American Literature: Volume I
Lectures on American Literature
1. Historical introduction
2. Selected Readings
3. Critical Analysis Course Description
• There is great importance of offering this course for the English major
• The course is made up of three (Volume I) parts, planned to finish within
72 periods, 18 weeks.
• The students are required to attend the classes and participate actively in
the group discussion and class presentation A Brief Introduction of the Contents
Part One The literature of colonial America
1. Historical introduction
2. The first American writer
3. Early New England literature
4. Puritan thoughts Part Two The Literature of Reason and Revolution
1. Historical introduction
2. Benjamin Franklin
3. Thomas Paine
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Philip Freneau Part Three The Literature of Romanticism
1. Historical introduction
2. Washington Irving
3. James Fenimore Cooper
4. William Cullen Bryant
5. Edgar Allan Poe
6. Ralph Waldo Emerson
7. Henry David Thoreau
8. Nathaniel Hawthorne
9. Herman Melville
10. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Part One The Literature of Colonial America
1. Historical Introduction
a. The early settlement of the New continent
The earliest settlers who came to settle down in the New Continent include Dutch, Swedes, Germans, French, Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese. The English settlers came later than the above, who chiefly settled down in Virginia and Massachusetts. In the New Continent, there were still Negroes in New England, the Middle Colonies and throughout the South. And the Indian were
everywhere. Read Page 1 and find where they were?
b. The Indian oral literature
The Indians were the original settler of this vast continent. The had their own
type of literature: Oral Literature. The Indian oral literature included the
legends, tales, heroic stories and love stories which passed down from
generation to generation before the European settlers came to this continent.
c. What were the first writings of the settlers?
The first writings of these settlers were the narratives and journals. They
wrote about their voyages to the new land, about adapting themselves to the
unfamiliar climates and crops, about dealing with the local Indians. They wrote
in diaries and journals. They wrote letters and contracts and government
charters and religious and political statements. They wrote about the land which
stretched before the---unimaginable and vast, with rich dense forests and
deep-blue lakes and rich soil, which stirred the imagination to great heights. All
seemed possible through hard work and faith.
d. Where did the Englishmen firstly settle down?
The first permanent English settlement in North America was established at
Jamestown, Virginia, in 1617, Captain John Smith was the leader of the small
band. His reports of exploration, published in the early 1600s, have been
described as the first distinctly American literature to be written in English.
Smiths description of America were filled with themes, myths, images , scenes, characters, and events that were a foundation for the nations literature. His
portrayed English North America as a land of endless beauty. His vision helped
lure the Pilgrims and the Puritans who saw themselves as new saints with a
spiritual mission to flee the Old World and create a New Israel, a New Promised
Land, in the America that John Smith had described.
2. Who is the first American writer?
Captain John Smith is the first American writer. In 1608, his little book
entitled A True Relation of Such occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Happened in Virginia Since the First Planting of That Colony was published,
which was read eagerly by many and made a reputation for its author.
His next book was A Map of Virginia; with a Description of the Country
which was published in 1612. This book was a guide to the country and an
invitation to the bold spirits needed to enlarge and strengthen the English
plantations in new land.
John Smith published altogether eight works in all, some of them dealing
with New England, the coast which he explored and mapped after his fortune
faded with the Virginia Company.
His General History of Virginia which was published in 1624 contained many
famous tales of how the Indian Princess saved him.
3. What are the contributions of his works? (for students’ group discussion)
4. Early New England Literature
The early New England literature had from the beginning a literature of
ideas: theological, moral, historical, and political.
The Puritans built a way of life in the New England: hard work, thrift, piety
and sobriety. These Puritan values dominated much of the earliest American
writings, including the sermons, books and letters of such noted Puritan
clergymen as John Cotton and Cotton Mather.
5. William Bradford and John Winthrop
William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth, and John Winthrop, who
held the same position at Boston, were men of leadership who left us a priceless
gift: Bradford, The History of Plymouth Plantation (1856) which gave an account
of the small group of Puritans who migrated from England to Amsterdam and
then to the New World, he also wrote some poems about the colony. Winthrop,
The History of New England which gave a account of the life and work of those
Puritans in New England.(1826).
6. What are the Puritan Thoughts?
Puritans included people from the humblest to the loftiest ranks of English
society, both educated and uneducated, poor and rich. They held extreme
opinions and looked upon themselves as the chosen people, and followed logically
that anyone who challenged their way of life was opposing the Gods will and
was not to be accepted. They were thus zealous in defense of their own beliefs
and often intolerant of the beliefs of others.
Puritans opposition to pleasure and the arts has sometimes been
exaggerated, but it is true that their lives were disciplined and hard. Puritans
tended to suspect joy and laughter as symptoms of sin. The Puritan made laws
about private morality as well as public behavior.
Puritans religious tended to emphasize the image of a wrathful God and to
forget His mercy. Nathaniel Hawthorne called the Puritans the stern and
black-browed Puritans. If we want to know more, we may study John Cotton
and Roger Williams.
7. John Cotton and Roger Williams
a. John Cotton
John Cotton was regarded as the first spokesman of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony or “ the Patriarch of New England”. John Cotton wrote several books of
hard-hitting Puritan arguments, but his primary influence was through the
pulpit and the local people liked to hear him preach and some of his listeners
were convinced that he could make no mistakes, for God would not suffer Mr.
Cotton to err. Through Cotton we could see that the Puritans were more concerned with authority than with democracy.
b. Roger Williams
Roger Williams had been educated in law at Cambridge University but he
finally entered the church and was caught up in the Puritan tide. In 1631, he
came to Massachusetts colonies and was exiled to Rhode Island for his
democratic views and disagreement with the leaders.
With Williams begins the history of religious toleration in America, and with
him too, the history of the separation of church and state. Because of his strange
ideas and disagreement with the governor Cotton, he was banished and exiled.
He founded a community which he called Providence, because of Gods merciful
providence to him in his distress. Roger Williams showed much interest in the
Indian language and wrote some literary works including A Key into the language
of America; Or, a Help to the language of the Natives in That Part of America
Called New England.
Williams is as important for his political views as for his religious beliefs:
Oaths in the name of God should not be administered to unbelievers because
such an oath is a form of religious affirmation; no political order or church
system could identify itself directly with God.
8. Anne Bradford and Edward Taylor: Two Poets
a. Anne Bradstreet is one of the most interesting of the early poets, both her
father and her husband were governors of Massachusetts, and Anne
herself was a productive poet, a wild wife and a mother of eight children.
It was her brother-in-law who finally put her work into the hands of a
publisher and finally got her poems published, the title of the collection of
her poems was The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, most of the
poems were about the simple life of her daily life. See page 13.
b. Edward Taylor is the best of the Puritan poets, who came from England
as a young man and attended Harvard, later entering the major
profession of the time, ministry. He is the most accomplished poetic
craftsman of the early years. His work followed the style and forms of the
leading English poets of the mid-seventeenth century and his poems
showed his authentic poetic ability. Most of his poems treated religious
themes. His poems were found in manuscript in 1937 and got published in
Part II The Literature of Reason and Revolution
1. Historical Introduction
c. Thomas Paines Common Sense
d. Declaration of Independence
e. The reasons of the Independent War
f. American Enlightenment
g. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine
2. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
a. Biographical introduction
The greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived.
Benjamin Franklin is a hero of Colonial America and remains the most
famous, multi-talented figure in the nation’s history. He is a blend of a
philosopher, scientist, inventor, printer, musician, economist and statesman
and is regarded as one of the founding fathers of America. He was born in
Boston in 1706 into a poor soap and candle maker’s family by the second wife
of his father---“poor and obscure” as he says of himself in his autobiography,
the tenth boy of 17 children, he only attended grammar school for two years
and had very little formal education. At the age of 10, Franklin worked for
his father. However, his did not enjoy the candle-making profession, and two
years later, he was apprenticed to his older bother, James, as a printer.
During this period, he read widely and always believed that “ the doors of
wisdom are never shut”. At the age of 16, he began to publish essays
commenting on the social life in Boston. At the age of 17, he quarreled with
his brother and left Boston for Philadelphia to make his own fortune. It was
in this city that he got his great success and became a great man in the history
of America. He died in 1790 at the age of 84.
b. His literary achievements
Benjamin Franklin started The Pennsylvania Gazette (later The Saturday Evening Post), The Philadelphia Gazette and The General Magazine, which
publishes his writings and other revolutionary writings. He Wrote Poor Richards Almanac and The Autobiography which it still widely read today.
c. His literary position
Benjamin Franklin is the only colonial writer whose works are widely
read today. He is the writer who had a gift for writing. He had power of
expression, simplicity, and a subtle humor. He is also sarcastic. He is still
well-known for his The Autobiography. When he died , one of his fellow Americans said,His shadow lies heavier than any other man’s on this young nation.”
d. His masterpiece: The Autobiography
The Autobiography is Benjamin Franklins masterpiece on which he devoted his efforts on four different occasions over a period of 19 years. He addressed the
first part of his Autobiography to his son William Franklin (1731-1813) who was
governor of New Jersey. It was begun on July 30 and ended on or about August
13, 1771. Not until he was living in France and was minister of the newly founded
United States did Franklin work on the manuscript again. The last two sections
were written in August and the winter of 1789-1790, when he stopped because of
illness. It was published in Paris in March of 1791.
e. Appreciation of The Autobiography
The Autobiography is generally accepted as a classic of its kind, and it
inspires and delights readers everywhere. It is a simple yet immensely fascinating
record of a man rising to fame and wealth from a state of poverty and humble
origin, a faithful account of the colorful career of Americans first self-made man.
The Autobiography is, first of all, a typical embodiment of Puritanism and
the Enlightenment which were prevailing in the 18th century America. It is a
puritan document which puts great emphasis on self-examination, order, and
education in found with full expression in the writings.
The Autobiography establishes in literary form the first example of the
fulfillment of the American dream. Franklin demonstrates the possibilities of life
in the New World through his own rise from the lower middle class as a youth to
one of the most admired men in the world as an adult.
The Autobiography also tells us today what life was like in the 18th century
America. Still it is also a reflection of the 18th century idealism.
As an author he has power of expression, simplicity, sarcasm, and a subtle
humor. The style of The Autobiography will readily reveal that it is written in the pattern of Puritan simplicity, directness, and concision. The words used should
be the most expressive that the language affords, provided that they are the most
generally understood. Franklins style possesses with a masterful flexibility and original vitality. His writings seem to be always highly polished, graceful,
durable and didactic as a collection of moralizing essays.
f. What can you learn from the selected parts?
3. Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
a. Biographical introduction and literary achievements
Thomas Paine had a natural gift for pamphleteering and rebellion, and he
was born into an age of revolution.
He was regarded as “Great Commoner of Mankind”, and he was the son of a
nominal Quaker of Thetford, England. He was early apprenticed to his father, a
staymaker. At 19, he went to the sea for about two years, then he followed his
father’s trade as master staymaker in several English communities. For 12 years
he worked as an Excise officer and spent his leisure time in the eager pursuit of
books and ideas, particularly the study of social philosophy and new science.
Later he was dismissed for neglecting his duty and worked as a teacher near
London for about one year.
During his working as an excise collector, he learnt much about the
hardship of the tax-burdened masses and the hopeless of the humble workers of
his own class. When his first wife died, he married again and got a tobacconist’s
shop in Lewes where he stationed, but he still lived a poor life.
In 1722, he wrote his first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of the Excise, and spent in London for the next winter working for the benefit of his own
people in London. Later he lost he job and went to bankrupt. When he was
thirty-seven, he met Benjamin Franklin who recognized his peculiar talent and
recommended him to Philadelphia in 1774.
In Philadelphia Paine edited several magazines such as Pennsylvania
Magazine, and contributed to Pennsylvania Journal. At that time the relations
between the colony and England was in tense, and people could recognize the
political satirist of Paine. On January 10, 1876, his famous pamphlet Common
Sense appeared, which boldly advocated a “Declaration of Independence”. And
Paine became the spokesman of the American Revolution. Later he wrote a
collection of 16 pamphlets including the most well-known one The American
When the independent war was over, Paine went to Paris and London to do
some research work and reported what he observed to General Washington,
later the first American president. When he got back to America, he continued in
writing such works as Rights of Man (1791-1792), The Age of Reason (1794-1795),
Agrarian Justice (1797) and others.
When he became old, Paine stayed on his own farm, living an obscure life
and died of illness in 1809.
b. Appreciation of The American Crisis
The first of the sixteen pamphlets now known as The Crisis, these pamphlets
were firstly appeared in Pennsylvania Journal, December 19, 1776. The last one
of the sixteen pamphlets was regarded by Paine as the authoritative, which
appeared on December 9, 1783.
In this pamphlet, Paine disclosed the British government’s stern ruling
and exploitation of the colonies and called on the people to fight for their own
freedom and peace. Paine declared that “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
The language Paine used in his pamphlet is simple and concise, the sentences
are quite short but with much denotations.
(1) How did Paine describe the sufferings of the colonial people?
(2) What is the purpose of writing this pamphlet?
4. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
a. Biographical Introduction
Thomas Jefferson was born in Albemarle county, Virginia, on April 13, 1743.
nd(See the 2 paragraph on page 36)
It may be that Thomas Jefferson’s thought and personality have influenced his countrymen more deeply, and remained more effectively alive, than those of
any other American. In China, people remember Thomas Jefferson chiefly as the
writer of The Declaration of Independence as well as the president elected in 1800 for two terms.
a. Appreciation of The Declaration of Independence
1) The historic background of The Declaration of Independence
See Notes on page 42.
2) Comment on The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is written by Thomas Jefferson with the help
of Benjamin Franklin and others. It is regarded as the most important document
in the history of the United States of America. In the Declaration, the
philosophical and political ideals were expressed and the root of which can be
thfound in the 18 century thoughts of the Enlightenment Movement. The
Declaration also reflects Jefferson’s authorship, his precise clarity and powerful grace of thought.
In the Declaration, we can find that Jefferson used the Laws of Nature and of
Nature’s God to stress that the colonial Americans have the right to pursue their
life, liberty and happiness. To carry out this great task, the American people had
only to pick up arms to fight for the realization of their ideals.
We can find that Jefferson used simple words and simpler sentences in the
Declaration which makes this great document to be read and understood by all
the Americans in the thirteen colonies.
5) Philip Freneau (1752-1832)
a. Biographical Introduction
He is worthy of study as a cross-section of an intensely significant period in our
political and literary history rather than as an intrinsically wise political theorist or
a profound creator of poetic beauty.
_________Harry H. Clark
Philip Freneau is perhaps the most outstanding writer of the
Post-Revolutionary period. His double role as poet and political journalist in the
transitional age of the Revolution is consistent with the contradictions of his
poetry. Freneau was neoclassical by training and taste yet romantic in essential
sprit. He was also at once a satirist and a sentimentalist, a humanitarian but also
a bitter polemicist (orator), a poet of Reason yet celebrant of “lovely fancy”, and a deistic optimist most inspired by themes of death and transience .
Freneau was born on January 2, 1752, in New York. He was tutored for
Princeton where he established close relationship with a future president, James
Madison, and a future novelist, Hugh Henry Brackenridge. In collation with the
latter he produced his earlier work; slightly later, in “The Power of Fancy” (1770), a genuine independence appears.
After graduation and an unsatisfactory teaching experience, he gained his
first popular success in New York in 1775 as satirist of the British. In 1776,
Freneau made his first voyage to the West Indies, where he wrote “The House of Night”, foreshadowing the Gothic mood of Poe and Coleridge---F. L. Pattee calls
it “the first distinctly romantic note heard in America”---and “The Beauty of Santa Cruz”, blending the praise of nature with social protest in his characteristic
later manner. This poetry foretold achievement of a distinguished order, but he
was soon diverted from the literature into the tide of revolution. As passenger on
an American ship attacked by the British in 1780, he was taken prisoner. “The British Prison Ship” (1781) reveals this. All Freneau’s early poems were collected in The Poems of Philip Freneau Written Chiefly During the Later War (1786). In 1788, his collection of poems, essays appeared. In 1790, he got married and
almost literally flung himself as a political journalist into the raging
controversies between the Jeffersonian Democrats, whom he supported, and the
In New York, Frneau edited the Daily Advertiser. In 1791, probably with the support of Jefferson, he established in Philadelphia the National Gazette, and campaigned against the opinions of the powerful Gazette of the United States supported by Hamilton. He also served in Jefferson’s Department of State as a translating clerk and when Jefferson withdrew political circle temporarily, he
also resigned and his paper declined.
b. Freneau’s literary position
As a poet, Freneau heralded American literary independence; his close
observation of nature distinguished his treatment of indegenious wild life and
other native American subjects. In contrast with the ornate style of his early
couplets, he later developed a natural, simple, and concrete diction, best
illustrated in such nature lyrics as “The wild Honey Suckle” and “The Indian
Burying Ground”. Freneau did not establish trends, but he represented qualities that were to be characteristic of the next half century. He has been called “Father
of American Poetry”, and it is ultimately in a historical estimate that Freneau was important.
c. Comment on the three poems by Freneau
The Wild Honey Suckle`
The first stanza: This stanza tells the feature of this peculiar flower and where
this fair flower grows.
The second stanza: This stanza praises the beauty and elegance of the wild honey
The third stanza: This stanza shows the author’s regret for the short life of the
wild honey suckle.
The fourth stanza: This stanza tells that the life of the wild honey suckle is the
same as everything in this world.
The Indian Burying Ground
The first stanza: Despite the learned people’s words, the author keeps his own
opinion that the died Indians were buried in sitting posture in
order to keep their souls living eternally.
The second stanza: When the Indians died, they could still sit with their friends
and enjoy a happy life in another world.
The third stanza: When the Indians died, they had all the things they had got
while they were living.
The fourth stanza: When the Indian hunters died, they had all their hunting
tools with them which seemed that they were still hunting. The fifth stanza: When a stranger comes to prove the truth, he finds that the
Indians were buried as he has been told before. The sixth stanza: This is what the Indian burying ground is like.
The seventh stanza: The Indian burying ground was a happy place.
The eighth stanza: The Indian Queen was said to be buried here and she was
often seen by others.
The ninth stanza: When night falls, the past Indians were seen hunting as if they
were still living.
The tenth stanza: What are decorated here reflect the Indian people’s life.
To a Caty-Did
Hold group discussion among the student on this poem.
The Literature of Romanticism
Historical Introduction (See page 52)
1. History of the age
2. Literary characteristics
1. Biographical Introduction
Washington Irving was gently born and well educated, the youngest of 11
children of a prosperous New York merchant, he began a genteel reading for the
law at 16, but preferred literature very much. When he was 19, he began to
publish his writings. When he was 22, he traveled in England, Holland, France
and Italy, reading and studying what pleased him. Bach in New York, he joined
his brother in producing some papers, and began to take writing as his career.
A personal tragedy, however, changed his course for a time; the death of his
fiancée as well as the demands of his family business. So in 1810, he went to
Washington as representative of business, and he went to work in Europe for the
next 16 years. As a writer, Washington Irving was so naturally endowed that he
seemed to drift into his career at the whim of the circumstances and his own
inclination. He was the first great prose stylist of American romanticism and his
familiar style was destined to outlive the formal prose of such contemporaries as
Scott and Cooper, and to provoke a model for the prevailing prose narrative of
the future.(p.60, line 1-5)
Washington Irving was the first great belletrist (pure literature writer),
writing always for pleasure, and to produce pleasure; yet readers of all classes
responded to him in a country in which the didactic and the utilitarian had
formerly prevailed. In his Sketch Book appeared the first modern short stories and the first great American juvenile literature. He was among the first of the
moderns to write good history and biography as literary entertainment. He
introduced the familiar essay to America. On his own strange terms, Irving
restored the declining Gothic romances which Poe soon infused with
psychological subtleties. The scope of his life and writing was international, and
produced a certain breadth of view in his readers; yet his best known stories
awakened an interest in the life of American regions from the Hudson valley to
the prairies of the West.
2. His literary achievements
Washington Irving was a productive writer, his works include Sketch Book
(1819-1820), Rip Van Winkle (1819), Brace bridge Hall (1822), Tales of a Traveler
(1824), Charles the Second or The Merry Monarch (1824), A History of the Life
and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), A Chronicle of the Conquest of Grandada (1832), Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1832),
Legends of the Conquest of Spain (1835), A Tour on the prairies (1835). Astoria
(History of Astor’s fur trade, 1836), The Adventures of Captain boneville (1837),
The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow (1836), Life of Oliver Goldsmith (1840), Life of
George Washington (published from 1855-1859).