English 220

Grant T. Smith, Ph.D

Discussion Questions – “Literature to 1620” 

from The Norton Anthology: American Literature I


1.  Wayne Franklin calls this period a “many-sided process of influence and exchange.” He also writes that “much of what was new…came about through struggle rather than cooperation.” What conclusions can you draw from your experience and reading?


2.  The “Introduction” to the period identifies three purposes of European colonization. Cite texts that specifically reflect European purposes.


3.  Much of the literature of encounter and discover rests on inventories of one kind or another. The lists stand in verbally for the accumulation of wealth and riches. Choose inventories from three of the writers we have read. From the perspective of a post colonial world, identify their rhetorical purpose for the writer, what they reveal about the author’s assumptions about the New World and its inhabitants, and how the language in each inventory serves to enhance the inventory’s rhetorical effect.


4.  Many European reporters from the Americas rely on lists or inventories to convince their readers of the value of the land. Discuss the idea that inventories become a textual form of mapping. Making specific references to texts, comment on the relationship between landscape or geography and human beings or their artifacts.


5.  From a Eurocentric perspective, historians once discussed the “Age of Discovery” but now instead refer to the era of “encounter.” The narratives in the “Literature to 1620” section may accurately be viewed as narratives of encounter. Choose several significant moments of encounter from different narratives included in this section and identify the different positions from which the Europeans and native peoples view each moment.


6.  Research the myths of Dona Marina and Pocahontas and report on their cultural survival in Mexico and North America.


7.  Based on several specific accounts or passages in the “Literature to 1620” section, reconstruct and interpret several specific moments of encounters between arriving Europeans and indigenous peoples. Viewing the encounters as moments of communication, interpret how each side views the other and what messages they convey in their own behavior. Ground at least part of your reconstruction on a reading of the Stories of the Beginning of the World.


8.  Discuss how Columbus’s expectations, “thinking that I should not fail to find great cities and towns,” reflect the contrast between European ideas of greatness and a more indigenous perspective on “great” civilizations in the New World.


9.  The headnote [for the selection on John Smith] states that the “First Charter” in Virginia, which John Smith’s General History recounts, “marked a more corporate approach to colonization that was to become standard practice over the next hundred years.” Locate evidence in Smith’s narratives that demonstrates this “corporate approach.” Pay particular attention to how the approach becomes manifest in Smith’s attitudes toward native peoples.


10. Discuss Smith’s observation in “The Third Book.” “Such actions have ever since the world’s beginning been subject to such accidents, and everything of worth is found full of difficulties, but nothing [is] so difficult as to establish a commonwealth so far remote from men and means and where men’s minds are so untoward as neither do well themselves nor suffer others.”


11. At the end of the excerpt from “The Third Book,” Smith writes, “Thus you may see what difficulties still crossed any good endeavor; and the good success of the business being thus oft brought to the very period of destruction.” Locate other passages throughout Smith’s writing where he expresses his concern for the reputation of the “business” endeavor in which he is engaged or where he uses metaphors from the world of work or business to describe his activities.


1620-1820 – Historical Questions


12. Define some of the basic concepts of Puritan ideology and illustrate their significance in specific works. Choose from among the following: (a) “new world” consciousness, (b) covenant theology, © typology, (d) innate depravity, and (e) irresistible grace. A few of the writers who address each of these concepts, and whom you will need to discuss include (a) Bradford and Bradstreet; (B) Bradford, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; © Bradstreet, Taylor, Winthrop, and Wigglesworth; (d) Taylor, Wigglesworth, and Edwards; and (e) Winthrop and Edwards.


13. Trace the connection between the Puritans’ reliance on written covenant in Bradford’s [The Mayflower Compact] and their emphasis on didactic to the exclusion of dramatic or personal vision in their literature.


14. Octavio Paz, among others, has called Puritan society a culture based on the principle of exclusion. Discuss, with particular references to literary works, the evidence of this principle in Puritan life and culture.


15. Consider secular consequences of Puritan theology: the Puritans’ attitudes toward Native Americans, ordinary life, witches, house servants, slavery, and infant damnation. Choose two of these topics and explore their treatment in literary works from the period.


16. Identify and discuss literary texts that reveal stresses on Puritanism or that illustrate schisms within Puritan and colonial consciousness.


17. Explore the contrast between personal and didactic voice in Puritan and early colonial literature.


18. Identify the literary forms available to colonial American writers. What limited their choice? How did they invent within these forms? What forms would survive for later writers to work within?


19. Cite several fundamental differences between Puritan thinking and deist thinking. Analyze specific literary works that illustrate these differences. 


20. Describe the way the concepts of the self and of self-reliance develop and find expression in colonial and early American literature. Identify those specific figures or works that you see as significant and explain their contributions.


21. Trace the power of the written covenant in colonial and early American literature, beginning with [The Mayflower Compact].


22. Discuss the ways in which Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson alter the content of Puritan thinking without changing its form. How do their writings reflect earlier forms?


23. Slavery is an issue of conscience for some colonial and early American writers; for others it is fraught with ambivalence. Discuss the issue with references to several specific texts.