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17th Century Colonial Literature

American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. After a successful rebellion against England, America became the United States.

The history of American literature begins with the arrival of English-speaking Europeans. At first American literature was naturally a colonial literature, by authors who were Englishmen and who thought and wrote as such.

John Smith, a soldier of fortune, is credited with initiating American literature. His famous books included A True Relation of…Virginia…(1608) and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Although these volumes often glorified their author, they were written to explain colonizing opportunities to Englishmen.

Many colonial writers expressed British allegiance, but others stressed the differences of opinion that caused the colonists to leave their homeland. More important, they argued questions of government involving the relationship between church and state.

The utilitarian writings of the 17th century included biographies, treatises, accounts of voyages, and sermons. There were few achievements in drama or fiction, since there was a widespread prejudice against these forms.

All 17th-century American writings were in the manner of British writings of the same period. John Smith wrote in the tradition of geographic literature, Bradford echoed the cadences of the King James Bible, while the Mathers and Roger Williams wrote flowery prose typical of the day. Anne Bradstreet’s poetic style derived from a long line of British poets, in the tradition of such Metaphysical poets as George Herbert and John Donne. Both the content and form of the literature of this first century in America were thus markedly English.


Source: 17th Century Colonial Literature
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