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Scholars used to view “early American literature” primarily as little more than a rustic precursor to what American literature would become in its maturity. For many years as well, it was the cradle of the “New England Mind,” that place where America’s religious origins might be found and established. In recent years, however, the study of early American literature has expanded in several intriguing directions. From the perspective of temporality or period, scholars now consider “early America” to extend back into the fifteenth century and as far forward as the 1830s. Linguistically, the archive “early America” now speaks and records in a number of languages other than English. Socially and culturally, we consider the literatures of enslaved persons, women, and Indigenous persons formerly forgotten by such histories. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a single book or perspective adequately capturing the proliferation of the field’s recognition, which is why this multivoice volume is so needed as this point.
This Companion covers American literary history from European colonization to the early republic. It provides a succinct introduction to the major themes and concepts in the field of early American literature, including new world migration, indigenous encounters, religious and secular histories, and the emergence of American literary genres. This book guides readers through important conceptual and theoretical issues, while also grounding these issues in close readings of key literary texts from early America.
In the wake of 9/11, postsecularism has emerged as a capacious critical perspective that challenges the historical narrative of Enlightenment secularization. Postsecular critique observes the persistence of religion in modernity and connects its persistence to historical religion as a longer and unbroken narrative of national, cultural, and legal discourses. Drawing on intellectual history, the anthropology of religion, and New England colonial historiography, this essay argues that our contemporary understanding of the United States is deepened by rereading the nation’s puritan past from a postsecular perspective. The essay considers the travails of Roger Williams, the Antinomian Controversy, and the puritan treatment of the early Quakers as important contributions to American perspectives on the separation of church and state, the role of spirituality in the secular, and the legal and procedural application of “tolerance.”