The literature of colonial America is primarily English in its origin. Like most of colonial life, it is reflective of the English roots of most of the colonists. While differences can be observed between the literature of the Northern colonies and that of the South, and between various periods within the colonial era, the overall, similar topics and themes reflect the prevailing concerns and attitudes of the era as a whole.
New England and the Middle Colonies: Life and Literature New England and, to a lesser degree, the Middle colonies were heavily settled by Puritan immigrants. Not surprisingly, then, a strong Puritan influence is evident in the literature of these Northern colonies, particularly that written early in the colonial era. In terms of forms, topics, and ideology, Puritanism undergirds virtually all English-language colonial literature produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Puritans in England had been particularly critical of the arts and entertainment, which they believed to be frivolous. Many of these same beliefs came across the sea with the new settlers. Accordingly, humor, dramas or theatrical plays, and fictional works, including short stories and novels, are virtually unknown in Northern colonial literature. Instead, sermons, essays, and treatises, on moral and ethical topics, and other “useful” nonfiction are the norm. Letters, journals, and diaries also were written, usually to convey moral or practical information to the anticipated reader. Such works might contain useful observations concerning the land, plants, and animals in a given location, descriptions that might be used to inform newcomers or attract prospective settlers.
In some cases, poetry was the chosen form of expression, particularly for official, commemorative, or memorial occasions. Often such poetry was religious in nature, expressing adoration for God and his Creation. Writing poetry was also one of the limited creative options available to colonial women, although few had time in their busy daily lives to engage in it. (Presumably, this “feminine” form of literary production would have been considered harmless by the Puritan leadership.) Sometimes, ministers employed poetry to convey Biblical truths, reminders for thanksgiving, or warnings against ungodly conduct. Various psalters, or rudimentary hymnbooks, were used in worship services to aid in the congregational recitation of Scripture. Initially, music and song were forbidden in Puritan worship, although these constraints eased somewhat with the passage of time.
Regardless of the form or style of the text, it is important to recognize the underlying reliance on religious thought in Northern writings of the colonial period. Even when examining what might seem to be a piece of mundane correspondence, for instance, one is quickly struck by the reference to Puritan concerns: a colonist writing to a friend in England was as likely as not to include references to God’s providence in the new land, to his new community’s responsibility to plant the kingdom of heaven in the wilderness, or to signs of God’s grace to His undeserving and sinning children. The pervasive nature of Puritan ideology finally waned with time, particularly in the Middle colonies, with the arrival of immigrants from Germany and other non-Anglican European nations.
Physical surroundings in New England and the Middle colonies also played a part in the production of literature. Arriving in a literal wilderness meant long hours of hard manual labor for early colonists. Even after settlements became established with the passage of time, most Northern colonists lived in rural settings. Usually, colonists’ days began at sunrise and ended at sundown, and constant manual labor engaged men, women, and children. It is little wonder, then, that comparatively little literature was produced in the early days of New England and the Middle colonies. The surprise is, rather, that any was produced at all.
Given the importance that Puritans placed on Bible reading by individual worshippers, literacy was emphasized even during the harsh and labor-filled days of the early settlement period. And, indeed, literacy rates were higher in New England than in colonies farther south or even in England, for that matter. At a higher level, the need to train clergy in secular and spiritual leadership led to a precocious development of institutions of higher learning. Harvard College, for example, was founded in 1636, just six years after the Puritans first settled in Boston.
Puritans, indeed, saw themselves as God’s chosen people in the New World, and they believed their primary and overwhelming duty was to live as devout members of the Elect. As a consequence, much literature of the Northern colonies throughout the period strove to present moral guidance. Even with the approach of the Revolutionary War, the prevailing concern of establishing God’s kingdom in the New World formed the basic framework of literature from New England and the Middle colonies.