Early American literature is based on what Cyrus Patel calls a “discourse of wonder”. Many of these writing captains are enamored with this new land. Notice that both Columbus and Smith incorporate this tone but their desires and goals are very different. Columbus is sailing for investors and as such he details the land in a kind of inventorial way whereas Smith conveys the heroic nature of the quest and frankly his own self-mythologizing. Fifteen years after Columbus arrives, European cultures have been to this country and are, in fact, here to stay. The Spanish conquer an entire civilization in the south (the Aztecs) and with this the European continent is beginning its permanent settlement. The first English settlement that is permanent is in Jamestown in 1607 named after King James.
From the Journal of the First Voyage to America
Columbus reaches America in 1492, we all know the rhyme, but what we should be more concerned about is the writing that accompanies this voyage. Columbus’s journal is a window into the motivations of the captain – his desire for conquest, his insecurities, and his inventorying of the new land as a potential acquirement for the Spanish and his benefactors the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. There is a distinctive voice of possession and conquest in his own writing and conveys himself as a primary actor in the discovery drama. Columbus is in the middle of a changing world – science, religion, literature (printing press) and even though he doesn’t know it yet, he begins American literature proper.
Upon reaching this new land, he dismisses the culture of the new land as unimportant because of the non-Western society. Here we see the beginning of the “noble savage” narrative, even though many of these early American Indian societies are quite civil and very well developed. We also begin to get the notion of the new world as new Eden. The new world is portrayed as fertile and undeveloped and therefore a chance to start over. Why might this be so important?
Christendom becomes the benchmark as a reference point for Columbus. Truly, the new world is something wholly unique and would obviously become a very powerful symbol upon landing on these shores. But more than this, the new world becomes a commodity, a place of wonder but really it’s a resource. It’s a resource to be exploited and used up. So here we see the dynamic constantly at play in early American culture and present time as well: God’s divinity made manifest in the new world and the burgeoning culture of business, trade, and exploitation of natural resource. Really, this is the beginning of colonialism.
Patel continues with the idea of Columbus being the first American exile. Upon these new shores there are questions of identity are already arising. One could argue that because he does not truly represent his home country, he is an exile. He sails for the Spanish crown and because of this the literature takes on the role of appeasement or inventorial. He is also quite boastful in his journal. Why do you think this is? If you are writing in a journal who is the implied audience? How is this different for Columbus?
1. How do you think Columbus views the natives?
Apparently he respects the natives because he orders his men not to touch anything that belongs to the natives and only trade honestly with them.
2. How does this account reflect the purpose of the author - chronicling the journey for the king and queen of Spain? Can you give specific examples?
Columbus includes the details to lure potential investors. He includes monetary values to pique the interest of the king and the queen of Spain and is therefore beholden to his investors while simultaneously self-aggrandizing. There is a conflict between self-glory and deferring to the monarchy.
A General History of Virginia by John Smith
The first permanent English settlement in America was Jamestown in 1607 in Virginia. John Smith