Tuesday, August 18, 2009

So, Where ARE We Starting?

The study of American Lit must, if we're being honest, begin with a caveat. We are not studying the best writers of the 17th-18th Centuries. We're studying who we've got. In comparison to anybody, including our missing native oral historians, these people suck. Is that too blunt?

Think of it this way: If your life in Europe is so bad that coming to America -- no food, no comforts, no commerce, no welcome from the natives -- seems better, then you're probably not the introspective, writing type. (Puritans were the exceptions to this, but we'll get to them later.) On top of any predisposition not to write, let's add the energy it takes to stay alive when you have to either find or make every single thing that makes life possible. You will not have a lot of time, at the end of the day, to perfect your prose.

When we look at early American literature, therefore, we aren't looking for the apex of anything. We ARE looking at what we can think of as "reality writing," kind of like reality television in 1609. It's not polished, mostly not written for public consumption, and certainly not written to contribute to prose style. In other words, don't expect too much until the end of the 17th Century, and even then, keep in mind that the writers were more interested in didacticism than in writing for its own sake, or -- Heaven forfend -- for entertainment.

William Bradford is our arbitrary starting point this semester, for a number of reasons that all end with "Because I want to." As far as I'm concerned, he's the first person writing on American soil who has a genuine sense of BEING on American soil. In Virginia, we have a collection of British citizens who are mostly concerned with making money, and their writing has a certain real-estate-advertisement quality to it. They tended to assess everything in terms of its commercial usefulness. If you don't believe me, go read John Smith, between the lines, if possible.

Bradford and his fellow Puritans, in contrast, were interested in a new world order. Their overt goal was to establish in America the kind of theocratic civilization that should have happened in Europe. A prolific writer and a keen observer, Bradford gives us the best account we've got of the struggle involved in creating a "City on a Hill" while people are actively trying to kill you, and you're starving to death. Even better, for our purposes, Bradford understood Rule One: If it's not written down, it didn't happen.

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