America Begins: Early American Writing

America Begins: Early American Writing

America Begins: Early American Writing

America Begins: Early American Writing

Excerpt

The American story begins in the seventeenth century and can be read in stirring firsthand narratives written at white heat. But to most reading Americans the century remains a murky prologue to the familiar scenes and actors of later days. We appreciate the belles-lettres of the nineteenth century, and we perforce memorize illustrious documents from the eighteenth, and there we stop, indifferent to our roots, although scholars digging about them have uncovered lively genres in the Indian captivity, the colonial treaty, the promotional tract, and other unlikely places.

Just to think of names from the heroic period of settlement we must rack our brains. John Smith kissed Pocahontas, but what else did he do? John Smith has no dimensions, like, say, Ben Franklin, although the one wrote as much about himself as the other. Cotton Mather was a fusty old curmudgeon given to composing splenetic sermons that get courses in American literature off to a sour start. Beyond these misty two, who but antiquarians and quiz kids would know of John Josselyn, Jasper Danckaerts, Henry Norwood, Edward Johnson?

Of course some heckler may ask, who wants to know, but he can, I think, be rapidly silenced. The critics of early American writings say they lack literary value, and in the sense that the colonizers and travelers produced no great verse or drama or reflective essays the criticism can stand, although it quite misses the point. The real point is that the firstcomers to America turned out some graphic and salty and dramatic narrations, doing justice to the epic enterprise that engaged them and produced us; and you may choose or not to call those relations and accounts "literature." I would, on the grounds that factual as well as fictional storytelling can be art. But at any rate and by any name the personal experiences and observations of the new world incidentally set forth by sailors, planters, ministers, soldiers and promoters frequently make fresh and awesome reading.

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