Beginnings of American Literature

When John Winthrop spoke to his fellow Pilgrims while on board the ship bringing them to the new world, he felt obligated to remind them that they were creating "a city on a hill" that all the world would be watching very critically. Unlike the countries of Europe that they were fleeing, they would not have centuries and millenia of history and tradition to call on to define themselves and their culture. They were choosing to set themselves apart in a grand experiment that the whole world would be watching. Winthrop also felt obligated to remind his fellow travelers that they were committed to one another in a community--all for one.This dual nature--isolating oneself while also acknowledging one's obligation to the community--became a central part of the American culture.

Americans have always understood that the world stood in judgment of them. Americans have always felt the pressure of living up to a standard much higher and different than what is expected of other countries and cultures (our own expectations being as high as anyone else's). This is a major factor in what has caused Americans to constantly push themselves to achieve what they have in only 350 years or so. However, it's also a major part of what causes Americans to over-value ideas, literature, and culture from the "Old World." There's always a sense that no matter what we do and how hard we try, we just don't/won't measure up.

Alexis deTocqueville, the French writer who toured the United States in the 1830's, described American Literature thus:
Although America is perhaps in our days the civilized country in which literature is least attended to, still a large number of persons there take an interest in the productions of the mind and make them, if not the study of their lives, at least the charm of their leisure hours....Not only do the Americans constantly draw upon the treasures of English literature, but it may be said with truth that they find the literature of England growing on their own soil. The larger part of that small number of men in the United States who are engaged in the composition of literary works are English in substance and still more so in form...The inhabitants of the United States have, then, at present, properly speaking, no literature. The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their country and make themselves heard.

We will find Early American authors fighting this viewpoint on a regular basis. They desperately want to create an AMERICAN literature to set themselves apart from European, especially English, literature. However, they have a tradition of European culture that they can't ignore. But if they, as writers, try to acknowledge and use those European traditions, they are accused of being followers and unable to innovate (Remember that until the Revolution, American writers WERE British writers). On the other hand, if they innovate too much and deviate from what their audience knows and expects, they won't have any audience.

American literature for its first 100 years or so after the Revolution is primarily concerned with determining what is different about Americans from Europeans, especially the English. You will see authors constantly straddling the line between writing the English forms of literature and developing something reflective of the American spirit. The topic of "What is an American?" is a topic central to most public writers of this early American timeperiod. Consequently, it is a subject that we will discuss and develop at some length as well.