Southern American Colonial Life and Literature

While most early colonists in the Southern colonies also came from England, important differences from New England and the Middle colonies existed in the region from Maryland southward. From the late 1600s onward, increasing numbers of immigrants to the South came from non-English homelands, both in Europe and in Africa, bringing with them a variety of non-Puritan religious traditions. In addition, the physical environment and the emerging economy of the South (including the pervasive presence of slavery) were major points of contrast to life in the Northern colonies.

Southern writers, though not bound by their Northern brothers’ Puritan compulsion to be useful, nonetheless produced a large body of purposive literature. Sermons, tracts promoting settlement in the region, nature studies, and essays and treatises on scientific and education topics were written and published. Humor, however, often in the form of satire, was far more apt to be created by a Southern author who would not have to face censure from a Puritan theocracy.

The difference in religious composition is reflected in the style and content of those texts that addressed spiritual themes. Sermons would often focus on the practical, everyday application of scriptural themes rather than on constant anxieties over depravity and election. The variety of religious denominations and traditions in the region (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and others) led to tolerance for various theologies; this tolerance, often to the point of general disinterest in religious matters, is evident in Southern colonial literature and stands in stark contrast to rigid New England Puritanism.

Although an overt theology is not evident in all Southern literature, the writings from the colonial period do reflect Southerners’ shared sense of mission with their fellow colonists in New England and the Middle colonies. Like their Northern counterparts, most Southerners lived in rural areas, and most farmed, an occupation that grew with the emergence and expansion of tobacco culture early in the colonial period. The climate and terrain of the Southern colonies not to mention the use of slave labor for the continual work required to raise a crop made daily life somewhat easier in this area, however, allowing, in turn, more leisure time for the process of writing.

A number of colonial-era texts document the traditional world of gracious Southern life. One component of this life involved widespread literacy among white males, a characteristic that grew throughout all the colonies as time went on. Another was a widespread interest in the fine arts and the sciences, both of which flourished in the absence of Puritan mandates against frivolous pursuits and questioning the unknowable ways of God. As a consequence, a decidedly belletristic strain quickly became ingrained as a hallmark of Southern gentility.

While the overwhelming evils of the slave system in America need not be recounted here, the presence of Africans in the colonies did provide an important contribution to the literature of the New World. Folklore, folk tales, songs, superstitions, religious rituals and beliefs, and other traditions were all part of slave life. Although this oral tradition was not put down in writing until the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, it would certainly have been known among most white writers in the colonial South. It is difficult to say how much of this African contribution is directly evident in colonial literature, but it certainly forms an important part of the backdrop against which authors were writing.


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