Much of the colonial literature studied today falls into the category of religious writings. Of this body of work, the first example is John Winthrop’s sermon A Modell of Christian Charity (1639), given aboard the ship Arabella before it landed in the New World. Winthrop’s notion of the English colonists serving as God’s representatives on an errand into the wilderness was widely shared by his contemporaries. It formed one of the foundations of the establishment of the new society, as did his exhortations to Puritans to consider themselves a city upon a hill, an example of godly living for all nations. Other famous sermons of the colonial period include Michael Wigglesworth’s epic 1662 poem/sermon, Day of Doom, which warned his Puritan flock against the terrors of being unprepared on Judgment Day; Jonathan Edwards’ A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734), in which he explained the mystery of God’s grace in terms of human understanding; and Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), another fire-and-brimstone sermon aimed at frightening wayward Christians back into goodness to avoid judgment at the whim of a wrathful and righteous God.
Much of the colonial literature that survives is in the form of poetry. Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom was widely circulated and was quite popular in its day. Another minister, Edward Taylor, undertook poetic art for his own edification rather than for publication. By the mid-1680s, Taylor began what would become two series of private Preparatory Meditations. These poems, beautifully written and filled with vivid descriptions and figures of speech, reveal the tensions Taylor himself felt between man and God as he prepared to receive and administer the sacraments.
Two colonial women also created poetry that has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. One, Anne Bradstreet, came from England with her parents and husband to escape persecution for their Puritan faith. Although her father Thomas Dudley and husband Simon were leaders in their community, daily life and child rearing in the harsh conditions of colonial America were not easy for Anne, who was often left to manage on her own when Simon was required to be away on business. Nevertheless, she had been well educated by her parents and had read widely as a child in classic and contemporary literature in her father’s library. Not surprisingly, she found the writing of poetry to be a comforting and enjoyable release for her feelings in the midst of a difficult life in a new land. Much of Bradstreet’s poetry, written from the mid-1640s through the 1660s, is imitative of works she had read, but she provides a valuable picture of the life of a colonial Puritan woman. Her poems cover topics as diverse as religious worship and adoration, mourning for a family house that burned, grief over a grandchild who died in infancy, and the joys of married love.
The Massachusetts Puritan Anne Bradstreet is widely regarded as the first American poet of note. Her Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America appeared in 1650. Several Poems, which contained much of her best work, was published in 1672, six years after her death. (Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress)
The other woman poet was Phillis Wheatley, a young slave woman from Boston. She earned international renown with the 1773 publication of a volume of her verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Although the poems are highly derivative of her favorite writers’ works, the volume is generally remembered for its value as the accomplishment of a colonial woman and as the first volume of works published by an African American. Probably the two most widely remembered works of colonial literature form bookends for the period: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, written from 1630 to 1647, and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, written during the 1770s. Despite the different times in which they lived and the theological beliefs the authors held, there are remarkable points of comparison between these two texts. Both offer extensive practical and empirical information to interested readers, sometimes dealing with the most mundane matters. While they ascribe natural and spiritual phenomenon to different sources, both the Puritan Winthrop and the Deist Franklin are convinced of a superior power at work in the affairs of man. These authors discuss their own experiences as men in positions of leadership within their local communities and colonial America as a whole, and they strive to create texts that will be in the best Puritan sense of the word useful to future generations. Bradford’s and Franklin’s books are usually pointed to as the most valuable historical and cultural texts of their respective time periods.
American colonial literature was a diverse field of endeavor, with constraints of time, energy, leisure, religious guidelines, and even gender combining to inspire many variations over the years of the colonial period. While the volume of such works may seem small compared to other eras, the quality of those texts that have survived offer modern readers fascinating insights into life during the founding days of the nation. Barbara Schwarz Wachal See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Chronology); Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Bradford, William; Bradstreet, Anne; Education; Education, Higher; Edwards, Jonathan; Franklin, Benjamin; Libraries; Reading and Literacy; Taylor, Edward; Theater; Warren, Mercy Otis; Wheatley, Phillis; Winthrop, John; Wright, Susanna; Documents: A Modell of Christian Charity; Upon the Burning of Our House (1666); A Poem Recalling the Hanging of a Relative due to the Salem Witch Trials (in 1692; pub. 1857); Captivity Narrative of Mary Jemison in the 1750s (pub. 1824); Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie (in 1755; pub. 1847); On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield (1770). Bibliography Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin, 1994. Nelson, Dana D. “Reading the Written Selves of Colonial America: Franklin, Occom, Equiano, and Palou/Serra.” Resources for American Literary Study 19:2 (1792): 246 59. Scheick, William J. Authority and Female Authorship in Colonial America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Ziff, Larzer. The Literature of America: Colonial Period. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.