Because of the large immigration to New England in the 1630s, the articulation of Puritan ideals, and the early establishment of a college and a printing press in Cambridge, the British colonies have often been regarded as the center of early American literature. However, the first European settlements in North America had been founded elsewhere many years earlier. Towns older than Boston include the Spanish settlements at Saint Augustine and Santa Fe, the Dutch settlements at Albany and New Amsterdam, as well as the English colony of Jamestown in present-day Virginia. During the colonial period, the printing press was active in many areas, from Cambridge and Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and Annapolis.
The dominance of the English language was not inevitable. The first item printed in Pennsylvania was in German and was the largest book printed in any of the colonies before the American Revolution. Spanish and French had two of the strongest colonial literary traditions in the areas that now comprise the United States, and discussions of early American literature commonly include texts by Samuel de Champlain alongside English language texts by Thomas Harriot and John Smith. Moreover, we are now aware of the wealth of oral literary traditions already existing on the continent among the numerous different Native American groups. Political events, however, would eventually make English the lingua franca for the colonies at large as well as the literary language of choice. For instance, when the English conquered New Amsterdam in 1664, they renamed it New York and changed the administrative language from Dutch to English.
From 1696 to 1700, only about 250 separate items were issued from the major printing presses in the American colonies. This is a small number compared to the output of the printers in London at the time. London printers published materials written by New England authors, so the body of American literature was larger than what was published in North America. However, printing was established in the American colonies before it was allowed in most of England. In England, restrictive laws had long confined printing to four locations, where the government could monitor what was published: London, York, Oxford, and Cambridge. Because of this, the colonies ventured into the modern world earlier than their provincial English counterparts.
Back then, some of the American literature were pamphlets and writings extolling the benefits of the colonies to both a European and colonist audience. Captain John Smith could be considered the first American author with his works: A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia... (1608) and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Other writers of this manner included Daniel Denton,
Thomas Ash, William Penn, George Percy, William Strachey, Daniel Coxe, Gabriel Thomas, and John Lawson.
Topics of early writing
The religious disputes that prompted settlement in America were important topics of early American literature. A journal written by John Winthrop, The History of New England, discussed the religious foundations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Winslow also recorded a diary of the first years after the Mayflower's arrival. "A modell of Christian Charity" by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, was a Sermon preached on the Arbella (the flagship of the Winthrop Fleet) in 1630. This work outlined the ideal society that he and the other Separatists would build in an attempt to realize a "Puritan utopia". Other religious writers included Increase Mather and William Bradford, author of the journal published as a History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–47. Others like Roger Williams and Nathaniel Ward more fiercely argued state and church separation. And still others, like Thomas Morton, cared little for the church; Morton's The New English Canaan mocked the religious settlers and declared that the Native Americans were actually better people than the British.
Puritan poetry was highly religious, and one of the earliest books of poetry published was the Bay Psalm Book, a set of translations of the biblical Psalms; however, the translators' intention was not to create literature, but to create hymns that could be used in worship. Among lyric poets, the most important figures are Anne Bradstreet, who wrote personal poems about her family and homelife; pastor Edward Taylor, whose best poems, the Preparatory Meditations, were written to help him prepare for leading worship; and Michael Wigglesworth, whose best-selling poem, The Day of Doom (1660), describes the time of judgment. It was published in the same year that anti-Puritan Charles II was restored to the British throne. He followed it two years later with God's Controversy With New England. Nicholas Noyes was also known for his doggerel verse.
Other late writings described conflicts and interaction with the Indians, as seen in writings by Daniel Gookin, Alexander Whitaker, John Mason, Benjamin Church, and
Daniel J. Tan. John Eliot translated the Bible into the Algonquin language.
Of the second generation of New England settlers, Cotton Mather stands out as a theologian and historian, who wrote the history of the colonies with a view to God's activity in their midst and to connecting the Puritan leaders with the great heroes of the Christian faith. His best-known works include the Magnalia Christi Americana, the Wonders of the Invisible World and The Biblia Americana.
Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield represented the Great Awakening, a religious revival in the early 18th century that emphasized Calvinism. Other Puritan and religious writers include Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, John Wise, and Samuel Willard. Less strict and serious writers included Samuel Sewall (who wrote a diary revealing the daily life of the late 17th century), and Sarah Kemble Knight.
New England was not the only area in the colonies with a literature: southern literature was also growing at this time. The diary of William Byrd and The History of the Dividing Line described the expedition to survey the swamp between Virginia and North Carolina but also comments on the differences between American Indians and the white settlers in the area. In a similar book, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West, William Bartram described the Southern landscape and the Indian tribes he encountered; Bartram's book was popular in Europe, being translated into German, French and Dutch.
As the colonies moved toward independence from Britain, an important discussion of American culture and identity came from the French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, whose Letters from an American Farmer addresses the question "What is an American?" by moving between praise for the opportunities and peace offered in the new society and recognition that the solid life of the farmer must rest uneasily between the oppressive aspects of the urban life and the lawless aspects of the frontier, where the lack of social structures leads to the loss of civilized living.
This same period saw the beginning of black literature, through the poet Phillis Wheatley and the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. At this time American Indian literature also began to flourish. Samson Occom published his A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul and a popular hymnbook, Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, "the first Indian best-seller".
The Revolutionary period also contained political writings, including those by colonists Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway, the last being a loyalist to the crown. Two key figures were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin are esteemed works with their wit and influence toward the formation of a budding American identity. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense and The American Crisis writings are seen as playing a key role in influencing the political tone of the time.
During the Revolutionary War, poems and songs such as "Nathan Hale" were popular. Major satirists included John Trumbull and Francis Hopkinson. Philip Morin Freneau also wrote poems about the War.
During the 18th century, writing shifted from the Puritanism of Winthrop and Bradford to Enlightenment ideas of reason. The belief that human and natural occurrences were messages from God no longer fit with the new human-centered world. Many intellectuals believed that the human mind could comprehend the universe through the laws of physics as described by Isaac Newton. One of these was Cotton Mather. The first book published in North America that promoted Newton and natural theology was Mather's The Christian Philosopher (1721). The enormous scientific, economic, social, and philosophical, changes of the 18th century, called the Enlightenment, impacted the authority of clergyman and scripture, making way for democratic principles. The increase in population helped account for the greater diversity of opinion in religious and political life as seen in the literature of this time. In 1670, the population of the colonies numbered approximately 111,000. Thirty years later it was more than 250,000. By 1760, it reached 1,600,000. The growth of communities and therefore social life led people to become more interested in the progress of individuals and their shared experience in the colonies. These new ideas can be seen in the popularity of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.
Even earlier than Franklin was Cadwallader Colden (1689 - 1776), whose book The History of the Five Indian Nations, published in 1727 was one of the first texts critical of the treatment of the Iroquois in upstate New York by the English. Colden also wrote a book on botany, which attracted the attention of Linnaeus, and he maintained a long term correspondence with Benjamin Franklin.