Characteristics of Colonial American Literature

Colonial American literature emerged from the original U.S. colonies during the period from 1607 to the late 1700s and was largely influenced by British writers. Many of the characteristics of colonial American literature can be found in the poems, journals, letters, narratives, histories and teaching materials written by settlers and religious and historic figures of the period. Colonial American literature includes the writings of Mary Rowlandson, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop.

Narrative Focus

Colonial American literature is characterized by the narrative, which was used extensively during this period. Most of the literary works of this genre are composed of letters, journals, biographies and memoirs. An example is Mary Rowlandson’s narrative account “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson." This narrative gives an insider’s story of a colonist being captured by Native Americans and describes the heavy hostility between the Native Americans and colonists. Rowland’s story is categorized as an autobiography and captivity narrative.

Religion and Poetry

Religion is prominent in colonial American literature and can be found mostly in Puritan writings. The Puritans wrote about the religious foundations of many of their settlements, especially the exodus from Britain, and employed the constant theme that God should be worshiped. They also used texts that prepared them for worship. This literature helped spread the message of God, suggesting that “life was a test” and the soul would face damnation if that test was failed. Ambition and hard work were continuously stressed. Many of the Puritan works were written in poetry form. Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, the “Bay Psalm Book,” and Pastor Edward Taylor’s “Preparatory Mediations” are good examples of religious texts of the era. It was this type of writing that led to the Puritanism and Great Awakening movements. Non-Puritan writers also used religion to show the religious tension between the colonial settlers and Native Americans.

The Enlightenment

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment showed a great shift in colonial American literature from a religious foundation to scientific reasoning applied to human nature, society, culture and political awareness. Many texts were written in pamphlet or narrative form and challenged the role of God and religious life, seeking to replace them with reason. Rational thought and science were the new themes. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” and the pamphlet “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine explored many of these new ideas. Similar texts also led the way to more awareness of social, economic and scientific issues. The American Revolution played a large part in this shifting of ideas.

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