The Colonial Period in American Literature

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      The American literature has its origin in folk literature. During the later period, it became written literature in its early phase - this includes the immature writings of the immigrants, of the Native Americans and the blacks. The blacks from distant Africa were brought by ships as slaves to the colonies for manual work. They were bought here and sold in America, like the cattle. Some of them had opportunities to educate themselves before the establishment of schools. In order to understand the literary history of the particular time, it is also necessary to know the history of the particular period. Usually, we find the cross-cultural transactions between literary texts and the contemporary socio-political, historical, moral, and religious events. In understanding the American literature of the particular period, it is good to allow, at least, the historical events of the period especially, when history and literature are closely connected.

       In this colonial period (1620-1776), there was a long history of the Red Indian natives. The early discoveries of the sea routes took place by the Europeans and colonial settlements of the Spaniards, French, Dutch, Swedes, Italians, Portuguese, Germans, and the English followed the discovery of the new lands was primarily motivated by the Europeans disgust and desperateness to live in their countries. They had a strong desire to go away elsewhere in the world in search of food, shelter and better opportunities. The European monarchies sponsored such voyages by which the captains could bring a lot of wealth to the throne and nation by hook or crook. In every European’s mind, there was the most exciting dream of an imaginary land of riches, i.e., “El Do Rado (“Land of Paradise”). Behind this motive of geographical exploration, it was also a basic zest to know the wonderful Unknown.

      The immigrants from England took place between 1600-1680 due to the changing socio-economic life, the increased population of 40,00,000 and the conflict between the Protestantism of Martin Luther and the Catholicism grows. The ‘Puritanism’, an offshoot of Calvinism in I England, became full of “sturdy beggars and paupers” who engaged in “lewd and naughty practices”. The unhappy Protestants, especially those who felt that their King had not parted company completely with the Papacy, came to look upon the land of America as a desirable dwelling place for people only of their faith. So they migrated in large number; along with them the Catholics also did. The colonization process by them was going on. In course of time, the French, Spanish and the English became the powerful colonizers of the different parts of America.

      Of them all, the British, became the most powerful and dominant by their strategy of ‘divide and rule’. The large-scale conversion of the natives into Christianity further strengthened the process of the imperial expansion and the establishment of the British rule. By 1680, it seems that the English people almost stopped their migration to the American colonies. Instead, several thousand Europeans were already migrated to save their lives from the onslaught of the civil wars in Europe. For their immigration, there might be other reasons also. There was the threat of the despotic rule of the monarchical governments and the oppression of the displaced and landless people by the industrial lords. The population of the new country reached 2.5 million in 1775. At the same time, there was also the internal migration of the small and middle-class families from one American colony to the other but the distinctions lift between the colonies remained always fixed. The first important ones were the three - the New England, The Middle Colonies and the Southern Colonies. The New England is probably the earliest colony. In the early stage, there was no more possibility of fanning because of the long winters and uneven land containing more rocky land with little soil. To cultivate it, they needed enough river water. So, the new Englanders naturally established the grain mills and sawmills, harnessing the available waterpower. The trade and commerce became more flourished because of excellent water-bays and the shipping industry. The colonial expansion was inclusive of the trade, commerce and administration. Soon, in order to spread education, the establishment of missionary schools of their own followed. Because of the religious nature of missionary education, the literary productions were gradually begun in the growing colonies. To some extent, the codfish industry led the people to more material prosperity in the district of Massachusetts. Despite many illiterate and uneducated people still lived in the villages, the village school, village church and village hall became the first centers of public discourse-foundation of democracy. Boston, became one of the most important ports.

     Pennsylvania and Delaware were also prospered under the administration of William Penn, the governor. The social composition of these colonies became more varied and cosmopolitan compared to that of the New England. Philadelphia, yet another town, grew into a city and became well-developed by the end of the colonial rule. Nearly 30,000 migrants lived there. The Germans also became the colony’s most skilled farmers though the Quakers dominated in the town of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, became a new gateway into the New World of the Scots-Irish. New York, another town, developed the polyglot nature of the America as there were peoples of mixed races.

      The early American folk literature begins with the oral myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of The Red Indian cultures. More than 500 different Red Indian languages and tribal cultures that existed in the nook and corners of North America before the Europeans arrived. As a result, the oral literature of the ‘native’ Americans is quite diverse. The narratives from quasi-nomadic hunting cultures like, the Navajo are different from the folk tales of the settled agricultural tribes such as the pueblo-dwellers. The narratives of the Ojibwa - the lake side dwellers, are radically different from those of the desert dwelling tribes like, the Hopi. The tribes maintained their own primitive religions - worshipping gods, animals, plants, or sacred persons as the ancient Hindus. The systems of the ‘tribal’ government ranged from the democratic to the councils of the elders to the theocracies. These socio-cultural variations of these tribes usually get into the folk literature as well. The Red Indian stories, for example, are full of reverence for the Nature as a spiritual as well as physical mother. In them, the Nature is alive and vibrant, endowed with spiritual forces. There are characters which may be animals or plants, or individuals. This is the closest to the Red Indian sense of holiness or sacredness in later American literature is - the ‘transcendentalism’ of the New Englanders during of the 19th century. It is similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist idea of “Over Soul” which pervades all life.

      The Mexican tribes of the South America revered the divine Quetzalcoatl, a god of the Toltecs and Aztecs. Some tales of a high god or culture were told elsewhere. D.H. Lawrence refers to these tribal gods in his novel Kangaroo. There are no long, standardized religious cycles about the One Supreme Divinity. The closest equivalents to the Old World spiritual narratives are often descriptive accounts of shaman’s initiations and voyages. Besides, there are interesting stories about the cultural heroes such as the Ojibwa tribe’s Manabazlio or the Navajo tribe’s Coyote. These heroic tricksters are treated with varying degrees of respect and devotion. In one of the popular tales, they may act like heroes; in another, they may seem ordinarily foolish or selfish like the ordinary human beings. According to the past authorities, such as the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, they have deprecated trickster tales as expressing the inferior, amoral side of the human psyche. The Americans point out that the Odysseus and the Prometheus, the most revered Greek heroes, are essentially the tricksters. The examples of almost every oral genre may be found in American Indian literature: the lyrics, chants, myths, fairy tales, humorous anecdotes, incantations, riddles, proverbs, epics, and legendary histories.

      The highly descriptive accounts of the internal migrations of the ancestors are abounding as do the supernatural vision or ‘healing’ songs and tricksters’ tales. Certain stories of the creation of the earth and universe are very popular. In one of the well-known stories told with variations among many tribes — a turtle holds up the world as adishesha a great snake holds up the world in the Hindu mythology. In a Cheyenne version, the creator, Maheo has four opportunities to change the world from a watery universe into the existing one. He sends four water birds which dive and try to bring up earth for the bottom of the abyss. The birds like, the snow goose, loon, and mallard soar into the sky and sweep down in a dive. They cannot reach the bottom. The little coot, succeeds in bringing up a little mud in his small beak. The only one creature, the humble Grandmother Turtle is in the right shape to support the mud world. Maheo shapes on her shell. Hence, the Red Indian name for America became popularised as “Turtle Island”.

      The folk songs, like the fictional narratives, ranging from the sacred to the light and humorous. There are fine war chants, love songs, and special ‘occasional’ songs for children’s games, gambling, lullabies, various chores, magical or dance ceremonials. Generally, the folk songs are usually repetitive in their structure. A short poem or song given in dreams, sometimes, has the explicit imagery and the subtle mood associated with Japanese haiku or the eastern-influenced imagistic verse. Indian oral tradition and its relation to American literature as a whole is one of the richest explored topics. The Red Indian contribution to America is greater than is often believed. The hundreds of the Red Indian words in everyday American English include “canoe,” “tobacco,” “potato,” “moccasin,” “moose,” “persimmon,” “raccoon,” “tomahawk,” and “totem.” The contemporary Native American writing discussed later, contains works of immense poetic beauty.

      The inhabitants of some parts in South America speak Spanish. It is likely that they form one nation with Mexico, or speak French and be joined with Canadian Francophone Quebec and Montreal. The earliest explorers of America were not English, Spanish, or French. The European record of their exploration in America is in a Scandinavian language. The Old Norse Vinland Saga recounts how the adventurous Leif Ericson. A band of wandering Norsemen settled briefly somewhere on the northeast coast of America - probably Nova Scotia, in Canada. This is in the first decade of the seventeenth century, almost 400 years before the next recorded discovery of the New World.

      The first known contact between the two Americas and the rest of the world began with the famous voyage of an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish King Ferdinand and the Queen Isabella. The Columbus’s journal “Epistola,” printed in 1493, recounts the trip’s drama - the terror of the men who feared monsters and thought they might fall off the edge of the world, the near mutiny how much farther they had traveled than anyone had gone before; and the first seeing the land as they neared America. Bartholomew de las Casas is the rich source of information about the early contacts between American Indians and the Europeans. As a young priest, he helped the colonial warriors to conquer Cuba. It is who transcribed Columbus’s journal late in life and also wrote a long vivid choronial of the Indians criticizing their enslavement by the Spaniards.

      The initial English attempts at colonization were seriously disastrous. The first colony was set up by them in 1585 at Roanoke, off the coast of North Carolina. All the colonists disappeared, and to this day, the legends are told about blue-eyed Croatian Indians of the area. The second colony Jamestown was more permanently established in the year 1607. It endured starvation, brutality, and misrule. However, the written literature of the period exotically, portrays America in glowing colors as the land of riches and opportunity. The descriptive accounts of the colonization became famous. The details of the geographical exploration of Roanoke was carefully recorded by one named Thomas Herriot in his travelogue A Brief and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia (1588) which was quickly translated into Latin, French, and German languages.

      The main record of Jamestown colony is the writing of Captain John Smith, one of its important leaders. He is supposed to be the founder of that colony. In a sense, he, in his actions, is exactly opposite to the accurate account of Thomas Herriot. Smith was an incurable romantic hero who seems to have knitted tales of his adventures. To him, we owe the famous story of the Red Indian maiden, Pocahontas - whether it is true or not, the legendary tale is engrafted into the American imagination. The story vividly recounts how Pocahontas, favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan, saved the life Captain Smith, a prisoner of her father. Later, when the English persuaded Powhatan to give Pocahontas to them as a hostage, her gentleness, intelligence, and beauty impressed the English. In the year of 14, she later got married to John Rolfe, a rich English gentleman. This historic marriage of a Red Indian princess and an English gentleman granted a peace treaty of eight years to the new colony.

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