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    Early American Literature: Defining the Dialogue 

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    Literature dated back to early America not only held a significant influence over the adults of that time, but over the children as well. In some ways, it seems that the influence of Puritan literature held more consequence over the children than it did their adult counterparts. This can easily be linked to the way in which early Americans defined the world around them according to their religious ideologies, specifically how they projected these religious values, and the moral fears linked directly to said religious values, on to their young children. Both of these crucial elements appear throughout various pieces of early American literature.

    Early American children lived amongst a society where the priority in their education did not lie in the prestige of academic schooling, but rather in the religious customs and practices of said society’s time. ‘In our country’s early days, formal education was a luxury for most boys, but it was sometimes available’ (Butler). Instead, the most basic method of educating children laid under the roof of a designated housewife within the community. ‘A child’s first training outside the home came in the kitchen of a neighbor who kept a dame school… She taught them the little she knew about numbers and letters’ (Education in America…). The largest aspect of a Puritan child’s education- reading- was also the most basic skill that is still acquired in modern day schooling. The sole purpose of children being taught to read during this early time was for what their elders deemed a moral obligation, and an eternal consequence. This motivation for educating the youth was because the Puritans believed that if one were unable to read and write from the Bible, such a hindrance would not only serve against God, but serve the Devil ‘to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures’ (Old Deluder Satan Law).  In other words, Puritan children were educated because, ‘as long as you could read, you could understand God’s word’ (Keebaugh).  Inevitably, if a child could not read then this would result in the soul of that child being damned to Hell.

    As enforced by the Old Deluder Satan Law, they taught their children to read so that they could guard against this: It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures… it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof; That every Township in this Jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty Housholders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the Parents or Masters of such children… (Old Deluder Satan Law) Per the decree of the Old Deluder Law, this designated schoolhouse is where a boy’s education began, and where a girl’s short-lived education came to an end. Once she could read from the bible, write and complete domestic tasks, a girl’s objective was not to further her education, but to go on and get married later in life so that she could run a household and perform her domestic tasks. “The girls were taught to cook and to sew. And, the formal education of many girls ended with the completion of her sampler. It was a sample of the girl’s domestic skills-the only diploma she would ever receive because most colonial schools and all colleges were closed to her” (Education in America…).  In contrast, boys could move forward in their education if their parents’ finances permitted it, and ‘religion was the core of the curriculum’ (Education in America…). But, typically, boys went on to apprentice for Artisan workers within a community instead. Boys often became apprenticed to Artisans because, as stated by Benjamin Franklin in his open letter to those considering becoming American immigrants, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, Artisan work was a fairly securable trade: In America, the rapid Increase of Inhabitants takes away that Fear of Rivalship, and Artisans willingly receive Apprentices from the hope of Profit by their Labour… Hence it is easy for poor Families to get their Children instructed; for the Artisans are so desirous of Apprentices’ (Franklin 12)

    The Old Deluder Satan Law set in place to establish these religiously influenced educational standards, regardless of how far a child formally took their education, is a self-evident example of how the early Americans projected their religious fears on to their children. They took it upon themselves to ensure that their community would come together and raise literate generations who would pass on their religious ideologies. The act of teaching children to read clearly had nothing to do with the academic benefit of the children, and everything to do with preventing their children from deserting God’s path as they grew in to adulthood. Ultimately, we can gather that it was more important that children be humble followers of God than be extensively formally educated.   Unlike Americans today, ‘the colonists did not separate the importance of religion from the importance of literacy’ (Keebaugh). None could have one without the other because the two were intentionally connected. By doing this, they have established a clear fear of going to Hell. More specifically, they established fear of God’s wrath, which defined the Puritans as the God-fearing individuals that they were known to be.  As seen through the importance their elders placed on reading, these early American children were taught primarily through literature. Just like the children today, literature aimed towards the children of early America were commonly short stories, poems with rhyme scheme and nursery rhymes with pictures. This can be seen throughout the works of The New England Primer, Sproat’s ‘Ditties for Children’, and ‘Mother Goose’, all of which were popularly used in the education of children in early America.

    Generally, the readings would hold some element meant to appease a child’s desire for fun, and things of that nature. ‘Early Americans placed enormous emphasis on reading as a means of teaching religious and social values… Even ‘fun’ literature often has a lesson’ (Keebaugh).  Many of these readings contained either religious messages or referenced the actual scripture itself. Thus, children were still being taught what their elders deemed as important subject matter while still being allowed to enjoy the experience.  The ‘Alphabet Poem’ from The New England Primer is a great example of how Puritans used references from scripture within their children’s school readings to teach them religious values. ‘[The New England Primer] was a standard reader in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    It was apparently used in both public and Sunday (religious) schools’ (The New England Primer 1843).  With lines such as ‘In Adam’s fall we sinned all’ (“Alphabet Poem” 11) and ‘Whales in the sea God’s voice obey'(“Alphabet Poem” 14), the text of The New England Primer directly references biblical figures such as Adam from ‘Adam and Eve’, as well as Jonah from ‘Jonah and The Whale’. Adam had sinned by eating the apple given to him by Eve, after having been told by God not to eat from a specific tree. ‘ He told Adam and Eve that they could eat from any fruit from the trees except for the tree of good and evil…One day Satan came disguised as a snake and spoke to Eve, convincing her to eat the fruit from the tree of good and evil’ (Adam and Eve…).  In biting the apple Eve had been tricked in to eating, Adam ultimately unleashed evil on to mankind.        Jonah, a prophet, was chosen by God to save the Nineva citizens from downfall but attempted to evade the task set upon him by fleeing elsewhere. To punish his attempted escape by ship, ‘God sent a great storm upon the ship and the men decided Jonah was to blame so they threw him overboard’ (Jonah and The Whale…). Once in the ocean, Jonah came face to face with the power of God: As soon as they tossed Jonah in the water, the storm stopped. God sent a big fish, some call it a whale, to swallow Jonah and to save him from drowning. While in the belly of the big fish (whale), Jonah prayed to God for help, repented, and praised God. For three days Jonah sat in the belly of the fish. Then, God had the big fish throw up Jonah onto the shores of Nineveh. (Jonah and The Whale…)  In both scenarios, each biblical figure faces the consequence of their actions at the mercy, or wrath, of God. Adam, with how he enabled sin upon Man, and God’s direct intervention of Jonah’s disobedience. Texts such as these support the Christain values that the Puritans held, conveying to their readers that their role under God was not to be shirked off or neglected. By including these biblical references in literature meant for children, the Puritan’s made it abundantly clear to their offspring that God came first in their everyday lives.

    Text become less harsh in later with ‘Mother Goose’ nursery rhymes, such as ‘Dame Trot and Her Cat’ (‘Mother Goose’). With more light-hearted lines such as ‘When Dame had her dinner Pussy would wait, and was sure to receive a nice piece from her plate’ (‘Mother Goose’), The New England Primer readings for Puritan children earlier in time were quite morbid in comparison. Such topics they used then are deemed too inappropriate for school now. This is due to the strong, and blatantly stated, topics of death and eternal damnation. Because ‘besides instruction in the alphabet, the New England Primer also served to indoctrinate young minds in the stern and somewhat morbid Protestantism of that time and place’ (The New England Primer 1843), which appears clearly in its poem “Verses for Little Children”: I have a precious soul to save, And I a mortal body have. Though I am young, yet I may die, And hasten to eternity. There is a dreadful fiery hell, Where wicked ones must always dwell. (“Verses for Little Children” 30) This poem again reiterates the early American values that centered around their religious practices. Obeying and serving God held priority over all else. Such fact can be surmised from various readings, including the concluding stanza of the poem previously mentioned: FEAR thou the Lord, and prize him more Than shining gold and richest ore For when thy worldly treasure’s past, The love of God will ever last.  (“Verses for Little Children” 30) Through these texts from The New England Primer, and references to the error of biblical figures, we can gather that to early Americans children were viewed as foolish and susceptible to error: ‘FOOLISHNESS is bound up in the heart of a child’ (“An Alphabet of Lessons for Children” 15). This can also be seen in segments from Sproat’s ‘Ditties for Children’, where some of the readings were less morbid and a bit more child-friendly, just as segments from Mother Goose.

    Many nursery rhymes held scenarios where children fell victim to error or failure, often shirking off their moral teachings. Similar to the poems from The New England Primer, Sproat’s nursery rhymes, like ‘Lazy Jane’ used the error of others to teach children to be weary of their own actions: They call her Lazy Jane, my dear, She begs her bread all day; And gets a lodging in a barn, At night among the hay. For when she was a little girl, She loved her play too well; At school she would not mind her book, To learn to read and spell. (Sproat 12) This method of teaching is also used in Irving’s short story portraying a man by the name of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ as idle and foolish, often shirking his responsibilities to toil around with others. Because he often neglected his own responsibilities to help others, ‘he was a great favorite among all the good wives of the village’ (Irving 7). Of these he toiled with were also the local children, uncoincidentally enough. In the story, Rip is loved by children for his decidedly fun and carefree persona: The children of the village, too, would shout with joy whenever he approached. He assisted at their sports, made their playthings, taught them to fly kites and shoot marbles, and told them long stories of ghosts, witches, and Indians. Whenever he went dodging about the village, he was surrounded by a troop of them, hanging on his skirts, clambering on his back, and playing a thousand tricks on him with impunity (Irving 7)

    The story strongly describes Rip as a man who would be completely happy with no responsibilities, living life in desire of goofing off:  ‘left to himself, he would have whistled life away, in perfect contentment; but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family.’ (Irving 11)  This is strikingly similar to the mentality of a child. Rip’s childish character flaws are what later lead him to a sad and dreary existence. It is after wandering away from his house to escape his wife, who pesters him over his shirked responsibilities, that he finds himself drinking with some unfamiliar men and falls asleep under a tree, paving the path to his dreary failure.  After drinking carelessly amongst strangers, ‘his eyes swam in his head, his head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep’ (Irving 24). Rip wakes up to realize he has aged decades, ‘to his astonishment, he found his beard had grown a foot long’ (Irving 29). The gun he had fallen asleep with by his side had been a ‘clean, well-oiled fowling piece'(Irving 26)’, but upon waking up he finds ‘an old firelock lying by him, the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten’ (Irving 26). After having slept through his life, let alone a revolution as stated by ‘instead of [Rip] being a subject of his Majesty, George III., he was now a free citizen of the United States’ (Irving 61), Rip is now an old man with many years lost to time. All of which has occurred without his recollection and can not be changed. It is implied that by living so idly, Rip has not only shirked off his responsibilities but has also wasted precious time. Thus, he has wasted life.

    In analyzing these reoccurring examples of individuals committing error, all of which were used to teach children the concept of right and wrong, we can gather that not only were children viewed as foolish, but potentially capable of vast sin.  In consequence of this, we can observe through these pieces of literature that early Americans deemed childhood as a crucial time period in regards to the development of religious faith, work ethic, as well as overall character. This is likely why children were subjected to such strict upbringing, because fear was a powerfully strong influence.   It isn’t a secret that corporal punishment was no rarity in these colonial times, prompting the lines ‘FOOLISHNESS is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it from him’ (“An Alphabet of Lessons for Children” 15), and ‘The idle Fool is whipped at school’ (“Alphabet Poem” 11). Lines such as these gave children clear warnings of what expectations were placed on them. In addition to the expectations, they also knew the consequences that followed, both immediately and eternally, that would arise from their actions in the circumstance that they did not meet expectations. Be it a whipping, or an eternity in Hell, children were taught that they could easily be punished. However, as children are by foolish and immature nature, this still leaves room for error.  This room for error leads in to the Salem Witch Trials that took place within New England, where Cotton Matter states those who reside there ‘are a People of God ‘ (Mather 13). Here it is where the local Salem girls of Massachusetts stirred chaos throughout the religious town, all of which was fueled by the Puritan community’s God-fearing ideation. Witchcraft was associated with the Devil, and ‘when these Witches were Tried, several of them confessed a contract with the Devil by signing his Book’ (“Letter to Nathaniel Higginson”).

    Naturally, this prompted panic amongst the religious community when girls began accusing their neighbors of witchcraft, acting strangely seemingly under influence of evil. In cases of those supposedly suffering, ‘ before many hundreds of Witnesses, strange Pranks [were] played; such as the taking Pins out of the Clothes of the afflicted, and thrusting them into their flesh… Thorns also in like kind were thrust into their flesh’ (“Letter to Nathaniel Higginson”). In some cases, ‘the accusers were sometimes struck dumb, deaf, blind, and sometimes lay as if they were dead for a while’ (“Letter to Nathaniel Higginson”).  The fear inflicted upon the people of Salem shook the community, feeding off of their religious devotion. Such fear can be seen in Cotton Mather’s recount of the events: The Devil is now making one Attempt more upon us; an Attempt more Difficult, more Surprizing, more snarl’d with unintelligible Circumstances than any that we have hitherto Encountred (Mather 14)  Those who were supposedly attacked by the devil, or witches under the influence of the devil, were known to be the ‘afflicted’ (Frequently Asked Questions), whereas those being singled out as the perpetrators by the afflicted were known to be the ‘accused’ (Frequently Asked Questions). Once someone was accused, they could not reclaim their credibility nor could they reclaim their reputation.

    As enforced by the legal proceedings of that time, many wrongly died as a result of being accused:   Under British law, the basis for Massachusetts Bay Colony legal structure in the 17th century, those who were accused of consorting with the devil were considered felons, having committed a crime against their government. The punishment for such a crime was hanging (Frequently Asked Questions). When it began coming to light that many had been wrongly accused, and punished, it was often too late. Many hangings had already taken place, or could not be stopped due to the legal proceedings in place. An example of those being wrong accused is reflected in the execution of a minister: On August 19, Mather was in Salem to witness the execution of ex-minister George Burroughs for witchcraft. When, on Gallows Hill, Burroughs was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer perfectly (something that witches were thought incapable of doing) and some in the crowd called for the execution to be stopped. Mather intervened, reminding those gathered that Burroughs had been duly convicted by a jury.  (Linder) From the aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials, specifically the executions that wrongly resulted from sheer fear, we can conclude that literature of any kind can hold powerful influence over its readers. In this circumstance, it was the influence of the Bible.  Such power literature holds becomes dangerous in the wrong hands, or in presence of those of the wrong mindset or impressionability. In the case of the Salem Witch Trial, it is a definite combination or naivety along with extreme religious devotion that allowed such chaos. Too much power was given to the literature that they valued, in turn this created closed minded followers easily susceptible to foul play at the hands of their children.

    Children, or the youth in general, can’t always fully understand the true consequences of their actions. In addition, they may not necessarily be mature enough to grasp the severity of the content given to them to begin with. In a way, the actions of these accusers confirmed the puritan’s views that children are susceptible to both error and sin. But, at the same time, it also shows that the adults are just as susceptible to suffer the consequence of said children’s actions. In the end, it is arguable who may, or may not, suffer more because of this. But, being children are incredibly vulnerable to their environmental influences and rely on their elders to guide them, an argument can be made that they truly are the afflicted individuals here.   By building a community on the foundation of religion and religious fears, the Puritans had set the Salem residence up for failure in the event of such deep disturbance. These strict religious guidelines that they had used to ensure their stability, was what enabled so many to be wrongly put to death. Thus, these guidelines destroyed the stability they’d originally tried to set in place for their community. This especially includes the children that they were raising in said community.     Modern day Americans vary in their religious devotion, but the dangers of any kind of influence on a society have not been lost to time. Whether it be the influence of literature, or any type of popular media, the repercussions may affect the adults who hold the authority over what runs their society, but ultimately it is the generation next in line that will truly face the consequence of their decisions.

    Both the effects of the Salem Witch Trials, and the teaching methods of early American children, reflect this. Because whereas the adults may have passed along the teachings, it was the children who, in the fear projected upon them, bore the burden of these religious concepts potentially too broad for their understanding.

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    Early American Literature: Defining the Dialogue . (2022, Jan 17). Retrieved from

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