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The fate of the colony remains a mystery to this day. 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.
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 William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote his History of Plymouth Plantation from to , although it was not published until John Winthrop, who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from to , kept extensive journals that were published nearly years later as History of New England from to Another important historian of early America was Thomas Morton, whose New English Canaan used humor in portraying what he considered to be the overbearing and intolerant qualities of the Puritans.
All events could be explained from this religious perspective: Storms and sicknesses might represent God's wrath; a bountiful harvest might signify God's blessing. John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop were among the most prominent theologians in the first generation of settlers. Religious writings recorded strenuous debates about church doctrine, such as the role of free-will and good works in an individual's salvation, although certain issues discussed by the theologians went beyond religion.
Williams's A Key into the Language of America , for example, was remarkable for its efforts to understand America's indigenous peoples. Other contact between natives and settlers was less friendly. Increase Mather wrote a history of the first sustained conflict between Native Americans and colonial settlers, known as King Philip's War after a Wampanoag chief, Metacomet, whom the colonists called Philip.
In A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England , Mather urged his community to reform so that God would not subject them to more trials of that sort. This work is a firsthand account by a colonist who was taken captive by Narragansett Indians during King Philip's War. It presents a dramatic tale of suffering and of Rowlandson's efforts to make sense of that suffering.
Her story became the model for a new genre of early American literature: captivity narratives. Such accounts became staples of American prose and eventually provided material for American fiction. While still religious in tone and purpose, captivity narratives emphasized the experiences of individuals rather than the progress of nations. They also incorporated many of the fundamentals of fiction, making use of sympathetic characters, dramatic action and setting, and vividly portrayed sources of evil in stereotypic renditions of Indian savagery.
The Salem witch trials of constituted another dark period in early American history, as accusations of witchcraft in a Massachusetts town resulted in the execution of 14 women and 6 men.
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Cotton Mather's Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions , although written before the Salem trials, indicated a growing interest in the occult on the part of religious leaders. Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World documented the events of the witch trials. Robert Calef's More Wonders of the Invisible World offered a biting response to Mather and the hysteria of religious leaders involved in the Salem witch-hunt.
As a result of his interest in witchcraft and of Calef's scathing accusations, Cotton Mather tends to be remembered as a witch-hunter, although his own writings suggest a relatively moderate stance on the subject. As the century began, prose remained primarily religious in its endeavors to make sense of what still seemed a decidedly new world. The strength of this appeal to religious fear left his congregation in tears. A powerful orator, Edwards led a revival movement known as the Great Awakening to revitalize religious practice in the colonies. Edwards's ideas were a complicated mix, shaped not only by his study and love of the Puritans but also by 17th- and 18th-century European philosophy.
Some of Edwards's best religious works were also philosophical investigations. Cotton Mather remained an important literary figure in the 18th century. Like his earlier works, it is profoundly religious; however, its size, scope, and interest in the human side of the Puritan founders marked a new achievement in American literary history.
Mather's prolific career included writings on science and medicine as well as theology and history. As Mather's career indicates, the scope of American prose began to broaden after In The Negro Christianized , Mather also became one of the first Americans to address issues of race by arguing that Africans should receive Christian education and be allowed to join the church. Slavery had been introduced to the American colonies in the early 17th century. By the early 18th century, antislavery sentiments were rising. In New England judge Samuel Sewall published a strong antislavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, which drew on both legal and biblical references.
One of the first was written by a schoolteacher, Sarah Kemble Knight. The Journal of Madam Knight, written in although not published until , gives a lively account of her journey through hostile Indian territory. Knight was less interested in religious explanations for her experience than Rowlandson had been some 20 years earlier, and more concerned with conveying the actual dangers of her day-to-day existence. Travel stories often blended observations on nature and landscape with tales of personal courage and achievement. This work also anticipated American fiction, particularly in the creation of its distinctive first-person narrator, Farmer James.
Written toward the end of the American Revolution, Letters from an American Farmer was an interesting effort to describe and define what it meant to be an American. At a time when newspaper journalism was concerned primarily with reporting political events, the New England Courant, started by James Franklin in , became the first newspaper to include literary entertainment.
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Franklin's younger brother Benjamin Franklin published humorous social commentary in the Courant under the pen name and persona of Silence Dogood, the widow of a minister. Magazines also appeared for the first time in the colonies during the mids. Before magazines were concerned primarily with measuring America's developing culture against the British model.
During the s Boston and Philadelphia became centers of publishing in addition to being political and commercial hubs. Benjamin Franklin was a key figure in establishing a vibrant intellectual community in Philadelphia. In he and a group of friends established a men's reading club in Philadelphia called the Junto. Members shared printed works and discussed topics of the day.
Such reading and discussion clubs became an important part of American literary culture, particularly at colleges, but Franklin's was especially influential because it evolved into a prototype for the lending library. By Franklin had started his own printing house and was editing and publishing a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Women organized literary circles in the s and s. These groups, known as salons, resembled men's reading clubs. They also encouraged members to compose their own work, mainly poetry. Many 18th-century thinkers believed in the ability of reason to control human destiny and improve the human condition, an enormous change from the belief in predestination that characterized the 17th century. As a result, the 18th century was known as the Age of Enlightenment. In the American colonies Enlightenment thought was expressed chiefly through political discourse.
American thinkers asserted a growing belief in the supremacy of reason over church doctrine; they also emphasized the importance of the individual and freedom over and above established authorities and institutions. Franklin began his literary career as a publisher but made his greatest contribution to American literature as a writer.
In his writing Franklin advocated hard work as the key to success. His views come across clearly in the maxims, proverbs, and homespun wisdom that filled his Poor Richard's Almanack, which was published annually from to under the pen name Richard Saunders. Franklin's almanac sayings were collected in The Way to Wealth in the form of a speech by a character named Father Abraham. It is one of Franklin's great statements on the self-made man.
Like much of Franklin's writing, the work reached an enormous audience through translations into European languages.
Franklin's Autobiography was first published in full in , 78 years after his death; it is considered an American classic because of its portrait of Franklin and American life during his time. Thomas Paine became a leading figure in the cause of American independence with the pamphlet Common Sense This enormously popular political document asserted that the American colonies received no advantage from Great Britain and that every consideration of common sense called for them to establish an independent republican government.
Written in a straightforward style using the language of the common person, Common Sense was published six months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. At that point, most colonists still believed that their grievances with Great Britain could be settled peaceably.
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