry of the
on Teaching Native American Literature.” Studies American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
in American Indian Literatures, 3(2): 2–7. Press.
The Storyteller’s Universe: Indigenous Oral Literatures 17

Elliott, M. (2003). “Coyote Comes to the Norton: Parker, R.D. (2003). The Invention of Native American
Indigenous Oral Narrative and American Literary Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
History.” American Literature, 75(4): 723–749. Radin, P. (1972). Trickster: A Study in American
Evers, L. / University of Arizona (1978). Words & Indian Mythology. New York: Schocken Books.
Place: Native Literature from the American Southwest. Ridington, R., Ridington, J., Moore, P., Hennessy,
http://parentseyes.arizona.edu/wordsandplace K., and Ridington, A. (2011). “Ethnopoetic
(accessed 15 January 2016). Translation in Relation to Audio, Video, and New
Evers, L. and Molina, F.S. (eds.) (1987). Yaqui Deer Media Representations.” In Born in the Blood: On
Songs / Maso Bwikam. Tucson: University of Native American Translation, ed. B. Swann. Lincoln:
Arizona Press. University of Nebraska Press, pp. 211–241.
Faris, J.C. (1990). The Nightway: A History and a Roemer, K.M. (1994). “The Nightway Questions
History of Documentation of a Navajo Ceremonial. American Literature.” American Literature, 66(4):
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 817–828.
Feldmann, S. (ed.) (1965). The Storytelling Stone: Roemer, K.M. (1999–). Covers, Titles, and Tables:
Myths and Tales of the American Indians. New The Formations of American Literary Canons in
York: Dell‐Laurel. Anthologies. http://www.library.uta.edu/ctt.
Harjo, J., Howe, L., and Foerster, J. (eds.) (in press). Roemer, K.M. (2012). “It’s Not a Poem. It’s My
When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Life: Navajo Singing Identities.” Studies in
Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native American Indian Literatures, 24(2): 84–103.
American Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton. Roemer, K.M., and Porter, J. (eds.) (2005). The
Hymes, D.H. (1981). “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature.
Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: New York: Cambridge University Press.
University of Pennsylvania Press. Rothenberg, J. (ed.) (1972). Shaking the Pumpkin:
Kozak, D.L. (2012). Inside Dazzling Mountains: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas.
Southwest Native Verbal Arts. Lincoln: University New York: Doubleday Anchor.
of Nebraska Press. Schoolcraft, H.R. (1839). Algic Researches: Comprising
Kroeber, K. (1998). Artistry in Native American Inquiries Respecting the Mental Characteristics of the
Myths. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. North American Indian. Vols. 1 and 2. New York:
Land, J. (2016). “Indigenous Video Games and Harper & Brothers.
Environmental Storytelling.” Paper presented at Swann, B. (ed.) (1994). Coming to Light:
the Native American and Indigenous Studies Contemporary Translations of the Native Literature
Conference. Honolulu, 21 May 2016. of North America. New York: Vintage.
Lawson, A. (2016). “Indigenous Websites as Media Swann, B. (ed.) (2004). Voices from Four Directions:
Cosmologies: Longhouse Media and Eco‐political Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of
Arts.” Paper presented at the Native American North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
and Indigenous Studies Conference. Honolulu, Tedlock, D. (ed.) (1972). Finding the Center: Narrative
21 May 2016. Poetry of the Zuni Indians. New York: Dial.
Madsen, D. (ed.) (2016). The Routledge Companion to Thompson, S. (1972). Tales of the North American
Native American Literature. Abingdon: Routledge. Indians. Bloomington: University of Indiana
Marcus, G. and Sollors, W. (eds.) (2009). A New Press.
Literary History of America. Cambridge, MA: Wiget, A. (1987). “Telling the Tale: A Performance
Harvard University Press. Analysis of a Hopi Coyote Story.” In Recovering
Matthews, W. (1902). The Night Chant: A Navaho the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, ed.
Ceremony. New York: The Knickerbocker Press. B. Swann and A. Krupat. Berkeley: University
Momaday, N.S. (1975). “The Man Made of Words.” of California Press, pp. 297–336.
In The Literature of the American Indians, ed. A. Zolbrod, P. (1984). Diné Bahané: The Navajo
Chapman. New York: New American Library, Creation Story. Albuquerque: University of New
pp. 96–110. Mexico Press.
18 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Further Reading

Bauman, R. (1977). Verbal Art as Performance. Long In On the Translation of Native American Literature,
Grove, IL: Waveland Press. Approaches oral per- ed. B. Swann. Washington, DC: Smithsonian,
formance from linguistic, anthropological, pp. 3–32. Offers a concise history of collection
semiotic, and folkloric perspectives. and translation methods.
Bierhorst, J. (ed.) (1974). Four Masterworks of Roemer, K.M. (1991). “The Heuristic Powers of
American Indian Literature: Quetzalcoatl / the Indian Literatures: What Native Authorship
Ritual of Condolence / Cuceb / the Night Chant. Does to Mainstream Texts.” Studies in American
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A major Indian Literatures, 3(2): 8–21. Focuses on how
anthology that helped to legitimize the field for Native concepts of oral and written text creation
literary scholars. challenge Euro‐American concepts of the author.
Gill, S. and Sullivan, I.F. (1992). Dictionary of Ruoff, A.L.R. (1990). American Indian Literatures:
Native American Mythology. New York: Oxford An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected
University Press. Surveys Northern Mexico Bibliography. New York: Modern Language
through the Arctic Circle; includes names, Association. The most complete introduction to
phrases, symbols, motifs, themes, bibliogra- the field up through 1990.
phies, and illustrations. Wiget, A. (1996). Handbook of Native American
Hegeman, S. (1989). “Native American ‘Texts’ and Literature. New York: Garland. Although this is
the Problem of Authenticity.” American not as up to date as The Cambridge Companion to
Quarterly, 41(2): 265–283. Examines the issue Native American Literature (2005), The Oxford
of authenticity in the translation of oral Handbook of Indigenous American Literature
narrative. (2014), and The Routledge Companion to Native
Krupat, A. (1992). “On the Translation of Native American Literature (2016), it offers many more
American Song and Story: A Theorized History. entries on the oral literatures.


Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early
American Literatures
From Incommensurability to Exchange
Kelly Wisecup

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Potawatomi leader Simon Pokagon sold copies
of his book The Red Man’s Greeting to fairgoers. Printed on white birch bark, the small
book critiques the fair’s celebration of Columbus, for Pokagon notes that, “In behalf of
my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has
usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great
Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world.”
Pokagon goes on to characterize Columbus’s arrival as merely the first manifestation of
the violence, slavery, and greed that Europeans brought to the Americas, and he asks
attendees to remember that the “success” they celebrated “has been at the sacrifice of
our homes and a once happy race” (Pokagon 1893: 1). His appeal elicited attention
from Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Sr., and “some ladies friendly to his race,” and
he attended the fair “as a guest of the city” (Pokagon 2001: 79).
Plans for the next centennial celebration of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas were
likewise met with protests and denunciations from Hispanic, Latinx, and Native
American and Indigenous groups. While the 1992 Columbian Quincentenary spawned
commemorative coins, papal visits, and plans for reenacted “discoveries,” it also saw
failed proposals for world’s fairs and a renewed public and scholarly debate about
Columbus and his legacy as a “genocidal invader of the Americas” (Summerhill and
Williams 2000: 2). The terms of this debate about imperial explorers and the ongoing
repercussions of their actions for Indigenous peoples likewise characterized 1990s
scholarship on the literatures of exploration and encounter. The year 1992 and subse-
quent few years saw the publication of scholarly works devoted to reconsidering the

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
20 Volume I: Origins to 1820

so‐called discovery of what Europeans denominated the “New World,” while recent
scholarship has paid more attention to Native American responses to European explor-
ers and settlers. The field is poised to expand these investigations in productive ways.
If in the 1890s US Americans monumentalized Columbus as the figurehead of a
uniquely American identity, scholars of early American literatures have worked to
restore Columbus to a context that includes transatlantic colonialism, genocide, and
imperial relations with Indigenous peoples.
The 1992 scholarly turn rethought not only Columbus but also the literatures of explo-
ration and encounter and their accompanying modes of analysis. Scholars increasingly
placed their studies in the context of European imperialism and its representational tech-
nologies, and if they did not shift the focus away from Columbus, they did reconfigure the
methods with which scholars read his accounts. Most importantly, they departed from
positivist readings of colonial texts as transparent accounts of conquests that could be
analyzed to answer questions about the relative strength and weakness of European and
Native American peoples. Scholars embraced a methodological skepticism, viewing colo-
nial writers as “liars” and resisting the urge to view their writings as “an accurate and
reliable account of the nature of the New World lands and its peoples” (Greenblatt 1991: 7).
European writing was a technology not of truth but of power, a representational system
that colonists employed as they grappled with the significance of people whose presence
threatened to shatter the biblical histories that structured medieval and early modern
geographies. The conquest of the Americas was less an event whose causes needed to be
understood than a series of imaginative claims, rooted in Europeans’ confidence in their
rhetorical strategies and in the printed media with which they circulated reports. Explorers
from Columbus to Cortes employed existing generic and epistemological categories – from
wonder, to the marvelous, to “autopsy” (the appeal to eyewitness authority) – to manage
their emotional and intellectual responses to the challenges the Americas posed (Pagden
1993: 51).
In these studies, America is the “other,” an utterly strange, utterly incommensura-
ble entity that Europeans must try to incorporate into their systems of understanding.
The process of assimilation produced the literatures of exploration and encounter, and
these texts chart not external or material realities but colonists’ attempts to convince
themselves that they understand an unusual object or Native speech. Columbus and
John de Léry, key figures who appear in several studies of this decade, are ideal candi-
dates for these studies: they position themselves as distant non‐participants who
reported on the events and actions they observed. Explorers presented America to
patrons, potential explorers, and curious audiences back in Europe in ways that were
useful to goals of conquest. As Peter Hulme (1986) put it, colonists “produced [the
Americas] for Europe through a discourse that imbricated sets of questions and
assumptions, methods of procedure and analysis, and kinds of writing and imagery,
normally separated out into the discrete areas” (2). Explorers created what Hulme calls
“colonial discourse” by replicating and adapting existing strategies for describing
and categorizing unfamiliar peoples and their practices, strategies that also allowed
colonists to manage colonial relationships and to justify imperialism. This “colonial
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 21

discourse” could be analyzed for what it revealed not about Native people but about
European desires or anxieties. Adopting this position ideally allowed scholars to avoid
glossing over the violence of encounter while also avoiding having to speculate about
what Native people felt about that violence.
While incommensurability governed colonial encounters in these studies, some
scholars argued for alternative readings of those encounters and their literatures. In a
well‐known debate published in Critical Inquiry, Myra Jehlen and Peter Hulme
defended contrasting views of what colonial literatures can illuminate about cross‐
cultural encounters generally and about Native people particularly. Hulme’s analysis
of the discourse of cannibalism in Colonial Encounters (1986) showed that Europeans
had largely invented the idea that the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean ate human
flesh. Failing to locate convincing signs that he had sailed to the East Indies, Columbus
inserted a discourse of savagery that had been, since the classical period, associated
with the presence of gold. His descriptions of Indigenous peoples as eaters of human
flesh thus implicitly provided evidence that he would find the precious metal. Jehlen
(1993) argues that Hulme is too certain of colonial texts’ unreliability, and she pro-
poses an alternative reading in which these literatures can tell readers something about
the “agency of the colonized.” Analyzing John Smith’s account of the Native leader
colonists called Powhatan and of his coronation by English colonists, Jehlen points to
cracks and lapses in Smith’s text as evidence of “other possibilities” than the interpre-
tation Smith sought to produce, possibilities that derive from Powhatan’s actions
(685). If we cannot fully uncover these Indigenous movements, Jehlen suggests, we
can at least acknowledge their material existence and effect on colonial texts.
The difference between these two scholars’ methodologies seems to lie not in the
question of whether colonial texts are unreliable, whether they seek to justify colonial
power, or whether Native people had their own interpretations of colonists. Rather,
the difference lies in their respective views of what colonial literatures can illuminate
about cross‐cultural encounters generally and about Native people particularly and
thus about the accompanying methodologies scholars should embrace. Hulme (1986)
argues that he is investigating the conditions that made scholars want to ask certain
questions about Native peoples – whether they were really cannibals, for example. For
him, the literatures of encounter are assembled out of familiar representations and
remade to fit new contexts, and there may be little correspondence between those lit-
eratures and the material realities colonists faced. Jehlen (1993) calls for a considera-
tion of this “material reality” and its effect on colonial texts’ structure, and she suggests
that scholars can pry open a window on material conditions and Native actions by
looking through textual discontinuities (688).
While Jehlen did not develop her argument in Critical Inquiry into a longer work,
her reading of Smith’s Generall History has remained influential, and it stands as an
early example of the methodologies that were soon to characterize the field. Key to this
shift, which experimented with ways to engage with Native American contexts, was
the 1997 publication of anthropologist Neil Whitehead’s edition of Walter Ralegh’s
The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana by Sir Walter Ralegh.
22 Volume I: Origins to 1820

In  two extensive prefaces, Whitehead (1997) employed textual analysis alongside
a­nthropological and ethnohistorical research to argue for the “symbiotic nature of
­cultural construction, and the two‐way mutual character of cultural transmission”
(107). In his formulation, literatures of encounter are both highly rhetorical texts that
aim to exert power over Native peoples and texts that can tell scholars something
about the events that shaped them. Whitehead analyzes Ralegh’s statement that he
observed men whose heads were in their chests, a claim that scholars had long
­interpreted as an imaginative application of medieval representations of marvels in the
Americas. As Whitehead showed, Discoverie relied upon this tradition even as it also
responded to Native practices. Whitehead points out that Indigenous men often wore
gorgets carved with faces, meaning that Ralegh’s seemingly fantastic account actually
had a basis in Native material culture and practices. Such descriptions “appear only as
fictions while they are abstracted from the native practices from which they were
derived” (98). Whitehead’s interdisciplinary methodology positioned the literatures of
encounter as texts that aimed to defend and perpetuate colonialism and that were
shaped by two‐way exchanges. This move, Whitehead was careful to say, did not mean
that Native “voices” could be read transparently in colonial texts, but it did mean that
some elements of an Indigenous past could be heard (60).
Similarly, in an article that offers the most theoretically sophisticated response to
Greenblatt and New Historicist modes of analyzing early American literatures to date,
Ed White (2005) employs ethnohistorical research on Cherokee beliefs about super-
natural beings called “Little People” to reread Thomas Harriot’s account of Roanoke
Algonquian descriptions of disease as caused by “invisible bullets.” While Greenblatt
(1991) reads Harriot’s odd description of disease (unusual because early modern medi-
cal philosophies held that disease was caused by internal humoral imbalances rather
than external entities) as part of the colonist’s attempt to justify his heterodox religious
beliefs by placing them in Native mouths, White shows that Harriot’s description had
a possible counterpart in southeastern Native theories of disease. Finally, such interdis-
ciplinary scholarship has likewise allowed scholars to see anew the role of Native
women in cross‐cultural encounters. Rather than analyzing colonial representations of
Indigenous women as symbolic of European desires for conquest – of the land and of
women’s bodies – scholars have increasingly focused on Native women such as Matoaka
(or Pocahontas) and the Creek trader Coosaponakeesa (Mary Musgrove) as diplomats
whose negotiating skills and presence influenced the outcome of colonial encounters.
Following Whitehead’s lead, scholars have recently developed methodologies with
which to recover some part of Native actions and perspectives. This endeavor reconcep-
tualizes the relationship between colonial and Native American modes of representation
and contextualizes colonial reports of Native actions in research on Native American and
Indigenous cultural practices. Among other books, Matt Cohen’s The Networked Wilderness:
Communicating in Early New England (2009) questioned the cultural hierarchies attached
to terms like “orality” and “literacy” and the degree to which Natives and colonists could
be said to be wholly oral or literate cultures. As Cohen shows, colonists and Natives alike
drew on various modes of communication, including not only print, writing, and speech
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 23

but also performance, ritual, and non‐alphabetic forms like wampum and needlepoint.
As a result, he argues, Native and English people “constituted each other’s audiences”
(2). For example, Cohen rereads Thomas Morton’s debate with the Plymouth Separatists
as one that centered around cross‐cultural communication: Cohen analyzes Morton’s
Maypole as a “publishing venue” (33) on which Morton posted allegorical poems and
likely read them aloud to an audience that included New England Algonquians. It was
this multilingual communicative sphere that posed such a threat to the Separatists, who
sought to control how information moved in New England and across the Atlantic.
Cohen’s argument constitutes an important move away from earlier views of encoun-
ter as the meeting of two incommensurable cultures and instead posits cross‐cultural
contact as moments of contest over communications that were at least partially intel-
ligible to Native and colonial interlocutors. At the same time, Cohen’s book continued
existing calls to expand definitions of writing and to reorient scholarly attention away
from alphabetic writing and print. In their 1994 collection Writing Without Words:
Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & the Andes, co‐editors Elizabeth Hill Boone and
Walter Mignolo argue that linking writing to representations of the voice limit its
definition in ways that cannot encompass Indigenous communication systems. In her
introduction to the collection, Boone (1994) argues for a new conceptualization of
writing as “the communication of relatively specific ideas in a conventional manner by means of
permanent, visible marks” (15, emphasis in original), a definition capacious enough to
include alphabetic literacy alongside systems not oriented around the letter or the
voice, such as Incan quipu and Mayan hieroglyphic texts. While it was also published
in the wake of 1992, Writing Without Words offers a scholarly trajectory that departs
from the New Historicist focus on European representations, for the collection explic-
itly decenters European categories in order to historicize and analyze Native textual
and literary systems.
Following the lead of Boone and Mignolo, scholars have begun to expand the
objects of their study, by including readings of embodied acts as well as representa-
tions of wampum and ornamentation among their analysis of alphabetic texts.
Scholars such as Drew Lopenzina (2012), Birgit Brander Rasmussen (2012), Lisa
Brooks (2008), and Hilary Wyss (2000), to name a few, have positioned Native tex-
tual systems as writing rather than as a more “primitive” form of communication, and
they show how Native forms of writing continued to circulate after colonialism,
sometimes becoming interwoven in what we might see as textual encounters, yet also
maintaining separate literary histories. For example, Rasmussen argues that colonists
in Spanish and British America recognized that the Indigenous peoples they met had
sophisticated writing systems, and they took actions to destroy or hide evidence of
those practices. Native writing practices persisted anyway, sometimes in the use of
European writing systems to accomplish Indigenous purposes, as Wyss and Lopenzina
show, and sometimes in the ongoing use of materials such as wampum and birch
bark. As this scholarship demonstrates, a fuller understanding of colonial and Native
responses to cross‐cultural encounters also illuminates the multiple levels at which
colonial violence operated.
24 Volume I: Origins to 1820

These scholars have radically reconfigured how the literatures of encounter were
constituted and what those literatures include. History of the book methodolo-
gies  –  which position texts as the outcome of multiple contributors and con-
texts – have aided in tracing how colonial literatures were shaped in their content
and form by  cross‐cultural encounters. This mode of reading likewise requires
drawing upon ethnohistorical and anthropological studies, to illuminate the sig-
nificance of the ­materials and performances Natives employed to communicate
with explorers and ­settlers. Power is still at stake in colonial encounters, but in
contrast to scholarship of the 1990s, scholars have more recently focused on how
both Natives and colonists sought to influence the outcome of encounters to their
own benefit. As Cohen (2009) points out, one of the challenges of this methodology
is that the colonial‐authored texts on which scholars rely to illuminate Native prac-
tices are often the same texts that they skeptically analyze as reflecting colonial
power dynamics. He explores this point further in a collection (co‐edited with
Jeffrey Glover) titled Colonial Mediascapes: Sensory Worlds of the Early Americas, in
which the editors analyze how Indigenous “media” (a term they use by way of rede-
fining writing yet again, while also remaining conscious of colonial power rela-
tions) were “remediated” by Europeans, who represented Indigenous languages,
codices, tattoos and other forms in books, illustrations, and museums (Cohen and
Glover 2014: 5). Europeans employed these remediations to develop their trading
interests, establish missions, and make sweeping claims about human history, all
projects that insisted that Native people and their cultural practices belonged in
separate, usually inferior, categories from European ones.
Cohen and Glover unpack the “archival history of indigenous representation,” or
the ways that colonial texts represented Native American communications and pre-
sented those communication practices as evidence for various European theories
about historical progress and culture (4). The introduction offers a very useful
reminder that scholars usually access Indigenous responses to encounter through
colonial texts, or through texts collected and remediated by colonists. Native
responses were preserved and refracted through administrative demands and colo-
nial desires and theories. Knowledge of Native languages and literatures – and thus
scholars’ knowledge of these areas  –  rested on colonists’ need to fulfill financial
demands back in Europe, or to establish themselves as traders. Cohen’s and Glover’s
focus on European remediations of Native American textual systems provides a use-
ful reminder that literatures of encounter also functioned as representations of
Native American communications systems that likewise support studies of early
Native American histories and cultural practices. Indeed, Cohen and Glover’s
introduction seems to mark a return to Peter Hulme’s focus on the ways that
European texts condition what scholars can know about Native histories and, in
this case, media.
Yet, in Networked Wilderness, Cohen (2009) offers one answer to this methodological
quandary by suggesting that scholars might consider both Native peoples and English
settlers as possessing systematic communication cultures. Accordingly, they might
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 25

work to account for how each of those audiences shaped encounters and their textual
outcomes. As he cautions:

To say that communication happens on a spectrum of media modes is not to say that we
are all one people or that we can all understand each other. It is to say that we need to be
able to think about representation in ways that acknowledge difference and its effects
without insisting that there must be a knowable single source or origin of that differ-
ence, and that such knowledge can ground law. (11)

Another answer might come from the work of Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks (2008),
who grounds her study of early New England Native literatures in the Abenaki root
word awigha‐, which, she explains, “denotes ‘to draw,’ ‘to write,’ to map. The word
awikhigan, which originally described birchbark messages, maps, and scrolls, came to
encompass books and letters” (xxi). Brooks examines the encounter between European
and Native awikhigan from the perspective of the Abenaki and other New England
Native peoples who met Europeans and who incorporated print, alphabetic writing,
and the book into their existing textual systems. Studying such records, as Whitehead’s
analysis of Indigenous gorgets also reminds us, tests the disciplinary bounds and
­methods of literary studies but also centers analyses of Native inscriptions in tribally
specific languages and practices. Perhaps, then, studies of Native modes of representa-
tion and inscription should narrow rather than expand their terms: rather than broad-
ening writing to include a large array of texts, perhaps scholars should instead employ
terms like awikhigan to speak about particular Indigenous communities’ modes of
describing material forms of communication.
These new readings of literatures of encounter and exploration also developed out of
shifting views of the effects of exploration on colonial identities. When the scholarship
of the 1990s emphasized that colonists employed descriptions of the Americas to
­manage colonization, it presumed that European intellectual frameworks could be
reproduced in the Americas. The difficulty, for colonists, lay in shaping existing
­rhetorical strategies to account for unfamiliar events and experiences. Indeed, scholars
like William Spengemann (1994) argued that the experience of travel to the Americas
made colonial literatures distinctively American. The resistant unfamiliarity of experi-
ence differentiated colonists from their counterparts in Europe and created an American
literary tradition.
Yet, as Ralph Bauer (2003) and Jim Egan (1999) point out, these previous scholars
failed to explain why American experience was so powerful and why experience
­suddenly became a category that made Americans distinctive. Both Bauer and Egan
placed colonial descriptions of experience in transatlantic and hemispheric histories of
science in which experience became a new means of claiming authority in writing.
Experience was not suddenly valuable because it was American; instead, colonists drew
on emerging scientific discourses to claim an authority for “specifically colonial
setting[s]” that they otherwise lacked (Egan 1999: 8). In this new view, colonists
feared that they would lose the corporeal and intellectual qualities that made them
26 Volume I: Origins to 1820

European, and colonial literatures of encounter and exploration were less experiments
at representing what colonists saw as a New World in familiar categories than desperate
attempts to assure readers that they had not changed in the Americas. If colonists like
Christopher Columbus and Jean de Léry were the key figures for new historicist scholars
of the 1990s, then Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and George Percy, who experienced
failed settlements, physical deprivation and transformation, and intra‐ and intercultural
violence, were central to the new focus on colonial literatures as defenses of experience.
For example, Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación documents the slow, painful dismantling of his
identity as the treasurer on a Spanish voyage of conquest, as he is literally stripped
naked, is taken captive, assumes the role of a healer, and appears unrecognizable to
Spanish soldiers when he finally returns.
Authorities in European metropoles often saw such experiences as remaking i­mperial
subjects into hybrid figures with potentially suspicious alliances. Yet captives p­ resented
their eyewitness accounts of unfamiliar peoples as beneficial to imperial interests and desir-
able to audiences fascinated by the Americas. They even claimed that their p­ articipation in
some Indigenous practices had value: captives could present the “transformation that
results from contact with native cultures, not as detrimental, but as beneficial, allowing the
captive – and, by extension, the writer – to speak from a position of authority and knowl-
edge” (Voigt 2009: 23). Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative offers a well‐known exam-
ple: while Rowlandson is careful to write a story that tracks her successful return from
captivity, she also frames her knowledge of Native movements, subsistence practices, and
military actions as useful to a faltering English army. Such experiences rhetorically position
information about Native ­practices as useful (and, in some cases, as titillating) for readers,
while consequently blurring the boundaries between English or Spanish and Native
American identities. The distinctiveness of American literature and culture emerged from
these attempts to authorize colonial experience, not from those experiences themselves.
Sometimes, however, colonists’ experiences were so traumatic that they failed to
represent them in writing, with the result that their literatures did not so much reflect
a critique of metropolitan biases as the “deep estrangement” that misery “effects”
(Donegan 2013: 3). As Kathleen Donegan (2013) shows, “misery” and “catastrophe,”
not imagination or the marvelous, were crucial facets of exploration and encounter,
and colonial texts register a deep sense of loss, abjection, and trauma that defers closure
and interpretation, leaving colonists groping at answers to the question of whom they
had become in the Americas. Encounters played a significant role in shaping this mis-
ery, for violent interactions in which colonists and Natives were alternately victims
and aggressors threatened colonists’ sense of themselves as English men and women.
In some cases, Natives used violence to send messages to colonists, identifying colonial
greed by killing Englishmen at Jamestown and then stuffing their mouths with bread,
for example. Natives are decidedly agents in these texts and in scholars’ readings of
them: people who maintain control of geographic space, political diplomacy, and the
meanings of encounters in spite of colonists’ prior assumptions of superiority. Native
and Indigenous responses to encounters thus operated not only at the level of represen-
tation and writing but also in the realm of political negotiations and resistance.
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 27

The new focus on colonists’ unstable identities and on Natives’ increased agency has
generated debates about theories of race and their origins. Historians Joyce E. Chaplin
(2003) and Jorge Cañizares‐Esguerra (1999) offered still influential accounts of the rise
of racial science in the British and Spanish Americas, respectively. Both scholars argue
that, in the seventeenth century, colonists developed theories of difference rooted in
the body in order to defend themselves against accusations of degeneration and to
argue that their bodies had maintained their European qualities in America. By con-
trast, colonists attributed Natives’ refusal to embrace the teachings of the Catholic
Church in New Spain and their susceptibility to disease in the British Americas to
inherent bodily deficiencies. By reading colonial commentary on Native, African, and
European bodies in the Americas in the context of early modern science, these two
scholars argue for quite early origins of biological theories of race, dating them to
­seventeenth‐century encounters and colonists’ attempts to claim a “corporeal affinity”
for the climate in the British Americas and a hospitable climate in New Spain (Chaplin
2001: 157).
By contrast, several literary scholars have shown that, if colonists did sometimes
articulate theories of Native and African inferiority in order to defend their own physi-
cal and intellectual qualities, they did not always describe identity as rooted in the
body. As Donegan’s work shows, scholars have yet to fully account for the unsettling
effects of exploration and encounter, and the field seems poised to reconsider colonial
articulations of identity in light of the trauma that reshaped European identities.
Moreover, as Lisa Voigt (2009) shows, European captives argued for the value of unsta-
ble identities, describing their participation in Native customs and the adoption of
identities that were not quite European yet not fully Indigenous as a valuable source
of knowledge about the Americas. As she notes,
Such strategies of self‐authorization, and the fluidity and permeability of cultural and
ethnic categories that they entail, have perhaps been more “invisible in European
­consciousness” than the notion of “sharp racial typologies” that Cañizares‐Esguerra
­identifies as an overlooked sign of colonial Spanish America’s precocious modernity.
(Voigt 2009: 24)

As my own work has shown, colonists remarked upon the flexibility of English
bodily identity in the Americas, especially the Caribbean, well into the eighteenth
century, and this fluidity kept open channels in which colonists engaged with
Native and African knowledges. Colonists did seek to mark Native and African
practices as dangerous and as undesirable, but these claims of non‐European inferi-
ority did not accompany notions of a stable European body in which identity
inhered firmly in physical features. Instead, modern theories of race emerged slowly,
out of colonists’ comments on other peoples in the Americas and their environ-
ments (Wisecup 2013).
Looking forward, it is likely that scholars will continue to interrogate and revise the
terms literature and encounter, as well as related terms such as identity, writing, and
power. The Networked Wilderness (Cohen 2009), Queequeg’s Coffin (Rasmussen 2012),
28 Volume I: Origins to 1820

and Medical Encounters (Wisecup 2013) placed the literatures of encounter in conversation
with Native American studies, and that field is poised to help scholars of the early
Americas continue this mode of analysis by further reimagining European and Indigenous
textual systems. Placing materials like wampum strings and belts (made of shells and
serving diplomatic and other uses), quipu (Incan information storage devices), and bas-
kets into conversation with alphabetic writing in manuscript and print presents oppor-
tunities to consider how Natives engaged with European representational technologies
by bringing their own textual strategies to bear on encounters. In doing so, such scholar-
ship follows Scott Lyons’s (2010) call to “move away from conceptions of Indians as
‘things’ and toward a deeper analysis of Indians as human beings who do things – things
like asserting identity, defining identity, contesting identity, and so forth – under given
historical conditions” (59). No longer simply objects of European observation and imagi-
nation or people whose material realities exist just off the page, Native Americans were
key shapers of colonial American literatures and people who maintained alternative liter-
ary and historical traditions.
Such shifting methodologies are at work in studies of Matoaka, or Pocahontas, the
daughter of Powhatan whose alleged rescue of John Smith scholars have read as a sym-
bol for imperial narratives of Native American desire and welcome. Pocahontas’s story
as Smith tells it is certainly blatantly imaginative, her rescue likely invented by Smith
to defend his status and adopted by English colonial promoters to imagine a New
World into which the English were welcomed by Native people. Yet, research by Paula
Gunn Allen (2003) and other scholars illuminates the historical experiences of Matoaka
by drawing on tribal histories as well as European archives. Accounting for these con-
texts suggests that Matoaka served as an ambassador for her people, one who was
highly aware of her responsibilities and their significance and who drew on European
textual systems to make her perspectives known or to critique Europeans’ actions.
Moreover, as Caroline Wigginton (2016) shows, Matoaka and other Indigenous women
likely also exerted some influence over the ways in which European artists and writers
represented them. Wigginton reads Simon van de Passe’s engraving of Matoaka, one
that Matoaka herself may have shaped by insisting that her Powhatan name be
inscribed next to her English one and by presenting herself as a royal diplomat. Such
research has sought to remove Matoaka’s story from the romanticized, English contexts
in which her story usually circulates and to restore it to Algonquian contexts.
Importantly, this focus on Natives as agents and active shapers of encounters and
their representations has not shifted the focus away from the violence of encounter.
Indeed, the time is ripe for scholars of exploration and encounter literatures to engage
more closely with the interdisciplinary scholarship on settler colonialism, a context in
which power is structured in ways that predict and enable the dispossession of Native
and Indigenous peoples of their land and sovereignty. Doing so can illuminate the
ways in which encounters were not only complex textual moments but also events that
perpetuated European claims to land and resources, events with present consequences
for Indigenous communities. As Simon Pokagon pointed out in 1893, US achieve-
ments were built on top of “the red man’s wigwam” (2). Contextualizing studies of
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 29

encounter in scholarship on settler colonialism  –  and on colonialisms’ diverse

forms – could not only provide additional insight into the power structures that shaped
those encounters but could also help scholars to connect studies of early modern
encounters to the long history of dispossession that has characterized (and still charac-
terizes) European and US relations with Native peoples. A recognition of the ways that
literatures of encounter participated in and justified settler colonialism can help to
exemplify these texts’ ongoing significance while maintaining the historical specificity
that has characterized the best new work in the field.
Settler colonialism also raises questions about the temporality of the term “encoun-
ter,” which is traditionally associated with so‐called first contacts, with the wonder
and, more recently, the confusion and uncertainty that accompanied early settlers to
the Americas. Later, around the end of the eighteenth century, “encounter” gives way
to key terms and categories such as “expansion,” “removal,” or “revolution.” Moreover,
encounters between Anglo‐American settlers and Native Americans in the Ohio River
Valley and the American West, which occurred several hundred years after colonialism
began, are typically not included in studies of the literatures of encounter. Yet taking
settler colonialism as the operative structure in fifteenth‐, sixteenth‐, and seventeenth‐
century encounters also exposes links with later encounters driven by a similar struc-
ture and could usefully expand studies of encounter to later centuries. On the other
hand, it may be useful for scholars of earlier periods to draw from historian Nancy
Shoemaker’s (2015b) “typology of colonialism,” which attends to the different forms
of colonialism in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds, and to conceptualize the term
“encounter” accordingly. What distinguishes the literatures of encounter before 1820
from those that came after that date, and how might the field be revised to account for
those differences? On the other hand, what similarities do those literatures have, and
how might the field need to shift accordingly? What might scholars gain by consider-
ing early colonial encounters alongside later ones? How did encounter differ, if at all,
between an imperial context, in which colonists traveled overseas to establish settle-
ments and extract resources, and a US national context, in which colonists traveled for
hundreds of miles on land, also to establish settlements and extract resources? How
might the terms “encounter” and “colonialism” be redefined to attend more specifically
to the different effects they had on Indigenous peoples?
Moreover, some scholars have begun to reconfigure encounter and its literatures by
expanding their geographic scope. While earlier versions of the field drew on and con-
tributed to Atlantic studies, the field of American literary studies has recently seen
greater engagement with Africa and with the Pacific. Exciting work is emerging on
European encounters with Africa and African peoples, as scholars have examined
­narratives of voyages to Africa and to connect these accounts to American encounter
literatures. These studies reconceptualize the literatures of exploration and encounter
by developing methodologies with which to read colonial descriptions of Africans as
reflecting something of the actions and lives of those African interlocutors. Here, James
Sweet’s (2011) groundbreaking history of the African medical practitioner Domingos
Álvares and Cassander Smith’s (2016) study of Africans in early modern literatures
30 Volume I: Origins to 1820

stand as models for future studies: both scholars tease surprisingly specific information
about Álvares and, in Smith’s case, a number of African people, from kings to enslaved
women, out of colonial records and literary texts. Both scholars show that careful archi-
val and ethnohistorical research, when paired with historical and literary scholarship,
has the capacity to radically revise the archive of the literatures of encounter and of early
African (and African American) literatures.
Moreover, Shoemaker has recently redefined encounter by uncovering “indigenous
encounters” between Native American whalemen and Indigenous peoples throughout
the globe, moments in which there were “‘Indians’ on ships and on shore” (Shoemaker
2015a: 7). These moments promise to stretch multiple categories of encounter and
their literatures, shifting them away from their association with Columbus, first con-
tact, and the Atlantic, and toward later centuries and the Pacific. Similarly, Jace
Weaver (2014), Coll Thrush (2016), and David Chang (2016) trace the travels of
Indigenous peoples throughout the Atlantic and Pacific, noting that such mobility
requires scholars to shift the timeline of encounters much earlier than 1492. These
studies also require a rethinking of conceptions of encounter as moments of incom-
mensurable wonder, in which two peoples met one another with surprise and strug-
gled to make sense of the event. Encounters are negotiations over meaning and power,
events to which African, Native American, Indigenous, and European peoples came
with preexisting tactics for meeting with unfamiliar peoples. As Michelle Burnham
(2011) has pointed out in her study of Pacific travel literatures, the area was character-
ized by a “complex internationalism,” and future studies of encounter will no doubt
find it productive to decenter the Atlantic context that privileged Europe and the
Americans to take up these multinational exchanges (427).
As they examine how the literatures of encounter represent colonial anxieties about
their European identities and cross‐cultural conflicts over communication, scholars
might turn again to Pokagon’s Red Man’s Greeting, which discussed these themes over
a century ago. Pokagon highlights the pre‐contact existence of Native textual practices
by drawing attention to his book’s birch bark pages and noting that the Potawatomi
people used bark “instead of paper, being of greater value to us as it could not be
injured by sun or water” (Pokagon 1893: preface). The material on which the book is
printed likewise points to the interrelationship of land, inscription, and resistance to
colonialism: Pokagon’s birch bark pages remind readers that land is the basis of the
Potawatomi history told in the book, while also standing as a critique of US policies
of expansion and their destruction of natural resources. Moreover, Pokagon details the
values that grounded Native responses to Europeans: they treated settlers with ­kindness
and generosity, in contrast to the greed for gold that characterized colonists. These
values, for Pokagon, mark a long, hemispheric history of Native resistance to the
­practices of colonialism.
Pokagon’s book and the history it tells pose a final question for scholars of the litera-
tures of encounter. As both the content and the form of Red Man’s Greeting indicate,
Native histories of colonialism circulated in printed and non‐print forms, and they did
so long before and after the 1893 World’s Fair. Red Man’s Greeting thus also raises the
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 31

question of what place Native American literatures, histories, and textual practices
might occupy in future studies of literatures of encounter. The debates about writing
and its definitions outlined above suggest that the category “literatures of encounter”
might be expanded to include Native American representations of encounter – those
transcribed not only in colonial remediations but also in materials created by Native
The rapidly growing field of Native American and Indigenous studies focuses pri-
marily on post‐1900 literatures, but an increasing number of scholars are putting the
methodologies and questions of Native studies to work in earlier periods (Mt. Pleasant,
Wigginton, and Wisecup 2018). Moreover, as Whitehead’s (1997) work suggests,
interdisciplinary exchanges among literary scholars, anthropologists, and archaeolo-
gists may prove fruitful collaborations for scholars who wish to develop methodologi-
cal tools for examining non‐alphabetic and non‐print representations of encounter.
Finally, scholars might follow Christine DeLucia’s (2015) call for consultative and
collaborative research, in which scholars work with and alongside tribal communities,
many of whom have their own archives and maintain records and memories of encoun-
ter. Thus, as scholars attend in increasingly specific ways to the different versions of
colonialism and communication at stake in the literatures of encounter, opportunities
exist for them to consider as well Native American and Indigenous studies methodolo-
gies for examining these questions and for attending responsibly to parallel traditions
of Native American representations of encounter. As Pokagon’s Red Man’s Greeting
reminds us, these representations both drew on and contested European and US litera-
tures of encounter, by taking them as a basis for resistance. In doing so, Pokagon
reminded his audience that, while the historical record might try to silence Native
people, they cultivated and maintained their own practices for responding to


Allen, P.G. (2003). Pocahontas: Medicine Burnham, M. (2011). “Trade, Time, and the
Woman,  Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. New Calculus of Risk in Early Pacific Travel
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Bauer, R. (2003). The Cultural Geography of Colonial 425–447.
American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity. Cañizares‐Esguerra, J. (1999). “New World, New
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of
Boone, E.H. (1994). “Introduction: Writing and Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish
Recording Knowledge.” In Writing Without America, 1600–1650.” American Historical
Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica & Review, 104(1): 33–68.
the Andes, ed. E.H. Boone and W. Mignolo. Chang, D. (2016). The World and all the Things
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, Upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of
pp. 3–23. Exploration. Minneapolis: University of
Brooks, L. (2008). The Common Pot: The Recovery of Minnesota Press.
Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: Chaplin, J.E. (2001). Subject Matter: Technology,
Minnesota University Press. the Body, and Science on the Anglo‐American
32 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Frontier, 1500–1676. Cambridge, MA: Shoemaker, N. (2015a). Native American Whalemen

Harvard University Press. and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the
Cohen, M. (2009). The Networked Wilderness: Contingency of Race. Chapel Hill: University of
Communicating in Early New England. Minneapolis: North Carolina Press.
University of Minnesota Press. Shoemaker, N. (2015b). “A Typology of Colonialism.”
Cohen, M. and Glover, J. (2014). “Introduction.” Perspectives on History. https://www.historians.org/
In Colonial Mediascapes: Sensory Worlds of the Early publications‐and‐directories/perspectives‐on‐
Americas, ed. M. Cohen and J. Glover. Lincoln: history/october‐2015/a‐typology‐of‐colonialism
University of Nebraska Press, pp. 1–43. (accessed 13 April 2016).
DeLucia, C. (2015). “Speaking Together: The Smith, C. (2016). Washing the Ethiop Red: Black
Brothertown Indian Community and New Africans and English Anti‐Spanish Sentiment in the
Directions in Engaged Scholarship.” Early Early Atlantic World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana
American Literature, 50(1): 167–187. State University Press.
Donegan, K. (2013). Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe Spengemann, W. (1994). A New World of Words:
and Colonial Settlement in Early America. Redefining Early American Literature (New Haven,
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. CT: Yale University Press.
Egan, J. (1999). Authorizing Experience: Refigurations Summerhill, S.J. and Williams, J.A. (2000).
of the Body Politic in Seventeenth‐ Century New Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural
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Greenblatt, S. (1991). Marvelous Possessions: The Sweet, J.H. (2011). Domingos Álvares, African
Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic
Chicago Press. World. Chapel Hill: University of North
Hulme, P. (1986). Colonial Encounters: Europe and Carolina Press.
the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797. London: Thrush, C. (2016). Indigenous London: Native
Methuen. Travelers at the Heart of Empire. New Haven, CT:
Jehlen, M. (1993). “History Before the Fact; Or, Yale University Press.
Captain John Smith’s Unfinished Symphony.” Voigt, L. (2009). Writing Captivity in the Early
Critical Inquiry, 19(4): 677–692. Modern Atlantic: Circulations of Knowledge and
Lopenzina, D. (2012). Red Ink: Native Americans Authority in the Iberian and English Imperial
Picking Up the Pen in the Colonial Period. Albany: Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North
SUNY Press. Carolina Press.
Lyons, S. (2010). X‐Marks: Native Signatures of Weaver, J. (2014). The Red Atlantic: American
Assent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World,
Press. 1000–1927. Chapel Hill: University of North
Mt. Pleasant, A., Wigginton, C., and Wisecup, K. Carolina Press.
(2018). “A Joint Forum on Native American White, E. (2005). “Invisible Tagkanysough.”
and Indigenous Studies Materials and Methods.” PMLA, 120(3): 751–767.
The William and Mary Quarterly, 75(2): Whitehead, N. (ed.) (1997). The Discoverie of the
207–236. Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana by
Pagden, A. (1993). European Encounters with the New Walter Ralegh. Manchester: Manchester
World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New University Press.
Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Wigginton, C. (2016). In the Neighborhood: Women’s
Pokagon, S. (1893). The Red Man’s Greeting. Publication in Early America. Amherst: University
Hartford, MI: C.H. Engle. of Massachusetts Press.
Pokagon, S. (2001). Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki: Queen of Wisecup, K. (2013). Medical Encounters: Knowledge
the Woods, A Novel. East Lansing: Michigan State and Identity in Early American Literatures.
University Press. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
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Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature. Christianity, and Native Community in Early America.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Cross‐Cultural Encounters in Early American Literatures 33

Further Reading

Aljoe, N. (2012). Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives Knowledge, 6(2): 32–50. Revises the role of
from the British West Indies, 1709–1838. New incommensurability in colonial encounters.
York: Palgrave Macmillan. Expands the archive Cheyfitz, E. (1997). The Poetics of Imperialism:
of early African and African American writing Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to
by offering new methodologies with which to Tarzan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
read “as told to” slave narratives. Press. Studies the transhistorical effects of the
Bross, K. and Wyss, H.E. (eds.) (2008). Early Native strategies Europeans employed in literatures of
Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical encounter.
Anthology. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Coulthard, G.S. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks:
Press. An anthology pairing primary texts or Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.
objects created by Native Americans with scholarly Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. A
discussions; excellent for classroom use. theoretical analysis of settler colonialism and
Carey, D. (1997). “Questioning Incommensurability modes of resistance among First Nations com-
in Early Modern Cultural Exchange.” Common munities in Canada.


Settlement Literatures Before
and Beyond the Stories of Nations
Tamara Harvey

“The Americas were discovered in 1492, and the first Christian settlements ­established
by the Spanish the following year,” Bartolomé de las Casas writes in his 1542 preface
to A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Las Casas 1992) before outlining initial
settlement patterns ranging from Hispaniola, the first major European settlement in
the Americas, to the mainland, an area that he imagines “the Almighty selected … as
home to the greater part of the human race” (9). This overview of Spanish settlement
in the Americas gives way to a graphic account of massacres and atrocities that
­decimated Native populations. “The pattern established at the outset has remained
unchanged to this day,” he writes (11). Las Casas’s Short Account is an unusual text to
invoke at the beginning of a chapter on settlement literature. Since it was published
in the sixteenth century it has been taken as an indictment of Spanish conquest – in
particular by other European states laboring to distinguish their American settlements
from this conquest. The vision of Spanish conquest emerging from Las Casas’s critique
came to be known as the Black Legend; settlement, the advocates of other colonial
projects averred, is not that. But the patterns Las Casas observes shaped settlements
throughout the Americas, despite inevitable disavowals of Spanish atrocities. When
John Smith (2007) sets out possibilities for British settlements in North America 70
years later, he pointedly rejects the Spanish pattern as immoral but also as unattaina-
ble, and in saying it is unattainable Smith tacitly admits a desire to emulate their
­success. Invoking the Black Legend, Smith writes of the Virginia settlement, “we
washed not the ground with their blouds, nor shewed such strange inventions in
mangling, murdering, ransaking, and destroying (as did the Spaniards)” (94).

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 35

Yet  Smith craves a Spanish level of success and translates their pattern of resource
extraction to an alternative source of wealth, the fishing profits of the Dutch in the
Americas. He tells potential English settlers that the rich fisheries of New England will
produce a different kind of silver, the silver of fish scales and the silver gained by selling
fish, ­providing an alternative to Spanish mines, for “this is their Myne; and the Sea the
source of those silvered streames of all their vertue” (139). Smith and others were clearly
inspired by Spain’s colonial endeavors even as they frequently disavowed that inspira-
tion (Griffin 2005: 126–134). Even William Bradford (1981) looks to Spain in his early
account of the settling of Plymouth, comparing the starving times of the Pilgrims to
those of the Spanish recounted by Peter Martyr, whom he quotes: “That with their
miseries they opened a way to these new lands” (135).
In recent years, scholars have taken up the task of distinguishing settler colonialism
from other kinds of colonialism and settlers from other kinds of migrants. Settler
­colonialism is the process by which groups claim sovereignty in a new land and
­establish a new polity that displaces existing societies rather than subjugating them
while leaving them basically intact. Indeed, the word colony did not become the
­primary term for naming European settlements until well into the seventeenth c­ entury
because of its associations with Roman practices that generally left colonized societies
intact while demanding tribute and fealty. Especially with regard to religion but also
in matters of political and social organization, Europeans did not leave Indigenous
social structures in place. Instead, the Spanish established two large viceroyalties during
the sixteenth century (New Spain and Peru), administrative districts that extended
Spanish rule over these regions, while the English preferred the word plantation well
into the seventeenth century (Bauer and Mazzotti 2009: 12–22; Pagden 1995: 79).
John Cotton’s reflection in Gods Promise to his Plantation (1630) that “to plant a people
… is a Metaphor taken from young Impes; I will plant them, that is, I will make them
to take roote there” (14) depends on the idea that “a Country though not altogether
void of Inhabitants, yet void in that place where they reside” (4) is open to plantation,
following the principles of res nullius (Pagden 1995: 76). Tellingly, the settlers are
planted by God but their own agency as planters and builders who tend the land and
superintend the native inhabitants takes over the metaphor as the sermon progresses.
Colony became the prevalent term only when it started to name the relationship between
American settlements and European metropoles (Bauer and Mazzotti 2009: 20). For
instance, Samuel de Champlain (1632) writes of “habitations” and “forts” as well as “the
­mission” when he lists what has been established in New France, but when he describes
the relationship between New France and France, he uses the word “colonie” (4–5).
Reading Las Casas’s works as both a significant foil to many settlement literatures
and a work of settlement literature itself illuminates the erasures, contradictions, and
disavowals that enabled and continue to sustain settler colonialism in the Americas.
The pattern he observes may not be replicated exactly in other colonial endeavors, but
we should understand that pattern not as the exercise of specific modes of violence and
social control but rather the proliferation of extremely adaptable tactics and discourses
that enable and perpetuate settlement as justified and natural. Including Las Casas’s
36 Volume I: Origins to 1820

text as an example thus allows us to situate the literatures of settlements in the

Americas both within a broader geographic range and within a longer chronology
stretching back to Columbus and forward to the present.
Settlement literature cannot be clearly differentiated from discovery and conquest
literature since it uses and modifies rationales, discourses, and technologies for
­engaging the Americas developed over the first century of European presence there.
According to Lorenzo Veracini (2010), disavowal is a key component of settler
­colonialism, concealing its actual practices. For instance, settlers justify their activities
by virtue of their labors and hardship while disavowing responsibility for the
­displacement and murder of Natives (14). Uses of the Black Legend are an obvious
example of this kind of disavowal, but many strategies are used to naturalize ­settlement.
Discourses of settler colonialism range from Columbus’s first act of possession through
histories and narratives of settlement that claim or make space for Europeans in the
Americas to the tragic Indian romances of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth
­centuries that celebrate sacrifice and honor suicide (including Susanna Rowson’s Reuben
and Rachel [1798], James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans [1826], and
Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie [1827], to name only a very few) to contempo-
rary historical markers that naturalize US settlement and sovereignty with real
­consequences for issues like tribal recognition. The settler literature I treat in this
chapter – writings by and about early European settlements – are part of this history.
Moreover, even the briefest examination of so‐called discovery and settlement
­literatures reveals considerable overlap in genre, function, and historical imagination.
Most settlers were familiar with a range of discovery and conquest discourses from
other travel narratives, and they replicated them as a way to record what they saw, gain
the authority of the discoverer, and develop important mercantile and scientific
relationships with metropolitan audiences in Europe. Records of the gathering,
categorizing, and disseminating of information about New World wonders and
resources are almost always present while encounters with Indigenous inhabitants – even
when they are peaceful, even when they go unrecorded, even when the writer is explic-
itly critical, as in Las Casas’s texts – cannot be separated from the large‐scale practice of
conquest. These texts are both generically and ideologically messy, as Malini Johar
Schueller and Edward Watts (2003) put it in their introduction to postcoloniality and
early American studies (11), and overscrupulous distinctions tend to break down. More
importantly, such distinctions can disguise the adaptability of discourses that continue
to do the work of settler colonialism long after Euro‐American settlements came to
dominate the Americas.
In this chapter I try to keep things messy while attending to some of the patterns and
functions of settlement literatures of the Americas. Travel narratives, natural histories,
ethnographies, letters, and poetry are among the types of literature that both describe
and enable settlement. I focus primarily on the settlements that began around the early
seventeenth century, though with an eye to earlier Spanish settler literature that influ-
ences these texts. I look first at those elements of settlement literature that emerge from
and overlap with discourses of discovery and conquest and then at histories that look to
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 37

an emerging state, eventually a nation. By telling the story of foundation in forms that are
maintained and morphed as needed, these texts tend to naturalize settlement in support
of an often invisible conquest, serving as the cultural arm of imperial missions.

Elements of Discovery

Activities like mapping, naming, listing, and describing that shape truth under the
guise of identifying it objectively all do the work of displacing Natives and making
space for settlers, even as they deploy emerging modes of authority associated with
empiricism. Much new scholarship is concerned with these discourses and rhetorical
practices rather than more familiar and compelling narratives of grit and grace in the
face of early hardships, particularly since stories about first founding can seem overde-
termined by later nationalist readings, as in the story of the first Thanksgiving. In
recent years, transnational and particularly hemispheric approaches to settlement have
also started to transform how we understand European colonization of the Americas.
Studies of American settlements have long stalled at generalizations about the differ-
ences between Spanish, French, and English approaches to colonization epitomized by
Francis Parkman a century and a half ago: “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian,
English civilization scorned and neglected him, French civilization embraced and
cherished him” (quoted in Sayre 1997: 3), but ambitious comparative studies have
begun to break down these easy distinctions. For instance, working across disciplines,
participants in the “Before 1607” workshop held at the Huntington Library in 2013
explored what Europeans and Native Americans would have seen and known when
Jamestown, Québec, and Santa Fe were all founded at the turn of the seventeenth
­century. Pacific interests and new information from the interior of North America
fueled these efforts in ways that previous scholarship centered on east coast settlements
has not acknowledged (Kupperman 2015: 3). Similarly drawing on interdisciplinary
work sparked by the first Early Ibero/Anglo‐Americanist Summit, Ralph Bauer and
José Antonio Mazzotti’s introduction to Creole Subjects in the Colonial Americas: Empires,
Texts, Identities (2009) examines the uneven intersection between Spanish American
and British American creole identity. Though their focus is necessarily on more mature
settlements that have creole subjects (here creole means people of European descent born
in the Americas), they also address the differences among settlements in ways that
open up long‐standing commonplaces about the motivations and practices of different
countries. Even studies that are not explicitly transnational, like Michelle Burnham’s
Folded Selves: Colonial New England Writing in the World System (2007), have started
to  attend to how larger economic and political concerns shaped British American
­settlement literature.
New scholarship looks not only at what settlers knew about the world and ­colonial
enterprises; it also looks at how they knew – that is, how endeavors in the Americas
shaped ideas about science, cosmography, trade, and religion. For instance, James
Dougal Fleming argues that “an hermeneutics of discovery did not precede the
38 Volume I: Origins to 1820

c­ onquests, as the established method for obtaining the kind of knowledge that is
called power. Rather, it emanated from, and was validated by, the conquests, as the
method by which power had been obtained, and therefore was called knowledge”
(Fleming 2011: 8). In other words, what we have come to know as discovery did not
exist until explorers and natural historians found themselves investigating a nature
whose core no longer seemed self‐evident  –  appearances no longer directly repre-
sented the truth of a thing – and in uncovering hidden possibilities investigators
exercised power and gained knowledge that enhanced that power. Similarly, María
Portuondo (2009) looks at how Spanish cartography changes over the course of the
sixteenth century as political pressures, competition for American colonies, and a
wealth of new data led to a breakdown of older Renaissance cosmographies: “The
desire to write a universal cosmography, that chimerical dream of Renaissance
humanists, had dissolved when confronted with the challenge of incorporating the
New World into its conceptual framework” (297). One consequence is that descrip-
tion and cartography, which were joined in early Renaissance cosmographies, became
separated. Another is that Spanish efforts to keep their cartographic knowledge
secret gave way to a willingness to publish it as support for their territorial claims
(Portuondo 2009: 298). Meanwhile, exploration activities and settlements were
increasingly funded by merchants rather than monarchs and nobles, with conse-
quences for how settler literature treated economic exchanges (Burnham 2005:
29–32). Together, these changing methods of accounting for the Americas devel-
oped along with settlements, not before them, and reflected increased competition
among European powers as well as a sense that power can rest both in uncovering
what is hidden and circulating newfound knowledge judiciously in the service of
developing and consolidating New World interests.
Comparing Spanish ceremonies of possession with early English compacts gives us
some insight into how seventeenth‐century English settlements depended on earlier
Spanish models regardless of how vociferously they rejected the comparison, while
subtle differences reflected increased competition for New World footholds in the
early seventeenth century. In 1513 the Spanish began using a formal declaration of
sovereignty called the Requerimiento to take possession of Native lands and demand
obedience from Native peoples in the Americas under the guise of conversion. It
On the part of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana, his daughter, Queen of
Castille and Leon, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make
known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the
Heaven and the Earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the
men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who come after us. (Helps
1904: 264)

Written by Spanish jurist Juan López de Placios Rubios, the Requerimiento established
shared descent from Adam and Eve as justification for demanding Native submission.
That Natives, when they were present, neither knew Spanish nor were inclined to accept
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 39

conversion based on such a declaration was unimportant – the legal framework had been
asserted to the satisfaction of the Church and Spain (Restall 2003: 87, 94–95). The
Mayflower Compact of 1620 as recounted by William Bradford (1981) uses similar
­language to inaugurate settlement:
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and
Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern
Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and
one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for
our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid. (83–84)

Though the glory of God and the honor of king and country are used to justify the
compact, just as in the Requerimiento, the focus is not on demanding obedience but
rather on compacting together as a body politic, a settlement. John Winthrop’s “A
Modell of Christian Charity,” while not a formal compact, similarly establishes
principles of civic behavior. “Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our
superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities,” he writes, or else “open the
mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God,” a possibility with global
ramifications for they would be “as a city upon a hill” (Winthrop 1838: 47). Both
the Spanish and the English declarations essentially ignore Native sovereignty
while acknowledging a European and even global audience, though the English
texts focus more on unifying and organizing settlers. Later ceremonies of possession
reflect increased competition and, for the French and English, greater stress on
planting and building as the legal basis for claiming possession, but otherwise do
not differ as significantly from early Spanish practices as anti‐Spanish writers of the
period would like us to believe (Pagden 1995: 76; Seed 1995: 180). Even as the
foundations of sovereignty shift, in all these cases settlers differ from other kinds of
migrants because they are “founders of political orders and carry their sovereignty
with them” (Veracini 2010: 3).
In the study of British North America, John Smith has long inhabited a murky space
between discovery and settlement. Myra Jehlen (1994), for instance, sees Smith as a man
whose self‐fashioning anticipated “the dominant national ideology that the American
was an individual of unlimited potential in the image of an apparently boundless land”
but whose writings should not be understood as settlement literature proper (76).
Instead, she takes Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630–1651) as her model of settle-
ment literature because, unlike Smith, Bradford insisted that “colonizing meant settling
(rather than simple extraction of resources)” (87), adding that Bradford’s discursive ten-
dency to erase Indians rather than stress conquest and subjugation was a constitutive
feature of settlement literature. But Smith’s writings were significantly concerned with
the project of settlement, drawing on the conventions of early discovery but with greater
attention to territorial competition typical of the seventeenth century. Moreover, features
of his writings that seem aligned with his activities as an adventurer and promoter are
also found in accounts like Bradford’s, including attention to resource extraction, the
situating of colony and future mercantile activity not just Atlantically but oceanically,
40 Volume I: Origins to 1820

and gestures of heroic founding that draw on older Spanish models. And though Jehlen
is right to observe that Smith recognizes Native cultures and even Native sovereignty
while Bradford practices a kind of erasure, both strategies are part of a larger project of
making room physically and ideologically for the naturalization of European
In his 1616 “A Description of New England,” Smith (2007) himself stresses the
relationship between discovery and colonization while asking readers to understand
his own efforts as like those of the great Spanish explorers:

But it is not a worke for every one, to manage such an affaire as makes a discoverie, and
plants a Colony: It requires all the best parts of Art, Judgement, Courage, Honesty,
Constancy, Diligence and Industrie, to doe but neere well. Some are more proper for one
thing then another; and therein are to be imployed: and nothing breedes more confusion
then misplacing and misimploying men in their undertakings. Columbus, Cortez,
Pitzara, Soto, Magellanes, and the rest served more then a prentiship to learne how to
begin their most memorable attempts in the West Indies: which to the wonder of all ages
successefully they effected, when many hundreds of others farre above them in the worlds
opinion, beeing instructed but by relation, came to shame and confusion in actions of
small moment, who doubtlesse in other matters, were both wise, discreet, generous, and
couragious. (136–137)

In many respects Smith is using this passage to place himself in the company of great
Spanish precursors; as his lists make clear, he shares a litany of virtues with a catalogue
of famous and successful explorers. Eric Griffin (2005) reads this passage as an admoni-
tion to the English, who need to be more diligent in their American endeavors (129).
But the passage also demonstrates a refinement of earlier ideas about discovery, reflect-
ing new conditions among competing colonies and the new role of leaders like Smith
in navigating this international competition. The distinction Smith draws between
those who serve “more than a prentiship” and those who gain their knowledge from
books reflects a long‐recognized distinction between knowledge gained through navi-
gational practices and the knowledge of scholars (Smith 2007: 136). Smith may be
urging the English to keep up with other countries, but he does so with attention to
the same colonial competition that Portuondo (2009) sees as the source of shifting
cosmographical practices in Spain that forego totalizing, cosmographical understand-
ing and share cartographic information strategically in support of territorial claims.
It is telling that Smith’s (2007) reflections on the virtues of the explorers follows his
detailed discussion of the location of New England. Again, he highlights the differ-
ence between his hard‐won knowledge and the ignorance of those who “asked such
strange questions, of the goodnesse and greatnesse of those spatious Tracts of land, how
they can bee thus long unknowne, or not possessed by the Spaniards, and many such
like demands” (134). And, like other early seventeenth‐century colonial endeavors, his
geography lesson is informed by activity in the Pacific as well as along the Atlantic
seaboard. Indeed, Smith begins by situating New England with respect to English
claims in the Pacific: “New England is that part of America in the Ocean Sea opposite
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 41

to Nova Albyon in the South Sea; discovered by the most memorable Sir Francis Drake
in his voyage about the worlde” (134). He then details its relation to other colonies:
“New France, off it, is Northward: Southwardes is Virginia, and all the adjoyning
Continent, with New Granado, New Spain, New Andolosia and the West Indies”
(134). Smith attends to navigational details as early explorers did, but he is situating
New England with respect to other colonies, both insisting that there is unclaimed
space open for settlement and outlining potential partners and competitors in trade.
That he begins with “Nova Albyon in the South Sea” further stresses the global
­ambitions at work here – this is not solely an Atlantic endeavor (134).
Smith’s efforts to situate New England geographically while aligning himself with
earlier explorers gives us some insight into the geopolitics of early seventeenth‐century
settlement. His commodity lists in turn provide insight into the economic world
growing out of and sustaining these efforts. Lists were common features of exploration
narratives and early natural histories, both documenting discoveries and reimagining
them in terms of profitable trade. In a 1493 letter describing his first voyage, for
instance, Columbus (1969) includes long lists of plants, birds, and trees that he finds
individually and in their variety “a marvelous sight,” but these lists of natural wonders
frequently end in a statement about wealth‐creating commodities: “In Hispaniola
there are many spices and large mines of gold and other metals” (116–117). Smith’s
lists work similarly, but as Michelle Burnham (2007) has observed, commodity lists
like Smith’s may be read as works of “anti‐wonder,” deferring narrative satisfaction for
possible investors until the market potential of those commodities are realized some-
time in the future (35). In a passage extolling the wealth to be gained by fishing,
Smith (2007) begins simply: “The maine staple, from hence to bee extracted for the
present to produce the rest, is Fish” (139), but he rapidly expands the passage with
lists of commodities that demonstrate the riches gained by the Dutch and to be gained
by England through trade. The Dutch have traded fish, elsewhere described as
“Herring, Cod, and Ling, … that triplicitie that makes their wealth” (140), for “Wood,
Flax, Pitch, Tarre, Rosin, Cordage, and such like” with “French, Spaniards, Portugales,
and English, etc.” and in doing so have built a mercantile empire that ships “Golde,
Silver, Pearles, Diamonds, Pretious stones, Silkes, Velvets, and Cloth of golde” (139).
In both his lists and his association of discovery and settlement, Smith seems to be
looking backward to an earlier model of heroism that Jehlen (1994) sees when she
identifies him with the myth of American individualism. Burnham’s reading, how-
ever, suggests that he is repurposing these conventions slightly in order to lay the
groundwork for settlement that will compete with other nations in a commercial
world that is sustained by merchants and already decidedly transnational in its reach.
Smith addresses readers who see the Americas as fully claimed and known though in
rather simple terms; in making the case for English settlement, he identifies spaces for
further exploration and colonization while acknowledging a colonial world that is
shaped by competition and not entirely unknown. One rhetorical challenge Smith and
others faced was to assert that the land was sufficiently empty of both Indigenous and
competing colonial settlements to fulfill the legal demands of res nullius upon which
42 Volume I: Origins to 1820

British and French settlements were largely made (Pagden 1995: 76) while at the same
time providing a fuller sense of what was known both about the peoples, geography,
and resources of the Americas and about competing colonies. They addressed this
­challenge both through appeals to older models of authority and attention to contem-
porary ways of understanding the Americas shaped in part by competition for land and
markets that developed over the preceding century.
Smith’s attention to mercantile circulations and competitive colonial forces that
were not confined to the eastern seaboard of North America can help illuminate the
poetry of Anne Bradstreet, a settler who is often read as oddly silent about her American
experiences. In “The Four Monarchies,” published in 1650, Bradstreet (1967) retells
the histories of great empires up through the Romans, but in the first of her quaterni-
ons, her attention is focused much more on New World riches characterized from the
perspective of Atlantic trade. Responding to the charge to “impart your usefulness and
force” (22), Earth is the first to stress the circulation of commodities, though she
directs her attention to “where sun doth rise,” that is, the East:

But hark you wealthy merchants, who for prize

Send forth your well‐manned ships where sun doth rise,
After three years when men and meat is spent,
My rich commodities pay double rent.

But mariners where got you ships and sails,
And oars to row, when both my sisters fails?
Your tackling, anchor, compass too is mine,
Which guides when sun nor moon nor stars do shine.

Water responds to Earth with a catalogue of Eastern, European, and North African
bodies of water that are both scientific wonders and conduits for trade, though she
looks too to the Americas:

Thy gallant rich perfuming ambergris

I lightly cast ashore as frothy fleece,
With rolling grains of purest massy gold,
Which Spain’s Americans do gladly hold.

Bradstreet may not be describing the nature and people of New England, but she is
registering a worldview shaped by over a century of European activities in the Americas
out of which the New England project developed, as we see in Smith’s writings.
Placing her poetry on a continuum with earlier discovery discourses helps us read it as
settler literature doing the work of settler colonialism in ways that anti‐Spanish w
­ riters
of the period disavowed, in part by insisting on a sharper antithesis between Spain and
other European countries than was the case.
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 43

These elements of discovery literature often seem to work as side notes to the
c­ ompelling narrative elements that shape national origin stories and paper schoolroom
walls. They frequently align with global ambitions and needs  –  the circulations of
mercantile capitalism, competition among colonies, and the needs of a colony still
dependent on a home country. In that way they can be boring – as Burnham (2007)
suggests, they defer narrative gratification. That said, they also reveal ambitions
and investments that narrative forms of settler literature frequently draw on but also
disavow. It is to these historical narratives that we turn now.

Settlement Histories

Settlement literature comprises many forms and discourses that overlap other
kinds of travel, mercantile, and discovery discourses. Of all the forms that settler
literature takes, settlement histories are clearly the most central. For contemporar-
ies, they help establish legal claims, forward individual interests, and record per-
sonal experiences. For later generations, they justify ongoing political and social
formations and shape national myths while providing the narrative gratification
that commodity lists do not. Among histories written by first‐generation partici-
pants in settlement, some of the best known include Bradford’s Of Plymouth
Plantation (1630–1651) and Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New‐England,
and the Summer Isles (1624) and, if we admit a more hemispheric gaze, chronicles
like Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain (1568) and Samuel de Champlain’s
Les Voyages de la Nouvelle France (1632). By including the texts of Bernal Díaz and
Samuel de Champlain, we again face the problem of defining settlement litera-
ture across imperial boundaries. Added to the differences in experiences (mostly
signaled by Spanish territorial success and mineral wealth) and terminology
(emerging at the time and imposed by later generations) that we have already
seen, differences in narrative forms complicate our understanding of settlement
histories. Anthony Pagden (1995), comparing Spanish, French, and English set-
tlement literature, writes:
There is an abundance of narratives on both the French and English settlement in the
Americas. But there is, as has often been remarked, no English or French equivalent of
Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account of the conquest of Mexico or Garcilaso de la Vega’s evoca-
tion of the Inka empire. […] That is so, not, as some have suggested, because of a defect in
the historical sensibilities of the nations, but simply because there was nothing which took
place in French or British America about which such stories could be told. (66)

Though it is hard to generalize across the histories offered by works as diverse as Díaz’s
chronicle, Bradford’s account, and the Jesuit Relations, all works that take forms par-
ticularly well suited to the settlement projects they recount, we can look at some of the
basic components and functions of settlement histories as a way to get beyond the
stark differences outlined by Pagden.
44 Volume I: Origins to 1820

In “To My Dear Children,” a manuscript letter that remained unpublished during

her lifetime, Anne Bradstreet (1967) writes, “I found a new world and new manners,
at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted
to it and joined to the church at Boston” (241). Bradstreet’s most sustained, ambitious
historical work, “The Four Monarchies,” focuses on earlier empires, but this short
observation to her children about first setting foot in New England might be taken as
an epitome of settler histories. In the transition from Bradstreet’s first sentence to her
second, “a new world and new manners” tacitly acknowledges cultural encounter with
another place and peoples, only to give way without remark to “the church at Boston.”
I argue that we should see this as Bradstreet’s tiny settler history, a history that both
illuminates the functioning of longer, better known works of settler literature and
reminds us that these histories are not only the work of colonial leaders. Bradstreet’s
tiny settler history highlights two basic characteristics of such histories across the
Americas. First, settler narratives were conveyed in many forms, often in personal
accounts addressed to acquaintances and intimates, and longer settler histories fre-
quently incorporated these shorter narratives. For instance, William Bradford (1981)
includes many letters in Of Plymouth Plantation and, after the first book, shifts explic-
itly to an annal form that better fits this pieced‐together format. He sounds only
slightly defensive when he explains that “letters are by some wise men counted the
best parts of histories” (43). Second, regardless of length, form, and audience, these
narratives do the work of making space for settlement. Bradstreet is one among many
who makes space by focusing on European activities while ignoring Indigenous inhab-
itants. According to Jehlen (1994), such characterizations of the Americas as empty or
savage wilderness are “structuring abstractions” that undergird English settlement
(84–85). Bradstreet’s elision may be read as a fainter version of Bradford’s (1981)
famous invitation to the reader to “stand half amazed” in imagining the feelings of the
pilgrims upon arriving where “they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to
entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies. […] Besides, what could they see but
a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men – and what multi-
tudes there might be of them they knew not” (69–70). But as we shall see, it is a
mistake to overemphasize the prevalence and efficacy of these erasing strategies.
The Jesuit Relations provide some of the most detailed early histories of settlement in
New France as well as accounts of missions and Native cultures for which they are
known. These relations were edited mission reports compiled from letters and accounts
and sent from Québec to France and other parts of the Jesuit apostolate with the aim of
promoting the missions (Greer 2000: 14–15). In Father Paul Le Jeune’s 1636 report
“On the present state of New France” in that year’s Relation, he describes the progress
and ambitions of the settlers who “are thinking of a number of homes or settlements as
far up as the great Sault de saint Louys” and even to Lake Huron. He continues by con-
trasting the growth of settlements in New France with the corruption of Old France:

And now we see a great number of very honorable persons land here every year, who come
to cast themselves into our great forests as if into the bosom of peace, to live here with
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 45

more piety, more immunity, and more liberty. The din of Palaces, the great uproar of
Lawyers, Litigants, and Solicitors is heard here only at a thousand leagues’ distance.
Exactions, deceits, thefts, rapes, assassinations, treachery, enmity, black malice, are seen
here only once a year, in the letters and Gazettes which people bring from Old France.
(Thwaites 1897: 139)

Each year the Jesuit Relations included news on the progress of French settlements
along with accounts of their efforts to convert Natives, accounts that Le Jeune suggests
were more valuable objects of exchange than the grim reports coming out of Old
France in return.
Among the contributors to the Jesuit Relations are Ursuline and Hospital nuns in
Québec whose letters and accounts were regularly incorporated. Though many of these
nuns yearned to join the Jesuit fathers as they moved around the country, gender norms
and the rules of enclosure kept them within the major French settlements. Marie de
l’Incarnation (Marie Guyart) and other nuns wrote letters and accounts that demon-
strated their understanding that they were writing important histories of New France
and their part in a global apostolate. Ursulines frequently circulated semi‐private letters
that might be addressed to individuals or to the transatlantic Ursuline community more
generally. Among the latter, lettres circulaires were accounts of individual convents while
circulaires mortuaires memorialized individual Ursulines when they died (Lierheimer
1994: 163–164). They were then collected in annals and chronicles for later generations.
That said, both because of the rules of enclosure and women’s limited access to publica-
tion, readers outside the convent would have known these texts primarily through the
edited versions included in the Jesuit Relations that made significant changes to the origi-
nal letters. For instance, the “heroic virtues” valued by nuns might be edited out in favor
of virtues of modesty and obedience while the Ursuline lineage stressed particularly in
the Ursuline compilations disappeared as individual letters were absorbed into the Jesuit
Relations (Lierheimer 1994: 181–198; Harvey 2008: 113–117).
In addition to the formal histories of the lettres circulaires and the circulaires mor-
tuaires, nuns like Marie de l’Incarnation (1989) wrote more expedient letters in which
the exchange of news for necessities stands in for the circulation of more profitable
commodities. In one letter Marie contrasted the beaver trade with “trading in souls”
(252), but like other first‐generation settlers it may be said that her first object of trade
was narrative. Rather than offering future riches, she offered future conversions; rather
than thrilling stories of wilderness martyrdom, she offered narratives of establishing
new world institutions, that is, of settling. Marie de l’Incarnation served as mother
superior of the first Ursuline convent in Québec for decades. In that role, one of her
important duties was to write for support from France and in return provide informa-
tion about the endeavors of nuns in New France. Indeed, in a letter to her son she
reports having written more than 200 letters to be sent on a single ship (232). In
another letter to him she elaborates:
Who can have told you that I have had difficulties in our establishment? Yes, I have
had, and unless one has experienced this it is hard to believe how many problems one
46 Volume I: Origins to 1820

encounters in an establishment made in a new and completely barbarous country. One

depends so completely on France that without its help one would not know what to do.
In ­addition, no matter how urgent and important things are, one must wait a year in
order to have them resolved; and if this cannot be done during the period when the
ships are in France, then one must wait for two years. When the ships return, those to
whom some concern has been entrusted are apt to think only of their own affairs; thus
one can hardly ever have a clear solution to any problem. (234)

Marie told and retold the story of the nuns’ hardships in these letters, sending detailed
news, for instance, of “Iroquois persecutions” while also explaining “we are in need of
everything” (230, 228). The interchangeability of “necessities” and “commodities” is
also evident throughout Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, as he continually seeks the
former while the Adventurers, the Plymouth plantation’s first investors, demand the
latter. In a letter from the Adventurers included by Bradford (1981), they write, “And
after your necessities are served, you gather together such commodities as the country
yields and send them over to pay debts and clear engagements here” (193). If commod-
ity lists are forms of anti‐wonder that delay narrative gratification, the search for
necessities often drives these narratives by allowing writers to spin tales of hardship
that validate their efforts, underscoring a story of interdependence between metropole
and colony and serving as an object of exchange with Europeans eager for news from
the Americas.
The Jesuit Relations also highlight the work of Native critics and collaborators that
too great an emphasis on the rhetoric of erasure masks. Because of their avowed inter-
est in recording Native practices, the Jesuits depended on collaborators. Likewise,
Bradford, Smith, Díaz, Thomas Morton, Marie de l’Incarnation, and practically every
other author of settler literature included exchanges with and knowledge gained from
Natives that reflect complicity, critique, and something in between. Bradford (1981)
extolls the “vast and unpeopled countries of America,” unpeopled save for “savage and
brutish men,” but he also details the assistance of Squanto and Hobomok and diplo-
matic exchanges with Massassoit and others in ways that belie this characterization
(26). Indeed, these accounts are very like Bradford’s extensive discussion of his deal-
ings with Thomas Weston and the Adventurers. That Europeans were inconsistent in
their representations of Natives has long been recognized though too often with exclu-
sive attention to the discourses of erasure with which I began this section. As Jodi A.
Byrd (2011) observes, critical readings of US settler colonialism frequently treat
Indigenous people as “past tense presences” or “melancholic citizens dissatisfied with
the conditions of inclusion. All too rarely outside American Indian and Indigenous
studies are American Indians theorized as the field through which U.S. empire became
possible at all” (xx). Recent scholarship pays more attention to strategies for under-
standing Native perspectives and engagements.
In Spanish America, major historical works authored by Indigenous and mestizo
historians provide particularly rich sources for considering Native historiography.
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 47

What has come to be called New Conquest History reconsiders foundational texts
of Spanish American conquest and settlement alongside Native and mestizo
authored codices and Spanish texts interpreted with more knowledgeable
approaches to Native languages, modes of communication, and cultures (Restall
2012: 155–156). Prominent among those texts that are at once Native, conquest,
and settler histories are Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s account of Andean his-
tory and the conquest of Peru in Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615), the Inca
Garcilaso de la Vega’s Historia de la Florida (1605) and Comentarios Reales de los
Incas (1609), and Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Compendio histórico del reino de
Texcoco (c. 1610–1640), as well as narratives collected in the Florentine Codex
(1545–1590). Notably, these are later histories that attempt to consolidate and
make sense of events that occurred a generation or more earlier. In recent years,
scholars have attended more to the middle space between resistance and complic-
ity. For instance, Yolanda Martinez‐San Miguel (2008) uses the tools of postmod-
ernism, subaltern studies, and postcolonialism to offer a “minor reading” of the
Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Long print histories by Natives are not available for
scholars of English and French settlements, so these scholars frequently focus on
ways to identify Native discursive strategies and communication technologies
through available fragments and evidence available in European works. For exam-
ple, Matt Cohen (2010) reads Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan and Bradford’s
Of Plymouth Plantation for evidence of communication technologies that move
beyond long‐held assumptions about Native orality. As he explains, “it is impor-
tant to extend our knowledge of the layers of deception that shape European nar-
ratives but also to acknowledge that Natives can lie and deceive like other
humans” (20). The negotiation of two or more languages and communication
technologies (e.g. Andean quipus and European print) as well as multiple audi-
ences are a central focus in all these studies.
Settlement histories were written for the present and the future, for readers in
the Americas and in Europe. First‐generation narratives could be found in many
forms; the best known early histories are often composites of many types of texts,
with a range of authors. These histories tended to become more consolidated with
time: we see this in Robert Beverley’s The History and Present State of Virginia
(1705) and Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) but also in the
works of Garcilaso de la Vega and Alva Ixtlilxochitl. In the nineteenth century,
American settlement histories were more unified and more tightly linked to the
needs of new nations. Even with these changes, however, the dominant histories
continued to do the work of settler colonialism though in different narrative
forms, a situation that William Apess (Pequot) (1992) observes when he argues
that Metacom’s (or King Philip’s) tactics were “equal, if not superior, to that of
Washington crossing the Delaware” in his 1836 “Eulogy for King Philip” (297).
Apess’s oration also reminds us of long‐standing and ongoing challenges to this
narrative violence.
48 Volume I: Origins to 1820


In writing this chapter I found myself struggling with two challenges. One was how
to write about settlement with attention to literatures from across the Americas. As
Anna Brickhouse (2015) observes,

the term settlement – against which, of course, the concept of unsettlement is semantically

derived and defined – has traditionally been used in the historiography of the Anglo‐
American colonies, and it has always functioned as more than just another word for
colonialism: it has from its earliest usages connoted a specifically English and particularly
Protestant style of colonialism that is in contrast to its (always implied, sometimes
explicit) Spanish foil: conquest. (2).

The other challenge, which resonates with Brickhouse’s idea of unsettlement, is

the problem of characterizing settlement literature without reifying it in such a
way that its consequences seem inevitable, if not triumphant. One major factor
that contributes to both these problems is the understanding of settlement that
arose with nineteenth‐century nationalisms. Through the pens of writers in the
United States focusing primarily on narratives and embracing an Anglocentric
lens, the virtues of John Smith and the Pilgrims came to dominate ideas about
American settlement in a way that was not apparent in the writings of Smith and
Bradford themselves. They were far more aware of how contested and protean their
endeavors were. Critical approaches of the twentieth‐century sometimes were
guilty of reinforcing these issues in reverse, for instance by overemphasizing the
rhetoric of erasure.
Recent scholarship provides a more accurate portrait of settlement by expand-
ing our understanding of how this literature was situated in its own time and
how the work of settlement continues in our own. Looking at contributing
­discourses that do the work of settlement but were not intended as histories of
­settlement is one fruitful line of inquiry that not only provides a more accurate
understanding of European involvement in the Americas but also allows us to see
hemispheric trends in a global context. This includes recognizing the ways that
settlement literatures of the seventeenth century frequently build on Spanish
endeavors, learning, and discourses even as they attempt to deny a likeness with
Spanish conquest. There are real differences between conquest and settlement,
but both ultimately served settler colonialism in ways that in hindsight seem
more similar than different. When we do look at narratives and histories of
­settlement, scholars might attend further to how these histories are to be found
in a range of discourses and smaller histories like those included in Marie
de  l’Incarnation’s letters and Bradstreet’s tiny settler history in “To My Dear
Children” as well as in the collaboration and critiques of Indigenous interlocutors
and historians. Overall, scholars can productively expand our understanding of
what counts as settler literature backward (by including elements of discovery
Settlement Literatures Before and Beyond the Stories of Nations 49

literature), outward (by including authors often neglected in histories of settler

literature and by situating individual settlements more globally), and forward
(by acknowledging the ways settlement literature is constructed by later


Apess, W. (1992). On Our Own Ground: The Complete Griffin, E. (2005). “The Specter of Spain in John
Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, ed. B. Smith’s Colonial Writing.” In Envisioning an
O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the
Press. North Atlantic World, ed. R. A. and J. Sweet.
Bauer, R. and Mazzotti, J.A. (2009). Creole Subjects Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
in the Colonial Americas: Empires, Texts, Identities. pp. 111–134.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Harvey, T. (2008). Figuring Modesty in Feminist
Bradford, W. (1981). Of Plymouth Plantation, Discourse Across the Americas, 1633–1700.
1620–1647. New York: The Modern Library. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Bradstreet, A. (1967). The Works of Anne Bradstreet. Helps, A. (1904). The Spanish Conquest in America:
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. And Its Relation to the History of Slavery and to the
Brickhouse, A. (2015). The Unsettlement of America: Government of Colonies. London: John Lane.
Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Jehlen, M. (1994). “The Literature of Colonization.”
Luis de Velasco, 1560–1945. Oxford: Oxford In The Cambridge History of American Literature,
University Press. Vol. 1, ed. S. Bercovitch. Cambridge: Cambridge
Burnham, M. (2005). “Textual Investment: University Press, pp. 13–168.
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In A Companion to the Literatures of Colonial and Mary Quarterly, 72(1): 3–24.
America, ed. S. Castillo and I. Schweitzer. Las Casas, B. de (1992). A Short Account of the
Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 60–77. Destruction of the Indies, ed. N. Griffin. London:
Burnham, M. (2007). Folded Selves: Colonial New Penguin.
England Writing in the World System. Hanover, Lierheimer, L. (1994). “Female Eloquence and
NH: Dartmouth College Press. Maternal Ministry: The Apostolate of Ursuline
Byrd, J.A. (2011). The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Nuns in Seventeenth‐Century France.” PhD dis-
Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University sertation, Princeton University.
of Minnesota Press. Marie de l’Incarnation, mère (1989). Selected Writings,
Champlain, S. de (1632). Les Voyages de la Nouvelle ed. I. Mahoney. New York: Paulist Press.
France Occidentale, dicte Canada, faits par le Sr. de Martínez‐San Miguel, Y. (2008). From Lack to
Champlain. Paris: Claude Collet. Excess: “Minor” Readings of Latin American
Cohen, M. (2010). The Networked Wilderness: Colonial Discourse. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell
Communicating in Early New England. University Press.
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Columbus, C. (1969). The Four Voyages. London: of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500–c.
Penguin. 1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Cotton, J. (1630). Gods Promise to his Plantation. Portuondo, M.M. (2009). Secret Science: Spanish
London: William Jones. Cosmography and the New World. Chicago:
Fleming, J. D. (ed.) (2011). The Invention of University of Chicago Press.
Discovery, 1500–1700. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. Restall, M. (2003). Seven Myths of the Spanish
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Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Brown, pp. 31–48.


The Puritan Culture of Letters
Abram Van Engen

In one of his recent books about the Puritans, the historian David Hall (2011) explained
that he first wanted to title it “Why They Mattered” (xi). That desire reveals just how
much times have changed. When Hall began his career in the 1960s, the “mattering”
of the Puritans was simply assumed. According to influential studies by Perry Miller
(1939/1983) and Sacvan Bercovitch (1975/2011), the Puritans were the beginning of
all things American – American literature, American history, American expression,
American exceptionalism  –  and books about the Puritans poured from the presses.
This trend culminated and ended in Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritan Ordeal (1989),
which traced the legacy of Puritan immigrants through Melville into the modern
day. In his introduction, Delbanco (1989) described himself as sympathizing with
work that focused on “the ideological origins of contemporary culture” because it
offered the potential of “nurturing self‐knowledge” (3–4). As Gordon Wood (1989)
summarized in the New York Review of Books, Delbanco made “a grasp of Puritanism
[…] fundamental to an understanding of the meaning of America” (n.p.). For scholars
from the 1930s through the 1980s, that was a common assumption and approach.
By 1989, however, studies had begun to shift, questioning the “Puritan origins”
thesis, setting the Puritans amidst a much broader array of early American cultures,
and calling for a study of these cultures on their own terms, rather than for how they
enabled something later, better, and more important to arise. In a representative review
essay, David Shields (1993) took joy in a new early American studies “that does away
with genealogy, that does not trace the symbolic ancestry of an American mind/self/
character/dream, that does not play the connect‐the‐dots game from Raleigh to Smith

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
52 Volume I: Origins to 1820

to Winthrop to Bradstreet to Mather to Franklin and Edwards to Adams and Jefferson

to Wheatley and Crèvecoeur to Barlow and Brown” (542). Not only did newer scholars
now turn against the American exceptionalism embedded in older works of scholar­
ship, they also rejected a teleological approach that arranged a series of stepping stones
leading inevitably from some historical origin to the present day. As Sarah Rivett
(2012) remarked on the reissuing of Bercovitch’s The Puritan Origins of the American
Self, “Narrative and genealogical histories of America from the colonial period to the
present day have become increasingly elusive with the transnational, hemispheric,
Atlantic, and comparative conceptual frameworks that we have all come to accept as
not only more historically accurate but also politically efficacious” (391).
The result was a transformation of Puritan studies. First, scholars attacked the
notion of a unified Puritanism. Beginning with Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933),
Perry Miller had treated the Puritans as though they all spoke a single mind. In
Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (1994), Janice Knight
revealed just how much variety and tension the Puritan movement contained. Others,
such as Lisa Gordis (2003), have since explored diversities of preaching style, aesthet­
ics, and interpretative habits among Puritan clergymen and laity. Because of such
work, some scholars today have become hesitant even to use the term “Puritan,” since
it might seem to imply too much ideological coherence for a diverse set of people, and
many – especially those focused on puritanism in England – no longer capitalize the
“p” in order to indicate that the disunified movement contained multitudes. In addi­
tion to revealing a richly variegated Puritanism, scholars have also turned to
Puritanism’s transatlantic context and its intercultural relations, signaled especially in
Francis Bremer’s important collection (1993).1 Beginning primarily in the 1990s,
these discussions emphasized the way politics and cultural formations from England,
along with the active and continuing presence of Native Americans, shaped Puritan
New England. Once considered a self‐contained laboratory of ideas, Puritanism as
studied today challenges scholars to consider these many different contexts and their
Most recently, scholars have turned back to genealogical studies in a new way,
examining how Puritanism has shaped various aspects of American culture while care­
fully avoiding the exceptionalism that such an approach once engendered and assumed.
This newer approach can be seen in at least four recent important studies. Where
Protestant piety was once tied crudely to the rise of modern science, Sarah Rivett
(2011) offers a careful and detailed account of the relationship between empirical
science and Puritan theology. Where Whiggish historians once claimed that Puritans
produced democracy and the modern republic, Michael Winship (2012) and David
Hall (2011) carefully reconsider and advance the relationship between Puritanism and
later politics. And finally, where Max Weber once correlated the Protestant work ethic
of Calvinism with the rise of capitalism, Mark Valeri (2010) offers a better account of
how devout Puritan merchants negotiated and contributed to the rise of a modern
economic order. Joining these endeavors, my first book (2015) likewise tried to estab­
lish a link between a Puritan theology of sympathy and the development of American
The Puritan Culture of Letters 53

sentimentalism, while my second book, City on a Hill (in press), explains how a mythic
Puritan origins story arose, and what purposes it served in later politics. Together,
these books have begun to build new, post‐exceptionalist narratives of Puritanism’s
influence and effects.
In addition to greater caution, these newer works have also incorporated a more
nuanced understanding of religion. The “turn to religion” in literary studies – marked
by special journal issues and the rise of “postsecular” studies (Coviello and Hickman
2014; Ebel and Murison 2014; Holsinger 2006; Monta 2009; Stein and Murison
2012) – has reshaped Puritan scholarship as well. Today, scholars more often see the
religious and the secular as intimately interwoven, sometimes cooperating and some­
times competing but most often advancing together. That is the approach we see in
these new genealogies of Hall, Rivett, Valeri, and Winship. Rather than treating
religion as a rigid set of dogmas where each doctrinal alteration counts as a decline in
faith (the older assumption), these new approaches see Puritans working out solutions
with adapted theologies that nonetheless remain theology  –  a study of God and the
world born of belief and devotion. Rivett (2011) makes that point clear in the final
paragraph of her book: “Such genres [as the jeremiad, captivity narrative, and conversion
narrative] proliferate and adapt formally and thematically throughout late‐eighteenth‐
century America, not only because religion maintained its stronghold despite the rise
of secular values but also because religion evolves historically with the capacity to
negotiate these values” (346). Negotiation, adaptation, and evolution: these are the
new terms for the study of religion in early America and the Puritans in particular.
Genealogy, then, might be back. But more work remains to be done. Though we
now have much better accounts of the way Puritans were both shaped by and influenced
republican politics, new forms of capitalism, and the rise of Enlightenment science, we
could do with further study of the relationship between and among various religious
traditions. To take one example: how did Puritanism shift in its relation to Anglicanism
through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and what effects – in particular,
what literary effects – flowed from such developments? We have many studies pointing
to the inherent antinomian strain within Puritanism  –  the idea that anti‐formalist
emphases in Calvinism could lead to an individual free‐spiritedness and a rejection of
all conventions – but many Puritans and Calvinists leaned the other way (up through,
for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe). King’s Chapel, the first Anglican church in
Boston, was founded in the 1680s and began competing with the Puritan establish­
ment. Brattle Street Church  –  characterized by a cosmopolitan Congregationalism
more in tune with Anglicanism – appeared in the 1690s. Both brought with them a
sense that formal practice and religious ritual could be good signs of devotion and
piety, and both embodied such beliefs not just through their liturgies but also through
their preaching. The power of forms, conventions, and appearances is not static in this
period, and the religious beliefs associated with those ideas could have significant
effects on literary style and substance.
But Puritanism came face to face with far more than Anglicanism and Brattle Street.
Perhaps the next step for Puritan studies is to trace the influence of other religious
54 Volume I: Origins to 1820

traditions (Catholic, Quaker, Indigenous, and African, for example) on the Puritan
tradition, specifically in relation to the idea and practice of the literary. As with republican
politics, modern capitalism, and Enlightenment science, fellow religious traditions
played a mutually constitutive role in New England and beyond. Calvinism was not
self‐contained. Further studies could build genealogical narratives of influence based
on the relationships among varied religious traditions, addressing in particular the
way those traditions – through their theologies, ideas, and practices – shaped litera­
ture, aesthetics, style, substance, and legacy. Sandra Gustafson’s Eloquence Is Power
(2000) offers a good starting point for such work.
How does early America lead to later America? That question was once overdeter­
mined in the 1960s, then rejected in the 1990s, and has now become a question ripe
for revisiting. If done well, it can demonstrate for readers beyond early American stud­
ies the necessity of understanding colonial developments across periods and fields.
There are still more stories to tell, involving book history, institutional histories, and
other varieties of influence or effects – all tracking Puritanism from its intercultural
and transatlantic beginnings through its constant and contingent negotiation with
others into the development of various American cultural forms. Genealogical narra­
tives of origins and influence not only resonate well with a wider reading public; they
engage intellectual questions that cannot be approached through other means, and
they tie together periods and specialties too often isolated. It seems like a good time to
return to big narratives, so long as they are carefully approached.
Most importantly, through the scholarly transformations of Puritanism over the
past 30 years, we have come to learn that the Puritan culture of letters was not an
isolated incubator for all things “American,” but a complex culture in dialogue with
many others, shaped by religious, political, and social factors beyond New England
even as distinctive (and sometimes shifting) doctrinal elements – as lived, practiced,
and imagined – guided its development. What follows is an attempt to explain these
broadly shared doctrinal elements and their effects on the literature of Puritan New
England. The way Puritan settlers compared to other colonialisms, the understanding
of them in new paradigms of religious change and influence, the internal disagreements
and tensions, the contexts of transatlantic and intercultural relations: all of these studies
begin in the Puritans’ sense of God and the Puritans’ sense of grace.

The Puritan Culture of Perception

In the first of her “Meditations Divine and Moral,” the Puritan writer Anne Bradstreet
remarked, “There is no object that we see, no action that we do, no good that we enjoy,
no evil that we feel or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all; and he
that makes such improvement is wise as well as pious” (1867: 48).2 Making “some
spiritual advantage of all” involved a long process of growing in grace, which entailed
two central elements in the Puritan culture of letters: the desire to perceive God and,
through that perception, the desire to draw near to him. Puritans studied history to see
The Puritan Culture of Letters 55

God’s hand at work in the unfolding of his designs. They carefully observed nature
because they believed creation reflected the glory of its Creator. They examined their
own lives – their afflictions, prosperities, and emotions – in order to determine where
they stood in relation to God. They went to sermons to learn about God, and they
hoped in the hearing of a sermon to find God speaking to their hearts. And in all of
these attempts to perceive God – in their histories, poetry, spiritual autobiographies,
sermons, and other writings – they were guided by the Bible, the one sure place where
God had revealed himself to all.
Such a desire to perceive God had several significant ramifications. First, Puritans
believed that meaning was found, not made. The goal for Puritan writers was not to
create something new, but to discover something old. Finding one’s place within the
history of the world, for example, meant using God‐given talents of mental acuity to
decipher what was happening through the revelations God made in scripture. Even so,
attempting to perceive God and fit into godly patterns could require a great deal of
creativity. Puritan historians could be contested by other, equally faithful writers who
came to different conclusions and interpretations. The same went for preachers: one
biblical text might yield two different “doctrines” taught to two different congrega­
tions. In other words, while the ethic of discovery certainly entailed a move against
invention and originality, it could still involve a good deal of variation and creativity
to discover godly patterns.
Second, attempting to perceive God through the world meant that the Puritans
could not oppose the material to the spiritual. People with “carnal” desires were those
who sought money, fame, or power at the expense of their devotion to God. Certainly
these “worldly” people were decried, and many Puritans opposed them by preaching
a battle between the worldly and the spiritual, the flesh and the spirit. But more basi­
cally, Puritans assumed that God could be known and glorified through the things and
people of this earth. The good gifts of creation were considered analogies, similitudes,
and lessons in the nature and goodness of the Creator. God had given humans love, for
example, so that humans could understand what it means in 1 John 4:8 that “God is
love.” In other words, the world was not to be rejected; it was to be enjoyed insofar as it
enabled Puritans to understand, appreciate, approach, and experience the God who
made it. Importantly, though, all things had to point back to God. An embrace of the
material world could become sinful or deadly if it did not finally turn to a worship of
God. This is what Puritans meant by “weaned affections.” “Weaning” meant approaching
this world in ways that moved one through it to God. When Puritans failed to complete
this movement, they believed that God would send afflictions to help them press
on – rifts meant to remind one that all of earth’s loves, joys, securities, and delights are
transient and ephemeral. Reputations turn; houses burn; lovers die; children perish;
one’s health gives way. Each affliction reminds the godly that the good things on
earth are certainly meant to be enjoyed as good, but they are also meant to be enjoyed
as passing – mere foretastes of a future and eternal happiness.
Finally, this Puritan culture of perception came imbued with an ethics of observa­
tion. Puritans were called upon to pay careful attention to the big and the little, the
56 Volume I: Origins to 1820

far off and the very near, the outcomes of wars and the events of a single day, the nature
of the cosmos and the makeup of an insect. Famous for their self‐examinations
(personal spiritual accountings that attempted to mark the progress of one’s soul),
Puritans were also called to examine the world around them for signs of God. The
inner heart and all its torments, sinful desires, godly affections, and emotional responses
might reveal where one stood with God, but getting to know God involved more than
just looking within. Such accountings were aided and abetted by studying scripture,
gathering with others to hear about God, and observing one’s world carefully. Not all
Puritans sustained their spirituality so intensely – many, in fact, did not – but those
who did engaged in all of these practices together.
In England, the most devoted “Puritans” could often be identified by their oppo­
sition to the broader surrounding culture. “Puritanism” generally designates all those
who felt the Church of England needed to be purified of the rituals, structures, and
ceremonies that still seemed too Catholic and unbiblical. The practices of worship and
piety that Puritans supported distinguished them from others in a variety of ways.
Calling themselves “the godly,” Puritans gathered together in their own small groups
and Bible studies (called “conventicles”), traveled together to hear good sermons
(called “sermon gadding”), studied together in school (especially Emmanuel College
in Cambridge), and generally formed tightknit communities opposed to the broader
English culture. Such communities turned especially on their sense of God’s grace,
which had to be experienced in the heart and would ideally grow throughout one’s
Christian life. Puritans gathered together because they wanted to hear how others
experienced this grace; they went to good sermons to learn about it and be moved by
it; and they opposed the Church of England because they thought its ecclesiastical
structures and formal rituals failed to touch and transform people’s hearts.
The degree of disappointment, anger, distancing, or compromise with the
Church of England could vary enormously from one Puritan to another. Those who
abandoned the Church of England altogether were called Separatists. The “Pilgrims”
were of this variety. They had it worse, since leaving the Church of England could be
considered an act of treason. Fleeing to Holland first and then to America in 1620,
they were a small group, mostly poor, and they landed in a place (Plymouth) where
they had no legal right to be. William Bradford became their leader and his account
of that experience, Of Plymouth Plantation (written 1630–1651), has since become the
most famous and influential piece of Pilgrim writing. The Puritans, meanwhile,
arrived in America in 1628 (Salem) and 1630 (Boston) with a large entourage, a
decent amount of wealth, a stated intention of remaining in the Church of England,
and a handy charter establishing their English right to rule the colony of Massachusetts
Bay. John Winthrop was the first governor, and his 1630 “city on a hill” sermon,
often called A Model of Christian Charity, is arguably the most famous and influential
American Puritan text that survives.
American Puritanism, while deeply attached to the godly communities of England
through kinship, friendship, and common cause, began to diverge from English
Puritanism following the outbreak of civil war in England in the 1640s. At that time,
The Puritan Culture of Letters 57

Parliamentary forces went to battle against King Charles I and his royalist supporters,
eventually defeating and executing the king in 1649. When war began, many in
America returned to England to fight for the reformation, but at the war’s end, the
hoped‐for reformation failed to materialize. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army,
which defeated King Charles, included many independent religious sects, and as a
result, Cromwell had no desire to institutionalize the New England Way – a church
polity that developed through the 1630s and was better suited to the sparsely populated
and more homogeneous colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut.
The New England Way, which came to be called Congregationalism, centered on
the autonomy and authority of each individual church; these churches, while inde­
pendent, nonetheless worked together to preach, practice, and guard a specific way of
grace. A new church could arise, for example, only when already existing churches
extended it the right hand of fellowship. Thus, some degree of uniformity went into
the founding and spread of Calvinist churches in New England. At the same time,
each church’s minister would be ordained only by the members of that congregation
(not bishops, synods, presbyteries, or other denominational structures), and as a result,
New England churches would gradually diverge in practice and theology with little
check on their individual autonomy. Finally, for most of the seventeenth century,
New England churches worked together with the government to exclude the public
teaching or practice of various heresies, leading to banishments, whippings, and even
the execution of several Quakers in Massachusetts Bay. This system allowed for variety
within an overarching common cause.
Membership in the church, meanwhile, frequently required a public accounting of the
work of grace in one’s life – a lay conversion narrative, which became its own genre. The
practice attempted to separate the presumably saved from all the rest. In Puritan terms,
this meant distinguishing the regenerate (the seemingly saved) from the unregenerate (those
who might or might not be saved, but who at least did not seem saved yet). Since Puritans
believed that God had chosen the elect (the saved, also called the “saints”) and the reprobate
(the damned) from before the foundations of the world, salvation meant primarily a
search for signs of God’s grace. In keeping with that lifelong search, conversion was not
understood to be a singular event, but more of a daily battle, a rooting out of evil from
one’s life so that the new life of Christ could flourish. This process was the “spiritual
advantage” Bradstreet discussed, called sanctification, whereby those truly called and
justified by God would gradually come to know more and more of his grace, looking,
feeling, acting, and worshiping increasingly like the “godly.”

Puritan Spiritual Autobiographies

Many conversion narratives survive from New England, mainly from the notebooks of
a few ministers: Thomas Shepard (1981), John Fiske (1974), Michael Wigglesworth
(1965), and Timothy Edwards. In addition, the missionary John Eliot recorded the lay
testimonies of several Native converts (Clark 2003). Recently, the Congregational
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Library in Boston has uncovered, transcribed, and digitized record books from many
New England Congregational churches, several of which include conversion narratives
that have almost never before been studied.3 Beyond lay conversion narratives, several
diaries and autobiographies exist. Almost all English inhabitants of New England
were trained to read as part of their spiritual formation (they had to read scripture, for
example), but not all were trained to write, nor did many have the time or means.
Moreover, while all speak to providence in various ways, the lay diaries engage spirit­
ual experiences less often than the diaries of ministers, reminding us of the variety and
breadth of Puritan culture in New England. Spiritual passion and Calvinist doctrine
persisted throughout the era, but individual Puritans responded in different ways to a
godly culture, some embracing it with intensity, others engaging it with intensity at
times, and others finding ways to get by without needing to give God or grace a great
deal of thought.
Much has been said about this large base of Puritan life writing. In The Puritan
Conversion Narrative (1983), Patricia Caldwell called lay conversions the beginning of
American expression – the first American genre. Others have attributed the rise of
fiction to the tradition of Puritan spiritual autobiography, arguing that Daniel Defoe
transformed such writing into the modern novel. But perhaps the most interesting and
sustained feature of these Puritan self‐examinations is the tension that tears at them
between self‐denigration and self‐exaltation. Puritans practiced a spirituality that
attempted to lower oneself in order to be raised by the Holy Spirit. The powerful
minister Thomas Shepard taught that sanctification required dying to oneself
(mortification) in order that a new, redeemed self might come to life (vivification),
which entailed a daily process of conversion (no singular event or experience of
being “born again”). Threading through the Puritan culture of letters, then, is a
self‐abnegation that exalts: a kind of disappearing, all‐consuming ego. On the one
hand, the particular self must be molded into the patterns of a godly life in order for
evidence of salvation to appear. Making oneself look like other seemingly saved
souls  –  matching the pattern of a generic saved “saint”  –  was the best way to find
assurance of salvation. On the other hand, to be saved one had to remain distinct.
Salvation was not a melting away of identity, but an eternal judgment pronounced on
each individual soul standing naked before God. Thus, many examined their lives – and
wrote their lives – to fit the usual way God dispensed grace to the saved, while also
adding enough detail to distinguish their own experience. In this way, Puritan self‐
examinations end up looking both formulaic and unique.
The “formulas” for self‐examination came about through sermons, devotional litera­
ture, and personal readings of scripture. Puritans inhabited several “story frameworks,”
such as “the movement from captivity to ‘deliverance,’ from sin to redemption, from
weakness and defeat to triumph,” that influenced how they both experienced and
interpreted the stories of their lives (Hall 1989: 18). Moreover, scripture contained not
just narrative frameworks, but actual stories – hundreds of them – that could be used
to match one’s spiritual and personal experiences to biblical tales. In that sense, Puritan
spirituality was inherently intertextual: it involved building a narrative of grace out of
The Puritan Culture of Letters 59

one’s experiences as interpreted through the stories one heard, all guided by sanc­
tioned narrative frameworks. It is no accident that when Mary Rowlandson wrote her
best‐selling and influential captivity narrative in 1682, The Sovereignty and Goodness of
God, she leaned on the genre of spiritual autobiography and interpreted her experience
by intermixing what she described with scriptural verses and tales, comparing herself
to Lot’s wife, Job, David, and others.
The fact that lives might be fitted into genres or explained by biblical tales created
further tensions in a religion that attempted at all times to root out hypocrisy. Puritans
were rigorously anti‐formal. They opposed pre‐written prayers (including all those in
the Book of Common Prayer), ritualistic worship, or any other forms of devotion that
might substitute for an engaged heart. And yet, the elaborately detailed descriptions
of God’s grace that appeared in sermons and catechisms created a form – a “morphology
of conversion” – that Puritan individuals would then aspire to match (Morgan 1963:
72). Thus, the lay conversion narratives of Thomas Shepard’s church often sound very
similar to one another. Edward Hall, the first recorded narrative in Shepard’s notebook,
sets the pattern. It begins: “The first means of his good was Mr. Glover’s ministry
whereby he saw his misery from Jeremiah 7 […] and that he was without Christ.”
Here we have a classic example of ingredients necessary for a successful conversion in
Shepard’s church. Scripture, as applied by a sermon, becomes the “means of grace” that
initially reveals to Edward Hall his misery. Only those who know they are sick will seek
out a doctor, the Puritans emphasized. Under the preaching of Shepard, Edward Hall
“saw more of his misery,” which enabled him to realize “that without [Christ] he must
perish.” A new verse, another sermon, showed Hall “how freely Christ was offered and
hereby the Lord did stay and comfort his spirit and so was stirred up with more vehem­
ency to seek Christ.” Before clearly feeling that Christ has saved him, however, Edward
Hall falls back into fears and humblings, sensing himself too worldly, his heart “not
deep enough” for Christ. The testimony concludes: “But hearing the Lord was willing
to take away his enmity, he by Rev. 22:17 was brought nearer to the Lord” (Hall 2004:
120–121). There is no resounding declaration of saving grace, but rather an expression
of hope based in the experience of drawing near to God through the constant awareness
of failures, miseries, and even enmities toward God. Edward Hall’s conversion narra­
tive is typical of those delivered in Shepard’s church, and it matches the “morphology
of conversion” that Shepard regularly preached.

Puritan Sermons

The life of grace Edward Hall describes, along with the way Puritan sermon culture
shaped such experiences, can best be described by a sine curve. Picture a graph with a
single wave endlessly rising and falling across the x‐axis. That is the Puritan life. The
ascent of each wave was called comfort, or assurance, and that came from believing Christ
had substituted himself for the punishment and damnation one deserved. Rising in
assurance, individual Puritans began to commune with Christ through their desire for
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him, their belief that he had personally died for their sins, and the increasing sense of
his loveliness and holiness. This could sometimes constitute an intense religious
experience, often described in scriptural language as “joy unspeakable”; at other times
it might just be a stronger‐than‐usual sense of drawing near to God. But then the wave
would peak, and one would begin to sink. The downward turn of the sanctified life
occurred precisely because of its ascent: the fact that Christ died for individual Puritans
made them realize the depths of their ingratitude. And the more they saw of their sin
and misery, the further they would fall into what Puritans called humiliation, a godly
sorrow and anxiety: after all I have done, after all my disbelief, could Christ really have
died for me? Yet just as sorrow seemed about to sink their souls, the minister’s preaching,
personal prayers, and the fellowship of the godly community would begin to convince
individuals that, yes, even this degree of sin has been covered. Christ died for me. They
would begin to rise again. Unlike an actual sine curve, however, the peaks and troughs
of Puritan sanctification were not intended to be the same height and depth each time.
Every peak should rise a little higher, and every trough should dip a little deeper. The
more Puritans realized how badly they had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,
the more amazed, assured, and comforted they would be that Christ loved them and
had died for them; and the more they saw of Christ’s beauty and grace and glory, the
more they would realize just how far short of the glory of God they had fallen. The
lows sink as the highs rise. And on it would go, drawing nearer and nearer to God,
until one day each of the elect would die into what the Puritans called glorification – the
moment when assurance changes into certainty. No Puritan life ever mechanically
followed this graph, but the idea behind it served as a guide to many.4
That guide came to most Puritans through their preachers, and it directed how
those preachers pastored their flocks. Ministers had to keep each individual and
congregation moving up and down through the life of sanctification, preventing them
from the twin extremes of either security or despair. Every sermon therefore stressed
whichever side was needed most – whether comfort or sorrow. If congregations seemed
to be moving too much toward security (the sin of turning assurance into complacency),
preachers administered the Law, listing sins and failures while threatening the wrath
of God. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
(1741) attempts to awaken people from complacency in this vein. But that sermon
was only half of the equation for Edwards and for all other Puritan ministers. For if
congregants seemed to be approaching despair (the sin of believing oneself beyond the
possibility of salvation), then preachers administered the Gospel, the comfort of grace.
Faced with parishioners near despair, Puritan ministers would frequently insist that
even the dimmest beginning of a mere desire to believe constituted a good sign that
the seed of grace had taken root and would grow into salvation. The bruised reed, they
liked to say, would not be broken; God would not snuff out the smoking flax.
Anxiety and assurance, the sorrow of sin and the comfort of Christ, the law and the
gospel – this was the Puritan way of grace. Such guidelines were accepted by most who
professed themselves the “godly,” but each minister had his own way of applying it, his
own style from the pulpit. Some, like Thomas Hooker of Hartford, dwelt in the terrors
The Puritan Culture of Letters 61

of hell, thinking the greatest fear would produce the best piety and comfort. Others,
like John Cotton of Boston, tried to speak more often of the “joy unspeakable,” the
great mystery of union with Christ, thinking that if their words waded into grace then
their hearers, moved by the Holy Spirit, would follow. The differences, however, can
be exaggerated, since Cotton, Hooker, and other leading ministers could preach
sermons that tapped into each strand of Puritan emphasis depending on the needs of
the congregation.
What is clear from the preaching, however, is just how literary their sermons could
be. Preaching the comfort of Christ, for example, Hooker declared, “Thy sorrows outbid
thy heart, thy fears outbid thy sorrows, and thy thoughts go beyond thy fears; and yet
here is the comfort of a poor soul: in all his misery and wretchedness, the mercy of the
Lord outbids all these, whatsoever may, can, or shall befall thee.” Notice the parallelism,
the power of repetition, the amplification from “may” to “can” to “shall” that builds an
experience of assurance. And listen to him from the same sermon preaching again about
assurance, now from the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit doth not only with truth bring home
the evidence to the heart, but it is still whispering, and calling, and making known the
same, and forcibly soaketh in the relish of the freeness of God’s grace, and leaveth a dint
of supernatural virtue upon the soul.” The prepositional phrases in the end produce a
kind of chanting rhythm, an experience of the soaking‐in of the Spirit which has again
been amplified from whispering to calling to making known to finally flooding a soul.
Hooker was a master of these devices as well as a skilled craftsman of metaphors, images,
and similes. Explaining the necessity of true remorse in a contrite soul, Hooker preached,
“A sinner will never part with his sin; a bare conviction of sin doth but light the candle
to see sin; compunction [remorse] burns his fingers, and that only [i.e. that alone]
makes him dread the fire” (Hall 2004: 80, 83, 86–87). An everyday candle illuminates
the difference between intellectual conviction and felt remorse, tied finally and subtly
to the fires of hell. Candles, shackles, knives, doors, windows, brides, weddings, farm­
ing equipment – these and many other homely images and metaphors threaded through
the preaching of Hooker and his peers.
For Puritans, the Holy Spirit lived in scripture and the words of godly sermons.
And when the preacher’s sermon became effective, when someone was touched or
moved, the preacher himself was supposed to fade from view. The technical term for a
successful experience generated by a sermon was “the demonstration of the Holy
Spirit.” Puritans lived with the paradox of having “famous” ministers who were not
supposed to be famous, since good sermons glorified God, not preachers. That paradox
helps explain some of the aesthetic choices framing Puritan sermons and the Puritan
culture of letters more generally. Puritans considered writing that drew attention to
itself to be ornamental, and ornamentation was never good. It distracted attention
from God and exalted the preacher. For example, the Puritans disliked Anglican min­
isters who quoted extensively from classical literature, sometimes in Latin or Greek;
such a practice, they believed, simply announced to the congregation how much the
minister had read and how much he knew. In response, the Puritans developed an
aesthetic called the “plain style,” which as Hooker’s preaching demonstrates could be
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very rhetorical and rhythmic, could lean heavily on imagery, metaphor, and simile –
could be, in short, quite beautiful – but was distinguished from alternatives by the
idea that the words were not meant to draw attention to themselves: all should aim at
drawing hearers nearer to God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called the Word of God,
and Puritans believed that the Word of God dwelt in the words of scripture, which the
language of sermons explicated and applied. That is what made sermons the most
consistent “means of grace”: a mediation of God’s direct communication to sinners and
saints that came again and again (the average Puritan heard nearly seven thousand
sermons in a lifetime). Ideally, the means of mediation – the words themselves – would
become as transparent as the preachers in the process.
The range of emphases within Puritan preaching found its remarkable variety
unified by a basic sermonic pattern. Puritan sermons would begin with scripture
(usually a single verse), called the sermon’s text; they would then explicate the passage,
setting it within its biblical and historical context; that explication would produce a
doctrine (a proposition to guide the sermon); the minister would then give reasons to
explain the doctrine’s meaning and its many ramifications; from there the minister
would apply the doctrine through a series of uses; and finally, the minister would
exhort the congregation to embrace the doctrine and its uses, attempting to stir affec­
tions and move hearts. Some ministers wove exhortation throughout the sermon;
others offered more rational disquisitions that ended in rousing calls for reform.
Either way, sermons were never meant to be dry. An unmoved congregant could be
considered dead in the spirit, untouched and perhaps unwanted by God. The varia­
tions within the form were many, but the accepted pattern of the sermon constituted
its own specific genre – its own set of expectations and conventions. To skip any of
the necessary steps in a sermon would be to confuse the congregation, who came to
church not to be puzzled, but to be moved, challenged, and edified.
Within the broad genre of sermons were many subgenres. Thursday lectures might
attempt more to teach doctrine than to move listeners. Special days of Fasting and
Thanksgiving, commissioned by the government, culminated in their own types of
sermons. Funeral and execution sermons would direct the message and content toward
mourning, consolation, and the lessons to be learned in one’s own approaching death.
Finally, Puritans in New England also practiced an annual Election Sermon preached
on the day of elections and directed at the civic community as a whole. By the latter
half of the seventeenth century, many of these Election Sermons would be printed,
and many would take the form of a jeremiad: an account of the glorious days that the
first immigrants experienced, a narrative of piety’s decline since then and God’s
ensuing punishment, a call for renewal and repentance, and the holding out of a day
of grace – a weighty choice between continuing one’s decline or turning to repentance
and renewal. Much has been made of the jeremiads and their effect on American
­culture, but reading those sermons in isolation from the many unprinted weekly
­sermons would give a false sense of the genre as a whole. Election sermons were a
subgenre and special form of sermon directed much more broadly than what Puritans
encountered on a regular basis.
The Puritan Culture of Letters 63

Puritan Poetry

The twin aims of perceiving God and drawing near to him shaped not just sermons and
spiritual autobiographies, but also a good deal of Puritan poetry. Anne Bradstreet and
Edward Taylor are recognized as the best Puritan poets, while Michael Wigglesworth
was the most widely read. Bradstreet’s poetry often appears simple, but that simplicity
masks surprising complexity as she moves through multiple perspectives and moods,
many combined in a single line. Her more lyrical poems (the most anthologized ones)
often tease out relations between heaven and earth. When the house she has loved burns
to the ground in 1666, for example, Bradstreet turns from it to God – leaving the mate­
rial behind for the spiritual – but the poem is fraught with longing for her lost home.
In this way, Bradstreet both expresses and troubles simplistic piety. In “Upon the
Burning of Our House” (Bradstreet 1967: 292–293) that tension emerges most clearly
in the simple fact of its continuation. Early couplets represent what could be a pious
close to an easy poem: “And when I could no longer look, / I blest His name that gave
and took.” But each time the poem suggests an ending, it does not end. Bradstreet
reiterates and then lovingly details exactly what God has taken from her. Accusation,
anger, and resistance become embedded in expressions of piety. What enables the
speaker finally to resign herself to God is the thought that she has “an house on high
erect.” The joy she anticipates, in other words, is based on the joy she has known. The
love of her lost house – so evidently on display in the poem – becomes the very thing
that enables her to turn from it to God. Even so, by the end she has not entirely turned:
“The world no longer let me love, / My hope and treasure lie above.” That “let” is a plea
and prayer sending the speaker (and the reader) back to the beginning of the poem in
an attempt to fulfill the prayer’s request.
Such an ending reveals two central aspects to Bradstreet’s poetry. First, her lyrical
poems are often processes; and second, the final lines often do not finish the process.
Her poems of loss, for example, often powerfully express the very grieving they are
meant to relieve. “Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate,” she asks of an infant
in her poem “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet” (Bradstreet
1967: 235). On the one hand, it is a pious statement meant to provide consolation in
the belief that the baby has gone to heaven; on the other hand, it is a register of grief,
an expression of the very “bewailing” that the poem tries to move past. In that sense,
Bradstreet’s lyrical poems – like her meditations – often act like spiritual disciplines:
each reading is a reliving and a reprocessing of the heart’s affections in an attempt to
move one closer to God.
But the lyrical poems are not the only ones Bradstreet wrote. Traditionally,
Bradstreet’s oeuvre has been divided between the putatively public, imitative, earlier
poetry of The Tenth Muse (her first book, published in 1650) and her more domestic,
personal, later lyrics (appearing for the first time posthumously in 1678). These
distinctions, however, have been increasingly challenged: for example, the sense of an
“early” and a “late” Bradstreet arises from what editors chose to print in The Tenth Muse
rather than from what Bradstreet was actually writing. In The Tenth Muse, Bradstreet
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self‐consciously competed with male peers in a broad literary public sphere. The pack­
aging, editing, framing, and publishing of Bradstreet’s poetry (first in London, then in
Boston) has opened debates about the multiple possible ways her verse attempts to
enter, define, use, and challenge this literary public sphere. Robert Daly (1993), for
example, proposed that Bradstreet first demonstrated “her ability to play the game as
it was then conceived” in The Tenth Muse, then began “to change the rules of the game”
with her later verse (16). The first two scholars to turn serious attention to Bradstreet’s
more “public” poetry in The Tenth Muse were Ivy Schweitzer (1988, 1991) and Timothy
Sweet (1988). In my own article (2011), I review this debate and its shifting contours,
trying to understand how “public” and “private” could be defined in this era (espe­
cially in relation to one another), and how Bradstreet might have used her more public
status as a well‐regarded poet to draw attention to domestic matters. However one
understands the “public” literary sphere at this time, it is clear that Bradstreet had
ambitions to enter it. In other words, Bradstreet’s poetry – and much of the Puritan
culture of letters more generally – is best read both within and beyond the doctrines,
beliefs, and practices of Puritanism per se. These texts must be set within a larger
transatlantic and early modern context.
That context begins to reveal the ways Bradstreet directly engages the publicity of
her voice as a female poet. “The Prologue” of The Tenth Muse (1650) stages a demure
woman ceding territory to male superiors in a manner that simultaneously undermines
the speaker’s claim to female inferiority. The language of modesty in the poem
continually collapses, even as it opens a space for Bradstreet to speak. Not only does
the poem undercut itself; the book that follows contradicts the prologue’s first lines:
“To sing of wars, of captains, and of kings, / Of cities founded, commonwealths begun,
/ For my mean pen are too superior things” (Bradstreet 1967: 15). Despite such
lines, The Tenth Muse goes on to do just that, laying out (among other things) a whole
rhyming history of “Four Monarchies.” The modesty trope of “The Prologue” thus
becomes a conventional device demonstrating from the opening poem Bradstreet’s vast
knowledge of poetic traditions. Grasping that “The Prologue” is in fact a prologue – an
opening to a whole book – can help scholars read The Tenth Muse as a unified artwork
commenting back on itself. While much has been said about particular Bradstreet
poems, much less has been done to examine how they relate or how they build unified
arrangements in either The Tenth Muse (1650) or her second collection, Several Poems
(1678), though a good starting point can be found in Gillian Wright’s Producing
Women’s Poetry, 1600–1730 (2013).
Edward Taylor’s poetry raises considerably different questions about Puritanism and
the literary public sphere, and not just because of gender. Taylor never printed his
poems and we have no evidence that he shared them. Certainly he cared about his
poems, producing a fair copy of all he had written in 1691. But what exactly Taylor
was up to has been a point of mystery and intrigue for many scholars ever since his
poetry was first discovered in the 1930s. Like Bradstreet, Taylor wrote many poems of
process, emphasizing the idea that poetry served as a training ground for the affections.
The bulk of his poems were preparatory meditations meant to make him ready, as a
The Puritan Culture of Letters 65

minister, for the administration of the Lord’s Supper – one of only two sacraments for
Puritans. Taylor’s poems are most often attempts to shape the heart. He often takes his
failings and tries to transform them by clothing himself in Christ, substituting Christ’s
identity for his own even as he remains present enough in the poem to offer up his
praise. The particular failure that recurs most frequently in Taylor’s poetry is one of
praise – a failure of expression, or a statement of ineffability – caused by the flaws of the
heart. As Wilson Brissett (2009) aptly reminds us in a foundational essay for the study
of Puritan aesthetics, statements about ineffability and the inadequacy of language in
Taylor’s poetry “always instantiate a greater sense of loss to be located in the broken­
ness of the human soul before God” (462). Getting the heart right, therefore, ideally
produces a kind of eloquence – and that is what many poems attempt to accomplish
through a process of transforming the affections.
But getting the heart right for Taylor was not just a private, personal matter.
Following the advice of Puritan preaching manuals, Taylor seems to have been attempt­
ing to find the proper framework of godly affections so that those affections would be
transmitted to his congregants in worship. In other words, while seemingly private,
the poetry served a deeply communal function. The particular and the generic, the
personal and the communal, constantly intermingle in a Puritan culture of letters.
Even the most seemingly private of poets – one who never published his poems and
perhaps never even shared them – writes according to the idea that a saved self fits a
model of salvation that joins in the communion of saints.
Bradstreet and Taylor are the best and most studied New England Puritan poets,
but the most famous Puritan poet in his own day was Michael Wigglesworth. His
Day of Doom (1662), warning sinners about the coming day of judgment while con­
soling them with the promise of Christ’s redemption, sold immensely. The popularity
of Wigglesworth reminds us that, as Jeffrey Hammond (1993) comments, “There was
a Puritan way of reading, and it was not like ours. […] Puritans were not merely
content with their poetry but seem to have delighted in its didacticism and
­conventionality – the very qualities that distance the texts from us” (x). The popular­
ity of Wigglesworth also demonstrates an investment in an emotional aesthetics that
gets lost when scholars attempt to untangle the unities, ironies, or wordplays of a
given poem. Much like Puritan preaching, Puritan poetry succeeded when it touched
the heart. Readers were evidently moved by Wigglesworth’s poetry and that was
enough, demonstrating not just a different model of reading but also how much an
embrace of doctrine could matter to the affections, as well as to literary content and
technique. For Puritans, doctrine was not a rational affair, but a lived affair; and when
Wigglesworth brought home the great terror and hope embedded in the beliefs of his
listeners, he found himself a household name.
Wigglesworth’s poetry reveals another important dimension to the Puritan culture
of letters: the best‐selling works in a Puritan culture of letters were most frequently
books of practical divinity. The Practice of Piety (1612) by Lewis Bayly, for example,
went through multiple editions. The Puritans wanted to know how to live what they
believed, and they read many instructional manuals on piety. As David Hall (1989) has
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pointed out, “Steady sellers (and the Bible) were key vehicles of culture, transmitting to
a general readership the essence of a cultural tradition; in their format, as in how they
were appropriated, they both shaped and strengthened an interpretive community”
(52). These manuals have been the purview of historians and religious studies scholars
for a long while, but they have seldom been approached from the angle of literary criticism.
The four most reprinted devotional works of the seventeenth century – and thus some
of the most widely read texts in the era – were Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Man’s Pathway
to Heaven (1601), Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety (1612), Samuel Smith’s Great Assize
(1617), and Henry Scudder’s The Christian’s Daily Walke (1627). These names and
titles yield almost no results in the MLA International Bibliography database, indicat­
ing that literary scholars have left them virtually untouched. Yet The Practice of Piety
and its imitators were all pieces of literature, employing literary techniques and utilizing
literary forms even within an anti‐formal religion – all to achieve the goal of bolstering
a lived religion in their readers. Though they were often written and published in
England, they were read voraciously by New England Puritans. How they functioned
as literature would be worth exploring much more fully.

Puritan Histories

Puritan sermons, autobiographies, and poems all function as genres operating between
the individual and the communal, shaping and linking a single soul or heart to the
civic community and the communion of saints. Puritan histories, meanwhile,
extended the premise of God’s sovereignty explicitly to the fortunes and failures of
communities as a whole. For Puritan historians, nothing could happen apart from
God’s will. Yet that will was not always easy to determine. Prosperity might indicate
God’s blessing for one’s faithfulness, or it might indicate God’s distance – leaving
someone in sin because God did not care enough to chastise or correct. Afflictions,
likewise, could be seen as punishments for specific sins or as unprompted trials sent
to test and strengthen one’s faith (like Job in the Old Testament). Either way, every
event reflected the will of God, and if carefully observed and interpreted, they could
be opened as revelations.
Searching for the will of God meant fitting one’s life and community into a grand
narrative of redemption that began in Creation and extended through the Fall to the
choosing of the Israelites, the incarnation of Christ, Jesus’s death and resurrection, the
early church, and the life of the true church ever since (which was considered largely
hidden during the reign of Catholicism). God was working through these channels for
the redemption of the world and the salvation of his elect. As such, all of history
headed toward its endpoint – the second coming of Christ and the final day of judg­
ment. Given this grand narrative, Puritans could find themselves and their commu­
nity always existing within the framework of a much larger – even cosmic – plot. And
the way in which they fitted themselves into that plot was through a technique called
The Puritan Culture of Letters 67

Typology is a specific way of viewing history and one’s relation to it. It began as a
practice of linking the Old Testament to the New, then continued as a way of linking
biblical time to the present. So, for example, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his only son,
Isaac, in Genesis prefigures God’s sacrifice of His only son, Jesus, in the gospels. The
second, later event (Christ’s death) both repeats and fulfills the earlier. In the same way,
the Puritan sense of history involved repetition and fulfillment. Rather than picturing
time as a straight line, typology structured it as, in effect, an expanding spiral. Locating
oneself on this spiral meant identifying the parallels, or repetitions, between oneself
and biblical figures while also reading into that alignment a sense of God’s continued
work in history. So, for example, some New England Puritans drew parallels between
their experience and Israel, having undergone their own “exodus” from England to a
new “promised land” – repeating biblical paradigms of history while helping to extend
the Kingdom of God outward. Cotton Mather, in his influential history of New
England, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), famously called his biography of
Winthrop “Nehemias Americanus” – the new version of the Old Testament Israelite
leader Nehemiah, who led the captive Israelites out of Babylon to Jerusalem. This
could be a nationally exclusive vision, later founding a strain of American exception­
alism, or, more often, it could be an inclusive concept – an extension of God’s Kingdom
that valorized the godly in all parts of the world who were typologically advancing the
Kingdom of God wherever they happened to live.
The advances and setbacks in New England were additionally understood within
the pervasive terms of covenantal relations. The covenant of works was established with
Adam at creation; in that conditional covenant, God would reward Adam’s perfect
obedience with salvation and blessing. But the Fall broke the covenant of works and
no one afterward could live up to its demands. Sin was inescapable – not just a deed
committed, but as a tendency of the heart, a hatred of God that came with birth
(called original sin). The only solution was the covenant of grace, whereby God sub­
stituted Christ’s death for the punishment sinners deserved and imputed Christ’s
righteousness to them through faith. In effect, when God looked at the faithful and
the godly, He saw in them his beloved son, Jesus Christ, which covered all their sins
and failings. Such grace could be had only as a gift from God granted through faith.
Calvinism removed any sense of reward or merit for good works (even the “work” of
believing was itself a gift of the Holy Spirit). That did not rule out obedience and
godly living  –  which were understood as the natural results and signs of grace,
responses of gratitude for deliverance  –  but for individuals, the only covenant that
truly mattered was the covenant of grace.
Communally, however, the covenant of works still held explanatory power. There is
no eternal life for a nation, a colony, or a town. For godly communities, therefore, the
covenant of works returned as a contractual promise on the people’s part to follow
God’s ways, in return for which God promised prosperity and well‐being. In A Model
of Christian Charity (1630), Governor John Winthrop famously declared: “Thus stands
the cause between God and us, we are entered into covenant with him for this work.”
If the people remained faithful, God would respond with “favor and blessing”; but if
68 Volume I: Origins to 1820

they failed, warned Winthrop, “the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us”
(Hall 2004: 169). In keeping with this way of thinking, Puritan histories often traced
the blessings and afflictions of God in relation to the people’s faithfulness or failures.
And when afflictions began arising regularly in the late seventeenth century – especially
in the form of a devastating war against a powerful alliance of Native American
nations  –  many Puritan historians interpreted the events specifically as a call for
repentance. The famous Boston minister Increase Mather led the way with A Brief
History of the War with the Indians (1676), where the key to victory (and the explanation
of defeats) hinged on faith, repentance, and covenant renewal, rather than military
strategy or strength. But Mather was not the only historian trying to find God’s mean­
ing. The war’s conclusion caused a huge outbreak of historical writing attempting to
determine the proper interpretation of the struggle and its consequences in the light
of New England’s special relation to God.
Similarly, when the Salem witch hunt broke out, Cotton Mather (Increase’s equally
influential son) read the events within the context of a cosmic battle being waged
between God and Satan for the territory and souls of New England. Since Cotton
Mather believed the successful prosecution of witches was good evidence of godliness,
he did not approach the trials primarily through the rhetoric of failure or the need for
repentance (as his father had approached King Philip’s War), but rather as the inevita­
ble result of successfully spreading God’s kingdom into a “wilderness” once owned and
controlled by the devil. As with King Philip’s War, however, Salem also generated
many competing interpretations. God’s presence in history was taken for granted by
Puritans, but the specific will of God as revealed in particular events could be widely
contested. Puritans did not speak with a single mind, and sometimes the most promi­
nent Puritans (like Increase and Cotton Mather) were also the ones most attacked by
their peers. Thus, Cotton Mather’s account of Salem, called Wonders of the Invisible
World (1693), was answered and ridiculed by another Bostonian in a book called More
Wonders of the Invisible World (1700). But Cotton Mather himself should not be thought
of as a parochial, narrow‐minded minister. More and more work has emphasized his
cosmopolitan breadth and his positioning of New England within a global order that
did not make America exceptional, but instead integrated New Englanders into inter­
national law (Goodman 2018) and the worldwide communion of saints (Stievermann
2016). In that sense, Wonders of the Invisible World should be considered the exception,
not the norm, and its focus on New England needs to be balanced with his lifelong
interest in world affairs.
Mather’s book on Salem, along with its depiction of the American “wilderness,” raises
yet another deep‐rooted issue in Puritan writing: Puritan historians grappled with how
to position and represent Indigenous peoples in their accounts of New England. Were
they to be seen as the scourge of God and the servants of the devil (as Mather portrayed
them), or a field ripe for harvesting? In the 1640s and 1650s, the latter view began to
take hold. Edward Johnson’s 1651 history of New England, The Wonder‐Working Providence
of Sion’s Saviour in New‐England, used military imagery to claim that New England
Puritans were Christ’s vanguard, soldiers marching in the light of God for true reformation.
The Puritan Culture of Letters 69

He detailed the rise of towns across the region as God’s special blessing. And in the
process, he captured the growing sense that the transformation and redemption of the
“wilderness” was the very sign that New England and its people were peculiarly blessed.
It was around this time and in this context that the Puritans turned serious attention to
missionary work. If the Indians became Christian, it would validate the Puritan presence
in a strange land, for they were extending the Kingdom of God and possibly heralding its
final culmination. From 1644 to 1671, the leading missionary, John Eliot, published
with others a series of missionary tracts, pamphlets, and letters all detailing the goals and
achievements of their work among the Indians. Now collected, edited, and available in a
modern edition called The Eliot Tracts (2003) by Michael Clark, these texts not only reveal
the way Puritans viewed their Native neighbors; they also show how Native Americans
functioned for Puritans as a statement of their purpose in New England and a transatlantic
signifier of their importance in the eyes of God. Ostensibly focused on Native conversions,
the “Eliot Tracts” can be read as primarily about the Puritans themselves. Even so, literary
scholars such as Kristina Bross (2004) and Laura Stevens (2004) have found the strange
form and incoherence in these tracts a rich site for recovering Native voices and Native
responses to the Puritans in their midst.
Puritan histories had a wide range – everything from retrospective accounts organized
cogently by a driving sense of God’s determined will to more incoherent recordings of
recent events grasping at God’s meaning. (Indeed, William Bradford’s famous book,
Of Plymouth Plantation, seems to combine both approaches.) In their attempts to offer
competing accounts of God’s sovereign hand at work in history, Puritan historians
contributed a significant genre to the Puritan culture of letters and left a lasting
impact on historical writing in New England for many years to come. The larger typo­
logical framework and the sense of a grand and cosmic plan of redemption encouraged
an ethics of historical observation that made Puritan historians pay careful attention to
events in their own locales as well as across the world, attempting to decipher how all
events added up to God’s will and God’s way. In that sense, histories joined other
genres in the Puritan attempt to perceive more of God and, through that process, to
draw nearer to him. That first reflection of Anne Bradstreet in her Meditations Divine
and Moral – “There is no object that we see, no action that we do, no good that we
enjoy, no evil that we feel or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all; and
he that makes such improvement is wise as well as pious” (1867: 48) – summarizes
well the devotional culture of observation and perception that consequently motivated
a massive and influential Puritan culture of letters.


1 The most scholarly tome to lay the ground­ transatlantic puritanism can be found in
work for transatlantic puritan studies was Michael Winship’s Hot Protestants (2019). See
Stephen Foster’s The Long Argument (1991), Further Reading.
while the most recent, accessible account of 2 I have modernized the spelling.
70 Volume I: Origins to 1820

3 For the first study of these conversion narra­ 4 I borrow this description of Puritan spirituality
tives, see Douglas Winiarski’s Darkness Falls on from where I discuss their way of grace elsewhere.
the Land of Light (2017). See Van Engen, “The Law and the Gospel” (2017).


Bercovitch, S. (1975/2011). The Puritan Origins of Gustafson, S. (2000). Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and
the American Self, reissued edn. New Haven, Performance in Early America. Chapel Hill:
CT: Yale University Press. University of North Carolina Press.
Bradstreet, A. (1867). The Works of Anne Bradstreet Hall, D. (1989). Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment:
in Prose and Verse, ed. J. Harvard Ellis. Popular Religious Belief in Early New England.
Charlestown, MA: A. E. Cutter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bradstreet, A. (1967). The Works of Anne Bradstreet, Hall, D. (2004). Puritans in the New World: A
ed. J. Hensley. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Critical Anthology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
Bremer, F. (1993). Puritanism: Transatlantic University Press.
Perspectives on a Seventeenth‐Century Anglo‐American Hall, D. (2011). A Reforming People: Puritanism and
Faith. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society. the Transformation of Public Life in New England.
Brissett. W. (2009). “Edward Taylor’s Public Devo­ New York: Knopf.
tions.” Early American Literature, 44(3): 457–487. Hammond, J. (1993). Sinful Self, Saintly Self: The
Bross, K. (2004). Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Puritan Experience of Poetry. Athens: University of
Praying Indians in Colonial American Identity. Georgia Press.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Holsinger, B. (ed.) (2006). Literary History and the
Caldwell, P. (1983). The Puritan Conversion Religious Turn. Special issue of English Language
Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. Notes, 44(1): 1–301.
New York: Cambridge University Press. Knight, J. (1994). Orthodoxies in Massachusetts:
Clark, M.P. (2003). The Eliot Tracts: With Letters Rereading American Puritanism. Cambridge, MA:
from John Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood and Richard Harvard University Press.
Baxter. Westport, CT: Praeger. Miller, P. (1933). Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630–
Coviello, P. and Hickman, J. (eds.) (2014). After the 1650: A Genetic Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Postsecular. Special issue of American Literature, University Press.
86(4): 645–863. Miller, P. (1939/1983). The New England Mind: The
Daly, R. (1993). “Powers of Humility and the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Presence of Readers in Anne Bradstreet and University Press.
Phillis Wheatley.” Studies in Puritan American Monta, S.B. (ed.) (2009). What is Religion and
Spirituality, 4: 1–23. Literature? Special Issue of Religion and Literature,
Delbanco, A. (1989). The Puritan Ordeal. 41(2): 1–318.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Morgan, E. (1963). Visible Saints: The History of a
Ebel, J. and Murison, J.S. (eds.) (2014). American Puritan Idea. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Literatures / American Religions. Special issue of Press.
American Literary History, 26(1): 1–205. Rivett, S. (2011). The Science of the Soul in Colonial
Fiske, J. (1974). The Notebook of the Reverend John New England. Chapel Hill: University of North
Fiske, 1644–1675, ed. R. Pope. Boston: Colonial Carolina Press.
Society of Massachusetts. Rivett, S. (2012). “Religious Exceptionalism and
Goodman, N. (2018). The Puritan Cosmopolis: The American Literary History: The Puritan Origins
Law of Nations and the Early American Imagination. of the American Self in 2012.” Early American
New York: Oxford University Press. Literature, 47(2): 391–410.
Gordis, L. (2003). Opening Scripture: Bible Reading Schweitzer, I. (1988). “Anne Bradstreet Wrestles
and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England. with the Renaissance.” Early American Literature,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 23(3): 291–312.
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Schweitzer, I. (1991). The Work of Self‐Representation: Van Engen, A. (2015). Sympathetic Puritans:
Lyric Poetry in Colonial New England. Chapel Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England.
Hill: University of North Carolina Press. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shepard, T. (1981). “Thomas Shepard’s Confessions.” Van Engen, A. (2017). “The Law and the Gospel.”
In Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts Common‐Place, 17(3.5). http://common‐place.
Collections 58, ed. G. Selement and B.C. Woolley. org/book/vol‐17‐no‐3‐5‐vanengen/ (accessed 20
Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts. May 2019).
Shields, D. (1993). “Rehistoricizing Early Van Engen, A. (in press). City on a Hill: A History
American Literature.” American Literary History, of American Exceptionalism. New Haven, CT: Yale
5(3): 542–551. University Press.
Stein, J.A. and Murison, J.S. (eds.) (2012). Methods Wigglesworth, M. (1965). The Diary of Michael
for the Study of Religion in Early American Wigglesworth, 1653–1657: The Conscience of a
Literature. Special issue of Early American Puritan, ed. E. Morgan. New York: Harper
Literature, 45(1): 1–207. Torchbooks.
Stevens, L. (2004). The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Winiarski, D. (2017). Darkness Falls on the Land of
Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibilities. Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Eighteenth‐Century New England. Chapel Hill:
Stievermann, J. (2016). Prophecy, Piety, and the University of North Carolina Press.
Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Winship, M. (2012). Godly Republicanism: Puritans,
Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana. Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill. Cambridge, MA:
Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. Harvard University Press.
Sweet, T. (1988). “Gender, Genre, and Subjectivity Wood, G. (1989). “Struggle over the Puritans.”
in Anne Bradstreet’s Early Elegies.” Early New York Review of Books, 36(17). http://www.
American Literature, 23(2): 152–174. nybooks.com/articles/archives/1989/nov/09/
Valeri, M. (2010). Heavenly Merchandize: struggle‐over‐the‐puritans/ (accessed 22 August
How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. 2016).
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Wright, G. (2013). Producing Women’s Poetry,
Van Engen, A. (2011). “Advertising the Domestic: 1600–1730: Text and Paratext, Manuscript and
Anne Bradstreet’s Sentimental Poetics.” Legacy, Print. Cambridge: Cambridge University
28(1): 47–68. Press.

Further Reading

Bozeman, T.D. (1988). To Live Ancient Lives: The aspects, good for both beginning and experi­
Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism. Chapel Hill: enced scholars.
University of North Carolina Press. An excel­ Cohen, C.L. (1986). God’s Caress: The Psychology of
lent and much‐cited account of the “primitiv­ Puritan Religious Experience. Oxford: Oxford
ism” of Puritanism, the desire of Puritans to University Press. One of the best accounts of the
recover early church forms rather than invent Puritan conversion experience, its power and
something new. effects, and its relation to Puritan preaching.
Brown, M. (2007). The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Foster, S. (1991). The Long Argument: English
Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England. Puritanism and the Shaping of New England
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Culture, 1570–1700. Chapel Hill: University of
The essential starting point for literary studies North Carolina Press. The foundational historical
of devotional literature in Puritanism. work in transatlantic Puritanism.
Coffey, J. and Lim, P.C.H. (eds.) (2008). The Hambrick‐Stowe, C. (1982). The Practice of Piety:
Cambridge Companion to Puritanism. Cambridge: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth‐
Cambridge University Press. A wonderful intro­ Century New England. Chapel Hill: University of
duction to Puritanism and survey of specific North Carolina Press. An essential starting
72 Volume I: Origins to 1820

point for understanding the devotional aspects A great account of how congregants and layper­
of Puritanism and how it shaped the entire cul­ sons both responded to and helped shape
ture, including its literature. Puritan sermon culture in New England.
Lepore, J. (1998). The Name of War: King Philip’s War Stout, H.S. (1986). The New England Soul: Preaching
and the Origins of American Identity. New York: and Religious Culture in Colonial New England.
Vintage. A wonderful, readable account about New York: Oxford University Press. The foun­
Puritan histories, especially as Puritan historians dational study of sermon culture in New
responded to King Philip’s War. England.
McGiffert, M. (1994). God’s Plot: Puritan Tipson, B. (2014). Hartford Puritanism: Thomas
Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge Hooker, Samuel Stone, and Their Terrifying God.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. New York: Oxford University Press. For the
This book offers both a collection of the conver­ committed student, this book offers a detailed
sion narratives in Thomas Shepard’s church and and excellent account of Puritan theology,
an excellent commentary on them. especially its “extreme Augustinianism” as
Morgan, E. (1958). The Puritan Dilemma: The Story represented best by Thomas Hooker – all set in
of John Winthrop. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and the broader context of transatlantic theological
Company. The best, briefest, and most accessi­ debates.
ble introduction to Puritanism, doubling as a Winship, M.P. (2019). Hot Protestants: A History of
biography of John Winthrop. Puritanism in England and America. New Haven,
Neuman, M. (2013). Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating CT: Yale University Press. Perhaps the most
Sermon Literature in Puritan New England. accessible, reader‐friendly, and recent general
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. history of transatlantic puritanism.


Writing the Salem Witch Trials
Peter J. Grund

In his record of the pre‐trial hearing of the alleged witch Rebecca Nurse, Samuel
Parris, the pastor in Salem Village in 1692, made the following annotation: “This is a
true account of the sume of her Examination but by reason of great noyses by the
afflicted & many speakers many things are pr<ae>termitted [i.e. ‘omitted’]” (RSWH,
no. 28).1 In addition to giving us a picture of the often tumultuous interrogation of
alleged witches during the Salem witch trials, the note also hints at the complex nature
of the extant trial documents, which serve as the main sources for our knowledge about
the trials. It suggests that the record is far from being the comprehensive, objective
description of the hearing that we would expect from a modern trial. This raises a
number of issues. What was Parris unable to record because of the raucous hearing,
and what would the omitted part have contributed to our understanding of Nurse’s
case? And what indeed does it mean for our interpretation of the documents that
Samuel Parris, who was heavily invested in the legitimacy of the trials, is responsible
for recording the official examination document? No less complex, but complex in
different ways, are the contemporaneous published and unpublished accounts by
observers and commentators of the trials. In addition to supplying their own or others’
direct observations of the trial proceedings, these writers frequently draw on and pro-
vide interpretations of the court documents, often with the goal of weaving a narrative
that supports or refutes the legitimacy of the trials. This body of writing includes
contributions by some of the most prominent personages of the period, such as the
Puritan ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, as well as less known, but equally keen

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
74 Volume I: Origins to 1820

observers such as the Harvard‐educated mathematician Thomas Brattle and Robert

Calef, a Boston merchant.
The writing of the Salem witch trials, to invoke the title of this essay, thus involved
the contributions of many, with various motivations and intentions. This has resulted
in a large, intricate body of interconnected writings that can only be fully understood
in light of their historical and text‐historical context. This chapter briefly overviews
the historical events of the trials and outlines the main strands of interpretation as to
why accusations of witchcraft began in Salem Village in early 1692 and exploded into
an intense legal process that involved many neighboring communities. The focus of
the chapter is on the characteristics of the primary sources. It provides a survey of the
published and unpublished writings and demonstrates the complexity but rich
potential of the records for both research and teaching.

Historical Outline

Warrants for the arrest of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, and Tituba were issued by
magistrates John Hathorne (the ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Jonathan
Corwin on Monday 29 February 1692 (RSWH, nos. 1 and 2). The accusation was
suspicion of acting witchcraft on four girls and young women in Salem Village
(present‐day Danvers, MA). Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., and
Elizabeth Hubbard had started exhibiting strange behaviors, falling into spasmodic
fits. A medical explanation had failed, and instead the determination was witchcraft,
and the group soon accused the three women of causing the afflictions. The pre‐trial
hearings, which were held to determine if the suspicion was justified and the three
should stand trial, followed quickly on the very next day, 1 March (RSWH, nos. 3–6).
After Tituba confessed and revealed that she had seen nine marks by practicing witches
in the Devil’s book (including those by Good and Osburn), a flood of accusations
followed. The four afflicted listed in the initial warrant were joined by a few others
who became the core group of accusers (consisting mainly of girls and young women),
but many other community members stepped forward and began to relate mysterious
events going back as far as 20–30 years. Neighboring communities (Andover,
Haverhill, Beverly, Lynn, etc.) were soon embroiled in the witch hunt. Formal
complaints were lodged, warrants for the arrests of the accused and summonses for
witnesses issued, witness depositions taken, hearings held, and indictments drawn up
for the trials to begin. However, the formal legal proceedings did not start until June
1692 after the new governor, Sir William Phips, had arrived from England and
instituted a Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the witchcraft cases.
Two particularly strong themes emerge from the trial documents and the observer
and commentator accounts: spectral evidence and confessions. Much of the evidence
presented, especially by the core group, relied on spectral affliction: the afflicted
claimed to be tormented by the accused in spectral form. Naturally, this evidence
could not be independently verified, but the court nevertheless accepted its legitimacy.
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 75

This practice also had many staunch supporters in the community at large: Cotton
Mather wrote in defense of the procedure in his Wonders of the Invisible World (1693). At
the same time, there was also growing unease with this procedure (and other aspects of
the trials). In his Cases of Conscience, Increase Mather (1693), Cotton’s father, poignantly
Whether it is not Possible for the Devil to impose on the Imaginations of Persons Bewitched, and to
cause them to Believe that an Innocent, yea that a Pious person do’s torment them, when the Devil
himself doth it, or whether Satan may not appear in the Shape of an Innocent and Pious, as well as
the Nocent and Wicked Person to Afflict such as suffer by Diabolical Molestations? (1, italics in

His determination was that “the Answer […] must be Affirmative” (1). In the face of
mounting opposition, Governor Phips discontinued the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
Although this gave a reprieve to the accused who had been condemned or were
awaiting trial in prison, it was too late for the 19 who had already hanged and one
(Giles Corey) who had been pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea.
In addition to the blind belief in spectral evidence, the Court of Oyer and Terminer
also changed the traditional handling of confessions of witchcraft. Confessions would
normally have led to executions (in accordance with the biblical precedence of “thou
shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Exodus 22:18). During the Salem proceedings,
however, confessing became the way to escape the gallows. Tituba, who was the first
to confess, was imprisoned, but not executed; those who defiantly proclaimed their
innocence in the face of mounting accusations, on the other hand, were found guilty
and some hanged. Not surprisingly, then, this procedure led to mass confessions. But
confessors were still imprisoned, and they suffered harsh conditions over the winter of
1692 as they awaited trial after Governor Phips closed down the Court of Oyer and
Terminer. When the newly instituted Superior Court of Judicature convened in
January 1693 (and in subsequent months), spectral evidence was disallowed, but
confessions were instead accepted into evidence (in accordance with more traditional
practice). Many desperate retractions followed, which appear to have been largely
ignored by the court. But sentiments had changed and the accused were acquitted by
the Grand Jury or after trial or saved by pardon from Governor Phips. Although the
acquitted and their relatives continued to file for restitution several decades later, the
Salem witch trials had officially come to an end.


The scholarly interpretations of the events at Salem in 1692–1693 are many and
varied, and it is not possible to do justice to all of them here. But some broader themes
can be outlined, as Marc Mappen (1996) and Bernard Rosenthal (1993: 32–36), among
others, have done. Some interpreters suggest that the accusers sincerely believed in the
afflictions, as a result of hallucinations, mass hysteria, and mental distress
76 Volume I: Origins to 1820

(Mappen 1996: 51–63), or that at least some of the accused were indeed practicing
witches (Hansen 1969). However, not surprisingly, many current scholars (as well as
commentators who were contemporaneous with the trials) have seen fraud in the
behavior of especially the core group of accusers and, at best, gullibility on the part of
the authorities. Whether the accusers were counterfeiting or in the grip of mass hyste-
ria, the question remains what would have caused or spurred on such behavior. Many
researchers have settled on social explanations. Although aspects of it have been criti-
cized, one of the most well‐known theories is that of Paul Boyer and Stephen
Nissenbaum (1974/1997). They see the trials as the culmination of the dissension
between two factions in Salem Village, spearheaded by two families: the Putnams and
the Porters. These families, they argue, represented different social commitments
(agrarian vs. commercial) and religious values (in favor of or opposed to Samuel Parris
as the Salem Village pastor), and their supporters were geographically separated in the
west and east of the village. These divisions were then reflected in the makeup of the
accusers (who were mostly in the Putnam camp) and the accused (who were predomi-
nantly Porter supporters). Carol F. Karlsen (1987), by contrast, explores the gender
dynamics of the Salem trials as one component of a broader inquiry into witchcraft
cases in New England. She notes that women who were accused of witchcraft were
often in socioeconomic positions or behaved in ways that were out of line with Puritan
belief systems and hence disturbed the social order. Accusing such women of witch-
craft was a convenient way of eliminating such elements. Mary Beth Norton (2002)
makes connections between the Salem events and the larger political climate in New
England, especially the Second Indian War (or King William’s War). She argues that
many members of the community (some of the accusers as well as magistrates) had
intimate experiences with the Indian wars, which were seen as a broader attack by the
Devil on New England, and were influenced in their responses by this context.
Another interpretive lens comes from medical research. Most famously, Linnda
Caporael (1976) suggests that the strange behaviors among the core accusers are
consistent with ergot poisoning (created by a fungus on rye). Although this account
has persisted in popular lore, the thesis was firmly debunked soon after its initial
publication in the 1970s. As Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb (1976) show, not
only does the textual evidence not support the interpretation, but there are
sociohistorical and medical reasons militating against the ergot poisoning theory.
Despite many attempts to explain the sources of and motivations behind the Salem
trials, not surprisingly, definitive answers remain elusive, and scholarly (as well as
popular) interest continues unabated. The past couple of years alone have seen several
major works on the Salem episode (Baker 2015; Ray 2015; Schiff 2015). These recent
works indicate that, instead of searching for one defining factor, we should look to the
peculiar mix of factors that operated during the Salem events, including broad social,
political, religious, and gender‐related issues as well as more local dynamics and
individual personalities. While most of the scholarly attention has come from
historians, there are many literary, rhetorical, and text‐historical angles on the corpus
of Salem writings that have yet to be explored.
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 77

The Writings of the Salem Witch Trials

Observers’ Accounts and Commentaries

Before Governor Phips put a stop to publications dealing with the Salem trials in
October 1692 (and even after), many prominent New Englanders joined the debate
raging around the events at Salem. Circulating in print and in manuscript, these
writings range from relatively straightforward eyewitness accounts to elaborate,
scholarly treatments and cover a variety of genres: a letter, a fictitious dialogue,
treatises, and a number of complex combinations of genres (Burr 1914). In his Brief
and True Narrative (1692), for example, Deodat Lawson, Parris’s predecessor as Salem
Village pastor, briefly narrates his firsthand experiences of the happenings at Salem
between 19 March and 3 April, structuring his text as a day‐by‐day journal. By
contrast, Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience (1693) is a learned disquisition on the
nature of spectral evidence and other aspects of witchcraft. It is carefully divided into
“cases” and “arguments” and is filled with references to and quotations from secondary
literature, sometimes in Latin.
While these writings have been mined extensively by historians for views on
and facts about the trials, much less attention appears to have been paid to their
status as “texts,” their exploitation of genre conventions and intertextuality,
and the ­r hetorical strategies employed to construct arguments and authority.
A brief exploration of two of these texts is instructive in this regard, pointing to
some of the avenues of research that still remain open: Thomas Brattle’s unpub-
lished letter and Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World. Brattle was a
Harvard‐educated mathematician with ties to the vibrant scientific community
in England. His letter of 8  October 1692 (Burr 1914: 169–190) addressed an
unnamed minister and has been billed as a “biting Enlightenment criticism” of
the trial proceedings (Ray 2015: 160). Brattle’s choice to write a private letter to
couch his criticism may indicate that his comments were indeed intended only
for the unnamed minister. The castigation of both judges and accusers is also
fairly unvarnished, which would perhaps be unexpected in a widely circulated
text. However, it could be argued that Brattle intended the letter to circulate in
manuscript (Baker 2015: 198; Burr 1914: 168) and used the letter genre strategi-
cally to make a serious contribution to the wider debate around the Salem trials.
Whether actually penned for a particular addressee or not, the private letter
allowed him to be more forthright than he might have been in a published tract
since he could claim that it was not written for wide public consumption even if
it were circulated broadly; in other words, if the letter was “published,” his
defense would be that his private opinion and indiscretions were not supposed to
affect the public debate, at the same time as the letter did just that. Although no
direct evidence seems to exist for the extent of the letter’s circulation, it is often
assumed to have been widely read and to have had political impact, as, for example, by
Enders A. Robinson (1991: 253).
78 Volume I: Origins to 1820

What we find in the letter also seems to go beyond a mere description intended for
the private edification of one particular addressee. It is a skillfully crafted document
that makes forceful arguments against the legal procedures adopted and does so in a
rhetorically sophisticated way. One example will stand as an illustration. At one point
in the letter, Brattle provides a numbered list of “many things [he] cannot but admire
[i.e. ‘be surprised’] and wonder at” (Burr 1914: 177). This initial formulation is then
echoed at the start of the explication of each of the six points that he mentions by the
phrase “I do admire” or “I cannot but admire.” Although these points are modestly
framed as issues of surprise and puzzlement, the discussions that follow reveal keen
observations and careful dissections of the illogical procedure of the court. Indeed,
Brattle’s emphasis on logic is explicitly revealed in the fifth point, where he notes “that
the Justices have thus far given ear to the Devill, I think may be mathematically dem-
onstrated to any man of common sense” (Burr 1914: 182). The superficially modest
form and phrasing of Brattle’s text thus seem to belie its sophisticated nature and
Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) is a very different text in many
respects: it was printed (and reprinted); it is a lengthy work that incorporates multiple
genres and refers to many secondary sources; and it was “Published by the Special
Command of His EXCELLENCY, the Governour of the Province of the Massachusetts‐
Bay in New‐England” (1693: title page). But what it shares with Brattle’s letter is
generic and rhetorical sophistication. Wonders is usually regarded as a political
document, produced with the intent to support the judges’ procedures at Salem and
the decisions by the authorities (including Governor Phips) who had allowed the trials
to proceed (Baker 2015: 199); but whether Mather was actually convinced of what he
wrote has been questioned (Silverman 1984: 116–17). Put together hastily and rushed
into print, Wonders is often seen as “a jumble” or “mélange” (Silverman 1984: 115).
Although the text certainly mixes genres and can be seen as wordy or repetitive, it
arguably has an intended cumulative, conditioning effect. The most central
account  –  the select cases before the Court of Oyer and Terminer  –  is strategically
placed toward the end of Wonders. Mather clearly intended that the reader should be
guided (or conditioned) by the chapters preceding the main account. Before learning
about the Salem cases, the reader is thus presented with descriptions of the Devil’s
workings in New England (supported by biblical evidence), principles of detecting
witches drawn from well‐known authorities, and parallel cases of witchcraft. In other
words, Mather provides a lens through which to see the events in Salem Village.
Arguably, this strategy is also behind presenting the five selected cases with relatively
little commentary. Mather mostly limits himself to presenting the evidence against
the alleged witches in the form of the depositions (paraphrased or cited verbatim from
the actual court documents) and descriptions of the courtroom proceedings. To be
sure, the five cases had been carefully selected and the order of their presentation was
undoubtedly premeditated. But he allowed the evidence mostly to speak for itself,
relying on the reader to see the events in light of the moral, religious, and geopolitical
frame that he had furnished. How could the accused not be guilty when so much
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 79

evidence against them fit the larger schemes of the Devil against the Puritan experiment
in New England? Although perhaps a quickly assembled “mélange,” Wonders was
clearly not a haphazard text, but one with a clear goal supported by Mather’s rhetorical
and intertextual strategies.

Trial Documents

The observers’ accounts and commentaries reveal a skillful deployment of sources,

genres, and rhetorical strategies. However, it is in the trial documents themselves that
we find the most vivid descriptions of what happened during the trials. Among these
documents, we find narratives of affliction, such as John Westgate’s description of
being persecuted by a murderous hog (RSWH, no. 268), William Baker’s account of
mysteriously disappearing beer (RSWH, no. 41), and Ann Putnam Jr.’s many emphatic
complaints about being tortured by witches (RSWH, e.g. nos. 11, 53, 249); we find
defiant defenses, such as George Jacobs, Sr.’s staunch denials in the face of the
interrogator’s insistent questioning, as recorded by Samuel Parris (RSWH, no. 133);
and we see the formidable legal forces mustered against the accused in meticulously
prepared legal instruments, such as indictments.
More than 900 documents have survived from the trial proceedings and their after-
math. Although these documents are by convention referred to as “court documents”
as a whole, unfortunately, the actual court documents taken down during the trials
before the Court of Oyer and Terminer are not extant, and only summary records
remain from the trials before the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693 (Trask 2009:
54). The majority of the extant documents instead pertain to pre‐trial stages of the
proceedings. These documents include formal legal writings, such as indictments,
arrest warrants, and summonses; and evidential materials such as pre‐trial hearings, or
“examinations,” and witness depositions, some of which were presented at the actual
trials (Grund et al. 2009: 65–69).
Many of these documents have been available in editions since the nineteenth c­ entury
(Trask 2009: 58–63). The latest edition, Records of the Salem Witch‐Hunt (RSWH;
Rosenthal et  al. 2009), and the work leading up to it have highlighted previously
neglected aspects of the documents, especially in their production and use. Perhaps most
interestingly, RSWH presents information on the complex scribal situation, a previously
almost completely ignored issue. Much previous work seems simply to have assumed
that the documents were the products of a small number of court clerks. But RSWH has
shown that as many as 200 recorders may have been involved. The effort to identify
recorders in RSWH reveals the surprising fact that a number of community members in
Salem Village and neighboring towns contributed to the writing of the documents.2 The
picture that has emerged is thus very complex and underscores that the superficially very
straightforward court documents are much less transparent than previously thought.
Although interesting for the historical and legal context, the more formal docu-
ments have perhaps little of what has traditionally been considered “literary” quality.
80 Volume I: Origins to 1820

They are often very formulaic, and individual documents vary little among themselves
other than in the specific details of the accusations of witchcraft. The indictment
documents, for example, which outline the formal charges against an alleged witch,
consist of a set of formulaic phrases. These phrases often consist of multi‐word formu-
las, a feature that is characteristic of much legal language even today: “witchcraft &
Sorceries,” “in upon & agt” (‘against’), and “hurt tortured Afflicted Pined wasted
consumed. & tormented,” as in the indictment against Rebecca Nurse in RSWH, no.
287. In response to the rapidly multiplying accusations, the indictment documents
(of which about a hundred have survived) were mass‐produced by two or three recorders,
who left out the information specific to each case. This information was later filled
in by, usually, a different recorder as the case of a particular alleged witch was being
Even these formal documents sometimes give us insights into community,
social, and gender dynamics. In arrest warrants and complaints (which initiated an
official accusation of witchcraft), it was crucial to record the exact name of the
accused to ensure that the correct person was targeted. Yet, in some documents,
we find that the first name of an accused woman has been omitted; instead, a gap
has been left for the first name to be filled in. While some of the gaps remain in
the documents, a secondary recorder has often supplied the name at a later point.
This phenomenon is observable in, for instance, the complaint against and warrant
for the arrest of Joan Penny (RSWH, nos. 613, 674) and the complaint against
Sarah Bassett and Susannah Roots (RSWH, no. 195). This handling of first names
may indicate that the accusers (and/or recorders) did not know the accused well.
This may certainly be the case with Bassett and Roots, who hailed from the towns
of Lynn and Beverly, while the accusers, John Putnam Jr. and Thomas Putnam,
were from Salem Village. Perhaps the accusers simply knew them as Goodwife or
Goody Bassett and Roots.
An entirely different side of the trials is shown in the examinations. These docu-
ments represent the pre‐trial hearings that were conducted once a complaint had been
filed and the accused had been arrested and brought in for questioning. This interroga-
tion would determine if an indictment should be drawn up and presented to the Grand
Jury (or Jury of Inquest), which would decide whether to send the case to trial. The
examinations (of which about a hundred have survived) provide a fascinating, if often
disturbing, read (Grund et  al. 2009: 66–67). As illustrated by the examination of
Dorcas Hoar (RSWH, no. 102), these documents suggest a very hostile environment
where those who claimed affliction would fall into fits and vociferously accuse the
person interrogated, and an unnamed magistrate, who appears to assume guilt, would
follow up with sharply worded questions or statements:

[Hand 1] The Exanimation of Dorcas Heor. Hoar .2. May .1692.

Severall of the afflicted fell into fits as soon as she was brought in.
Eliz: Hubbard said this woman hath afflictd me ever since last sab: was seven night,
& hurt me ever since, & she choakt her her own husband.
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 81

Mary Walcot said she told me the same

Abig: Williams said this is the woman that she saw first before ever Tituba Indian
or any else.
Ann Putman said this is the woman that hurts her, & the first time she was hurt by
her was the sab: was seven night.
Susan: Sheldon accused her of hurting. her last moonday night.
Abig: Williams & Ann Putman said she told them that she had choakt a woman
lately at Boston
Eliz: Hubbard cryed why do you pinch me the mark was visible to the standers by.
The Marshall said she pincht her fingers at that time.
Dorcas Hoar why do you hurt these?
I never hurt any child in my life.
It is you, or your appearance.
How can I help it?
What is it from you that hurts these?
I never saw worse than my self.
You need not see worse. They charge you with killing your husband
I never did, nor never saw you before
You sent for Goody Gale to cut your head off
What do you say to that?
I never sent for her upon that account.
What do you say about killing your husbd.

Examinations like this would seem to give us an exceptional window into the inter-
rogation, even providing the exact words used by the different parties at the hearing.
However, there is reason to be skeptical about the faithfulness of these texts. As we saw
at the very beginning of this chapter, Samuel Parris, who is also responsible for record-
ing Hoar’s examination, admitted to the problem of recording everything that was
said during the interrogation of Rebecca Nurse because of the raucous nature of the
hearing. The recording of a conversation‐rate dialogue with the help of a quill and ink
must also have presented severe challenges. We do know that some of the recorders of
the examinations were proficient shorthand writers, Parris included (Grund 2007:
125–126); indeed, he indicates as much with his reference to “Characters,” a term for
shorthand, at the end of Hoar’s examination by stressing that it “is a true account of
the Examination of Dorcas Hoar without wrong to any party according to my original
from Characters at the moment thereof” (RSWH, no. 102). But without direct access
to the original hearing or even the shorthand version, we cannot tell how faithful many
of these documents are to the original hearing. We in fact have evidence to suggest
that the reliability of these documents must be treated with extreme caution and that
some of the records should perhaps be seen as biased reconstructions. This evidence
comes from the existence of more than one version of the same examination written by
the same person, or multiple recordings of one and the same hearing taken down by
different recorders. For some unknown reason, Parris prepared two versions of John
82 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Willard’s examination (RSWH, nos. 173 and 174). No. 173 may be an abbreviated
version of no. 174, or, conversely, no. 174 may represent an expansion; the exact rela-
tionship between the two is not clear. What is clear, however, is that they present
sometimes strikingly different pictures of what took place and what was said during
the hearing, as illustrated in the following extracts (differences between the two
versions are underlined):

RSWH, no. 173 RSWH, no. 174

Susan: Sheldon tryed to come to Susan: Sheldon tryed to come near him but fell
him, but fell down immediately. down immediately, & he took hold of her hand
  with a great deal of do, but she continued in her
  fit crying out, O John Willard, John Willard &
What is the reason she cannot come The ex What was the reason you could not come
near you? near him?
The black man stood between us.
They cannot come near any that are They cannot come near any that are accused.
Why do you say so, they could come Why do you say they could not come near any
near Nehemiah Abbot, the children that were accused: You know Nehemiah Abbot
could talk with him they could talk with him.

Not only are there differences on the level of formulations, but there is substantially more
information in no. 174. Furthermore, in no. 173, the first question appears to be addressed
to the accused (John Willard), but, in no. 174, it is addressed to the accuser (Susannah
Shelden). Clearly, both versions cannot be accurate, and it raises questions about Parris’s
motive in producing such vastly different versions. No. 173 appears to have been used as
evidence at the trial, and, if such usage should be seen as an endorsement that it represents
an official version, what does one make of all the additional or dissimilar information
found in no. 174? From such a staunch believer in the Salem trials as Parris, one cannot
rule out that bias played a role in the production of the document.
A slightly different, but to some extent even more radical case is found in the
examination of Tituba, Samuel Parris’s slave. In her case, three versions have survived:
RSWH no. 3 by tailor Ezekiel Cheever; no. 5, probably by Joseph Putnam, a wealthy
Salem Village inhabitant; and no. 6 by Justice of the Peace Jonathan Corwin. The
sometimes remarkable differences in these documents should probably be ascribed to
different recording techniques (maybe using or not using shorthand) or perhaps differ-
ent understandings of what was important enough to record. The fact that this was the
very first pre‐trial hearing may account for the existence of three records; similar
multiple copies by different recorders are not extant for any of the other examinations.
Perhaps all three recorders were officially charged to take down what took place during
the hearing to ensure that nothing was missed.
In general, what these multiple copies suggest is that each examination document
represents one particular recorder’s understanding of what took place, recorded under
difficult circumstances, and these examinations should not be taken as completely
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 83

faithful or accurate recordings (Grund 2007). This of course opens up a number of

interesting questions that future research may tackle: how are different voices (male
and female, accused and accuser, core group member and peripheral witnesses, etc.)
represented in the examinations? How does the voice of the recorder make itself known
in the documents (Doty 2007)?
The witness depositions (or testimonies) provide similarly fascinating, but complex,
reads. The procedure of recording depositions in seventeenth‐century New England
differed significantly from current legal conventions. Nowadays a deposition is given
under oath and taken down by a court reporter. At the time of the witch trials, anyone
could record a deposition and submit it to the court for possible admission into
evidence; the witness would swear an oath only when the deposition was read in court
during the trial (or Grand Jury hearing) and the deponent was called to verify its
authenticity (Grund 2012b: 42–43). It is thus not too surprising that we find a very
large number of recorders in the corpus of some 400 extant depositions. Many filed
depositions written by themselves, while others called on friends, family, or other
people with known writing ability to record their statements. Our understanding of
who these writers were is still limited. The information that we do have suggests
interesting ties between recording and particular communities, professions, social
standings, factions, and personal relationships. A straightforward example of
connections between a recorder and a community is found in the case of Thomas
Chandler, selectman in Andover (Grund, Burns, and Peikola 2014: 45). He recorded
the testimony for himself (RSWH, no. 631) and other inhabitants in Andover (RSWH,
nos. 465 and 657). A more complex relationship between deponent and recorder is
seen in Thomas Putnam’s scribal output, which we will return to below.
With so many writers (of clearly varying familiarity with deposition writing), it is
only to be expected that the Salem depositions would vary a great deal in their format
and structure (Grund et al. 2009: 67; Grund 2012b). But what they all capture (in one
way or another) is the deponents’ narratives of alleged experiences with witchcraft, and,
in a few cases, their support for an accused. Some stories take the shape of conversations
between the afflicted and the alleged witch (often appearing in spectral shape) or
apparitions of deceased people, as in Susannah Shelden’s deposition in RSWH, no. 163.
Other stories, such as Samuel and Mary Abbey’s deposition in RSWH, no. 352, are more
“indirect,” describing mysterious events involving the death of cattle or other animals:
[Hand 1] may 17th of In the yeare 92
the Complainte of Sewzanah Shellten saith that Elizabeth Colson Remaynes in Afflicting
of the {said} Shellten night & day. And Allso mɛs white also John willard Remaines in
Afflicng of hur both day and night also mɛ Inglish and. his wife Remaines afflicting of
hure both night and day JGooge Jacobs and his wife afflicting of hur the last lords day
and tempting the said Shellten to sete hur strikethru hand to the booke thay both appearing
yesterday againe And would. haue hur sete hur hand to the booke the said Shelten said
she would not then she she said she would stabb hur then sudenly she Res<ea>ued A sore
wound one hur lifte side then: Ellizebeth Colson stabbing of hur one the back Right
against the other woundes {soe that she spente blood} then goody prockter Appearing
84 Volume I: Origins to 1820

to hur and Afflicting of hur and tempting hur to sete hur hand to the bo{o}ke And last
night goody prockter Appearing againe and would ha{u}e hu{r}e sete hur hand to
the booke and towld hur that she hade sete hur <ha>nd to the booke a grete while
agooe (RSWH, no. 163)

[Hand 1] Samuel Abbey of Salem Villiage Aged 45. Years or thereabouts and Mary
Abbey his wife aged 38 years or thereabout: Deposeth and saith:
That about this Time Three Years past Wm Good and his wife Sarah Good being Destitute
of an howse to dwell in these Deponents out of Charity, they being Poor. lett them live
in theirs some time, vntill that the said Sarah Good was of so Turbulant a Spirritt,
Spitefull, and so Mallitiously bent, that these Deponent<s> could not Suffer ^{her} to
Live in their howse any Longer; and was forced for Quiettness sake to turne she ye said
Sarah, with her husband, out of theire howse, ever since, which is about two Years 1/2
agone; the said Sarah Good, hath {not} [1–2 words overstruck] to the sd deponents
hat<?> hath carried it very Spitefully & Mallitiously, toward them, the winter following
after the said Sarah was gone from our howse, we began to Loose Cattle, and Lost severell
after an vnusall Manner: in a drupeing Condition and yett they would Eate: and your
Deponents have Lost after that manner 17 head of Cattle within this two years, besides
Sheep, and Hoggs: and both doe beleive they Dyed by witchcraft, the said William Good
[“William Good” written over “Samuel Abbey”] on [“on” written over “in”] the last ^{of}
may, was twelve months, went home to his wife the sd Sarah Good, and told her, what a
sad Accident had fallen out, she asked what:, he answered that his neighbour Abbey had
lost two Cowes, both dyeing within halfe an hower of one another, the sd Sarah good said
she did not care if he the said Abbey had Lost all the Cattle he had, {as ye said Jno Good
told vs} Just that very Day, that the said Sarah good was taken up, we yoɛ Deponents had
a Cow that could not rise alone, but since presently after she was taken up, the said Cow
was well and could rise so well, as if she had ailed nothing: she the said Sarah good: ever
since these Dponants turned ^{her} out of their howse she hath carried behaveed her selfe
very crossely & Mallitiously, to them & their Children calling their Chillren Vile Names
and hath threetened them often./. (RSWH, no. 352)

The depositions provide rich opportunities for a number of analytical approaches,

including investigations into the overall structuring of narration, the separation
between in‐group and out‐group (or “other”), the representation of speech and differ-
ent voices, or the construction of authority. The gender dynamic of these documents
is also very complex: so far, we have no evidence of women writing depositions for
themselves or others, and the question thus remains whether and how women’s testi-
mony was filtered by male recorders.
In terms of “authority,” the two depositions appeal to very different epistemological
bases. Shelden’s authority rests primarily in her own affliction. She also attributes
speech to the afflictors, who tempt her to write her name (“sete hur hand”) in the
Devil’s book, a common theme in the Salem depositions. This kind of speech attribu-
tion undoubtedly contributed not only to dramatizing the events but also to making
the claims more believable: these are, according to Shelden, the witches’ own words,
including a threat of stabbing and Goody Procter’s own confession of “set[ting] hur
<ha>nd to the booke a grete while agooe” (Grund 2012a: 29–30).
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 85

In the deposition by the Abbeys, authority is constructed differently. The deponents

do not appeal to direct affliction or conversations with alleged witches; instead the
Abbeys relate circumstantial and hearsay evidence that is only tied to Good indirectly.
Good is said to be “Turbulant a Spirritt, Spitefull, and so Mallitiously bent” that they
had to evict her. This, they report, led to more malicious behavior on Good’s part and
the mysterious death of cattle, which they believe to be by witchcraft; one cow even
mended after Good had been arrested. Further evidence is drawn from a third party
(hearsay) report (provided by Good’s own husband) that Good showed uncharitable
indifference to the deponents’ loss of cattle. The final lines again stress her unruly
behavior and add that threats were used, an alleged hallmark of witches (Kamensky
1997: 152–154, 160). What we find, in other words, is a kind of equation: on one side,
we have mysterious events; on the other side, we have a person who is connected to the
afflicted and who behaves physically and verbally as was generally expected from a
witch. Ergo, Good must be a witch and she must have perpetrated the killings of their
cattle by witchcraft.
A very significant, but not yet fully understood aspect of the corpus of Salem
depositions is the prominent role of Thomas Putnam in recording testimonies: he is
wholly or partly responsible for writing about 130 depositions, and is thus by far the
most frequent deposition writer. A former parish clerk, militia sergeant, and father
of one of the most insistent accusers (Ann Putnam Jr.), Putnam has long been seen
as a central figure in the trials (Boyer and Nissenbaum 1974/1997; Robinson 1991),
and, of course, Arthur Miller affords him an important place in his play The Crucible,
based on the Salem trials. But RSWH has revealed a different component to his
involvement: his scribal activities, which have yet to be fully evaluated (Ray 2015:
The Putnam collection of writings shows a number of characteristics. The majority
of his depositions contain testimony by the core group of accusers; no other recorder
writes more than a few for this group (except for Samuel Parris, who records a
­number for his niece, Abigail Williams). These core depositions often show remark-
able similarities (Hiltunen and Peikola 2007). RSWH, nos. 10 and 11, written by
Putnam, provide a case in point:

[Hand 1] The Deposistion of Elizabeth Hubburd aged about 17 years who testifieth and
saith that on the 27th of february 1691/92 I saw the Apperishtion of Sarah osborn the wife
of Ex Allexander osborn who did most greviously tortor me by pricking and pinching me
most dreadfully and so she continewed hurting me most greviously tell the first of march
1691/92: being the day of hir Examination ^{being first of march} and then also Sarah
osborn did tortor me most greviously by pinching and pricking me most dre<ad>fully
and also seuerall times sence Sarah osborn has afflected me and urged me to writ<e> in
hir book (RSWH, no. 10)

[Hand 1] The Deposistion of Ann putnam who testifieth and saith that on the 25th of
ffebruary 1691/92 I saw the Apperishtion of Sarah osborn the wife of E Allexandar
osborn who did Immediatly tortor me most greviously by pinching and pricking me
86 Volume I: Origins to 1820

dreadfully and so she continewed most dreadfully to afflect me tell the first day of march
being the day of hir Examination and then also she did tortor me most dreadfully in
the time of hir Examination: and also seuerall times sence good Sarah osburn has
afflected me and urged me to writ in hir book (RSWH, no. 11)

The depositions vary little in formulation and even less in content, and similar words
and phrases recur, such as most grievously, torture, pinching, pricking, most dreadfully,
afflict (Grund 2012b: 46–47; Hiltunen and Peikola 2007: 59; Ray 2015: 100). How
does one account for such striking similarities? Fraudulent behavior on the part of
Putnam is certainly plausible. He could have produced the depositions without even
consulting the actual deponents, hence appropriating their voices for his own pur-
poses. At the same time, alternative explanations are possible. We know from the
examination documents, the observers’ accounts, and the commentaries that mem-
bers of the core group behaved very similarly. Perhaps this extended also to their
verbal behavior: they colluded to report their experiences in very similar ways to keep
the message consistent. Whether they actually used the exact terms as recorded in
Putnam’s depositions is, of course, another issue. He may have transformed their
­formulations into something that would capture their narrative in language that was
appropriate for the legal context. Such reformulation of oral narrative into witness
depositions is not unexpected and probably happened in depositions throughout the
Salem corpus; Grund and Walker (2011: 44–56) have shown how this kind of rework-
ing occurred in contemporaneous depositions in England. Yet another possibility is
that Putnam simply used a template deposition that was changed as necessary,
convinced that the specifics were not essential as long as the substance of the accusers’
experiences was captured. Clearly, complex issues need to be weighed in determining
Putnam’s role during the trials.

Concluding Remarks

The Salem witch trials in 1692–1693 have held popular and scholarly fascination for
centuries. The complex corpus of writings, with its ambiguities and textual gaps, con-
tinues to spur reinterpretations of the events at Salem. The trials have become a meta-
phor for religious, social, and political oppression (Adams 2008), and they have been
exploited for various literary purposes (not least in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of
Seven Gables and Arthur Miller’s Crucible). As I hope to have shown, the original trial
documents and contemporaneous accounts also deserve attention as “literature” in
themselves. This chapter highlights that “writing the Salem witch trials” was clearly
not a process of simple recording of basic facts (despite what some court documents
and other accounts may intimate), but one of filtering, positioning, and framing of
the events from the multiple perspectives of the various contributors. It is on this
mediation of the surviving documents in particular that much literary, rhetorical, and
text‐historical work remains to be done.
Writing the Salem Witch Trials 87


I am grateful to Laura Mielke and Matti Peikola for commenting on an earlier draft of
this chapter. Naturally, any remaining errors are my own.


1 All examples from the trial records are taken and the number of the document, a form of
from Records of the Salem Witch‐Hunt (2009), citation that has become conventional for this
edited by Rosenthal et  al., which faithfully volume and is recommended by the editors.
reproduces the spelling, capitalization, and 2 Matti Peikola and I continue to work on a
punctuation of the original manuscripts. ­collaborative project trying to identify these
Parenthetical citations in this essay cite RSWH recorders.


Adams, G. (2008). The Specter of Salem: Remembering Grund, P., Burns, M., and Peikola, M. (2014). “The
the Witch Trials in Nineteenth‐Century America. Vagaries of Manuscripts from the Salem Witch
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Trials: An Edition of Four (Re‐)Discovered
Baker, E. (2015). A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Documents from the Case against Margaret Scott
Trials and the American Experience. Oxford: of Rowley.” Studia Neophilologica, 86(1): 37–50.
Oxford University Press. Grund, P., Hiltunen, R., Kahlas‐Tarkka, L., Kytö,
Boyer, P. and Nissenbaum, S. (1974/1997). Salem M., Peikola, M., and Rissanen, M. (2009).
Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. “Linguistic Introduction.” In Records of the Salem
New York: MJF Books. Witch‐Hunt, ed. B. Rosenthal, G. Adams, M.
Burr, G. (ed.) (1914). Narratives of the Witchcraft Burns, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Cases 1648–1706. New York: Barnes & Noble. Press, pp. 64–86.
Caporael, L. (1976). “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed Grund, P. and Walker, T. (2011). “Genre
in Salem?” Science, 192: 21–26. Characteristics.” In M. Kytö, P. Grund, and T.
Doty, K. (2007). “Telling Tales: The Role of Walker, Testifying to Language and Life in Early
Scribes in Constructing the Discourse of the Modern England. Amsterdam: John Benjamins,
Salem Witchcraft Trials.” Journal of Historical pp. 15–56.
Pragmatics, 8(1): 25–41. Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem. New York:
Grund, P. (2007). “From Tongue to Text: The George Braziller.
Transmission of the Salem Witchcraft Hiltunen, R. and Peikola, M. (2007). “Trial
Examination Records.” American Speech, 82(2): Discourse and Manuscript Context: Scribal
119–150. Profiles in the Salem Witchcraft Records.”
Grund, P. (2012a). “The Nature of Knowledge: Journal of Historical Pragmatics, 8(1): 43–68.
Evidence and Evidentiality in the Witness Kamensky, J. (1997). Governing the Tongue: The
Depositions from the Salem Witch Trials.” Politics of Speech in Early New England. Oxford:
American Speech, 87(1): 7–38. Oxford University Press.
Grund, P. (2012b). “Textual History as Language Karlsen, C. (1987). The Devil in the Shape of a
History? Text Categories, Corpora, Editions, Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New
and the Witness Depositions from the Salem York: W.W. Norton.
Witch Trials.” Studia Neophilologica, 84(1): Lawson, D. (1692). A Brief and True Narrative of
40–54. some Remarkable Passages Relating to sundry Persons
88 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village. Boston, Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the
MA: Benjamin Harris. Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge
Mappen, M. (ed.) (1996). Witches and Historians: University Press.
Interpretations of Salem, 2nd edn. Malabar, FL: Rosenthal, B., Adams, G., Burns, M., Grund, P.,
Krieger. Hiltunen, R., Kahlas‐Tarkka, L., Kytö, M.,
Mather, C. (1693). The Wonders of the Invisible Peikola, M., Ray, B., Rissanen, M., Roach, M., and
World. Observations as Well Historical as Trask R. (eds.) (2009). Records of the Salem Witch‐
Theological upon the Nature, the Number, and the Hunt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Operations of the Devils. Boston, MA: Benjamin Schiff, S. (2015). The Witches: Salem, 1692. New
Harris. York: Little, Brown.
Mather, I. (1693). Cases of Conscience concerning evil Silverman, K. (1984). The Life and Times of Cotton
Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, infallible Mather. New York: Harper.
Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Spanos, N. and Gottlieb, J. (1976). “Ergotism and
Crime. Boston, MA: Benjamin Harris. the Salem Village Witch Trials.” Science, 194:
Norton, M.B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem 1390–1394.
Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Knopf. Trask, R. (2009). “Legal Procedures Used During
Ray, B. (2015). Satan and Salem: The Witch‐Hunt the Salem Witch Trials and a Brief History of
Crisis of 1692. Charlottesville: University of the Published Versions of the Records.” In
Virginia Press. Records of the Salem Witch‐Hunt, ed. B. Rosenthal,
Robinson, E. (1991). The Devil Discovered: Salem G. Adams, M. Burns, et  al. Cambridge:
Witchcraft 1692. New York: Hippocrene. Cambridge University Press, pp. 44–63.

Further Reading

Roach, M. (2002). The Salem Witch Trials: A Day‐ by B. Ray.) http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/

by‐Day Chronicle of a Community under Siege. home.html. A wonderful resource that
New York: Cooper Square. A very informative ­contains, for example, images of the original
day‐by‐day account of the trials, based on a documents, biographical notes about some of
careful consideration of many sources. the most important participants in the trials,
Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and and maps.
Transcription Project (created and maintained


From Babylon to Indian Country
Andrew Newman

New English Babylon

“Whilst they continued Gods plantation, they were a noble Vine, a right seede,”
declared Reverend John Cotton in 1630, “but if Israel will destroy themselves; the
fault is in themselves.” Cotton’s sermon, “Gods Promise to his Plantation,” identified
the Israel of the Old Testament with his congregation of English Puritans on the point
of embarking for Massachusetts Bay. According to Cotton, just as God had cleared
“room” in the promised land of Canaan for the people who had followed Moses out of
Egypt, planting them like a “vine” that would flourish so long as they adhered to
Mosaic law, so he would plant and protect Christians in New England (in a region
where the native peoples had suffered catastrophic depopulation through epidemic
disease), so long as they upheld their end of the new Covenant under the Law of the
Gospel. “But if you rebell against God,” he warned the assembled colonists, invoking
Jeremiah, who prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the carrying‐away of the
Jews as captives to Babylon, “the same God that planted you will also roote you out
againe, for all the evill which you shall doe against your selves: Jer. 11.17.” God would
thus chasten his backsliding people, yet “even in their captivity” he would sustain
those among them who were predestined to reform: “The Basket of good figges God sent
into the land of Caldea for their good: Jer. 24.5” (Cotton 1686: 16–17).
Thus the Protestant colonists arrived with a predetermined interpretation for
captivities, a recurrent feature of the wars that were the inevitable consequence of the
system of “settler colonialism” which sought to “replace the natives on their land”

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
90 Volume I: Origins to 1820

(Wolfe 2001: 868). Among the various forms of colonial contact, captivity was
especially significant to the New England colonists, because it was so legible to their
theological worldview as evidence of God’s disposition toward them and their enemies.
Captivity was an ideal occasion for them to extend typology – the system of corre­
spondences wherein the persons and events of the Old Testament prefigured those of
the New, especially the coming of Christ – to current events, sometimes uncannily.
Styling themselves as Israelites who had escaped from the Egyptian tyranny of the
Church of England to settle in their promised land, they seemed to find themselves
reliving ancient history: their sanctuary sacked by heathens, their women and children
carried away as captives.
The story of the first New English captives aptly exemplifies this figural significance.
In April 1637, Pequot raiders attacked the town of Wethersfield, on the Connecticut
River. According to Newes from America (1638), Captain John Underhill’s history of the
Pequot War (1636–1637), Pequots “slew nine men, women and children,” and took
“two maids captives” (1638: 15–16). They then canoed within sight of Fort Saybrook
on the Long Island Sound, taunting the English soldiers who “gave fire” (16). For
Underhill, “it was a speciall providence of God” that the English ordinance did not hit
the canoe carrying “the poore maids,” else “then should we have beene deprived of the
sweet observation of Gods providence in their deliverance” (16). That is, God ordained
that the young women would not be struck by friendly fire (an event for which the
Puritans may have been challenged to locate a clear biblical precedent) so that through
their captivity and redemption He could provide an object lesson in His sovereignty
over human affairs.
Although the two captives were only bit players, their story warranted a lengthy
digression in Underhill’s history, because it revealed the workings of the principal
player in everything – God. In this regard, the embedded captivity narrative within
Newes from America expresses a rationale for the initial development of the captivity
narrative as a stand‐alone genre, with some works appearing under titles that instruc­
tively subordinate the human protagonist‐author of the narrative to the divine Author
of events: The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises
Displayed, Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
(1682) and God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty, Exemplified in the Captivity and
Redemption of Elizabeth Hanson (1728). As Roy Harvey Pearce wrote in a classic essay on
the genre, in early captivity narratives “the details of the captivity itself are found to
figure forth a larger, essentially religious experience” (1947: 2).
The pages Underhill devotes to the two Pequot War captives also preview some
of the interpretive problems attending subsequent narratives. They feature his rep­
resentation of the testimony of the elder of the two young women, who was “about
sixteene years of age,” at their debriefing or “examination,” which took place after
Dutch traders had redeemed them from the Pequots and delivered them to Fort
Seabrook (25). The account is presented partly in third person, partly in first person,
and is framed by Underhill’s narration and interpretive commentary; therefore it is
impossible to objectively determine what happened to the two captives, how they felt
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 91

about their experience, or to sort out their account from the agendas and mediation
of more powerful men.
For example, apparently one of the examiners’ priorities was to confirm that the
young women did indeed return from captivity as “maids”: “[D]emanding of her how they
had used her, she told us that they did solicite her to uncleannesse, but her heart being
much broken and afflicted under that bondage she was cast in, had brought to her
consideration these thoughts, how shall I commit this great evill and sinne against my
God?” (25). Did Underhill reliably represent the captive’s testimony? If so, by vilifying
her captors and attesting to her religious resistance to sexual temptation, was she just
telling the men what they wanted to hear? If she was straightforwardly reporting her
experience, how much could she have understood, in light of cultural and linguistic
barriers, about the Pequots’ intentions? As evidence of a colonial encounter, the value
of this account is vitiated, but it is more directly revealing of colonial anxieties about
contact between European women and Indigenous men. The consensus in subsequent
narratives, until the genre took a turn toward sensationalist fiction after the colonial
period, was that Indians had no interest in making, in Mary Rowlandson’s phrase, “the
least abuse of unchastity” (Sayre 2000: 172) toward the women they held in their
power (at least, so long as they held the status of captives; those captives who were
adopted and incorporated into Indian families, as discussed below, would be expected
to participate in family relations).
Underhill was not particularly interested in the Pequots’ motivations, however.
Although some later captivity narratives would seek to feed their readers’ curiosity
about Native Americans, the early ones, as “simple, direct religious documents,” stuck
to their rhetorical purpose (Pearce 1947: 2). Thus, whereas the Pequots, according to
Underhill, “shewed” the captives “their Forts, and curious Wigwams, and houses, and
incouraged them to be merry,” they were too preoccupied by their spiritual plight to
be entertained: “the poore soules, as Israel, could not frame themselves to any delight
or mirth under so strange a King”; instead, “hanging their Harpes upon the Willow
trees,” the young captives “gave their mindes to sorrow, hope was their chiefest food,
and teares their constant drinke” (25–26). Here Underhill, speaking for the former
captives, toggles their story with that of the Jewish captives in Babylon. His reference
is to the famous 137th Psalm, arguably the most prominent biblical signpost for
American captivity narratives. In this lament, the Jews, by the “rivers of Babylon,”
are disconsolate about being estranged from their homeland and refuse their captors’
taunting request for a song, choosing instead to hang their “harps upon the willows”
(Psalms 137:2).1
For Puritans, the primary meaning of the Babylonian captivity, with respect to
the Pequot War captives and others during the seventeenth and eighteenth centu­
ries, was that their affliction was the consequence of God’s righteous anger, toward
them and perhaps toward their community. Thus the young women from
Wethersfield necessarily concluded that “Gods hand was justly upon them for their
remisnesse in all their wayes” (Underhill 1638: 25). Yet such chastisement could also
be a sign of God’s love toward his chosen people, whom he restored to righteousness
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through scourging, as was symbolized by the captives’ physical redemption and

restoration to their community.
Hence, the Pequots’ captives’ “sorrow” was not over their situation as captives, but
rather over their spiritual plight as sinners, over having been “so ungratefull toward
God” as to be turned over to savage enemies  –  a punishment for which they were
intensely grateful (Underhill 1638: 25). Although the elder captive admitted, accord­
ing to Underhill, that she sometimes feared that she would die at her captors’ hands,
especially if the English prosecuted their war, Underhill represents her as concluding:
“I will not feare what man can doe unto me, knowing God to be above man, and man
can doe nothing without Gods permission” (26). These words, which “fell from her
mouth when she was examined in Seabrook fort” (26), suited Underhill’s larger pur­
poses in Newes from America, which aimed to vindicate English atrocities during the
Pequot War, especially the torching of the Pequot fort at Mystic, a holocaust that
consumed approximately eight hundred men, women, and children. They also repre­
sent the upshot of the Protestant captivity narrative, which repeatedly illustrated and
urged a complete subjection of oneself to God’s will.
In his commentary, Underhill referred to stories from the Book of Daniel about
devout Jewish captives in Babylon whom God protected from harm. The “Three
Children,” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who emerged unscathed from
Nebuchadnezzar’s “fierie furnace,” and Daniel himself, who survived a night in King
Darius’s “Lyons denne,” were popular types for captivities (Underhill 1638: 27); they
appear, for example, in the narratives of Rowlandson and John Marrant (Sayre 2000:
172, 213). Underhill’s references in Newes from America neatly exemplify the opera­
tion of biblical typology, because first he reads Christ into the Old Testament, then
he applies it to the present day: “better in a fierie furnace with the presence of Christ,
then in a Kingly palace without him: better in a Lyons denne, in the midst of all the
roaring lyons and with Christ, then in a doune bed with wife and children without
Christ” (27).
His point is that the Wethersfield captives were better off in the hands of the
Pequots than readers were in the comforts of home – the risk of physical harm was as
nothing compared with the risk of spiritual death from a lapse into complacency and
ingratitude. Accordingly, he cautioned, some readers might be so foolish as to wish for
such affliction themselves: “if this be the fruit of afflictions, I would I had some of
those.” But to do so would be presumptuous: “wee are rather to follow Christs example,
Father not my will, but thy will bee done” (28).

Mary Rowlandson et al.

Underhill’s commentary lends some context to the concluding paragraph of Mary

Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682): “Before I knew what affliction
meant,” it begins, “I was ready sometimes to wish for it.” In her previous life,
Rowlandson had been “sometimes jealous least I should have my portion in this life”;
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 93

that is, she was concerned that in enjoying the temporal comforts of life on earth, she
was forsaking the everlasting joys of life in Heaven. Hebrews 12:6 told her that “whom
the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth” (Sayre 2000: 176).
So why not her? God seemed to have let her off easy, which might be a sign that she
was not predestined to go to Heaven.
Rowlandson’s turn had come in February 1676, during the devastating conflict
known as Metacom’s or King Philip’s War, when Narragansetts, Nipmucs, and
Wampanoags attacked the Massachusetts frontier town of Lancaster. According to the
anonymous author of the preface to her narrative, “most of the buildings were turned
into ashes; many people (men, women and children) slain, and others captivated”
(Sayre 2000: 133). Rowlandson saw her nephew and sister slaughtered and carried her
own mortally wounded daughter Sarah with her into captivity, accompanied by her
other two children. Then Rowlandson drank “the dregs of the cup” (Isaiah 51:17), “the
Wine of astonishment” (Psalms 60:3). Now, in her moment of composition, her recol­
lection of her living nightmare affords her a spiritually salutary perspective: “I have
learned to look beyond present smaller troubles,” she concludes, “and to be quieted
under them, as Moses said, Exodus 14.13. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord
(Sayre 2000: 176).
As this closing note illustrates, Rowlandson’s narrative, published in 1682 in
Cambridge, Massachusetts as the Sovereignty and Goodness of God, and in London as
A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, is at once
orthodox and intimate. It exemplifies the potential beauty and poignancy in religious
rhetoric and the representation of a devotional experience. Notably, its words are not
entirely hers; they are also those of the Bible. In addition to a profusion of scripture,
its prose contains many chords that harmonize with the two orthodox texts that
“contained – one might even say disciplined” her narrative (Knight 2008: 182). These
are the “Preface to the Reader,” which is signed in Latin “Per Amicam” (By a Friend)
and is widely attributed to the prominent minister Increase Mather; and her late
husband Joseph Rowlandson’s final sermon, “The Possibility of God’s Forsaking a
People,” which was appended to early editions of the narrative.2
These peritexts frame the narrative exclusively in religious terms, but the narrative
also contains many discordant notes. These include Rowlandson’s accounts of her
economic transactions with her captors, who traded food and goods in exchange for
her sewing: “I was not a little glad that I had anything that they would accept of”
(Sayre 2000: 151). Rowlandson’s indecorous, urgent quest for food, furthermore,
strains against the typology. In one oft‐cited instance, she snatches a boiled horse hoof
from a starving, “slobbering” captive child “and ate it myself, and savory it was to my
taste” (Sayre 2000: 162). Accordingly, some readers have discerned an expressive
struggle and suggested that Mather, especially, may have influenced her composition,
or even intervened directly, lacing the text with scripture and shaping it to serve his
political purposes.
Others have pointed out that Rowlandson, a minister’s wife, might be expected to
possess the sort of fluency with scripture displayed by the narrative and that there is
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nothing unorthodox about the conflict between Rowlandson’s personal voice, which
is at times “very impatient […] almost outrageous,” and “quieting scripture” (Sayre
2000: 154). On the contrary, this contest, in which Rowlandson is necessarily overruled,
is characteristically Puritan. What distinguishes it is that it took place within a
context saturated with typological significance, making it especially noteworthy, and
affording Rowlandson, at the center of it all, a waiver from the general proscription
against women putting their personal experience or opinions on “public view”
(Sayre 2000: 135).
The Sovereignty and Goodness of God is structured in “Removes,” with the chapter
sections corresponding to Rowlandson and her captors’ movements “up and down the
wilderness” (Sayre 2000: 138). References to scripture are not simply layered on as
commentary; rather, in many instances they are part of the narrative’s action sequences.
Indeed one of her declared motives in composing the narrative was to recount God’s
“goodness in bringing to my hand so many comfortable and suitable scriptures in my
distress” (Sayre 2000: 149). Necessarily, these communications began with the provi­
sion of a Bible. “I cannot but take notice,” she wrote in the “Third Remove,” “of the
wonderful mercy of God to me in those afflictions, in sending me a Bible” (Sayre 2000:
144). Rowlandson’s benefactor was possibly one of the Nipmuc converts to Christianity,
a “Praying Indian,” who were among the captors’ party, but in Rowlandson’s represen­
tation his motives were irrelevant: the credit goes to God (Sayre 2000: 143).
In Rowlandson’s exercise of “the fundamental devotional act of her community”
(Knight 2008: 169), the Bible was not simply a repository of God’s Word, but rather
a transmitter. Immediately upon receiving the Bible she opened it, and the commu­
nication began: “in that melancholy time, it came into my mind to read first the 28th
Chapter of Deuteronomy.” Deuteronomy 28 enumerates a series of curses to be visited
upon the unfaithful Jews; it was bad news that spoke to her “dark heart” with uncanny
specificity: for example, 28:41 prophesied: “Though shalt beget sons and daughters,
but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity.” God’s inescapable
message, through Deuteronomy 28, was that, like the Old Testament Jews,
Rowlandson had transgressed and was therefore being punished. But as a Christian
reader, “the Lord helped” her “to go on reading” until she came to much better news,
an anticipation of the Gospel of Christ in Deuteronomy 30:1–7. “I found, there was
mercy promised again, if we would return to him by repentance.” Furthermore, the
tables would be turned: “though we were scattered from one end of the Earth to the
other, yet the Lord would gather us together, and turn all those curses upon our
enemies” (Sayre 2000: 144).
To modern, perhaps secular ears, Rowlandson’s representation of her divinely
directed reading may seem implausible. Surely, as a minister’s wife, she knew what she
would find in Deuteronomy 28, and that if she only kept reading, she would find
reassurance. But Rowlandson was a representative Puritan reader, albeit in an unusual
situation. In her understanding, the God‐to‐soul connection only worked if it was
activated by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, the Bible consisted merely of inert words on
the page. Thus in the “Thirteenth Remove” she recounts an episode where she “found
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 95

no comfort” in the Bible: “So easy a thing it is with God to dry up the streams of
scripture comfort from us” (Sayre 2000: 155).
This understanding of Rowlandson’s literacy practices is difficult to reconcile with
the view that the typological interpretation of Rowlandson’s captivity was imposed on
the narrative. Instead, it also emerges from within, in the form of God’s own running
commentary, through scripture. Within this typological understanding, the Indians
were simply instruments of Providence, whom she refers to formulaically as a “company
of hell‐hounds”; “black creatures” and “merciless enemies” (Sayre 2000: 139–140).
Nevertheless, as the narrative develops, some individuals emerge from among the
undifferentiated mass of “this barbarous enemy” (Sayre 2000: 140).
These include three native leaders. Rowlandson came to see her “master,” the
Narragansett sachem Quinnapin, as “the best friend that I had of an Indian, both in
cold and hunger” (Sayre 2000: 154). She represents her “mistress,” Weetamoo, “Squaw
Sachem” of the Pocasset Wampanoags, as “a severe and proud dame” (Sayre 2000: 163).
In one striking sequence, she recounts how Quinnapin had her “wash” for the first time
since her capture, and then gave her a mirror “to see how [she] looked”; Rowlandson
subsequently describes, revealing her fundamental lack of recognition of her captors’
worldview and their ritual practices, how each day Weetamoo took as much time to
dress as “any of the gentry of the land: powdering her hair, and painting her face, going
with necklaces, with jewels in her ears, and bracelets upon her hands” (Sayre 2000:
163). Rowlandson also took special notice of Metacom, the Wampanoag Sachem known
to her as Philip. She describes him as a “crafty fox” (Sayre 2000: 168), but she does not
vilify him as one might expect of a firsthand account of King Philip’s War.
She does, however, vilify the “praying Indian[s]” as foul hypocrites and impostors
(Sayre 2000: 160). Yet her narrative has paradoxically contributed to the recovery of
some of their stories, as scholars have correlated her narrative with other historical
documents and investigated the Indians she mentions by name. Tom Dublet and Peter
Conway, the messengers who carried the correspondence negotiating Rowlandson’s
ransom and release, had been among the hundreds of Christian Indians whom the
English had interned, under horrendous conditions, on Deer Island in Massachusetts
Bay, during Metacom’s War. “Though they were Indians,” Rowlandson wrote, of their
delivery of a letter from the Massachusetts Governor’s council, “I got them by the
hand, and burst out into tears” (Sayre 2000: 163). The person who wrote out the
response to that letter, on behalf of the “Indian sachems,” was James Printer (Wowaus),
whose English surname referred to his role before the war as an apprentice to the
printer Samuel Green (Sayre 2000: 164n43). Printer returned to his vocation in
Cambridge, Massachusetts after the war; scholars speculate that in 1682, “in one of the
most sublime ironies of King Philip’s War,” he set the type for Rowlandson’s narrative
(Lepore 1998: 126).
The representation of Native Americans and the question of patriarchal, editorial
interference with a female author’s self‐expression are principal discussion points in
the scholarship surrounding Rowlandson’s narrative. Another is Rowlandson’s appar­
ent struggle to reconcile her orthodox faith with the extremities of her psychological
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and physical experiences, especially those of grief and hunger. Hers is the first full‐
length Protestant narrative of captivity among Indians in North America, the initial
installment in the 111‐volume Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian
Captivities (1976–1980), making Rowlandson the lead author, as it were, of a genre
that is commonly but misleadingly identified as uniquely American. Actually, as
Linda Colley and others demonstrate, the British colonists who came to North America
in the seventeenth century brought “stories of capture” – especially arising from
conflicts in Islamic peoples – with them, but these were “adapted to a new American
environment and to very different dangers” (2002: 140).
All the attention devoted to The Sovereignty and Goodness of God has made it perhaps
the most widely analyzed work of colonial American literature – analyzed by profes­
sional scholars and students alike. This “hypercanonization” has a somewhat distortive
effect on the study of captivity narratives as a genre, and even more so on the under­
standing of captivity as a historical phenomenon (Arac 1997: 133). That is, Rowlandson
headlines an important set of Puritan captivity narratives, including Cotton Mather’s
accounts of Hannah Swarton and Hannah Dustan, first published in 1697 (Vaughan
and Clark 1981: 145–164), and John Williams’s 1707 narrative, “The Redeemed
Captive Returning to Zion” (2006). But while her narrative contributed to the extraor­
dinary resonance of the figure of the white female captive wrested from home, this
figure is foreign to many of “more than a thousand separate captivity titles” that were
published from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and it only represents
a small portion of the “wide continuum of experiences” of captivity in colonial North
America (Kolodny 1979: 232; Snyder 2012: 5).

Types of Captivity

In their anthology Puritans among the Indians, Alden Vaughan and Edward Clark
propose four categories of captivity narratives. These groupings, especially the first
three, are not as “distinct” from one another as Vaughan and Clark suggest, but they
are nevertheless useful, especially insofar as they correspond to some of the motives
Native Americans had in taking captives, namely for ransom, for enslavement, and for
adoption (Vaughan and Clark 1981: 14; Snyder 2012: 5).
Rowlandson and Williams exemplify the first group: they were detained among
Indians for a relatively brief period, and they were “not substantially changed” by their
experience, in the sense that the cultural boundaries separating captor from captive
remained intact or were easily reestablished (Vaughan and Clark 1981: 14). Their
captors regarded them as commodities or bargaining chips held for ransom, and
accordingly they were relatively safe. In the “Eighth Remove,” one of Rowlandson’s
captors assured her that “none will hurt you” (Sayre 2000: 150). Williams, who was
the most valuable asset among the 112 captives taken in the famous 1704 raid on
Deerfield, Massachusetts during Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), probably realized as
much when he defied his Mohawk “master,” a Catholic convert, who threatened “to
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 97

dash out [his] brains with his hatchet” if he refused to kiss a crucifix (2006: 113).
Williams would have known that his master would have been reluctant to forego his
ransom, which he received soon after their arrival in New France.
This transition is a turning point in Williams’s narrative, marked by a shift from
Old Testament to New Testament points of reference. The first section exhibits
Williams’s “patient bearing the indignation of the Lord” while in the hands of the
“cruel and barbarous” Indians and, more especially, while undergoing the “hardships
and fatigues” of the journey to Canada (96). Collectively, the Deerfield captives medi­
tated on verses that construed them as objects of God’s righteous judgment, being
punished for their transgressions. At a Sabbath‐day prayer meeting the Indians allowed
them to have, Williams gave a sermon on Lamentations 1:18: “The Lord is righteous,
for I have rebelled against his commandment. Hear, I pray you, all people, and behold
my sorrow. My virgins and young men are gone into captivity” (102). Such references
to verses of scripture become less frequent in Williams’s narration of his time in
Canada, where he represents the Jesuits implementing a divide‐and‐conquer strategy,
separating the Protestant captives from one another and resorting to trickery and
intense pressure to convert them to Catholicism. At one point, he alludes to the story
of Christ’s Temptation on the Mount, casting the Jesuit Superior, who offered to
reunite him with his children and provide an “honorable pension” if he would remain
in Canada, as Satan: “Sir, if I thought your religion to be true, I would embrace it freely
without any such offer, but so long as I believe it to be what it is, the offer of the whole
world is of no more value to me than a blackberry” (125–126).
Rowlandson’s and Williams’s narratives were religious documents, but they were
also wartime propaganda, and they continued to serve the purpose of vilifying enemies
in later reprintings, throughout the colonial era and beyond. Most later narratives
were less concerned with inspiring spiritual reform in their readers and more devoted
to fueling their hatred of Indians and their European allies. Collectively, they sug­
gested that scalping, torture, mutilations, cannibalism, and the murder of women
and children were essential features of the Indians’ culture. These representations of
atrocities marked the Indians as inhuman, but for that reason the real culpability was
often imputed to those who supposedly subscribed to international law, the so‐called
civilized peoples who incited their Native allies to violence: the French, during the
series of wars that lasted from 1688 to 1763, and the British, during the War of
Independence and the War of 1812. During the early national period, captivity
narratives continued to attest to the Indians’ essential barbarity and therefore
contributed to the case for removing them to the west of the Mississippi.
Such a portrait of the Native Americans was shaped more by political needs than
by the actual experiences of the captives. According to Vaughan and Clark, however,
a smaller number of captivity narratives belong to a second category, featuring
“empathetic insight into Indian culture” (115). They give the example of John Gyles,
who was captured during a French and Abenaki raid on his family’s settlement in
Maine in 1689 during King William’s War (1689–1697). Gyles was 11 when he
was made captive, and according to his 1736 Memoirs of Odd Adventures, Strange
98 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Deliverances, etc, he spent “about six years” in “doleful captivity” among the Maliseet
Abenakis before they sold him to the French (Vaughan and Clark 1981: 124). Gyles
definitely had a different status among his captors than did Rowlandson or Williams.
He regarded himself as a “slave,” and along with fellow captives he was principally
consigned to woman’s work (Vaughan and Clark 1981: 124). In other words, he filled
a preexisting role, although a subordinate one, within the Maliseet economy. He may
have forgone the opportunity to enhance his status by rejecting any acculturation, or
adoption of Abenaki cultural practices, including their “form of Catholicism” (Foster
2003: 114). As might be expected, his representation of the culture of his captors is
richer and more detailed than in narratives in the first category, but it is doubtful that
these descriptions express empathy, as Vaughan and Clark suggest. Instead, as Yael
Ben‐Zvi (2008) argues, “ethnographic” descriptions in captivity narratives tend to
emphasize the Indians’ “foreignness” (x).
Vaughan and Clark’s third category of narratives “was written by those who had
difficulty adjusting to their natal culture after long exposure to Indian life,” because
they had undergone some degree of acculturation (15). One narrative that represents
such a transformation is A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant,
A Black (1785), which recounts the journey of the 13‐year‐old Anglo‐African Marrant,
a recent convert to Methodism, across the “fence” that “divided the inhabited and
cultivated parts” of South Carolina from “the wilderness” (Sayre 2000: 209). When he
returned after captivity among Cherokee Indians, he was professedly fluent in their
language and his “dress was purely in the Indian stile”; his family, except for his
“youngest sister,” did not recognize him, and “contrived to get [him] out of the house”
(Sayre 2000: 216–217). Yet to an even greater extent than Rowlandson’s Sovereignty
and Goodness of God, Marrant’s narrative, which was written by the Methodist minister
William Aldridge on the basis of Marrant’s oral account (Marrant himself edited and
annotated later editions), seems to bend toward biblical stories. The family reunion
scene, for example, seems inspired by the story of Joseph. Therefore, it is challenging
to sort out Marrant’s immersion in Cherokee culture from his ascription of religious
significance to the events he depicts. As the title of his narrative indicates, God is its
foremost protagonist.
In contrast, Vaughan and Clark give the example of an Account of the Remarkable
Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Colonel James Smith (1799). Smith is clearly the
protagonist of his own narrative. His account, which has still “received surprisingly
little attention from scholars of the captivity genre” (Sayre 2000: 260), provides an
instructive counterpoint to the Rowlandson model of captivity. First, unlike the para­
digmatic literary captive, and like “over 80 percent” of the “approximately 2,600
Anglo‐American captives” brought to Canada during the French and Indian wars,
Smith was male (Foster 2003: 2). Second, the authorship of his narrative is undisputed;
Smith’s brief preface explains that he rejected the suggestion “to employ some person
of liberal education to transcribe and embellish” his narrative, opining that “nature
always outshines art” (Sayre 2000: 263). Finally, his narrative is a story of adventure
rather than of Providence. Whereas Rowlandson was captured in a raid, Smith was
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 99

among those colonists who voluntarily left home, and were detained en route to or
through Indian country. These included missionaries, traders, soldiers, and, most
iconically, “frontiersmen” such as Daniel Boone, whose capture and adoption by
Shawnees in 1778, leading to his “initiation into knowledge of the Indian way,” was
an important part of his resumé as a folk hero (Slotkin 1973: 288). In Smith’s case, he
represents himself as choosing “Mars” over “Venus” at age 18; he left his “dear fair one”
on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1755 and voluntarily exposed himself to the hazards of
Indian captivity, joining the war effort by helping to “cut a waggon road” westward
from the Pennsylvania frontier, leading to an even deeper and more entangling immer­
sion into a Native American society (Sayre 2000: 263).
Smith was captured and adopted by a band of Kahnawake (“Caughnewago”)
Mohawks who had migrated to the Ohio Country from the Canadian mission town of
Kahnawake, near Montreal. He represents his adoption ritual at considerable length,
including a ritual cleansing performed by three “young ladies,” concluding with a
rendition of a speech by “one of the chiefs.” In Smith’s translation, the chief makes an
unlikely allusion to Genesis 2:23 (“And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and
flesh of my flesh”):
My son, you are now flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone. By the ceremony which was
performed this day, every drop of white blood was washed out of your veins; you are
taken into the Caughnewago nation, and initiated into a warlike tribe; you are adopted
into a great family, and now received with great seriousness and solemnity in the room
and place of a great man; after what has passed this day, you are now one of us by an old
strong law and custom – (Sayre 2000: 268–269)

Smith’s representation of the ceremony and the speech illustrates “requickening,”

the ritual whereby Haudenosaunees and neighboring peoples replaced lost family
members through “ceremonies in which the deceased’s name, and with it the social
role and duties it represented, was transferred to a successor” (Richter 1992: 32).
Requickening was part of a “cultural pattern” called the “mourning‐war,” because as
the casualty rate increased, as it did dramatically during the colonial era, Indians
increasingly sought to repair their losses by taking captives, perpetuating a vicious
circle of retaliation (Richter 1992: 32). In the view of Smith’s adopted people, their
ceremony erased his former identity, reanimated the persona of a deceased “great man,”
and transferred it to him. Hence he was no longer a “detained outsider” (the definition
that Cristina Snyder proposes for “captive”), but rather, prospectively, a core member
of the group (Snyder 2012: 5). He had yet to grow into the role: “‘we hope you will
always go on to do great actions,’ his elder adoptive brother told him on a future
occasion, ‘as it is only great actions that can make a great man.’” Smith responded
“that I always wished to do great actions, and hoped I would never do any thing to
dishonor any of those with whom I was connected” (Sayre 2000: 295–296).
That spectacularly vague rendering of whatever Smith might have said to his
adoptive kin in the Mohawk dialect in which he became fluent, epitomizes what is so
interesting in narratives of acculturation like Smith’s. Whereas Rowlandson’s narrative
100 Volume I: Origins to 1820

expresses her unwavering attachment to her people and her faith, Smith’s narrative
wavers constantly. It expresses the rhetorical predicament of an author who is torn,
albeit not in equal parts, between two antagonistic peoples. It is not a predicament
that Smith manages adeptly, but his equivocal writing makes for interesting reading.
For example, in recalling his response to the ceremonial speech at his adoption he
At this time I did not believe this fine speech, especially that of the white blood being
washed out of me; but since that time I have found that there was much sincerity in said
speech, for, from that day, I never knew them to make any distinction between me and
themselves in any respect whatever until I left them. If they had plenty of cloathing,
I had plenty; if we were scarce, we all shared one fate. (Sayre 2000: 269)

The sentence is grammatically ambiguous, but the implication is not that Smith came
to believe that he had been purged of “white blood,” but rather that he realized that
the Indians unconditionally treated him as one of their own. Although Smith repeatedly
attempts to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over the Indians’ “light of
nature” (Sayre 2000: 310), he ends up repeatedly attesting to the superiority of their
communal society over his natal culture. So why did he leave?
Others chose not to. “By what power does it come to pass,” wondered John Hector
St. John de Crevecoeur, in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), “that children who
have been adopted when young among these people can never be prevailed on to
readopt European manners?” Observing that such adopted captives consistently
refused to be reunited with their birth parents, he speculated that “there must be in
their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be
boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples
even of one of those aborigines having from choice become Europeans!” (1981: 213,
214). Such captives, “who never returned to their natal culture,” are the subjects of a
fourth category in Vaughan and Clark’s classification of captivity narratives. Since
these captives lost whatever English‐language literacy they had through acculturation,
this category is “hypothetical.” As Vaughan and Clark note, “the most famous exam­
ple” (1981: 16) of an “unredeemed” captive is Eunice Williams, the daughter of John
Williams, who was seven when she was captured along with most of her family and
many of their neighbors in the 1704 Abenaki, Mohawk, and French raid on Deerfield,
Massachusetts. Eunice, the biological daughter of a Puritan minister, converted to
Catholicism, married a Mohawk man, had children, and died as Catholic Mohawk
elder Marguerite Kanenstenhawi in 1785.
The composition and publication of a narrative was effectively part of the story of
the redeemed captive, the ultimate sign of his or her return to so‐called civilization.
Accordingly, for a fully acculturated captive like Eunice Williams, retaining the ability
to write her own story would have been incompatible with that story. According to
John Williams, in the only meeting he was permitted to have with her in Kahnawake,
while he was still in Canada as a prisoner, he found “she could read very well and had
not forgotten her catechism.” He enjoined her “to be careful she did not forget her
Captivity: From Babylon to Indian Country 101

catechism and the Scriptures she had learned by heart,” but without a Bible and
further instruction her literacy and eventually her English lapsed (118–119). Thus
whereas her father, through his self‐authored captivity narrative, furnished genera­
tions of Protestant readers with an exemplar of steadfast faith in the face of duress
and temptation, his daughter’s English name “became a byword for the susceptibility
of even a minister’s daughter to cultural and religious conversion” (Newman 2011:
232). She became a model for “cautionary” characters in early nineteenth‐century
fiction (Namias 1993: 97): Faith, in Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie: Or,
Early Times in Massachusetts (1827), and Ruth, in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept
of Wish‐Ton‐Wish (1829).
During the same period, however, two non‐fiction, as‐told‐to works filled the void
of Vaughan and Clark’s fourth category: A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison (1824)
and A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (1830). Both Jemison and
Tanner were initially captured by Shawnees. Jemison, at age 12, was adopted by
Senecas in 1758; she became a Seneca woman herself, twice marrying and having “a
large family of Indian children” (Seaver 1992: 119).3 Jemison gave her life story as an
oral history to the minister James Seaver, who is credited with authorship of her
narrative. Her children, she explained, made it impossible for her to take the opportu­
nity to return to her natal society at the end of the Revolutionary War; she feared her
white relatives “would despise them, if not myself; and treat us as enemies; or, at least
with a degree of cold indifference, which I thought I could not endure” (Seaver 1992:
119–120). Tanner, similarly, was adopted by an Ojibwa family in 1790 as a nine‐year‐old.
As the Ojibwa writer Louise Erdrich writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition,
he was “raised entirely as an Ojibwa,” and as an adult “was never able to accommodate
himself to a non‐Indian life” (2003: xi). His narrative was written by Edward James on
the basis of Tanner’s oral account, although Tanner is listed as the author. According
to Erdrich, it is “probably one of the very few in the captivity genre that appeals
strongly to Native Americans” (2003: xi). This appeal is understandable, because, like
the narrative of Mary Jemison, it does not present Native American society as some­
thing from which one needs to be redeemed.
The scope of this chapter has been limited to non‐fictional representations of
colonists from British America and the early United States who were captured by
Native Americans. It leaves out fictional captivity narratives, like Ann Eliza Bleecker’s
History of Maria Kittle (1797). It also leaves out so‐called Barbary captivities, the
accounts of Christians enslaved in North Africa, as well as representations of Indian
captivity from other colonial contexts, such as New France or South America. A more
capacious definition of the captivity genre might also include Anglo‐African slave
narratives, representing the experience of Africans captured and brought as slaves to
the Americas. Narratives like Rowlandson’s have long been a mainstay of early
American literature courses, foregrounding cultural encounters and the experiences of
women and therefore helping to diversify syllabi that were dominated by white men.
The trend in contemporary literary scholarship, however, is expansive, looking beyond
New England to other regions, religions, and languages, and seeking to reach past the
102 Volume I: Origins to 1820

limited point of view of the captive narrators and into “Native Space” (Brooks 2013).
In this regard, there is more work to be done in building a conversation between early
American literary studies, which has emphasized the significances of captivity narra­
tives in their historical and cultural contexts, and the field of ethnohistory, which has
used captivity narratives as primary sources of information about Native American
cultures, including practices of captivity, enslavement, adoption, and warfare.
Of course, the vast majority of captivities are not represented in literature. Native
Americans were capturing other Native Americans long before the arrival of the
colonists, and continued to do so throughout the colonial period; some Indians later
emulated their white neighbors by enslaving persons of African descent (Snyder 2012).
Finally, most significantly for this essay, European and American colonists captured
many more Indians than vice versa, including thousands who were made into slaves
(Newell 2015). The relationship of narratives such as The Sovereignty and Goodness of
God to the nonexistent autobiographical accounts of Indian captives, like the Christian
Indians interned on Deer Island during Metacom’s War, or Metacom’s son, who was
sold into foreign slavery after, is not simply one of representation versus silence in the
historical record. Rather, in addition to inspiring faith, indulging curiosity, and occa­
sionally offering glimpses of empathy, the “selective tradition” of captivity narratives
served to justify the colonists’ treatment of Native Americans (Strong 1999: 3).


1 All biblical citations are from the official but it is also possible that it was written by
King  James Bible Online (http://www. another conservative minister (2007: 33).
kingjamesbibleonline.org/). 3 Jemison’s narrative lists the date of the Shawnee
2 As Teresa Toulouse points out, “No clear proof raid on her Pennsylvania settlement as 1755,
exists of Increase Mather’s authorship of the but a newspaper account of the incident puts it
anonymous preface to Mary Rowlandsons at 1758 (Seaver 1992: 13n13).
text.” The inferential attribution is plausible,


Arac, J. (1997). Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: Colley, L. (2002). Captives: Britain, Empire
The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: and the World, 1600–1850. London: Jonathan
University of Wisconsin Press. Cape.
Ben‐Zvi, Y. (2008). “Ethnography and the Cotton, J. (1686). Gods Promise to his Plantations As
Production of Foreignness in Indian Captivity it was delivered in a Sermon by John Cotton, B.D.
Narratives.” The American Indian Quarterly, and Preacher of Gods word in Boston. http://
32(1): ix–xxxii. digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/22 (accessed 1
Brooks, L. (2013). “Turning the Looking Glass on December 2015).
King Philip’s War: Locating American de Crevecoeur, J.H.S.J. (1981). Letters from an
Literature in Native Space.” American Literary American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth‐Century
History, 25(4): 718–750. America. New York: Penguin Classics.
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Erdrich, L. (2003). Introduction. In The Falcon: A Sayre, G.M. (ed.) (2000). American Captivity
Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Narratives. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Tanner. New York: Penguin, pp. xi–xv. Company.
Foster, W.H. (2003). The Captors’ Narrative: Seaver, J.E. (1992). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs.
Catholic Women and Their Puritan Men on the Mary Jemison, ed. J. Namias. Norman: University
Early American Frontier. Ithaca, NY: Cornell of Oklahoma Press.
University Press. Slotkin, R. (1973). Regeneration through Violence: The
Knight, J. (2008). “The Word Made Flesh: Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860.
Reading Women and the Bible.” In Reading Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Women, Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Snyder, C. (2012). Slavery in Indian Country: The
Atlantic World, 1500–1800, ed. H. Brayman Changing Face of Captivity in Early America
Hackel and C.E. Kelly. Philadelphia: University (reprint). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 169–198. Press.
Kolodny, A. (1979). Review essay. Early American Strong, P.T. (1999). Captive Selves, Captivating Others:
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Lepore, J. (1998). The Name of War: King Philip’s Narratives. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
War and the Origins of American Identity. New Toulouse, T.A. (2007). The Captive’s Position: Female
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Newell, M.E. (2015). Brethren by Nature: New A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New
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Further Reading

Ben‐Zvi, Y. (2012). “Up and Down with Mary Burnham, M. (1997). Captivity and Sentiment:
Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682–
‘Captivity.’” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 1861. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New
24(4): 21–46. This article analyzes the fascinating England. This study articulates the considera­
conversation between Rowlandson’s narrative ble overlap between captivity narratives and
and poems by the Native American writers sentimental fiction, helping to contextualize
Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie. The poems the captivity genre within transatlantic literary
themselves are highly recommended reading. history.
104 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Demos, J. (1994). The Unredeemed Captive: A Family extended analyses of several canonical and
Story from Early America. New York: Knopf. lesser‐known narratives.
While direct documentary evidence of the Salisbury, N. (ed.) (1997). The Sovereignty and Goodness
post‐captivity life of Eunice Williams is scarce, of God, by Mary Rowlandson, with Related Documents.
Demos reconstructs a poignant, readable spec­ Boston. MA: Bedford Books. Rowlandson’s
ulative history. ­narrative appears in virtually every anthology of
Derounian, K.Z. and Levernier, J. (1993). The captivity narratives, including the ones edited by
Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550–1900. New Sayre and by Vaughan and Clark, cited above.
York: Twayne. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian is It is also available free, online, through Project
perhaps the leading scholar of the genre, with Gutenberg and other resources. This authorita­
several important articles as well as this useful tive, essential edition, edited by the historian
co‐authored overview. Neal Salisbury, provides an excellent historical
Newman, A. (2019). Allegories of Encounter: introduction and important supplemental texts.
Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities. Voigt, L. (2009). Writing Captivity in the Early
Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Modern Atlantic: Circulations of Knowledge and
Early American History and Culture, and Authority in the Iberian and English Imperial
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North
Press. This study expands on the discussion Carolina Press. Voigt illuminates the signifi­
in this chapter, with emphasis on the signi­ cance of captivity within a broad transcolonial
ficance of literacy to colonial captives; it features and transatlantic context.


Africans in Early America
Cassander L. Smith

Understanding how and why black Africans found themselves in early America
requires examining the nature of precolonial contact between sub‐Saharan Africa and
Europe. Mid‐fifteenth‐century interactions between peoples in Europe and the Guinea
region of West Africa were not initially fueled by slavery, as some might expect.
Instead, European interest in the continent of Africa and its people was prompted by
classical theories of cosmography, the science of how features of the universe relate to
each other. There was a long‐standing belief in the medieval and early modern ages
that the creation of valuable substances (and anthropomorphic beings) was the result
of climatological anomalies. Specifically, they believed that gold was created in
extremely hot environments, like those found in sub‐Saharan Africa. Early travel
accounts of sub‐Saharan Africa frequently described the land as full of monsters and
gold‐rich kingdoms. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese were the
first to establish a steady, consistent trade with nations on the West Coast of Africa.
The trade between the two regions was robust – so robust, in fact, that the demand
outpaced the supply. To supplement the gold trade, African nations began offering as
trade commodities prisoners of war, that is, slaves. In the wake of Columbus’s travels
and Spain’s expansion of its empire into the Americas, the laws of supply and demand
prevailed, and enslaved bodies became the primary commodity.
The transatlantic slave trade and its devastating, catastrophic effect on black lives
shaped the cultural and sociopolitical presence of black Africans in early America. The
historical archives proffer traces of black lives that tell us something about how they
negotiated systems of enslavement and, in some cases, created countercultures that

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
106 Volume I: Origins to 1820

were key in the development of racial, religious, economic, and other cultural
s­tructures. Black Africans appear in the textual archives in a variety of forms and
­genres: court documents, captivity narratives, poetry, journals and diaries, political
broadsides and pamphlets, sermons. This chapter provides a survey of those textual
archives and examines the literary consequences of black African presences in early
America with a particular emphasis on the region that would become the United
States. It explores four basic questions: Where and how do black Africans appear in
early American textual archives? Why do they appear? What are the textual (more
precisely literary) consequences of black African presences in early America? And
finally, what can we know and not know about the cultural and sociopolitical experi-
ences of black Africans in this period based on the textual record? The discussion
begins with an overview of black African (forced) migration to the region we now call
the United States of America, then turns to an examination of the cultural conse-
quences of their arrival. The chapter ends with a few speculative remarks about where
the study of black Africans in early America might go in the years to come.

Beyond the Common View

The common view is that the first black Africans arrived in what is now the United
States as slaves. Spain, not Portugal, is afforded the infamous distinction of being the
first European empire to introduce slavery to the Americas in the early sixteenth
­century, and records at colonial Jamestown tell us that the first black Africans arrived
in the British American colonies in 1619. Whether they arrived at Jamestown initially
as slaves or indentured servants, though, has been the source of debate for decades. It
should be noted that some black Africans arrived in America for reasons other than
servitude, equipped with their own sociopolitical motivations that render them
­agentive presences in the landscapes. Like their European counterparts, some came to
the Americas as explorers. Some came to trade. And some black Africans came
to ­reinvent themselves. Take, for example, the black African conquistador Juan Garrido.
In the early sixteenth century he joined expeditions to discover Florida and California.
He also joined Hernán Cortés to invade Mexico in 1519. By 1538, he had married,
created a family, and settled in New Spain. To support his family, he petitioned the
Spanish Crown for compensation and recognition of military service. In his two‐page
petition, or probanza, he declares:

I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time
when […] [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and
conquests and pacifications which were carried out […] all of which I did at my own
expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives […] or anything else.
[…] And also […] I was the first to have the inspiration to sow maize here in New Spain
and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense. (Quoted in Restall
2000: 171)
Africans in Early America 107

Using a popular generic form – the military petition – Garrido narrates himself into a

body politic. His letter is especially crucial because it illustrates explicitly the manner
in which those of African descent engaged the New World situations in which they
found themselves and constructed identities in that landscape.
At the same time that Garrido was settling in New Spain, Esteban the Moor,
another black African conquistador, was testing the limits of self‐autonomy and rein-
vention in the American Southwest. Although enslaved, in the 1520s and 1530s
Esteban moved around present‐day Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico with a freedom
and self‐possession we do not typically ascribe to the enslaved. He served a vital func-
tion as a scout, translator, and cultural mediator between the Spanish and Native
Americans during two key Spanish expeditions: one to settle Florida in 1527, the
other to discover the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, a rumored land of wealth, in 1539.
Unlike Garrido, Esteban did not narrate his own deeds. Most of what we know and
speculate about him comes from the narratives of others, two texts in particular. The
first is Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 Relación, which recounts the harrowing
experiences of the only four survivors (of a crew that began with some 600) of that
1527 Florida expedition. The expedition’s mission was to explore and claim the west-
ern region of Florida, facing the Gulf of Mexico. It encountered a number of disasters
that crippled the mission, including disease, hurricanes, bad leadership, and hostile
encounters with Native American groups living along the Gulf Coast. Only 300 men
actually made landfall near present‐day Tampa Bay. Over the course of two years that
number dwindled to four men, Esteban and three Spaniards, among them Cabeza de
Vaca. For nearly a decade, those four survivors wandered through Florida and then
Texas before making their way south and west into New Spain. In his narrative about
their experiences, Cabeza de Vaca (2003) explains Esteban’s crucial role in the men’s
survival: “The black man always spoke to [the Natives] and informed himself about
the roads we wished to travel and the villages that there were and about other things
that we wanted to know” (153).
The experiences of the survivors prompted a second expedition in 1539, this time
led by the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza and with the mission to find Cibola. The
Cities of Cibola were based on a legend that dated back to 1150 ce when Moors cap-
tured a region of Spain and seven bishops, fleeing from the invasion, took to the seas
in search of a land where they could reestablish their settlement. According to legend,
they eventually found a large island and set up seven settlements that grew into huge,
prosperous cities. In 1538, Cabeza de Vaca claimed those cities existed in the regions
out of which he had just traveled. Appointed as a scout for the mission, Esteban led the
friar back into what had become for him familiar territory. Perhaps because of that
level of familiarity, Esteban took certain liberties as they traveled along that, according
to the friar, compromised the mission. Specifically, Esteban accepted tributes from
Native communities they passed along the way, and eventually he abandoned the friar
in the Arizona desert to arrive first at what they believed was the first city of Cibola.
It was actually the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh. According to the friar’s account, Esteban
arrived at Hawikuh accompanied by an entourage of 300 and loaded down with
108 Volume I: Origins to 1820

t­urquoises and other valuables, including a symbolic gourd rattle; he demanded

entrance to the city and royal treatment. Deeming him a threat, the elders at Hawikuh
demanded he turn back. When Esteban persisted in his efforts to enter the city, Zuni
warriors killed him and members of his entourage. Arriving several days later, the friar
opted not to enter the city. Instead, from a spot upon a hill just outside the city, he
claimed it for Spain.
Upon his return, the friar wrote his account, “Relación del descubrimiento de las
siete ciudades,” often translated and referred to simply as “the relation of Fray Marcos.”
In the narrative, he largely relates and condemns the actions of his black African guide.
Much of what he tells readers about the “Seven Cities” is necessarily based on Esteban’s
encounters there, not his own. Because Esteban takes center stage in the narrative, the
friar is just as much a chronicler of Esteban’s deeds as he is of his own.

From the Archival Margins

Archival traces of black African lives overwhelmingly follow the form of Esteban
rather than Garrido. That is to say, it is rare to find texts narrated (or written) by black
Africans in early America, at least before the mid‐eighteenth century. We mostly glean
information about black lives from the accounts of European travelers, priests, slave
traders, pirates, and so forth, who often represent black Africans in marginalized roles
that render them secondary or inferior presences in the sociopolitical landscape. Black
Africans flit into and out of the texts, their presences often indiscernible or discernible
as oddities, a kind of “extravasant blood,” as Samuel Sewall described black Africans in
colonial Massachusetts in 1700 (2).
To be sure, black Africans appear in some of the most widely studied texts from
early America. If we focus on the British American mainland as an example, there are
a number of instances in which Anglo‐American writers mediate black presences. For
instance, Increase Mather, in his A Brief History (1676), and William Hubbard, in A
Narrative of the Troubles with Indians in New England (1677), both mention a black
African man held captive by the Wampanoag chief Metacomet (“Metacom”) during
the 1675 King Philip’s War. At some point, the man escapes and comes back to New
England with crucial information that saves a settler village from attack. In 1643, an
anonymous writer of a collection of Indian conversion narratives titled “New England’s
First Fruits” describes a “blackmore maid” (61). She apparently is the model of
Christian conversion and proselytizes to others. The literary corpus of Puritan minister
Cotton Mather is especially rich source material. In addition to advocating for the
baptism of enslaved black Africans in his essay “The Negro Christianized,” published
in 1706, Mather writes in his diaries and letters (Silverman 1971) of the conversion
efforts of an enslaved man named Onesimus, whose knowledge of smallpox inoculation
(carried from his homeland in Africa) becomes the focal point of Mather’s own cam-
paign to bring a vaccine to colonial New England. In 1721, Mather also delivered an
execution sermon in Boston centered on the dying confession of a black man, Joseph
Africans in Early America 109

Anno, condemned for murder. Mather published the sermon, “Tremenda,” and
attached to the end of the publication Anno’s last words, a kind of conversion
Particularly in the seventeenth century, colonial American courtrooms were effec-
tive venues for black Africans to assert themselves and narrate their life stories. Among
the more commonly studied court cases is that of Elizabeth Key. In 1655, Key, the
daughter of a black enslaved woman and white Virginia planter, petitioned a Virginia
court for freedom by evoking an English law that stated a child assumed the legal
status of the father. After a year of legal wrangling, the court agreed with Elizabeth.
The trial testimonies of Candy and Mary Black, two black women servants accused of
witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials, offer representations of self‐assertion.
Several years later, a black African man named Adam living in Massachusetts sought
legal intervention to force his master, the Massachusetts judge and merchant John
Saffin, to honor the terms of an indenture contract. The legal battle spanned three
years of court rulings and appeals. During that time Saffin wrote a proslavery pam-
phlet entitled “Brief and Candid Answer to a late Printed Sheet, Entitled, The Selling
of JOSEPH” (1701) that was primarily a response to the antislavery stance of another
Massachusetts judge, Samuel Sewall. In an appendix to his pamphlet, Saffin directly
addresses Adam’s legal efforts, representing Adam as violent, surly, and savage; Adam
used the courts to construct a counter‐image, representing himself in court testimo-
nies as a faithful and productive servant.
That the presences of black Africans in the early American textual archives are so
heavily mediated – when present at all – has led many early Americanists to conclude
that there is little we can know about the actual, historical experiences of black lives
based on these mediated moments. In discursive studies of colonial contact literature,
scholars commonly determine that the mediated representations of black Africans (and
Native Americans) matter most because of what they can tell us about how Euro‐
Americans endeavored (and in many cases struggled) to articulate imperial enterprises
in the Americas. That is to say, for example, that the nameless “blackmore” maid in
“New England’s First Fruit” or the representation of Onesimus by Mather reflect back
on the worldviews of the writers, not those of the black Africans being represented. In
this way, black African presences are objects of white, imperial ambitions and anxie-
ties, reflecting what Toni Morrison calls in Playing in the Dark (1992) the “Africanist
presence” in later American literature.

Reading in the Gaps

When accessing and assessing representations of black Africans in early America,

we must make peace with the fact that there is a great deal we cannot know and
will never know about the lives of black Africans in this earlier era. There is an
irrecoverable aspect to the representations. However, as Saidiya Hartman notes in
“Venus in Two Acts” (2008), those archival blind spots cannot lead us to an impasse,
110 Volume I: Origins to 1820

at the threshold of which we mimic the silence, the unknowingness. Indeed, those
seemingly insignificant, mediated references about black Africans can be rich sites
for cultural analysis that register the kinds of tense interactions that defined cross‐
cultural contact in the colonial period. If we approach the textual archives with an
against‐the‐grain lens, we can infer a great deal about the agentive nature of black
Africans in the period. The 1699 captivity narrative of the Philadelphia Quaker
Jonathan Dickinson is especially fascinating in this regard. In 1696, while sailing
from Jamaica to Philadelphia, Dickinson shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, near
present‐day Palm Beach. Dickinson, his wife and infant son, and a score of other
passengers – including 10 black enslaved men, women and children – were taken
captive by Florida coastal tribes. Displaying a great deal of social, political, and
mercantile savvy in negotiations mostly with the Ais people who held them cap-
tive, Dickinson navigated his way up the coast toward St. Augustine, where he
found shelter with the Spanish, who helped him and his party get back to
In 1699, Dickinson published a journal of his captivity, God’s Protecting Providence,
and in that text he represents those enslaved passengers who were also shipwrecked as
a collective body. They fetch water, carry Dickinson’s baby, and travel as messengers
and scouts to other parts of the coast. They function also as commodities, passed back
and forth between Dickinson and the various Native American leaders with whom he
negotiates to secure food, clothing, and other necessities. Dickinson’s construction of
the enslaved passengers serves to recreate some semblance of colonial social and mer-
cantile order. Their social status and their labor transfer unaltered into this new South
Florida landscape, and their commercial value is discernible even to their Native cap-
tors. At one point, Dickinson explains his efforts to negotiate with one leader of the
Jece people:

we asked for such things as they did not make use of; viz. a great glass, wherein was five
or six pound of butter; some sugar; the rundlet of wine: and some balls of chocolate: all
which was granted us. […] But the Casseekey [leader] would have a Negro boy of mine,
named Caesar, to which I could not tell what to say; but he was resolved on it. (16–17)

That Dickinson constructs the black enslaved passengers as mediated presences at the
periphery is not surprising. One particularly striking moment occurs, though, nine
months into their captivity ordeal. By this time, they have escaped their captors and
are making their way mostly on foot to St. Augustine. Due to varying states of physical
health, some travel faster than others. Some die, unable to endure the long journey
barely clothed and during a frigid Florida winter. With the help of one enslaved boy,
Dickinson ushers his wife and son safely to St. Augustine. However, he reluctantly
leaves behind another sickly relative. He seeks the aid of an enslaved man named Ben,
whose owner is the ship’s captain. Dickinson says that he “applied myself to the Negro,
making large promises if he would fetch my kinsman; he offered to go back and use his
endeavor, which he did” (59).
Africans in Early America 111

Dickinson mentions the moment without reflection or additional commentary. It

would seem that the enslaved man simply fulfills his role. Yet readers might note that
this man is particularized and named throughout the narrative, and Dickinson does
not order him about. Instead Dickinson “applies” himself and “makes large promises.”
Here he negotiates with a black enslaved man much the same way he negotiates with
Indian leaders and eventually with the Spanish when they arrive in St. Augustine.
What could Ben have possibly said or done to make promises necessary? Did he assume
a certain stature as the slave of the ship’s captain? Perhaps Dickinson could not com-
mand Ben the way he could his own enslaved property. What kind of promises would
have been large enough to convince Ben to risk his life to save another? What in
Dickinson’s demeanor or plea led Ben to believe in his promises? Ultimately, what was
the source of Ben’s leverage? The answer to this last question perhaps resides in the
precarious situation Dickinson, Ben, and the other travelers found themselves as
English colonists, castaways, and mobile bodies attempting to navigate the increas-
ingly volatile Atlantic Caribbean region, of which Florida was an extension in 1697.
The region was so volatile, in fact, that when Dickinson’s party first embarked from
Jamaica, they did so as part of a convoy to protect themselves from marauding French
ships. Once the party shipwrecked, they posed as Spaniards, who had a friendlier rela-
tionship with coastal Florida tribes. To illustrate how quickly the political landscape
changed, if the castaways had shipwrecked just six years later, they would not have
found asylum among the Spanish in St. Augustine. By that time Spain and England
would have been rivals in Queen Anne’s War. All of this is to say that Ben and
Dickinson were operating in a space that was politically volatile and by extension
socially volatile. Thus despite Dickinson’s general representations of the enslaved
­passengers as static bodies, his characterization of Ben suggests that the enslaved ­people
negotiated their servant positions as they moved up the Florida coast, taking advantage
of the region’s instability. When viewing Dickinson’s narrative from Ben’s perspective,
we get a more complex understanding of the multicultural encounters that shaped
Dickinson’s ordeal and the extent to which he finessed his interactions with Natives,
Spaniards, and his fellow captives, including those enslaved.

Decentering from the Margins

In addition to revealing the agency of black African figures in early American textual
archives, against‐the‐grain readings also tell us something about the extent to which
black Africans influenced the literary landscape. Consider, for example, the seven-
teenth‐century travel journal of John Josselyn, an Englishman who traveled twice to
New England, in 1638 and 1663. He kept a detailed journal from both trips, which
he edited and published as a single travel narrative in 1674. The text is organized as a
series of dated, episodic entries designed to inform English readers about the colonial
New England landscape. In the journal, he relates an incident during his first voyage
in which a distressed black enslaved woman complains to him of having been raped.
112 Volume I: Origins to 1820

The encounter occurs during his stay with a Massachusetts colonist named Samuel
Maverick. Josselyn describes the encounter:

The second of October about Nine of the clock in the morning, Mr. Mavericks Negro
woman came to my chamber window, and in her own Countrey language and tune sang
very loud and shrill, going out to her, she used a great deal of respect towards me, and
willingly would have expressed her grief in English; but I apprehended it by her counte-
nance and deportment, whereupon I repaired to my host, to learn of him the cause, and
resolved to intreat him on her behalf, for that I understood before, that she had been a
Queen of her own Countrey and observed a very humble and dutiful garb used towards
her by another Negro who was her maid. Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of
Negroes and therefore seeing she would not yield by perswasions to company with a
Negro young man he had in his house; he commanded him will’d she nill’d she to go to
bed to her, which was no sooner done but she kickt him out again, this she took in high
disdain beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief. (26)

Based on archival work, historian Wendy Anne Warren (2007) surmises that the woman
was among the first group of enslaved Africans to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
by way of the Caribbean Providence Island in 1638. Warren argues that such fleeting
moments in early American texts provide rich opportunities for historians to gain a
deeper understanding of the complex multicultural interactions that shaped colonial
American history (1033). Just as Warren addresses the historical import of this moment,
we can say also something of its literary significance. Reading this as a mediated moment,
our first impulse might be to render the woman a product of Josselyn’s literary imagina-
tion. A cursory reading confirms Josselyn’s narrative control. He represents the woman
as a novelty based on her dress, her utterances (she speaks to him in her own language),
her stately deportment, which is rendered as a bit absurd given the circumstances and her
social position as a slave. What is more, the moment comes on the heels of a grotesque
description of the monstrous birth of Mary Dyer, a Puritan‐turned‐Quaker who was one
of the leading supporters of Ann Hutchinson during the Antinomian Controversy in
1637. Immediately after describing Dyer’s stillborn baby, he regales readers with a
moment equally novel and perhaps also monstrous in its bodily violence. After the
enslaved woman approaches him in what he describes as a pitiful, lamentable state, he
resolves to come to her rescue by “intreating” Maverick “on her behalf.” He sympathizes
with the woman. Equally interesting, he abandons the sympathy after talking with
Maverick and discovering the “cause of her grief.” After the two men’s conversation,
Josselyn takes a leisurely stroll in the woods behind Maverick’s house where he finds a
new fascination, pineapple‐like fruit “plated with scales” and “as big as the crown of a
Womans hat” (26). By the end of the journal entry, Josselyn appears the gazing traveler
relating a series of interesting episodes in his New England adventures. The enslaved
woman’s story, then, serves a rhetorical purpose in helping him offer a “description of the
country, natives, and creatures” of New England, as outlined on the title page.
In general, Josselyn dons the persona of a detached and well‐informed observer, cata-
loguing a host of information for the easy comprehension of English readers, members
Africans in Early America 113

of the Royal Society in particular, to whom he dedicates the text. He roves over New
England with what Mary Louise Pratt (1992) would term “imperial eyes.” As he writes
about his encounter with the enslaved woman, he appears a sympathetic observer, but
even as he displays a measure of empathy, he controls and contains the moment through
his writing. By the end of their encounter, the woman has transformed from a woman
in “grief” into a commodity. There is, however, a counter‐narrative running through the
scene. Josselyn makes clear this woman has actively resisted her enslavement, which is
most clearly evident in how and why Maverick orders the rape in the first place: “she
would not yield by perswasions.” Josselyn’s telling registers her resistance in more sub-
tle ways, as well, such as her insistence on maintaining her cultural status as royalty,
signified by the presence of a maid who addressed her in a “very humble and dutiful”
manner. She garners a measure of respect and influence and not just among her fellow
captives. Remember that the default approach Maverick adopts in his efforts to “breed”
her is “perswasion.” He does not immediately attempt to subdue her with force, recog-
nizing that a more subtle form of management might be more productive; physical
abuse might reduce her economic value. Her influence perhaps is most evident in her
interaction with Josselyn, who is so moved that he “intreats” Maverick on her
behalf – but even more important, writes about her.
Here we have a black enslaved woman actively attempting to manipulate her sur-
roundings. That manipulation affects Josselyn’s narrative in several respects. First of
all, it complicates his self‐representation. What Josselyn sees and renders in prose is
controlled in part by the woman, who went to his “chamber window,” initiating con-
tact and pulling him into the moment. Suddenly, he shifts from observer to partici-
pant. Once he is pulled into the scene, the tone and diction also shift. What had
previously been clinical, descriptive language in the narrative turns sentimental as he
identifies with this woman’s plight. He breaks from descriptions of flora and fauna,
details of travel, and instead homes in on this her grief. She complains “very loud and
shrill,” he says, moving him so much that he becomes her advocate.
This encounter illustrates the limits of Josselyn’s imperial gaze, his ability to stand back
as an observer in control of the information he shapes and relates. As evident by the shifts
in narrative position, tone, and diction, the woman unsettles his position just for a second.
Part of the reason it is difficult for him to control the information he conveys is that the
woman about whom he writes limits access. Remember that when she approaches Josselyn,
she does so speaking her own language, not English, as if daring Josselyn to interact with
her on her terms. He dismisses this display of agency, saying she “willingly would have
expressed her grief in English,” but there was no need because he could read the signs of
her “countenance and deportment.” Deprived of the understandings made possible by
verbal language, he deciphers her trouble through a series of physical signs. His access to
the subject about whom he intends to write, Josselyn tells us, is controlled quite literally
by the very actions of that subject. Ironically, the moment tells us just as much about his
limits as a writer as it does about his power to chronicle events.
Notably, the narrative shift is short‐lived. The text quickly reverts to its scientific,
descriptive language once Maverick provides to Josselyn the explanation for his actions.
114 Volume I: Origins to 1820

However fleeting the moment, we see that the woman’s representation is not c­ ompletely
a result of Josselyn’s own literary imagination. An equally important factor in how this
moment takes shape textually is the woman’s agency: she packages the information she
presents to Josselyn and moves him to chronicle the encounter. Her actions lead him
to take on a new role, one counter to anything he has assumed in the narrative to that
point or even afterward. For sure, this moment materializes on the page because
Josselyn deems it a fascinating moment to share with his readers, because he himself
was intrigued by this woman’s cultural oddity and perhaps felt some measure of
­compassion. The moment also materializes, though, because the woman did some-
thing off the page (and we can only rely on Josselyn’s testimony for the details) that
compels Josselyn to write about her.

Speaking and Writing Lives

This discussion about mediation becomes more complex when we turn our attention
to the mid‐eighteenth century. This is the point at which black Africans overtly begin
to exercise control over textual forms and their literary representations, some through
self‐writing poetry and prose, others through narrating their life experiences to amanuenses
– but all still grappling with the mechanics of mediation. The consensus is that Lucy Terry
Prince is the earliest known black writer – and we should add the caveat “writing in
English”  –  in the United States. She penned a poem titled “Bars Fight” in 1746,
though it was not published until a century later. Job Ben Soloman was a lesser‐known
contemporary of Prince and could read and write in Arabic. He was captured in West
Africa, along the Gambia River, and sold into slavery in Maryland in 1731. He was
one of the estimated 10–15% of black African Muslims who were captured and
enslaved in America. Soloman’s literacy skills and religious devotion compelled a
white benefactor to purchase his freedom only a couple years into his enslavement.
While enslaved, he wrote letters in Arabic and in London reproduced the Qur’an from
memory. In addition, he left behind an as‐told‐to memoir written in English and pub-
lished in London in 1734. Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon were two other early
black poets, who published verses (and some prose) in the second half of the century.
Like Soloman, a number of black Africans produced biographical texts, including
Briton Hammon, an enslaved black African (or possibly an indentured servant) living in
colonial Massachusetts. In 1747, he sought permission from his master to go on a trading
and sailing expedition down to Jamaica. In the summer of that next year, he found
­himself on a ship off the coast near Cape Florida. Native Americans attacked the ship and
killed everyone aboard, except for Hammon who became their captive. That event
­initiated a nearly 13‐year ordeal in which Hammon was held first by Natives in Florida
and then by Spanish forces in Cuba. All the while, he longed to return, and eventually
did, to his master in Massachusetts. In 1760, he related his ordeal in a captivity narrative
titled A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon
(Carretta 2006), which he might or might not have written himself.
Africans in Early America 115

Following Hammon, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Olaudah Equiano, and

Venture Smith produced narratives in the 1770s and 1780s relating their experiences
of being taken from their West African homelands and being sold into slavery for
­varying lengths of time in what is now the United States. As adults, all three men
procured their freedom. In 1785 John Marrant, born free, narrated his experience of
spiritual captivity while wandering through what he describes as the wild landscapes
of the southeast United States in A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings. As he
grew in religious fervor, due mostly to the proselytizing efforts of the famed Methodist
minister George Whitefield, Marrant traveled through the countryside missionizing
to Cherokees and enslaved black Africans. One of the more ubiquitous textual forms
in which black lives appeared in the eighteenth century was the criminal confession
narrative. A type of gallows literature, these typically brief, tabloid‐esque narratives
offered biographical accounts of the lives of convicted criminals, with a special empha-
sis on their criminal pasts and, if applicable, their spiritual conversion and repentance.
Examples of black Africans appearing in this form of literature are Joseph Mountain
(1790) and Thomas Powers (1796). Both men were convicted of rape and condemned
to hang at the end of the century. All of these biographical narratives are crucial because
they initiate a tradition of black life writing that would gain even more prominence in
the next century with the emergence of the slave narrative.
Many of those early black narratives still were mediated, so much so that John
Sekora (1987) determined that first generation of black writing largely consisted of a
black message wrapped inside a “white envelope.” Powers, Mountain, Smith, Marrant,
and Gronniosaw all told their stories through amanuenses. The texts were collabora-
tive efforts, fusing the voices and rhetorical aims of the narrating subjects and the
amanuenses. At the end of the preface to Marrant’s (Carretta 2006) narrative, his
amanuensis, William Aldridge, insists, “I have always preserved Mr. Marrant’s ideas,
tho’ I could not his language” (111). Similarly, when Wheatley sought to publish her
poetry volume in colonial Massachusetts  –  the first black African to do so in that
region – it was an impossible sale until she earned the validation of 18 of the colony’s
most influential white, male citizens. When the book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious
and Moral, was finally published in 1773 in London, not Massachusetts, Wheatley’s
was not the first voice represented. Instead, the volume’s front matter contains the
names of those 18 “most respectable characters of Boston,” who all “assure the world
that the poems [in the volume]” were in fact written by “a young Negro Girl.” (7). In
addition, Wheatley’s master writes a prefatory letter in which he attests to how quickly
she learned English and mastered poetic forms, “to the great astonishment of all who
heard her” (6). His words help to authenticate and authorize her poetic voice.
Although this chapter has largely emphasized mediation as it relates to black
Africans in the early Americas, mediation in general was a common feature of the liter-
ary age. Many of those seventeenth‐ and eighteenth‐century Puritan captivity and
conversion narratives about Anglo‐Americans’ encounters with God and Native
Americans were as‐told‐to accounts and/or heavily crafted by community ministers.
The same can be said of early criminal confession narratives. Still, the fact that many
116 Volume I: Origins to 1820

of these stories are written down by amanuenses does not mean we can assume that the
subjects of the narratives were what we would consider today illiterate. Maybe Powers,
Mountain, Smith, or Hammon (if he wrote through an amanuensis) could read but not
write, or maybe they could do both but deferred to people they thought more skilled
than they? Perhaps some, like Job Ben Soloman, possessed literacy skills, just not in
English. The British colonies were very much cosmopolitan spaces. Gronniosaw
(2001), for instance, learned to read; he received a formal education while enslaved to
a Dutch minister in New Jersey. However, he “could not read English” (32). Marrant
(Carretta 2006), too, says that he “was sent to school, and taught to read and spell”
until he was about 11 (112). Not incidentally, Marrant began school in Spanish
St. Augustine.
These earliest iterations of African American literature, then, are remarkable not
because they move us away from issues of mediation but because they evidence the
conscious efforts by black Africans in America to imagine and shape identities using
the textual forms of the day. Wheatley (1773), for example, makes use of a neoclassical
style in her poetry to construct a persona in line with Virgil and Homer. In her poem
“To Maecenas,” she imagines “O could I rival […] Virgil’s page, / Or claim the Muses
with the Mantuan Sage; / Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn, / And the
same ardors in my soul should burn” (10). And in a praise poem to another black artist
in colonial Massachusetts, she claims immortality, musing “Still may the painter’s and
the poet’s fire / To aid thy pencil, and they verse conspire! / And may the charms of
each seraphic theme / Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!” (114). Equiano (1789)
understands his literary efforts in far less ethereal terms. He explains at the beginning
of his memoir, “I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from [the writing of his autobi-
ography] either immortality or literary reputation.” Still he hopes it might “promote
the interests of humanity” (19–20).
That Wheatley, Equiano, and their black African contemporaries exhibit a literary
consciousness is a point on which scholars more or less agree. There is far less certainty
about the extent to which these same writers consciously intervened in the racial
­discourses of the day. In many of these narratives, the black subjects seem to accept
their circumstances simply as vicissitudes of life rather than consequences of racist
ideologies, and often they acknowledge God’s divine intervention in improving their
circumstances. When he finds himself a captive on a ship heading for Rhode Island by
way of Barbados at the tender age of eight, Venture Smith (1798) does not resist the
captivity. Instead he “promised faithfully to conform” to the demands of his new
­master (14). Perhaps the greatest irony in Briton Hammon’s captivity narrative is that
he does not remark on his servitude. Rather, he celebrates his deliverance from a
­captivity that restores him into another. Both Wheatley, in her poem “On Being
Brought from Africa to America,” and Equiano represent their capture from West
Africa and subsequent enslavement as a “fortunate fall,” a phrase Vincent Carretta
(1996) uses to describe the attitude adopted by some enslaved black Africans that “the
discomfort of the slaves’ present life was overcompensated by the chance given them of
achieving eternal salvation” (2–3). Attending to the degree of racial consciousness
Africans in Early America 117

demonstrated in a text is all the more relevant because these early black texts – and a
black literary consciousness – emerged in the British mainland colonies in tandem with
the Enlightenment movement and its emphasis on, among other things, science and
logic. As a result of “enlightened” thinking, those in Europe and America largely shifted
their strategies for categorizing (and justifying the categorization of) humans, which
was based previously on factors related to cultural traits, such as language, ­religion, and
dress. With the Enlightenment, race increasingly became a pseudo‐scientific system
rooted in somatic differences deemed immutably and inheritably hierarchical. The
stakes, then, were particularly high for black Africans as the Enlightenment rationale
for racial difference necessitated that black Africans prove their very humanity rather
than having that humanity mediated solely through the perspectives of others.

New Perspectives on Authorship

As the examples throughout this chapter have illustrated, black Africans appear in a
variety of textual forms and genres. Those wanting to get a better sense of black African
presences in early America should be prepared to search in diverse archives, including
those archives that predate the self‐writing and as‐told‐to narrative efforts of that
first generation of black authors in the mid‐eighteenth century. Also, they should be
prepared to read in creative, even speculative, modes, as most often black Africans
appear in texts in mediated forms. Fortunately, we have arrived at a moment in which
scholars are moving away from analytical models that understand black African repre-
sentations in early America as only objects of white literary imaginations. Works dem-
onstrating this approach include Dickson Bruce’s The Origins of African American
Literature, 1680–1865 (2001), Kelly Wisecup’s Medical Encounters: Knowledge and
Identity in Early American Literatures (2013), Nicole N. Aljoe’s Creole Testimonies: Slave
Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709–1838 (2011), and my own Black Africans
in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World (Smith 2016).
This work to reevaluate the literary significance of black Africans in early America
potentially moves us toward new discussions about authorship, the origins of African
American literature, and the role of ethnicity and race in early American literature. For
sure, authorship matters in the production and study of early African American literature
for the reasons Karen Weyler has outlined in Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in
Early America (2013): it allowed black Africans to pronounce their humanity and validate
their own life experiences in relation to changing sociopolitical meanings attributed to
authorship. Our modern‐day understanding of authorship as proprietary and creative
invention has much to do with transformations in literary, legal, political, and commercial
structures related to copyright law, printing, and politics. Prior to the end of the eight-
eenth century, authorship commonly was conceived of as a humanist endeavor in which
writers did not necessarily create literary material; instead they imitated, renovated, trans-
lated, and compiled textual matter for communal enrichment. As Andrew Bennett notes
in The Author (2005), our modern conception of authorship emerged at the turn of the
118 Volume I: Origins to 1820

nineteenth century with Romantic poets who understood their products as correlating
with their subjectivities. According to this Romantic notion of authorship, the identi-
ties of authors and their roles in creating texts became just as important as the texts
­themselves. Writers more often claimed text as personal property that reflected their
intellectual ­pursuits. Specifically addressing colonial America, Grantland Rice (1997)
argues that this conceptual transformation occurred because of the “rise of economic
liberalism” in America at the end of the eighteenth century (4). The emergence of the
modern author as subject was not only an impetus on the part of the writer to own the
text, as Michel Foucault describes in “What is an Author?” (1969), but also an impera-
tive of the state to identify (and prosecute) the source of ideas propagated in a given
text – particularly if it perceived those ideas as seditious. All of this is to say that black
Africans in the British mainland colonies started writing or narrating their stories at a
moment when authorship was becoming more frequently synonymous with subjectiv-
ity and therefore even more consequential for the writer. For black Africans writing in
early America, like their Anglo‐American counterparts in the latter eighteenth century,
authorship was inherently an act of accommodation, resistance, and self‐affirmation.
Equally important are those texts in which black presences appear before the mid‐
eighteenth century, because those even earlier texts – that narrate the experiences of
Ben, Esteban, an enslaved woman who was raped – remind us of the extent to which
authorship was (and still is) a social practice formed by the interconnections among a
writer and others whose actions come to bear on the final text. David D. Hall (2009)
explained that “to be a writer was to enter into a relationship of dependence” (76). As
we advance the literary study of black Africans in early America, we might ask ourselves
what is the relationship between those earliest black mediated forms and those of fig-
ures like Hammon, Wheatley, and Gronniosaw, whose texts appear on the eve of chang-
ing conceptions of authorship? We could also think more about the consequences of
positioning authorship, understood in its modern iteration, as the defining marker of
African American literature, an approach which limits what we can say about how,
when, and in what forms black Africans participated in the literary life of early America.
Notably, the contributors in the essay volume Early African American Print Culture
(2012), edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, already are testing
these limits in terms of late eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century American print culture
as they consider African Americans’ literary production not just as authors but, in the
words of the volume’s co‐editors, “as narrative protagonists, performers, booksellers,
editors, and signifiers” (15). Building on the work of studies that have illuminated the
significance of black Africans in the cultural landscape of early America, it becomes
possible to interrogate the ways in which black African presences in America came to
bear on authorship well before the mid‐eighteenth century, not through writing them-
selves but through cultural contact that necessitated textual collaboration and accom-
modation. In other words, cultural encounter was important to the creative process of
early American writing. We are poised to expand the temporal and archival boundaries
of African American literature and in the process further challenge assumptions about
the archival silence and invisibility of black Africans in early America.
Africans in Early America 119


Aljoe, N.N. (2011). Creole Testimonies: Slave Josselyn, J. (1674). An account of two voyages to
Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709– New‐England: made during the years 1638, 1663.
1838. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/Sabin?af=
Anonymous. (1643/2003). “New England’s First RN&ae=CY103135201&srchtp=a&ste=1/
Fruits.” In The Eliot Tracts with Letters from John (accessed 11 November 2016).
Eliot to Thomas Thorowgood and Richard Baxter, ed. Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark.
M. Clark. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 55–78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bennett, A. (2005). The Author. Abingdon: Mountain, J. (1790). Sketches of the Life of Joseph
Routledge. Mountain. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/mountain/
Bruce, D. (2001). The Origins of African American mountain.html/ (accessed 2 January 2017)
Literature, 1680–1865. Charlottesville: University Powers, T. (1796/1993). “The Narrative and
of Virginia Press. Confession of Thomas Powers.” In Pillars of Salt:
Cabeza de Vaca, A.N. (2003). The Narrative of An Anthology of Early American Criminal
Cabeza de Vaca, trans. R. Adorno and P. Pautz. Narratives, ed. D. Williams. Madison, WI:
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Madison House, pp. 343–352.
Carretta, V. (ed.) (1996). Unchained Voices: An Pratt, M.L. (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and
Anthology of Black Authors in the English‐Speaking Transculturation. New York: Routledge.
World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: Restall, M. (2000). “Black Conquistadors: Armed
University Press of Kentucky. Africans in Early Spanish America.” The
Cohen, L.L. and Stein, J.A. (eds.) (2012). Early Americas, 57(2): 171–205.
African American Print Culture. Philadelphia: Rice, G. (1997). The Transformation of Authorship in
University of Pennsylvania Press. America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dickinson, J. (1700). God’s Protecting Providence: Sekora, J. (1987). “Black Message/White Envelope:
Man’s Surest Help and Defence in Times of the Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the
Greatest Difficulty and Most Eminent Danger…. Antebellum Slave Narrative.” Callaloo, 32:
http://galenet.galegroup.com.libdata.lib.ua.edu/ 482–515.
servlet/Sabin?af=RN&ae=CY3804993081&src Sewall, S. (1700). “The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial.”
htp=a&ste=14/ (accessed 5 February 2017). http://infoweb.newsbank.com.libdata.lib.ua.edu/
Equiano, O. (1789/2001). The Interesting Narrative iw‐search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_
of the Life of Olaudah Equano, Or Gustavus Vassa, theme=eai&p_nbid=X4FC4CGJMTQ4NjMxMz
the African, ed. W. Sollors. New York: W.W. E0Ni43MTQ1MDA6MToxNDoxMzAuMTYwLj
Norton. I0LjExNw&p_action=doc&p_queryname=1&p_
Foucault, M. (1969). “What is an Author?” https:// docref=v2:0F2B1FCB879B099B@EAIX‐0F3013
www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/pluginfile. EF2FA328F0@951‐0FAD97D293A82290@1/
php/624849/mod_resource/content/1/a840_1_ (accessed 5 February 2017).
michel_foucault.pdf (accessed 6 May 2019). Silverman, K. (ed.) (1971). Selected Letters of Cotton
Gronniosaw, J.A.U. (2001). A Narrative of the Most Mather. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Remarkable Particulars. http://docsouth.unc.edu/ Press.
neh/gronniosaw/gronnios.html/ (accessed 10 Smith, C.L. (2016). Black Africans in the British
November 2016). Imagination: English Narratives of the Early
Hall, D.D. (2009). “The Chesapeake in the Atlantic World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
Seventeenth Century.” In A History of the Book in University Press.
America, Vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic Smith, V. (1798). A Narrative of the Life and
World, ed. H. Amory and D.D. Hall. Chapel Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa. http://
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp. docsouth.unc.edu/neh/venture/venture.html/
55–82. (accessed 28 October 2016).
Hartman, S. (2008). “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: Soloman, J.B. (1734). Some Memoirs of the Life of Job,
A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 12(2): 1–14. the Son of Solomon. http://docsouth.unc.edu/
120 Volume I: Origins to 1820

neh/bluett/bluett.html (accessed 14 January Wheatley, P. (1773). Poems on Various Subjects,

2017). Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell.
Warren, W.A. (2007). “‘The cause of her grief’: Nineteenth‐Century Collections Online
The Rape of a Slave in Early New England.” The (accessed 10 January 2017).
Journal of American History, 93(4): 1031–1049. Wisecup, K. (2013). Medical Encounters: Knowledge
Weyler, K. (2013). Empowering Words: Outsiders and and Identity in Early American Literatures.
Authorship in Early America. Athens: University Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
of Georgia Press.

Further Reading

Berlin, I. (2003). Generations of Captivity: A History Discusses Islam in early African America, a
of African American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: needed overview that can help readers contextu-
Belknap Press. Provides historical overview of alize memoirs of enslaved black Africans like
how black Africans arrived in the Americas and Job Ben Soloman.
developed culturally. Goodell, A. (1895). “John Saffin and His Slave
Billings, W. (1975). “Bound Labor: Slavery.” In Adam.” Publications of the Colonial Society of
The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Massachusetts, 1: 85–112. Contains useful pri-
Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1689, ed. mary documents about “Adam Negro’s Tryal,”
W. Billings. Chapel Hill: University of North which scholars sometimes identify as the
Carolina Press. Chapter contains primary court beginning of an African American literary
documents illustrating the ways black Africans tradition.
used the courts to secure freedom and justice. Monaghan, E.J. (2005). Learning to Read and Write
Cantor, M. (1966). “The Image of the Negro in in Colonial America. Amherst: University of
Colonial Literature.” In Images of the Negro in Massachusetts Press. Offers an introduction to
American Literature, ed. S.L. Gross and J.E. Hardy. reading and writing practices in early America.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 29–53. Schorb, J. (2014). Reading Prisoners: Literature,
Offers focused survey of black African representa- Literacy, and the Transformation of American
tions in early Anglo‐American texts that empha- Punishment, 1700–1845. New Brunswick, NJ:
sizes how black African presences were Rutgers University Press. Addresses the literacy
constructed to mediate debates about slavery. practices and the mediated nature of early crimi-
Foster, F.S. (1993). Written by Herself: Literary nal narratives, like those of Mountain and
Production of African American Women, 1746–1892. Powers.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Examines Zafar, R. (1997). We Wear the Mask: African‐
the intersection of gender and race in the forma- Americans Write American Literature, 1760–1870.
tion of early African American literature. New York: Columbia University Press. Helpful
Gomez, M.A. (1994). “Muslims in Early America.” text for understanding the literary ambitions of
The Journal of Southern History, 60(4): 671–710. those first blacks writing in America.


Migration, Exile, Imperialism
The Non‐English Literatures of Early America
Patrick M. Erben

In the 1990s and early 2000s, American literary studies witnessed a surge in scholarship
on the non‐English literatures of early America. Anthologies revised the focus on New
England Puritans as the starting point and the American Revolution as the culmina-
tion of early American literature by including texts from Spanish, French, Dutch,
German, and other non‐English European linguistic backgrounds (Castillo and
Schweitzer 2001; Mulford, Vietto, and Winans 2002). Conferences such as the Ibero‐
American summits organized by Ralph Bauer and the meetings of the New Netherland
Institute centered specifically on non‐English materials. Many non‐English texts – in
the original languages and in translation – are increasingly accessible digitally and in
print. Yet the newness of the resulting “comparative” and “hemispheric” turns has
subsided, and few non‐English texts enjoy staying power in the canon of American
literature. Why are research and teaching in the field still circumscribed by English‐
language archives and paradigms? Perhaps teachers and rising scholars assume that
these texts and writers offer few new insights beyond the familiar articulation of
Eurocentrism, racism, and settler colonialism. Like their English‐speaking counter-
parts, European immigrant groups were motivated by the desire to acquire new land
and wealth in the Americas, yet they also experienced unique permutations of loss and
the longing for connectedness to Old World cultures. Attending to these aspects of
their writings can open up new possibilities for research and new understandings of
the historical period.
The benefits of investigating texts composed in languages other than English are
many. Scholarly investigations across non‐English immigrant writings, as well as their

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
122 Volume I: Origins to 1820

comparison to early American texts written in English, allow us to differentiate

between imperialist and anti‐imperialist discourses. Texts and writers carry the guilt
of imperial conquest while espousing sentiments of displacement and alienation.
Comparative teaching and research underscores the systemic embeddedness of ­imperial
discourse, but it also reveals counter‐narratives to the logic of possession. Reading
colonial American literatures across linguistic traditions disrupts a mode of literary
criticism that José Rabasa (2000) challenges for perpetuating “the culture of conquest”
(83). Translingual teaching and research helps us understand fractures and
­inconsistencies in colonial discourse by defamiliarizing well‐known English‐language
paradigms and unhinging them from our understanding of colonial subjectivity. In
the process, we discover negotiations between the quest for empire and deep‐seated
doubts about its goals, tools, and victims.
This chapter analyzes sample Spanish, French, Dutch, and German writings that
represent the tremendous allure of exploration, conquest, and settlement in colonial
North America, juxtaposing them with other texts that critically inspect the rationales
of exploitation, wish‐fulfillment, and the vilification of Indigenous and African
­peoples. Intriguingly, such tensions and ambiguities often occur within a single text,
author, or tradition. I select the complex issue of colonialism to model reading and
selecting texts across non‐English traditions. I highlight four literary centers of
non‐English immigrant culture: Spanish in the Southwest, French in Louisiana, Dutch
in New Netherland, and German in Pennsylvania. The essay focuses on texts written
in and about the New World, whether they were published there or not. I do not aspire
to comprehensiveness but hope to excite students and researchers to delve into the rich
non‐English literatures and archival treasures of early America. Thus, I also suggest
genres, archives, and resources that offer opportunities for original research and
scholarly discoveries.

Spanish‐Language Literatures of the Colonial Southwest

The Spanish conquest of the New World earned an early reputation for its brutality,
swiftness, and exploitation of Indigenous people and natural resources. Most Spanish
imperial writings were indeed concerned with the justification and concrete circum-
stances of possession – of land and people. According to Rolena Adorno’s Polemics of
Possession (2007), these texts were “not merely reflective of social and political practices
but were in fact constitutive of them” (4). Adorno posits that Native Americans,
whether “colonized or indomitable,” whether as “the object of debates about royal
policy or as the fallen hero of literary epics,” are “the common element among all these
writings” (5). This focus continued as the Spanish empire expanded its northern reach
into the areas that are today the southwestern United States, including Texas, New
Mexico, Arizona, and California. Seemingly pro‐colonial texts often reveal the greatest
sense of horror at the effect of the conquest, whereas the ostensibly benevolent actions
and writings of missionaries who cast themselves as friends of the Indians perpetuate
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 123

the conquest more covertly by cultivating spiritual dependency and a culture of

pseudo‐divine authority concentrated in the figure of the self‐sacrificial missionary.
One of the Spanish conquistadors‐turned‐chronicler was Pedro de Castañeda (1510–
1570), who served as a soldier in the Coronado expedition that searched for the mythical
“Seven Cities of Cibola.” When fabulous riches were not found, Coronado’s men turned to
exploiting and oppressing the Pueblo peoples. Writing about the events two decades later,
Castañeda (2002) embarked on asserting the “truth,” which, he says, had been distorted
by many stories circulated since then (69). In hindsight, it is difficult to ascertain whether
Castañeda indeed gained a deeper consciousness of the deprivations wrought by the con-
quest. He certainly felt the need for a confession, claiming to write “that which I heard,
experienced, saw, and did.” The operative mode of his text, then, is the idea of paradise
found and lost. In retrospect, the veterans of the expedition realize what “good country
they had in their hands, and their hearts weep for having lost so favorable an opportunity”
(70). He also revises dominant clichés of the Indigenous population, writing that “there is
no drunkenness among them nor ­sodomy nor sacrifices, neither do they eat human flesh
nor steal, but they are usually at work” (73). Though such language failed to halt further
imperial conquest, it exposes a d­ iscourse of doubt that remains to be explored further in
scholarship on the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Missionaries like the Franciscan Fray Carlos José Delgado (1677–post‐1750) cast
themselves in piety and humility, speaking out for the just treatment of the Pueblo
Indians. Delgado (2002) assembled a long list of injustices committed against the
Indians by the governors or alcaldes mayores (397). Missionaries trying to oppose
such atrocities were insulted and denounced for bearing false witness (398). Delgado’s
desperate attempts to improve the situation is in contrast to the Jesuit missionary
Eusebio Francisco Kino’s (1644–1711) use of colonialist rhetoric in describing his reli-
gious efforts. He claimed a direct part in the “taking possession of California,” while
baptizing “in these new conquests and new conversions about four thousand five hun-
dred souls” (2002: 401). Conversion and conquest here are one and the same, extracting
either souls or riches from the land. Due to his canonization in 2015, Junípero Serra,
missionary and founder of the Franciscan mission system in colonial California, has been
the subject of international controversy. According to a biography written by his student
Francisco Palóu (2002), Serra believed that the Indigenous people of California should be
physically enslaved to ensure their spiritual salvation. Palóu’s biography of Serra reveals
the important tools of this spiritual conquest: fear and love (408). The Spanish colonial
machine found its pinnacle in the seemingly benevolent conversion of Native peoples
and the erasure of their spiritual subjectivity.

The French‐Language Literatures of Colonial Louisiana

Originally neglected by Louis XIV and French‐Canadian elites, French Louisiana was
catapulted to the highest importance within French imperialist ambitions in the early
1700s. In order to dig France out of debts incurred by the Sun King, the “Company of
124 Volume I: Origins to 1820

the West” under the Scottish financier John Law decided to build a full‐blown plantation
economy on the lower Mississippi. Before its dealings were eventually uncovered as an
early‐modern Ponzi scheme, the Company of the West shipped French settlers and thou-
sands of African slaves to Louisiana. The governor of French Louisiana, Jean‐Baptiste Le
Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, directed settlement to his favored location for the capital New
Orleans – the river crescent where he had already claimed copious tracts of land (Powell
2013: 46). Besides establishing a slave economy and adopting the infamous “code noir”
in 1724, Bienville recognized the key importance of a system of French–Indian alliances.
However, one of his successors, Etienne Boucher de Périer, allowed Indian–French rela-
tions to sour to the point where the Natchez attacked the French Fort Rosalie in 1729.
The massacre in its colonial hinterland beset New Orleans with panic, inducing Périer
to attack the Natchez in a genocidal war. Called back in 1733 to handle the colony’s
“Indian problem,” Bienville organized two wars that failed to provide a sense of stability.
After a brief proprietorship under the Spanish, renewed dreams of French imperialism
under Napoleon included French Louisiana as the purported breadbasket for the planta-
tion economy of Saint‐Domingue. These ambitions were dashed by the slave uprising
that turned the French plantation island into the nation of Haiti. In spite of French
imperial failures, President Thomas Jefferson recognized New Orleans as a key to the
United States’ expansionism in the West. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New
Orleans became part of the United States.
The literature of French colonial Louisiana thus reflects the imperial aspirations of
colonial investors, administrators, common soldiers, explorers, natural historians, and
even Ursuline nuns sent to educate girls and women in the colony. Colonists prided
themselves on their Enlightened or Christian principles in creating a metropolis
­rivaling Paris, yet they all diagnosed the colony and its people as suffering from
­degeneration and disorder, making it a colossal failure. Early utopianism and collective
ambitions gave way to tropes of disappointment, powerlessness, and even outrage, all
the while sublimating the colonists’ complicity in a toxic mix of exploitation and
genocide. In surveying key accounts of French colonial Louisiana, one senses each
­writer’s capacity for recognizing the futility of the colonial project.
The soldier Jean‐François‐Benjamin Dumont de Montigny (1696–1760) used the
personal memoir to utter his critique of the incompetence and greed of French colonial
society. Dumont’s literary career started with the writing of satirical poems during his
initial two‐year stint in Quebec from 1715 to 1717 (Sayre and Zecher 2012: 8). In
Louisiana, Dumont began a long epic poem about the history of the colony. Upon his
return to France, Dumont revised his poem as a prose memoir that highlighted
his  “irascible character and personal politics” (Sayre and Zecher 2012: 7). Writing
to  his patron, Dumont (2012) casts himself as a “French Robinson Crusoe” (71)
metaphorically exiled in a strange land. Although Dumont overtly indicts personal
enemies and incompetent administrators, his experiences point at a more ominous
dimension ­lurking beneath colonialism.
Dumont’s entire memoir sounds like the recollections of a man returning from the
dead, now exerting a form of revenant justice upon those who have wronged him. On
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 125

his second passage to Louisiana, Dumont describes the German indentured servants
on board afflicted by “a contagious illness” that “struck the strongest as well as the
weakest, and some sailors who were climbing up the ropes into the rigging found
themselves seized by it so suddenly that they fell helplessly and lifelessly into the sea”
(134). Dumont falls victim to those fevers, and once they relent, he appears “like a
picture of the walking dead” (136). The result of the colonial venture is the opposite
of its design: a powerlessness that places one at the mercy of larger cosmic or social
forces threatening to obliterate and disperse selfhood and personal autonomy. The
capacity of the colonial enterprise to turn men into monsters is epitomized by Chepart,
the cruel commander of Fort Rosalie. Dumont describes Chepart violating a formerly
symbiotic relationship between the French and their Natchez neighbors (228), ulti-
mately blaming the attack on Chepart’s arbitrary and oppressive governance. Dumont’s
eventual return to France is cast as a verdict on the colonial venture: “At last, tired of
living in a country like that, and my wife being homesick, I decided to go back to
France […] departing a country which, to speak frankly, was half abandoned, some of
the habitants having retreated to the capital leaving lands uncultivated and others
being exposed to the insults and depredations of the Indians” (276–277). Though
Dumont does not recognize the flaws of the colonial enterprise, he dismantles the
alluring facade of imperialism propelled by other accounts. Particularly eloquent and
even entertaining, Dumont was by no means the only writer critically inspecting the
French colonial enterprise in Louisiana. For an introduction to accounts and descrip-
tions of the colony, researchers and students should first turn to the work of Shannon
Dawdy (2009) as well as Gordon Sayre and Carla Zecher (2012); for scholars reading
early‐modern French and pursuing primary text research, the digital database of the
French National Library, Gallica (http://gallica.bnf.fr), offers thousands of texts and
images relating to colonization in North America.
French colonial letter writing constitutes a major share of the texts produced and
reveals an intimate impression of colonial experiences. Ursuline nuns charged with
educating the female population were especially active in this epistolary exchange.
Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard (2002) came to New Orleans in 1727 and began an
active correspondence with her father (Dawdy 2009: 45–46). Hachard’s letters show a
young woman initially eager to praise New Orleans and Louisiana. Yet she immedi-
ately contrasts her praise with a stark reality check: “On the other side of the river is a
wilderness of forest in which there are a few cabins where the slaves of the Company of
the Indies lodge” (458). The design of the city is predicated upon the dualism between
free and enslaved, civilization and wilderness, order and chaos, yet this separation
breaks down when civil authorities charge the Ursulines with the education of “girls
and women of ill‐repute.” Responding ambivalently, Hachard writes that “[w]e have
not yet agreed to this, but they keep telling us that it would be a great service to the
Colony. To this end they plan to build a special building at the end of our enclosure to
lock up these people” (457). In both Hachard’s and Dumont’s writings, the perceived
disorder and enforced order  –  physically and textually  –  threaten to collapse. Both
writers arrived to gain personal glory and impose standards of the French metropole on
126 Volume I: Origins to 1820

the colonial landscape, yet they can only hope to make sense of their experience
through a reporting technique that begs – but never quite achieves – the affirmation
of patriarchal and parochial authorities. In hindsight, their textual productions pro-
vide a valuable service to readers by exposing colonialist and imperialist discourses
not as monolithic constructs of European power but as a patchwork of individual
actors whose writings externalize fears and pathologies in their very attempts to
contain them.

The Dutch‐Language Literatures of New Netherland

The presence of the United Provinces or Netherlands in North America began with the
journey led by Henry Hudson in 1607. An agricultural patronship system was created to
incentivize large landholders, such as Kiliaen van Rensselaer, to establish large private
settlements in the colony. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) was founded
to cement the Netherlands’ status as a global trade empire. Based in New Amsterdam
(later New York) on the island of Manhattan, several governors of the colony engaged in
brutal wars with local Native American peoples. Governor Willem Kieft began “Kieft’s
War” in the 1640s, committing massacres in Munsee ­villages. It is characteristic of the
writings about and from New Netherland that settlers rejected the specific methods of
Indian warfare yet in turn vilified Native American peoples as savage and doomed to
extinction. Even after the arrival of governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1647 and the relative
political stability that ensued, Indian wars continued to characterize the colony until the
English invasion and takeover in 1664.
Two of the most prominent literary productions to emerge from New Netherland
are prose tracts that describe and promote the colony and its people, as well as poetry
trying to make meaning and give artistic form to the disparate impulses and experi-
ences of colonization among Dutch settlers. The Dutch Reformed minister Johannes
Megapolensis, Jr. (1603–1669) arrived in the colony in 1642 as the minister in
­residence at Rensselaerwyck and after his six years’ service accepted another ministry
in New Amsterdam. Megapolensis maintained a regular correspondence with the
authorities of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam (the “classis”), but he is best known
for his tract A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians, published in 1644. Megapolensis
(2002) fashioned an ideal of converting the Mohawk people to Christianity, and his
description assesses their current cultural and social position as well as their potential
for proselytizing. Megapolensis made serious efforts to engage his Mohawk neighbors
about their faith and cultivate everyday relationships with them, writing, “[w]e live
among both these kinds of Indians; and when they come to us from their country, or
we go to them, they do us every act of friendship” (704). Such close interaction was
perhaps more of a reflection of Megapolensis’s desire at a commensurability between
both peoples than a daily reality. Reports of Indian wars tarnished the reputation
of New Netherland abroad, but writers living in the colony expressed a perhaps not
altogether insincere hope for peace with the Indigenous populations. Megapolensis’s
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 127

description of the Mohawk people’s culture and customs reflects other ethnographic
descriptions by travelers and settlers in early America. Like other European observers,
he alleged that the Iroquois possessed no true religion, but admitted their belief in a
great spirit and their proclivity to listen to his teachings about Christianity. In these
moments, the minister wished for greater facility in the Mohawk language: “This
nation has a very difficult language, and it costs me great pains to learn it, so as to be
able to speak and preach in it fluently” (704). Megapolensis demonstrated his desire to
communicate and establish deeper spiritual access to the Mohawk people, yet his
translingual failings simultaneously barred, for the time being, the colonization of
Indigenous cosmologies.
Adriaen van der Donck (1620–1655) arrived in New Netherland in 1642 to take
the position of law officer on the Rensselaer plantation. Being very independent‐
minded, van der Donck purchased a large tract of land north of Manhattan himself.
He became involved in politics when he complained to the Dutch government about
taxation, the alleged mismanagement of governors Kieft and Stuyvesant, and the
­inadequate defenses against an English takeover. While in Amsterdam to deliver a
petition to the States General, van der Donck published A Description of New Netherland
in 1655 (2008), which received widespread attention and was reprinted in 1656. Van
der Donck’s Description extensively deals in the hyperbolic tropes of abundance, prais-
ing the natural potential of the colony and envisioning New Netherland creating a
golden age for Dutch culture and imperialism. His Description sees an inexhaustible
storehouse of resources; hickory wood in particular is so abundant that “there will be
no shortage for it for a hundred years to come, even if the population were to grow
appreciably” (20). For van der Donck, the land has limitless opportunities for e­ xpansion
through a happy marriage of its raw potential and the cultivation brought by the
­settlers. Yet he saw no such potential for merging Indigenous and immigrant peoples
and cultures; rather, in his description of “the original natives of New Netherland,”
van der Donck already projects their disappearance (53). Nevertheless, he also gives
voice to the Indigenous people of New Netherland by repeating at length the origin
story of Sky Woman and the Turtle.
The epitome of van der Donck’s claims for New Netherland’s imperial promise is
his dramatization of his dissection of a beaver carcass to find the gland that provided
the highly valuable anal secretion castoreum. The episode fashions van der Donck
simultaneously as a proto‐scientist, discoverer, and somewhat of a magician who is
able to produce a quasi‐mythical substance through the acuteness of his mind. After
several dissections resulting in “nothing but little round balls […] that [were] said in
Holland not to be the right sort,” he receives a vital hint from a “knowledgeable
Indian […] as he was a great beaver trapper well known to me and who assisted me in
all this business.” Dissecting a pregnant female beaver, van der Donck narrates, at last
“I found, up against the spine, two glands of the shape I sought, yellowish, oblong like
a pear.” Though assured of his final success by his own observation as well as his Indian
assistant, van der Donck takes his discovery to a “doctor of medicine” who “judged
them to be the true beaver glands” (125). Thus joining old authority with his own
128 Volume I: Origins to 1820

scientific investigation, he accomplishes several rhetorical tasks: claiming the

a­scendency of New World knowledge regimes, producing evidence of commercial
­possibilities right out of the abdomen of a beaver carcass, and infusing a promotional
account with the conventions of a quest narrative – with the prize not being a treasure
but rather a substance craved all over Europe. The beaver episode represents van
der Donck’s unmitigated belief in imperial acquisition and the power of individual
colonists to produce wealth for the Dutch motherland.
Van der Donck never questions the rationale of imperialism and colonization;
yet his vision of colonial society is remarkably different from the more common
notion of nationally and linguistically unified outposts of imperial power. He
depicts New Netherland as a composite of many immigrant peoples contributing
to the strength and wealth of the new society. In the “Conversation between a
Dutch Patriot and a New Netherlander,” van der Donck suggests that “the Dutch
have compassionate natures and regard foreigners virtually as native citizens” and
promises anyone, “of whatever trade he may be and who is prepared to adapt,” a
place in Dutch‐colonial society (130). Colonization and immigration integrates
foreign citizens into a kind of Dutch commonwealth that comprises the mother-
land as well as the colonies, which van der Donck projects to grow to the same
number and wealth as Spain’s overseas possessions. Van der Donck envisioned an
amalgamation that seemed far more e­ ffortless than suggested by many proponents
of English imperialism.
New Netherland also produced many poetic endeavors that are still vastly underex-
plored. One of the most productive poets was the Dutch Reformed pastor Henricus
Selyns, who wrote poems marking important public and private events in the prov-
ince. A manuscript volume with well over 200 poems is located at the New York
Historical Society and awaits scholarly attention. Selyns arrived from the Netherlands
in the 1660s in the middle of the First Esopus War. New Netherland’s Indian wars
appear in his poem “Bridal Torch” (1663), written for the wedding of a friend and
colleague. Selyns dramatizes the backdrop of the nuptials by melding classical
tropes  –  particularly the Cupid figure as bringer of love  –  with colonial events.
According to Selyns, Indians have destroyed all peace and thus the conditions for love:
“Alas, house after house posted with Indian monster / Child upon child taken away?
Man upon man killed / Barn upon barn consumed. And pregnant women roasted?”
(13). Flagging desire for love and marriage in the colony is resolved by the vanquish-
ing of the Indians, and the interrupted weddings resume. The reproduction of social
relations in the New World assures settlers and newcomers that alienation can be
overcome through a communal military effort; poetry becomes a tool of empire by
creating meaning amid jarring experiences of violence.
Selyns’s poetry, however, betrays a consistent sense of loss and alienation that victory
over Indian foes cannot easily overcome. As a minister, he specifically lamented the
large distances between residents and the poor transportation available in the colony,
leading to a separation of individuals from their church community. In the poem “To
my Friend, Captain Gerard Douw, residing at his country seat near New York, when
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 129

he should have been invited to the Lord’s Supper, and there was no wagon by which
to  send the invitation” (1865), Selyns reveals what he perceives as a breakdown of
­community and communication:

They rode, and each came for the best,

They ride not now, each in the least;
The sun goes down. Is’t any wonder?
Each digs, toils, moils, pursues his own,
And, to his loss, seeks that alone.
The world goes up; God’s church and worship
going under. (155)

The poem describes disaffection among formerly ardent churchgoers who are now
­pursuing their economic gain above their spiritual salvation.
Numerous other poets and poetic endeavors in New Netherland remain to be recov-
ered, translated, and published, presenting research opportunities for scholars with
bilingual abilities. Even the works of prominent figures such as governor Peter
Stuyvesant have been unacknowledged by scholars in the United States. Stuyvesant
and his English‐born patron John Farret, for instance, carried on a poetic correspond-
ence in manuscript, which is now located at the Netherlands Maritime Museum in
Amsterdam (Shorto 2004: 149–150). The New Netherland Institute has preserved
many Dutch colonial records scattered after the British takeover in 1664. In addition,
Dutch writing and publishing in America did not cease after 1664; the database Early
American Imprints contains a fair number of Dutch publications throughout the
eighteenth century, especially on religious subjects (thus demonstrating the continu-
ing linguistic self‐sufficiency of Dutch churches in the English‐speaking colony).
Overall, these materials present a rich field of textual recovery and literary

The German‐Language Literature of Colonial Pennsylvania

Most German‐speaking settlers did not arrive in North America as part of an imperial-
ist venture sponsored by a major European power; rather, many were economic, reli-
gious, and political refugees fleeing persecution and poverty in the Holy Roman
Empire, a fragmented conglomerate of absolutist principalities. They often heeded the
call of William Penn and his “Charter of Privileges” (1701), which granted religious
freedom, property rights, and exemption from oppressive taxes and military service.
Colonies such as North Carolina and Georgia also set up policies friendly to
Nonconformist immigrants and thus attracted German‐speaking immigrants. Many
German‐speaking immigrants were pacifists who favored an appeasement policy
toward Native Americans and some opposed slavery, such as the Germantown Quakers
who protested the institution in 1688. Nevertheless, their migrations increased the
130 Volume I: Origins to 1820

pressure on Native Americans communities, and their economic activities became

entangled in imperial trade. German immigrants held on to an imagined peaceful
coexistence even when shady land deals  –  such as the infamous 1737 “Walking
Purchase” – broke down friendly relations between the Quaker government and Native
Americans. Many German‐speaking settlers joined the chorus of colonists calling for
military defense; their writings reveal the difficult line between preserving the utopian
spirit of early‐modern immigration ventures while struggling with their own implica-
tion in the mechanics of imperialism.
One of the first leaders of German immigration was Francis Daniel Pastorius, a
trained lawyer who had joined the Pietists in Frankfurt am Main and traveled at their
behest to Pennsylvania to establish a settlement. Pietism began in the late seventeenth
century as an attempt to reform mainstream Protestantism by promoting a personal
faith, an emotional relationship to Christ, and practical Christianity. Though disagree-
ing on some theological points, Pietists and Quakers hoped to establish a utopian
society free from sectarian strife and vanity. German Pietist groups published several
of Pastorius’s letters and accounts as promotional tracts. Pastorius’s reports from the
settlement he founded – Germantown – try to promote the opportunities of spiritual
rejuvenation presented by immigration to Pennsylvania. In the tract entitled Positive
News (Sichere Nachricht) (1684/1912), Pastorius inverted the stock features of promo-
tional literature – praising the natural abundance of the land – by casting the respon-
sibility for bringing forth a great spiritual harvest upon the would‐be immigrants from
Germany (410). Tempering excessive visions of New World abundance, Pastorius pro-
duced a balanced image of the land’s raw potential that would have to be improved by
steady labor. Descriptions of fruits and harvests are either diminutive or balanced by
accounts of scarcity. While writing a counter‐discourse to the colonialist accounts
enticing settlers to seek material wish‐fulfillment, Pastorius nevertheless fell prey to
some of the same problematic projections of hopes and desires onto the land that pre-
pared the way for territorial expansion and Native American removal.
Descriptions of the Lenape people of the Delaware valley by German immigrants
such as Pastorius and his contemporary Pietist immigrant Daniel Falckner were
designed to demonstrate the spiritual compatibility between Quaker and Pietist set-
tlers and their Indigenous neighbors. Pastorius extolled Native American qualities
such as honesty, hospitality, and fidelity (1700/1912: 384). Similarly, Falckner noted
in his answers to questions by his Pietist mentor August Hermann Francke, first pub-
lished in Germany in 1702 as Curieuse Nachricht/Curious News (1905), that the Indians
were surprisingly free from lewdness, which he found remarkable because of the
absence of the laws existing in Europe that were specifically designed to control such
behavior (112–113). However, Pastorius’s inability to recognize the tragic conse-
quences of Indian removal for the kind of spiritual community he envisions results
from several limitations in his views of Native American life and religion. His fixation
on the saving power of Christianity limits his perception of the inherent value of
Native American spirituality. He often belittles the Delaware Indians as “creatures in
need of help” (“hülffbedürfftige Creaturen”) and describes their mode of worship as a
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 131

ridiculous show (1700/1912: 434). Native Americans are assigned a limited function
as presenting a spiritual allegory of modesty and simplicity and thus work as a rhetori-
cal device for pointing out the moral inadequacy of his European contemporaries.
German‐speaking immigrants thus fashioned themselves into an exception to a
­brutal stance toward Native Americans pursued by English colonists (the Quakers
excepted). Christoph Saur, the first German‐language printer in North America,
­promoted such an idealized vision even during the exacerbation of imperial conflicts
during the 1740s and 1750s, culminating in the French and Indian War. In 1748 and
1749, Saur authored and printed several pamphlets countering Benjamin Franklin’s
call, in his tract Plain Truth (1747), for a defensive militia called “Association.”
Franklin had used some French privateer raids on the Atlantic coast as the occasion to
instill fear in Pennsylvania’s population that pacifism and inadequate military defense
exposed the colony to devastating attacks from the frontier as well as the coast. In
contrast, Saur (1748) tied Pennsylvania’s history of peaceful relations with Native
Americans and exception from armed conflict with other imperial powers directly to
Penn’s founding vision of brotherly love (16). Saur employed various publications for
his anti‐militia activism, his efforts to educate and enfranchise German‐speaking
­residents, and a cultural milieu of Nonconformism and inward spirituality; these
publications  –  a vast but little‐explored treasure trove of early American writ-
ings – ranged from his newspaper (Pensylvanische Berichte/Pennsylvanian Reports), to his
popular almanac (Der Hoch‐Deutsch Americanische Calender), to the publication of his
popular Luther Bible (the first Bible printed in America in a European language), and
reprints of devotional tracts, hymnals, and political pamphlets.
In addition to Saur, several of the so‐called German peace churches – Mennonites,
Schwenkfelders, and Dunkers  –  used writing in print and manuscript to promote
peace with Native American groups and agitate against an imperialist political and
economic agenda. Fears of enforced military engagement triggered the largest print-
ing project completed in the North American colonies (a single book with 1500
pages)  –  the Mennonites’ Martyrs’ Mirror, which gathers the stories of European
Anabaptists who were persecuted, tortured, and killed in Europe during the sixteenth
and early seventeenth century. German‐speaking Mennonites in Pennsylvania believed
that a German‐language version of the book, originally printed in Dutch in 1660 and
1685, would strengthen their community’s resolve to resist militarization. Thus, they
commissioned the Ephrata Seventh‐Day Baptist community to translate and print the
book, which was published in 1748 in a print run of 1200 copies. Mennonites and
other radical Protestants among Pennsylvania’s German‐speaking population hoped to
resist the larger imperial ideologies and policies that pitched Britain against France
and Spain, Europeans against Indigenous and African peoples, and war against the
utopian hope for brotherly love; in doing so, they amassed a large textual archive in
manuscript and print that still remains to be explored.
Nevertheless, rising imperial tensions and frontier violence compelled many
German‐speaking settlers to abandon their pacifist stance. In his widely distributed
broadside Ein wohl‐gemeindter und ernstlicher Rath an unsere Lands‐Leute, die Teutschen
132 Volume I: Origins to 1820

(A Sincere and well‐meaning Advice to our Country People, the Germans) (1741), Pennsylvania’s
Indian negotiator Conrad Weiser calls for German‐speaking residents to vote against
the Quaker government blocking military expenses. Weiser paints a dire picture of
Pennsylvania Germans living not in a peaceful colonial backwater but in the crucible
of global imperial tensions (1899: 520–521). In spite of his own friendship with the
Mohawk, among whom he had lived as a teenager to learn their language, Weiser
­promoted the imperial agenda of his employers – the proprietary government – and
thus urged many German‐speaking settlers to change course and pick up arms.
Similar to those in English‐speaking settler communities, German residents turned
to published captivity narratives to articulate frontier and Indian warfare as an existen-
tial threat against an immigrant identity and culture, thus falling in line with the
prevailing imperialist rhetoric of dispossession and the vilification of Indigenous
­peoples. The Narrative of Marie Le Roy and Barbara Leininger, for Three Years Captives
among the Indians (1759) perpetuated many tropes of colonial frontier conflict and
captivity, especially the graphic descriptions of the Indian attacks on European
­settlements and the moves of the captives throughout a wilderness punctuated with
sufferings at the hands of cruel and savage captors. Taken captive in 1755, Le Roy and
Leininger survived an attack that left most of their families dead at the hands of the
Indian warriors (2015: 82–83). Their published account is punctuated by descriptions
of Indian cruelties, such as the torture and killing of a woman trying to escape (84). Le
Roy and Leininger’s captivity narrative locates suffering no longer in the realm of
European religious persecution but rather in an imperial conflict: life in America
required fighting and dying along binary divisions of faith, race, and nationality that
earlier migrants had repudiated.
Though increasingly accepting of imperialist ideology, Pennsylvania Germans
­continued to deal with the ontological and epistemological problem of living in a state
of exile: how did one’s very being or core identity change, and how did one’s way of
understanding the world have to be adjusted? Migration and settlement severed the
communal bonds that had given meaning to village and town life in Europe. Short
narratives, such as “The Ghost of Falkner Swamp” (Anonymous 2015), first published
in 1744, revealed the fears and anxieties surrounding the immigration experience. The
story tells of two German‐speaking girls meeting the ghost of a German day‐laborer
who had died five years earlier. During the encounters, the ghost tells the children of
a financial debt that he and his wife had incurred to another woman during their trans-
atlantic passage. The ghost begs the girls to help him repay the debt and finally be at
rest. Yet, the ghost’s widow refuses to own the debt, and the woman who had provided
the loan could not be found. The neighbors assume that the girls must have misunder-
stood names and declare the search failed.
Each narrative element in the ghost story pairs with a fundamental issue of the
immigrant experience: the unpaid debt displays the fear that unresolved issues from
the homeland could burden the immigrant in the new country and thus impede the
much‐desired new beginning. The ghost itself emerges from and returns to the burial
place that fails to confine him: “When he came to the creek he lifted the underbrush.
The Non-English Literatures of Early America Reconsidered 133

He went on and soon came to the burial ground on Sieber’s farm; he crawled through
the fence. Then the girl saw his grave and in it there was a hole; and the next moment
he was gone” (213). As the burial place serves as a powerful marker of identity and
rootedness, the hole in the grave designates the immigrant’s lack of connectedness.
Already fragmented because of their origin in separate German principalities, the
immigrants now lose the ability to speak a common language – the primary means of
group identification: “During the time they talked, the girls saw that the ghost had
two red fangs protruding from either side of his mouth. She had the feeling they
pained him. This condition impaired his speech” (213). The story’s lack of a resolution
echoes the immigrants’ uncertainty about their place and fate in the New World. The
story tells of immigrants who arrived in America with modest aspiration – peace and
a plot of land they could call their own – but often failed to achieve even this limited
vision, forever stuck in the space between life and death, home and abroad, human
language and beastly utterance.
German‐language writings, especially its far‐flung print culture, represent one of
the largest contingent of unexplored archival resources in colonial American literature.
The writings and publications of German‐language printers like Christoph Saur, Sr.
and Jr., Henry Miller, and Anton Armbrüster comprise a variety of genres and politi-
cal, cultural, social, and religious viewpoints; primary text databases such as America’s
Historical Newspapers, American Periodical Series Online, and Early American Imprints all
give easy access to many of these publications. Moreover, Pietist German immigrants
composed a profusion of religious poetry and hymnody espousing mystical concepts of
spirituality; among them are particularly the writings of Johannes Kelpius and Johann
Conrad Weiser. The German‐speaking members of the Moravian church (who settled
primarily in Pennsylvania and North Carolina) wrote copious spiritual autobiogra-
phies (Lebenslauf), a genre of life writing (beside diaries and letter writing) particularly
accessible to women writers and minorities. Increasingly, historical societies and
­university archives (such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the University
of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library) are digitizing their German‐
language manuscript holdings; researchers and students making use of these materials
should consider completing a course in reading eighteenth‐century German script.
The pay‐off will be a plethora of authors, texts, and ideas broadening and diversifying
not just our understanding of American literature but the cultural and historical
­construct of “early America” per se.


German, Dutch, French, and even Spanish writings about and from colonial North
America pose a central question about imperialism, migration, and settlement: could
colonialist and imperialist writing bear within itself the critique of its own impera-
tives  –  the desire for fantastic wealth and eternal wish‐fulfillment, the craving for
social recognition and status, and the domination of Indigenous peoples to create a
134 Volume I: Origins to 1820

powerful machinery of exploitation of labor and resources? To claim that colonial writ-
ers themselves recognized and even critiqued such forces may in itself be a type of wish
fulfillment seeking to obscure its mechanics of oppression by creating the illusion of
critical examination and even cultural subversion. And yet, to allege that the writers
and texts of colonial America were not capable of reflecting upon the internal contra-
dictions of colonialist discourse would be to commit the intentional fallacy all over
again: these texts could not possibly be critical of colonialism because their authors did
not mean to be critical. Rather, I argue that the diasporic nature – the voluntary or
enforced exile – of these colonial writers disrupted the flow of imperial power from the
center to the periphery. Reassembling imperial culture and ideology in the distant
spaces of the empire caused a disruption of identification that eventually laid bare the
manipulations, victimization, and losses of the colonial enterprise. Investigating the
non‐English writings of colonial America will also teach a larger public today that
migration and immigration defy binary categorizations between those allegedly
deserving of the opportunities this continent has to offer and others who threaten to
destabilize the United States through self‐serving exploitation and even violence.
Sidestepping the oft‐mythologized English‐language stories, we may at last discard
the simplistic notion that people arriving on American shores may be split into ­villains
and victims.


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Mulford, C., Vietto, A., and Winans, A.E. (eds.) Lieutenant Dumont, 1715–1747. Chapel Hill:
(2002). Early American Writings. New York: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 1–45.
Oxford University Press. Selyns, H. (1663). “Bridal Torch.” In Of Wedding
Palóu, F. (1955/2002). From Life of Junípero Serra. and War: Henricus Selyns’ Bridal Torch (1663),
In Early American Writings, ed. C. Mulford, A. ed. F.R.E. Blom, with an edition and transla-
Vietto, and A.E. Winans. New York: Oxford tion of the Dutch poem. www.researchgate.
University Press, pp. 405–411. net/publication/254901724_Of_wedding_
Pastorius, F.D. (1684/1912). Positive Information and_war_Henricus_Selyns’_Bridal_
from America, concerning the Country of To r c h _ 1 6 6 3 _ w i t h _ a n _ e d i t i o n _ a n d _
Pennsylvania, from a German who has migrated translation_of_the_Dutch_poem (accessed 28
thither; dated Philadelphia, March 7, 1684., trans. June 2016).
G.S. Kimball. In Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, Selyns, H. (1865). “To my Friend, Captain Gerard
West New Jersey and Delaware, ed. A.C. Myers. Douw, residing at his country seat near New York,
New York: Scribner’s, pp. 392–411. when he should have been invited to the Lord’s
Pastorius, F.D. (1700/1912). Circumstantial Supper, and there was no wagon by which to send
Geographical Description of Pennsylvania, trans. the invitation.” In Anthology of New Netherland Or
G.S. Kimball. In Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, Translations from the Early Dutch Poets of New York
West New Jersey and Delaware, ed. A.C. Myers. with Memoirs of their Lives, ed. H.C. Murphy. New
New York: Scribner’s, pp. 353–448. York: Bradford Club, pp. 155–156.
Powell, L.N. (2013). The Accidental City: Improvising Shorto, R. (2004). The Island at the Center of the
New Orleans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the
University Press. Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. New York:
Rabasa, J. (2000). Writing Violence on the Northern Doubleday.
Frontier: Historiography of Sixteenth‐Century Weiser, C. (1899). “Two Addresses of Conrad
New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Weiser to the German Voters of Pennsylvania.”
Conquest. Durham, NC: Duke University Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography,
Press. 23(4): 516–521.

Further Reading

Bauer, R. Early Americas Digital Archive. http:// Bauer, R. (2010). “Early American Literature
mith.umd.edu/eada/ (accessed 6 May 2016). and American Literary History at the
Offers an unparalleled collection of transcribed ‘Hemispheric Turn.’” Early American
primary early American texts, including selec- Literature, 45(2): pp. 217–233. Concisely
tions (in translation) of Spanish, French, surveys comparative and multilingual
German, Dutch, and Swedish works. ­scholarship in early American literature and
136 Volume I: Origins to 1820

provides theoretical recommendations for its 2016). Faull has transcribed and translated
further exploration. numerous spiritual memoirs by male and female
Bauer, R. and Mazzotti, J.A. (2009). Creole Subjects Moravian residents of communities such as
in the Colonial Americas: Empires, Texts, Identities. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Romney, S.S. (2014). New Netherland Connections:
Exploring literatures in Spanish, Portuguese, Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth‐
and English, this essay collection employs the Century America. Chapel Hill: University of
theoretical lens of cultural and literary creoliza- North Carolina Press. One of the first sustained
tion to understand the consciousness of colonial historical treatments of New Netherland and
subjects across the Americas. its Atlantic networks; sources provide numer-
Dawdy, S.L. (2009). Building the Devil’s Empire: ous departure points for further textual
French Colonial New Orleans. Chicago: University analysis.
of Chicago Press. Combines a historical over- Stoudt, J.J. (1956). Pennsylvania German Poetry,
view of French colonial Louisiana and New 1685–1830. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania German
Orleans with many useful references to litera- Folklore Society. A primary collection of much‐
ture genres, authors, and texts. neglected poetry by German speakers in colonial
Erben, P.M. (2013). “Re‐discovering the German‐ North America.
Language Literature of Colonial America.” In “A Wiggin, B. (2011). “‘For each and every house to
Peculiar Mixture”: German‐Language Cultures and wish for peace’: Christoph Saur’s High German
Identities in Eighteenth‐Century North America, ed. O. American Almanac and the French and Indian
Scheiding and J. Stievermann. University Park: War in Pennsylvania.” In Empires of God:
Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 117–149. Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic,
Provides a comparative analysis of religious poetry ed. L. Gregerson and S. Juster. Philadelphia:
by Pennsylvania German mystic Johannes Kelpius University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 154–172.
and New England Puritan Edward Taylor; the Explores the intercultural and translingual con-
essay ends with suggestions for further research. nections between English Quaker and German
Faull, K. Moravian Materials. https://katiefaull. Pietist proponents of peace activism in late colo-
com/moravian‐materials (accessed 28 June nial America.


Environment and Environmentalism
Timothy Sweet

This chapter’s title suggests two themes, one apparently more pertinent to European
colonists in the Americas and one apparently more pertinent to the concerns of twenty‐
first‐century readers. Many explorers and settlers, from Christopher Columbus through
Thomas Jefferson, were interested in the sense of “environmentalism” meaning
­environmental determinism. That is, they wanted to know whether environments or
climates influenced humankind’s bodily and moral nature, as ancient learning held,
and if so, how American environments had shaped Indigenous Americans and how
they could shape European settlers or, later, African slaves. Twenty‐first‐century
­readers may also be interested in a “green” sense of environmentalism, that is, a ­concern
for the well‐being of non‐human nature in itself and in humankind’s relation to it.
These themes converge in various ways, as we will see. For example, colonial concerns
with climatology and environmental determinism share some features of our present
concerns over environmental risk and recent scholarly interest in the agency of the
non‐human world. The curiosity of early American natural history writers speaks to
the aesthetic response to nature that continues to motivate preservationism, while the
desire for natural harmony among human and non‐human beings (a desire as old as the
narrative of the fall of Eden) speaks to the new agrarianism, steady‐state economics,
and other projects in human ecology.
Most early promotional tracts and natural history reports took up the question of
whether or how a particular American environment would affect European bodies.
While we have become accustomed to thinking about the project of American coloni-
zation as involving the management and exploitation of nature conceptualized as inert

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
138 Volume I: Origins to 1820

matter, early modern European thinking about climate recognized in nature an agency
capable of acting on human bodies (Parrish 2006: 77–102). Europeans had inherited
the Aristotelian theory of climate according to which the globe was divided laterally
into zones, usually defined as two uninhabitable polar zones, two temperate zones, and
an uninhabitable torrid zone in the equatorial region. Reports by early explorers such
as Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci questioned Aristotelian assumptions
in claiming that, in the words of the latter, American lands in or near the torrid zone
had “a more temperate and pleasant climate than in any other region known to us”
(Branch 2004: 10). José de Acosta, in the Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590;
translated into English as The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies,
1604), devoted a great deal of effort to refuting classical notions regarding the unin-
habitable nature of the torrid zone, even though, by the time he was writing, Spaniards
had been living in Mexico for nearly 70 years and Indigenous peoples had been living
there for millennia. Anticipating later anthropologists, Acosta hypothesized that
America’s Indigenous peoples had migrated from Asia via a land bridge to the north
(not yet known as the Bering Strait), and thus were originally an Old World p­ eople – as
they must have been if they were descended from Adam and Eve. If so, their bodily
natures would not have been fundamentally different from those of Spaniards. In his
climatological arguments, Acosta deployed a rhetoric that would become central to
the emergence of the New Science, the claim of empiricism, “guiding ourselves not so
much by the doctrine of ancient philosophers as by true reason and a degree of
­experience” (2002: 75). Nevertheless, Acosta’s commitment to Renaissance humanism
is evident in his adherence to classical epistemic principles such as a geocentric
­cosmology. As more European explorations and settlements provided more experiences
of American climates, it became evident that a basic principle of classical climatology,
consistency of climates across latitudinal bands, did not apply to the North American
temperate zone. English colonists, for example, unaware of the effects of the Gulf
Stream, were puzzled as to why New England had colder winters than England, even
though it lay farther south (Kupperman 1982).
Further complicating classical climatology was the humoral theory of the human
body in relation to its environment, as formulated by Hippocrates and elaborated by
Galen of Pergamon, according to which health depended on a balance of the four
humors (blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile) – though no body in this fallen
world was ever perfectly in balance. The humors correlated to the four elements (air,
water, earth, and fire respectively) as they manifested certain qualities (warm and
moist, cold and moist, cold and dry, warm and dry). As the first‐generation New
England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet expressed it in “Of the Four Humors in Man’s
Constitution” (1650), “Two hot, two moist, two cold, two dry here be, / A golden ring,
the posy UNITY” (1967: 50). According to humoral theory, disease might be caused
by a propensity for imbalance within the body or by external factors such as diet,
excretion, exercise, temperature, or sleep that produced an excess or deficit of one or
more of the humors. As imbalances could be caused by various environmental factors,
so could they be remedied. Thus Thomas Harriot, in A Briefe and True Report of the New
Environment and Environmentalism 139

Found Land of Virginia (1588), an important early natural history and promotional
tract that was published in multiple languages, reassured his readers that the Roanoke
colonists maintained good health while eating indigenous foods such as maize and
drinking local water, even though these “might have bene thought to have altered our
temperatures” causing “greevous and dangerous diseases” (1972: 31). Moreover, the
use of native tobacco contributed to health, Harriot argued, for

it purgeth superfluous fleame [i.e. phlegm] & other grosse humors, openeth all the
pores & passages of the body: by which means the use thereof not only preserveth
the body from obstructions; but also if any be, so that they have not been of too long
continuance, in short time breaketh them; wherby their bodies are notably preserved
in health, & know not many greevous diseases wherewithall wee in England are
­oftentimes afflicted. (16)

Seventeenth‐century speculator and fur trader Thomas Morton carried the point a
step further in his promotional tract The New English Canaan (1637), differentiating
among North American environments to favor his chosen New England: “No man
living there was ever known to be troubled with a cold, a cough, or a murr, but many
men, coming sick out of Virginia to New Canaan have instantly recovered with
the help of the purity of that air; no man ever surfeited himself either by eating or
drinking” (Branch 2004: 67). Although humoral theory was challenged by a new,
alchemically oriented theory of medicine developed in the sixteenth century by
Philippus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus – according to which health depended
on the body’s balance of minerals and could be remedied by chemical dosing (Woodward
2010: 160–209) – it persisted into the eighteenth century, coexisting with vernacular
healing practices. Cotton Mather’s unpublished medical compendium The Angel of
Bethesda (1724), for example, attempted to accommodate Galenic, Paracelsan, and
­vernacular practices empirically within a Puritan providentialist scheme according to
which illness was a message from God or a reminder of the state of sin.
Such applications of humoral theory emphasized the sameness of human bodies,
all sharing the common ancestry of Adam and Eve, in response to the variabilities
of environment. However, the environmental dimension of humoral theory could
also be turned toward an explanation of national difference. Spanish physician
Juan Huarte de San Juan, for example, contended, in an often reprinted late
­sixteenth‐century ­scientific treatise, Examen de ingenious para las ciencias (translated
into English as The Examination of Mens Wits, 1594), that national difference was a
matter of climate or “temperature.” Claiming the authority of Galen as the
“groundplot” of his treatise, Huarte affirmed that

the maners of the soule, follow the temperature of the bodie, in which it keepes r­ esidence,
and that by reason of the heat, the coldnesse, the moisture, and the drouth, of the
­territorie where men inhabit, of the meats which they feed on, of the waters which they
drinke, and of the aire which they breathe. […] [T]he difference of nations, as well in
140 Volume I: Origins to 1820

c­ omposition of the bodie as in conditions of the soule, springeth from the varietie of
this temperature: and experience itselfe evidently sheweth this, how far are different
Greeks from Tartarians: Frenchmen from Spaniards: Indians from Dutch: and Aethiopians
from English. (Huarte 1959: 23, 21–22)

On this theory, nation or race were not inherent, but rather environmentally variable,
although environmentally acquired traits might (in proto‐Lamarckian fashion) be
passed on to descendants, thus creating the characteristics of nations. In this context,
Harriot’s and Morton’s claims for the salubriousness of American climates addressed
not merely bodily health but national character and reassured colonists that American
residence would not change English bodies or tempers. William Wood’s promotional
tract New England’s Prospect (1634) went so far as to claim nostalgically that “both
winter and summer is more commended of the English there [in New England] than
the summer‐winters, and winter‐summers of England. And who is there that could
not wish that England’s climate were as it hath been in quondam times: colder in
winter and hotter in summer” (1977: 31). Wood’s claim is puzzling, for even if he
were recalling the particularly cool period circa 1590–1610 of the Little Ice Age (c.
1400 to 1700), English summers would not have been as warm as winters were cold.
This English concern regarding warm climates became especially acute for colonies in
the Chesapeake Bay region and southward (Kupperman 1984). Thus John Lawson, in
A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), identified a preservative mechanism: though
Carolina was generally warm, its winter was “now and then attended with clear and
thin Northwest Winds, that are sharp enough to regulate English Constitutions, and
free them from a great many dangerous Distempers, that a continual summer afflicts
them withal” (Branch 2004: 110). The sense of strangeness that Europeans experi-
enced in tropical and subtropical environments remains a topic of scholarly investiga-
tion (Allewaert 2013).
In warmer climates, humoral environmentalism could be deployed to justify the use
of African slaves as laborers supposedly more naturally suited than Europeans to hard
work in the hot sun, given their origins in a hot climate. James Grainger sliced the
matter even more finely in Book IV of his Caribbean georgic, The Sugar Cane (1764),
differentiating among various climates of Africa as producing temperaments with par-
ticular moral qualities such as obedience or temperaments most suitable to particular
tasks such as mechanics, field labor, and so on. Grainger’s account of Africans in The
Sugar Cane included medical advice, which he fleshed out in a prose treatise, An Essay
on the More Common West‐India Diseases (1764) (Wisecup 2013: 127–160). This t­ reatise’s
focus on the “seasoning” of recently imported Africans, on “those diseases whereunto
the Blacks are most exposed in the islands,” and on “such distempers as more ­peculiarly
affect the Negroes,” including discussions of “such medicines as the country affords
for their removal,” gave the impression that the negative impacts of the subtropical
climate primarily afflicted Africans, despite the widespread assumption that Europeans
as well as Africans had to undergo “seasoning” to adapt to this environment (Grainger
1802: ii–iii).
Environment and Environmentalism 141

While early colonial promoters worked to assure their readers that the more temperate
American climates were familiar enough to Europeans so as not to induce changes in
“the temperature of the bodie” or the “maners of the soule,” such assurances could not
account for the differences that Europeans perceived between themselves and
Indigenous Americans. Contributing to this perception of bodily difference was
Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability to contagious diseases such as smallpox introduced
by Europeans, to which European settlers bore a certain level of herd immunity.
Although a corpuscular theory of disease transmission was theoretically available, for
example from Lucretian atomism, it was not widely held until the eighteenth century
(and even then remained controversial). Prior to that, as scholars have noted, Europeans
attributed virgin soil epidemics either to Indigenous peoples’ inherent bodily weak-
ness or to divine providence, or both (Chaplin 2001: 156–198; Silva 2011: 24–61).
Harriot, in a complex passage that has become familiar to students of the New
Historicism, reveals that the Roanoke people may have imagined something like
a corpuscular theory of disease when they accused the English of “shooting invisible
bullets into them” from a distance to take revenge against “any such towne that had
offended” the English (so Harriot claims) by means of the “subtile devise” of witchcraft
(1972: 28). Harriot himself leaves open the question of whether the epidemic was “the
special woorke of God for our sakes,” as he claims some of the Roanoke people believed
(29). Despite the correlation evident in Harriot’s and numerous other accounts,
Europeans ignored native peoples’ assertions that their arrival had brought disease.
Harriot, for example, speculated on the effects of a comet as a possible cause of
the  Roanoke epidemic. Rather, Europeans saw epidemic diseases either as endemic
components of American environments – which, despite the natives’ acknowledged
facility with herbal medicines, afflicted the natives more seriously than the Europeans,
suggesting a proto‐racialized understanding of bodies  –  or as the “woorke of God”
which favored the Europeans.
Later outbreaks of epidemic disease among subsequent generations of colonists,
when herd immunity was lowered, undercut the racialized theory of disease while
reorienting the providentialist theory. In late seventeenth‐century New England, for
example, when jeremiadic rhetoric was an especially pervasive component of public
discourse, epidemics were figured as divine punishments inflicted against a nation that
had failed to keep its national covenant with God (Silva 2011: 101–141). Corpuscular
theory and the new practice (new to the Europeans) of inoculation further discredited
environmental explanations for some kinds of disease. The Boston smallpox epidemic
of 1721 became the occasion of a public quarrel over inoculation. The debate coalesced
along political lines, Cotton Mather being an outspoken proponent of the efficacy and
safety of inoculation and Boston’s anti‐Mather faction arguing against the practice in
the pages of the New England Courant, a newspaper printed by Benjamin Franklin’s
older brother James. Attempting to reconcile empirical observation with providential-
ist theology, Mather eventually came to focus less on the nation than on the individual.
In The Angel of Bethesda, he attempted to find treatments of disease that would address
the “Rational Soul” (1972: 28). On such a philosophy, inoculation could be understood
142 Volume I: Origins to 1820

as analogous to the preparation that was necessary for the soul to receive grace – preparation
that would not, Mather’s Puritan theology held, prove effective in all cases. Thus while
Mather first learned of the practice of inoculation from his African slave Onesimus, he
gradually disavowed its African origin as he incorporated it into medical knowledge (Silva
2011: 142–179; Wisecup 2013: 97–126). Mather’s disavowal was part of a larger pattern
through which colonial physicians and natural historians negotiated their intellectual
status and claims to knowledge vis‐à‐vis established centers of authority in Europe such as
the Royal Society (Parrish 2006: 103–315).
Debates over environmentalist versus corpuscular theories of epidemic disease
intensified during late eighteenth‐century outbreaks of yellow fever in New York and
Philadelphia (Estes and Smith 1997). Each side identified some of the causal factors
without fully understanding them: the corpuscular theorists were correct in that the
immediate cause of the disease is a virus, yet the environmentalists were also correct in
that the crucial vector in the transmission of this virus to humans is a mosquito (Aedes
aegypti), which requires stagnant water to breed  –  thus certain environments were
more conducive to the disease. Eminent Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush leaned
toward an environmentalist explanation in his Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow
Fever as it Appeared in the City of Philadelphia in the Year 1793, arguing that that factors
such as fatigue, intemperance, and a disturbed emotional state rendered persons vul-
nerable to locally generated, disease‐causing miasmas. Rush included an account of his
own physical and emotional states during the epidemic. In treating the sick, he says,
his “body became highly impregnated with the contagion,” resulting in symptoms
such as yellow eyes, a quickened pulse, and night sweats. He reports that he treated
himself with an “antiphlogistic” regimen, abstaining from alcohol and meat; he kept
busy so that “a fresh current to my thought, kept me from dwelling on the gloomy
scenes of the day”; and at the disease’s crisis point he dosed himself with “mercurial
medicine,” which acted as an emetic (1794: 341, 345, 361). Philadelphia novelist
Charles Brockden Brown survived the disease during the 1798 epidemic in New York
but saw his good friend Elihu Hubbard Smith (a physician trained by Rush) die while
treating patients. Evidently in response to these experiences, Brown soon produced
two novels that were set during the Philadelphia epidemic of 1793: Ormond (1799) and
Arthur Mervyn (Part I, 1799; Part II, 1800). While he was influenced by an intellectual
cohort that included Rush and Smith, Brown was especially interested in observing
individuals’ responses to their environment. He traced relations between mental and
physical health and complexities of causation (or, at least, correlation) while suggest-
ing in some cases that environmental contamination might be overcome. In Ormond,
the Dudley family avoids contracting the disease apparently by virtue of abstemious
diet and strict mental hygiene (a regiment much like Rush’s, but in this case effective
without doses of mercury). In Arthur Mervyn, Brown entertained what we might think
of as a secular moral version of Cotton Mather’s preparationist doctrine. Characters
predisposed to benevolence hold an environmentalist view of the disease, and in the
cases of the physicians Medlicote and Stevens, as well as the apprentice Mervyn ­himself,
this benevolence seems to protect them. Narratives such as Rush’s and Brown’s, which
Environment and Environmentalism 143

assess environmental risk in the face of uncertainty, bear comparison with modern
discourses of toxicity and risk as discussed in recent ecocritical theory (Heise 2008:
Beyond issues specific to particular environments such as epidemics, Enlightenment
science posed questions of influence and determinism on a global scale. Drawing
on geological theories that extended the age of the earth well beyond the traditional
biblical chronology of 6000 years, eminent natural historian George‐Louis Leclerc,
Comte de Buffon, launched the first salvo in a dispute over the supposed inferiority of
American nature (Gerbi 1973). The claim was not original to Buffon and was in some
sense a predictable outcome of Eurocentric bias in attempting to accommodate
the so‐called discovery of the New World to the frames of classical climatology and
biblical history. Buffon, however, gave the idea a precise formulation, working on a
much longer timescale and using data from numerous natural history surveys. He
argued that as a result of their comparatively recent emersion, the Americas were
­wetter and less receptive to the sun’s rays and thus less favorable than Europe and Asia
to the production of large, warm‐blooded animals and more favorable to cold‐blooded
animals such as insects and reptiles, which he considered inferior.
In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson refuted Buffon’s claims by compar-
ing kinds and weights of American versus European animals both wild and domestic
and by delving into questions of nutrition and inherent morphological constraints.
Figuring largely in Jefferson’s argument were fossil remains of mammoths that had
been found at Big Bone lick on the Ohio River (near present‐day Cincinnati) and in
the upper Hudson Valley in New York. Jefferson argued that the presence of the mam-
moth decisively refuted Buffon’s claim that the American climate was not suited to the
production of large, warm‐blooded mammals. This is one reason why Jefferson insisted
that the mammoth was not extinct but rather was still to be found, as certain Native
American stories allegorically suggested, somewhere in the American Northwest. He
hoped that the Lewis and Clark expedition would find evidence of their survival.
Important as such fossil evidence would be in the case against Buffon, it was more
important to Jefferson’s Enlightenment faith in the rational order of nature. “Such is
the oeconomy of nature,” Jefferson asserted, “that no instance can be produced of her
having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed
any link in her great work so weak as to be broken” (1999: 55). Many of Jefferson’s
contemporaries, such as John Filson (The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of
Kentucke, 1784), thought it likely that the mammoth was extinct. They regarded this
as a good thing, because they thought that the mammoth was carnivorous and had
terrorized humankind. Yet despite Jefferson’s scientifically erroneous denial of extinc-
tion in the Notes (a position he later recanted), his prospective narration of extinction
as loss anticipated our modern, elegiac response.
Buffon had argued that the consequences of the unfavorable American climate extended
to human inhabitants, “whether aboriginal or transplanted” (Jefferson 1999: 61). Native
American men, he claimed, “lack ardor for their females and, by c­ onsequence, love for
their fellow man […] [thus] accordingly have no community, no commonwealth, no
144 Volume I: Origins to 1820

social state” (Jefferson 1999: 306). Jefferson flatly denied the charge and turned Buffon’s
claim of American newness against him to argue that Indigenous Americans do not lack
“genius” but only education. Jefferson’s choice of evidence for Indigenous “genius” sounds
an elegiac note, a speech given by Logan (Tah‐gah‐jute), a Cayuga chief whose family was
murdered by frontiersmen and who proclaims himself the last of his line: “Who is there
to mourn for Logan? – Not one” (68). Jefferson thus refused both the classical‐Renaissance
climatological explanation of national difference and the emergent, proto‐biological
­theory of racial difference, even as he predicts the disappearance of Native Americans and
their replacement by Euro‐American settlers. By contrast, his account of Africans in
Query XIV on the laws of Virginia appeals to a claim regarding “the real distinctions
which nature has made” to posit inherent difference and inferiority “as a suspicion only”
even as he argues for the abolition of slavery (145, 150). Thus in chiasmic fashion, a
­discussion pertaining to culture (Query XIV) elicits a theory of racial difference in terms
of nature, whereas a Query pertaining to nature (Query VI) elicits a theory of racial difference
in terms of culture. Jefferson proposed further anthropological investigation, remarking that
“the races of black and of red men […] have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural
history,” though he does not position himself similarly as a subject (150).
The other, “green” sense of environmentalism bearing on early American literature
may originate in aesthetic response but ultimately concerns humankind’s economic
relation to the non‐human world, whether phrased in terms of regret for such a ­relation
at all, as in deep ecology (Sessions 1995), or in terms of managing that relation for the
common good, as in the new agrarianism and other such georgic imaginings (Sweet
2002). The aesthetic response of wonder, sometimes taking shape as spiritual or
­scientific curiosity, interacted with pragmatic colonial motives to produce two forms
of relation to the environment, pastoral and georgic. Investigating these “green”
­developments in early American literature, we need to be careful of anachronistic
­projection, for our material antedates such developments as Henry David Thoreau’s
attempt to move beyond anthropocentrism and transcendentalism to a biocentric
worldview, George Perkins Marsh’s conservationist critique of the exploitation of
­natural resources, John Muir’s preservationist efforts, and Aldo Leopold’s formulation
of the land ethic. Even so, there are some recognizable continuities.
Wonder was arguably the originating figure in European writing on the Americas, set-
ting a replicable paradigm (Greenblatt 1991). The words “delightful” and “marvelous”
punctuate Columbus’s account of his first voyage; thus in summarizing his voyages he
wrote, “I was so astonished at the sight of so much beauty that I can find no words to
describe it. […] But now I am silent, only wishing that some other may see this land and
write about it” (Branch 2004: 4, xiii, xiv). As later writers developed systematized accounts,
the figure of wonder often took the form of curiosity, as for example the characterization of
the armadillo as “a very strange animal to the Christians, and quite different from any ani-
mal in Spain or anywhere else” in the Historia General y Natural de las Indias (1535) of
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (Branch 2004: 22). Wonder would also recur as the
sublime, as in Father Louis Hennepin’s account of the “surprising,” “astonishing,” and
“horrible Precipice” of Niagara Falls. Overestimating the height of the falls by a factor of
Environment and Environmentalism 145

three, Hennepin wrote that “the universe does not afford its Parallel. ’Tis true, Italy and
Suedeland boast of some such Things; but we may well say they are sorry Patterns, when
compared to this of which we now speak” (Branch 2004: 85).
As the preceding examples suggest, curiosity concerns the attempt to explain.
Acosta, for example, was compelled to engage with classical climatology to prove,
needlessly, the fact that Mexico was inhabitable and was, moreover, nearly a “paradise
on earth,” contrary to the wisdom of the ancients (2002: 97). If Fernández de Oviedo
felt no need to explain the mere existence of the armadillo as a creature of God, even
so he familiarized it to his European readers by playfully reversing its etymology
(armadillo = “armored one”) such that it becomes the source of its own name: “I cannot
help suspecting that this animal was known by those who first put horses in full trap-
pings, for from the appearance of these animals they could have learned the form of the
trappings for the armored horse” (Branch 2004: 23). Over two centuries later, on the
near side of the scientific revolution that began with such curious observers as
Fernández de Oviedo, botanist Edwin James explained that the “astonishing beauty”
of alpine flowers near Pike’s Peak derived not from any inherent quality, but rather
from their location at the edge of the climatic limit imposed by altitude. Here “the
intensity of the light transmitted from the bright and unobscured atmosphere of those
regions, and increased by reflection from the immense impending masses of snow”
enabled the observer to perceive a “peculiar brilliancy of coloring” (Branch 2004: 238).
The explanatory urge was incited by the sublime as well as the beautiful. Thus in his
account of the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia – “the most sublime of
Nature’s works […] so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the
rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” – Jefferson speculated that the bridge
had been produced by “some great convulsion” in the earth’s past (1999: 26). The
Potomac Gap in the Blue Ridge, “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,”
showed “that this earth has been created in time” rather than all at once with its pre-
sent geological features, as strict creationists held, thus indicating a “war between
rivers and mountains, which must have shaken the earth itself to its center” (21).
The scientific sublime marks the limit of the capacity to explain, as when the young
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (who would later become known for ethnographic researches
among Native American peoples) contemplated the geology of the Ozarks. Describing
Cave Creek canyon, he remarks “majestic walls of limestone” of which the “opposite
banks correspond with general exactness in their curves, height, composition of strata
and other characters evincing their connection at a former period. Yet the only object
apparently affected by the separation of such immense strata of rocks, a change which
I cannot now contemplate without awe and astonishment, is to allow a stream of
twenty yards across a level and undisturbed passage into the adjacent river, the
Currents” (Branch 2004: 226). Writing prior to the publication of Charles Lyell’s
Principles of Geology (1830–1833), which established uniformism as the dominant geo-
logical theory, and influenced like Jefferson by catastrophists such as George Cuvier,
Schoolcraft can only imagine a convulsion parting the rock to allow the passage of
Cave Creek, rather than the uniformist explanation of erosion over time to form the
146 Volume I: Origins to 1820

canyon. When catastrophist theory reaches its explanatory limit, Schoolcraft responds
with “awe and astonishment.”
Earlier generations of writers had marked this explanatory limit as God. That is, in
such moments of wonder or curiosity, explorers, naturalists, ministers, and poets could
draw on a long tradition of nature as God’s book which revealed the author’s power and
wisdom (Gatta 2004). The tradition has been memorably expressed by Shakespeare’s
Duke Senior in As You Like It as “find[ing] tongues in trees, books in the running
brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (2.1.16–17), but dates at least
from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “For the invisible things of [God] from the creation
of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his
eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20). The methods for reading nature as God’s
book varied with context and purpose but came increasingly under the influence of the
New Science, which proposed empirical and mathematical methods for discerning the
creator’s hand in the creation. Moreover, the trope provided a rationale for scientific
study, as Robert Boyle, one of the leading lights of the New Science, put it in his trea-
tise Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Naturall Philosophy (1663):
reading the “Book of Nature […] like a rare Book of Hieroglyphicks,” the naturalist
finds “satisfaction in admiring the knowledge of the Author, and in finding out and
inriching himselfe with those abstruse and vailed Truths dexterously hinted in them”
(quoted in Iannini 2012: 26).
The “sermons in stones” trope thus has a long American history, dating at least from
the first Anglo‐American nature poem, Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” (1650).
Drawing like those who followed on the popular emblematic tradition exemplified in
such works as Francis Quarles’s Emblemes (1635) or John Flavel’s Husbandry Spiritualized
(1669), the Puritan Bradstreet nevertheless reluctantly advocated turning away from
the awesome beauty of nature. Opening with a view of the glories of the New England
autumn, a display of color unknown to readers back in England, Bradstreet writes that
the “leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true, / […] Rapt were my senses at this
delectable view” (1967: 204). From the creation to the creator, so, “If so much excel-
lence abide below, / How excellent is He that dwells on high” (205). Yet ultimately all
this worldly “excellence” will fail, according to Bradstreet’s Christian understanding,
for “Time” is the “fatal wrack of mortal things” and “Only above is found all with
security” (213). However preparatory natural theology might be in reasoning from the
creation to the creator, that is, no amount of study could produce the state of
Such study remained compelling, even so. By the early eighteenth century, Cotton
Mather, who attempted to integrate the New Science into a Reformed Protestant cos-
mology, elaborated the sermons in stones trope in The Christian Philosopher (1721) by
expressing a wish to “hear the Fishes preaching to me, which they do many Truths of no
small importance. As mute as they are, they are plain and loud Preachers; I want nothing
but an Ear to make me a profitable Hearer of them” (Branch 2004: 117, italics in origi-
nal). Perhaps the most “profitable Hearer” of nature’s preaching in the Puritan tradition
was Jonathan Edwards, whose natural history writings from the 1720s interpret the
Environment and Environmentalism 147

spiritual significance of natural phenomena aided by the terms of the New Science. For
example, he used Newtonian optics to understand the colors of the rainbow and their
sense impressions on the human eye, mind, and soul. Edwards’s closely observed account
of how spiders propel themselves from treetop to treetop by means of web and wind
closes, like all of his natural history observations, with spiritual corollaries. Among
these is the notion that God provides for the spiders’ “pleasure and recreation” even as
he controls their population by wafting most of them out to sea to their destruction so
as not to overburden or “plague” the world (Branch 2004: 121). Writing not from a
Puritan but a Quaker tradition in his Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia,
East & West Florida (1791), William Bartram blurred the boundary between human and
non‐human beings, discerning “the almighty power, wisdom, and beneficence of the
Supreme Creator” in the “vivific principle of life” that “secretly operates within” all
creatures, humans, animals, and plants alike (1955: 20, 21). Thomas Paine, writing
outside of any tradition of revealed religion whatever, developed a deist version of the
“sermons in stones” trope in The Age of Reason (1794), according to which “The Almighty
Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has
invited man to study and to imitation” (1987: 428).
If post‐Enlightenment thought no longer imagines nature as a conduit for the
word of God (even a deist god), the sermons in stones trope has recently returned
in ecological discourse, where new‐materialist ontological theories reenvision the
agency of non‐human matter and critique the Enlightenment boundary between
the human and the non‐human (Allewaert 2013; Ziser 2013). Though not ­explicitly
theological, such theorizing is compatible with Bartram’s refusal of the
Enlightenment disenchantment of the world by insisting on a “vivific principle,”
and it takes seriously Mather’s desire to “hear the Fishes.” As Mather’s “Ear”
­consisted of the descriptive, comparative, and classificatory techniques of natural
history observation, so modern scientific tools can be regarded as “speech prosthe-
ses” by means of which, as philosopher of science Bruno Latour argues, human
beings can hear non‐human beings and enable them to participate in collective
decision making regarding the earth’s future (quoted in Ziser 2013: 16).
From its aesthetic and spiritual beginnings in wonder and curiosity as well as its
pragmatic motivations in providing information for colonial projects, natural history
writing thus became central to the culture of letters in the Americas (Iannini 2012;
Regis 1999). Two important works heralding the eighteenth‐century flowering of natu-
ral history were Hans Sloan’s Voyage to the Islands (1707–1725) and Mark Catesby’s
Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743). These extended
the lively style established in Fernández de Oviedo’s widely translated Historia General
(parts of which had been available in English since Richard Eden’s translation in Decades
of the New World [1555]) and, together with other natural histories such as Lawson’s,
influenced numerous subsequent writers. Catesby’s Natural History, for example,
informed William Bartram’s remarkable Travels, which in turn served as a resource for
later naturalists such as John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson. Natural history
reinvigorated the classical and Renaissance genre of chorography (etymologically, place
148 Volume I: Origins to 1820

writing) in such works as Robert Beverley’s History and Present State of Virginia (1705),
William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and Secret
History of the Line (c. 1728), and Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. Natural history also
­provided a base for the emerging genre of ethnography (etymologically, race or nation
writing) sporadically, as we have seen, in Jefferson’s Notes and more systematically in J.
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) (especially Letters
IV–VIII on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) and Bartram’s Travels (especially Part IV,
on the manners, customs, and government of the Muscogees, Cherokees, and Choctaws).
Natural history was also an important component in the revitalization of the georgic,
not only in direct imitations of the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics (c. 29 bce) such as
Grainger’s The Sugar Cane, but more broadly in all writing that understood the natural
environment as the originating site of cultural production.
Pastoral and georgic, the literary imagining of leisure and labor respectively, were
and continue to be important components of the American culture of letters. Each
values harmony between humankind and the non‐human world, but each approaches
that value differently. American pastoral – be it the complex form that attempts to
establish an ideal, rural middle ground between the city and the wilderness but always
finds itself beset by an economic or technological counterforce (Marx 1964), or the
wilderness form that envisions the natural state of the world as one absent of human
beings (Cronon 1996) – often begins with the imagination of abundance. Thus among
the sources of early American pastoral are the accounts of copious commodities and
salubrious climates in early promotional writings such as Harriot’s Briefe and True
Report of Virginia or Morton’s New English Canaan. John Smith and his crew, voyaging
up the Chesapeake in 1607, found “an aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their
heads above water, as for want of nets […] we attempted to catch them with a frying
pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with” (quoted in Sweet 2002:
33–34). Such wit, playing on the familiar hyperbole that fish will actually jump into
the pan while registering abundance to be gotten through appropriate technology and
labor, gives Smith’s writings a pragmatic tone that opens onto the georgic. The trope
of abundance also generated moral ambivalence, however, as is evident for example in
Beverley’s History and Present State of Virginia. In The History of the Dividing Line, Byrd
draws on medieval satires on idleness and gluttony to describe North Carolina as
“Lubberland […] by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions,
and the Slothfulness of the People” (Byrd 2013: 105). Ease seems to invite sloth; thus
“they loiter away their Lives […] and at the Winding up of the Year scarcely have
Bread to eat” (106). This ambivalence persisted in later eighteenth‐ and early nine-
teenth‐century criticisms of semi‐migratory frontier agriculture by Crèvecoeur,
Jefferson, Brockden Brown, and others (Sweet 2002: 97–121).
Wilderness pastoral, which disavows economic and technological engagements
with the environment altogether, has its roots in the trope of wonder and its first
growth in the ideology of westward colonial expansion. In such texts as Jefferson’s
Notes, Bartram’s Travels, Crèvecoeur’s Letters, and James Fenimore Cooper’s
Leatherstocking novels, the simultaneous replacement of and identification with
Environment and Environmentalism 149

Indigenous peoples, represented elegiacally as a vanishing race, provided white

Americans with a national identity as the land’s natural inhabitants (Hallock 2003).
This possessive pastoral conceptualization of America as nature’s nation would later
provide an important motivation for the preservation of a now depopulated “wilder-
ness.” While Cooper criticized the wanton exploitation of nature through the voice of
Leatherstocking in The Pioneeers (1823) and the idea of nature preserves was proposed
by writers such as George Catlin in the 1840s and Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s,
preservationist work began in earnest only with the Congressional protection of the
Yosemite Valley in 1869 and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
Refusing pastoral’s alienation of labor from the very landscapes that such labor cre-
ates and maintains (for even “wilderness” requires management), georgic by contrast
emphasizes the ways in which humankind engages with nature to produce life and
culture. Colonization necessarily addressed the relation between the human economy
and the physical environment, inspiring new theorizations. Sixteenth‐century English
promoters took a systemic view of this relation. As settler colonialism shaped
­economic–environmental relations in North America, a strain of georgic emerged that
attempted to shape this relation for the common good (Sweet 2002). Thus, for exam-
ple, John Smith and Robert Beverley both criticized the Chesapeake region’s tobacco
monoculture and urged economic and environmental diversification. Such critiques of
monocultural commodity production resonate with today’s new agrarianism (Freyfogle
2001). Reflecting on the effects of tobacco culture, Beverley observes that “all that the
English have done […] has been only to make some of these Native Pleasures more
scarce, by an inordinate and unseasonable Use of them; hardly making Improvements
equivalent to that Damage” (2013: 119). Using the trope of the noble savage to cri-
tique Euro‐American culture, Beverley casts the precolonial era as a golden age
destroyed by colonization. In this early recognition that some economic engagements
produce irreversible environmental transformations, Beverley advances a georgic cal-
culus of compensation, according to which some diversifying “Improvements” could
be exchanged for the environmental “Damage” done by the colonists. That is, Beverley
does not imagine, as deep ecologists might, that nature can be restored to some pris-
tine, original state; rather, he attempts to imagine new patterns of engagement that
will promote the common good. The georgic debate over the shape of the common
good was taken up in different ways in Jefferson’s Notes, Crèvecoeur’s Letters, Cherokee
anti‐Removal writings, and numerous other texts, leading to early conservationist
work such as George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) and twentieth‐century
environmental writers such as Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry (Sweet 2002).
Recent scholarship on early American environmental writing, like recent ecocriticism
generally, has turned to the agency of the non‐human world, drawing on recent ontologi-
cal debates in philosophy and science studies taking place under the rubric of the “new
materialism.” Significant theories include object‐oriented realism, which places all
objects (including gods, if they exist) on equal ontological footing, and agential realism,
which contends that objects come to exist only in relations. Object‐oriented realism has,
for example, revealed the ways in which non‐humans  –  assembled either as species
150 Volume I: Origins to 1820

(tobacco, potato, apple, honey bee) or as bioregions – become cultural agents, even to the
extent of shaping literary forms (Ziser 2013). Agential realism, brought to bear on texts
from the tropics, has revealed the ways in which the plantation complex troubled georgic
practice, producing new understandings of environment and body, not only in staple
colony georgics such as Grainger’s Sugar Cane, but also in new Afro‐American cosmolo-
gies such as Obeah, Vodou, and Santeria (Allewaert 2013). Dissatisfied with the
Enlightenment disenchantment of the world, yet in most cases unable to make a
­theological commitment, the new materialism unsettles fundamental questions such as
the nature of matter and the definition of the human. As such, it is potentially capable
of providing fresh insights into the work of early writers who, in their engagements with
the nature of the New World, addressed these very questions.


Acosta, J. (2002). Natural and Moral History of the Freyfogle, E. (ed.) (2001). The New Agrarianism:
Indies, ed. J.E. Managan; trans. F. López‐ Land, Culture, and the Community of Life.
Morillas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Allewaert, M. (2013). Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Gatta, J. (2004). Making Nature Sacred: Literature,
Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics. Religion, and Environment in America from the
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Puritans to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University
Bartram, W. (1955). Travels of William Bartram, ed. Press.
M. Van Doren. New York: Dover. Gerbi, A. (1973). The Dispute of the New World: The
Beverley, R. (2013). The History and Present State of History of a Polemic, 1750–1900, trans. J. Moyle.
Virginia, ed. S.S. Parrish. Chapel Hill: University Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press.
of North Carolina Press. Grainger, J. (1802). An Essay on the More Common
Bradstreet, A. (1967). The Works of Anne Bradstreet, West‐India Diseases, 2nd edn., ed. W. Wright.
ed. J. Hensley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Edinburgh: Mundell & Son, and London:
University Press. Longman & Rees.
Branch, M. (ed.) (2004). Reading the Roots: American Greenblatt, S. (1991). Marvellous Possessions: The
Nature Writing before Walden. Athens: University Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of
of Georgia Press. Chicago Press.
Byrd, W. (2013). The Dividing Line Histories of Hallock, T. (2003). From the Fallen Tree: Frontier
William Byrd II of Westover, ed. K.J. Berland. Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. a National Pastoral, 1749–1826. Chapel Hill:
Chaplin, J. (2001). Subject Matter: Technology, the University of North Carolina Press.
Body, and Science on the Anglo‐American Harriot, T. (1972). A Briefe and True Report of the
Frontier, 1500–1676. Cambridge, MA: New Found Land of Virginia. New York: Dover.
Harvard University Press. Heise, U. (2008). Sense of Place and Sense of Planet:
Cronon, W. (1996). “The Trouble with Wilderness; The Environmental Imagination of the Global.
or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Huarte, J. (1959). Examen de Ingenios. The
Nature, ed. W. Cronon. New York: Norton, pp. Examination of Mens Wits (1594). Gainesville,
69–90. FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles.
Estes, J. and Smith, B. (eds.) (1997). A Melancholy Iannini, C. (2012). Fatal Revolutions: Natural
Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of
1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic. Canton, American Literature. Chapel Hill: University of
MA: Science History Publications. North Carolina Press.
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Jefferson, T. (1999). Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Philadelphia in the Year 1793. Philadelphia:
F. Shuffelton. New York: Penguin. Thomas Dobson.
Kupperman, K. (1982). “The Puzzle of the Sessions, G. (ed.) (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty‐
American Climate in the Early Colonial Period.” First Century: Readings on the Philosophy and
American Historical Review, 87(5): 1262–1289. Practice of the New Environmentalism. London:
Kupperman, K. (1984). “Fear of Hot Climates in Shambhala.
the Anglo‐American Colonial Experience.” Silva, C. (2011). Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology
William and Mary Quarterly, 41(2): 213–240. of Early New England Narrative. Oxford: Oxford
Marx, L. (1964). The Machine in the Garden: University Press.
Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Sweet, T. (2002). American Georgics: Economy and
Oxford: Oxford University Press. Environment in Early American Literature.
Mather, C. (1972). The Angel of Bethesda, ed. G.W. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jones. Barre, MA: American Antiquarian Wisecup, K. (2013). Medical Encounters: Knowledge
Society. and Identity in Early American Literatures.
Paine, T. (1987). The Thomas Paine Reader, ed. M. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Foot and I. Kramnick. London: Penguin. Wood, W. (1977). New England’s Prospect, ed. A.T.
Parrish, S. (2006). American Curiosity: Cultures of Vaughan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Press.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Woodward, W. (2010). Prospero’s America: John
Regis, P. (1999). Describing Early America: Bartram, Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New
Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, and the Influence of Natural England Culture, 1606–1676. Chapel Hill:
History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania University of North Carolina Press.
Press. Ziser, M. (2013). Environmental Practice and Early
Rush, B. (1794). An Account of the Bilious Remitting American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge
Yellow Fever as it Appeared in the City of University Press.

Further Reading

Gerbi, A. (1985). Nature in the New World: From Mazel, D. (2000). American Literary
Columbus to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, trans. J. Environmentalism. Athens: University of Georgia
Moyle. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. Traces the rendering of the landscape
Press. A wide‐ranging survey of Spanish lan- from the seventeenth century on as a discipli-
guage sources. nary activity that attempted to ground a stable
Irmscher, C. (1999). The Poetics of Natural American identity.
History: From John Bartram to William James. Sweet, T. (2010). “Projecting Early American
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Environmental Writing.” American Literary
Press. Argues that natural history collec- History, 22: 419–431. Takes up the question of
tors  constructed self‐identity through their the relation of early environmental writing to
collections. the modern tradition initiated by Thoreau.


Acknowledging Early
American Poetry
Christopher N. Phillips

Poetry permeated the early American literary world, whether through the prestige of
verse forms like the epic, ode, and philosophical poem prior to 1800, or the ubiquity
of elegies and other occasional verse, hymns, psalms, biblical imitations, and topical
verse from the biting satire to the sensational ballad. Yet the study of early American
poetry has been slow to develop. The main problem has not been a lack of source mate-
rial; poems were far more plentiful, both in print and manuscript, than the captivity
narratives and novels that have dominated anthologies and syllabi for decades in
American literature survey courses. Rather, the difficulty has been what Virginia
Jackson (2005) has described as the “lyricization of poetry,” a process begun in the
nineteenth century and ratified by the New Critics in the early twentieth century that
privileged the values of the modern expressive lyric and judged all poetry by those
values – originality, individual genius, and independence – above the need to meet an
audience’s expectations. These values made the vast majority of conventional, socially
aware, and instrumental poems of the Anglophone Americas background noise for the
rare soloists that early critics like Moses Coit Tyler sought in vain. At first, only two
poets received any focused attention: Anne Bradstreet and Philip Freneau were both
identified as major figures for their perceived historical importance (the first book of
American poetry, the poet of the Revolution), not for their lyric attainments. The
discovery of Edward Taylor’s manuscripts at Yale in 1937 brought a new major figure
to critical notice, one whose private poetry and extravagantly dense style made him an
ideal forerunner for Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Taylor appeared so far from the
norm of his time’s poetic practice that his discovery made virtually no change in the

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 153

assumption that his era was a lyrical wasteland. As recently as the 1980s, most scholar-
ship on colonial poetry treated the subject from a historical or bibliographical approach,
rather than one of literary criticism.
In the meantime, Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley became increasingly focal figures
in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. The writer most responsible for the renais-
sance of interest in Bradstreet’s work was not a scholar but the poet Adrienne Rich
(1967), who read in Bradstreet (refracted through Dickinson) the voice of an early
feminist, bearing witness to the same existential struggles as a woman poet that Rich
experienced. When Wendy Martin (1984) declared Bradstreet, Dickinson, and Rich
an “American Triptych,” she articulated an ur‐feminist tradition in American litera-
ture that divested itself of historical particularity in the name of a compelling political
and pedagogical narrative of the woman straining to create her voice out of the
pressures of patriarchal domesticity. Wheatley’s status as the first published African
American poet has fused her reception history to that of African American poetry
en masse. Critics have debated whether Wheatley wielded a powerful lyric voice or a
decided lack of one, but everyone attributes what they perceive to Wheatley’s identity
as an enslaved woman. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2003) has pointed out, Wheatley has
generally been read not for aesthetics but for evidence.
The conversation around early American poetry, thus focused on a very few writers
for rather particular ends, took a decisive turn in the early 1990s in the wake of two
key studies. Ivy Schweitzer’s The Work of Self‐Representation (1991) turned a sophisti-
cated lyric lens on the writings of Bradstreet, Taylor, and other Puritans, bringing
Puritan poetics into the larger realm of poetry studies, while David S. Shields’s Oracles
of Empire (1990) drew on New Historicist methods to connect the political and eco-
nomic content of colonial poetry to the events and forces that gave rise to that writing.
Shields’s study in particular opened new paths for locating early American verse
beyond New England; his later work Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America
(1997) recovered a wide range of manuscript poetry, especially from the mid‐Atlantic,
that engaged in the sociability of coterie culture involving men and women. Women’s
coterie culture in the Delaware Valley became especially prominent through the work
of scholars such as Catherine La Courreye Blecki and Karin Wulf (1997) and Carla
Mulford (1995). The interplay between politics and poetry also grew more central in
scholarship, following the work of Paul C. Dowling (1990) on satire and Eric
Wertheimer (1999) on prospect poetry and epic. By the turn of the millennium, the
poetry of the early republic was receiving increased attention, from renewed interest in
the Connecticut Wits to studies of Massachusetts magazine culture that fostered
dialogue among poets such as Wheatley, Sarah Wentworth Morton, Judith Sargent
Murray, Mather Byles, and Robert Treat Paine. Curiously, Freneau’s importance as the
poet of the Revolution has faded in comparison to the rise of interest in circles of poets
across the years of Freneau’s career. Indeed, scholarship has brought to light how
indebted Freneau himself was to collaboration and cooperation, as in the joint author-
ship of his famous poem “The Rising Glory of America” with Princeton classmate
Hugh Henry Brackenridge (Wertheimer 1999).
154 Volume I: Origins to 1820

A growing number of poets have come to light in recent years, including poet‐
compilers such as the Mohegan minister Samson Occom and African Methodist
Church founder Richard Allen. While scholarship on Occom and Allen still tends to
emphasize their prose writing, these authors have opened new windows into the
dissemination and reception of minority poetic traditions as well as the production of
those traditions. The importance of the hymn for early American poetry, for Euro‐
American as well as Native and African American writers and readers, will be dis-
cussed later in this essay, but it is worth pointing out here that renewed interest in
early American religions, book history, and gender and racial dynamics in early
American literature has fueled much of the best recent scholarship in the field. The
next section gives what has increasingly become a standard account (with a few key
updates) of the narrative of early American poetry, and that account will lead into the
new scholarly horizons that give a “vision of futurity” to this growing field.

The Course of Early American Poetry

Colonial poetry in English was rather a latecomer to the literary ecology of the western
hemisphere. Alongside the robust range of Native American traditions, Hispanophone
poets had already developed a vibrant if contentious tradition of representing the
Spanish imperial project in verse. French, Dutch, and German traditions would all
take shape across the seventeenth century while Anglophone writers translated their
British literary practices into new subject matter and social situations. The first major
work with a colonial provenance came not from New England but from Jamestown,
where the colony’s treasurer George Sandys wrote a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Sandys’s tenure at Jamestown proved to be disastrous; the entire administration
was recalled to London following a massacre at the hands of the Powhatans. The
Metamorphosis, as Sandys called it, became a lens for the instability of the English colo-
nial experience even as the poet quickly published his translation in London as a form
of damage control. In his dedication to King Charles I, he stated: “had it proved as
fortunate as faithfull, in me, and others more worthy; we had hoped, ere many yeares
had turned about, to have presented you with a rich and wel‐peopled Kingdome; from
whence now, with my selfe, I onely bring this Composure” (quoted in Phillips 2012: 23).
If the poem was a consolation prize, it also established how closely politics, learning,
and literary expression would be bound up with each other in colonial poetry.
The next two printed books of American‐produced verse hint at some of the other
expectations seventeenth‐century readers had of poetry, as well as the hazards of print
at the time. The Whole Booke of Psalmes, better known today as the Bay Psalm Book,
was the first book printed at the press in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640. Translated
by a committee of local clergy, the book was a response to the perceived poetic license
in the popular versions of the day, such as Sternhold and Hopkins’s 1562 translation.
Often ridiculed by later generations for its style, the Bay Psalm Book embraced the
tension between dueling imperatives. On the one hand, like other Reformed communities
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 155

Puritans followed John Calvin’s teaching that only the Word of God, not mere human
writings, was appropriate for use in corporate worship; thus, like Anglicans, Huguenots,
and Calvinist Separatists, the Puritans were a psalm‐singing people. Since the Bible
was the source of congregational song, faithful translation facilitated proper worship.
On the other hand, along with many of the tunes brought from the Church of England
and from continental Calvinists came the expectation of rhymed lines in standard
English meters, formal expectations that had nothing to do with the original Hebrew
texts. The classic call to praise in Psalm 100 can serve as a good example of the sing-
ability, the literal translation, and the challenges of finding today what we might
consider lyric expression:

Make yee a joyfull sounding noyse

unto Iehovah, all the earth:
Serve yee Iehovah with gladnes;
before his presence come with mirth.
(Bay Psalm Book 1956: n.p.)

The book met its congregational purposes well and was very widely adopted region‐
wide for the next century, even as individual texts were frequently revised in local
settings, and appendices of hymns, full revisions, and competing new translations in
the eighteenth century evolved American psalmody toward the revival‐fed shift to
Among the thousands of Puritans conversant with the Bay Psalm Book was Anne
Bradstreet, whose poems comprised the next book of American poems rendered into
print. Even before the publication of The Tenth Muse, lately sprung up in America (1650),
Bradstreet was well known as a poet in Massachusetts Bay Colony, where her education
and status as wife to the colony’s lieutenant governor gave her a certain amount of
public status. Her brother‐in‐law arranged for the printing in London, and likely sug-
gested the title. The poet voiced her discomfort at the news of publication in “The
Author to Her Book,” even as the fact that she placed this poem at the start of a new
printed volume she personally arranged for publication indicates that she had her
uses for the publicity of print. The discovery nearly two hundred years later of a set
of poems known collectively as the Andover Manuscript indicates that Bradstreet’s
attitudes toward publication reflected that of John Donne and other English contem-
poraries: some material was allowed for posthumous print, but other texts were meant
to remain in the more familiar, and controllable, manuscript form. For Bradstreet, the
most print‐worthy poems were those dealing with historical and philosophical topics
such as “The Four Ages” and “A Dialogue Between Old England and New,” or with
illustrious personages ranging from Queen Elizabeth to her father. Many of her most
family‐oriented poems, such as those about her children and “Lines on the Burning of
Our House,” were left out of Bradstreet’s prepared second volume, and it is worth
keeping in mind that the poems to her husband that she does include in print were
addressed to a leading pioneer of the towns beyond Boston, and who after years of
156 Volume I: Origins to 1820

serving on influential councils and tribunes would become governor of Massachusetts

Bay. The line between private and public for Bradstreet was very real, but often quite
thin as well.
As singular and remarkable a figure as Bradstreet has been in American literary
studies, both her allusive, learned works and her more direct poems about home life
and family ties were of a piece with the multilayered poetic practices of her contem-
poraries. Poetry was a way of thinking for those immersed in the philosophical and
theological debates of the day; it was an aid to personal devotion as read and written
text on sacred topics, and it offered a controlled, meaningful way of bridging private
emotion and public engagement in narratives like Benjamin Tompson’s account of
King Philip’s War in New‐Englands Crisis and in the hundreds of elegies produced for
the famous and the obscure across the colonies. Those elegies, whether recorded in
diaries, scratched onto scraps of paper to be laid on a coffin at graveside, or printed in
newspapers or broadsides, were such a common feature of the culture’s deathways that
one of the teenage Benjamin Franklin’s first publications (under the pseudonym
Silence Dogood) was a comic “receipt” for writing such an elegy. Franklin’s send‐up
has been used as evidence for how awful the colonists thought their own poetry was.
For a writer who later indulged in his own lucrative, imitative versifying as Poor
Richard, a more relevant point was, as in Alexander Pope’s “Receipt to Make an Epic
Poem” (Franklin’s model), the extent to which the genre had taken hold of its literary
culture. Franklin’s receipt evoked a sense not simply of the predictable but of
the inevitable.
Yet for all of poetry’s ubiquity in the colonial era, the story of Edward Taylor has fed
the “lone genius” narrative favored by post‐Romantic critics more than that of any
other early American poet. Until 1937, Taylor’s only place in history was as a Harvard
graduate and obscure minister in the frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts.
Thomas H. Johnson’s discovery of thousands of pages of Taylor’s manuscripts was
received as a revelation in American literary history. Taylor wrote his poems as devo-
tional exercises and ordered them destroyed upon his death; they survived through his
grandson Ezra Stiles, who secretly deposited the manuscripts in Yale’s library, likely
during his tenure as president there. The poems offer a dense, heady blend of sustained
conceits, archaic vocabulary, and domestic imagery that put Taylor in company with
New Critical favorites John Donne and Emily Dickinson; it is hardly a coincidence
that Johnson would later move from Puritan studies to become an authority on
Dickinson. Taylor’s obscurity, his physical isolation in Westfield, Massachusetts, and
his seeming rejection of the famous Puritan “plain style” made him a perfect fore-
runner to Dickinson as an American lyrical isolato, even as David Hall (2008) has
pointed out that Taylor did actively share some of his works with colleagues and
friends; “For Taylor as for so many others, reticence and privacy were relative, not
absolute, conditions of writing” (72).
Yet other ways of conceiving of American poetry’s history already existed by the
time Johnson made Taylor a New Critic’s delight. Leon Howard’s The Connecticut Wits
(1943) built on Vernon Parrington’s work in the 1920s to trace the careers of a group
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 157

of Yale graduates who, if they didn’t find Taylor’s poems in the recesses of the college
library, formed the most famous circle of printed authors in the early United States.
John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and Joel Barlow were the leading lights of this
group, often joined by others such as David Humphreys and Lemuel Hopkins. All of
these writers had public careers in law or politics (no American poet before Lydia
Sigourney would successfully live on their writings). Trumbull, who shared a name
with his painter cousin, served in the Connecticut legislature and later served for several
decades as a judge. Humphreys was a successful diplomat, and Barlow saw repeated
diplomatic service and died while attempting to contact Napoleon during the latter’s
Russia campaign. Dwight succeeded Ezra Stiles as president of Yale, where he intro-
duced the teaching of medical science and made the first (failed) attempt to remove
classics from the core of the curriculum. An ambitious group that had enjoyed fame at
college as commencement poets, the Wits wrote collaboratively and individually on
American history and politics, generally from a staunch Federalist standpoint (except
for Barlow, who late in life was considered an apostate by his classmates). Drawing
poetic models from Milton and Pope via Lord Kames’s critical writings, they wrote
satires such as M’Fingal and The Anarchiad, epics such as The Conquest of Canäan and
The Vision of Columbus, elegies on the heroes of the Revolution, and celebrations of local
customs (“The Hasty Pudding”) and scenery (Greenfield Hill). Later blamed for hewing
too closely to neoclassical models for their work, the Wits sought to produce a dis-
tinctly public poetry, recognizable at home and abroad, accessible yet elevated in style,
performing as well as narrating what American identity could mean in the new nation’s
early years. The generic range of the Wits’ output, anchored by the visionary mode, is
considerable, but even more remarkable was the extent to which the writers helped
generate and promote each other’s works. Trumbull had tutored the others at Yale,
introducing them to Kames’s works and encouraging them to serious study of modern
literature, a topic not yet in the college classroom. Barlow went into publishing in the
1780s, using the proceeds of his lucrative newspaper the Mercury to underwrite the
publication of Dwight’s Conquest, the first American epic printed in the United States.
If poetic production by known authors was to succeed, it seemed, authors would have
to work together for their mutual success in a nation where reprinting from elsewhere
was, and would for some time remain, the default of the publishing industry.
Other circles and modes of publication thrived before and after the Revolution as
well. The one that has received the most attention in recent scholarship is the Delaware
Valley coterie, centered around Philadelphia but with links reaching to London and to
New England. Though some of these writers saw printed publication in their lifetime,
their reputations largely rested on the circulation of correspondence and commonplace
books, through which poetry was shared among gossip, news, clippings (both paper
and hair), visual art, and other bonds of sociability. Prominent Quakers such as Hannah
Griffitts might be found in a middle‐class woman’s commonplace book alongside
Elizabeth Graeme (later Fergusson), Annis Boudinot (later Stockton), Nathaniel Evans,
Francis Hopkinson, Benjamin Franklin (generally copied from print), and Esther
Edwards Burr – the latter bridging regions as the daughter of Jonathan Edwards and
158 Volume I: Origins to 1820

the wife of his Princeton successor, Aaron Burr, Sr. Elegies, odes, and pastoral fantasies
(in which the various authors and addressees formed a cast a pseudonyms) generally
outnumbered the satires, responses to literature or art, and travel accounts that never-
theless gave a venue for discussing political and cultural issues in female or mixed
If manuscript was the dominant medium among Delaware Valley writers, another
mixed‐gender circle in Boston flourished after the Revolution. The leading lights were
Judith Sargent Murray and Sarah Wentworth Morton. Both women wrote under the
name “Constantia” in the Massachusetts Magazine for a brief time before Morton
switched to “Philenia,” showing her learning by evoking a little‐known episode in the
Roman wars with Phoenicia. Murray relied on income from her writing and made her
biggest success with a series of prose essays and other works titled The Gleaner. Morton,
on the other hand, married into a leading Patriot family and pursued her writing as a
cultural attainment. In magazines and newspapers, she exchanged verse epistles with
Robert Treat Paine and Gilbert Stuart – the latter painted Morton’s portrait several
times and seemed to be infatuated with the woman who would gain the moniker of
“the American Sappho.” Morton made her reputation mainly through the writing of
long narrative and prospect poems. Much of this writing dealt with American origins,
both in legends of Native American encounter and in the Revolution that served her
husband’s family so well (many of her own relations were Loyalists). Morton repeatedly
addressed issues of gender in these poems, beginning with a story of cross‐racial male
bonding in Ouâbi (1790), in which the eponymous Illinois chief gives his beautiful
wife Azakîa to a French exile who saved the chief’s life. Morton based her narrative on
a prose account published in Mathew Carey’s Philadelphia‐based American Museum;
while Morton’s source closes with a dual wedding (the chief chooses a nubile new wife
in the wake of his generosity), Morton cuts the wedding feast short with Ouâbi falling
suddenly and unexplainably dead. This poem appeared a year after an incest scandal
involving Morton’s husband and sister had provided the plot for William Brown Hill’s
The Power of Sympathy (1789), and while Morton had sided with her husband against
her own family, her feelings toward a husband’s widening sexual circle were likely
difficult to suppress. In a later poem, The Virtues of Society (1799), Morton makes a
young British wife the heroine; braving a picket guard to rescue her wounded husband
after the Battle of Saratoga, she inspires her husband to resign his commission in the
British army and come home to London with her. While Morton would continue
writing into the 1820s, her poem that best survived into the new century was “The
African Chief,” an account of the death of a noble‐born slave that helped galvanize the
early abolitionist movement in Boston. John Greenleaf Whittier recalled in his best-
selling Snow‐Bound (1866) encountering Morton’s poem as a boy, inspiring his later
reform efforts – though he misattributed the poem to Morton’s contemporary Mercy
Otis Warren. As the Whittier example suggests, more eighteenth‐century poetry
found continuity with the nineteenth than the “rise of Romanticism” narrative would
suggest. That continuity simply didn’t translate into the monumental status of
individual authors.
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 159

Indeed, before the 1820s, poetry circulated most effectively in the new nation in
periodicals and broadsides, not in weighty books that made a material claim for their
authors’ greatness. While anthologies of American poetry were produced from the
1780s and schoolbooks like Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institutes excerpted American
verse to guide young readers’ development, few original books found a ready audience.
The most ambitious attempt to reach an American audience in the early national
period was Joel Barlow’s publication of The Columbiad in 1807. An expanded version
of his earlier Vision of Columbus, Barlow’s poem was an event in the history of American
publishing: using American‐made paper, type designed and cast in the United States,
sumptuously illustrated with full‐page engravings (from the Royal Academician
Robert Smirke, a backup choice after negotiations with American painter John
Vanderlyn fell through), printed in a lavish quarto format, and wielding an array of
learned footnotes and spelling reforms recommended by Barlow’s classmate Noah
Webster, the Columbiad was a gorgeous enough book to capture the attention of British
critics as well as American ones. It also cost $20 in plain boards (binding cost extra), a
prohibitively expensive price at the time that resulted in sales so poor that the pub-
lisher, despite Barlow and his friend Robert Fulton fronting much of the cost,
descended into bankruptcy (Phillips 2012: 34–35). The early national period was an
era of rich poetic experimentation, but like the Columbiad, most of those experiments
await full recognition. Fortunately, new methods and questions in the field now
promise to bring more of these early works to light.

Horizons and Prospects for the Study of Early American Poetry

Several new directions in the study of early American poetry have emerged in recent
years, with perhaps the best representation of the range of new work appearing in a
2013 special issue of Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America on “Poetry and
Print.” Building from a symposium marking the publication of Roger Stoddard and
David Whitesell’s A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse
Printed from 1610 through 1820 (2012), the papers encompass manuscript poetry as
well as the printed matter covered in the bibliography. As Paul Erickson (2013) points
out in the introduction to the issue, the main interest across papers is “use”: to what
ends did people in and around early America write and read poetry? This topic has
received a great deal of attention in the nineteenth century, most notably in Michael
Cohen’s The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth‐Century America (2015). For early American
texts, questions of use carry scholarship into histories of race, gender, translation, slavery,
and missions; into the field of lived religion; into the history of the book, including
print, script, and oral cultures that surround and transcend the codex; and theoretical
modes of inquiry that early American studies as a whole have been slow to assimilate,
such as psychoanalysis and the New Formalism.
The first category in this list is the most familiar to students of early America, but
the scholarship on race and its institutionalization has focused overwhelmingly on
160 Volume I: Origins to 1820

prose – letters, oratory, official records, autobiography – relying on historians’ per-

ceptions as to what genres provide the most desirable evidence for the care and feed-
ing of historical argument. Both Shields’s (2013) reading of John Rastell’s “The IIII
Elements” and Laura Stevens’s (2013) treatment of “A POEM, On the Rise and
Progress of Moor’s Indian CHARITY‐SCHOOL” highlight poetry’s capacity to do
crucial work among institutions as well as individuals invested in the projects of
colonialism and the evolution of race relations in North America. As poetry offers
new insight into the political and cultural history of early America, it also can lend
itself to the methods of theoretical critique that more modern canons of poetry have
mobilized, from the feminist interventions of the poetess to the problematics of the
lyric speaker. Max Cavitch’s (2013) work on Richard Nesbitt, a poet who produced
(and published) most of his work while confined as a mental patient in the
Philadelphia Hospital in the early nineteenth century, is exemplary of the need for,
and promise of, theory in early America. Analyzing a printed poetic correspondence
between the “lunatick” Nesbitt and leading Calvinist theologian Nathaniel W.
Taylor, Cavitch raises questions about the role of poetry in psychiatric treatment
and diagnosis, and the problem of whether Nesbitt did (or could) consent to his
poems’ publication in the Port‐folio magazine. These are questions that the archive
does not readily answer. The conceptual frameworks of Foucault, Lacan, and
Agamben are a few possible places to begin the search for insights that, at the risk
of making our ubiquitous presentisms more visible, can’t illuminate our current
understandings of the problems of consent, disability, expression, and
These are all value‐laden issues, and one of the benefits of bringing early
American poetry into dialogue with the range of conversations labeled as New
Formalism is a fresh opportunity to raise the issue of aesthetic value with texts for
which value has generally been either deferred or assumed inferior (Levinson
2007). The poems that have received the most attention for their aesthetics are
those by the Big Three, Bradstreet, Taylor, and Wheatley, and generally only when
dealing with individual poems we can readily recognize as lyric. The philosophical
poems of Bradstreet and Wheatley, the long narrative of Taylor’s Gods
Determinations, have fallen into a category that Meredith Neuman (2013b) has
helpfully named the “acknowledged visible” of the lyrics. Most early American
poetry Falls into either Neuman’s “acknowledged visible” category or what she
calls “invisible”  –  the latter comprised of manuscript and obscure print poems,
particularly those not put into books (355). Long‐standing aesthetic standards in
literary criticism have been mutually constitutive with the canon of texts used to
develop and affirm those standards. New Formalism’s willingness to address the
topic of value and to historicize it at the same time gives scholars an opportunity
to experiment with reconstructing an aesthetics of early American poetry that
takes seriously the naming of what eighteenth‐century readers would call the
“beauties” of the texts while asking what kinds of beauties might be legible for
what kinds of readers.
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 161

As a trial and example of what this reconstructed aesthetic might entail, let us read
an anonymous American hymn from Joshua Smith and Samuel Sleeper’s often‐reprinted
Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs, first published in 1784:

1 The tree of life, my soul hath seen,

Laden with fruit, and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compar’d with Christ the Appletree.
2 This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the Appletree.
3 For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly have I bought;
I miss’d of all, but now I see
’Tis found in Christ the Appletree.
4 I’m weary’d mith [sic] my former toil –
Here I will sit and rest awhile,
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the Appletree.
5 With great delight I’ll make my stay,
There’s none shall fright my soul away;
Among the sons of men I see
There’s none like Christ the Appletree.
6 I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit[u]al wine –
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the Appletree.
7 This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the Appletree.
(Smith and Sleeper 1793: 4–5)

A first consideration in understanding the text’s aesthetic is that of use. Smith and
Sleeper’s collection has a distinctly New England Baptist bent to it, preferring striking,
repetitive, familiar imagery to the doctrinal explications of Isaac Watts, Philip
Doddridge, and others of the English Independent tradition that formed the core of
New Light Congregational and Presbyterian hymnody in the wake of the Great
Awakening, though Watts and Doddridge are well represented in Divine Hymns. The
long meter or iambic tetrameter of the text would easily match a range of well‐known
tunes at the time, including the Old Hundred tune traditionally paired with the Bay
162 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Psalm Book text quoted earlier. A text like “Christ the Appletree” would have been
used in prayer services, possibly in a revival context, before being collected and
included in a print collection like this. It may have had one author, or have been the
work of several authors, either working collaboratively or independently on the various
stanzas. (It’s worth mentioning that the particular state of the text quoted here
appears in no other edition of Divine Hymns; nearly all instances are textually unique.)
In any case, attributions of authorship are beside the point in a hymnbook like this,
as the reader/singer’s interaction with the text is paramount. The subtitle of the book,
“for the use of religious assemblies and private Christians,” signals that the book
would have been part of individual and family devotional life, either read or sung, in
addition to being used in larger religious gatherings, possibly (but not necessarily)
including formal congregational services: Baptists adapted to hymn singing more
quickly than other New England denominations, but in a Calvinist framework
non‐scriptural songs in church could still be controversial. The texts were indexed by
first line, indicating that the standard use of the book was to locate a desired text
based on prior familiarity with it, or else a random browsing technique to find
something that spoke to the reader, sortes‐style. Such an index would not have been
expected in collections of secular or even religious poetry of the eighteenth century
unless the purpose was strictly devotional; even then, the first‐line index was very
much a product of the eighteenth century, as was the congregational hymn. Texts
would often have been encountered aurally before they were met as visual texts.
Stanzas could be rewritten, rearranged, removed, or added at will, but the relative
stability of the first line ensured findability.
“Christ the Appletree” was thus a text that inhabited a multimodal, multisensory
world, one that would have given it significant dissemination as a text but that would
have made individual readers’/singers’ expectations somewhat dependent on the
experience of local variations and redactions. It would have provided material for
private meditation and public performance, both categories allowing for considerable
flexibility. It spoke particularly to Christians of certain denominational commitments
and sensibilities, though not exclusively so. And the source for the text mattered very
little to its audience. With these things in mind, I will note just a few points toward
an aesthetic.
The apple‐tree symbolism plays on a tradition of Christ as the tree of life that runs
back to the patristic era and would have been readily available to college‐trained clergy
in their studies of Christian history and biblical commentary. It also had direct biblical
parallels, most clearly in the Song of Solomon 2:3: “As the apple tree among the trees
of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great
delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” The erotic overtones of that book, as well
as this particular passage in the voice of a woman speaking of her lover, would not have
been lost on eighteenth‐century New England Christians, and this dimension of the
imagery is clearly at play in the hymn text: the “beauty” of Christ “doth all things
excel,” beyond language’s capacity to explain that which “by faith I know.” The speaker
seeks to rest “under the shadow […] [w]ith great delight,” finding the fruit “cheers”
like “wine.” The taste of the fruit and the energy that comes from it inspires further
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 163

desire of the soul “in haste to be / With Christ the Appletree,” an expression that closes
the poem. Yet this is not so much a poem of ecstasy as of the at‐times arduous journey
to it. The seven stanzas trace a progression, from the testimony of witness and
acknowledged truth of Christ’s excellence and an admitted failure of that testimony to
give the whole truth, to a recollection of past failed pursuits of pleasure, contrasting
with a realization of finding the one lasting pleasure. From here, the poem expresses
an intent or desire for the most part: “I will sit,” “under the shadow I will be,” “I’ll
make my stay,” “I’ll sit and eat” – but at this last moment, in stanza 6, the fruit desired
already acts on the speaker, as if it’s already eaten.
This tension between the already‐enjoyed and the not‐yet‐fulfilled contributes to
the poem’s eroticism, but it also helps to capture in‐between temporality of Christian
conversion, already completed and yet waiting for a hoped future, most often associ-
ated with Augustine’s Confessions. Thus the soul’s desire for union with Christ at the
hymn’s end signals both a discrete choice in the present moment and a vision of the
eschaton, that moment after death, even after history, when all is at last fulfilled.
The “weary […] former toil,” the “dying faith,” highlight the speaker’s embrace of
mortality, even as that very real limit allows for a reaching past it, signified in a
reach for an apple off a tree. The poem, in true Protestant form, collapses the everyday
into the eternal, and a simple act of plucking food offers a window into divine
mystery and union. Other narratives might be constructed by rearranging or drop-
ping stanzas, and new lines could certainly be composed, either on paper or in the
mind. This profoundly personal, intimate expression of the soul’s desire for Christ is,
after all, public property.
The above analysis participates in the kind of book history scholarship exemplified
by Matthew Brown’s (2007) work on devotional reading in Puritan New England.
In The Pilgrim and the Bee, Brown argues for a “Reader‐based literary history,” one that
focuses on the texts available to readers of a given time and place and those readers’
uses of those texts to understand the gradual unfolding of literary history as it was
lived (1–20). These concerns with reading practices, alongside studies of the material
and social conditions of textual publication, open promising new avenues for research.
The rise in interest in African American print culture, for instance, has already begun
to yield new insights into the verse of Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, and Richard Allen.
Wendy Roberts (2013) finds not only a new source but a potential female mentor for
Wheatley in Sarah Moorhead, a poet known for addressing leading figures of the Great
Awakening in print whose slave, Scipio Moorhead, is credited with engraving
Wheatley’s iconic frontispiece portrait. Roberts’s mix of biographical work and analy-
sis of evangelical print culture places Wheatley in the community of local poets that
help establish her as a Boston poet, highlighting how much that community included
women writers, something often hidden by emphases on Boston minister Mather
Byles’s influence on Wheatley. Meredith Neuman (2013b) in the same issue offers a
close reading of poetic and material form to demonstrate psycho‐theological dynamics
of Puritan manuscript verse. As Neuman’s book Jeremiah’s Scribes (2013a) suggests,
understanding early American poetry involves being attuned to the logics of prose
genres such as sermons and conversion narratives, which Bradstreet, Taylor, and their
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contemporaries deeply engaged in their poetry, as well as the poetic genres of elegy,
acrostic and anagram, vision poems, and verse narratives.
Book history also facilitates a transatlantic, indeed transnational, understanding of
early American poetry. Poems built from European texts which were imported,
reprinted, or transcribed across the Atlantic (even written en route, as George Sandys’s
account of his Ovid translation claims). Those poems came into being on paper which
was also carried across the ocean, then sent back to enter print culture via London
presses more often than not, and moved in a blend of gift and market economies that
shaped American literary awareness, and literary awareness of America, one household
at a time.
Book history, possibly in combination with New Formalism, offers a way to explore
a phenomenon long acknowledged but seldom analyzed in scholarship: the dominance
of Isaac Watts in the history of early American poetry. While Alexander Pope, James
Thomson, and John Milton were unquestionably major influences on American poetry
in and beyond the colonial era, their combined presence  –  whether measured by
imports, American reprints, or frequency of reading – was dwarfed by Watts’s Psalms
(1719) and Hymns (1707, rev. 1709). Shields (1997) identifies Watts as typifying and
inspiring a mode he calls the “religious sublime” (229–231), a mode common to many
hymns of the eighteenth century as well as other poetic genres. The combined influ-
ence of Watts and Milton helped keep religious verse big business in literary publish-
ing, but the everyday experience of this poetry among colonial and early national
Americans has yet to be grappled with. The works of Watts, John Mason, Joseph Hart,
and Charles and John Wesley were some of the more popular texts that found places in
the devotional lives of individuals and families; the educational schemas of children,
slaves, and Indigenous converts; the aural cultures of churches, schools, and social
gatherings; and the development of (vocal) music cultures with the growing presence
of singing schools starting in the 1720s. Hymnbooks, like psalmbooks before them,
lived with their users, carried between church and home, gifted and purchased and
marked with favorite texts and traces of provenance, ephemeral enough to risk being
read to death while personal enough to function as a family heirloom. Alongside the
profusion of broadside ballads, magazine and newspaper verse, commonplace books,
and circulated manuscript poetry, hymns were the everyday poetry of colonial British
As the work of Neuman, Roberts, Stevens, and Cavitch discussed here suggests, the
nexus between religious life, material culture, and poetic form is becoming one of the
richest in early American poetic studies, in part because this heady combination has
been hidden in plain sight for so long. The Perry Miller school of Puritan studies
celebrated the theological rigor and philosophical density of colonial texts, while those
influenced by David Hall’s turn to lived religion in colonial New England have focused
on prose as the index of everyday life, following arguments shaped by Cathy Davidson’s
Revolution and the Word (1986) placing the novel as the typical genre of everyday
reading. Amid the sea of hymnbooks, newspapers, and devotional works, the novel was
anything but typical until well into the nineteenth century. Poetic genres such as the
Acknowledging Early American Poetry 165

elegy, the hymn, the ballad, and the ode were flexible enough to mark a special occasion
and provide common reading, sometimes (though not necessarily) with the same
text – Wheatley’s elegy to George Whitefield being just one example of an occasional
poem that has had a very long afterlife beyond its moment of exigency. We would do
well to make our own approaches to and conceptions of American poetry more flexible
so as to make more visible the array of “invisible” texts and “forgotten poems” that
may in fact hold keys to better understanding the aesthetic development, as well as the
historical experience, of early American thought and life. And such flexibility would
undoubtedly open us to new mysteries, ones we have not yet imagined but that I hope
will occupy the minds of future commentators on the state of this still‐forming field.


The Bay Psalm Book: A Facsimile Reprint of the First from Revolutionary America. University Park:
Edition of 1640 (1956). Chicago: University of Pennsylvania State University Press.
Chicago Press. Levinson, M. (2007). “What is New Formalism?”
Brown, M.P. (2007). The Pilgrim and the Bee: PMLA, 122(2): 558–569.
Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New Martin, W. (1984). An American Triptych: Anne
England. Philadelphia: University of Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich.
Pennsylvania Press. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Cavitch, M. (2013). “Clericus and the Lunatick.” Press.
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Mulford, C. (1995). Only for the Eyes of a Friend: The
107(3): 367–376. Poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton. Charlottesville:
Cohen, M. (2015). The Social Lives of Poems in University of Virginia Press.
Nineteenth‐Century America. Philadelphia: Neuman, M.M. (2013a). Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating
University of Pennsylvania Press. Sermon Literature in Puritan New England.
Davidson, C. (1986). Revolution and the Word. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
New York: Oxford University Press. Neuman, M.M. (2013b). “The Versified Lives of
Dowling, W.C. (1990). Poetry and Ideology in Unknown Puritans.” Papers of the Bibliographical
Revolutionary Connecticut. Athens: University of Society of America, 107(3): 355–366.
Georgia Press. Phillips, C.N. (2012). Epic in American Culture,
Erickson, P. (2013). “Poetry and Print in Early Settlement to Reconstruction. Baltimore, MA: Johns
America.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Hopkins University Press.
America, 107(3): 293–295. Rich, A. (1967). “Anne Bradstreet and Her
Gates, H.L.J. (2003). The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: Poetry.” In The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. J.
America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with Hensley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
the American Founding Fathers. New York: Basic Press/Belknap Press, pp. ix–xxii.
Civitas Books. Roberts, W. (2013). “Phillis Wheatley’s Sarah
Hall, D.D. (2008). Ways of Writing: The Practice Moorhead: An Initial Inquiry.” Papers of the
and Politics of Text‐Making in Seventeenth‐Century Bibliographical Society of America, 107(3):
New England. Philadelphia: University of 345–354.
Pennsylvania Press. Schweitzer, I. (1991). The Work of Self‐Representation:
Jackson, V. (2005). Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory Lyric Poetry in Colonial New England. Chapel
of  Lyric Reading. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
University Press. Shields, D.S. (1990). Oracles of Empire: Poetry,
La Courreye Blecki, C. and Wulf, K.A. (eds.) (1997). Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690–
Milcah Martha Moore’s Book: A Commonplace Book 1750. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
166 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Shields, D.S. (1997). Civil Tongues and Polite Letters Stevens, L. (2013). “‘Of snatching captive souls
in British America. Chapel Hill: University of from Satan’s paws’: A Fundraising Poem for
North Carolina Press. Wheelock’s Charity School.” Papers of the
Shields, D.S. (2013). “John Rastell’s The IIII Bibliographical Society of America, 107(3):
Elements.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of 377–386.
America, 107(3): 297–310. Wertheimer, E. (1999). Imagined Empires: Incas,
Smith, J. and Sleeper, S. (eds.) (1793). Divine Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature,
Hymns, or Spiritual Songs; for the use of religious 1771–1876. New York: Cambridge University
assemblies and private Christians. Exeter, NH: Press.
Early American Imprints.

Further Reading

Cavitch, M. (2007). American Elegy: The Poetry of Lewis, P. (ed.) (2016). The Citizen Poets of Boston:
Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman. A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789–1820.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Provides a deeply engaged overview of elegy and An anthology of magazine poetry, built from
related genres from the seventeenth century several years of student collaboration in the
through the Civil War. editor’s courses.
Ferszt, E. and Schweitzer, I. (eds.) (2014). Anne Shields, D.S. (ed.) (2007). American Poetry: The
Bradstreet. Special issue of Women’s Studies, 43(3): Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York:
287–405. Offers a range of new insights into Library of America. Currently the most complete
Bradstreet’s works and biography. anthology of pre‐1800 American poetry.
Howard, L. (1943). The Connecticut Wits. Chicago: Stabile, S.M. (2004). Memory’s Daughters: The
University of Chicago Press. The foundational Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth‐
work in studying the careers of Trumbull, Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Dwight, Barlow, and their collaborators. Press. Situates members of the Delaware Valley
LeMay, J.A.L. (1972). A Calendar of American Poetry coterie in their home spaces and material prac-
in the Colonial Newspapers and Magazines and in tices of writing, collecting, and art‐making.
the Major English Magazines to 1765. Worcester, Wells, C. (2002). The Devil and Doctor Dwight:
MA: American Antiquarian Society. A valuable Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic.
bibliography for identifying poems outside the Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
books and pamphlets covered by other refer- Helpfully follows on William Dowling’s work
ence works, such as Stoddard and Whitesell in showing the cultural importance and formal
(mentioned in this essay). range of satiric verse before 1820.


Travel Writings in Early America,
Susan C. Imbarrato

From the first European contacts with the Americas, travelers have marked progress on
land and by sea in letters, journals, reports, histories, and narratives. Exploration and
acquisition motivated the earliest travel writings as lands were claimed and resources
were assessed, which then justified funding for additional voyages and exploration in
the quest to expand empire. More than just ship’s logs and charts, exploration
literatures express distinct points of view intent on fashioning a new world amenable
to cultivation and colonization as travelers try to make sense of their findings by
comparisons and evaluations. Is this a hospitable location? Will it sustain settlement?
Is it better or worse than from where they came? In the pursuit of wealth, commodity,
and refuge, explorers and settlers tended toward hyperbole and metaphor in order to
make the newfound lands appealing and yet somehow familiar. Early travel writings
are thus prone to a master narrative of utopian possibilities, as with Christopher
Columbus, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith, and have an official, authoritative
quality. In regard to both the captivity and slave narrative in which movement is not
voluntary, the record of travel is one of displacement, encroachment, and enslavement,
as with Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Rowlandson, and Olaudah Equiano. The travel records
of the naturalist and botanist document the landscape, plants, and animals with a
precision aimed at relaying information about the abundant variety of flora and fauna,
as with John and William Bartram. For the religious seeker and itinerant preacher,
travel takes on a more symbolic quality in the form of spiritual autobiography, as with
Jonathan Edwards, Elizabeth Ashbridge, and John Woolman.

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
168 Volume I: Origins to 1820

From these various perspectives, travel elicits an expectation of a report and an

impression. As such, narratives of travel are simultaneously records of observation and
assessment as each encounter challenges assumptions and sometimes inspires new ways
of thinking. And while few people would have kept travel logs for personal records,
they were more likely to send the occasional letter to let others know that they arrived
and what they have seen, purchased, transacted, or delivered. For longer journeys, the
travel diary serves as a record of distance traveled and of observations made. In each
account, the conveyances of travel by horse, wagon, carriage, ship, canoe, and boat and
the waiting for ferries to arrive, tides to subside, and storms to abate all illustrate the
pace of travel and the complicated logistics that require constantly moving between
land and water. As travelers describe roads, taverns, churches, and accommodations,
and record their interactions with merchants, locals, and other travelers, they contribute
to an important archival record about commerce, politics, religion, food, and trade.
To illustrate this variety, this essay provides an overview of early American travel
writings from the colonial period through 1820, with examples from authors that
include Jasper Danckaerts, Sarah Kemble Knight, William Byrd II, Dr. Alexander
Hamilton, William Bartram, and Elizabeth House Trist. This overview, prefaced by
a survey of critical approaches to the genre, reveals that travel writings extend the
parameters of exploration narratives and provide a richly revealing source for under-
standing early America.

Historical Contexts and Critical Receptions

Travel writings welcome multilayered readings and interpretations. As historical and

literary documents, they have often been referenced as part of a larger narrative that
measures signs of progress and anticipates a new nation. In The Adventurous Muse: The
Poetics of American Fiction, 1789–1900 (1977), William Spengemann finds that the
eighteenth‐century travel narrative shows “Americans the meaning of their unique
historical situation” (38–39). For Patricia M. Medeiros (1977), travel writers “helped
to forge a sense of national identity by making distant places familiar, so that readers
could see that they shared some important traits […] with their countrymen hundreds
of miles away” (196). In this regard, travel records that had circulated in manuscript
for the entertainment of friends and relatives were later printed with attention to their
historical and literary significance, frequently creating a gap between composition and
printing. In 1864, for example, Henry Cruse Murphy discovered a transcribed copy of
Jasper Danckaerts’s seventeenth‐century journal in Amsterdam and translated and
edited it for publication in 1867 by the Long Island Historical Society as the Journal
of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679–80. In 1825, Theodore Dwight published The Journal of
Madam Knight, 1704–1705. In 1990, Annette Kolodny brought The Travel Diary of
Elizabeth House Trist: Philadelphia to Natchez, 1783–84 into print for the first time. In
1912, Max Farrand printed Margaret Van Horn Dwight’s travel account as A Journey
to Ohio in 1810. In each instance, the traveler’s contemporary view of everyday life
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 169

reaches across historical and literary periods and in doing so suggests a sense of
continuity while also inviting dialogue.
In addition to appreciating travel writings for their historical importance, they are
also valuable sources for examining transatlantic and transnational elements in regard
to colonial and expansionist enterprises. Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel
Writing and Transculturation (1992) and Ralph Bauer’s The Cultural Geography of Colonial
American Literature: Empire, Travel, Modernity (2003), for example, address attitudes of
appropriation and raise questions about motive and intention in regard to travel
writings. Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life
of an Early American Traveler (2007) examines similar topics in John Ledyard’s
eighteenth‐century travels from the Bering Sea to the Pacific Islands, from London,
England and to Yakutsk, Siberia, and beyond. Recent studies have also complicated
notions of any one uniform reading of travel writings regarding both geography and
attitudes and instead note regional diversity, as in Edward Watts’s An American Colony:
Regionalism and the Roots of Midwestern Culture (2001) with its shift in attention from
the eastern seaboard to the Midwest. John D. Cox, in turn, brings attention to the
southern colonies in Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American
Identity (2005) and observes: “‘Travel literature’ is less about particular types of travel
than it is about almost any kind of published writing that describes the movement of
individuals into ‘contact zones’ of one type or another” (14). Travel writings are thus
important sources for understanding cultural encounters, local and abroad.
Ecocriticism and environmental studies incorporate several of these threads with a
focus on interactions between the traveler and nature. In Thomas Hallock’s From the
Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of a National Pastoral,
1749–1826 (2003), for example, he notes that in William Bartram’s Travels Through
North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida: The Cherokee Country, the Extensive
Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791),
“The narrator wanders from travelogue, to taxonomy, to spontaneous effusion. A short
account of Florida is, in modern terms, ecologically based.” Hallock illustrates these
qualities in Bartram’s sequential descriptions of “a flower and then a spider on a leaf,”
then “insects to bumblebees,” “a bird,” and “then back to the flower” (153). The
traveler’s exquisite attention to specificity and detail thus provides a vital resource
as interpreter of the landscape. Other studies integrate both literary and botanical
interests. Timothy Sweet’s American Georgics: Economy and Environment in American
Literature, 1580–1864 (2002) examines, as he explains, “a particular mode of environ-
mental writing, which I am provisionally calling the American georgic. Writings in
this mode take as their primary topic the work of defining the basic terms of the
human community’s relationship to the natural environment” (2). In Susan Scott
Parrish’s American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic
World (2006), a dynamic transatlantic dialogue between naturalists is impressively
documented with discussions of Thomas Harriot, Robert Beverley, William Byrd II,
among others. Parrish thus elaborates: “Bringing the natural world more centrally
into histories of culture makes particular historiographic sense for colonial America
170 Volume I: Origins to 1820

and the early nation” (20). In making these connections, narratives of travel again
serve as a key resource.
Critical approaches to travel writings also focus on aesthetic aspects, as in Elizabeth
Bohls’s Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716–1818 (1995) and
Edward Cahill’s Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Theory, Literary Form, and Politics in
the Early United States (2012), where he examines “landscape descriptions from the
Revolution through the 1790s, emphasizing the way their rhetoric of beauty and
sublimity mediates the politics of exploration and settlement” (105). Travelers on the
American Grand Tour illustrate these intersections between travel and aesthetics as
they embark on journeys for rejuvenation with destinations such as the famed spa at
Saratoga Springs. In American Writers and the Picturesque Tour: The Search for American
Identity, 1790–1860 (1997), Beth L. Lueck finds: “American travelers’ passion for
picturesque beauty was fostered by various accounts of landscapes worth viewing, by
artists’ renderings of scenery that appeared in periodicals in the form of woodcuts and
engravings, as well as in paintings, and by the nationalistic fervor following the War
of 1812” (4). Travel guides also offer important details about both travel and travelers,
as in Theodore Dwight’s The Northern Traveller: Containing the Routes to Niagara, Quebec,
and the Springs, with Descriptions of the Principal Scenes, and Useful Hints to Strangers
(1824), with a sixth edition in 1841, and Henry Dilworth Gilpin’s The Northern Tour:
Being a Guide to Saratoga, Lake George, Niagara, Canada, Boston, &c., &c., Through the
States of Pennsylvania, New‐Jersey, New‐York, Vermont, New‐Hampshire, Massachusetts,
Rhode‐Island, and Connecticut: Embracing an Account of the Canals, Colleges, Public
Institutions, Natural Curiosities, and Interesting Objects Therein (1825). To assist the
traveler with sketching and drawing techniques, William Gilpin’s Three Essays: On
Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape (1792) provides
philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings.
Although travel in colonial America had largely been conducted by men as
merchants, physicians, ministers, lawyers, and messengers, women also traveled to
visit relatives, minister to others, and conduct business. As a result, accommodations
that were once assumed to be for male occupancy only required adjustments for both
propriety and privacy, and assumptions about a woman’s genteel stature and social
position were subject to reevaluation. Women’s travel experiences thus provide another
avenue of investigation as women view their surroundings with a critical eye for
migration, adventure, and settlement. As travelers, they challenge assumptions about
gender, and as chroniclers they encourage women’s voices as social critics. Annette
Kolodny’s groundbreaking studies The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and
History in American Life and Letters (1975) and The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience
of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 (1984) address these different perspectives from
men and women. Kolodny notes, for example, that while men sought to conquer the
landscape, women desired to domesticate it, arguing that “women claimed the frontiers
as a potential sanctuary for an idealized domesticity” (1984: xiii).
In a parallel venture to the various critical approaches to travel writings, historians
and editors have been actively involved in the process of recovering these accounts.
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 171

In the early twentieth century, Alice Morse Earle’s Stage‐Coach and Tavern Days (1900)
and Mary Caroline Crawford’s Little Pilgrimages Among Old New England Inns: Being an
Account of Little Journeys to Various Quaint Inns and Hostelries of Colonial New England
(1907) collated accounts that brought attention to the traveler as a keen observer of
early American life and manners. Reuben Gold Thwaites’ 32‐volume Early Western
Travels, 1748–1846: A Series of Annotated Reprints […] During the Period of Early
American Settlement (1900–1907) documented westward migration motivated by both
economic gain and adventure. Contemporary authors and editors continue to engage
in the painstaking archival work of recovery, and many riches await scholars who seek
to expand our knowledge of the canon of travel writings.
The study of early American travel writings continues to develop with attention to
spatial studies that consider relationships between people, places, and perceptions. In
addition, the study of the history of medicine and science draws upon travel writings
for what they yield about medical practices and medicinals and vital knowledge from
Native Americans about plants and curatives. Travelers’ accounts by colonial figures,
such as John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James
Madison, continue to be revisited for their observations while traveling and living
abroad. More attention is needed, however, in regard to acknowledging travelers’
diverse voices and the ways travel may have been experienced differently by, for
example, Native Americans and African Americans. This study would, in turn, require
situating different life experiences with attention to both content and genre. And, as
scholars of travel writings continue to show interest in a variety of genres, including
prose, poetry, fiction, and drama, the links between historical records and their fictional
counterparts might be explored more extensively. Travelers and travel narrative plots
are, for example, found in the works of Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore
Cooper, Susanna Rowson, Lenora Sansay, and Catherine Maria Sedgwick.
As this overview of critical approaches suggests, early American travel writings
enhance studies of migration and expansion; the history of medicine and science; and
of community, government, and social development. The following discussion of select
travel writings from the colonial period to 1820, organized thematically, illustrates
this variety of topics, perspectives, styles and critical approaches.

Travelers’ Observations, Ruminations, and Tales

For Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter, who toured the northern colonies on a secret
mission as land agents for the Protestant sect of the Labadists, travel was an especially
investigative act, for which they even assumed aliases: Jasper went by the name of
Schilders and Peter was called Vorstman. As the record of their voyage from Holland
to America and their subsequent travels in New Netherland, New England, and the
Chesapeake, the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679–80 (1913) notes lands, plants, and
commodity prices, all presented from the perspective granted by their proprietary
status. As reformers, they comment on and visit various religious groups, including
172 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Catholics, Quakers, Jews, and Protestants. They are especially interested in potential
converts, as on 24 April 1680, outside of Albany, New York, where they meet a woman
who asks for advice regarding her four‐year‐old son “who was dumb, or whose tongue
had grown fast,” to which they reply that they “were not doctors or surgeons, but we
gave her our opinion, just as we thought.” When they discover that she is “a Christian”
and “how she had embraced Christianity,” they learn that her father was a Christian
and her mother a Mohawk and of her subsequent alienation from her family because of
her conversion (202–203). This meeting leads to an extended conversation about
conversion that inspires Danckaerts and Sluyter regarding the potential for religious
community in the colonies. In other instances, the Journal exposes their vulnerability
as travelers, as on 11 December, 1679, in the Chesapeake area: “We were utterly
perplexed and astray. We followed the roads as we found them, now easterly and then
westerly, now a little more on one side, and then a little more on the other, until we
were completely tired out, and wished ourselves back again upon the strand” (124). In
Boston, on 24 June 1680, they meet briefly with Governor Simon Bradstreet: “He is
an old man, quiet, and grave. He was dressed in black silk, but not sumptuously. […]
He then presented us a small cup of wine, and with that we finished” (259). On 8 July,
they visit John Eliot who gives them “one of the Old Testaments in the Indian
language, and also almost the whole of the New Testament, made up with some sheets
of the new edition of the New Testament” (264). In the weeks before their departure,
Danckaerts and Sluyter fall under suspicion for several reasons: as possible Jesuits; for
being “cunning and subtle of mind and judgment”; and because they “had come there
without carrying on any traffic or any other business, except only to see the place and
country” (269). Eventually cleared of the accusations, Jasper Danckaerts and Peter
Sluyter leave Boston on 23 July 1680, and though they had found a site for their
colony, neither of them ever returned. With its elements of secrecy and reconnaissance,
the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts shows how the traveler can be a source of both curiosity
and scrutiny.
Another example of a travel narrative that yields several avenues of investigation is
Sarah Kemble Knight’s The Journal of Madam Knight, 1704–1705 (1994) that recounts
her five‐month, 200‐mile journey from Boston to New York to settle the estate of a
relative in New Haven. Embellished with vivid storytelling, complete with dialogue,
poetry, and fanciful imagery, Knight often places the traveler at center stage as one
who brings news and is in many cases news itself. On 2 October 1704, for example,
when she arrives after her first day of travel to Billings’s Inn, the landlord’s daughter,
Debb, has this reaction: “Law for mee – what in the world brings You here at this time
a night?  –  I never see a woman on the Rode so Dreadfull late […] Who are You?
Where are You going?” To “get ridd” of these “unmannerly Questions,” Knight
replies, “I told her I come there to have the post’s company with me to‐morrow on my
Journey, &c” (1994: 54). Not only do the questions offend Knight’s genteel sensibilities
but also the assumption that a woman traveling alone and so late at night may have a
less than respectable intention. Debb’s remarks also illustrate the rarity of a woman
traveling without a male relative as an escort. In Knight’s frequent comments about
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 173

meals and service, she also marks concerns about manners and makes social distinctions,
as on 6 October, when she describes a landlady who came in with “her hair about her
ears, and hands at full pay scratching. Shee told us shee had some mutton wch shee
would broil, wch I was glad to hear.” Knight is not only disappointed with the landlady
who “forgot to wash her scratchers,” but also the meal itself: “it being pickled, and my
Guide said it smelt strong of head sause, we left it, and pd sixpence a piece for our
Dinners, wch was only smell” (62). That she could afford to pay for a meal that “was
only smell” reflects her social position as superior. Such incidents thus invite readings
from both gender and social class perspectives. They also illustrate Sargent Bush, Jr.’s
(1990) observation that Knight’s “awareness of social difference between herself and
the many local people she encountered along her way does create a humorous satirical
dimension in the work” (76).
Knight also employs her literary skills in more sympathetic portraits, as on 4
October when she stops “at a little cottage Just by the River, to wait the Waters
falling” that then prompts this description: “This little Hutt was one of the wretchedest
I ever saw a habitation for human creatures” (60). This dwelling near the Paukataug
River is poorly constructed, with gaps in the siding that causes light to “come throu’
every where; the doore tyed on wth a cord in the place of hinges; The floor the bear
earth.” Although Knight finds “all and every part being the picture of poverty,” she
commends this family of four: “Notwithstanding both the Hutt and its Inhabitance
were very clean and tydee.” This scene then causes her to reflect: “I Blest myselfe that
I was not one of this misserable crew,” which leads to composing a poem “on the very
Spott” that ends: “When I reflect, my late fatigues do seem / Only a notion or forgotten
Dreem” (60). As Knight shifts between prose, verse, and theatrical characterizations,
she brings conscious self‐reflection that complements the travel record as a guide for
other travelers and as a source of entertainment.
On Saturday, 7 October, Knight arrives in New Haven to settle her cousin Caleb
Trowbridge’s estate on behalf of his widow, and though the legal matters are not
recorded, Knight does provide an overview of Connecticut. She finds that the people
are “a little too much Independant in their principalls” and “too Indulgent (especially
the farmers) to their slaves: suffering too great familiarity from them, permitting thm
to sit at Table and eat with them, (as they say to save time).” She also remarks: “There
are every where in the Towns as I passed, a Number of Indians the Natives of the
Country” (63–65). When the negotiations are recessed for two weeks, Knight and
Thomas Trowbridge, Caleb’s brother, travel to New York. In Rye, Knight provides
valuable, historical details as she describes her room: “a little Lento Chamber furnisht
amongst other Rubbish with a High Bedd and a Low one, a Long Table, a Bench and
a Bottomless chair.” Knight then finds “my Covering as scanty as my Bed was hard,”
and as a result: “poor I made but one Grone, which was from the time I went to bed to
the time I Riss, which was about three in the morning” (67). This last comment refers
to the set schedule of the post to which travelers had to conform and about which they
all complained. She does find the “Cittie of New York” itself to be “a pleasant, well
compacted place, situated on a Commodius River wch is a fine harbour for shipping”
174 Volume I: Origins to 1820

(69). On 23 December, Knight arrives in Fairfield, Connecticut, which she describes

as “a considerable town, and filld as they say with wealthy people – have a spacious
meeting house and good Buildings. But the Inhabitants are Litigious.” She then notes
the town’s “aboundance of sheep, whose very Dung brings them great gain, with part
of which they pay their Parsons sallery, And they Grudg that, preferring their Dung
before their minister” (72). A potentially flattering portrait thus rapidly changes into
a critical sketch as Knight critiques both social class and religious attitudes. On
3 March 1705, Knight returns to Boston: “I found my aged and tender mother and my
Dear and only Child in good health with open arms redy to receive me,” and together
finds “Kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome mee and hear the story of my
transactions and travails” (74–75). With traveler as both witness and commentator,
Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal blends narrative techniques of description, anecdotes,
poetry, and dialogue that illustrate the physical, social, and cultural aspects of early
American life. In doing so, Knight expands the conventional format of a travel record
and anticipates the integration of multiple genres in travel writings.
Several travelers’ accounts are also by turns informative, entertaining, and critical.
Andrew Burnaby’s Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North‐America in the Years
1759 and 1760 (1775) is written from the viewpoint of a curious Englishman who
begins his tour in Williamsburg, Virginia on 5 July 1759, proceeds to Philadelphia,
New York, and Boston, and makes observations about buildings, people, religion,
climate, plants, rivers, and crops. On 12 October, from New Hampshire, three weeks
before his departure, Burnaby (1960) summarizes his “1200 miles” of travel “over so
large a tract of this vast continent” and comments on the future of the colonies,
especially the assumption that “empire is travelling westward” and an “expectation”
that “America is to give law to the rest of the world.” He finds this idea “illusory and
fallacious,” noting that “America is formed for happiness, but not for empire,” and
adds, “I did not see a single object that solicited charity; but I saw insuperable causes
of weakness, which will necessarily prevent its being a potent state” (109–110). For
Burnaby, the travel record thus serves as a platform for asserting the domination of the
British empire. Travelers also compose their adventures in an entertaining manner, as
with Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years
1766, 1767, and 1768 (1778) that describes an expedition in search of a Northwest
Passage. Myra Jehlen (1994) acknowledges Carver’s “paramount interest in telling a
good story,” which contributes to its popularity as “a book of its time whose importance
today lies in representing an era when the exploration of the New World could now be
undertaken with the attitude of a storyteller” (129). In another example, Timothy
Dwight’s four‐volume Travels in New England and New York (1821–1822) mixes forms
and content as he alternates descriptive passages with historical overviews. From 1796
to 1815, while a minister and president of Yale College in New Haven, Dwight (1969)
made periodic journeys that covered over 18 000 miles. His notebooks were published
posthumously and presented as a collection of travel letters addressed to an unnamed
Englishman, “Dear Sir.” Throughout, Dwight praises the bounties of America with a
promotional quality intended to correct misperceptions from Anglo‐European visitors.
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 175

Similar to the popular encyclopedias on both sides of the Atlantic, he includes charts
and extensive narratives about geography, climate, and people as he touts New England
as “the healthiest country in the United States” (58). Dwight also includes sections on
the different regions, sources of commerce, and tribes of the Native Americans that
together present a distinctive portrait of early America.
While early American travel accounts had initially focused on the eastern seaboard,
Elizabeth House Trist brings travel writings westward when she departs Philadelphia,
in late December 1783, for the Ohio frontier in order to join her husband, Nicholas
Trist, who had purchased land on the Mississippi River near Natchez eight years earlier.
The Travel Diary of Elizabeth House Trist: Philadelphia to Natchez, 1783–84 (1990)
includes narrative description, dialogue, and scientific notation, with the latter empha-
sis a request from her friend Thomas Jefferson who was interested in knowing more
about these frontier lands. Accompanied by Alexander Fowler, a friend of her husband’s,
and Polly, a young, female companion, Trist rides across snow‐filled valleys, sails down
rushing rivers, fights off swarms of mosquitos, and endures incessant heat. While in
Pittsburgh, 9 January to 20 May 1784, Trist evaluates the potential for crops: “The land
is fertile and capable of raising all kinds of grain” (212). On the Ohio River, 10 June
1784, she records one of several encounters with Native Americans: “Two Indians and
a very handsome squaw with a young child. […] One of the fellows calls himself James
Dickison. He is one of their chiefs, and a sensible fierce looking fellow.” After sharing a
meal, Trist “carried the Squaw some bread. […] and as her Infant was exposed to the
sun, I gave her my Hankerchief to shade it, for which she seem’d very thankfull” (222).
On 15 June, on the Mississippi, Trist reflects: “Every one thinks their troubles the
greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has
been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune.” She
then describes meeting an impoverished family with five children to which they “gave
some flour” and Trist gave the women “some tea and sugar, which was more acceptable
than diamonds or pearls” (226). In such portraits, Trist counters assumptions about
westward migration, suggesting that it is neither one of conquest nor profit. Her own
journey ends in sorrow on 1 July 1784, “Within a few miles of the Natchez,” when they
stop “to unload some flour” (232). For unbeknownst to Trist, her husband Nicholas had
died on 24 February, while she had been in Pittsburgh, as Kolodny explains, and:
“Presumably the news reached Trist on July 1, when the boat docked […] and the diary
abruptly breaks off” (194). Elizabeth House Trist’s travel diary offers a realistic record
of westward travel that invites readings from transnational studies and feminist per-
spectives, for example, as she ventures into the frontier and documents the unpredict-
ability of travel and, subsequently, the constant need for adaptation and resilience.
Dr. Alexander Hamilton’s travel narrative is an extraordinary resource for studies
about the history of medicine and science as well as of sociability and manners in
colonial America. Combining travel with rehabilitation, Hamilton embarks on a
four‐month journey in hopes of alleviating his symptoms of tuberculosis. He leaves
Annapolis, Maryland on 30 May 1744, travels north to York, Maine, and returns on
27 September. Hamilton then copied his travel notes and titled his record the
176 Volume I: Origins to 1820

Itinerarium, which was first published in 1907, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart. Having
emigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1738, Hamilton views his surroundings as an
educated gentleman conversant in the arts of sociability and decorum. In Dr. Alexander
Hamilton and Provincial America (2008), Elaine G. Breslaw provides a fascinating,
transatlantic perspective of Hamilton’s life and travels, noting that his travel diary is
“filled with pointed and amusing observations on the manners, morals, religious pro-
clivities, and occupations of the people he met” (115). On 8 June in Philadelphia, for
example, Hamilton describes a tavern scene “with a very mixed company of different
nations and religions” that includes “Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish; there
were Roman Catholicks, Church men, Presbyterians, Quakers, Newlightmen,
Methodists, Seventh day men, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew.” He then describes
their setting: “The whole company consisted of 25 planted round an oblong table in a
great hall well stoked with flys” (Hamilton 1994: 191). Similar to Knight’s characteri-
zations, Hamilton thus identifies class distinctions while also inserting comical notes.
On his way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 1 August, Hamilton again displays his
wit while responding to an “inquisitive” traveler who questions him in “the rustic civil
stile.” Hamilton introduces himself as “Bombast Huynhym van Helmont […] a High
German alchymist” who sells air (268). Hamilton appears to derive his wit from his
interest in literature, which he notes throughout his travel diary, including Montaigne’s
Essays, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens,
Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Rollin’s Belles Lettres, Quevedo’s Quevedo’s Visions, Burton’s
History of the Nine Worthies, and Homer’s Iliad. As such, his reading materials both
parallel the topic of travel and illustrate his cosmopolitan tastes.
Among other topics, Hamilton’s Itinerarium also provides detailed accounts of
colonial clubs and taverns as he socializes with other physicians and meets with
prominent figures, as in, for example, the Governour’s Club in Philadelphia, the
Hungarian Club in New York, and the Sun Tavern in Boston. As a doctor, Hamilton
has a keen interest in learning about plants as potential medicinals, such as ginseng,
and his various entries show how important this knowledge was to a practicing
physician. Hamilton is also traveling through the colonies during a time of heightened
theological debate and religious enthusiasm, about which he comments frequently. In
Boston on 16 August, he notes: “There are many different religions and perswasions
here, but the chief sect is that of the Presbyterians. There are above 25 churches,
chapells, and meetings in the town” (284). He also comments on Quakers, Moravians,
and “New Light” teachers. In addition to attending Anglican and Catholic services
throughout his journey, on 5 September, in New York, Hamilton also attends a Jewish
service. Other examples of Hamilton’s encounters with diverse audiences are reflected
in his portraits of Native Americans in which he notes their different tribes and
describes conflicts between Indigenous rights and colonial claims. Frequent comments
about women indicate both his preferences and dislikes. Returning to Annapolis on
27 September “att two o’clock afternoon,” Hamilton ends his “perigrinations” that mark
“a course of 1624 miles”; whereby, he reports: “I compassed my design in obtaining a
better state of health.” He then offers a summary: “I found but little difference in the
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 177

manners and character of the people in the different provinces […] but as to constitu-
tions and complexions, air and government, I found some variety.” He also draws a
comparison between the “northeren parts,” which were “in generall much better
settled than the southeren” and concludes with this assessment: “As to politeness and
humanity, they are much alike except in the great towns where the inhabitants are
more civilized, especially att Boston” (326–327). As he remarks on people, trade,
politics, and religion, Hamilton provides a remarkable portrait of colonial America.
William Byrd II’s experience as a surveyor appointed to establish the border between
North Carolina and Virginia in 1728 generates another fascinating colonial travel
narrative that also lends itself to various readings and critical approaches. With a mix
of empirical data, historical record, local history, and literary flourish, he chronicles the
expedition in parallel accounts. The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North
Carolina is the official record, first printed in 1841, and The Secret History of the Line is
an embellished account printed in 1929, with elements of Restoration comedy and
pseudonyms for members of the surveying party, including commissioners and
chaplains, with Byrd himself as “Steady.” For all the frivolity and punning of the Secret
History, both accounts provide an important record. In William K. Boyd’s 1929 intro-
duction, he commends the History “as a classic of the colonial period of American litera-
ture, an invaluable source for the social history,” and “a comprehensive and dependable
account” on setting the boundary (Byrd 1967: xxiii). Percy G. Adams finds that both
versions “comprise a strikingly unique kind of travel book,” and that “[t]ogether they
make up a volume that is important for eighteenth‐century prose, for early American
history, and for travel literature” (Byrd 1967: v, xxi). This discussion focuses on the
History, as Byrd meticulously documents the surveyors’ progress from 28 February to
22 November 1728, an overall distance of “at least Six Hundred Miles” (320).
The expedition itself attracted great interest, as on Sunday, 24 March, when church
attendance swelled because of their presence and the anticipation of “guessing, at least,
whereabouts, the Line wou’d cut, whereby they might form Some Judgment whether
they belong’d to Virginia or Carolina” (88). Byrd also adds commentary about the
people that they meet, as on 11 March, when he describes “a Family of Mulattoes, that
call’d themselves free,” a half mile into the woods: “It is certain many Slaves Shelter
themselves in this Obscure Part of the World, nor will any of their righteous
Neighbours discover them” (56). On 16 March, he describes a Quaker meeting house
with an “Awkward Ornament on the West End of it, that seem’d to Ape a Steeple.
I must own I expected no such Piece of Foppery from a Sect of so much outside
Simplicity” (68). As an aristocrat, planter, and proud Virginian, Byrd includes a
running commentary on North Carolinians. For example, on 25 March, as they are
moving westward from the Dismal Swamp: “Surely there is no place in the World
where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N Carolina.” Byrd then punctuates
this comment: “It approaches nearer to the Description of Lubberland than any other,
by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions, and the
Slothfulness of the People” (90, 92).1 By contrast, on 4 April he has this praise for
planters on both sides of the line: “It is an Observation, which rarely fails of being true,
178 Volume I: Origins to 1820

both in Virginia and Carolina, that those who take care to plant good Orchards are, in
their General characters, Industrious People” (110). Byrd’s approval privileges an idyllic,
agrarian view in which the planter brings order to the landscape. In this regard, Ralph
Bauer (2003) finds: “The ‘History’ thus invented Virginia as a distinct geocultural entity
that could henceforth definitively be known in counter‐distinction to North Carolina,
hereby manifesting the hand of the self‐creating imperial historian Byrd” (188).
Byrd’s History includes numerous passages about their interactions with Native
Americans, as on 7 April when they visit the Nottoway Indians, and he describes their
fort, customs, dress, and housing. He also remarks on their trade with the Indians and
the potential for conversion, by recommending intermarrying as “but one way of
Converting these poor Infidels, and reclaiming them from Barbarity” (120). There are
several entries about “our Friend Bearskin,” a member of the Saponi tribe who is
traveling with the expedition as a scout, as on 13 October, when they examine him
“concerning the Religion of his Country,” and Bearskin explains: “That God is very
just and very good  –  ever well pleas’d with those men who possess those God‐like
Qualities” (198). After summarizing the “Substances of Bearskin’s Religion,” Byrd
notes that it “was as much to the purpose as cou’d be expected from a meer State of
Nature,” faulting it for lacking “one Glimpse of Revelation or Philosophy,” and
praising it for containing “the three Great Articles of Natural Religion: The Belief of
a God; The Moral Distinction betwixt Good and Evil; and the Expectation of Rewards
and Punishments in Another World” (202) – faint praise indeed, such that it intends
to assert his superior perspective while it inadvertently presents the eloquence of
Bearskin’s language and his thoughtful explanations.
In addition to scientific notations, Byrd often embellishes his descriptions of the land
with poetic imagery. On 25 October, after an overnight rain shower, he observes: “The
Air clearing up this Morning, we were again agreeably surprised with a full Prospect of
the Mountains” (232); and on 6 November: “There was no passing by the angle of the
River without halting a moment to entertain our Eyes again with that Charming
Prospect” (268). Entries about plants and herbs, in turn, catalogue various uses, as on 7
November: “as a Help to bear Fatigue I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as I Walk’t
along. This kept up my Spirits” (272). Other entries note the behaviors of animals,
including horses, their endurance as well as their tendency to wander off, along with
comments about beavers, turtles, otters, and buffalo. Byrd appears to be fascinated by
bears, noting their habits and providing information about using their hides and horns
for clothing and utensils, and their oil as an insect repellent, as on 7 November: “Bears’
Oyl is used by the Indians as a General Defence, against every Species of Vermin” (276).
On 26 October, he notes a rare sighting of elk: “They are very shy, and have the Sense
of Smelling so exquisite that they wind a man at a great distance” (236). Birds are fre-
quently observed, as on 9 October: “A great Flock of Cranes flew over our Quarters, that
were exceedingly Clamorous in their Flight” (190). Throughout, Byrd’s interactions
with his surroundings reflect his avid curiosity, even as they reinforce assumptions of
ownership and control. By 14 November, they had “happily arriv’d within 20 Miles of
the uppermost Inhabitants” and arranged for “an express to carry a Letter to the
Travel Writings in Early America, 1680–1820 179

Governor, giving an Account that we were all returned in Safety” (294, 296). In one of
the final entries, on 22 November, Byrd frames the overall expedition in heroic terms:
“we extented the Line within the Shadow of the Chariky Mountains, where we were
oblig’d to Set up our Pillars, like Hercules, and return Home” (318). William Byrd II
thus fashions the landscape according to a particular purpose and characterizes move-
ment itself as progress, especially as they travel westward.
William Bartram’s 1791 Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and
West Florida, 1773–74, a Report to Dr. John Fothergill: Miscellaneous Writings (1996)
documents his findings with great precision while he is immersed in the life of plants
and animals. Nature affords many harmonious scenes for Bartram, as on 22 April
1776, while traveling in South Carolina where he enters an “ancient sublime forest,
frequently intersected with extensive avenues, vistas and green lawns, opening to
extensive savannas and far distant Rice plantations” and finds that it “agreeably
employs the imagination, and captivates the senses by scenes of magnificence and
grandeur” (256). Bartram’s beautiful drawings of plants and animals in turn enhance
his idyllic representations as he blends his scientific interest with embellished prose to
create yet another interesting variation of the traveler’s record.
For Margaret Van Horn Dwight, the niece of Timothy Dwight and the great‐great‐
niece of Jonathan Edwards, travel into the Ohio frontier is far from a romantic
adventure, and much more of an arduous journey, for, as she notes, “We have concluded
the reason so few are willing to return from the Western country, is not that the
country is so good, but because the journey is so bad” (1912: 36–37). Dwight left New
Haven, Connecticut on 19 October 1810, for a 600‐mile, four‐month journey to
Warren, Ohio, accompanied by the Reverend and Mrs. Wolcott and their daughter,
Susan. In her narrative printed in 1912 as A Journey to Ohio in 1810, Dwight combines
observations about roads, accommodations, and fellow travelers with commentary, as
on 4 November, in East Pensboro township, Pennsylvania: “I believe no regard is paid
to the sabbath any where in this State – It is only made a holiday of” (28). In such
comments, Dwight illustrates Kolodny’s (1992) discussion of the “frontier” as a
borderland, “that liminal landscape of changing meanings on which distinct human
cultures first encounter one another’s ‘otherness’ and appropriate, accommodate, or
domesticate it through language” (9). Dwight not only resists her movement toward
the borderlands, but also expresses anxiety that she might be subsumed by her new
surroundings. Dwight also reacts to assumptions that a single woman, especially one
traveling into the Ohio frontier, must be in search of a husband, as on 31 October,
from Highdleburg: “If I were going to be married I would give my intended, a gentle
emetic, or some such thing to see how he would bear being sick a little – for I could
not coax a husband as I would a child, only because he was a little sick & a great deal
cross – I trust I shall never have the trial – I am sure I should never bear it with temper
& patience” (23). From her forthright view of the frontier, Dwight thus counters
notions of westward migration as a fundamentally beneficial enterprise.
Other travelers present their military and scientific perspectives. Meriwether Lewis
and William Clark (2003), for instance, record their two‐year, 8000‐mile round trip
180 Volume I: Origins to 1820

journey from the Missouri River to the Oregon coast, 14 May 1804 to 23 September
1806, to document the expedition known as the Corps of Discovery. Eventually
printed as The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark, in 12 volumes (1986–2001),
their entries are often animated and enthusiastic, as they chart the lands acquired in
the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. For example, on 29
June 1805, Lewis writes from the “Upper Portage Camp” in Montana: “I have scarcely
experienced a day since my first arrival in this quarter without experiencing some
novel occurrence among the party or witnessing the appearance of some uncommon
object” (170). Acknowledging the vital assistance from Native Americans including
Sacagawea, as a guide, Lewis and Clark carry out Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to
seek peaceful relations, as Clark indicates on 19 October 1805, from their camp near
the Walla Walla River, when they meet with Chief Yellepit: “we Smoked with them,
enformed them as we had all others above as well as we Could by Signs of our friendly
intentions towards our red children Perticular those who opened their ears to our
Councils” (267). Their Journals include conventional cataloging of land, plants, and
people, while expressing a strong sense of history in the making, as they fulfill the
charge of their expedition.
As this overview of early American travel writings suggests, the scope of this genre
allows for a range of content, style, and intention as travelers traverse landscapes and
encounter new peoples and customs. Travelers may think that they have a clear sense
of purpose and mission, but as their journals and diaries reveal, travel can be both
disturbing and transformative. As scholarly discussion continues to investigate the
varied relationships between traveler and locale, travel writings that may have once been
considered ancillary demonstrate their importance as archival sources and subjects of
critical study. From their various reactions, travelers and their travel writings contribute
to a diverse, engaging record of early America.


1 These quotes appear on different pages because the Boyd edition places the History and Secret History
on facing pages.


Bartram, W. (1996). Travels and Other Writings: Bohls, E.A. (1995). Women Travel Writers and the
Travels Through North and South Carolina, Language of Aesthetics, 1716–1818. New York:
Georgia, East and West Florida: Travels in Georgia Cambridge University Press.
and Florida, 1773–74, a Report to Dr. John Breslaw, E.G. (2008). Dr. Alexander Hamilton and
Fothergill: Miscellaneous Writings. (1791). New Provincial America: Expanding the Orbit of Scottish
York: Library of America. Culture. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Bauer, R. (2003). The Cultural Geography of Press.
Colonial American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Burnaby, A. (1960). Travels Through the Middle
Modernity. New York: Cambridge University Settlements in North‐America in the Years 1759
Press. and 1760: With Observations Upon the State of the
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Colonies. Reprinted from the 2nd edn of 1775. Kolodny, A. (1975). The Lay of the Land: Metaphor
Ithaca, NY: Great Seal Books. as Experience and History in American Life and
Bush, Jr., S. (1990). Introduction to The Journal of Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North
Madam Knight. In Journeys in New Worlds: Early Carolina Press.
American Women’s Narratives, ed. W.L. Andrews. Kolodny, A. (1984). The Land Before Her: Fantasy
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–
67–83. 1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Byrd, W. and Boyd, W.K. (1967). William Byrd’s Press.
Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and Kolodny, A. (1992). “Letting Go Our Grand
North Carolina. With introduction and notes by Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary
W.K. Boyd, and new introduction by P.G. History of the American Frontiers.” American
Adams. New York: Dover. Literature, 64(1): 1–18.
Cahill, E. (2012). Liberty of the Imagination: Aesthetic Lewis, M. and Clark, W. (2003). An American Epic
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United States. Philadelphia: University of Abridgment of the Definitive Nebraska Edition, ed.
Pennsylvania Press. G.E. Moulton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Cox, J.D. (2005). Traveling South: Travel Narratives Press.
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(1913). Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, 1679–80. Medeiros, P.M. (1977). “Three Travelers: Carver,
New York: Scribner’s. Bartram, and Woolman.” In American Literature,
Dwight, M.V.H. (1912). A Journey to Ohio in 1810, ed. 1764–1789: The Revolutionary Years, ed. E.H.
M. Farrand. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Dwight, T. (1969). Travels in New England and New Press, pp. 195–212.
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W. Martin. New York: Penguin, pp. 49–75. University Press.


Early Native American
Literacies to 1820
Systems of Meaning, Categories
of Knowledge Transmission
Hilary E. Wyss

In August of 1763, Sarah Wyacks [Wyoggs]1 breezily wrote to her brother, filling him
in on family news: brother Jonathan was slowly recovering from “a fit of sickness”
while “your mother is well at present & Lucy & her family.” She continues, “Thomas
went up to Windsor last winter, came down last March & after tarrying a few days
(with an intent to tarry all summer) he return’d to his wife.” “As for myself,” she
writes, “I am as well as I am ordinarly” (Wyacks 1763). The letter continues for about
a page, with some comments on Wyacks’s religious state and with some further
questions about her brother’s planned travels. Unremarkable at first glance, this letter
seems to be simply one of the thousands of familiar letters exchanged in rural New
England in the eighteenth century, with nothing much of interest to anyone beyond
the particular family at this specific moment. Except that this letter, written by a
Mohegan woman to her increasingly prominent brother Samson Occom, upends most
of what scholars have taken for granted about Native Americans, literacy practices,
gender, and early Native New England.
Until relatively recently, scholars have held as a certainty that Native Americans in
North America had no writing systems. Having no written forms of their own
languages, it was believed, their history could only be saved from capricious oral
retellings through the certainty and permanence of print culture, the domain of
English, French, and Spanish colonists. This notion of the opposition between oral and
written cultures remained a standard for a remarkably long stretch, and because of this
assumption nobody thought to look for writing by Native Americans in early American
archives, or to suggest that Native Americans might have had alternative literacy

A Companion to American Literature: Volume I: Origins to 1820, First Edition. General Editor: Susan Belasco.
Volume Editors: Theresa Strouth Gaul, Linck Johnson, and Michael Soto.
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2020 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Early Native American Literacies to 1820 183

systems. Scholarship in the last few decades has challenged all these assumptions, and
in doing so has opened up entirely new approaches to Native American literacies and
even more broadly to the notion of literate versus non‐literate social structures.
Literacy scholars of early Native texts are generally beholden to Ibero‐colonialists
working with New World literacies of Central and South America. Such scholars,
among them Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo (1994), have pointed out that
early Spanish missionaries did in fact encounter Native literacy systems in the form of
codices and other textual productions in Indigenous languages in Central America.
They promptly burned these, arguing they were products of the devil, and tried to
replace them with alphabetic texts more to their liking, as Walter Mignolo (1996) has
shown (69–124). This brazen act of colonial appropriation and destruction has
prompted scholars to think more critically about what early sources mean when they
say that Indigenous people did no writing, and this has proved useful in the North
American context as well. Scholars like Germaine Warkentin (1999, 2014) establish
the communicative value of wampum and other material artifacts of exchange, remind-
ing us that pen and ink are not the only structuring artifacts of communication. In
fact, scholarship on early Native American literacy has loosely divided into two camps:
those who have sought and found overlooked grapheme‐based texts by Native
Americans and those who have explored alternative literacy systems.
The scholars in the first category, who focus on recovering alphabetic texts from the
archives, have found materials ranging from Indigenous‐language texts to English‐
language materials. For those invested in the literatures of early America broadly
conceived, the extent of early Native engagement with English literacy and literate
practice is only now being understood. These scholars’ work has focused almost entirely
on New England, with its rich documentary evidence and clear investment in
recovering its Native past; indeed, with only a few exceptions, this essay will also
largely focus on this region. The materials that have been recovered are primarily
related to the work of missionaries, including French Jesuits in Canada and the
northern United States (see Thwaites 1896–1901), English missionaries like John
Eliot and others in New England (see Clark 2003), and to a limited extent colonial
settlements further south. Colonial missionaries established schools and religious
institutions as early as the mid‐seventeenth century through which to spread alphabetic
literacy into Native communities with the belief that literacy should and would
reinforce conversion to Christianity. While scholars still argue over the success of such
conversion strategies, the effect was that Native Americans who engaged with these
schools produced a body of writing, and by the eighteenth century Native communities
throughout New England were not only familiar with the conventions of English
literacy but had also developed extensive networks and uses for alphabetic texts in
their own language. Recent scholarship has established in greater detail the breadth of
literacy experiences in New England, which has complemented the careful editing
work of Laura Murray (1998), Joanna Brooks (2006), and others in bringing forward
the words of Native American writers of the eighteenth century. Letters like that of
Sarah Wyacks, always available in the archive, suddenly became evident to those who
184 Volume I: Origins to 1820

started looking for them, and it has become clear that we have only begun to recover
what has been hidden in plain sight. Digital projects like the Native Northeast
Research Collaborative (formerly the Yale Indian Papers Project) have embraced the
spirit of recovery by making available to scholars, tribal historians, and anyone curious
about the topic an inter‐institutional database of primary materials by and about
Native New England. Emerging from this literacy‐based project is the recognition
that an enormous variety of documents exist that we are only now beginning to recover.
To understand them we must develop new strategies of reading and analysis to honor
their range and sophistication, since in many cases they challenge our notions of
“literature” and of commonly accepted genres of literary production.
The second category of scholars explores alternative literacies or expands the idea of
literacy to include non‐grapheme‐based communicative systems. Scholars from fields
like Native studies, history, art history, and archaeology ask what the archives can tell
us about non‐textual communicative systems among Native peoples. They argue that
other forms of marking – from carving to basketweaving to other “decorative” arts – in
fact function quite differently as communicative systems from those of the English
colonists, who simply didn’t have the patience or the interest to learn how to under-
stand them. This is a fundamental challenge to the notion of literacy  –  or more
particularly alphabetic literacy – as the most useful category of knowledge transmission.
This recent scholarship has urged us to look beyond “English letters” for a more
comprehensive sense of early Native New England (Wyss 2012). Lisa Brooks (2008,
2018) powerfully reveals the extent of Native political interrelations marked by liter-
acy exchanges that were distinct from the needs and desires of white colonial figures;
she argues that it is largely by reading past rather than through historical documents
that we can begin to recover that Native story of New England, a story that is deeply
embedded in the landscape and in Native patterns of community exchange. In the
same vein, Matt Cohen (2009) challenges us to look beyond traditional books and
letters for what he calls networks of communications in which literacy is simply one
mode among many through which communities and individuals marked out political
and cultural exchange. Using material culture to read and complicate written texts,
Cohen engages both with what is said and what is left out of written records. Andrew
Newman (2012) argues that the very concept of literacy as a marker of cultural value,
however broadly defined, is too constraining and that it is only by rejecting its limits
that we get outside Euro/Western hierarchies of value. Certainly, these insights have
opened up whole new ways of seeing Native New England, immersed as it was in
print culture.
These lively recent conversations have drastically decentered literacy as a category of
understanding culture. And certainly that is a most welcome conversation, from Birgit
Rasmussen’s wide‐ranging Queequeg’s Coffin (2012) to Scott Lyons’s X‐Marks (2010).
Such scholars ask us to resist the easy judgment of alphabetic literacy as a clear sign of
cultural sophistication and instead be attentive to alternative structures of meaning
and meaning making. Is graphic expression inherently more important than other sign
systems or might we all learn to understand the world in more expansive, sophisticated
Early Native American Literacies to 1820 185

ways if we were to abandon our limited view of reading and writing as the most valued
structures of understanding? Such an approach opens us to a wide array of alternative
communication systems, including tattooing, body paint, wampum, bark drawings,
and pictograph systems, and makes clear that our own inability to read and interpret
such systems is not a quality inherent to them but instead tells us more about the
limitations of our own strategies. Indeed, these scholarly approaches engage from a
variety of perspectives with questions we have only begun to ask. The conversation
that pushes past alphabetic literacy honors those Native communities and individuals
who did not embrace Western structures of meaning and makes way for a far more
inclusive conversation about alternative patterns of communication. It opens our eyes
to bodies of knowledge that have up to now been invisible to academics, wedded as we
are to our own structures of knowledge embedded in literacy and literate practice.
As valuable as I find this alternative conversation, my own work has focused on the
texts so recently recovered from the archive. These are rich documents that offer an
incredibly compelling glimpse into the lives and experiences of Native Americans
navigating a colonial world with its contradictory expectations for them. These texts,
which range from highly literary sermons and accounts to the most rudimentary letters
and writing exercises, hint at the variety of experience of Native New Englanders, and
by doing so they challenge us to think more carefully about the promise and limitations
of literacy and its practices. New England serves as a great example of and starting
point for thinking about how Native literacies can alter or reshape American literature,
which has traditionally been represented as unfolding in Puritan New England with
its roots in England. By examining Native literacies in the heart of the most literate
and literary ground of American identity, we can usefully remind ourselves of the
alternative stories of origin and community embedded within that same region and in
those same letters. Rather than being distinct from written experience, some versions
of Native experience exist right within in our archives, and before we move past them
we might consider more carefully what attending to these documents has to offer us as
scholars of literature.
New England’s history is rich in literacy projects since its Protestant roots ensured
a commitment to reading and writing as a means of enriching religious experience.
Starting with James Printer, Job Nesuton, and others working with John Eliot, the
Algonquian language was rendered into alphabetic form and the Bible was translated
into this language, published in the colonies in 1663. At around the same time, Indian
students matriculated at Harvard, which formed an Indian College in the 1650s;
although about half a dozen Indian students attended, only two, Joel Iacoombs and
Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, graduated in the seventeenth century. Experience Mayhew
documented the experience of many Native Christians on Martha’s Vineyard in the
early eighteenth century, suggesting that there were many more than he could present
in his book, Indian Converts (Liebman 2008). While the missionary impulse to spread
literacy among Native populations may have been the impetus, and published materials
overwhelmingly focus on texts related to Indian conversion, manuscript documents
tucked into various archives suggest that religion was only one of a variety of uses
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Natives had for literacy: land deeds, wills, familiar letters, petitions, formal documents,
and even biblical marginalia documenting family histories exist from the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, suggesting a range of literacy and literate practice that we
are only now beginning to recover.
If religious conversion was the goal for religious organizations, Linford Fisher (2012)
usefully replaces that term conversion with the notion of religious affiliation, which
allows for a more flexible and variable set of relationships with the practices and
institutions brought into Native communities by English missionaries. Indeed,
political forces were a powerful incentive for Native people to embrace literacy, as
scholars have noted, and Native communities were eager to have their own people able
to argue for them in colonial exchanges involving treaties, land deeds, and petitions.
English literacy skills brought practical political results to Native communities, not
least of which was the ability of some individuals to more fluently engage with the
intricacies of colonial legal and political structures. Literacy practice is political
practice, and this is nowhere clearer than in eighteenth‐century New England, where
the besieged and embattled Algonquian tribes were threatened as they were increasingly
relegated to the outskirts of New England colonial towns and treated as unwelcome
guests in their own homelands. Over a century of warfare and disease, along with
increasing levels of alcoholism and grinding poverty, had taken their toll since the
arrival of English, Dutch, and French colonists, and New England tribes found
themselves fighting to maintain a political identity as more than simply remnant
stragglers of once powerful nations. Literacy, for many, presented itself as an essential
element of continual survival as a distinct people and community.
Native writers produced a variety of texts, and some Native writers even produced
a body of literature that is extraordinary. Samson Occom was not exceptional in his
ability to write, but as his modern editor Joanna Brooks (2006) has suggested, he is
extraordinary in the range of his textual production and his ability to write powerful
and sophisticated works, from autobiographical narratives to petitions and sermons.
This writing made him one of the most significant intellectuals of his day, someone
who was sought out by travelers and visiting dignitaries for his sophisticated
understanding of the world. Born in 1723, Occom was deeply invested in the internal
politics of his own nation, the Mohegan tribe, which had various upheavals in his
lifetime, including a question of succession to the sachemship as well as an ongoing
land controversy with the Connecticut colony. At the same time and by his own telling,
Occom was powerfully influenced by the religious fervor of the Great Awakening in
his teen years. In December of 1743 Occom went to live with Eleazar Wheelock, a
local minister who agreed to help this young Native American further develop his
studies. He wen