The following is another essay from my American Lit course. I have adapted it to be slightly more pleasant to read in digital format.
The act of writing is almost always an exercise in discovery. Whether it is self-discovery for the author, or a lesson in discovery for the reader, there is always an exchange of information or emotion with the written word.
Yet, the early period of American literature was one of rich and deep exploration and discovery of both the self and the world at large. It is difficult to think of an early American writer whose work was not deeply engrossed with the discovery of the New World that they had come to settle.
Captain John Smith was one of the first to write about the newly discovered American world, and his narratives of his experiences traveling to and settling into the American soil, as well as his and his companions’ discovery of the local resources and native residents is rich with the discovery of a new people and way of life, as well as their discovery of their own character amidst their changing landscape and human interactions.
From Smith’s narrative of his experiences with the Powhatan Indians and others, it is clear that the young farmer turned explorer was constantly discovering the depths of human desperation amidst change, including his own feats of self-preservation and endurance.
In “What Happened till the First Supply,” Smith says that “everything of worth is found full of difficulties […]” (Smith 57), and it is evident from his writings that the exploration and settlement of the new world was indeed full of difficulties for Smith and his companions, but they also discovered a new land and its native residents, as well as a way to survive and communicate with those residents.
It was a difficult discovery that was full of death and danger, but amidst their large discoveries, Smith discovered much about himself and his ability to survive as he “tasted of plenty and pleasure, as well as want and misery” (Smith 67), but he also discovered the lengths that he and his companions would go to survive and expand. Smith also discovered the lengths that the natives would go to protect their way of life.
It is clear from both the settlers and the natives actions that people will take drastic steps to preserve themselves and their way of life, and this is a lesson of discovery that Smith certainly learned.
The early Puritans also wrote about their experience with leaving their homeland of England and settling into their new lives in America. Their writings are full of self-discovery as they navigate the changing landscape of their daily and spiritual lives.
Anne Bradstreet experienced many hardships of physical nature, as well as emotional and spiritual. Like any other Puritan, Bradstreet was dedicated to her faith, but she also allowed herself to admit her doubts and misgivings about God and her religion. In one of her writings, “To My Dear Children,” Bradstreet admitted that “Satan [had] troubled [her] concerning the verity of the Scriptures,” and she many times experienced doubt that there was a God.
However, her faith withstood those trials, and while she speaks of having never seen miracles to support her faith, she also speaks of the many times that she experienced “God’s hearing [her] prayers and returning comfortable answers” to her (Bradstreet 128-29). From her own words of her experiences, we can see that Anne discovered a faith in God that was stronger than she had thought.
Though she wrote of worldly pleasures, she acknowledges this throughout her writing, and it is evident that as Anne discovered more about herself and her fleshly weaknesses and traumas, she also discovered more about her strength and her faith.
Thus, her faith in God was strengthened as she progressed in her self-discovery. As a Puritan who was also new to the American settlement, Anne also discovered a new way of life in the new world and a new Spiritual life as she and her fellow Puritans worked to separate themselves from the different teachings from which they were breaking.
After her illnesses and a fire which claimed her belongings, Anne also discovered a new inner strength and re-prioritization within herself, continuing her self-discovery.
Like Bradstreet, Edward Taylor wrote of his experiences as a Puritan in the new settlement. However, his writings tend to be more focused on and directed toward God. Still, we can see in his writings a struggle that Taylor had as he also experienced changing life and circumstances, as well as his changing perspective through his traumatic and tragic experiences.
Also like Bradstreet, Taylor’s faith remained in-tact toward the end, and through his writings, we can see that he did not allow himself to give into as much doubt as Bradstreet, but his words do show an undeniable self-discovery of his own doubts in God’s goodness and his own dedication to God.
In his poem, “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” Taylor speaks of the grief that “would pierce hearts like stones” (Taylor 158) when his daughter died shortly after her birth, and we can see that Taylor also discovered momentary doubt within himself, as well as the strength to go on. Yet, like all of those of his time, his life was full of discovery of self, but also the discovery of the new life and difficult experiences that they would have in their new life in America.
The early explorers and settlers of America were not the only ones who documented their lives and experiences as the world changed. The Native Americans also experienced much change and upheaval, and the “Trickster Tales” are unique from the writings of the English settlers who changed their world. Yet, even those tales aimed at teaching and passing on wisdom are full of self-discovery.
As the Trickster interacts with the world around him, he is always discovering his own limitations and character. Though the tale that features the laxative bulb is silly and extreme, it highlights the lessons that the Trickster learns as he engages with the natural world and beings around him.
His lesson is largely one of humility as he discovers his own limitations and the strength of those around him. The Trickster discovers that even the simplest of beings around him have something that he needs, and that he is not as independent or superior as he believed himself to be.
Though the Trickster is a character who is constantly forgetting the lessons he has learned in the past, forging ahead in each new tale with a sense of pride and haughty independence, the lessons are clear to the reader, and it clear that the early Native American individuals who related these tales would have learned their own lessons of humility and respect for the natural world and their fellow members of society.
Thus, they would have experienced a level of self-discovery in their own right as they applied and adapted the stories to their own character as they discovered their own identities through their strengths, limitations, and responsibilities to and dependence upon the world and people around them.
It is undeniable that all those who take up the task to put pen to paper and bare their soul embark upon some level of self-discovery. However, those writers in early American history were truly discoverers by nature as they discovered new people, new lands, new religions, new ways of life, and new strengths and weaknesses within themselves and their faiths.
Whether they were the settlers in the new land or the Native residents who experienced the invasion of the new settlers, each one of the early writers of American history were wrought with thoughts of upheaval and doubt, amidst which their discovery of the world around them and their own character was unavoidable.
Levine, Robert S., general editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter Ninth Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2017.
© Lena Folkert, 2022
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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