Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon, Utah.
Image taken from http://www.so-utah.com/capitol/horsshoe/panorama.jpg
Examine your assumptions
regarding the History of American Literature:
—A single, unified history?
—About whom? Who are Americans?
—Who wrote it? How? For what purpose?
—the United States vs. America or the North
—How would you define the literary art? What
—English only? Should non-English writings
be included, such as the
350 languages spoken by Native
Americans at their first encounter with the
Europeans, or the languages of the Spanish
and French colonizers?
—Only in the written form? How about oral
—Does it start from 1776 when the United States became independent?
—Does it start from 1452 when Columbus
“discovered” the New World?
—Or earlier? But how far does it date back
Indian cave art
The Columbia Literary History of
the United States represents the revisionist view that aims
to include works of previously marginalized groups: “The literary
history of this nation began when the first human living
in what has since become the United States used language creatively”
(“General Introduction” xv).
“Presumably, that moment occurred many
centuries ago when one of the members of the numerous Native American
tribes formulated a poetic expression or told a story” (“General
In “The Native Voice,” N. Scott Momaday
suggests one such beginning to be Indian cave paintings found in the
At Barrier Canyon, Utah, there are some
twenty sites upon which are preserved prehistoric rock art. One of
these, known as the Great Gallery, is particularly arresting. Among
arched alcoves and long ledges of rock is a wide sandstone wall on
which are drawn large, tapering anthropomorphic forms colored in dark
red pigment. There on the ancient picture plane is a procession of gods
approaching inexorably from the earth. They are informed with
irresistible power; they are beyond our understanding, masks, if you
will, of infinite possibility. We do not know what they mean, but we
know that we are involved in their meaning. They persist through time
in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the
very essence of language, the language of story and myth. They are two
thousand years old, more or less, and they remark as
closely as anything can the origin of American literature.
(Columbia Literary History of the United States 6;
see also http://ag.arizona.edu/oals/ALN/aln50/momaday.html)
The earliest explorers of America were not
English, Spanish, or French, but the Vikings. The first European record
of exploration in America is in a Scandinavian language (VanSpanckeren
2). America appeared recurrently in Norse geographical and historical
tracts, though archeological evidence of Norse settlements in the tenth
century was not established until the 1960s. The Viking discovery and
settlement of Vinland, the name of America at that time, is most fully
documented in two sagas:
Greenlanders' Saga: about 1190.
The Saga of Erík
the Red: about 1269
Sagas originally referred to oral prose
narratives which seem to have been derived from the epics.
Lawson-Peebles observes that the Norse sagas are characterized by a
combination of the factual and the fabular, or the real and the
legendary, which is one of the hallmarks of American literature (48).
Literary Imagination: the land and the heroes
A new Eden: the
virgin land, the earthly paradise, the garden of the world, a landscape
of abundance, a space of pastoral innocence
—the American Adam (before the
—the American Farmer
—the noble savage
wild West, the frontier
—the frontiersman, the
legend recounted by Plato in Timaeus and Critias.
It was an island that reached the pinnacle of civilization but, as
punishment for human wickedness, suffered great earthquakes and floods,
and sank into the sea one day. In Francis Bacon's political utopia The
New Atlantis (1626), Atlantis re-emerged as America.
—the American Adam (after the
Elliott, Emory et al, eds. Columbia
Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia
Gray, Richard. A History of
American Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Lawson-Peebles, Robert. American
Literature Before 1880. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2003.