Five Reasons for Teaching Early American Literature
Teaching Early American literature isn’t easy. Native American literature covers many different tribal traditions and customs, so where do you start? Even those who deeply respect the Puritans, probably can’t categorize their writings as “fun.” And the more you learn about the first explorers here in America, the more you seem to dislike them. So why not just skip America’s early years? Aren’t they just our country’s awkward transition time? Well, not exactly. A few years ago I would never believe that I would be saying this, but Early American Literature may just be the most important time period to study of all of them.
Now, before you write me off as crazy, hear me out. If your study of American literature is based around the American Dream, which mine is, you know that the dream had to start somewhere. When you start examining early American literature, you realize it is in these formative years—long before a new country was even a possibility—that the roots of America were laid. So here are five reasons for teaching early American literature.
Early American literature doubles as early American history since it heavily features non-fiction writing: sermons, journals, and other documents. (Prepare yourself for students protesting, “We already learned this in History class!”) Yet persevere because reading these primary documents enforces the content they are learning in history class. Your social studies co-workers will thank you!
- Early American history shows a diversity of cultures put into sudden contact. Native American tribes were in America hundreds of years before the first European settlers arrived. Although their indigenous cultures were marginalized for many years in our nation’s history, we should seek to rectify that mistake by giving our students a deeper appreciation for the Native American past. Native American mythology is a great way to make students familiar with two basic precepts of indigenous cultures: A deep respect for nature and an emphasis on conserving natural resources. Plus, it’s entertaining! Two of my favorite Native American stories to teach are “The Flying Canoe,” which takes a young man on a magical adventure, and “Gluscabi,” where a young man learns to put his superhero-like powers to good use. In addition to native storytelling, native forms of government are fascinating, too: The Iroquois Confederacy showed a model of peace between indigenous peoples.
- Early explorers cast America as “the land of opportunity.” Many of the first explorers came to America for nefarious reasons, abusing the native people they found here and plundering their resources. Some, however, like Cabeza de Vaca assimilated into native culture. Natives like Powhatan and his famous daughter, Pocahontas, tried to establish peace with the colonists. This early period of history has its own mystery, too: What happened to the colonists on Roanoke Island? (I love that one.) This period of history also teaches a valuable lesson: “Get rich quick” schemes are not all they’re cracked up to be, and many of these opportunists came up empty-handed. The good news is America does hold a treasure—freedom and opportunity! The first explorer’s desire to succeed in the new world eventually transformed into a loftier goal.
- The Pilgrims showed us the importance of religious freedom. On the voyage of the Mayflower 110 men, women, and children risked their lives to travel to America. Their desire was for religious freedom, a right non-existent in their home country. Half of them did not survive their first winter in the New World. Their sacrifice highlights a right that too many American citizens take for granted. The Pilgrims’ convictions also inspired the Founding Fathers to preserve freedom of religion as one of our nation’s foremost rights. Furthermore, The Mayflower Compact, the rules of governance written aboard the Mayflower, is the first document of self-governance in the New World and inspired the Constitution. Thanks to the generosity of the natives, the First Thanksgiving showed a glimmer of hope that disparate cultures could exist peacefully. It was only a generation later when trust eroded and greed seized the hearts of parties on both sides, that war broke out. This war is recorded in the narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a fascinating captive’s account from King Philip’s War.
- The Puritans are “hipper” than you think. It’s easy to stereotype Puritans as “kill-joys” and “witch-hunters,” but this ignores the many foundational concepts that the Puritans brought to America. In addition to freedom of religion, one was the belief that every person should be educated—every child must be able to read and write. You might not associate the Puritans with romantic love, but it’s true. The Puritans were one of the first societies to stress “true love” as the basis for marriage—as opposed to parent-arranged marriages. The Puritans also came to America on a mission to establish a better society. Their dreams of utopia have influenced all of our nation’s great leaders ever since. Quoting Jesus Christ in the New Testament, they said, “We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” He also went on to say that if they slackened in their convictions, they would become a “a story and a by-word through the world” for failure. No doubt these sentiments were in the Founding Father’s hearts as well as they began the Grand Experiment that is the United States of America. Love us or hate us, our country has set the standard for democracy around the world.
If you are interested in making early American literature fiction and non-fiction more engaging for your students, check out my textbook Searching for America: The New World, available in digital and print formats. The materials explore these concepts—how they are shaped in the early literature and history of America. Click here for a complete listing of the textbook’s selections.
There is a whole page of this website dedicated to teaching early American literature. There is also an Early American Literature Exam for sale that I use in my own classroom.