Native American and Colonial Literature

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  • 0:05 Early America
  • 1:08 Native American Oral Tradition
  • 2:54 Puritan Writing
  • 5:05 Early American…
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What types of writing were popular during the early days of the United States? In this lesson, we'll look at three major categories of 17th and 18th century American writing in more detail: Native American oral stories, Puritan writing, and early American political writing.

Early America

Imagine that you are faced with a vast wilderness. You, your family, and a few of your friends must live in the midst of this wilderness. You must find a way to get food from the land, set up shelter, and organize yourselves into a semblance of society.

Five hundred years ago, America was an open, wild land. Both European settlers and Native Americans were faced with many of the same issues: food, shelter, and politics. As might be expected, these issues influenced the literature of both groups. People struggled with the hardships of life in 17th century America, and in order to make sense of their world, they developed stories and applied religious beliefs to explain hardships and blessings alike.

There are three major categories of literature from 17th and 18th century America: Native American oral stories, Puritan writings, and early American political writings. Let's look at each one a little closer.

Native American Oral Tradition

An oral tradition is a series of stories passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, as opposed to writing them down. Oral storytelling was a key component of Native American cultures.

There were many different Native American tribes, and as a result, there were myriad of different tales passed down through oral tradition. But there were a few elements that many of the Native American stories have in common.

  1. A hero's journey. Many of the stories deal with a hero who goes through a series of hardships and has to rise above them, using his skills and smarts. Sometimes, the hero has to make a sacrifice for the good of the larger community.
  2. A trickster God interferes. The trickster is a staple in many Native American stories. He likes to mess with humans and cause havoc. Sometimes his tricks are harmless enough, but sometimes they represent real peril or roadblocks that the hero must face.
  3. Nature changes. The actions of the hero and/or the gods in Native American stories often end up affecting or changing nature. In this way, nature becomes a symbol of what the hero is going through. Sometimes natural problems, such as a lack of rain or too much snow, are the beginning of the hero's journey, and sometimes they are something that pops up during the journey.
  4. Worlds are created. Creation is a key element in many of the Native American stories. Sometimes, this creation has to do with the literal creation of the world. Other times, creation is seen in the changing of the seasons or the birth of a new generation. Even the living rhythm of language was seen as a kind of creation; after all, it is in storytelling and language that people create worlds and make sense of them.

Puritan Writing

There were many types of European settlements in America in the 1600s, and all of them had their own oral and written literature. However, a group of settlers known as the Puritans dominated the colonial literary scene in America.

The Puritans were a group of English Protestants who were discriminated against in England. As a result, many of them moved to America to seek freedom and found their own colony based on the religious and political beliefs of their members.

Why did Puritan writing have a stronger influence on colonial literature than other groups? Well, for one thing, the Puritans were mostly middle-class and well-educated. Compare that to some of the other colonies, which were founded by tradesmen who did not put as much emphasis on reading and writing.

The Puritans wrote more stories than any other settlers in the 1600s.
Puritans Picture

There were several things that distinguish Puritan writing:

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