The people who explored or had life-altering experiences in the New World were the informative writers of colonial times. Most of the books were a product of remarkable experiences by gifted individuals who felt the need to share with other people. Some of these said writers were; Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Pedro de Castaneda, John Smith, William Bradford, and Mary Rowlandson. De Vaca, Castaneda and Smith were the professional explorers in this group and Bradford and Rowlandson were settlers. Each had something different to write about, but still related to one another in very significant ways.
Many writers of the day wrote about the opportunistic land to inform their reader and perhaps to encourage them to settle in the New World. Others, like de Vaca weren’t blessed with a wonderful experience to write about. When de Vaca arrived to the New World in the 1530, he wandered around in Texas for eight years before traveling home again. The journey was very tough. Out of three hundred men, only three, including de Vaca survived. De Vaca in unique because he was one of the few writers who did not keep a journal, instead de Vaca wrote his book out of memory. Considering that de Vaca wrote his book in the 1550’s, twenty years later, this resulted in very broad details, a traumatic view of the New World and probably some exaggeration in descriptions. He wrote chronologically by what he remembered and wrote from the first person view. De Vaca’s intent for writing The Narrative of his Journey was far from sincere, he needed money and wanted to give some honor to his name as an author. However, his book does provide some interesting facts and a different perspective of America as we know it today.
Pedro de Castaneda came to America in 1540 and spent two years here. Like de Vaca, Castaneda was a Spanish explorer. Unlike de Vaca, Castaneda kept a journal and wrote in abundant detail. He also published his book out of genuine interest and was one of the few amateur colonial writers to do so. Castaneda wrote about his experiences in the 1560’s through a book entitled, The Journey of Coronado. As stated before, Castaneda writes in very minute detail by describing the buffalo and the healthy grass and trees. Ironically, even though he keeps a day-to-day journal, Castaneda writes his book thematically with chapters. He does have some personal commentary in his work, but very limited as his journal was the official record of the groups’ expedition and was meant for factual reference only. Castaneda writes from first person and gives a very contradicting view to a reader who has read de Vaca’s book and then Castaneda’s.
John Smith was an English explorer who disembarked in America in 1607. He explored most of the east coast and named Jamestown. Smith was an egotistical yet brilliant soldier. He is associated with the ‘First American Myth’, the Pocahontas episode. He wrote quite a few books, but the main ones are A True Relation, the first English book about the New World; General History of Virginia; and A Description of New England. In the General History of Virginia, Smith writes in third person, but refers to himself as Captain Smith. As stated already, Smith is a bit self-centered, so he praises himself, his looks, genius, and tactics throughout the book. Smith writes chronologically and includes detail, but not as much as Castaneda. There is some indirect commentary in his book, but personal commentary is limited. For example, he may describe something as he sees it, but not make it certain that it is his opinion being stated. In his third book, A Description of New England, Smith does a tremendous job of leaving himself out of it and writing in second person to focus directly on the reader. Smith’s intent in this book is to convince British people who don’t have any obligations or responsibilities to settle in New England. He also encourages others who need to start over in life to come to this land. Smith gives many appealing reasons such as wealth for the homeland and personal satisfaction through hard work. These morals are the basis for the American ideal today. Hard work, perseverance, and living a moral life are a few of the many characteristics that make a true ‘American’. So, while Smith may not have been the most appealing personality to know, he did contribute much to the latter America.
William Bradford was the only writer who never intended on publishing anything. He wrote in his journal of the Puritan’s experiences while settling. He wrote of God’s providence and hard work so that the future generations would know of their forefathers and not forget their morals. Half of the journal was recorded in the Church records, but when British explorers rampaged and burned the town, a British soldier stole the original. It was later published in Britain. Bradford wrote his journal in the 1620’s. The details Bradford included were broad and carefully chosen. Out of all five authors discussed, Bradford is the one who includes the most commentary. Although most of the book, Plymouth Plantation, is written in third person, he interjects to include his personal commentary and then continues writing in third person again. William Bradford and Castaneda relate in the fact that both write out of genuine interest or concern. They don’t write to restore their reputation, like de Vaca, or to bring fame, like Smith. These two writers are seemingly the more connecting writers during these times.
Mary Rowlandson is unique first, because she is one of the very few female writers in the colonial age. Second, because hers is an archetype, or an initial representation of that kind of book. Rowlandson writes about her experience as a hostage of a Native American tribe. She was held prisoner for nearly three months and then ransomed for eighty dollars by a Puritan settlement. Rowlandson’s purpose for her book was to restore her reputation. Since Rowlandson was a Puritan, even if she was raped it was considered sinful on her behalf. Since Rowlandson wasn’t she needed to establish that fact so she wasn’t shunned. Also Rowlandson realized that the pagan Indians had humane feelings. When she was weeping for her lost child, they gave her food and clothes to console her. She was not treated roughly, but more like a servant. The Indians were also going through rough times, hunger and lack of shelter, but they still kept her alive. Rowlandson’s book was written chronologically and in first person with very minute details, but little commentary. Rowlandson wrote her book A Narration of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson in 1675 in and passed away shortly afterward.
Although colonial literature was very different from modern literature it holds much factual and emotional value. Many Americans don’t know where the ‘American ideal’ derived from or how hard the Puritans had to work while settling. These books provide needed information. Whether these works were the result of exhilarating experiences or the by-products of struggles, they paint narrative literature with vibrant colors.