American Literature in the 19th Century Essay
American Literature in the 19th Century
Much has been said about America being the “Land of Opportunity” throughout history. From Columbus, to Walt Whitman, to present times, American society and its values differed quite a bit from American society and its values today. As these values have changed, so have the opportunities that present themselves within society, such as the ability to write about certain issues or topics. This means that the topics of literature have changed drastically along with the times as well.
Much of the time, these issues and topics covered in pieces of American Literature are controversial: slavery, racism, ethnocentrism, women’s rights, and the qualities needed to obtain the opportunities America provides for people. That is why in order to be considered American Literature, the piece must characterize or define American values, morals, ideals, or standards in some way, whether it is to represent them or to oppose them. To Crevecoeur, who was not an American by birthright, but a visitor who considered America his home, America is the embodiment of opportunity.
Crevecoeur marks America as a place where oppressed people are able to come and pursue their own freedoms, self-interests, and independence. It is a place where any hard working man can earn economic stability for his family; a place of humility and new ideas. Crevecoeur explains through his character, Farmer James, that an American farmer possesses, “freedom of action, freedom of thoughts, ruled by a mode of government which requires but little from us”. He speaks of “national pride” when realizing there are no aristocratical families, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one.
The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. And finally, Crevecoeur claims that Americans are “All animated with the spirit of an industry which is unferrered and unrestrained,” which means that as long as the people of the nation work hard, they will be able to achieve whatever they wish. These are the reasons why America is the “melting pot” it is today, because people during Crevecoeur’s time period that came from other countries viewed America as an escape to all their oppression and problems.
This was the American dream or ideal: through industriousness, you could provide a better life for your family in America. Since Crevecoeur believed he could have freedom of thought and action in America, he was also more sympathetic to the rights of African-Americans, who were being used as slaves during the time, and Native Americans. Crevecoeur found slavery to be a terrible institution, speaking out on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans by saying, “Forced from their native country, cruelly treated?
They are neither soothed by the hopes that their slavery will ever terminate? mildness of their treatment? ” Crevecoeur also asserts through Farmer James, “Though our erroneous prejudices and opinions once induced us to look upon them as fit only for slavery? With us they are now free? they are in general become a new set of beings,” showing his general consideration for the African-Americans. As for Crevecoeur’s standpoint on Native Americans, Farmer James makes the observation that, “they are as stout and well made as the Europeans?
they are in many instances superior to us”. Obviously, Crevecoeur held the belief that the African-American and Native American populations could provide contributions to society and should not looked down upon as inferior “savages” by the white man. Rather, the white man should be willing to set good examples through gentleness to make them socially acceptable. To Crevecoeur, a country could never truly flourish with an imprudent system such as slavery in place, which was quite a progressive stance for the time.
It took a lot of courage to speak out for what he believed in, because it went against mainstream America’s majority belief of superiority over the slaves and the Natives. While minority cultures were fighting for equal rights amongst the whites, females were also fighting for equal rights amongst the men. Female writers and activists such as Judith Sergeant Murray openly protested the typical female virtues set for women of the 19th Century, and before, by society. She did not want to be submissive and obedient. She wanted females to vote, to own property, and to have a life outside the household.
In her Letters on the Equality of Sexes, she outwardly condemns these “virtues”, and she addresses the fact that men shun a woman for having dreams of equal opportunities. Then, she vents about the undeniably constant battle between women and men, because their lives and work are only valued at half that of men. “Though sensibility, soft compassion, and gentle commiseration are inmates in the female bosom, yet against every deep laid art, altogether fearless of the vent, we will set them array; for assuredly the wreath of victory will encircle the spotless brow”.
What makes texts on the equality of the sexes so special is that they have felt the direct effects of oppression based on the white male patriarchal society set before them, and they are attempting to use their experience as modes for change in that society so others will not have to suffer as they have. Even before certain issues such as equal rights for women and racism were brought up in American, the land obviously had to be explored. The stories of exploration are a great place to begin looking at how this great country developed.
They give us a good sense of the type of land and people of the time when our country was just getting started. These types of writing help us develop a definition of American Literature because they were some of the first documented texts and they give us a good foundation of details about the cultures back then. A major role of Early American Literature would be that it gives us a clearer sense of the life and culture of the time it was written in or about.
The exploration stories of Columbus are able to do that for us as readers. Columbus’ story is a good starting description of America because it gives the readers of his letters an idea of what the land itself was like. He used his words to paint a positive image of the new land and was convincing people back home that their money was well spent on the exploration. Although this work doesn’t exactly define any American morals or values, it is necessary to literature because it is the first good taste we get of what America was like.
Columbus used his work to more or less “sell” the New World to anyone who would read about it. He described the people and the culture there as delightful and entertaining. The works of Columbus go along with the definition of American Literature because it gave readers a good feel of what the “land of opportunity” had to offer them. Determination is a vital characteristic one must have when getting on their feet in the land of opportunity. Without determination, a man might as well not even try to make a like for himself and his family.
In John Smith’s Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, that is exemplified. John Smith and the voyagers that traveled along with him experience plenty of hardship during their trek. Within the first ten days of their trip, many people were sick due to lack of a healthy diet and sufficient lodging. During this time, Captain Smith often left himself shortchanged to benefit the health of his crew. One day, while Smith was attempting to make trades, he was shot in the leg by some savages and taken hostage.
At this point is when the text takes a turn to define values of America. Smith remains determined to make the best of the situation and stays totally polite and collected towards the savages. After spending time as a hostage, they developed a great deal of respect for Smith and personally escorted him back through their village to his camp. From this time on, every other week or so, Pocahontas would bring the settlers of Jamestown enough provisions so that they could lead a healthy life and continue to flourish.
I consider this particular text a good example of American Literature because it shows characteristics that were necessary to live during the early development of America. The works of Paine and Jefferson are a great summary of the overall view of what America is as an idea and an ideal. They describe characteristics of true American men and women. Throughout their texts, they reiterate many of the visions of Crevecoeur. America is described as a vision of a place where people could come and be free to start a life of their choice.
The pursuit of happiness and success were key points mentioned as well. When an outsider of America came to our country, they came to learn and embody things such as practicality, progressiveness, tolerance, self reliance and education for all. All of these things were mentioned again and again throughout the pieces of Paine and Jefferson, which makes them a great example of impact literature. The beauty of American Literature is also the hardest part of coming to a distinct, tangible definition of what it is.
The freedom of speech and expression through American Literature is so broad, as are what American values, morals, and standards are exactly, that American Literature can be in the form of travel or slave narratives, speeches, poetry, letters, autobiographies, myths, etc. However, it is evident that in any of these genres of literature, they constantly contain American values, morals, ideals, and standards. And in order to progressively move into the future, there must be literature to stand by or and oppose these American values, morals, ideals, and standards, just as the great American authors of the past have.