American writing began with the work of English adventurers and colonists in the New World chiefly for the benefit of readers in the mother country. Some of these early works reached the level of literature, as in the robust and perhaps truthful account of his adventures by Captain John Smith and the sober, tendentious journalistic histories of John Winthrop and William Bradford in New England. From the beginning, however, the literature of New England was also directed to the edification and instruction of the colonists themselves, intended to direct them in the ways of the godly.
The first work published in the Puritan colonies was the Bay Psalm Book (1640), and the whole effort of the divines who wrote furiously to set forth their views—among them Roger Williams and Thomas Hooker—was to defend and promote visions of the religious state. They set forth their visions—in effect the first formulation of the concept of national destiny—in a series of impassioned histories and jeremiads from Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence (1654) to Cotton Mather's epic Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).
Even Puritan poetry was offered uniformly to the service of God. Michael Wigglesworth's Day of Doom (1662) was uncompromisingly theological, and Anne Bradstreet's poems, issued as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650), were reflective of her own piety. The best of the Puritan poets, Edward Taylor, whose work was not published until two centuries after his death, wrote metaphysical verse worthy of comparison with that of the English metaphysical poet George Herbert.
Sermons and tracts poured forth until austere Calvinism found its last utterance in the words of Jonathan Edwards. In the other colonies writing was usually more mundane and on the whole less notable, though the journal of the Quaker John Woolman is highly esteemed, and some critics maintain that the best writing of the colonial period is found in the witty and urbane observations of William Byrd, a gentleman planter of Westover, Virginia.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.