American Literature–Early Colonial Era: 1600s
Here is a suggested reading list of American literature from this era, along with significant historical dates, provided for context.
Significant Historical Dates:
1558: English Uniformity Act legally requires Anglican Church attendance (under Elizabeth)
1573: Charles I accedes to English throne, appoints Archbishop Laud who persecutes Puritans
1607: Jamestown founded (first settlement in America by Western Europeans)
1620: Pilgrims land at Plymouth
1630: Massachusetts Bay Colony founded (700 Puritans)
1649: English Puritans under Cromwell oust king and rule England until 1660: Commonwealth
1600s American Literature:
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.
William Bradford tells the gripping story of the English Pilgrims’ emigration to American in a style that would have been called simple and straightforward in his day. Known as “plain style,” Puritan Dissenters often employed this simplified mode of writing because they believed they had a moral obligation to explain the facts as simply and truthfully as possible, with minimal rhetorical flourish. That notwithstanding, Bradford’s account is rich and action-packed.
Read at least Book I starting with Chapter 7 and Book II’s chapter on the year 1621.
John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.” 1630.
Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded by about 700 English Puritan immigrants, gave this sermon to his community shortly after arrival in New England. He lays out the values the new community should observe as logically derived from and based upon Biblical scripture.
Roger Williams, Preface to “A Key into the Language of America,” 1643, and excerpts from “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, in a Conference Between Truth and Peace,” 1644.
Roger Williams argues for the importance of and purpose for learning the language of Native Americans in “A Key to the Language of America,” a book in which he lays out everything he has learned about speaking Native American languages. In “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution,” he argues for the principle of separation of church and state and against government persecution of anyone for their religious belief or unbelief.
Anne Bradstreet, “The Author to Her Book,” “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “Here Follow Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House,” Letter “To My Dear Children,” 1660s.
Puritan wife to a governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and mother of several children, Bradstreet was highly educated and learned for a woman of her day. Her brother-in-law sent a book of her poems to London for publication, unbeknownst to her, which is how she became the first published American author and one of the earliest American women published authors. Some poetry demonstrates her learning, but the selections here focus on the domestic side of her life as a devout Puritan woman.
Edward Taylor, “Upon a Wasp Chilled With Cold,” “Meditation 8” (or one of the other prayerful meditations), “Huswifery,” c. 1680s.
Puritan Edward Taylor left England as a young man because he would not sign an oath of loyalty to the Church of England, as was required in those days. In America, he studied at Harvard and later became a minister in the frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts. His poetry was unpublished in his day, and expresses his spiritual ideas and emotions using complex and vivid metaphors.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing engraved vignette of Robert W. Weir’s painting Embarkation of the Pilgrims. Engraving by W.W. Rice. By W.W. Rice at the American Banknote Company for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (Restoration by Godot13) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.