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The Minority Voice Essay

Updated on January 8, 2014

Early American Literature Essay

Literature is an account of history. It can reflect the attitudes of society at the time of publishing, it can also offer a sometimes,more accurate account of history then were are taught in standard textbooks. When reading people's personal accounts of what they went through at a certain time, it can put us there and help us to understand how we have evolved into what type of society we are today. There are many things that make up a human beings traits. Cultural practices, religious beliefs, norms of the local society, and now norms of the global societies. All these evolve over time, it is interesting to study old literature and connect the dots, so to speak. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please comment and share.

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Early American literature books

Perceptions of cultural ethnicity and gender in early America

Perceptions of cultural, ethnicity, and gender changed dramatically during the first 350 years of the establishment of our country. Early American literature shows the lack of equality for anyone one other than males of European descent and aristocracy. The perception that Indians were savages, women were insignificant and feeble minded and Africans were property was rarely challenged. Few writers were outspoken enough to call attention to the plight of these oppressed groups. Fortunately, pioneering writers such as, Bartolome De Las Casas, Olaudah Equiano, Sarah Wentworth Morton, and others that I will mention forthcoming, informed their readers of the oppression experienced by these groups.

The first group I will mention are the Indians, both Hispanola, and the Native American Indians. Bartolome De Las Casas, who wrote “The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies”, documented the atrocities performed against the Hispanola Indians. Casas was, at first, very interested in the benefits of the enslavement of the Indians, but after seeing the torture of their people, became a spokesperson against slavery of the Indians. Casa stated that Christopher Columbus’s seizure of the first seven Taino Indians had been “the first injustice committed in the Indies”, and it is important to note that soon after this time he also recognized that enslavement of the Africans was also inhumane. Casas presented his concerns to the government of Spain and resulting from his efforts new laws were written against Indian enslavement, but they were difficult to enforce.

Other writers of the period such as Avlar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca gave their accounts of the Indians and their way of life. In De Vaca’s narrative, “The Relation of Alvar Nunez and Cabeza de Vaca” he wrote about the time he spent living with the Malhado Indians. He humanized this group of people, offering an account of their daily lives and cultural practices. De Vaca portrayed the Indians as loyal and peaceful people. He wrote about his departure after his long stay with the Indians. The Malhados(a group of 600) insisted on guiding him to his destination and could not be convinced to take leave and return to their home until he was delivered to a safe destination. When they finally reached “The Christians” his party was led away and the Indians were secretly captured as slaves. This narrative called attention to the kindness of the Indians and the deceit by the early Christians.

Women were also heavily oppressed as in the case of the writings of Mary Rolandson’s “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson”, it occurred 1675 and women had no power in the New World. Rowlandson was captured by Indians and, as most women did at that time, she succumbed to the Indian’s demands and was very cooperative. Mary had lost all three of her children because of her capture. Two of them were separated from her and the youngest remained in her care but soon died from wounds and starvation during their captivity. Mary did not retaliate in any way and even stated that God had taken her child home. Her power to survive did not come from within, but she continuously credited God for her survival. There was a much different reaction when, 22 years later in 1697, Indians captured Hannah Dustan, her nurse and her neighbor.

Indians broke in to the home of Hannah Dustan and her family and after killing her newborn baby by slamming the infant’s head into a tree, the Indians took Hannah, her nurse and her neighbor captive. One night while her Indian captures slept she killed 10 out of the 12, by beating the sleeping men, women, and children to death with a club and then scalped them all.

The initial report about the incident was very factual and was basic reportage. As time passed other writers wrote narratives using more descriptive language and Hannah soon became somewhat of a heroine. When Cotton Mather writes his account he points out the power and justification for her crime, in 1778 there was another account of Hannah’s story in Jonathon Carver’s “The Travels through the Interior Parts of North America”, written in 1778, were she is called a heroine. By this account she is no longer a victim but seen as a powerful and righteous individual. Henry Thoreau wrote about Hannah 140 and forty years after the incident she is portrayed as the leader, commanding her fellow captives to assist her in carrying out the killings. Literature changed the perception of who Hannah was, beginning with the early accounts of her as a victim to the shaping of Hannah’s character into a powerful heroine. Literary view of women had begun its transformation.

By the end of the 18th century women writers were beginning to be regularly published. They wrote from home under pen names and still maintained their expected roles in the household. Many women wrote poetry about political issues such as the plight of the African slaves, as in “The African Chief “ by Sarah Wentworth Morton, where she writes a dramatic poem describing the tragic life of the slaves. Others wrote of feminism and women’s suffrage. Women were finally being recognized for their literary talents. Women now began to achieve a new place and value with in society. They became more respected in their views and literary accomplishments. It became easier for them to get published and accepted as serious writers.

The plight of the African slaves was being addressed in literature not only by men and women against it, but also by the slaves themselves. For example, a narrative written by Olaudah Equano in 1789. Olaudah Equiano was an African slave who published his account about the inhumane treatment of himself and other slaves. Equiano published “The Intersting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” in 1789. He had a enthusiastic readership and his narrative was reprinted several times. His writings painted a shocking picture of the dismal life of a slave. Because of its wide readership, support of antislavery grew. The perceptions society had about slavery was being shaped by the writers the ability to share their own experiences, first hand with the public.

Over 350 years of literature there are apparent changes in the perceptions of women’s roles in society, slavery and human rights. As the years have passed, literature opened up new ideas and progressed towards equality for all. With out these early writers and the advancement in publishing, movement toward the ideals of a true democracy may have been greatly diminished. While we are still progressing we can look to literature as a means for understanding and discovering the important issues of today and our past.

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    • KimberlyLake profile image
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      Kimberly Lake 5 years ago from California

      @Sally Thanks for the comment. I find early American literature extremely interesting. It is not the same as what we see in history courses. Many of their stories are tragic, and some triumphant I like to read from the perspective of someone who was there it gives me more insight to what they were going through. I am also interested in the history of the Indians (all, not only Native Americans) to read personal accounts from that time period is interesting, the African slave trade etc. There were activists fighting for the rights of these people too.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Your title struck me because of my interest in the working lives of women, which are much more complex than the labels "career woman" or "stay at home mom" suggest. I didn't know the story of Hannah Dustan. Considering her "achievements", what narrow label could possibly describe her completely?

      As you say, the literature of the time offers more of a window than traditional history into the impact the daily lives of women had on America's social, economic, and political progress. Another important illuminating literary source is the journal or diary.

      Thanks for this interesting article. It made me reach for a few books I hadn't read in a while, one of them featuring women's diary entries during the westward expansion in the 19th century.

      Up and interesting!

    • KimberlyLake profile image
      Author

      Kimberly Lake 6 years ago from California

      Thank you for the comment. I had not heard that quote, thank for sharing it with me.

    • profile image

      kdawson 6 years ago from northwest Iowa

      John Steinbeck once said that if you want to learn about country read it's novelists, not it's historians.

    • KimberlyLake profile image
      Author

      Kimberly Lake 6 years ago from California

      Millionaire Tips Thank you for stopping by. I find early literature very interesting, it helps and individual to understand what was going on in the minds of people of the time period you are reading. I especially like the letters and poems, they are more personal.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 6 years ago from USA

      Very interesting hub. I agree that studying the literature does provide a view of history that is more accurate and realistic than the ones that have been cleaned up and generalized in our history books.

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