AMERICAN LITERATURE: PROSEAMERICAN LITERATURE: PROSE
American Literature: Prose, fiction and nonfiction of the American colonies and the United States, written in the English language from about 1600 to the present. This literature captures America’s quest to understand and define itself. From the beginning America was unique in the diversity of its inhabitants; over time they arrived from all parts of the world. Although English quickly became the language of America, regional and ethnic dialects have enlivened and enriched the country’s literature almost from the start. Today American prose encompasses a variety of traditions and voices that share a common context: the geographical region now known as the United States. Native American literatures, which were largely oral at the time of colonial settlement, stand apart as a separate tradition that is itself strong and varied.
For its first 200 years American prose reflected the settlement and growth of the American colonies, largely through histories, religious writings, and expedition and travel narratives. Biography also played an important role, especially in America’s search for native heroes. Fiction appeared only after the colonies gained independence, when the clamor for a uniquely American literature brought forth novels based on events in America’s past. With a flowering of prose in the mid-1800s, the young nation found its own voice. By then fiction had become the dominant literary genre in America. In the 20th century, American literature took its place on the world stage and began to exert influence on other literatures. For a discussion of American drama or poetry, see American Literature: Drama and American Literature: Poetry.
BEGINNINGS: THE 1500S AND 1600S
When European explorers first saw North America, Native American cultures had rich, established literatures. Legends, folktales, and other forms of literature were preserved in oral form and passed down from one generation to the next through ceremonies and other community gatherings, as well as within family groups and other informal settings. Much of this literature disappeared with the destruction of Native American cultures that followed white settlement of the continent. Among the richest set of Native American stories that survive are creation myths, descriptions of the beginnings of the universe and the world and of the origin of humankind. In Native American cultures, these myths served purposes similar to those served in Judeo-Christian cultures by the stories in the biblical book of Genesis. The creation myths of Native American cultures share with the Genesis accounts a concern with relationships among the divine, the human, and the world of animals and plants; the reasons behind those relationships; and the saga of the universe before the advent of humanity.
Long before settlers arrived in America, explorers reported on their voyages to the continent. Through the 1600s American literature grew from exploration narratives to include histories of settlement—both natural histories of the land and social histories of the people. Religious writings expressed the values and beliefs of American colonists.
The earliest literature about America consists of impressions of America recorded by European explorers after they returned home. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci provided some of the earliest European descriptions of the American continent in letters and maps from an expedition in 1499 and 1500; these had appeared in print by 1505. In 1507 German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published Cosmographiae introductio, a collection of documents that included letters written by Italian-Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus to his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Such texts were circulated among explorers and high-ranking political officials who made decisions about funding further expeditions.
The first works published in English about America also recorded discoveries and solicited support for new voyages. Before 1600 Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Harriot, and John White had published accounts of discoveries. Although Raleigh's narratives focused on the land now called Venezuela, he became a key figure in the history of the British in North America when he founded the first English colony in America, the Roanoke Colony, in 1585 under the sponsorship of Queen Elizabeth I, on an island off the coast of what is now North Carolina.
In support of Raleigh, Thomas Harriot wrote A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), primarily to encourage the queen's continued support of the Roanoke Colony, whose first settlement had just failed. Harriot's text included descriptions of the native population as well as observations of plant and animal life near the colony. Richard Hakluyt never traveled to America, but his writing was instrumental in encouraging the queen to invest more money in voyages of exploration. He collected diaries, letters, ships’ logs, and commercial reports, mostly from his English compatriots but also from Portuguese, Spanish, and French voyages. Hakluyt published these writings in Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America (1582) and Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589-1590). In these compilations, Hakluyt made grand statements about British imperialism and for the first time claimed America as properly belonging to England.
A later compilation by Hakluyt included The Fifth Voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and Parts of America called Virginia, in the Year 1590 (1593), which had been written by John White. White’s work centered on a great mystery. He had led a group of colonists who founded a second colony on Roanoke Island, and after the birth of the first British child in the Americas, White’s granddaughter Virginia Dare, he returned to England for supplies. Upon his return to Roanoke, all signs of the colony were gone. The fate of the colony remains a mystery to this day.
The writings of Captain John Smith, an explorer whose travels took him up and down the eastern seaboard of America, represent a shift from exploration narrative toward early history. Exploration narratives typically record the thrills and terrors of encountering the unknown, and early histories of America also capture this sense of novelty. Early histories, however, were written primarily by settlers rather than by explorers. They generally sought religious explanations—finding them chiefly in what they believed to be God’s will—for the dangers and challenges of colonial life. Although Smith still wrote to gain funding for further voyages, he had begun to record his observations as a historian in A Description of New England (1616).
William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote his History of Plymouth Plantation from 1630 to 1647, although it was not published until 1856. Earlier accounts published in England—Good News from New England (1624) by Edward Winslow and Mourt's Relation (1622) by an unknown author—provided extensive source material for Bradford when he recalled the earliest years of his colony. John Winthrop, who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1649, kept extensive journals that were published nearly 200 years later as History of New England from 1630 to 1649 (1825-1826). Another important historian of early America was Thomas Morton, whose New English Canaan (1634-1635) used humor in portraying what he considered to be the overbearing and intolerant qualities of the Puritans.