Early American literature does a tremendous job of revealing the exact conditions and challenges that were faced by the explorers and later by the colonists of the New World.
From early shipwrecks to the later years of small colonies barely surviving through dreadful winters, the literary works of the time period focus on some very recognizable themes. The theme of any given work – being simply the unifying subject or idea – is a very important element of any piece of writing.
As one reviews some of this early literature, it becomes obvious that several themes appear repeatedly, and it is these subjects that were clearly very common among people from all over the New World. While a number of themes can be found in early American literature, the only dominant and recurring themes are exploration, hardship, and religion. It is these central ideas around which all early American writing is based. The first prominent theme that appeared in the literature of Christopher Columbus and the many great explorers that followed in his footsteps was that of exploration.
With the mission to sail West across the Atlantic Ocean and report back with their findings, these explorers wrote down all of their noteworthy experiences in journals and narratives. So, it is only natural that the theme of exploration can be found in many of these literary works. For example, in Christopher Columbus’ Report of the First Voyage, he details the discovery of the Canary Islands as well as their inhabitants; a settlement of people who had never before been known to exist.
Throughout the report, Columbus describes nearly everything that he sees as he explores the islands and the curious people who call them home. Exploration is the central theme in just about every popular literary piece from this period, including Verrazzano’s Voyage and The Voyages of Samuel de Champlain. In Verrazzano’s Voyage, Giovanni Da Verrazano describes his encounters with the native people in great detail, and illustrates everything from their clothing to the primitive weaponry that they carried.
In addition, he did his best to describe the shore he traveled along, and in one particular sentence his true uncertainty of the land is very apparent; “We set sail from this place, continuing to coast along the shore, which we found stretching out to the west (east? )” (Perkins and Perkins 21). Clearly, Verrazzano was not even sure of the direction he was traveling along the coast, which emphasizes the fact that these explorers were writing about their travels of truly unknown and uncharted land.
Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer who also made numerous discoveries in the new land that he documented in some early pieces of literature. He mapped out a great deal of the New England coast, and even went ashore and joined some of the Native Americans during their war maneuvers, taking him to the interior of the wilderness (Perkins and Perkins 30). In these travels, he discovered Lake Champlain in present-day New York, and even lost a soldier to the arrows and knives of the Native Americans (Perkins and Perkins 30-33).
As is evident in these writings, the explorers wrote about the one thing that they new best, and that was the exploration and discovery of the new land and the people who lived there. As explorers adventured in the New World and colonies began to settle along the Eastern coast, they began to realize that life in the new land would not be without a price. Thousands of miles away from the nearest industrialized nation, the Europeans in America soon began to experience many hardships.
The explorers were frequently faced with sickness and death at sea, while others struggled to sustain themselves once reaching the New World. In one particularly disconcerting piece of literature, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca writes of his experiences as a slave to the Native Americans. The work is titled The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and describes the shipwreck that left the entire crew stranded, and the subsequent disease, malnutrition and difficult winter that left the survivors defenseless against the once-friendly Native Americans (Perkins and Perkins 24).
The explorer narratives, however, were not the only ones which described a dark and forbidding quality of the New World. The colonists at Jamestown and all along the eastern coast suffered through harsh winters with minimal supplies, causing many deaths and making life in the New World extremely challenging. For example, in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation he remarks that 50 of the 102 Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth had died within the first year (Perkins and Perkins 50).
The reasons for the high number of deaths in the colonies vary, but disease and harsh winters certainly claimed their share. In addition, the colonies struggled to establish crops and solid dwellings for months or years after they first landed, and supply ships proved to be unreliable at best. John Smith of the Jamestown Colony is responsible for writing The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles in which he depicted the grievous condition of the colonists only days after the ships departed and left them to the mercy of the land (Reuben 6).
He wrote, “Being thus left to our fortunes, it fortuned that within ten days scarce ten amongst us could either go, or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us. ” (Perkins and Perkins 36). In the same piece of literature, Smith also noted another very ominous threat to the well-being of the colonists, “all helps abandoned, each hour expecting the fury of the savages” (Perkins and Perkins 37). Early The “savages” being the Native Americans who had begun to feel threatened by the colonists, resulting in occasional skirmishes that left casualties on both sides (Perkins and Perkins 37).
There is no doubt that the settlers suffered from ongoing and very serious hardships, and that these difficulties became intertwined into almost all of the literature that they developed. Initially, not many Europeans had the motivation to travel across the Atlantic and settle in the New World. One group that did have incentive to make the treacherous journey was the Puritans, as they had lost faith in the Church of England and wanted the freedom to pursue their own beliefs.
As a fairly well-educated group, these New England colonists contributed a great deal to the relatively limited collection of American literature. It is only natural, then, that the theme found in almost all Puritan writing is religion. The subject of religion overwhelms most Puritan literary works, to include those by the famous Anne Bradstreet, Michael Wigglesworth, William Bradford, and Jonathon Edwards. In Anne Bradstreet’s poem titled Contemplations, she discusses the relationship between human and nature with constant references to God, heaven, and morality.
In line 12 she writes, “Sure He is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,” and this reference to God continues throughout the text (Perkins and Perkins 95). In Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom he composed Puritan religious ideals into the form of poetry. He also wrote the lesser-known A Short Discourse on Eternity and To the Christian Reader, both of which discuss the relationship between God and man (Lawson 2-3). William Bradford, a very humble member of the Plymouth Colony, wrote Of Plymouth Plantation.
This text is one of the best known narratives regarding the rise of the colony at Plymouth, and it references religion and God constantly throughout. In one instance, when discussing the arrival at Cape Cod and the uncertainty that lay ahead, he wrote “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? ” (Perkins and Perkins 53). Bradford’s distinct references to religion throughout his account are very evident, and it is clear that God was constantly in the hearts and minds of the settlers at Plymouth.
Finally, one of the more controversial writers of the Puritan Church was Jonathon Edwards, a preacher who used a very passionate tone in his writings and sermons to convey his message. Some of his more famous work includes A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Freedom of Will, both of which deal directly with religion, sin, and the choice that people have in their spiritual lives (Jonathon Edwards 5). With so many Puritans in the New World focusing their literary works on religion, it is no surprise that the theme of religion was such a dominant force in early American literature.
The importance of a central theme in a work of literature cannot be underestimated, and it is very apparent that the explorers and colonists continuously relied on the same subjects over and over again to support their text. The early years of American literature include some of the most awe-inspiring accounts of exploration and hardship, as well as a substantial number of works that focus on religion. It is these three key themes that absolutely dominate the literature that was produced in the early years of America and provide the reader with a greater insight into the lives of those who discovered and populated the New World.
“Jonathon Edwards (1703-1758).” American Passages: A Literary Survey. 28 May 2009.
Lawson, Stephen. The Poetry of Michael Wigglesworth. 28 May 2009.
Perkins, George and Perkins, Barbara. The American Tradition in Literature. Twelfth Edition, Volume 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Reuben, Paul. “Chapter 1: John Smith.” Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 29 May 2009.
Cite this Themes in Early American Literature
Themes in Early American Literature. (2016, Nov 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/themes-in-early-american-literature/