Early American literature starts with orally spread of Native American literature from their early period. At this time, the literature had no written form. Afterward, the coming of European had built different genre of literature. Early educated European visitor from wrote poetry, prose, note, pamphlet, about the land they called New World.
The Purity of Indian Literature
Oral literature is the foundation of literature (Emory Elliott, 1988:6). Orally Indian literature such as myth, legends, tales, and lyric are built by the strong Native American cultures. This contains their belief of religion (in worshipping gods, animals, plants, or sacred persons), their daily life (ceremonies, ritual, songs, and hunter life), the myth of world creation, etc.
Indian stories glow with reverence for nature as spiritual as well as physical mother (outline of American literature-revised edition, 1994:3). That’s why, native American has explicit belief in their oral literature that include three belief, there are: the belief about nature of physical world, belief about social order and appropriate behavior, belief about human nature and the problem of good and evil (http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/native.htm).
Song is one of important Native American literature. Song is used as lullabies, war chants, love song, special song for children games, special song for gambling, various chores, speech of magic, and dance ceremonials.
Myth is as central role in articulating religious experience and organizing ethical, moral and social behavior (The Literature of the New World page, 14). This strongly influences the Native American life. One of example is how the Native Americans call the America land as “turtle Island”. This name is taken from one well-known creation myth among Native American about the humble grandmother turtle. Myth has educational function to Native American for All generations, especially for children. Today, Native American myths still exist, but some of them are taught in English language.
Story in Native American life is told not merely to entertain or to instruct; they are told to be believed (Emory Elliott, 1988:11). The story has two part, they are; story teller and the story itself. It has moral implication about true common experience that concern about human condition.
Indian literature has great contribution to America. The Hundreds of Indians words use in everyday American English include “canoe”, “tobacco”, “potato”. Moccasin”, “moose”, “persimmon”, etc (outline of American literature-revised edition, 1994:4). As we know that American people search for identity to be different from the European include in language aspect. Although, America has English language as basic, they create and find several words and structure to empower the identity of American language.
The Age of Exploration and adventure Literature
Columbus is often regarded as the first European explorer reached America (He himself was mistakenly belief had reached east India, Asia). However, the name of New Land is not taken from him. The “America” is derived from the name Amerigo Vespucci; the first explorer arrived at the mainland of New World, who recognized the existence of a New World. Amerigo Vespucci has strong exploration spirit, that’s why in his writing he says, “Let it be said in whisper, experience is certainly worth more than theory” (The literature of the New Land, page 7). The important of experience is also being the main belief among other European Explorers. Thus, in this era, the literature mostly about exploration, experience, adventure in form of narrative persuasive pamphlet, ordinary pamphlet, note, etc.
Note of the journey was popular this day. Giovanni da Verrazano wrote “letter to the King” in 1524. This narrative describes his voyage across the North American seaboard from North Carolina to Maine. Verrazano was similar to Columbus, wished to reach coastal Asia through his journey. In fact, both arrive at New Land. Verrazano besides wrote about his journey, he also wrote about the idyllic of the New Land.
There are many other notes, voyage narrative, and pamphlet written by European Explorer about the New Land. It contents theory and personal experiments. Thomas Hariot records the exploration of Roanoke (first colony at Roanoke set up in 1585, off the coast of North Carolina, that disappeared) in A Brief and True Report of The New Found Land of Virginia (1588). It is published for over 200 years and translated in many languages include Latin, French, and German.
However, they are not first American writer in Literature. It is Captain John Smith who is the first American writer in literature and explorer of this land. The reason is Smith has capability to make English Language and American experience became inseparably united (The literature of the New World, page 12). As history describes that other countries (French, Spain, and Dutch) had already constructed a New World Literature, while the English contributed minimally. John Smith struggles to trigger the contribution of English trough his own writing.
Captain John Smith writes A True Relation (1608), A map of Virginia (1612), and The General history of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isle (1624). Smith also writes pamphlet to attract to potential colonist to America. His writing concerns to “unbelievable wealth” of the New World.
One of the famous writing of John Smith is the story of Pocahontas. Pocahontas is princess of one of Indian tribe who saved John smith’s life. Later, Pocahontas get married with John Rolfe and this marriage lead the temporary peace between colonist and Indian for Pocahontas had successfully impressed English with her attractiveness, kindness, cleverness and charisma.
The Colonial literature period
The literature of colonial era contains sermon, histories, journals, speeches, pamphlet, political document, prose, and poetry. The literature is growing after the first printer established in at Cambridge 1639 and it is operated by Stephen Day. Afterword, this printer is spread through other colonies.
At this era, there are different among literature in New England and the literature in the south, and literature in middle colonies.
New England literature was closer to the Puritanism belief that good writing is that brought full awareness of the significance of worshipping God. The puritan is intellectual colonist who had ability of self-education and hard-working. And the existences of book were useful tools for teaching and to convey religious truth or to give sound on immediate practical issues, political, social or economic because they were confident that such work was essential for the building of a vigorous and virtuous state (Robert E. Spiller, 1974:54).
The New England colonial literature starts with the story of the first day arriving of the colonist. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth after landed, wrote Of Plymouth Plantation (1651) about the colony’s beginning. Another writer, John Winthrop, used the phrase “City upon a hil” to describe the new Settlement. New England writers such as Cotton Mather writes ecclesiastical history of New England in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Samuel sewall writes Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica, Samuel Willards who writes Mercy Magnified (1684). Most famous Ballad in this period was Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom, a sensitive poetic expression account of the judgment day. Anne Bradstreet is the female poet with one of her best poetry is “To my Dear and Loving Husband”. Another poet is Edward Taylor who writes variety of poems, there are; Meditation six, The Experience, Huswifery, Spinning wheele, etc. Jonathan Edward is one of man who brought Great Awakening in New England. He usually writes scientific and philosophical works, such as; Sinner in the Hands of an Angry Go, Address to Sarah Pierrepont, Religious affections, etc.
The writer of the south is different with the writer in the New England. They were turned the attention to external life of the colony. Southern writers had rarely written poetry and prose. They more concerns with the thought than the behavior. They are also more interested in political and social issues than metaphysic.One of the famous southern writers is William Bird who write The History of the dividing Line run in the Year 1728. Another southern writing is Alexander Whitaker’s Good News from Virginia (1613).
Middle Colonies is stated between the wilderness Zion of the Puritan and the plantation of the colonies in the south area. Most writing in the Middle colonies were concerned with topography and history of the world. William Penn is middle colonies writer who writes Some Fruits of Solitude (1693).
Sense of Being American in the Literature of New Republic
The self-awareness and question about national identity rise sooner after the Declaration of independence. This is followed by the period of American Enlightenment. American enlightenment is the movement signed by an importance of rationality rather than tradition and enlightenment thinkers has belief on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality. This enlightenment supports building the national identity of America. Benjamin Franklin is the American enlightenment figure. One of his well-known works is Poor Richard Almanac that share to the American about the useful of hard work to reach the wealth, the importance of independence, and the value of being health and wise. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur is another enlightenment writer. By writing Letters from an American Farmer (1782), he launched information to the Europe about wealth, peace, beautiful, and pride in America. In this period, political pamphlet and essays were so broadly distributed. One of well-known pamphlet is Thomas Paine’s Common sense that talks about the idea of American exceptionalism.
In the literary field, the uncomfortable situation emerges with American literature dependence on English literary model. The American readers want well-known European literary work than Americans. It triggers American writer to search for purely native literature that has ability to compete with the European works. The fact is the revolutionary of literature couldn’t be instant, it needs process. That’s why some writer such as Timothy Dwight fails to reach independent and appropriate literature through his writing. In the field of Drama, the theater world met ignorance of public and less of support.
The way to build independent national American literature is by increasing amount of printing presses, news paper, magazines, schools, book shop, and library, improvement of ambitious writer with suitable subject, increasing the original fresh idea of America. This way affects a lot in the American romanticism period. National writers were born. They are James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan poe etc.
Early, James and friends. 1968. Adventures in American Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc
Spiller, Robert E and friends. 1974. Literary History of the United States: History fourth edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc
Elliot, Emory. 1988. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press
VannSpanckeren, Kathryn. 1994. Outline of American Literature revised edition. United States: United States Department of State