Students taking the course “Early American Literature” this semester with Assistant Professor of English Alex Black are exploring prose and verse spanning three centuries through the works of writers, poets and authors such as William Bradford, John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Lydia Maria Child, Emily Dickinson and Zitkala Sa.
Written by Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans – and ranging from as early as the first permanent English settlements to the late 1890s – the texts featured in the course illuminate the idea of “nation” with particular focus on people, culture, land and governments.
“You can look at this course as an introduction to American literature that’s giving students a literary and historical foundation that they can build upon,” Black says. “It is my hope that the students have a much better sense of the culture and history of what would become the United States – and observe those connections through the course material.”
“Early American Literature,” Black says, creates opportunities for students to begin to think about what purpose certain writings have served in culture.”
For example, one of the earliest writers addressed during the course is Bradford, who was a pilgrim, a Puritan, a signer of the Mayflower Compact and Governor of the Plymouth Colony. Famously, Bradford authored “Of Plymouth Plantation,” a 17th-century account of the beginning of the Plymouth colony, including historical reports associated to the Mayflower. The manuscript – first published during the mid-19th century – has served as a launching point for classroom discussion. It also offers, for example, one of two early accounts of the “first” Thanksgiving.
“There are many contemporary views of the Pilgrims that tend to produce these spectacular scenes in our minds,” Black says. “Some of the events we understand today didn’t necessarily have that same treatment back then. In Bradford’s report, he presents the happenings in a very matter of fact way.”
Black says views of how things happened, particularly the first Thanksgiving, have taken on an almost “mythical” form in contemporary understanding.
“In certain ways our interest in Thanksgiving is a product of the 19th century and their interest in the early settlers at that time,” Black says. “The 19th century had a role in shaping the Pilgrims as we know them today.”
Black says there are two other writers covered during the course who have some connection to Thanksgiving, though the class is not reading those specifics works related to the holiday. The class read a short story by Child, the poet who authored the well-known Thanksgiving poem, “Over the River and Through the Wood,” also known as “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”
In addition, the class is reading Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 “Gettysburg Address.” That same year, Lincoln called for two days of Thanksgiving, including one at the end of November. It was the first time the day for Thanksgiving was nationally recognized and has been an important federal holiday ever since, Black says.
“When you look at the various contexts for Thanksgiving you get a sense of what it means over time,” Black says. “You get a different sense of the culture.”
For Nicole Harrington ’17, the course is expanding her view of early America at the intersection of literature, history and culture.
“The course forces me to view the authors or texts I’ve already read for different courses in a new perspective, when read through the lens of colonial America,” Harrington says. “For me, understanding the context of the period during which something was written definitely influences my understanding and appreciation for the text as a whole.”
To conclude the course, students are preparing thematic anthologies centered on a particular area of interest, for example nature.
Harrington is focusing on women in early American literature for her anthology.
“I’d like to discuss women’s rights during the period and the ways in which slavery is portrayed much differently when written from a female perspective,” Harrington says. “A certain level of emotion and a definite focus on family and relationships is absent from slavery texts written by men, which is something I’d never learned or even thought about before this course. The readings we’ve done this semester have greatly expanded my knowledge of what it meant to be a female writer in colonial America and how the public’s perception of female writers was vastly different from that of male authors.”
Carmelo Guglielmino ’16 says his anthology will, in part, focus on the role that religion’s influence has had on issues such as racial perspectives.
“I noticed for instance that many converts of African or Native American descent were able to easily counter Christians trying to justify slavery or racial inequality with their (clearer) understanding of the religion,” Guglielmino says.
Jens Olavson ’17 says the course has been significant in broadening his understanding of American writings before the 20th century.
“I am excited for the anthology project, though we are still in the early stages of it…,” Olavson says. “I intend to frame various works of poetry within the antebellum as exemplifications of Emersonian ideologies.”